MESSIEURS LES POILUS DE LA GRANDE GUERRE
THE word "poilu," now applied to a French soldier, means literally "a hairy one," but the term is understood metaphorically. Since time immemorial the possession of plenty of bodily hair has served to indicate a certain sturdy, male bearishness, and thus the French, long before the war, called any good, powerful fellow --- "un véritable poilu." The term has been found applied to soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. The French soldier of to-day, coming from the trenches looking like a well-digger, but contented, hearty, and strong, is the poilu par excellence.
The origin of the term "Boche," meaning a German, has been treated in a thousand articles, and controversy has raged over it. The probable origin of the term, however, lies in the Parisian slang word "caboche," meaning an ugly head. This became shortened to "Boche," and was applied to foreigners of Germanic origin, in exactly the way that the American-born laborer applies the contemptuous term "square-head" to his competitors from northern Europe. The word "Boche" cannot be translated by anything except "Boche," any more than our word "Wop," meaning an Italian, can be turned into French. The same attitude, half banter, half race contempt, lies at the heart of both terms.
When the poilus have faced the Boches for two weeks in the trenches, they march down late at night to a village behind the lines, far enough away from the batteries to be out of danger of everything except occasional big shells, and near enough to be rushed up to the front in case of an attack. There they are quartered in houses, barns, sheds, and cellars, in everything that can decently house and shelter a man. These two weeks of repos are the poilus' elysium, for they mean rest from strain, safety, and comparative comfort. The English have behind their lines model villages with macadam roads, concrete sidewalks, a water system, a sewer system, and all kinds of schemes to make the soldiers happy; the French have to be contented with an ordinary Lorraine village, kept in good order by the Medical Corps, but quite destitute of anything as chic as the British possess. The village of cantonnement is pretty sure to be the usual brown-walled, red roofed village of Lorraine clumped round its parish church or mouldering castle. In such a French village there is always a hall, usually over the largest wineshop, called the "Salle de Fêtes," and this hall serves for the concert each regiment gives while en repos. The Government provides for, indeed insists upon, a weekly bath, and the bath house, usually some converted factory or large shed, receives its daily consignments of companies, marching up to the douches as solemnly as if they were going to church. Round the army continues the often busy life of the village, for to many such a hamlet the presence of a multitude of soldiers is a great economic boon. Groceryshops, in particular, do a rushing business, for any soldier who has a sou is glad to vary the government menu with such delicacies as pâtés de foie gras, little sugar biscuits, and the well-beloved tablet of chocolate. While the grocery-man (l'épicier) is fighting somewhere in the north or in the Argonne, madame l'épicière stays at home and serves the customers. At her side is her own father, an old fellow wearing big yellow sabots, and perhaps the grocer's son and heir, a boy about twelve years old. Madame is dressed entirely in black, not because she is in mourning, but because it is the rural fashion; she wears a knitted shoulder cape, a high black collar, and moves in a brisk, businesslike way; the two men wear the bluecheck overalls persons of their calling affect, in company with very clean white collars and rather dirty, frayed bow ties of unlovely patterns. Along the counter stand the poilus, young, old, small, and large, all wearing various fadings of the horizon blue, and helmets often dented. "Some pâté de foie gras, madame, s'il vous plaît." "Oui, monsieur." "How much is this cheese, maman?" cries the boy in a shrill treble. In the barrel-haunted darkness at the rear of the shop, the old man fumbles round for some tins of jelly. The poilu is very fond of sweets. Sometimes swish bang! a big shell comes in unexpectedly, and shopkeepers and clients hurry, at a decent tempo, to the cellar. There, in the earthy obscurity, one sits down on empty herring-boxes and vegetable cases to wait calmly for the exasperating Boches to finish their nonsense. There is a smell of kerosene oil and onions in the air. A lantern, always on hand for just such an emergency, burns in a corner.
"Have you had a bad time in the trenches this week, Monsieur Levrault?" says the épicière to a big, stolid soldier who is a regular customer.
"No, quite passable, Madame Champaubert." "And Monsieur Petticollot, how is he?"
"Very well, thank you, madame. His captain was killed by a rifle grenade last week."
"Oh, the poor man."
Crash goes a shell. Everybody wonders where it has fallen. In a few seconds the éclats rain down into the street.
"Dirty animals," says the voice of the old man in the darkest of all the corners.
Madame Champaubert begins the story of how a cousin of hers who keeps a grocery-shop at Mailly, near the frontier, was cheated by a Boche tinware salesman. The cellar listens sympathetically. The boy says nothing, but keeps his eyes fixed on the soldiers. In about twenty minutes the bombardment ends, and the bolder ones go out to ascertain the damage. The soldier's purchases are lying on the counter. These he stuffs into his musette, the cloth wallet beloved of the poilu, and departs. The colonel's cook comes in; he has got hold of a good ham and wants to deck it out with herbs and capers. Has madame any capers? While she is getting them, the colonel's cook retails the cream of all the regimental gossip.
These people of Lorraine who have stayed behind, "Lorrains," the French term them, are thoroughly French, though there is some German blood in their veins. This Teuton addition is of very ancient date, being due to the constant invasions which have swept up the valley of the Moselle. This intermingling of the races, however, continued right up to 1870, but since then the union of French and German stock has been rare. It was most frequent, perhaps, during the years between 1804 and 1850, when Napoleon's domination of the principalities and states along the Rhine led to a French social and commercial invasion of Rhenish Germany, an invasion which ended only with the growth of German nationalism. The middle classes in particular intermarried because they were more apt to be engaged in commerce. But since 1870, two barriers, one geographic --- annexed Lorraine, and one intellectual --- hatred, have kept the neighbors apart. The Lorrain of to-day, no matter what his ancestors were, is a thorough Frenchman. These Lorrains are between medium height and tall, strongly built, with light, tawny hair, good color, and a brownish complexion.
The poilus who come to the village en repos are from every part of France, and are of all ages between nineteen and forty-five. I remember seeing a boy aged only fourteen who had enlisted, and was a regular member of an artillery regiment. The average regiment includes men of every class and caste, for every Frenchman who can shoulder a gun is in the war. Thus the dusty little soldier who is standing by Poste A, may be So-and-So the sculptor, the next man to him is simple Jacques who has a little farm near Bourges, and the man beyond, Émile, the notary's clerk. It is, this amazing fraternity that makes the French army the greatest army in the world. The officers of a regiment of the active forces (by l'armée active you are to understand the army actually in the garrisons and under arms from year to year) are army officers by profession; the officers of the reserve regiments are either retired officers of the regular army or men who have voluntarily followed the severe courses in the officers' training-school. Thus the colonel and three of the commandants of a certain regiment were ex-officers of the regular army, while all the other officers, captains, lieutenants, and so forth, were citizens who followed civilian pursuits. Captain X was a famous lawyer, Captain B a small merchant in a little known provincial town, Captain C a photographer. Any Frenchman who has the requisite education can become an officer if he is willing to devote more of his time, than is by law required, to military service. Thus the French army is the soul of democracy, and the officer understands, and is understood by, his men. The spirit of the French army is remarkably fraternal, and this fraternity is at once social and mystical. It has a social origin, for the poilus realize that the army rests on class justice and equal opportunity; it has a mystical strength, because war has taught the men that it is only the human being that counts, and that comradeship is better than insistence on the rights and virtues of pomps and prides. After having been face to face with death for two years, a man learns something about the true values of human life.
