THE GREAT SWATHE OF THE LINES
THE time was coming when I was to see the mysterious region whence came the wounded of La Chapelle, and, a militaire myself, share the life of the French soldier. Late one evening in October, I arrived in Nancy and went to a hotel I had known well before the war. An old porter, a man of sixty, with big, bowed shoulders, gray hair, and a florid face almost devoid of expression, carried up my luggage, and as I looked at him, standing in the doorway, a simple figure in his striped black and yellow vest and white apron, I wondered just what effect the war had had on him. Through the open window of the room, seen over the dark silhouette of the roofs of Nancy, shone the glowing red sky and rolling smoke of the vast munition works at Pompey and Frouard.
"You were not here when I came to the hotel two years ago," said 1.
"No," he answered; "I have been here only since November, 1914."
"You are a Frenchman? There was a Swiss here, then."
"Yes, indeed, I am Français, monsieur. The Swiss is now a waiter in a café of the Place Stanislas. It is something new to me to be a hotel porter."
"Tiens. What did you do?"
"I drove a coal team, monsieur."
"How, then, did you happen to come here?"
"I used to deliver coal to the hotel. One day I heard that the Swiss had gone to the café to take the place of a garçon whose class had just been called out. I was getting sick of carrying the heavy sacks of coal, and being always out of doors, so I applied for the porter's job."
"You are satisfied with the change."
"Oh, yes, indeed, monsieur."
"I suppose you have kinsmen at the front."
"Only my sister's son, monsieur."
"In the active forces?"
"No, he is a reservist. He is a man thirty-five years of age. He was wounded by a shrapnel ball in the groin early in the spring, but is now at the front again."
"What does he do en civil?"
"He is a furniture-maker, monsieur."
He showed no sign of unrest at my catechizing, and plodded off down the green velvet carpet to the landing-stage of the elevator. In the street below a crowd was coming out of the silky white radiance of the lobby of a cinema into the violet rays thrown upon the sidewalk from the illuminated sign over the theater door. There are certain French cities to which the war has brought a real prosperity, and Nancy was then one of them. The thousands of refugees from the frontier villages and the world of military officials and soldier workmen mobilized in the ammunition factories had added to the population till it was actually greater than it had been before the war, and with this new population had come a development of the city's commercial life. The middle class was making money, the rich were getting richer, and Nancy, hardly more than eighteen or nineteen miles from the trenches, forgot its danger till, on the first day of January, 1916, the Germans fired several shells from a giant mortar or a marine piece into the town, one of which scattered the fragments of a big five-story apartment house all over Nancy. And on that afternoon thirty thousand people left the city.
The day on which I was to go across the great swathe of the front to the first-line trenches dawned cool and sunny. I use the word "swathe" purposely, for only by that image can the real meaning of the phrase "the front" be understood. The thick, black line which figures on the war-maps is a great swathe of country running, with a thousand little turns and twists that do not interfere with its general regularity, from the summits of the 'Vosges to the yellow dunes of the North Sea. The relation of the border of this swathe to the world beyond is the relation of sea to land along an irregular and indented coast. Here an isolated, strategic point, fiercely defended by the Germans, has extended the border of the swathe beyond the usual limits, and villages thirteen and fourteen miles from the actual lines have been pounded to pieces by long-range artillery in the hope of destroying the enemy's communications; there the trenches cross an obscure, level moor upon whose possession nothing particular depends, and the swathe narrows to the villages close by the lines. This swathe, which begins with the French communications, passes the French trenches, leaps "No Man's Land," and continues beyond the German trenches to the German communications, averages about twenty-two miles in width. The territory within this swathe is inhabited by soldiers, ruled by soldiers, worked by soldiers, and organized for war. Sometimes the transition between civilian life and the life of the swathe is abrupt, as, for instance, at Verdun, where the villages beyond the lines have been emptied of civilian inhabitants to make room for the soldiery; but at other times the change is gradual and the peasants continue to work fields almost in the shadow of the trenches. Since the line of trenches was organized by the Germans only after a series of engagements along the front, during which the battle-line oscillated over a wide territory, the approach to the swathe is often through a region of desolated villages sometimes far removed from the present trenches. Such is the state of affairs in the region of the Marne, the Argonne, and on the southern bank of the Moselle. Moss-overgrown and silent, these villages often stand deserted in the fields at the entrance to the swathe, fit heralds of the desolation that lies beyond.
Imagine, then, the French half of the swathe extending from the edge of the civilian world to the barbed-wire entanglements of No Man's Land. Within this territory, in the trenches, in the artillery positions, in the villages where troops are quartered (and they are quartered in every village of the swathe), and along all the principal turns and corners of the roads, a certain number of shells fall every twenty-four hours, the number of shells per locality increasing as one advances toward the first lines. There are certain disputed regions, that of Verdun in particular, where literally the whole great swathe has been pounded to pieces, till hardly one stone of a village remains on another, and during the recent offensive in the Somme the British are said to have systematically wiped out every village, hamlet, and road behind the German trenches to a depth of eighteen miles. Yet, protected from rifle bullets and the majority of shells by a great wooded hill, the inhabitants of M-----, one mile from the lines of the Bois-le-Prêtre, did a thriving business selling fruit to the soldiers, and I once saw an old peasant woman, who was digging potatoes in her garden when a small shell burst about two hundred feet from her, shake her fist toward the German lines, mutter something, and plod angrily home to her cellar. There are rarely any children close to the trenches, but in villages that are only occasionally shelled, the school is open, and the class hurries to the cellar at the first alarm.
The lieutenant of the American Section, a young Frenchman who spoke English not only fluently, but also with distinction, came to Nancy to take me to the front. It was a clear, sunny morning, and the rumble of the commercial life of Nancy, somewhat later in starting than our own, was just beginning to be heard. Across the street from the breakfast-room of the hotel, a young woman wearing a little black cape over her shoulders rolled up the corrugated iron shutter of a confectioner's shop and began to set the window with the popular patriotic candy boxes, aluminum models of a " seventy-five " shell tied round with a bow of narrow tricolor ribbon; a baker's boy in a white apron and blue jumpers went by carrying a basket of bread on his head; and from the nearby tobacconist's, a spruce young lieutenant dressed in a black uniform emerged lighting a cigarette. At nine in the morning I was contemplating a side street of busy, orderly, sunlit Nancy; that night I was in a cellar seeking refuge from fire shells.
