The French Army

AT THE FRONT, March 1, 1915.

IT may interest you to know that this letter is written in the trench, thirty yards away from the enemy's lines, with the continual crashing of artillery all around and the shells whizzing directly over our heads. I have indicated by cross every time a shell passes over us during the composition of this note. If I punctuated the explosions, I should have to stop between each letter. It is astonishing how quickly one gets used to the racket. The first two or three times you lower your head involuntarily, and then you take the noise as a matter of course. We are in a forest in a regular labyrinth of trenches, some entirely underground, and we are plastered with mud from head to foot. It is a life of filth and misery beyond description, but so extraordinarily novel and interesting that, strange as it may seem, I am in good spirits. I have only been here twenty-four hours, and I dare say when the novelty wears off that I shall get damned sick of it. This morning it snowed and rained, but this afternoon a cold wind is blowing and the sun is out.

Before leaving Sens, I passed the medical examination and was given my outfit. The uniform consists of light blue cap and coat, with dark blue trousers. We have to carry, besides gun, knapsack and cartridge belt, a canvas tent with pegs (cracking of German rifles at our trench) our rug and rubber sleeping-bag, a gourd full of fire-water of some kind; and two small canvas bags filled with odds and ends, most of which cannot be used, soon get lost or get caked with mud. The whole weighs about thirty-five or forty pounds, and at first you feel as if you had another man on your back. We left Sens at night, and spent twenty-four hours huddled in third-class carriages. The next night we spent in rather clean barracks, where they actually supplied us with cots instead of straw bedding. The next morning another trip by rail. At about ten o'clock we were landed at an unattractive village, where we were made to stack arms in the mud of a vegetable garden.

Here we saw some of the wounded on their way to the rear. Some were merely sick, others minus a leg or arm. We also began hearing the roar of distant artillery and saw some aeroplanes and observation balloons.

That night we spent on the straw, and the next day, after a march through the rain, we got to the last settlement before getting to the trenches. This place was full of soldiers who had been to the front, judging from the dilapidated and filthy condition of their uniforms. They looked at us with curiosity, in our new outfits, and seemed to consider us like tenderfeet, especially those of us who were going under fire for the first time. At about three o'clock we (about three hundred men) halted in a wood and were given our final instructions. We then marched along a muddy road (nothing unusual by the way) and soon entered the long communication-trench, single file, which was to lead us to the second and first line of trenches. During this time the roar of guns were quite perceptible, to say the least, and now the first shells went whizzing over our heads above the trees.

The trenches are lines, one behind the other of course, but joined together in all directions by every kind of communication-trench, like the streets of a city, for a man never shows his head above ground. There are all kinds of subterranean cells and passages; also one has to sleep under ground, wallow in the mud, eat in the mud. Our hands and faces, our uniforms, above all our feet, are caked with it all day. The sleeping quarters are fairly well protected from the rain, but the greatest hardships are the mud, the wet, the inability to wash the slightest bit, as water --- except rain --- is very rare and for me who am tall, the continual necessity of stooping down so as not to get my head knocked off by the enemy's snipers. We are given plenty to eat. The men's spirits are pretty good. It is marvellous what you can stand when you are obliged to. Gosh, think of kicking in a New York restaurant because the service is not up to the mark!
Last night we slept in the sleeping cells of the second line trenches (not so bad) but today we are nose to nose with the enemy on the frontiest of fronts. We live the lives of woodchucks whose holes are within forty yards of Kimton's [a New Hampshire hunter's] front door. We are not troubled by bomb or shell explosions because we are so near the enemy. Their artillery fire might damage their own men along with ours. It is the damnedest life imaginable. In some ways it is better than Sens . . . for you really feel as if you were in the game. All the petty annoyances of Sens are over. You are no longer treated like an irresponsible ass, but like a man, though you live the life of a beast or of a savage.

I forgot to mention the fact that we are also protected by rapid fire guns, completely under cover, in cells like those in which we sleep. The cannonading goes in wave motions. For an hour, like 11 to 12 this morning, it may be very violent, then calm down and then begin again.

André Champollion, in M.A. deWolfe, ed. The Harvard Volunteers in Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.

This style of warfare is extremely modern and for the artillerymen is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His rôle is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but with none of its enthusiasms or splendid élan, he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.

The winter morning dawns with gray skies and the hoar frost on the fields. His feet are numb, his canteen frozen, but he is not allowed to make a fire. The winter night falls, with its prospect of sentry duty and the continual apprehension of the hurried call to arms; he is not even permitted to light a candle, but must fold himself in his blanket and lie down cramped in the dirty straw to sleep as best he may. How different from the popular notion of the evening campfire, the songs and good cheer.
Cramped quarters breed ill temper and disputes. The impossibility of the simplest kind of personal cleanliness makes vermin a universal ill, against which there is no remedy. Cold, dirt, discomfort, are the ever present conditions, and the soldier's life comes to mean to him simply the test of the most misery that the human organism can support. He longs for an attack, to face the barbed wire and the mitrailleuse, anything for a little freedom and function for body and soul.

Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger. New York. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918.

Before we actually took up our positions I had been over the ground to get the lay of the land, to see where the various trails --- they were scarcely more --- led to, in order to know how best to direct the ambulances on their various errands. The country was absolutely packed; I can scarcely find any word to suggest a picture of how packed it was with troops and munition trains. There was every sort and description. On the rolling land, over which the trenches, cut in through chalk soil, ran like great white snakes, the batteries of every sized gun were innumerable. I cannot tell you how many guns there were, but, in a radius of half a mile from where my ambulances stood the first night, there were at least a dozen batteries of various calibres, and they were no thicker there than anywhere else. We tried to sleep on the stretchers for an hour or two before dawn of the twenty-fifth, but when you have a battery of "150's" coughing uninterruptedly within less than one hundred yards of where you are resting, to say nothing of other guns to right and to left of you, one's repose is decidedly syncopated. On the morning of the twenty-fifth the cannonade slackened, and we knew afterwards that the three previous days' work had battered the German lines into a shapeless mass, and that the French infantry had made good the chance they had been patiently waiting for all summer of proving to the world their ability to beat the Germans.

Richard Norton, in M.A. deWolfe, ed. The Harvard Volunteers in Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916

Mr. Poilu

Sorting station, Gare de la Chapelle