NOTES AND SKETCHES WITH
THE FIGHTING FRENCH
CHEVALIER DE LA LÉGION D'HONNEUR
CROIX DE GUERRE
HODDER AND STOUGHTON
LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO
Fig. 1. A sentry
'Le Poilu, c'est toi, c'est nous, ce sont tous les gars aux rudes coeurs et aux vaillants visages qui se hérissent des Vosges à la Mer du Nord et tiennent tête aux Barbares, en attendant le succès final.'
(LE POILU, Journal des tranchées de Champagne.)
LONDON, October 1916.
My dear Alfred,---I ask you to accept the dedication of this little volume of notes and sketches, not only as a happy remembrance of our lifelong friendship, but also in recognition of your eminently successful efforts, during many years, to cement the friendly understanding of our country with the great nation of France.
As you know, it has been my privilege to reside and to work in France during the last fifteen years-to have lived with the French in peace time and to have served them in war time. With such opportunity as a basis for my impressions, I welcome this occasion to record my whole-hearted tribute to the sterling character of the men and women of France. It is not alone an appreciation of their spirit, their courage and loyal devotion, for these qualities have been so abundantly confirmed in this war, and are well recognised traditions of their race; I would go further than this---I venture to express my respect and admiration for the French people of all classes.
Knowing how keenly you feel the great advantages of increasing the understanding of the two great nations, I am both proud and grateful to have this opportunity of telling you of my admiration for all you have done and are doing, to bring about a closer union between the French and English nations for the betterment of the human race.
THE Publishers have given me the opportunity of reading, before publication, the text of this volume, and of seeing both the originals and the reproductions of the illustrations. This with the request that I provide an Introduction. At the outset it seems fair to state that the book as written and pictured is entirely the work of an old and dear friend ---my schoolfellow of forty years ago. Obviously, in anything I say, such fact has its advantages and disadvantages. Certainly there are difficulties, for I write as a friend, not as an expert either in art or letters, and claim due indulgence for my inexperience. But to me the skill and beauty of this record seem insistent and undeniable. The notes and sketches may be called fragments, but they are more real, more instinct with life, than highly finished and elaborated efforts. It is true, however, that only the two last years of the author's work and life come within the scope of the following pages, and it is for this reason that I am urged to give some sketch of earlier years---years full of purpose, of high adventure and valued achievement.
Herbert Ward was born in. London on the 11th of January 1863. In the year 1876 he came to Mill Hill, where I had been for two years at school. I am writing therefore after that period of Forty Years On, made classic by the Harrow School song. Remembrance, sharing with one's later knowledge after so many years, may well play tricks with exactitude, but some scanty impressions remain... vivid and clear.
In my mind's eye I recall a well-knit figure, with unusually deep chest and broad shoulders, deep-set blue eyes wide apart, and a remoteness, almost shyness, of manner bespeaking a reticence not perhaps in accord with the accepted convention of public school life. Anyhow, he was individual, and so to a few of us interesting. A rebel, and I now realise, against the accepted and rigid mould of the day, with visions of a wider world of travel and adventure, than the study of maps in stuffy classrooms could afford. He left school too early to make any special mark of distinction, left with little record or promise to indicate the variety and success of his future career. I have a distinct recollection of his skill in the Gymnasium, where he was a prime favourite with our Instructor, and showed early signs of that strength and adaptability which have proved so useful in his strenuous life. Circumstance or he himself decided that before he was sixteen years old (in 1878) he should face a wider world. This is no place or opportunity to give in detail the many happenings of an experience teeming with incident and interest; I can only give in the barest outline the facts. Ward sailed in an emigrant ship, the James Wishart, a 700 ton barque, for Auckland, New Zealand, a tougher discipline than even the uncongenial school life. For the three following years he graduated in a university of struggle and hardship in various parts of New Zealand and Australia, being in turn sailor, kauri-gum digger, coal and gold miner, sailmaker, gymnast in a travelling circus, and stock-rider. Wishing to return to England, and not having any more attractive opportunity, he shipped as an A.B. before the mast in the full-rigged ship The Star of the Sea from Sydney to San Francisco, and round Cape Horn to London. The call of the sea was irresistible, and after a short stay he made two further voyages, one to New York in The Persian Monarch, a ship carrying Scandinavian emigrants, and again to Singapore. This last voyage was with the definite object of seeking adventure and experience in Borneo, where, through the interest of the Governor of the North Borneo Company, he was enrolled as a cadet in the service. This gave him the wider scope for which his abilities were fitted. He was sent on an important expedition of some hundreds of miles up the Kinabatangan River to an outpost at Penungah, among picturesque but uncertain natives. Here, for eight months, by tact and a sympathetic understanding with the natives, he did valuable work, until a severe attack of jungle fever laid him low. After a few months of convalescence in England, in the autumn of 1884 Ward went to the Congo under the auspices of Sir Henry M. Stanley. Here he was commissioned to assist in the organisation of transport service, going far into the interior to found stations and persuade the various chiefs to lend their able-bodied men as carriers. Varied active service in what is now the Congo Free State lasted for two and a half years, when the news reached him of Stanley's arrival in command of the Expedition to relieve Emin Pasha in the Sudan. On his own initiative Herbert Ward collected a force of over four hundred natives as carriers, and marched down country with them to meet Stanley, placing his and their services at the great explorer's disposal. His offer was accepted, and he was enrolled as an officer (voluntary) of the Expedition, and a further two and a half years of unceasing and exciting work were passed in the centre of the Dark Continent. Much literature exists very fully detailing this period, including three books by Ward himself, Five Years with the Congo Cannibals, My Life with Stanley's Rear-Guard, and A Voice from the Congo, all of which obtained wide recognition. In 1890 Herbert Ward married, in America, Sarita, daughter of C. H. Sanford of New York, and settled for ten years in England. His interest and work in sculpture called him, in 1900, to Paris, and there he migrated with his family of five children, alternating between the busy studio and home life of the city, and a beautiful country home at Rolleboise on the Seine, forty miles from Paris.
The years between 1900 and the outbreak of the present war were full of fine work in sculpture, mainly concerned with the presentation of the Central African life he has always loved so well. A constant exhibitor at the Salon, where he was awarded two gold medals, he was further honoured by specimens of his work being acquired for the Luxembourg, and in 1911 he received the Cross of the Legion of Honour.