"Please give me all your military papers," said my officer. I handed over all the cards, permits, and licenses that had been given me, and he examined them closely.
"Allons, let us go," he said to his chauffeur, a young soldier wearing the insignia of the motor-transportation corps.
"How long does it take us to get to the lines, mon lieutenant? "
"About an hour. Our headquarters are thirty kilomètres distant."
The big, war-gray Panhard began to move. I looked round, eager to notice anything that marked our transition from peace to war. Beyond the Nancy, built in the Versailles style by the exiled Stanislaus, lay the industrial Nancy which has grown up since the development of the iron mines of French Lorraine in the eighties. Through this ugly huddle we passed first: there were working men on the sidewalks, gamins in the gutters, --- nothing to remind one of the war.
At a turn in the road near the outskirts of the city, a sentry, a small, gray-haired man, had stepped out before the car. From the door of a neighboring wineshop, a hideous old woman, her uncombed, tawny yellow hair messed round her coarse, shiny face, came out to look at us.
"Your papers, please," said a red-faced, middle-aged sergeant wearing a brown corduroy uniform, who, walking briskly on enormous fat legs, had followed the sentry out into the street. The lieutenant produced the military permit to travel in the army zone ---the ordre de mouvement, a printed form on a blue sheet about the size of a leaf of typewriter paper.
"Pass," said the sergeant, and saluted. The sentry retired to his post on the sidewalk. At the door of the wineshop the woman continued to stare at us with an animal curiosity. Possibly our English-like uniforms had attracted her attention; the French are very curious about les Anglais. Over the roof of an ugly row of working men's barracks, built of mortar and trimmed with dingy brick, came the uproar of a great industry, the humming clang of saws, the ringing of iron on iron, and the heart-beat thump of a great hammer that shook the earth. In a vast, detached building five great furnaces were crowned with tufts of pinkish fire, workmen were crossing the cindery yard dragging little carts and long strips of iron, and a long line of open freight cars was being emptied of coal.
"They are making shells," said the lieutenant in the tone that he might have said, "They are making candy."
Another sentry held us up at the bridge where the road crosses the Moselle as it issues from the highlands to the southwest.
Beyond the bridge, running almost directly north to Metz, lay the historic valley of the Moselle. Great, bare hills, varying between seven hundred and a thousand feet in height, and often carved by erosion into strange, high triangles and abrupt mesas, formed the valley wall. The ground color of the hills was a warm buff-brown with a good deal of iron-red in it, and the sky above was of a light, friendly blue. A strange, Egyptian emerald of new wheat, a certain deep cobalt of cloud shadows, and a ruddy brownness, of field and moor are the colors of Lorraine. Here and there, on the meadows of the river and the steep flanks of the hills, were ancient, red-roofed villages. Across the autumnal fields the smoke and flame of squalid Pompey loomed strangely.
There were signs of the war at Marbache, fourteen kilomètres from Nancy, slight signs, to be sure, but good ones --- the presence of a military smithy for the repair of army wagons, several of which stood by on rusty wheels, and a view of some twenty or thirty artillery caissons parked under the trees. But it was at B-----, sixteen kilomètres from Nancy, and sixteen from the lines, that I first felt the imminence of the war. The morning train from Nancy had just stopped, to go no farther for fear of shells, and beyond the station the tracks of the once busy Nancy-Metz railroad advanced, rusty, unused, and overgrown with grass, into the danger zone. Far behind now lay civilian Pompey, and Marbache shared by soldiers and civilians. B----- was distinctly a village of the soldiery. The little hamlet, now the junction where the wagon-trains supplying the soldiery meet the great artery of the railroad, was built on the banks of a canal above the river. The color of these villages in Lorraine is rather lovely, for the walls of the houses, built of the local buff-yellow stone and ferrous sand, are of a warm, brown tone that goes well with the roofs of claret-red tile and the brown landscape. A glorious sky of silvery white cloud masses, pierced with sunlight and islanded with soft blue, shone over the soldier village. There were no combatants in it when we passed through, only the old poilus who drove the wagons to the trenches and the army hostlers who looked after the animals. There were pictures of soldier grooms leading horses down a narrow, slimy street between brown, mud-spattered walls to a drinking-trough; of horses lined up along a house wall being briskly curry-combed by big, thick-set fellows in blousy white overalls and blue fatigue caps; and of doors of stables opening on the road showing a bedding of brown straw on the earthen floor. There was a certain stench, too, the smell of horse-fouled mud that mixed with that odor I later was able to classify as the smell of war. For the war has a smell that clings to everything military, fills the troop-trains, hospitals, and cantonments, and saturates one's own clothing, a smell compounded of horse, chemicals, sweat, mud, dirt, and human beings. At the guarded exit of the village to the shell zone was a little military cemetery in which rows of wooden crosses stood with the regularity of pins in a paper.
Two kilomètres farther on, at Dieulouard, we drew into the shell zone. A cottage had been struck the day before, and the shell, arriving by the roof, had blown part of the front wall out into the street. In the façade of the house, to the left of a door hanging crazily on its hinges, an irregular oval hole, large enough to drive a motor-car through, rose from the ground and came to a point just below the overhang of the roof. The edges of the broken stone were clean and new in contrast to the time-soiled outer wall of the dwelling.
A pile of this clean stone lay on the ground at the outer opening of the orifice, mixed with fragments of red tiles.
"They killed two there yesterday," said the lieutenant, pointing out the débris.
The village, a farming hamlet transformed by the vicinity of a great foundry into something neither a village nor a town, was full of soldiers; there were soldiers in the streets, soldiers standing in doorways, soldiers cooking over wood fires, soldiers everywhere. And looking at the muddy village-town full of men in uniforms of blue, old uniforms of blue, muddy uniforms of blue, in blue that was blue-gray and blue-green from wear and exposure to the weather, I realized that the old days of beautiful, half-barbaric uniforms were gone forever, and that, in place of the old romantic war of cavalry charges and great battles in the open, a new, more terrible war had been created, a war that had not the chivalric externals of the old.