The men who tramp into the village at one and two o'clock in the morning are men who have for two weeks been under a strain that two years of experience has robbed of its tensity. But strain it is, nevertheless, as the occasional carrying of a maniac reveals. They know very well why they are fighting; even the most ignorant French laborer has some idea as to what the affair is all about. The Boches attacked France who was peacefully minding her own business; it was the duty of all Frenchmen to defend France, so everybody went to the war. And since the war has gone on for so long, it must be seen through to the very end. Not a single poilu wants peace or is ready for peace. And the French, unlike the English, have continually under their eyes the spectacle of their devastated land. Yet I heard no ferocious talk about the Germans, no tales of French cruelty toward German prisoners. Nevertheless, a German prisoner who had been taken in the Bois-le-Prêtre confessed to me a horror of the French breaking through into Germany. Looking round to see if any one was listening, he said in English, for he was an educated man --- "just remember the French Revolution. Just remember the French Revolution. God! what cruelties. You remember Carrier at Nantes, don't you, my dear sir? All the things we are said to have done in Belgium---" But here the troop of prisoners was hurried to one side, and I never saw the man again. An army will always have all kinds of people in it, the good, the bad, the degenerate, the depraved, the brutal; and these types will act according to their natures. But I can't imagine several regiments of French poilus doing in little German towns what the Germans did at Nomény.
The backbone of the French army, as he is the backbone of France, is the French peasant. In spite of De Maupassant's ugly tales of the Norman country people, and Zola's studies of the sordid, almost bestial, life of certain unhappy, peasant families, the French peasant (cultivateur) is a very fine fellow. He has three very good qualities, endurance, patience, and willingness to work. Apart from these characteristics, he is an excellent fellow by himself; not jovial, to be sure, but solid, self-respecting, and glad to make friends when there is a chance that the friendship will be a real one. He does not care very much for the working men of the towns, the ouvriers, with their fantastic theories of universal brotherhood and peace, and he hates the député whom the working man elects as he hates a vine fungus. A needless timidity, some fear of showing himself off as a simpleton, has kept him from having his just influence in French politics; but the war is freeing him from these shackles, and when peace comes, he will make himself known: that is, if there are any peasants left to vote. Another thing about the peasantry is that trench warfare does not weary them, the constant contact with the earth having nothing unusual in it. A friend of mine, the younger son of a great landed family of the province of Anjou, was captain of a company almost exclusively composed of peasants of his native region; he loved them as if they were his children, and they would follow him anywhere. The little company, almost to a man, was wiped out in the battles round Verdun. In a letter I received from this officer, a few days before his death, he related this anecdote. His company was waiting, in a new trench in a new region, for the Germans to attack. Suddenly the tension was relieved by a fierce little discussion carried on entirely in whispers. His soldiers appeared to be studying the earth of the trench. "What's the trouble about? " he asked. Came the answer, "They are quarreling as to whether the earth of this trench would best support cabbages or turnips."
It is rare to find a French workman (ouvrier) in the trenches. They have all been taken out and sent home to make shells.
The little group to which I was most attached, and for whose hospitality and friendly greeting I shall always be a debtor, consisted of Belin, a railroad clerk; Bonnefon, a student at the École des Beaux-Arts; Magne, a village schoolmaster in the Dauphiné; and Grétry, proprietor of a butcher's shop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Belin and Magne had violins which they left in the care of a café-keeper in the village, and used to play on them just before dinner. The dinner was served in the house of the village woman who prepared the food of these four, for sous-officiers are entitled to eat by themselves if they can find any one kind enough to look after the cooking. If they can't, then they have to rely entirely on the substantial but hardly delicious cuisine of their regimental cuistôt. However, at this village, Madame Brun, the widow of the local carpenter, had offered to take the popotte, as the French term an officer's mess. We ate in a room half parlor, half bedchamber, decorated exclusively with holy pictures. This was a good specimen menu --- bread, vermicelli soup, apple fritters, potato salad, boiled beef, red wine, and coffee. Of this dinner, the Government furnished the potatoes, the bread, the meat, the coffee, the wine, and the condiments; private purses paid for the fritters, the vermicelli, and the bits of onion in the salad. Standing round their barns the private soldiers were having a tasty stew of meat and potatoes cooked by the field kitchen, bread, and a cupful of boiled lentils (known in the array as "edible bedbugs"), all washed down with the array pinard, or red wine.
This village in which the troops were lodged revealed in an interesting way the course of French history. Across the river on a rise was a cross commemorating the victory of the Emperor Jovin over the invading Germans in 371, and sunken in the bed of the Moselle were still seen lengths of Roman dikes. The heart of the village, however, was the corpse of a fourteenth-century castle which Richelieu had dismantled in 1630. Its destiny had been a curious one. Dismantled by Richelieu, sacked in the French Revolution, it had finally become a kind of gigantic mediaeval apartment house for the peasants of the region. The salle d'honneur was cut up into little rooms, the room of the seigneur became a haymow, and the cellars of the towers were used to store potatoes in. About twenty little chimneys rose over the old, dilapidated battlements. A haymow in this castle was the most picturesque thing I ever saw in a cantonment. It was the wreck of a lofty and noble fifteenth-century room, the ceiling, still a rich red brown, was supported on beautiful square beams, and a cross-barred window of the Renaissance, of which only the stonework remained, commanded a fine view over the river. The walls of the room were of stone, whitewashed years before, and the floor was an ordinary barn floor made of common planks and covered with a foot of new, clean hay. In the center of the southern wall was a Gothic fireplace, still black and ashy within. On the corners of this mantel hung clusters of canteens, guns were stacked by it, and a blue overcoat was rolled up at its base. An old man, the proprietor of the loft, followed us up, made signs that he was completely deaf, and traced in the dust on the floor the date, 1470.
The concerts were held in the "Salle de Fêtes," a hall in which, during peace time, the village celebrates its little festivals. It was an ugly, bare shed with a sloping roof resting on iron girders painted clay white, but the poilus had beautified it with a home-made stage and rustic greenery. The proscenium arch, painted by Bonnefon, was pearl-gray in color and decorated with panels of gilt stripes; and a shield showing the lictor's rods, a red liberty cap and the letters "R. F." served as a headpiece. The scenery, also the work of Bonnefon, represented a Versailles kind of garden full of statues and very watery fountains. There was no curtain. just below the stage a semicircle of chairs had been arranged for the officers of the regiment, and behind these were wooden benches and a large space for standing room. By the time the concert was supposed to begin, every bench was filled, and standing room was at a premium. Suddenly there were cries of "Le Colonel," and everybody stood up as the fine-looking old colonel and his staff took their places. The orchestra, composed of a pianist, a few violinists, and a fluteplayer, began to play the "Marseillaise." When the music was over, and everybody decently quiet, the concert began.