The outbreak of war made it necessary to return to England, though the family's departure was unduly delayed, and it was not until 1st September 1914, when the outposts of the German Army were within a few miles of the house, that he, his wife and two sons left Rolleboise in a motor-car driven by the second son, Herbert, an Eton boy of sixteen. They arrived safely in England from La Rochelle, by a ship from South America. As to so many homes, the war has brought to his immediate circle, after many bright years of happy family life, the sad sorrow but splendid sacrifice of death. The eldest son, Charles Sanford Ward, was just of age. After a distinguished school life at Eton he had been for two years at Christchurch, Oxford, where he followed up his success in winning the Public School Boxing Competition by representing his University, whilst still an undergraduate, against Cambridge, again successfully. He was on vacation at Rolleboise on that fatal 4th of August, and hurried to England, joining the 10th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was killed in front of Neuve Chapelle on the night of the 7th January 1916, when, on reconnoitring duty, within thirty yards of the German trenches. He is buried on the enemy side of the lines, and leaves the memory of a character and personality as gentle and kindly as it was strong and gallant, 'sans peur et sans reproche.'
The second son, Herbert Sanford Ward, joined the Royal Flying Corps on leaving Eton, and was badly wounded in an aerial duel. He was shot down over the enemy lines and taken prisoner. After five months of captivity in hospital and prison camps, with great pluck and ingenuity he escaped into Switzerland, and is now in England working at one of the principal flying centres.
This interpolation will not, it is hoped, be considered out of place---so much of the qualities of the sons seems to me to represent the characteristics of their father: simplicity, directness of aim, the love of adventure, with a restraint and modesty in the doing of what life presents.
And it is in this same war that the father too has served. He has shown once more the fallacy of the 'Too old at forty' legend. Having lent and equipped the house at Rolleboise, with its beautiful gardens sloping down to the Seine, to one of the branches of the Red Cross, and, engaged an English doctor and nurses, Ward completed the arrangements for its working, and shortly afterwards became attached as Lieutenant to the famous No. 3 Convoy of the British Ambulance Committee. This Convoy, under the command of Captain Percy Tarbutt, operated under the French Army at Gérardmer, and some indication of the valuable and heroic work done by this devoted section in succouring the French wounded may be gathered from, the author's pages. I have heard from his comrades and fellow-officers, especially Captain Tarbutt and Walter Buckmaster, how greatly they were cheered by Ward's unflagging helpfulness and companionship during those months of constant struggle in their work for the wounded. A serious injury sustained at the front after six months of devoted service in the Vosges compelled Lieutenant Herbert Ward to return to Paris for surgical treatment. He was mentioned in despatches,
MENTION IN DESPATCHES OF THE 27TH ARMY
OCTOBER 22ND, 1915.
' HAS shown on many occasions conduct prompted by feelings of devotion and generosity. Although injured whilst on service, be resumed his duties before being, cured. Distinguished himself by ensuring the removal of the wounded whilst the road was being bombarded.'
Signed: G. DR POUYDRAGUIN,
General commanding the 47th Army.
and decorated with the 'Croix de Guerre.' All he had seen during those hard long days and nights of the sufferings and bravery of the gallant French soldiers compelled him, though unable to rejoin the firing line, still to work for the better relief of the stricken on the battlefield. In February of the present year he sailed from Bordeaux to New York, carrying warm credentials from M. Hanotaux. Lecturing to large, and influential audiences in the principal centres from New York to the Pacific, his knowledge and experience of the French nation and the French soldier brought a mass of new information, and threw a much-needed light on the facts and conditions of the situation. As a result he secured generous response everywhere, and raised many thousands of pounds, wisely and well used by the American War Relief Clearing House in Paris. On his return to England, further lectures in London and the more important provincial towns resulted in very large additional funds being raised, the whole amount being given to the French Red Cross at Knightsbridge, so admirably administered by Mr. D. H. Illingworth. And now, during these last few months, with ceaseless anxiety to help the cause of the Allies, he has written this book; all profits accruing to him are to go to the same service of the wounded, or for the mourning families of the dead.
This slight sketch, then, of my friend, inadequate as it is, needs, I am bold enough to think, no justification. His record stands, and will stand, as showing that whilst the youth of Great Britain has lived and died with a splendour of conduct and heroism unequalled in history, the older generation has not failed in the high purposes of duty, or in loyalty to the ideals of freedom, bred in our race.
Much of Herbert Ward is revealed in his pages---much, but not all---for to those of us who know him and have known him most intimately, he stands as representative of that happy phrase, 'A genius for friendship'; and with my own special reasons for remembrance and affectionate appreciation of this quality, I am grateful for the occasion offered me to introduce this volume.
SYDNEY S. PAWLING.
WITH THE BLUE DEVILS (CHASSEURS ALPINS)
S. S. A.-CONVOY No. 3 (SECTION SANITAIRE ANGLAISE)
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
THE WOMEN OF FRANCE
THE word Poil, [ Il a du poil' = He's a plucky chap] in French military slang, conveys about the same meaning as our good English word pluck. It stands for courage, energy, and in fact all other manly attributes; hence, we trace a sequence of appropriate suggestions in the evolution of the word Poilu --- the honourable nickname of the French soldier.
Our friend and comrade Mr. Poilu has all the qualities. we most appreciate. He is a merry soul; he has a nimble mind and a gaiety of spirit which never seems to fail. He is brimful of kindness and unselfishness. His emotions. are easily touched; but his tears are never shed except in sympathy for others. In adversity, he generally smiles; in the moment of the worst danger he will often utter a jest which brings forth instant peals of laughter from his comrades; then, when face to face with death, his last words are of his mother and of his country.
The typical Mr. Poilu has always a sparkle in his eye, a ruddy glow of health in his cheeks, and a general expression of bright, quick intelligence and good humour. There is apt to be a certain hardness and determination suggested by the lines around his mouth. He is invariably polite; one may truthfully say that the average French soldier has not alone the manner, but the instincts of a gentleman.
* * *
The Poilu who has tasted the intensity of life, and has faced death in the trenches, impresses me by his natural sense of philosophy. He cherishes a deep affection for his comrades; he has, sadly enough, bade farewell for ever to his folks at home; he has passed through that first great ordeal of fear, and is resigned to whatever may happen.