After Dieulouard began the swathe of stillness.
Following the western bank of the canal of the Moselle the road made a great curve round the base of a hill descending to the river, and then mounted a little spur of the valley wall. Beyond the spur the road went through lonely fields, in which were deserted farmhouses surrounded by acres of neglected vines, now rank and Medusa-like in their weedy profusion. Every once in a while, along a rise, stood great burlap screens so arranged one behind the other as to give the effect of a continuous line when seen from a certain angle.
"What are those for?"
"To hide the road from the Germans. Do you see that little village down there on the crest? The Boches have an observatory there, and shell the road whenever they see anything worth shelling."
Fig. 2. Burlap screens to hide ........Fig. 3. Carrying down the dead
the road from the Germans ..............after the attack.
A strange stillness pervaded the air; not a stillness of death and decay, but the stillness of life that listens. The sun continued to shine on the brown moorland hills across the gray-green river, the world was quite the same, yet one sensed that something had changed. A village lay ahead of us, disfigured by random shells and half deserted. Beyond the still, shell-spattered houses, a great wood rose, about a mile and a half away, on a ridge that stood boldly against the sky. Running from the edge of the trees down across an open slope to the river was a brownish line that stood in a little contrast to the yellower grass. Suddenly, there slowly rose from this line a great puff of grayish-black smoke which melted away in the dear, autumnal air.
"See," said our lieutenant calmly, with no more emotion than he would have shown at a bonfire --- "those are the German trenches. We have just fired a shell into them."
Two minutes more took us into the dead, deserted city of Pont-à-Mousson. The road was now everywhere screened carefully with lengths of light-brown burlap, and there was not a single house that did not bear witness to the power of a shell. The sense of "the front" began to possess me, never to go, the sense of being in the vicinity of a tremendous power. A ruined village, or a deserted town actually on the front does not bring to mind any impression of decay, for the intellect tends rather to consider the means by which the destruction has been accomplished. One sees villages of the swathes so completely blown to pieces that they are literally nothing but earthy mounds of rubbish, and seeing them thus, in a plain still fiercely disputed night and day between one's own side and the invisible enemy, the mind feels itself in the presence of force, titanic, secret, and hostile.
Beyond Pont-à-Mousson the road led directly to the trenches of the Bois-le-Prêtre, less than half a mile away. But the disputed trenches were hidden behind the trees, and I could not see them. Through the silence of the deserted town sounded the muffled boom of shells and trench engines bursting in the wood beyond, and every now and then clouds of gray-black smoke from the explosion would rise above the brown leaves of the ash trees. The smoke of these explosions rose straight upwards in a foggy column, such as a locomotive might make if, halted on its tracks somewhere in the wood, it had put coal on its fires.
With the next day I began my service at the trenches, but the war began for me that very night.
A room in a bourgeois flat on the third floor of a deserted apartment house had been assigned me. It was nine o'clock, and I was getting ready to roll up in my blankets and go to sleep. Beneath the starlit heavens the street below was black as pitch save when a trench light, floating serenely down the sky, illuminated with its green-white glow the curving road and the line of dark, abandoned, half-ruinous villas. There was not a sound to be heard outside of an occasional rifle shot in the trenches, sounding for all the world like the click of giant croquet balls. I went round to the rear of the house and looked out of the kitchen windows to the lines. A little action, some quarrel of sentries, perhaps, was going on behind the trees, just where the wooded ridge sloped to the river. Trench light after trench light rose, showing the disused railroad track running across the unharvested fields. Gleaming palely through the French window at which I was standing, the radiance revealed the deserted kitchen, the rusty stove, the dusty pans, and the tarnished watertap above the stone sink. The hard, wooden crash of grenades broke upon my cars.
My own room was lit by the yellow flame of a solitary candle, rising, untroubled by the slightest breath of wind, straight into the air. A large rug of old-rose covered the floor, an old-rose velvet canopy draped a long table, hanging down at the comers in straight, heavy creases, and the wallpaper was a golden yellow with faint stripes of silvery-gray glaze. By the side of the wooden bed stood a high cabinet holding about fifty terra cotta and porcelain figurines, shiny shepherdesses with shiny pink cheeks, Louis XV peasants with rakes on their shoulders, and three little dogs made of a material the color of cocoa. The gem of the collection was an eighteenth-century porcelain of a youth and a maid sitting on opposite sides of a curved bench over whose center rose a blossoming bush. The youth, dressed in black, and wearing yellow stockings, looked with an amorous smile at the girl in her gorgeous dress of flowering brocade.
A marbly-white fireplace stood in the comer, overhung by a great Louis XV mirror with a gilt frame of rich, voluptuous curves. On the mantel lay a scarf of old-rose velvet smelling decidedly musty. Alone, apart, upon this mantel, as an altar, stood a colored plaster bust of Jeanne d'Arc, showing her in the beauty of her winsome youth. The pale, girlish face dominated the shadowy room with its dreamy, innocent loveliness.
There came a knock at the door, and so still was the town and the house that the knock had the effect of something dramatic and portentous. A big man, with bulging, pink cheeks, a large, chestnut mustache, and brown eyes full of philosophic curiosity, stood in the doorway. The uniform that he was wearing was unusually neat and clean.
"So you are the American I am to have as neighbor," said he.
"Yes," I replied.
"I am the caporal in charge of the dépôt of the engineers in the cellar," continued my visitor, "and I thought I'd come in and see how you were."
I invited him to enter.
"Do you find yourself comfortable here, son?"
"Yes. I consider myself privileged to have the use of the room. Have a cigarette?"
"Are these American cigarettes?"
"Your American tobacco is fine, son. But in America everybody is a millionaire and has the best of everything --is n't that so? I should like to go to America."
"A Frenchman is never happy out of France."
Comfortably seated in a big, ugly chair, he puffed his cigarette and meditated.
"Perhaps you are right," he admitted. "We Frenchmen love the good things, and think we can get them in France better than anywhere else. The solid satisfactions of life ---good wine --- good cheese." He paused. "You see, son, all that (tout ça) is an affair of mine --- in civilian life (dans le civil) I am a grocer at Macon in Bourgogne."