"Le Camarade Tollot, of the Théâtre des Variétés de Paris will recite 'Le Dernier Drapeau,'" shouted the announcer. Le Camarade Tollot walked on the stage and bowed, a big, important young man with a lion's mane of dark hair. Then, striking an attitude, he recited in the best French, ranting style, a rhymed tale of a battle in which many regiments charged together, flags flying. One by one the flags fell to the ground as the bearers were cut down by the withering fire of the enemy; all save one who struggled on. It was a fine, old-fashioned, dramatic "will-he-get-there-yes-he-will-he-fails" sort of thing. "Il tombe," said le Camarade Tollot, in what used to be called the "oratorical orotund" --- "il tombe." There was a full pause. He was wounded. He rose staggering to his feet. All the other flags were down. He advanced --- the last flag (le dernier drapeau) reached the enemy --- and died just as his comrades, heartened by his courage, had rallied and were charging to victory. A tremendous storm of applause greeted the speaker, who favored us with the recital of a short, sentimental poem as an encore.
The next number was thus announced: "Le Camarade Millet will sound, first, all the French bugle-calls and then the Boche ones." Le Camarade Millet, a big man with a fine horseshoe beard, stood at the edge of the stage, said, "la Charge français" and blew it on the bugle; then "la Charge boche," and blew that. "La Retraite français---La Retraite boche," etc. Another salvo of applause was given to le Camarade Millet.
"Le Camarade Roland."
Le Camarade Roland was about twenty-one or two years old, but his eyes were old and wise, and he had evidently seen life. He was dark-haired and a little below medium height. The red scar of a wound appeared just below his left ear. After marking time with his feet, he began a kind of patter song about having a telephone, every verse of which ended, " Oh, la la, j'ai le telephone chez moi " (I've a telephone in my house). " I know who is unfaithful now ---who have horns upon their brow," the singer told of surprising secrets and unsuspected affaires de coeur. The silly, music-hall song may seem banal now, but it amused us hugely then.
"Le Camarade Duclos."
Oh, if you could have seen your son,
My mother, my mother,
Oh, if you could have seen your son,
With the regiment " --
sang Camarade Duclos, another old-eyed youngster. There was amiable adventure with an amiable "blonde " (oh, if you could have seen your son); another with a " jolie brune " (oh, ma mère, ma mère); and still another leçon d'amour. The refrain had a catchy lilt to it, and the poilus began humming it.
"Le Camarade Salvatore."
The newcomer was a big, obese Corsican mountaineer, with a pleasant, round face and brown eyes. He advanced quietly to the side of the stage holding a ten-sou tin flute in his hand, and when he began to play, for an instant I forgot all about the Bois-le-Prétre, the trenches, and everything else. The man was a born musician. I never heard anything more tender and sweet than the little melody he played. The poilus listened in profound silence, and when he had finished, a kind of sigh exhaled from the hearts of the audience.
There followed another singer, a violinist, and a clown whose song of a soldier on furlough finished with these appreciated couplets: --
"The Government says it is the thing
To have a baby every spring;
So when your son
He'll come to the trenches and take papa's place.
So do your duty by the race."
In the uproar of cheers of "That's right," and so on, the concert ended.
The day after the concert was Sunday, and at about ten o'clock that morning a young soldier with a fluffy, yellow chin beard came down the muddy street shouting, "le Mouchoir, le Mouchoir." About two or three hundred paper sheets were clutched tightly in his left hand, and he was selling them for a sou apiece. Little groups of poilus gathered round the soldier newsboy; I saw some of them laughing as they went away. The paper was the trench paper of the Bois-le-Prêtre, named the "Mouchoir" (the handkerchief) from a famous position thus called in the Bois. The jokes in it were like the jokes in a local minstrel show, puns on local names, jests about the Boches, and good-humored satire. The spirit of the "Mouchoir" was whole-heartedly amateur. Thus the issue which followed a heavy snowfall contained this genuine wish: --
Leave the trench
Of the French;
Cross the band
Of No Man's Land
To where the Boche lies.
Till the beggar dies."
This is far from an exact translation, but the idea and the spirit have been faithfully preserved.
Fig. 9. The trench journal of the Bois-de-Prêtre (front)
The " Mouchoir " was always a bit more squeamish than the average, rollicking trench journal, for it was issued by a group of medical service men who were almost all priests. Indeed, there were some issues that combined satire, puns, and piety in a terrifying manner. Its editors printed it in the cellar of the church, using a simple sheet of gelatine for their press.
I wandered in to see the church. The usual number of civilians were to be seen, and a generous sprinkling of soldiers. Through the open door of the edifice the sounds of a mine-throwing competition at the Bois occasionally drifted. The abbé, a big, dark man of thirty-four or five, with a deep, resonant voice and positive gestures, had come to the sermon.
"Brethren," said he, "in place of a sermon this morning, I shall read the annual exposition of our Christian faith" (exposition de la foi chrétienne). He began reading from a little book a historical account of the creation and the temptation, and so concise was the language and so certain his voice that I had the sensation of listening to a series of events that had actually taken place. He might have been reading the communiqué. "Le premier homme was called Adam, and la première femme, Eve. Certain angels began a revolt against God; they are called the bad angels or the demons. " (Certains anges se sont mis en révolte contre Dieu; il sont appellés les mauvais anges ou les démons.) " And from. this original sin arrives all the troubles, Death to which the human race is subjected." Such was the discourse I heard in the church by the trenches to the accompaniment of the distant chanting of The Wood.
Going by again late in the afternoon, I saw the end of an officer's funeral. The body, in a wooden box covered with the tricolor, was being carried out between two files of muddy soldiers, who stood at attention, bayonets fixed. A peasant's cart, a tumbril, was waiting to take the body to the cemetery; the driver was having a hard time controlling a foolish and restive horse. The colonel, a fine-looking man in the sixties, came last from the church, and stood on the steps surrounded by his officers. The dusk was falling.
"Officiers, sous-officiers, soldats.
"Lieutenant de Blanchet, whose death we deplore, was a gallant officer, a true comrade, and a loyal Frenchman. In order that France might live, he was willing to close his eyes on her forever."
Fig. 10. The trench journal of Bois-le-Prêtre (reverse)
The officer advanced to the tumbril and holding his hand high said: -9-
"Farewell --- de Blanchet, we say unto thee the eternal adieu."
The door of the church was wide open. The sacristan put out the candles, and the smoke from them rose like incense into the air. The tumbril rattled away in the dusk. My mind returned again to the phrases of the sermon, ---original sin, death, life, of a sudden, seemed strangely grotesque.
It would be hard to find any one more courteous and kind than the French officer. A good deal of the success of the American Ambulance Field Sections in France is due to the hospitality and bon accueil of the French, and to the work of the French officers attached to the Sections. In Lieutenant Kuhlman, who commanded at Pont-à-Mousson, every American had a good friend and tactful, hard-working officer; in Lieutenant Maas, who commanded at Verdun, the qualities of administrative ability and perfect courtesy were most happily joined.
The principal characteristic of the French soldier is his reasonableness.
PREPARING THE DEFENSE OF VERDUN
EVERY three months, if the military situation will allow of it and every other man in his group has likewise been away, the French soldier gets a six days' furlough. The slips of paper which are then given out are called feuilles de permission, and the lucky soldier is called a permissionnaire. When the combats that gave the Bois-le-Prêtre its sinister nickname began to peter out, the poilus who had done the fighting were accorded these little vacations, and almost every afternoon the straggling groups of joyous permissionnaires were seen on the road between the trenches and the station. The expression on the faces was never that of having been rescued from a living hell; it expressed joy and prospect of a good time rather than deliverance.