He feels proud of being a soldier; he is convinced beyond all argument that he is fighting in La Guerre du Droit. Fatalist he may be, but inasmuch as he surely believes that he himself will be killed, he is equally positive that France will be victorious.
* * *
Conversing with men in the trenches, I heard a never-ending abuse of the boches: that as enemies they were crafty and mean, that their cruel devilish acts would never be forgotten, that they were men with bad hearts, gross and common, that they were worse, far worse than savages, and that they were in fact the very scum of the earth and past redemption. Such wholesale condemnation of the enemy was justly based on solid foundations, for the French soldiers had all personally experienced so many aspects of the German's ignoble warfare; yet those gallant Frenchmen never failed to pay a tribute to the physical courage of the enemy. The admission, which is perhaps a more suitable word, was generally qualified by the expressive terminal: '. . . les cochons.'
Fig. 3. Bombs
My conversations with Mr. Poilu always seemed to end in the. same way. Accompanying the parting handshake he invariably used the same expression, 'Nous les aurons,' sometimes varied into 'On les aura, coûte qui coûte.' These words, spoken with a significant nod of the head, were uttered in a tone of such certainty and determination that one's heart responded instantly in confirmation of their truth.
* * *
The Poilu of to-day is the Frenchman of yesterday. His physique has been improved by exercises such as boxing and football: he has found profit in training, and has recognised and welcomed the sensations and advantages of being fit. The European boxing champion, Carpentier, has proved a good model for the younger men; he is the perfect example of what force of will, steady training, and true sportsmanlike qualities can accomplish.
The devotion of the men to their officers, and the brotherly comradeship of all ranks are distinguishing features of the French army. I have known of many instances where the attachment was so strong that men have chosen to refuse the six days' leave accorded to French soldiers of all ranks, because they feared that at the end of their leave they might be drafted to some other unit.
A similar spirit is shown in the manner in which orders are obeyed. The officers are in close human contact with their men, and the men instinctively understand and instinctively realise the necessity of their orders. The giving and obeying of orders is governed far more by the heart than by the sense of discipline.
I made particular note of the fact that every French soldier I talked with had a settled conviction that he would die in battle sooner or later, but his positive fatalism in no way impaired his keenness to fight, nor did it in any way suppress his exuberant spirits.
* * *
The French army is first and last utilitarian; it exists exclusively for the purpose of war. It is a democratic national army, without any hindrances of class distinction.
Fig. 4. A 'Blue Devil'
Chasseurs Alpins Corps (with Steel Helmet and Infantry Overcoat)
The French army is based upon a human system. It reminds one of a family wherein the father ranks as the general, the elder brothers as officers, and the rest of the children are the soldiers. My reason for comparing the system of the French army with that of family life is the sympathetic understanding which exists among French soldiers of all ranks. One never sees any signs of swaggering or haughty bearing among the officers. There is no arrogance: everywhere there is simple equality. I feel that I am on safe ground when I affirm that the tenacity and patience of the French army, those very qualities that have gained the admiration of the whole world, are largely due to this paternal system. It is a system that is peculiarly adapted to the French temperament; it is in harmony with their intelligence, their love of liberty, and their high state of civilisation.
* * *
In describing Mr. Poilu as I know him, I feel that he would wish me to add an appreciative reference to his parents, who, by the way, are also my good friends. I know instinctively that Mr. Poilu would tell me to put it upon record that whatever reputation he has gained in the war is due to the care and devotion of his worthy mother and father, and it is more than likely that he would want me to bring in an allusion to an aunt or uncle who may have formed part of the family circle. He would ask me to write about the loving care that was bestowed upon him from his birth, an incident which, unknown to himself, may have heralded the complete union of family affection. He would surely tell me that his mother was the sweetest and cleverest and most devoted mother in France.
* * *
Mr. Poilu is a sportsman.
At Gérardmer, where we were billeted, we organised football matches between our English Ambulance Convoy, No. 3, and the French soldiers. The French teams were composed of men who were able to obtain leave, and they included officers and men. One incident alone will serve to support Mr. Poilu's reputation as a sportsman. A soldier with a good record was allowed to come from the trenches; he left them at 3.30 A.M., tramped all day over the mountains, arriving on the ground at 2 P.M., just in time to play in the match. Immediately the game was over he started to tramp back to his trenches, a good ten hours' journey. He was a private in the 'Blue Devil Corps.'
* * *
In Alsace last year, close to our quarters, there occurred an incident which indicates clearly enough the French soldier's temperament. Two Chasseurs Alpins were witnesses of the peculiarly revolting treatment of the body of one of their comrades, by the enemy. Both men solemnly vowed that when an occasion offered, they would give similar treatment to the first German they found. Some days later they discovered two Germans lying hidden in the ashes of a burnt-out hayrick. They pounced upon them; then they exchanged a glance which was understood to mean that the opportunity was at hand for the fulfilment of their vow. Finding, however, that both Germans were wounded, they first gave them a drink from their water-bottles and then carried them both back to their lines for medical treatment.
Fig. 5. A Poilu
* * *
Walking along a forest path which led to a region of concealed batteries, I stepped aside as a platoon marched past. Just where I stood were the freshly-made graves of several men who had recently fallen. Wooden crosses had been erected upon each grave, bearing the fallen man's name and number.
A sound of pain---half gasp, half groan---startled me. It had escaped the lips of one of the soldiers who had turned his head in my direction, and who had read, on one of the wooden crosses, the name of his brother. Without breaking his step, he merely bowed his head and plodded steadily forward with his comrades, and was soon lost to view. This incident only covered the space of a couple of minutes, yet it furnished enough anguish and tragedy to engrave itself deeply among the memories of a lifetime.
* * *
The better understanding of the French by the English dates from the commencement of this war. So many English people have been misled into thinking that Paris, with its holiday air of freedom and frivolity, is typical of French life. As a fact, Paris is the least typical of French cities. Paris is just---Paris: in a measure supported and patronised by foreigners of all types and descriptions, who are attracted periodically to the centre of art and fashion.
The French are simple people; well educated, refined, and without a particle of servility or grossness. They enjoy simple and natural pleasures, and they cannot understand any real enjoyment being derived from the mere spending of money. They are brilliantly witty, naturally intellectual, and their beautiful language is rightly regarded with national pride.