For a little while we talked of Burgundy, which I had often visited in my student days at Lyons. There came another pause, and the Burgundian said:
"Well, what do you think of this big racket (ce grand fracas)?"
"I have not seen enough of it to say."
"Well, I think you are going to get a taste of it to-night. I heard our artillery men (nos artiflots) early this morning firing their long-range cannon, and every time they do that the Boches throw shells into Pont-à-Mousson. I have been expecting an answer all day. If they start in to-night, get up and come down cellar, son. This house was struck by a shell two weeks ago."
The shadowy, candlelit room and the dark city became at his words more mysterious and hostile. The atmosphere seemed pervaded by some obscure, endless, dreadful threat. It was getting toward ten o'clock.
"Is this the only room you have? I have never been in this suite."
"No, there is another room. Would you like to see it?"
He followed me into a small chamber from which everything had been stripped except a bedside table, a chair, and a crayon portrait of a woman. The picture, slightly tinted with flesh color, was that of a bourgeoise on the threshold of the fifties, and the still candle-flame brought out in distinct relief the heavy, obese countenance, the hair curled in artificial ringlets, and the gold crucifix which she wore on her large bosom. The Burgundian's attention centered on this picture, which he examined with the air of a connoisseur of female beauty.
"Lord, how ugly she is!" he exclaimed. "She might well have stayed. Such an old dragon would have no reason to fear the Boches." And he laughed heartily from his rich lips and pulled his mustache.
"Don't forget to hurry to the cellar, son," he called as he went away.
At his departure the lonely night closed in on me again. Far, far away sounded the booming of cannon.
I am a light sleeper, and the arrival of the first shell awakened me. Kicking off my blankets, I sat up in bed just in time to catch the swift ebb of a heavy concussion. A piece of glass, dislodged from a broken pane by the tremor, fell in a treble tinkle to the floor. For a minute or two there was a full, heavy silence, and then several objects rolled down the roof and fell over the gutters into the street. It sounded as if some one had emptied a hodful of coal onto the house-roof from the height of the clouds. Another silence followed. Suddenly it was broken by a swift, complete sound, a heavy boom-roar, and on the heels of this noise came a throbbing, whistling sigh that, at first faint as the sound of ocean on a distant beach, increased with incredible speed to a whistling swish, ending in a HISH of tremendous volume and a roaring, grinding burst. The sound of a great shell is never a pure bang; one hears, rather, the end of the arriving HISH, the explosion, and the tearing disintegration of the thick wall of iron in one grinding hammer-blow of terrific violence. On the heels of this second shell came voices in the dark street, and the rosy glow of fire from somewhere behind. More lumps, fragments of shell that had been shot into the air by the explosion, rained down upon the roof. I got up and went to the kitchen window. A house on one of the silent streets between the city and the lines was on fire, great volumes of smoke were rolling off into the starlit night, and voices were heard all about murmuring in the shadows. I hurried on my clothes and went down to the cellar.
The light of two candles hanging from a shelf in loops of wire revealed a clean, high cellar; a mess of straw was strewn along one wall, and a stack of shovels and picks, some of them wrapped in paper, was banked against the other. In the straw lay three oldish men, fully clad in the dark-blue uniform which in old times had signaled the Engineer Corps; one dozed with his head on his arm, the other two were stretched out flat in the mysterious grossness of sleep. A door from the cellar to a sunken garden was open, and through this opening streamed the intense radiance of the rising fire. At the opening stood three men, my visitor of the evening, a little, wrinkled man with Napoleon III whiskers and imperial, and an old, dwarfish fellow with a short neck, a bullet head, and close-clipped hair. Catching sight of me, the Burgundian said: --
"Well, son, you see it is knocking (ça tape) ce soir."
Hearing another shell, he slammed the door, and stepped to the right behind the stone wall of the cellar.
"Very bad," croaked the dwarf. "The Boches are throwing fire shells."
"And they will fire shrapnel at the poor bougres who have to put out the fires," said the little man with the imperial.
"So they will, those knaves," croaked the dwarf in a voice entirely free from any emotion.
"That fire must be down on the Boulevard Ney," said the bearded man.
"There is another beginning just to the right," said the Burgundian in the tone of one retailing interesting but hardly useful information.
"There will be others," croaked the dwarf, who, leaning against the cellar wall, was trying to roll a cigarette with big, square, fumbling fingers. And looking at a big, gray-haired man in the hay, who had turned over and was beginning to snore, he added: " Look at the new man. He sleeps well, that fellow" (ce type là).
"He looks like a Breton," said the man with the imperial.
"An Auvergnat --- an Auvergnat," replied the dwarf in a tone that was meant to be final.
The soldier, who had just been sent down from Paris to take the place of another recently invalided home, snored on, unconscious of our scrutiny. The light from the fires outside cast a rosy glow on his weather-worn features and sparse, silvery hair. His own curiosity stirred, the corporal looked at his list.
"He came from Lyons," he announced. "His name is Alphonse Reboulet."
"I am glad he is not an Auvergnat," growled the dwarf. "We should have all had fleas."
A shell burst very near, and a bitter odor of explosives came swirling through the doorway. A fragment of the shell casing struck a window above us, and a large piece of glass fell by the doorway and broke into splinters. The first fire was dying down, but two others were burning briskly. The soldiers waited for the end of the bombardment, as they might have waited for the end of a thunderstorm.
"Tiens --- here comes the shrapnel," exclaimed the Burgundian. And he slammed the door swiftly.
A high, clear whistle cleaved the flame-lit sky, and about thirty small shrapnel shells burst beyond us.
"They try to prevent any one putting out the fires," said the Burgundian confidentially. "They get the range from the light of the flames."
Another dreadful rafale (volley) of shrapnel, at the rate of ten or fifteen a minute, came speeding from the German lines.
"They are firing on the other house, now."
"Who puts out the fires?"
"The territorials who police and dean up the town. Some of them live two doors below."
The Burgundian pointed down the garden to a door opening, like our own, on to an area below the level of the street. Suddenly, a gate opening on a back lane swung back, and two soldiers entered, one carrying the feet and the other the shoulders of a third. The body hung clumsily between them like a piece of old sacking.