When I got my permission, a comrade took me to the station at a certain rail-head where a special train started for Paris, and by paying extra I was allowed to travel second class. I shall not dwell on the journey because I did not meet a single human being worth recording during the trip. At eight at night I arrived in Paris. So varied had been my experiences at the front that had I stepped out into a dark and deserted city I should not have been surprised. The poilu, when he sees the city lights again, almost feels like saying, "Why, it is still here! " Many of them look frankly at the women, not in the spirit of gallant adventure, but out of pure curiosity. In spite of the French reputation for roguish licentiousness, the sex question never seems to intrude very much along the battle-line, perhaps because there is so little to suggest it. Certainly conversation at the front ignores sex altogether, and speech there is remarkably decent and clean. Of course, when music-hall songs are sung at the concerts, the other sex is sometimes more than casually mentioned. It is the comic papers which are responsible for the myth that the period of furlough is spent in a Roman orgy; this is, of course, true of some few, but for the great majority the reverse rules, and une permission is spent in a typically French way, paying formal calls to the oldest friends of the family, being with the family as much as possible, and attending to such homely affairs as the purchase of socks and underclothes. In the evening brave Jacques or Georges or François is visited by all his old cronies, who gather round the hero and ask him questions, and he is solemnly kissed by all his relatives. One evening is sure to be consecrated to a grand family reunion at a restaurant.
I determined to observe, during my permission, the new France which has come into being since the outbreak of the war, and the attitude of the French toward their allies. I knew the old France pretty well. Putting any ridiculous ideas of French decadence aside, the France of the last ten years did not have the international standing of an older France. The Delcassé incident had revealed a France evidently untaught by the lesson of 1870, and if the Moroccan question ended in a French victory, it was frankly won by getting behind the petticoats of England. The nation was unprepared for war, torn by political strife, and in a position to be ruthlessly trampled on by the Germans. The France of 1900-13 is not a very pleasant France to remember.
For one thing, the bitter strife aroused by the breaking of the Concordat and the seizure of the property of the Church was slowly crystallizing into an icy hatred, the worst in the world, the hatred of a man who has been robbed. The Church Separation Law may have been right in theory, and with the liberal tendencies of the reformers one may have every sympathy, but the fact remains that the sale and dispersion of the ecclesiastical property passed in a storm of corruption and graft. Properties worth many thousands of dollars were juggled among political henchmen, sold for a song, and sold again at a great profit. Even as the Southerners complain of the Reconstruction rather than of the Civil War, so do the French Catholics complain, not of the law, but of its aftermath. The Socialist-Labor Party exultant, the Catholic Party wronged and revengeful, and all the other thousand parties of the French Government at one another's throats, there seemed little hope for the real France. The tragedy of the thing lay in the fact that this disunion and strife was caused by the excess of a good quality; in other words, that the remarkable ability of every Frenchman to think for himself was destroying the national unity.
Meanwhile, what was the state of the army and navy?
The Minister of War of the radicals who had triumphed was General André, a narrow, bigoted doctrinaire. The force behind the evil work of this man can be hardly realized by those who are unfamiliar with the passion with which the French invest the idea. There are times when the French, the most brilliant people in the world as a nation, seem to lack mental brakes --- when the idea so obsesses them, that they become fanatics, --- not the emotional, English type of fanatic, but a cold, hard-headed, intellectual Latin type. The radical Frenchman says, "Are the Gospels true?" "Presumably no, according to modern science and historical research." "Then away with everything founded on the Gospels," he replies; and begins a cold-blooded, highly intellectual campaign of destruction. Thus it is that the average French church or public building of any antiquity, whether it be in Paris or in an obscure village, has been so often mutilated that it is only a shadow of itself. France is strewn with wrecks of buildings embodying disputed ideas. And worst of all, these buildings were rarely sacked by a mob; the revolutionary commune, in many cases, paying laborers to smash windows and destroy sculpture at so much a day.
André believed it his mission to extirpate all conservatism, whether Catholic or not, from the army. In a few short months, by a campaign of delation and espionage, he had completely disorganized the army, the only really national institution left in France. Officers of standing, suspected of any reactionary political tendency, were discharged by the thousand; and officers against whom no charge could be brought were refused ammunition, even though they were stationed at a ticklish point on the frontier. At the same time a like disorganization was taking place in the navy, the evil genius of the Marine being the Minister Camille Pelletan.
Those who saw, in 1912, the ceremonies attendant on the deposition of the bones of Jean Jacques Rousseau in the Pantheon were sick at heart. Never had the Government of France sunk so low. The Royalists shouted, the extreme radicals hooted, and when the carriage of Fallières passed, it was seen that humorists had somehow succeeded in writing jocose inscriptions on the presidential carriage. The head of the French nation, a short, pudgy man, the incarnation of pontifying mediocrity, went by with an expression on his face like that of a terrified, elderly, pink rabbit. The bescrawled carriage and its humiliated occupant passed by to an accompaniment of jeering. Everybody ----parties and populace --- was jeering. The scene was disgusting.
The election of Poincaré, a man of genuine distinction, was a sign of better times. Millerand became Minister of War, and began the reorganization of the army, thus making possible the victory of the Marne. But a petty intrigue led by a group of radicals caused the resignation of this minister at a time when the First Balkan War threatened to engulf Europe. The maneuver was inexcusable. Messimy, an attaché of the group who had led the attack, took Millerand's place. When the war broke out, Messimy was invited to make himself scarce, and Millerand returned to his post. Thanks to him, the army was as ready as an army in a democratic country can be.
The France of 1915-16 is a new France. The nation has learned that if it is to live it must cease tearing itself to pieces, and all parties are united in a " Holy Union" (I'Union Sacrée). Truce in the face of a common danger or a real union? Will it last? Alarmists whisper that when the war is over, the army will settle its score with the politicians. Others predict a great victory for the radicals, because the industrial classes are safe at home making shells while the conservative peasants are being killed off in the trenches. Everybody in France is saying, "What will happen when the army comes home?" There is to-day only one man in France completely trusted by all classes --- General Joffre, and if by any chance there should be political troubles after the war, the army and the nation will look to him.
The French fully realize what the English alliance has meant to them, and are grateful for English aid. As the titanic character of England's mighty effort becomes clearer, the sympathy with England will increase. Of course one cannot expect the French to understand the state of mind which insists upon a volunteer system in the face of the deadliest and most terrible foe. The attitude of the English to sport has rather perplexed them, and they did not like the action of some English officers in bringing a pack of hounds to the Flanders front. It was thought that officers should be soldiers first and sportsmen afterward, and the knowledge that dilettante English officers were riding to hounds while the English nation was resisting conscription and Jean, Jacques, and Pierre were doing the fighting and dying in the trenches, provoked a secret and bitter disdain.
But since the British have got into the war as a nation, this secret disdain has been forgotten, and the poilu has taken "le Tommie" to his heart.
I heard only the friendliest criticism of the Russians.