* * *
With the French there is a distinctly religious quality about their devotion to their country: a quality which underlies the sentiment of patriotism. It is love of country pure and simple, love of the ground of France.
Chant des Girondins: 1783:---
"Mourir pour la Patrie,
C'est le sort le plus beau,
Le plus digne d'envie.
The effect of this whole-hearted religious devotion is extremely elevating, and touches a far higher chord than the immediate hatred of the enemy. How many a dying Poilu has exclaimed:
'Qu'importe la Mort, puisque c'est pour la France?
Fig. 6. Winter in the Vosges...........Fig. 7. A French Infantryman---1915
WITH THE BLUE DEVILS
My personal memories and impressions of the war are chiefly governed by the quality of dramatic contrast. Everywhere, I witnessed an ever-changing human drama. I felt conscious of a power which drew my heart in two opposite directions; at one time weighing it down in impotent sympathy with all the dark horrors of suffering and death; at another time uplifting it in raptures of vital admiration for man's courage and woman's noble devotion.
This quality of contrast extended even to natural surroundings. More than once I have listened to the singing of birds and the tinkling of village church bells, joyous music of peace, accompanied by the low rumbling of death-dealing heavy guns, the discordance of cruel war. I have watched cows quietly grazing in meadows which were bathed in glorious sunshine, whilst the horizon was quite hidden in the black smoke of burning villages and the earth literally trembled under the explosion of monster shells. After a long night's work in the dark, among wounded and dying men, with my hands and clothes bearing signs of their ebbing life's blood, I have passed the early morning hours amid the ruins of village homes, and even there I have found the compensating contrast, for were there not certain branches of some humble creeping plant spreading timidly forward, as though seeking to conceal in their embrace the poor charred fragments that remained of a former happy home
All is in violent contrast. There is the brutal instinct of cruelty alongside the sweet gentleness of mercy; the rugged dirty face married to the cleanest of hearts; life and laughter followed the next moment by-death.
* * *
In continuing to narrate instances where the exaggerated qualities of light and shade produce effects which baffle description, I must not omit to mention the hospital- theatre in a small Alsatian town, within twenty miles of Gérardmer. Imagine the local theatre transformed from a playhouse, with all its gaudy accessories, into an improvised hospital for the reception of wounded. At the time of my visiting the place, the front line of trenches was within a distance of two miles, and a continual supply of wounded men was received at all hours by the eminent and indefatigable Dr. Capmas. By night, the scene within the theatre was extremely dramatic. The stage was lit by an oil hurricane - lamp tied to a portion of the scenic canvas.
Fig. 8. A French Soldier............Fig. 9. Le Général de Division
.....................................................Commanding Chasseurs Alpins
In the centre of the stage was an operating table, consisting of a few planks resting on trestles; the surgeon in a discoloured blouse worked by the light of a candle, held by an unkempt brancardier. Around the sides of the stage lay a heterogeneous collection of rifles, knapsacks, and surgical appliances, whilst blood-stained stretchers were propped against the flimsy canvas representations of sylvan scenes. The floor of the theatre, from which the seats and benches had been removed, was entirely occupied by rows of wounded men lying upon stretchers, awaiting their turn to be carried on to the stage for operation. I can still recall the smell of sodden clothing and the pungent odour of iodoform and chloroform. I can still hear that difficult and vain gasp for breath of men who had been under the influence of those detestable asphyxiating gases initiated by the enemy: the painful struggle to inhale air into lungs which had lost their elasticity; the involuntary groans of men with shattered mangled bodies; the occasional piercing cries of those who, in their disturbed slumber---the slumber that comes as a result of utter fatigue and overstrained nerves---are haunted by dreams of vague horror; the clattering of heavy boots on bare boards; the sharp click of the surgical instruments---all to the accompaniment of the booming of heavy guns which made the windows rattle and shook the building.
* * *
The Chasseurs Alpins Corps to whom our convoy as attached are popularly known as 'The Blue Devils.' The Devil part of their nickname is in flattering allusion to, their valour; the adjective refers to the dark blue colour of their uniforms. They display an almost religious observance in the fulfilment of their vow, indicated by the motto of their corps, 'Never to be taken alive.' The corps is recruited from the mountain country of France the men are remarkable for their sturdy physique (they are mostly men of medium height) and for their tenacious courage. They are accustomed to hardship and fatigue, they live on simple fare and by tradition are deeply imbued with antagonism to the Germans. They are silent men. Their square-set faces seem to speak of successful struggle against the mighty forces of mountain dangers; their strong backs and their frank manners. harmonise well with the brave deeds for which they are world famous.
* * *
Fig. 10. A Poste de Secours...........Fig. 11. A Typical 'Blue Devil'
Bound eastwards on a special mission in April of last year, we lost a tyre near a little ruined village. Whilst waiting for the car, I stumbled about the heaps of cinders and wreckage, trying to find some subject for my sketch-book. The place was utterly sacked and destroyed; in fact there was not more than six or seven feet of any wall left standing. Suddenly in front of me, in the midst of the ruins, there appeared the figure of a little old man, with a ragged beard, and very dirty face. He had crawled out of a cellar by a ladder, and in view of the utter solitude of the place, his sudden appearance was certainly startling. He told me that he was out of luck. Kicking off his sabot, he showed me an injured foot, twisted and misshapen.
'This,' he said, 'happened to me in the war of '70.' Then pulling up his trouser leg, he showed me his badly-burned leg, which was in a distressing condition and badly in need of treatment.
'This,' he said, 'happened to me in this war; truly I have no luck and yet'---he paused for a moment, 'perhaps it might be worse, because over against that wall there, the German soldiers ordered me to stand with several of my old companions, and then prepared to shoot us. I don't know why they were going to kill us, I suppose they had their German reasons. The officer stood just over there, and he was looking through his glasses to see, I suppose, when the French were coming back. Then a shell exploded just about here, and it killed him. You can still see his blood on those bricks there---so he never gave the order to fire! Some of the soldiers, too, were wounded by that shell. Then that night the French came back and drove the Germans away.'