"Tiens --- some one is wounded," said the Burgundian. " Go, thou, Badel, and see who it is."
The dwarf plodded off obediently.
"It is Palester," he announced on his return, the type that had the swollen jaw last month."
"What's the matter with him?"
"He's been killed."
LA FORÊT DE BOIS-LE-PRÊTRE
BEGINNING at the right bank of the Meuse, a vast plateau of bare, desolate moorland sweeps eastward to the Moselle, and descends to the river in a number of great, wooded ridges perpendicular to the northward-flowing stream. The town of Pont-à-Mousson lies an apron of meadowland spread between two of these ridges, the ridge of Puvenelle and the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. The latter is the highest of all the spurs of the valley. Rising from the river about half a mile to the north of the city, it ascends swiftly to the level of the plateau, and was seen from our headquarters as a long, wooded ridge blocking the sky-line to the northwest. The hamlet of Maidières, in which our headquarters were located, lies just at the foot of Puvenelle, at a point where the amphitheater of Pont-à-Mousson, crowding between the two ridges, becomes a steep-walled valley sharply tilted to the west.
The Bois-le-Prêtre dominated at once the landscape and our minds. Its existence was the one great fact in the lives of some fifty thousand Frenchmen, Germans, and a handful of exiled Americans; it had dominated and ended the lives of the dead; it would dominate the imagination of the future. Yet, looking across the brown walls and claret roofs of the hamlet of Maidières, there was nothing to be seen but a grassy slope, open fields, a reddish ribbon of road, a wreck of a villa burned by a fire shell, and a wood. The autumn had turned the leaves of the trees, seemingly without exception, to a leathery brown, and in almost all lights the trunks of the trees were a cold, purplish slate. Such was the forest which, battle-areas excepted, has cost more lives than any other point along the line. The wood had been contested trench by trench, literally foot by foot. It was at once the key to the Saint-Mihiel salient and the city of Metz.
The Saint-Mihiel salient --- "the hernia," as the French call it ---begins at the Bois-le-Prêtre. Pivoting on The Wood, the lines turn sharply inland, cross the desolate plateau of La Woevre, attain the Meuse at Saint-Mihiel, turn again, and ascend the river to the Verdunois. The salient, as dangerous for the Germans as it is troublesome for the French, represents the limit of a German offensive directed against Toul in October, 1914. That the French retreated was due to the fact that the plateau was insufficiently protected, many of the regiments having been rushed north to the great battle then raging on the Aisne.
Only one railroad center lies in the territory of the salient, Thiaucourt in Woevre. This pleasant little moorland town, locally famous for its wine, is connected with Metz by two single-track railroad lines, one coming via Conflans, and the other by Arnaville on the Moselle. At Vilcey-sur-Mad, these lines unite, and follow to Thiaucourt the only practicable railroad route, the valley of the Rupt (brook) de Mad.
Thus the domination of Thiaucourt, or the valley of the Rupt de Mad, by French artillery would break the railroad communications between the troops keeping the salient and their base of supplies, Metz. And the fate of Metz itself hangs on the control of the Bois-le-Prêtre.
Metz is the heart of the German organization on the western front: the railroad center, the supply station, the troop dépôt. A blow at Metz would affect the security of every German soldier between Alsace and the Belgian frontier. But if the French can drive the Germans out of the Bois-le-Prêtre and establish big howitzers on the crest the Germans are still holding, there will soon be no more Metz. The French guns will destroy the city as the German cannon destroyed Verdun.
When the Germans, therefore, retired to the trenches after the battles of September and October, 1914, they took to the ground on the heights of the Bois-le-Prêtre, a terrain far enough ahead of Thiaucourt and Metz to preserve these centers from the danger of being shelled. On the crest of the highest ridge along the valley, admirably ambushed in a thick forest, they waited for the coming of the French. And the French came.
They came, young and old, slum-dweller and country schoolmaster, rich young noble and Corsican peasant, to the storming of the wood, upheld by one vision, the unbroken, grassy slope that stretched from behind the German lines to the town of Thiaucourt. In the trenches behind the slaty trunks of the great ash trees, Bavarian peasants, Saxons, and round-headed Württemburgers, the olive-green, jack-booted Boches, awaited their coming, determined to hold the wood, the salient, and the city.
A year later the Bois-le-Prêtre (the Priest Wood), with its perfume of ecclesiastical names that reminds one of the odor of incense in an old church, had become the Bois de la Mort (the Wood of Death).
The house in which our bureau was located was once the summer residence of a rich ironmaster who had fled to Paris at the beginning of the war. If there is an architectural style of German origin known as the "Neo-Classic," which affects large, windowless spaces framed in pilasters of tile, and decorations and insets of omelet-yellow and bottle-green glazed brick, "Wisteria Villa" is of that school. It stood behind a high wall of iron spikes on the road leading from Maidières to the trenches, a high, Germano-Pompeian country house, topped by a roof rich in angles, absurd windows, and unexpected gables. There are huge, square, French-roofed houses in New England villages built by local richessimes of Grant's time, and still called by neighbors the Jinks place" or the "Levi Oates place"; Wisteria Villa had something of the same social relation to the commune of Maidières. Grotesque and ugly, it was not to be despised; it had character in its way.
Our social center was the dining-room of the villa. Exclusive of the kitchen range, it boasted the only stove in the house, a queerly shaped "Salamandre," a kind of Franklin stove with mica doors. The walls were papered an ugly chocolate brown with a good deal of red in it, and the borders, doors, and fireplace frame were stained a color trembling between mission green and oak brown. The room was rectangular and too high for its width. There were pictures. On each side of the fireplace, profiles toward the chimney, hung concave plaques of Dutch girls. To the left of the door was a yellowed etching of the tower of the château of Heidelberg, and to the right a very small oil painting, in an ornate gilt frame three inches deep, of a beach by moonlight. About two or three hundred books, bound in boards and red leather, stood behind the cracked glass of a bookcase in the corner; they were very "jeune fille," and only the romances of Georges Ohnet appeared to have been read. The thousand cupboards of the house were full of dusty knickknacks, old umbrellas, hats, account-books, and huge boxes holding the débris of sets of checkers, dominoes, and ivory chessmen. An enlarged photograph of the family hung on the walls of a bedroom; it had been taken at somebody's marriage, and showed the group standing on the front steps, the same steps that were later to be blown to pieces by a shell. One saw the bride, the groom, and about twenty relatives, including a boy in short trousers, a wide, white collar, and an old-fashioned, fluffy bow tie. Anxious to be included in the picture, the driver of the bridal barouche has craned his neck forward. On the evidence of the costumes, the picture had been taken about 1902.