It is a rather delicate task to say what the French think of the Americans, for the real truth is that they think of us but rarely. Our quarrel with Germany over the submarines interested them somewhat, but this interest rapidly died away when it became evident that we were not going to do anything about it. They see our flag over countless charity dépôts, hospitals, and benevolent institutions, and are grateful. The poilu would be glad to see us in the fray simply because of the aid we should bring, but he is reasonable enough to know that the United States can keep out of the mêlée without losing any moral prestige. The only hostile criticism of America that I heard came from doctrinaires who saw the war as a conflict between autocracy and democracy, and if you grant that this point of view is the right one, these thinkers have a right to despise us. But the Frenchman knows that the Allies represent something more than " virtue-on-a-rampage."
In Lyons I saw a sight at once ludicrous and pathetic. Two little dragoons of the class of 94, stripling boys of eighteen or nineteen at the most, walked across the public square; their uniforms were too large for them, the skirts of their great blue mantles barely hung above the dust of the street, and their enormous warlike helmets and flowing horse-tails were ill-suited to their boyish heads. As I looked at them, I thought of the blue bundles I had seen drying upon the barbed wire, and felt sick at the brutality of the whole awful business. The sun was shining over the bluish mists of Lyons, and the bell of old Saint-Jean was ringing. Two Zouaves, stone blind, went by guided by a little, fat infirmier. At the frontier, the General Staff was preparing the defense of Verdun.
One great nation, for the sake of a city valueless from a military point of view, was preparing to kill several hundred thousand of its citizens, and another great nation, anxious to retain the city, was preparing calmly for a parallel hecatomb.
There is something awful and dreadful about the orderliness of a great offensive, for while one's imagination is grasped by the grandeur and the organization of the thing, all one's faculties of intellect are revolted by the stark brutality of death en masse.
Early in February we were called to Bar-le-Duc, a pleasant old city some distance behind Verdun. Several hundred thousand men were soon going to be killed and wounded, and the city was in a feverish haste of preparation. So many thousand cans of ether, so many thousand pounds of lint, so many million shells, so many ambulances, so many hundred thousand litres of gasoline. Nobody knew when the Germans were going to strike.
During the winter great activity in the German trenches near Verdun had led the French to expect an attack, but it was not till the end of January that aeroplane reconnoitering made certain the imminence of an offensive. As a first step in countering it, the French authorities prepared in the villages surrounding Bar-le-Duc a number of dépôts for troops, army supplies, and ammunition. Of this organization, Bar-le-Duc was the key. The preparations for the counter-attack were there centralized. Day after day convoys of motor-lorries carrying troops ground into town and disappeared to the eastward; big mortars mounted on trucks came rattling over the pavements to go no one knew where; and khaki-clad troops, troupes d'attaque, tanned Marocains and chunky, bull-necked Zouaves, crossed the bridge over the Ornain and marched away. At the turn in the road a new transparency had been erected, with VERDUN printed on it in huge letters. Now and then a soldier, catching sight of it, would nudge his comrade.
On the 18th we were told to be in readiness to go at any minute and permissions to leave the barrack yard were recalled.
The attack began with an air raid on Bar-le-Duc. I was working on my engine in the sunlit barrack yard when I heard a muffled Pom! somewhere to the right. Two French drivers who were putting a tire on their car jumped up with a "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça? " We stood together looking round. Beyond a wall on the other side of the river great volumes of brownish smoke were rolling up, and high in the air, brown and silvery, like great locusts, were two German aeroplanes.
"Nom d'un chien, il y'en a plusieurs," said one of the Frenchmen, pointing out four, five, seven, nine aeroplanes. One seemed to hang immobile over the barrack yard. I fancy we all had visions of what would happen if a bomb hit the near-by gasoline reserve. Men ran across the yard to the shelter of the dormitories; some, caught as we were in the open, preferred to take a chance on dropping flat under a car. A whistling scream, a kind of shrill, increasing shriek, sounded in the air and ended in a crash. Smoke rolled up heavily in another direction. Another whistle, another crash, another and another and another. The last building struck shot up great tongues of flame. "C'est la gare," said somebody. Across the yard a comrade's arm beckoned me, "Come on, we've got to help put out the fires!"
The streets were quite deserted; horses and wagons abandoned to their fate were, however, quietly holding their places. Faces, emotionally divided between fear and strong interest, peered at us as we ran by, disappearing at the first whistle of a bomb, for all the world like hermitcrabs into their shells. A whistle sent us both scurrying into a passageway; the shell fell with a wicked hiss, and, scattering the paving-stones to the four winds, blew a shallow crater in the roadway. A big cart horse, hit in the neck and forelegs by fragments of the shell, screamed hideously. Right at the bridge, the sentry, an old territorial, was watching the whole scene from his flimsy box with every appearance of unconcern.
Not the station itself, but a kind of baggage-shed was on fire. A hose fed by an old-fashioned seesaw pump was being played on the flames. Officials of the railroad company ran to and fro shouting unintelligible orders. For five minutes more the German aeroplanes hovered overhead, then slowly melted away into the sky to the southeast. The raid had lasted, I imagine, just about twenty minutes.
That night, fearing another raid, all lights were extinguished in the town and at the barracks. Before rolling up in my blankets, I went out into the yard to get a few breaths of fresh air. Through the night air, rising and falling with the wind, I heard in one of the random silences of the night a low, distant drumming of artillery.
THE GREAT DAYS OF VERDUN
THE Verdun I saw in April, 1913, was an out-of-the-way provincial city of little importance outside of its situation as the nucleus of a great fortress. There were two cities --- an old one, la ville des évêques, on a kind of acropolis rising from the left bank of the Meuse, and a newer one built on the meadows of the river. Round the acropolis Vauban had built a citadel whose steep, green-black walls struck root in the mean streets and narrow lanes on the slopes. Sunless by-ways, ill-paved and sour with the odor of surface drainage, led to it. Always picturesque, the old town now and then took on a real beauty. There were fine, shield-bearing doorways of the Renaissance to be seen, Gothic windows in greasy walls, and here and there at a street corner a huddle of half-timbered houses in a high contrast of invading sunlight and retreating shade. From the cathedral parapet, there was a view of the distant forts, and a horizontal sweep of the unharvested, buff-brown moorlands.
"Un peu morte," say the French who knew Verdun before the war. The new town was without distinction. It was out of date. It had none of the glories that the province copies from Paris, no boulevards, no grandes aertères. Such life as there was, was military. Rue Mazel was bright with the gold braid and scarlet of the fournisseurs militaires, and in the late afternoon chic young officers enlivened the provincial dinginess with a brave show of handsome uniforms. All day long squads of soldiers went flick! flack! up and down the street and bugle-calls sounded piercingly from the citadel. The soldiery submerged the civil population.
With no industries of any importance, and becoming less and less of an economic center as the depopulation of the Woevre continued, Verdun lived for its garrison. A fortress since Roman days, the city could not escape its historic destiny. Remembering the citadel, the buttressed cathedral, the soldiery, and the military tradition, the visitor felt himself to be in a soldier's country strong with the memory of many wars.
The next day, at noon, we were ordered to go to M-----, and at 12.15 we were in convoy formation in the road by the barracks wall. The great route nationale from Bar-le-Duc: to Verdun runs through a rolling, buff-brown moorland, poor in villages and arid and desolate in aspect. Now it sinks through moorland valleys, now it cuts bowl-shaped depressions in which the spring rains have bred green quagmires, and now, rising, leaps the crest of a hill commanding a landscape of ocean-like immensity.