At that moment there appeared another apparition, an old woman, his wife. She climbed up the ladder with difficulty, eyed me with a sharp glance, and then continued her husband's story:
'Think then,' said she, 'a letter came from Germany, from the woman who was the wife of the officer. The letter was sent to our Mayor. I have seen it. That woman in Germany wrote and said she wanted the body of her husband to be carefully buried in a place where she could come and get it after the war. Think then of that,' she said again, raising her shaking hands in a gesture that reminded me of the Witches of Macbeth.
Her thin grey hair hung in wisps over her dirty face, a face lined with a lifetime of toil; and at the moment she told me about the letter, I was startled by her demoniacal expression. Her hands, with long curled nails, seemed like claws. Her face was a symbol of fury.
Fig. 12. Letters from Home
Last year in April, with Paul Gérard and Arthur Price, my two companions on our Mission Spéciale, we accompanied the Médecin Divisionaire, Dr. Thooris, over a considerable portion of the first and second line trenches of the Vosges front. There was deep snow, and conditions were particularly hard, especially for the wounded, who had to be drawn to the rear on sledges. In these miserable trenches in the vicinity of the Hohnek, we talked with men who had already passed many months without a break in the same trenches. As a special privilege, the Colonel had allowed them to remain, in recognition of their gallant conduct. Several of them explained that they much preferred to remain there with their comrades, because if they accepted a few days' leave they were afraid they might miss something. I was impressed everywhere by their extraordinary cheeriness amid the extreme misery of their surroundings.
Fig. 13. '...the extreme misery of their surroundings'
* * *
We dined one night in the forest, at a Poste de Secours---a Field Hospital, composed of roughly constructed and temporary sheds---with Dr. Montalti, a surgeon of great ability. During the meal we were deafened by a battery of French '75's' which fired just above our heads; enemy shells landed in our vicinity, and two or three times during the meal Montalti was called away to operate. We left the simple little shelter late at night, in pitch darkness, to follow a mountain path used by ammunition mules. The mud was often above our knees, so progress was difficult and slow. By the time we reached the next Poste, we learnt by telephone that a shell had fallen on one of Montalti's forest shelters, killing four men and wounding several others.
* * *
Extracts from my Diary.
29.9.'15. 11.30 P.M.
At last I have reached this famous place 'W'; famous it is indeed, for it has been the scene of much hard fighting.
It's nearly midnight, shells are pouring into us without any decent intervals. A horrible night, and my motor journey up here from Gérardmer was no 'joy ride.' All the way it poured incessantly, making the darkness darker. We, of course, were without lights, and we bumped pretty often into men on the road, and I am afraid we bruised a good many mules of an ammunition transport convoy. We came in my own car, with two French officers---four long hours in the cold and wet, with shells continually screaming overhead and occasionally dropping around us. Utterly cheerless it is. The mud is nearly knee-deep; sticky stuff, too.
During the last three hours we floundered about in the dark, loading wounded men into each ambulance as it arrived. The poor chaps were lying about on their stretchers in the mud---out in the pouring rain. Many of them had lain there for hours, and they were, of course, all thoroughly drenched. Now and then we could see quite clearly by the light of shells exploding near by---a dismal and forlorn picture it made. What suffering! Ugh! A big shell has just exploded pretty close by---the ground is still shaking.
Fig. 14. The Explosion of a Big Shell
It's very cold. I'm a guest of the surgeons in the Poste de Secours---we are within three hundred and fifty yards of the Germans. The doctors are busy operating all the time in little underground 'dug-outs.' I hear only the sounds of groaning and the wicked shell music.
* * *
30.9.'15. 11 A.M.
My hands have been too cold to hold a pencil. What a night! This is no place for any one at all inclined to be fussy. Heavy rain all night, and vicious artillery fire. Several times I thought they had found us; they were certainly very 'warm.' No sleep to speak of. At dawn I had a strange surprise. They gave me the choice of being above or below ground, and I chose the hut in preference to the cellar. I thought I would keep above ground as long as I could. It was quite a poor little shanty, hastily knocked together with pieces of packing-cases, and the roof covered, except in places, with tarred felt. While it was still raining, I heard a queer tinkling jingle just outside the open window. I stuck my head out, and found I was face to face with a real Poilu; he was standing, in the rain, strumming tunes upon an old cracked piano. They had just brought it up on the back of a mule from a ruined villa down in the valley. Although it rained hard and the enemy's rifle fire was quite brisk, the soldier, with a cheery, roguish smile on his dirty face, played and sang a popular little song. It was evidently a very well-known air, because the refrain was taken up by all hands, hundreds of men digging dugouts and many more doing underground work. How typical! how human! The sound of heavy rain, the whistling of shells overhead, for we happened to be just between two batteries, the thud of picks and shovels, the metallic and intermittent tinkle of what was once a proud piano, and those voices---such cheery sympathetic voices---raised in exuberant song even at the first hour of dawn!
It was weird this morning when daylight came. On all sides were piles of red earth and fragments of rocks---wreckage everywhere; all the pine trees of what was once a forest-clad hilltop are reduced to stumps and splinters. Here and there one could just detect a thin column of blue smoke, suggestive of early morning coffee in an underground refuge. The question of getting a wash was soon settled; there were many rain puddles. The view is exceedingly fine, and one can trace the trenches for many miles among the mountains on three sides. The gaiety of all the men is remarkable. Every man wears a cheery face, and there's just a subtle something in their manner that tells of the conscious pride they feel in facing danger and death.
* * *
I have just been out with the Médecin chef. From certain carefully-chosen covers we had a good look at the German lines about four hundred yards away. There was really nothing much to be seen except the scarred ground cut in zig-zag gashes, and sometimes forming the pattern of the letter H.
The Forest razed by Shell-fire; a Communication Trench in the foreground
We crawled about cautiously among rocks and tree-stumps until we reached a place where there had been a night attack. It was raining steadily, and the heavy clay ground was in a horrible condition. Stretcher-bearers with their burdens were sliding and slipping up on the side of the hill. What agony for the poor soaking-wet wounded to be exposed to this bitter cold wind, to be jostled and bumped; many of them with fractured limbs, too. Oh! the agony of it all. We passed many heaps of broken rifles, the detached barrels bent into curious shapes, and many of the stocks splintered to fragments by bullets. Strangely dramatic I found these heaps of broken weapons; mere wreckage in themselves, but how they make one think! It surely does not require any unusual gift of imagination to feel that in those very piles of distorted fragments is the whole tragic story of human strife: courage, despair and death.