Our bureau in the cellar of Wisteria Villa was connected directly with the trenches. When a man had been wounded, he was carried to the poste de secours in the rear lines, and it was our duty to go to this trench post and carry the patient to the hospital at the nearest rail-head. The bureau of the Section was in charge of two Frenchmen who shared the labor of attending to the telephone and keeping the books.
A hundred yards beyond Wisteria Villa, at a certain corner, the principal road to the trenches divided into three branches, and in order to interfere as much as possible with communications, the Germans daily shelled this strategic point. A comrade and I had the curiosity to keep an exact record of a week's shelling. It must be remembered that the corner was screened from the Germans, who fired casually in the hope of hitting something and annoying the French. The cannons shelling the corner were usually "seventy-sevens," the German quick-firing pieces that correspond to the French "seventy-fives."
Monday, ten shells at 6.30, two at 7-10, five at 11.28, twenty at intervals between 2.15 and 2.45, a swift rafale of some sixteen at 4.12, another rafale of twenty at 8, and occasional shells between 9 and midnight.
Tuesday, two big shells at mid-day.
Wednesday, rafales at 9.14, 11; 2.18, 4.30, and 6.20.
Thursday --- no shells.
Friday, twelve at intervals between 10.16 and 12.20. Solitary big shell at 1.05. Another big shell at 3. Some fifteen stray shells between 5 and midnight.
Saturday --- no shells.
Sunday --- About five shells an hour between 4 in the afternoon and midnight.
I give the number of shells falling at this corner as a concrete instance of what was happening at a dozen other points along the road. The fire of the German batteries was as capricious as the play of a search-light; one week, the corner and three or four other points would catch it, the next week the corner and another set of localities. And there were periods, sometimes ten days to two weeks long, when hardly a shell was fired at any road. Then, after a certain sense of security had begun to take form, a rafale would come screaming over, blow a horse and wagon to pieces, and leave one or two blue figures huddled in the mud. But the French replied to each shell and every rafale, in addition to firing at random all the day and a good deal of the night. There was hardly a night that Wisteria Villa did not rock to the sound of French guns fired at 2 and 3 in the morning. But the average day at Pont-à-Mousson was a day of random silences. The war had all the capriciousness of the sea --- of uncertain weather. There were hours of calm in the day, during which the desolate silence of the front flooded swiftly over the landscape; there were interruptions of great violence, sometimes desultory, sometimes beginning, in obedience to a human will, at a certain hour. The outbreak would commence with the orderliness of a clock striking, and continue the greater part of the day, rocking the deserted town with its clamor. Hearing it, the soldiers en repos would say, talking of The Wood, "It sings (ça chante)," or, "It knocks (ça tape) up there to day." The smoke of the bursting shells hung over The Wood in a darkish, gray-blue fog. But since The Wood had a personality for us, many would say simply, "Listen to The Wood."
The shell expresses one idea --- energy. The cylinder of iron, piercing the air at a terrific speed, sings a song of swift, appalling energy, of which the final explosion is the only fitting culmination. One gets, too, an idea of an unbending volition in the thing. After a certain time at the front the ear learns to distinguish the sound of a big shell from a small shell, and to know roughly whether or not one is in the danger zone. It was a grim jest with us that it took ten days to qualify as a shell expert, and at the end of two weeks all those who qualified attended the funeral of those who had failed. Life at The Wood had an interesting uncertainty.
A quarter of a mile beyond the corner, on the slope of Puvenelle opposite The Wood, stood Montauville, the last habitable village of the region. To the south of it rose the wooded slopes of Puvenelle; to the north, seen across a marshy meadow, were the slope and the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. The dirty, mud-spattered village was caught between the leathery sweeps of two wooded ridges. Three winding roads, tramped into a pie of mire, crossed the grassy slope of The Wood, and disappeared into the trees at the top. Though less than a mile from the first German line, the village, because of its protection from shells by a spur of the Bois-le-Prêtre, was in remarkably good condition; the only building to show conspicuous damage being the, church, whose steeple had been twice struck. It was curious to see pigeons flying in and out of the belfry through the shell rents in the roof. Here and there, among the uncultivated fields of those who had fled, were the green fields of some one who had stayed. A woman of seventy still kept open her grocery shop; it was extraordinarily dirty, full of buzzing flies, and smelled of spilled wine.
"Why did you stay? " I asked her.
"Because I did not want to leave the village. Of course my daughter wanted me to come to Dijon. Imagine me in Dijon, I, who have been to Nancy only once! A fine figure I should make in Dijon in my sabots!"
"And you are not afraid of the shells?"
"Oh, I should be afraid of them if I ever went out in the street. But I never leave my shop."
And so she stayed, selling the three staples of the French front, Camembert cheese, Norwegian sardines, and cakes of chocolate. But Montauville was far from safe. It was there that I first saw a man killed. I had been talking to a sentry, a small young fellow of twenty-one or two, with yellow hair and gray-blue eyes full of weariness. He complained of a touch of jaundice, and wished heartily that the whole affaire --- meaning the war in general --- was finished. He was very anxious to know if the Americans thought the Boches were going to win. Some vague idea of winning the war just to get even with the Boches seemed to be in his mind. I assured him that American opinion was optimistic in regard to the chances of the Allies, and strolled away. Hardly had I gone ten feet, when a "seventy-seven" shell, arriving without warning, went Zip-bang, and, turning to crouch to the wall, I saw the sentry crumple up in the mud. It was as if he were a rubber effigy of a man blown up with air, and some one had suddenly ripped the envelope. His rifle fell from him, and he, bending from the waist, leaned face down into the mud. I was the first to get to him. The young, discontented face was full of the gray street mud, there was mud in the hollows of the eyes, in the mouth, in the fluffy mustache. A chunk of the shell had ripped open the left breast to the heart. Down his sleeve, as down a pipe, flowed a hasty drop, drop, drop of blood that mixed with the mire.