Gray segments of the road disappear ahead behind fuzzy monticules; a cloud of wood-smoke hangs low over some invisible village in a fold of the moor, and patches of woodland lie like mantles on the barren slopes. Great swathes of barbed wire, a quarter of a mile in width, advancing and retreating, rising and falling with the geographical nature of the defensive position, disappear on both sides to the horizon. And so thick is this wire spread, that after a certain distance the eye fails to distinguish the individual threads and sees only rows of stout black posts filled with a steely, purple mist.
We went though several villages, being greeted in every one with the inevitable error, Anglais! We dodged interminable motor-convoys carrying troops, the poilus sitting unconcernedly along the benches at the side, their rifles tight between their knees. At midnight we arrived at B-----, four miles and a half west of Verdun. The night was clear and bitter cold; the ice-blue winter stars were westering. Refugees tramped past in the darkness. By the sputtering light of a match, I saw a woman go by with a cat in a canary cage; the animal moved uneasily, its eyes shone with fear. A middle-aged soldier went by accompanying an old woman and a young girl. Many pushed baby carriages ahead of them full of knick-knacks and packages.
The crossroad where the ambulances turned off was a maze of beams of light from the autos. There was shouting of orders which nobody could carry out. Wounded, able to walk, passed through the beams of the lamps, the red of their bloodstains, detached against the white of the bandages, presenting the sharpest of contrasts in the silvery glare. At the station, men who had died in the ambulances were dumped hurriedly in a plot of grass by the side of the roadway and covered with a blanket. Never was there seen such a bedlam! But on the main road the great convoys moved smoothly on as if held together by an invisible chain. A smouldering in the sky told of fires in Verdun.
From a high hill between B----- and Verdun I got my first good look at the bombardment. From the edge of earth and sky, far across the moorlands, ray after ray of violet-white fire made a swift stab at the stars. Mingled with the rays, now seen here, now there, the reddish-violet semicircle of the great mortars flared for the briefest instant above the horizon. From the direction of this inferno came a loud roaring, a rumbling and roaring, increasing in volume --the sound of a great river tossing huge rocks through subterranean abysses. Every little while a great shell, falling in the city, would blow a great hole of white in the night, and so thundering was the crash of arrival that we almost expected to see the city sink into the earth.
Terrible in the desolation of the night, on fire, haunted by specters of wounded men who crept along the narrow lanes by the city walls, Verdun was once more undergoing the destinies of war. The shells were falling along rue Mazel and on the citadel. A group of old houses by the Meuse had burnt to rafters of flickering flame, and as I passed them, one collapsed into the flooded river in a cloud of hissing steam.
In order to escape shells, the wounded were taking the obscure by-ways of the town. Our wounded had started to walk to the ambulance station with the others, but, being weak and exhausted, had collapsed on the way. They were waiting for us at a little house just beyond the walls. Said one to the other, "As-tu-vu Maurice?" and the other answered without any emotion, "Il est mort."
The 24th was the most dreadful day. The wind and snow swept the heights of the desolate moor, seriously interfering with the running of the automobiles. Here and there, on a slope, a lorry was stuck in the slush, though the soldier passengers were out of it and doing their best to push it along. The cannonade was still so intense that, in intervals between the heavier snow-flurries, I could see the stabs of fire in the brownish sky. Wrapped in sheepskins and muffled to the ears in knitted scarves that might have come from New England, the territorials who had charge of the road were filling the ruts with crushed rock. Exhaustion had begun to tell on the horses; many lay dead and snowy in the frozen fields. A detachment of khaki-clad, red-fezzed colonial troops passed by, bent to the storm. The news was of the most depressing sort. The wounded could give you only the story of their part of the line, and you heard over and over again, "Nous avons reculés." A detachment of cavalry was at hand; their casques and dark-blue mantles gave them a crusading air. And through the increasing cold and darkness of late afternoon, troops, cannons, horsemen, and motor-trucks vanished toward the edge of the moor where flashed with increasing brilliance the rays of the artillery.
I saw some German prisoners for the first time at T-----, below Verdun. They had been marched down from the firing-line. Young men in the twenties for the most part, they seemed even more war-worn than the French. The hideous, helot-like uniform of the German private hung loosely on their shoulders, and the color of their skin was unhealthy and greenish. They were far from appearing starved; I noticed two or three who looked particularly sound and hearty. 'Nevertheless, they were by no means as sound-looking as the ruddier French.
The poilus crowded round to see them, staring into their faces without the least malevolence. At last --- at last --voilà enfin des Boches! A little to the side stood a strange pair, two big men wearing an odd kind of grayish protector and apron over their bodies. Against a near-by wall stood a kind of flattish tank to which a long metallic hose was attached. The French soldiers eyed them with contempt and disgust. I caught the words, "Flame-throwers!"
I do not know what we should have done at Verdun without Lieutenant Roeder, our mechanical officer. All the boys behaved splendidly, but Lieutenant Roeder had the tremendously difficult task of keeping the Section going when the rolling-stock was none too good, and fearful weather and too constant usage had reduced some of the wagons to wrecks. It was all the finer of him because he was by profession a bacteriologist. Still very young, he had done distinguished work. Simply because there was no one else to attend to the mechanical department, he had volunteered for this most tiresome and disagreeable task. There is not a single driver in Section II who .does not owe much to the friendly counsel, splendid courage, and keen mind of George Roeder.
A few miles below Verdun, on a narrow strip of meadowland between the river and the northern bluffs, stood an eighteenth-century château and the half-dozen houses of its dependents. The hurrying river had flooded the low fields and then retreated, turning the meadows and pasturages to bright green, puddly marshes, malodorous with swampy exhalations. Beyond the swirls and currents of the river and its vanishing islands of pale-green pebbles, rose the brown, deserted hills of the Hauts de Meuse. The top of one height had been pinched into the rectangle of a fortress; little forests ran along the sky-line of the heights, and a narrow road, slanting across a spur of the valley, climbed and disappeared.
The château itself was a huge, three-story box of gray-white stone with a slate roof, a little turret en poivrière at each corner, and a graceless classic doorway in the principal façade. A wide double gate, with a coronet in a tarnished gold medallion set in the iron arch-piece, gave entrance to this place through a kind of courtyard formed by the rear of the château and the walls of two low wings devoted to the stables and the servants' quarters. Within, a high clump of dark-green myrtle, ringed with muddy, rut-scarred turf, marked the theoretical limits of a driveway. Along the right-hand wall stood the rifles of the wounded, and in a corner, a great snarled pile of bayonets, belts, cartridge-boxes, gas-mask satchels, greasy tin boxes of anti-lice ointment, and dented helmets. A bright winter sunlight fell on walls dank from the river mists, and heightened the austerity of the landscape. Beyond a bend in the river lay the smoke of the battle of Douaumont; shells broke, pin-points of light, in the upper fringes of the haze.
The château had been a hospital since the beginning of the war. A heavy smell of ether and iodoform lay about it, mixed with the smell of the war. This effluvia of an army, mixed with the sharper reek of anaesthetics, was the atmosphere of the hospital. The great rush of wounded had begun. Every few minutes the ambulances slopped down a miry byway, and turned in the gates; tired, putty-faced hospital attendants took out the stretchers and the nouveaux clients; mussy bundles of blue rags and bloody blankets turned into human beings; an overworked, nervous médecin chef shouted contradictory orders at the brancardiers, and passed into real crises of hysterical rage.