* * *
A few minutes ago I passed close to the soldiers' cemetery. It is situated on the slope of a hill-the graves are to be counted in their thousands. In spite of all endeavours to select a peaceful and suitable site for the last resting-place of fallen men, the enemy's shells bad desecrated the sacred spot. High explosive shells had wrecked the graves. Hundreds of the rough little wooden crosses, the work of loyal and affectionate comrades, which bore the fallen soldier's name and marked his place of burial, were literally blown away into matchwood. This is war! Can anything justify war?
* * *
It is well past midnight and I am writing under real difficulties. . . . We loaded many ambulances to-night, under rifle fire and still the incessant rain. One poor chap, as he was being carried forward, protested in a weak voice, for he was badly wounded, that he was bitterly cold. The canvas stretcher upon which he lay, already thoroughly soaked, had become watertight, and truly enough the man was cold, for he was lying in a bath of ice-cold water. In tilting the stretcher by the head, quite a quantity of cold water swished out.
A little later I was attracted by the drawn face of another man on a stretcher. He shivered painfully and could not articulate. I lifted the blanket which covered him, it was wringing wet, and found the poor man lying absolutely naked. His clothes had all been blasted off him by an explosive shell.
* * *
Fig. 16. A Planton.....................Fig. 17. A Chasseur Alpin
I was just commencing a little drawing of a soldier this afternoon, when a shell fell about fifty yards from us, killing three men and wounding several others. A small fragment from the exploding shell even left its mark upon my paper. Beyond turning his head for a casual glance, my soldier model remained immovable. I feel bound to admit that it was merely from a sense of shame on my part that I pretended to continue my work.
* * *
I'm writing at a home-made table; there's a big shell hole through it. My camp stool is continually falling into other holes, with the same origin, in the rough plank floor. The walls on two sides and a portion of the ceiling are plastered with shrapnel; bits of the horrid stuff stick out everywhere. The furniture is a strange mixture of amateur work and pieces of rough design brought up from ruined German farms, for we are here in a strip of country captured from the Germans by the French.
* * *
The last ambulance has gone and I am afraid there is barely time for it to get over the twelve or fifteen miles of exposed road before daylight. Numbers of wounded unfortunately are left to wait at least fifteen hours before our cars can venture over the roads again under cover of darkness to come and fetch them. Men who could walk were ordered just now to make the best of their way over the hills towards Lac Noir, some eight miles distant, where our other ambulances could convey them to towns in the valley. They staggered off, these wounded men, in groups of four or five, each man trying to support his neighbour. After covering even a few yards up the hill, a man would fall to the ground from weakness and fatigue, then the others would try and get him on his feet again, even though they themselves were dead beat. Now and then a shell would explode upon the very path in front of them, and the groups, each man either supporting or being supported, would be sharply silhouetted against the flash of light. It was scarcely dawn. Poor chaps!
* * *
Fig. 18. A Sniper.............................Fig. 19. "...in a trench at dawn..."
A sketch I once made in a trench at dawn, reminds me that I have seen rugged men, hardened by many months of exposure and peril, watching with appreciative eyes the glorious beauties of daybreak. I know how deeply they are moved by nature's grandeur, because I have had occasion more than once to read the letters of some of these fine French soldiers, written under shell and rifle fire, describing, for instance, in simple picturesque language to their women-folk at home the delicate silvery effects of colour-flooding, which herald the rising of the sun. This profound love of beauty is characteristic of their race, and the soldier inhabiting those living tombs would rather tell of the beauty he has seen in nature than of what he has known of strife and suffering. Here again we meet with that ever-present quality of contrast. Here is a man who at one moment would be capable of calling your attention to the warm tones of the distant snow-clad mountains, and the very next moment would sail in to batter out the brains of his enemy or to give away his own life willingly, without a second thought.
* * *
It was in a dark little cavern, an underground dug-out which served as an operating room, that I made the acquaintance of a French surgeon. I remember the dramatic effect of the surroundings; the grouping; the play of light and shade and the weird effect of being below ground while shells were falling overhead, shaking the very earth and causing the surgeon occasionally to stay his hand. He was a black -bearded man with strongly-marked features; the blouse he wore was bloodstained and soiled. A man's figure lay upon the couple of planks which served as an operating table; the operation was grave, not a thing to write about. A rugged soldier whose clothes were caked with red mud stood alongside, holding a candle, and it was by this light alone that the doctor carried on his serious work. Three or four stretcher-bearers were grouped in the corner, waiting to bear the patient away.
Fig. 20. An Operation, Underground
A grim sequel was to follow. There came a bad smash up; signs of it were everywhere apparent.
It happened the following day. Among several others, my black-bearded friend was mortally wounded by a bursting shell. Twenty-four hours had passed since my last visit, and, as I came in to see him again, he lay dying on those very planks, in the same dug-out where I had met him the night before. They told me that nineteen doctors had been killed at that Poste.
* * *
One afternoon I had occasion to visit one of the improvised hospitals. It was the local Casino of Gérardmer; a quite imposing building with pretentious columns, high ceiling, long windows, and machine-made tapestries on the walls. It was late, and the fading light served to tone down the garishness of the decorations. In the largest room, which in peace time was the happy haunt of gamblers, there were two long rows of neat little iron beds, occupied by grave cases. There were many diverse types of faces, framed by white pillows, and sad eyes met one's glance on every side. The fluted columns and the vulgar mirrors served to increase the air of sadness pervading the place.
At the bedside of a mere lad sat a widow, her black garments appearing strangely prominent amidst the white surroundings. The boy was delirious, and babbled incoherently, whilst the poor lady sat immovable, gazing upon his flushed face. The story was sad indeed. She was in mourning for her husband and two sons, all of whom had already fallen in the war. Here she was sitting at the bedside of her third son, whose leg had been amputated the previous day, and whose life was fast ebbing away.
Two days later, I was present when this brave mother came to bid adieu to the nurse at the hospital, Mademoiselle O. de Johannis. Her son was dead.
I overheard her graceful words of thanks for what had been done, and after a kindly handshake, I watched her pathetic figure, all in black, passing down the aisle between the beds with gentle dignity, until she reached the empty bed upon which her son had died. There, for a moment, she stopped, gazing at the spot where her last hope had passed away.