Several times a day, at stated hours, the numbers of German missiles that had fallen into the trenches of the Bois-le-Prêtre, together with French answers to them, would be telephoned to headquarters. The soldier in charge of the telephone was an instructor in Latin in a French provincial university, a tall, stoop-shouldered man, with an indefinite, benevolent smile curiously framed on thin lips. Probably very much of a scholar by training and feeling, he had accepted his military destiny, and was as much a poilu as anybody. During his leisure hours he was busy writing a "Comparison of the Campaign on the Marne and the Aisne with Caesar's battles against the Belgian Confederacy." He had a paper edition of the Gallic Wars which he carried round with him. One day he explained his thesis to me. He drew a plan with a green pencil on a piece of paper.
"See, mon ami," he exclaimed, "here is the Aisne, Caesar's Axona; here is Berry-au-Bac; here was Caesar, here were the invaders, here was General French, here Foch, here Von Kluck. Curious, isn't it---two thousand years afterward? " His eyes for an instant filled with dreamy perplexity. A little while later I would hear him mechanically telephoning. "Poste A --- five ' seventy-seven' shells, six mines, twelve trench shells; answer --- ten 'seventy-five' shells, eight mines, eighteen trench shells; Poste B --- two 'seventy-seven' shells, one mine, six grenades; answer ---fifteen 'seventy-five' shells; Poste C---- one 'two hundred and ten' shell, fifty mines; answer --- sixty mines; Poste D --- "
At Dieulouard I had entered the shell zone; at Pont-à-Mousson, I crossed the borders of the zone of quiet; at Montauville began the last zone --- the zone of invisibility and violence. Civilian life ended at the western end of the village street with the abruptness of a man brought face to face with a high wall. Beyond the village a road was seen climbing the grassy slope of Puvenelle, to disappear as it neared the summit of the ridge in a brown wood. It was just an ordinary hill road of Lorraine, but the fact that it was the direct road to the trenches invested this climbing, winding, silent length with extraordinary character. The gate of the zone of violence, every foot of it bore some scar of the war, now trivial, now gigantic --- always awesome in the power and volition it revealed. One passed from the sight of a brown puddle, scooped in the surface of the street by an exploding shell, to a view of a magnificent ash tree splintered by some projectile. It is a very rare thing to see a sinister landscape, but this whole road was sinister. I used to discuss this sinister quality with a distinguished French artist who as a poilu was the infirmier, or medical service man, attached to a squad of engineers working in a quarry frequently shelled. In this frightful place we discussed la qualité du sinistre dans l'art (the sinister in art) as calmly as if we were two Parisian critics sitting on the benches of the Luxembourg Gardens. As the road advanced into the wood, there was hardly a wayside tree that had not been struck by a shell. Branches hung dead from trees, twigs had been lopped off by stray fragments, great trunks were split apart as if by lightning. "Nature as Nature is never sinister," said the artist; "it is when there is a disturbance of the relations between Nature and human life that you have the sinister. Have you ever seen the villages beyond Ravenna overwhelmed by the bogs? There you see the sinister. Here Man is making Nature unlivable for Man." He stroked his fine silky beard meditatively --- " This will all end when the peasants plant again." As we talked, a shell, intended for the batteries behind, burst high above us.
Skirting the ravine, now wooded, between Puvenelle and the Bois-le-Prêtre, the road continued westward till it emerged upon the high plateau of La Woevre; the last kilomètre being in full view of the Germans entrenched on the ridge across the rapidly narrowing, rising ravine. Along this visible space the trees and bushes by the roadside were matted by shell fire into an inextricable confusion of destruction, and through the wisps and splinters of this ruin was seen the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre rapidly attaining the level of the moor. At length the forest of Puvenelle, the ravine, and the Bois-le-Prêtre ended together in a rolling sweep of furzy fields cut off to the west and north by a vast billow of the moor which, like the rim of a saucer, closed the wide horizon. Continuing straight ahead, the Puvenelle road mounted this rise, dipped and disappeared. Halfway between the edge of the forest of Puvenelle and this crest stood an abandoned inn, a commonplace building made of buff-brown moorland stone trimmed with red brick. Close by this inn, at right angles to the Puvenelle road, another road turned to the north and likewise disappeared over the lift in the moor. At the corner stood a government signpost of iron slightly bent back, bearing in gray-white letters on its clay-blue plaque the legend --
There was not a soul anywhere in sight; I was surrounded with evidences of terrific violence --- the shattered trees, the shell holes in the road, the brown-lipped craters in the earth of the fields, the battered inn; but there was not a sign of the creators of this devastation. A northwest wind blew in great salvos across the mournful, lonely plateau, rippling the furze, and brought to my ears the pounding of shells from behind the rise. When I got to this rim a soldier, a big, blond fellow of the true Gaulois type with drooping yellow mustaches, climbed slowly out of a hole in the ground. The effect was startling. I had arrived at the line where the earth of France completely swallows up the army. This disappearance of life in a décor of intense action is one of the most striking things of the war. All about in the surface of the earth were little, square, sooty holes that served as chimneys, and here and there rectangular, gravelike openings in the soil showing three or four big steps descending to a subterranean hut. Fifty feet away not a sign of human life could be distinguished. Six feet under the ground, framed in the doorway of a hut, a young, black-haired fellow in a dark-brown jersey stood smiling pleasantly up at us; it was he who was to be my guide to the various postes and trenches that I had need to know. He came up to greet me.
"Better bring him down here," growled a voice from somewhere in the earth. "There have been bullets crossing the road all afternoon."
" I am going to show him the Quart-en-Réserve first."
The Quart-en-Réserve (Reserved Quarter) was the section of the Bois-le-Prêtre which, because of its situation on the crest of the great ridge, had been the most fiercely contested. We crept up on the edge of the ridge and looked over. An open, level field some three hundred yards wide swept from the Thiaucourt road to the edges of the Bois-le-Prêtre; across this field ran in the most confused manner a strange pattern of brown lines that disappeared among the stumps and poles of the haggard wood to the east. To the northwest of this plateau, on the road ahead of us, stood a ruined village caught in the torment of the lines. Here and there, in some twenty or thirty places scattered over the scarred plateau, the smoke of trench shells rose in little curling puffs of gray-black that quickly dissolved in the wind.