"Avancez!" he would scream at the bewildered chauffeurs of the ambulances; and an instant later, "Reculez! Reculez!"
The wounded in the stretchers, strewn along the edges of the driveway, raised patient, tired eyes at his snarling.
Another doctor, a little bearded man wearing a white apron and the red velvet képi of an army physician, questioned each batch of new arrivals. Deep lines of fatigue had traced themselves under his kindly eyes; his thin face had a dreadful color. Some of the wounded had turned their eyes from the sun; others, too weak to move, lay stonily blinking. Almost expressionless, silent, they resigned themselves to the attendants as if these men were the deaf ministers of some inexorable power.
The surgeon went from stretcher to stretcher looking at the diagnosis cards attached at the poste de secours, stopping occasionally to ask the fatal question, " As-tu craché du sang? " (Have you spit blood?) A thin oldish man with a face full of hollows like that of an old horse, answered "Oui," faintly. Close by, an artilleryman, whose cannon had burst, looked with calm brown eyes out of a cooked and bluish face. Another, with a soldier's tunic thrown capewise over his naked torso, trembled in his thin blanket, and from the edges of a cotton and lint-pad dressing hastily stuffed upon a shoulder wound, an occasional drop of blood slid down his lean chest.
A little to one side, the cooks of the hospital, in their greasy aprons, watched the performance with a certain calm interest. In a few minutes the wounded were sorted and sent to the various wards. I was ordered to take three men who had been successfully operated on to the barracks for convalescents several miles away.
A highway and an unused railroad, both under heavy fire from German guns on the Hauts de Meuse, passed behind the château and along the foot of the bluffs. There were a hundred shell holes in the marshes between the road and the river, black-lipped craters in the sedgy green; there were ugly punches in the brown earth of the bluffs, and deep scoops in the surface of the road. The telephone wires, cut by shell fragments, fell in stiff, draping lines to the ground. Every once in a while a shell would fall into the river, causing a silvery gray geyser to hang for an instant above the green eddies of the Meuse. A certain village along this highway was the focal point of the firing. Many of the houses had been blown to pieces, and fragments of red tile, bits of shiny glass, and lumps of masonry were strewn all over the deserted street.
As I hurried along, two shells came over, one sliding into the river with a Hip! and the other landing in a house about two hundred yards away. A vast cloud of grayish-black smoke befogged the cottage, and a section of splintered timber came buzzing through the air and fell into a puddle. From the house next to the one struck, a black cat came slinking, paused for an indecisive second in the middle of the street, and ran back again. Through the canvas partition of the ambulance, I heard the voices of my convalescents. "No more marmites!" I cried to them as I swung down a road out of shell reach. I little knew what was waiting for us beyond the next village.
A regiment of Zouaves going up to the line was resting at the crossroad, and the regimental wagons, drawn up in waiting line, blocked the narrow road completely. At the angle between the two highways, under the four trees planted by pious custom of the Meuse, stood a cross of thick planks. From each arm of the cross, on winesoaked straps, dangled, like a bunch of grapes, a cluster of dark-blue canteens; rifles were stacked round its base, and under the trees stood half a dozen clipped-headed, bull-necked Zouaves. A rather rough-looking adjutant, with a bullet head disfigured by a frightful scar at the corner of his mouth, rode up and down the line to see if all was well. Little groups were handing round a half loaf of army bread, and washing it down with gulps of wine.
"Hello, sport!" they cried at me; and the favorite "All right," and "Tommy!"
The air was heavy with the musty smell of street mud that never dries during winter time, mixed with the odor of the tired horses, who stood, scarcely moving, backed away from their harnesses against the mire-gripped wagons. Suddenly the order to go on again was given; the carters snapped their whips, the horses pulled, the noisy, lumbering, creaky line moved on, and the men fell in behind, in any order.
I started my car again and looked for an opening through the mêlée.
Beyond the cross, the road narrowed and flanked one of the southeastern forts of the city. A meadow, which sloped gently upward from the road to the abrupt hillside of the fortress, had been used as a place of encampment and had been trodden into a surface of thick cheesy mire. Here and there were the ashes of fires. There were hundreds of such places round the moorland villages between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. The fort looked squarely down on Verdun, and over its grassy height came the drumming of the battle, and the frequent crash of big shells falling into the city.
In a corner lay the anatomical relics of some horses killed by an air-bomb the day before. And even as I noted them, I heard the muffled Pom! Pom! Pom! of anti-aircraft guns. My back was to the river and I could not see what was going on.
"What is it?" I said to a Zouave who was plodding along beside the ambulance.
"Des Boches --- crossing the river."
The regiment plodded on as before. Now and then a soldier would stop and look up at the aeroplanes.
"He's coming!" I heard a voice exclaim.
Suddenly, the adjutant whom I had seen before came galloping down the line, shouting, "Arrêtez! Arrêtez! Pas de mouvement!"
A current of tension ran down the troop with as much reality as a current of water runs down hill. I wondered whether the Boche had seen us.
"Is he approaching?" I asked.
Ahead of me was a one-horse wagon, and ahead of that a wagon with two horses carrying the medical supplies. The driver of the latter, an oldish, thick-set, wine-faced fellow, got down an instant from his wagon, looked at the Boche, and resumed his seat. A few seconds later, there sounded the terrifying scream of an air-bomb, a roar, and I found myself in a bitter swirl of smoke. The shell had fallen right between the horses of the two-horse wagon, blowing the animals to pieces, splintering the wagon, and killing the driver. Something sailed swiftly over my head, and landed just behind the ambulance. It was a chunk of the skull of one of the horses. The horse attached to the wagon ahead of me went into a frenzy of fear and backed his wagon into my ambulance, smashing the right lamp. In the twinkling of an eye, the soldiers dispersed. Some ran into the fields. Others crouched in the wayside ditch. A cart upset. Another bomb dropped screaming in a field and burst; a cloud of smoke rolled away down the meadow.
When the excitement had subsided, it was found that a soldier had been wounded. The bodies of the horses were rolled over into the ditch, the wreck of the wagon was dragged to the miry field, and the regiment went on. In a very short time I got to the hospital and delivered my convalescents.
My way home ran through the town of S-----, an ugly, overgrown village of the Verdunois, given up to the activities of the staff directing the battle. The headquarters building was the hôtel de ville, a large eighteenth-century edifice, in an acre of trampled mud a little distance from the street. Before the building flowed the great highway from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun; relays of motor lorries went by, and gendarmes, organized into a kind of traffic squad, stood every hundred feet or so. The atmosphere of S----- at the height of the battle was one of calm organization; it would not have been hard to believe that the motor-lorries and unemotional men were at the service of some great master-work of engineering. There was something of the holiday in the attitude of the inhabitants of the place; they watched the motor show exactly as they might have watched a circus parade.
"Les voilà," said somebody.