* * *
About the middle of last year I found myself with half a dozen comrades camped in a shell-swept forest in Alsace in the midst of a number of French batteries. It was a busy time just then because the French were attacking, and we came in for a new series of experiences. Owing to the bombardment of the main road, we were practically cut off from communication with our base. We pitched my old green canvas, 10x12, tent---which revived many vivid memories of my life in Central Africa---on the hillside among ghostly tree trunks, close to a Poste de Secours. All my companions were men of the right stamp, and I may say that we succeeded in justifying our presence by helping to convey a large number of wounded men from places of danger. We were obliged to work at night, because the road was badly exposed in many places and the Red Cross emblem on our ambulances only served to excite the anger of the enemy, whose trenches, in places, were only a few hundred yards distant. By day, we obtained wonderful views of the bombardments, our point of observation being a rocky eminence immediately above Munster. From this same point we obtained a view of the Rhine and the distant hills of the Black Forest.
Fig. 21. An Exploding Shell.................Fig. 22. An Unfinished Sketch under Shell-fire
As time passed, we were treated to an increase of attention from the enemy batteries. Shells fell fairly close around us, and our ambulances were continually in danger. To add to many other physical discomforts, the weather was against us. Everything was dripping; the moss-covered ground was more than ankle-deep in water which flowed from the hill above us. The lack of sun and the depressing effect of dripping fir trees, the continual wearing of wet clothes, the want of sleep, the incessant artillery fire, and the sight of much suffering, all this in combination was not enough to dampen the gaiety of my comrades. Indeed, I noticed that as things grew worse, our friend Tommy Hudson sang the louder.
One very bad day, when things were really far from comfortable, Walter Buckmaster, most sympathetic of comrades, remarked: 'Tommy, if you ever put your spirits up to auction, I'll be the last bidder.'
* * *
Within half a mile of our encampment, on the main road, a famous captain of the 'Blue Devil Corps' was mortally wounded by a shell. It was not considered advisable to move him, in view of his desperate condition. He was just able to utter one last order. It was immediately obeyed by the Brigade Clarion Band, which drew in a circle around him and, in the midst of the bombardment, played 'Sidi Brahim,' the French soldier's popular song. So, this gallant French officer bade farewell to his men!
* * *
Probably one of the most impressive sights to be seen among the mountain trenches is the special dug-out reserved for men who are too seriously injured to be moved. In company with the Médecin Divisionaire, Dr. Thooris, who was making his tour of inspection, I visited one of these refuges. The place was dark and unwholesome. At one end of the narrow aisle stood a red-hot stove, the object being to keep the place at a high temperature, so that those men who had been wounded in the lungs should have lighter air to breathe. There were twelve or fifteen men lying in two rows. With some, it was a question of hours; with others, a day or two at the most, before their sufferings were relieved by death. As I turned to go, a man lying near the entrance beckoned me with his finger. I went to his side and patted him gently on the shoulder. He was pallid and weak; unable to speak or even to move; but he gave me his message through the expression of his eyes. The unusual sight of a British uniform had attracted his attention, and awakened his desire to express what he felt towards my countrymen. He conveyed his dying greeting by a glance that penetrated my soul. Never have I been so much affected by the glance of a human being.
* * *
Fig. 23. Chasseur Alpin Muleteer
Fig. 24. An 'Abri'
An Underground Shelter for Seriously Wounded Men
Fig 25. A Cagna
A Dug-out in the Vosges Forest
We were more than once only too glad to avail ourselves of the cagnas---those holes in the ground, dark, damp, and evil-smelling----for when shelter was needed from a crop of enemy shells, it was needed quickly. It sometimes happened that the badly-wounded men had to be carried on their stretchers to these dug-outs to save them from being blown to pieces where they lay at the Poste de Secours, near our tent. The actual conditions under these circumstances are difficult to imagine. Men with head wounds would throw themselves about with such violence that they became beyond control. The recollection of those dark wet holes in the midst of falling shells is as the haunting remembrance of an evil dream.
* * *
There is a deal of pathos surrounding the little drawing I made of a soldiers' cemetery in the pine-covered forest near the front. In a rough temporary shelter composed of planks lay a young French officer mortally wounded. True to the traditions of his race, he did not complain of pain. His face was flushed, and although his voice was weak he spoke clearly and with great enthusiasm.
Fig. 26. A Soldiers' Cemetery in the Forest-Vosges
'We have made such a pretty cemetery in the forest,' he said to me, waving his hand to indicate the direction; 'it is modest, of course, but so nicely arranged. When I get better I will go back at once and see it again, because I want to be sure that the names on the crosses are well preserved.'
That same night he died, and was buried at dawn in the cemetery that he himself had helped to create and among the comrades he had loved.
* * *
Quite a series of incidents were connected with a dinner party given to Hargreaves and myself by French officers at Sulzern, the long straggling village which lies in the Munster valley (the German troops occupying the lower half), in that slice of German territory in Alsace, won and stoutly held by the French. We arrived in darkness to find that the place had been bombarded that afternoon, and a corner of the building in which we had been invited to dine had been carried away in the general destruction. There was much smoke, the smell of smouldering wood, and often the crashing of shells in the vicinity. Our French hosts apologised in graceful phrases for all shortcomings, saying, with a shrug of the shoulders:--
'What can you expect in war time?
The excellent dinner was prepared by an orderly, in civil life a chef of one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. The menu was the work of another artist-orderly, a well-known engraver; it was headed with a photographic print, taken that same afternoon, of the burning house just across the road. There happened several incidents, any one of which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been considered more than sufficient to spoil a meal: the real sensation occurred near the end, when we were regaled with Kirsch of an unusually fine quality.
'Yes! It is certainly good,' said our host, lifting his glass to the candle-light, and eyeing the liqueur with the appreciative manner of a judge of good things.
'This afternoon we dug up no less than seven hundred bottles of this excellent stuff, just outside there, in the garden. We had been interested for some time past in the history of the wooden cross which used to stand in the middle of what was once a flower bed. It bore an inscription in German-French, "Here lie the bodies of French soldiers."
'We have all had so many occasions to be suspicious of everything German, and-have we not had good reason? Here again, for instance! When we opened a grave we found-Kirsch!
'It is good, is it not? Let us now drink to our English friends and to Victory.'
