It is not possible to add any phrase, however emphatic, or any words, however earnest, to the praise that has been given to devoted and gallant France since those fateful days in August when the future of civilisation and the fate of the world were in the hands of her devoted soldiers. The long silent suffering of the women and children, the quiet, confident ---almost gay---resignation of the officers and men to seemingly endless conflict can never be measured in mere words. These things can be seen and felt; they cannot be wholly or adequately expressed.
Anything, however, that helps us to appreciate the soul of France is an aid and an inspiration to us in America for whom it is necessary to emulate the example of that devoted people if the war is to be won.
The thing that has struck me most during my visit to France has been---what I might term---the silence of the soldier. By that I mean his absolute freedom from bombast and high-sounding phrase. One might almost believe that his apparent insouciance as he goes quietly about his stern duties covers some indifference The reality is, however, that the French soldier feels the absolute impossibility of phrasing his sentiments. Everything that he loves is so fundamentally involved in the conflict that deeds, and deeds alone, must count. I have seen them from the North and from the South; the grave Norman and the quick-tempered man from the Midi, yet all pervaded by the same spirit of simple, quiet, unquestioning devotion to the immediate work at hand---the freeing of French territory from the invader. "He is not always gay who wishes it," said a great French writer, and that French gaiety of spirit so admirably depicted in this little book is surely one of the great qualities of that ancient civilised race which has enabled them through the centuries to survive and to hold that predominant place in the world of Art, Letters and of Thought which has given to France the primacy in the heart and intellect of civilised man.
I have seen their burned and devastated villages---the scenes of nameless outrage ---to which the women and children had returned after the barbarian retreat that they might cultivate the fields and sustain the husband and the father who was away fighting for France. The quiet simplicity of these little peasant folk, intent upon the task of wringing from the generous French soil its last grain of sustenance for the loved ones who are defending la Patrie, was more impressive than any of the orations heard at banquets or upon State occasions.
The simple recital in these pages of the daily routine duty so cheerfully and simply done has impressed me more than the writings of the literary men who often speak rather of their own feelings than of that which they have actually seen. It. is the reaction of the simple soldier, of the ordinary peasant, of the little child, to the great conflict which really discloses the soul of the nation. As a man's real nature appears in time of crisis when all dissimulation and disguise are cast aside in the imminent presence of bodily destruction, so that superb spirit of the French nation, developed through two thousand years of education, inheriting the great and real culture of the Roman Empire, standing for centuries as a barrier against the barbarian from the North who has threatened civilisation from the time of Marius and Cæsar as he has done at repeated intervals to the present day, has now for nearly four years been fully and completely manifested to the modern world. If the best emotions of the human heart be not mere chemical by-products to be disregarded by progressive militant nations, but are rather the only things which make life worth living, and if man be anything other than a scientific brute, then, indeed, the cause of France from the beginning has been indistinguishable from that of humanity.
The two theories of the man brute and of the man human met squarely on the fields of the Marne---and still battle in Flanders and in Northern France; again, as in former centuries, must the final conflict take place upon her devoted soil. It is fortunate that the lines are drawn so sharply. We owe a debt of gratitude to the German scientists and thinkers who did not shrink from the responsibility of justifying as their highest and ultimate gospel the triumph of the brute biped directed by modern science. Any issue less sharply drawn might not have brought the United States side by side with France and Great Britain. The American people, long isolated from European affairs, might not have understood that this was not a mere European conflict, but transcended the boundaries of time and space as the latest and greatest phase of the eternal struggle between that which is highest and that which is lowest in man.
I am confident that this little book will be a useful contribution to our knowledge of that ever amazing French spirit which brings us assurance that in the end we must triumph and that all this sacrifice must not and has not been for naught.
FREDERIC R. COUDERT.
Monday at 5 a. m. we reported 7 rue François Premier. Our mountain of luggage was piled high together with ourselves into three huge camions and in the grey light of a misty morning we rumbled along through the quiet streets awakening sleepy Paris, although Paris is probably used to the noise of departing soldiers. Ever since the battle of the Marne they have heard the ominous sound.
The Gare de l'Est is as busy as the other stations that feed men to the trenches and cannon, and receive what is left of those who return. It took a bit of doing to get us entrained, luggage counted and registered, and when it was finally done I strolled across the street for a cup of coffee in one of the typical little cafés that thrive around stations as do undertakers about hospitals, or tombstone carvers about cemeteries. It was a curious little corner of the world, this, where poilus and officers have their coffee together. I shared my table with a French officer, like myself off for the front, who kept impatiently looking at his watch. Presently he jumped up with a smile, "Ah! te voilà," and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him as I myself should have liked to be kissed. It is good to have some one who is sorry you are going. I gulped down my coffee and left them to be alone---but not alone as I was.
Sadly I looked over my shoulder to bid Paris good-bye---good-bye for a while or maybe more.
They are brave, these French women who come to take leave of their men. A silent embrace, a wistful smile, a tear, those they love are going, God only knows where, a shrill whistle, a slamming of doors, and slowly as if loath to take them away the long train pulls out of the station.