Fig. 4. The Quart-en-Réserve............Fig. 5. Ready for gas---a brazier and a
.............................................................bottle of gasolene. Hot air causes the
.............................................................gas to ascend.
"The Quart is never quiet," said my guide. " It is now half ours, half theirs."
Close to the ground, a blot of light flashed swifter than a stroke of lightning, and a heavier, thicker smoke rolled away.
"That is one of ours. We are answering their trench shells with an occasional 'one hundred and twenty.'"
"How on earth is it that everybody is not killed?"
"Because the regiment has occupied the Quart so long that we know every foot, every turn, every shelter of it. When we see a trench shell coming, we know just where to go. It is only the newcomers who get killed. Two months past, when a new regiment occupied the Quart during our absence en repos, it lost twenty-five men in one day."
The first trench that I entered was a simple trench about seven feet deep, with no trimmings whatsoever, just such a trench as might have been dug for the accommodation of a large water conduit. We walked on a narrow board walk very slippery with cheesy, red-brown mire. From time to time the hammer crash of a shell sounded uncomfortably near, and bits of dirt and pebbles, dislodged by the concussion, fell from the wall of the passage. The only vista was the curving wall of the long communication trench and the soft sky of Lorraine, lit with the pleasant sunlight of middle afternoon, and islanded with great golden-white cloud masses. My guide and I might have been the last persons left in a world of strange and terrible noises. The boyau (communication trench) began to turn and wind about in the most perplexing manner, and we entered a veritable labyrinth. This extraordinary, baffling complexity is due primarily to the fact that the trenches advance and retreat, rise and fall, in order to take advantage of the opportunities for defense afforded by every change in the topography of the region. I remember one area along the front consisting of two round, grassy hills divided by a small, grassy valley whose floor rose gently to a low ridge connecting the two heights. In this terrain the defensive line began on the first hill as a semicircle edging the grassy slopes presented to the enemy, then retreated, sinking some forty feet, to take advantage of the connecting link of upland at the head of the ravine, and took semicircular form again on the flat, broad summit of the second hill. In the meadows at the base of these hills a brook flowing from the ravine had created a great swamp, somewhat in the shape of a wedge pointing outward from the mouth of the valley. The lines of the enemy, edging this tract of mire, were consequently in the shape of an open V. Thus the military situation at this particular point may be pictorially represented by a salient semicircle, a dash, and another salient semicircle faced by a wide, open V. Imagine such a situation complicated by offensive and counter-offensive, during which the French have seized part of the hills and the German part of the plain, till the whole region is a madman's maze of barbed wire, earthy lines, trenches, --- some of them untenable by either side and still full of the dead who fell in the last combat, --- shell holes, and fortified craters. Such was something of the situation in that wind-swept plain at the edge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. I leave for other chapters the account of an average day in the trenches and the story of the great German attack, preferring to tell here of the general impressions made by the appearance of the trenches themselves. Two pictures stand out, particularly, the dead on the barbed wire, and the village called "Fey aux Rats" at night.
"The next line is the first line. Speak in whispers now, for if the Boches hear us we shall get a shower of hand-grenades."
I turned into a deep, wide trench whose floor had been trodden into a slop of cheesy, brown mire which clung to the big hobnailed boots of the soldiers. Every foot or so along the parapet there was a rifle slit, made by the insertion of a wedge-shaped wooden box into the wall of brownish sandbags, and the sentries stood about six feet apart. The trench had the hushed quiet of a sickroom.
"Do you want to see the Boches? Here; come, put your eye to this rifle slit."
A horizontal tangle of barbed wire lay before me, the shapeless gully of an empty trench, and, thirty-five feet away, another blue-gray tangle of barbed wire and a low ripple of the brownish earth. As I looked, one of the random silences of the front stole swiftly into the air. French trench and German trench were perfectly silent; you could have heard the ticking of a watch.
"You never see them?"
"Only when we attack them or they attack us."
An old poilu, with a friendly smile revealing a jagged reef of yellow teeth, whispered to me amiably: --
"See them? Good Lord, it's bad enough to smell them. You ought to thank the good God, young man, that the wind is carrying it over our heads."
"Any wounded to-day?
"Yes; a corporal had his leg ripped up about half an hour ago."
At a point a mile or so farther down the moor I looked again out of a rifle box. No Man's Land had widened to some three hundred feet of waving furze, over whose surface gusts of wind passed as over the surface of the sea. About fifty feet from the German trenches was a swathe of barbed wire supported on a row of five stout, wooden posts. So thickly was the wire strung that the eye failed to distinguish the individual filaments and saw only the rows of brown-black posts filled with a steely purple mist. Upon this mist hung masses of weather-beaten blue rags whose edges waved in the wind.
"Des camarades" (comrades), said my guide very quietly.
A month later I saw the ruined village of Fey-en-Haye by the light of the full golden shield of the Hunters' Moon. The village had been taken from the Germans in the spring, and was now in the French lines, which crossed the village street and continued right on through the houses. "The first village on the road to Metz" had tumbled, in piles and mounds of rubbish, out on a street grown high with grass. Moonlight poured into the roofless cottages, escaping by shattered walls and jagged rents, and the mounds of débris took on fantastic outlines and cast strange shadows. In the middle of the village street stood two wooden crosses marking the graves of soldiers. It was the Biblical "Abomination of Desolation."
Looking at Fey from the end of the village street, I slowly realized that it was not without inhabitants. Wandering through the grass, scurrying over the rubbish heaps, running in and out of the crumbling thresholds were thousands and thousands of rats.
Across the bright sky came a whirring hum, the sound of the motors of aeroplanes on the way to bombard the railroad station at Metz. I looked up, but there was nothing to be seen. The humming died away. The bent signpost at the corner of the deserted moorland road, with its arrow and its directions, somehow seemed a strange, shadowy symbol of the impossibility of the attainment of many human aspirations.
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