A little bemedaled group appeared on the steps of the hôtel de ville. Dominating it was Joffre. Above middle height, silver-haired, elderly, he has a certain paternal look which his eye belies; Joffre's eye is the hard eye of a commander-in-chief, the military eye, the eye of an Old Testament father if you will. De Castelnau was speaking, making no gestures --- an old man with an ashen skin, deep-set eye and great hooked nose, a long cape concealed the thick, age-settled body. Poincaré stood listening, with a look at once worried and brave, the ghost of a sad smile lingering on a sensitive mouth. Last of all came Pétain, the protégé of De Castelnau, who commanded at Verdun --- a tall, square-built man, not un-English in his appearance, with grizzled hair and the sober face of a thinker. But his mouth and jaw are those of a man of action, and the look in his gray eyes is always changing. Now it is speculative and analytic, now steely and cold.
In the shelter of a doorway stood a group of territorials, getting their first real news of the battle from a Paris newspaper. I heard "Nous avons reculé --- huit kilomètres --- le général Pétain ---" A motor-lorry drowned out the rest.
That night we were given orders to be ready to evacuate the château in case the Boches advanced. The drivers slept in the ambulances, rising at intervals through the night to warm their engines. The buzz of the motors sounded through the tall pines of the château park, drowning out the rumbling of the bombardment and the monotonous roaring of the flood. Now and then a trench light, rising like a spectral star over the lines on the Hauts de Meuse, would shine reflected in the river. At intervals attendants carried down the swampy paths to the chapel the bodies of soldiers who had died during the night. The cannon flashing was terrific. Just before dawn, half a dozen batteries of "seventy-fives" came in a swift trot down the shelled road; the men leaned over on their steaming horses, the harnesses rattled and jingled, and the cavalcade swept on, outlined a splendid instant against the mortar flashes and the streaks of day.
On my morning trip a soldier with bandaged arm was put beside me on the front seat. He was about forty years old; a wiry black beard gave a certain fullness to his thin face, and his hands were pudgy and short of finger. When he removed his helmet, I saw that he was bald. A bad cold caused him to speak in a curious whispering tone, giving to everything he said the character of a grotesque confidence.
"What do you do en civil?" he asked.
I told him.
"I am a pastry cook," he went on; "my specialty is Saint-Denis apple tarts."
A marmite intended for the road landed in the river as he spoke.
"Have you ever had one? They are very good when made with fresh cream." He sighed.
"How did you get wounded?" said I.
"Éclat d'obus," he replied, as if that were the whole story. After a pause he added," Douaumont --- yesterday."
I thought of the shells I had seen bursting over the fort.
"Do you put salt in chocolate?" he asked professionally.
"Not as a rule," I replied.
"It improves it," he pursued, as if he were revealing a confidential dogma. "The Boche bread is bad, very bad, much worse than a year ago. Full of crumbles and lumps. Dégoutant!"
The ambulance rolled up to the evacuation station, and my pastry cook alighted.
"When the war is over, come to my shop," he whispered benevolently," and you shall have some tartes aux pommes à la mode de Saint-Denis with my wife and me."
"With fresh cream?" I asked.
"Of course," he replied seriously.
I accepted gratefully, and the good old soul gave me his address.
In the afternoon a sergeant rode with me. He was somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty, thick-set of body, with black hair and the tanned and ruddy complexion of outdoor folk. The high collar of a dark-blue sweater rose over his great coat and circled a muscular throat; his gray socks were pulled country-wise outside of the legs of his blue trousers. He had an honest, pleasant face; there was a certain simple, wholesome quality about the man. In the piping times of peace, he was a cultivateur in the Valois, working his own little farm; he was married and had two little boys. At Douaumont, a fragment of a shell had torn open his left hand.
"The Boches are not going to get through up there? "
"Not now. As long as we hold the heights, Verdun is safe." His simple French, innocent of argot, had a good country twang. "But oh, the people killed! Comme il y a des gens tués! " He pronounced the final s of the word gens in the manner of the Valois.
"Ça s'accroche aux arbres," he continued.
The vagueness of the ça had a dreadful quality in it that made you see trees and mangled bodies. "We had to hold the crest of Douaumont under a terrible fire, and clear the craters on the slope when the Germans tried to fortify them. Our 'seventy-fives' dropped shells into the big craters as I would drop stones into a pond. Pauvres gens!"
The phrase had an earth-wide sympathy in it, a feeling that the translation "poor folks" does not render. He had taken part in a strange incident. There had been a terrible corps-à-corps in one of the craters which had culminated in a victory for the French; but the lieutenant of his company had left a kinsman behind with the dead and wounded. Two nights later, the officer and the sergeant crawled down the dreadful slope to the crater where the combat had taken place, in the hope of finding the wounded man. They could hear faint cries and moans from the crater before they got to it. The light of a pocket flash-lamp showed them a mass of dead and wounded oil the floor of the crater --"un tas de mourants et de cadavres," as he expressed it.
After a short search they found the man for whom they were looking; he was still alive but unconscious. They were dragging him out when a German, hideously wounded, begged them to kill him.
"Moi, je n'ai plus jambes," he repeated in French; "pitié, tuez-moi."
He managed to make the lieutenant see that if he went away and left them, they would all die in the agonies of thirst and open wounds. A little flickering life still lingered in a few; there were vague râles in the darkness. A rafale of shells fell on the slope; the violet glares outlined the mouth of the crater.
"Ferme tes yeux: " (shut your eyes), said the lieutenant to the German. The Frenchmen scrambled over the edge of the crater with their unconscious burden, and then, from a little distance, threw hand-grenades into the pit till all the moaning died away.
Two weeks later, when the back of the attack had been broken and the organization of the defense had developed into a trusted routine, I went again to Verdun. The snow was falling heavily, covering the piles of débris and sifting into the black skeletons of the burned houses. Untrodden in the narrow streets lay the white snow. Above the Meuse, above the ugly burned areas in the old town on the slope, rose the shell-spattered walls of the citadel and the cathedral towers of the still, tragic town. The drumming of the bombardment had died away. The river was again in flood. In a deserted wine-shop on a side street well protected from shells by a wall of sandbags was a post of territorials.
To the tragedy of Verdun, these men were the chorus; there was something Sophoclean in this group of older men alone in the silence and ruin of the beleaguered city. A stove filled with wood from the wrecked houses gave out a comfortable heat, and in an alley-way, under cover, stood a two-wheeled hose cart, and an old-fashioned seesaw fire pump. There were old clerks and bookkeepers among the soldier firemen --- retired gendarmes who had volunteered, a country schoolmaster, and a shrewd peasant from the Lyonnais. Watch was kept from the heights of the citadel, and the outbreak of fire in any part of the city was telephoned to the shop. On that day only a few explosive shells had fallen.
"Do you want to see something odd, mon vieux?" said one of the pompiers to me; and he led me through a labyrinth of cellars to a cold, deserted house. The snow had blown through the shell-splintered window-panes. In the dining-room stood a table, the cloth was laid and the silver spread; but a green feathery fungus had grown in a dish of food and broken straws of dust floated on the wine in the glasses. The territorial took my arm, his eyes showing the pleasure of my responding curiosity, and whispered, --
"There were officers quartered here who were called very suddenly. I saw the servant of one of them yesterday; they have all been killed."
Outside there was not a flash from the batteries on the moor. The snow continued to fall, and darkness, coming on the swift wings of the storm, fell like a mantle over the desolation of the city.
Table of Contents