The following day there was a continuation of the bombardment, and the building in which we had passed such a pleasant evening was shelled and blown to nothing.
* * *
Although German aeroplanes paid frequent visits to Gérardmer, dropping innumerable bombs, they accomplished no military damage. Upwards of one hundred persons had been killed, the great majority of them being women and children and non-combatants.
On one occasion a small farm was fired by a bomb and soon burnt out. The farm belonged to the widow of a cavalry soldier who had been killed in the war. The poor woman, in blind despair, rushed about her little fields, clasping to her bosom the only article she had managed to save: it was her dead husband's sabre!
* * *
Often enough, alas, attention is attracted by the neatly-constructed little wooden crosses that are erected in the trenches to mark the exact spot where a man has fallen; but in one of the trenches was to be seen a boot---a highly-polished boot-projecting from the earth wall. The boot was in this highly-polished state because, as men passed the spot, they reverently wiped their sleeves over it as a last mark of respect. The soldier who owned it was killed by an exploding shell, and, with the exception of his foot, was covered by debris. It was not expedient at the time to disinter his body, and so his foot remained uncovered.
* * *
Fig. 27. Sulzern---Midnight: October 1915
Rough wooden crosses are everywhere a sad feature in the scenery. They are constructed from the wooden planks of packing-cases. They are often crowned by the dead soldier's sodden and discoloured kepi, or his old water-bottle. Occasionally a remnant of his shot-riddled tunic is tied around it, as though to bestow a sense of personality. The dead soldier's name is generally written in pencil upon the rough surface of the plank, frequently followed by a few words exhorting the passer-by to halt a moment and to ask God's blessing upon the loyal soldier buried there, who gave his life to save his country from invasion. The writing is often difficult to read, owing to exposure to the weather, which is more than regrettable, in view of the visits of relatives after the war.
Fig. 28. wooden crosses in the trenches to mark the spot where a man has fallen
Lying scattered on these roughly-made graves, it is often easy to distinguish, even in spite of wind and rain, the withered handful of wildflowers gathered and placed there by a comrade as a last tribute.
There is the Cross, the living emblem of all we hold to be most noble and brave; the dainty white flowers typifying human sympathy and brotherhood; it is a worthy combination of all that is beautiful. What could be found more fitting to crown the grave of a fallen French soldier?
* * *
Considerable judgment and experience were required to organise the French Medical Service in the Vosges. It was a difficult task, first of all to initiate and then to keep in efficient working order a practical system of Postes de Secours, each with an adequate staff of surgeons and orderlies, in that perplexing mountainous region of Alsace. The chief difficulty lay in selecting sites near enough to the positions where engagements were frequent, and, at the same time, ensuring a means by which the wounded could be carried by brancardiers to points on the one and only practical route for motor ambulances. This difficult task was accomplished by Dr. Thooris, the Médecin Divisionaire. He was our superior officer, a military doctor of high rank, and an old campaigner. He bore his fifty odd years with remarkable ease, as I soon discovered on my first expedition with him. Subsequently, it was often my good fortune to be selected to accompany him upon his official visits to the outlying Postes in the mountains. It meant hard walking from an early hour in the morning until midnight or later.
In view of the uncertainty of the enemy's bombardment of our main line of communication over the pass, it was obviously necessary that we should become acquainted with the conditions of the country and roads, in order that we should be thoroughly familiar with all the methods and means of reaching the wounded, directly the main road sustained its inevitable destruction.
With this end in view I accompanied Dr. Thooris on several excursions, one of the most interesting being our visit to the Me des Faux, opposite the historical Col du Bonhomme. It was a long hard climb to reach this romantic spot, crowned by a pile of enormous boulders which, at a distance, suggests the head of a Sphinx. We were on the summit of a mountain which has long borne the reputation, in local country tradition, of being the favoured ground of elves and fairies.
Fig. 29. In the Trenches at Tête des Faux . . . fifteen yards from the Enemy
At the time of our visit, June 7, 1915, it was under the command of the intrepid Captain Latrabe of the Blue Devil Corps. Of all the first line trenches I had previously visited, this highly-elevated spot was destined for a certain reason to mark the most distinct epoch in my experience. Barely fifteen yards in front of us was the enemy. We even heard German voices in ordinary conversation, and we also heard their taunting insults. Not being familiar with the German language, I was unable to understand them. I was told, however, that they were saying rude and insulting things, and I quite believed it. Captain Latrabe suggested that we should descend among the rocks to obtain a view of the regimental mascot, a capercailzie hen sitting on her eggs, some twenty yards below the French trenches. He told us that his men had become passionately attached to the bird, and that they would insist upon risking their lives every night in carrying down food. In their simple way of estimating nature, they had grown to regard the incident as an omen; for they were mostly imaginative men, mountain dwellers, infinitely more interested, I noticed, in the fortunes of that bird with its eggs, calmly sitting there under such strange conditions, than in their own welfare. They alluded to the scorn and indifference of the bird, and added:
'Voilà! Zut pour les boches.'
Fig.30. Watching the Mascot
In passing along the trenches I was offered a periscope, but the moment the end of it appeared above the surface it was saluted by a perfect rain of rifle shots. Through a crevice of the rocks I obtained a glimpse of the maze of barbed wire which separated the enemy, and I saw several dead bodies dangling in its midst, out of reach. A young soldier offered me a German cap he had obtained the previous night at great personal risk. His action was followed by others, who produced quite a collection of battered German helmets and other odds and ends of souvenirs. Concealing a louis in the palm of my hand, I shook hands and thanked the young soldier. I felt the reproach keenly when he let the louis fall to the ground, and raised his hand to the salute.
On the northern slope of the hill, exposed to the enemy's fire, lay the bodies of some seven hundred unburied dead. The bodies had lain there since the heavy fighting which had taken place the previous Christmas---six months before! There was no way of reaching this exposed slope, and consequently there the bodies were obliged to remain, uncovered and tainting the air. It was in returning from the summit of the Tête des Faux, late in the afternoon, close in front of the enemy's trenches, dodging behind rocks and tree stems, that I sustained an injury to my leg which rendered me entirely helpless for some weeks, and which I fear will cripple me permanently. I was carried on a stretcher, under the care of Dr. Thooris and my comrade Debenham, in the dark for four hours, and eventually conveyed in one of our own ambulances to a military hospital at Gérardmer.
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