We were in all 43. Five compartments seating eight had been reserved for our men and an extra compartment for our French Lieutenant and our officers. One of the compartments was occupied by several women, a cross little man and two soldiers, and I was amazed when they refused to move although our French Lieutenant requested them to do so most politely. Another sign that France is tired of it all---this lack of respect for the military and the lack of authority the military have, for it was necessary to call the "chef du train" to persuade the cross little man to move.
Our train crawls along, stopping every now and again because of the tremendous traffic. Sanitary trains pulling in, troop trains pulling out, supply trains, munition trains, all have to be kept moving to keep the business of war going.
The stations we come to are all crowded with soldiers, the roads we pass with more soldiers, and long convoys; our train, although a civilian one, carried scarcely any civilians; soldiers, nothing but soldiers. France is indeed giving her all.
We were able to lunch as there was, a "wagon restaurant" attached and an excellent lunch it was. Hors-d'oeuvre, scrambled eggs, boiled beef, vegetables, salad, cheese with wine and coffee, a lunch that certainly would not suggest war and a train, were it not for the women who serve and the black bread.
At Bar le Duc we made a long stop. Jellies and jams made it famous in the past. Verdun has done so for the future. Verdun is 45 kilometres from Bar le Duc, hence its importance.
At 4.30 p. m. we arrived at Nancy, our destination being the Automobile Park.
There are several such parks, one at Versailles, another at Châlons, but it is here that our section is to receive, officially, its ambulances from the French government and our first "ordre de mouvement," as yet unknown.
We remained in the station while our Lieutenant telephoned to the parc for camions to transport our luggage and ourselves and we had occasion to observe the damage done by Boche aeroplanes. Nancy is constantly bombed and the wrecked portion of the station is the result of a raid a fortnight ago. Directly across the square from the station an enormous hole in the ground is all that is left of a café, also demolished by a bomb.
In due course the camions arrived and we proceeded to the park, the Lieutenant and myself with our chief in his motor, as we had to attend to the never-ceasing details.
What a beautiful city this capital of Lorraine, with its wonderful cathedral fortunately intact in spite of the German vandals, its splendid square and noble statue of Stanislaus, Duc de Lorraine, Roi de Pologne.
The park, covering many acres, is just beyond the city limits. Here are housed thousands of camions curiously painted to disguise them as a bit of the heavens, a clump of trees or a part of the landscape. Camionettes, kitchen motors, ambulances, ravitaillement busses, that in other days jolted the Parisians through the streets of Paris, tractors, staff cars and a miscellaneous collection of automobiles of all kinds, amongst them our twenty Fiats, our homes and companions for the next six months.
We dined in the soldiers' mess. Our comrades, the poilus, cannot complain for their fare is good and plentiful, more so than at Sandricourt, and they have an excellent canteen where beer, wine, chocolate, eggs and many other luxuries can be had very cheap, for it is run under an efficient co-operative system. Two large rooms have been assigned to us with a washing room between so we are comfortably billeted. The journey was along and tedious one, and we are glad to turn in.
At 9.30 the bugle sounds to the tune of "La dame blanche" and our lights go out. We shall dream to-night "d'une dame blanche" and wake up to-morrow for our first day's service in the French army.
The bugles that put us to sleep wake us up---but going to bed and getting up have always been a different tune.
"Est ce qu'il y a des malades?" asks a sous officier, popping his head through the door. "Non, heureusement, pas de malades." We are allowed to fetch our coffee from the kitchen, café au lit instead of café au lait.
A careful inventory of the cars must be made before we take them over, a tedious undertaking lasting all day.
As officier de liaison I was invited by the Adjutant of the park to mess with their officers. After dinner we were asked by these hospitable fellows to partake of beer and wine and of what the mess afforded.
An old piano sadly out of tune was wheeled into the room, and they sang for us "chansons tristes et chansons gaies" music that took them back to their pays and those they left there three years ago; more than one note, I fancy, ended in a gulp. We too sang for them, different songs that mean the same.
The Boches will not come to-night; it is too dark. We shall sleep undisturbed.
What is this music of the guns
To-day we received our cars and began the work of overhauling them. They have seen two years' service, at Verdun last September and elsewhere. Poor little Fiats, they too are a bit tired.
Our car is No. 6 and has been christened Marguerite Winston. First of all, M. W. is taken off to the hose to be washed clean of mud, blood and cooties. We are not yet hardened and shudder at the dark red spots on the brancards, on the floor, even on the ceiling. God! how it must have spurted as she bumped in and out of the shell holes.
We hear that we shall probably "roll" in the morning and as orders have come to have the cars in readiness we cannot undertake much to-day. No. 6 will go with a little persuasion, that is always something.
I gave a dinner at the Hotel de Thiers and No. 6 was duly christened with a bottle of champagne. "Bonne chance, petite voiture de miséricorde; don't ever fail us when they are waiting for you."
We leave for St. Nicholas du Port, Deo (and the Fiats) volente, at 8.30. Breakfast at 7, cars examined, good-bye to the commandant and the adjutant, at 8 we fall in to receive orders, 8.15 conductors at the wheel and assistants at the crank. 8.25 one shrill whistle---turn them over, two shrill whistles---signal ready to start. 8.30 one whistle to start. The Lieutenant's staff car moves slowly out of the park, followed by the twenty good little Fiats all on their best behaviour, and so begins our first convoy to St. Nicholas, thirteen kilometres away.
It is very interesting, this first little journey over dusty roads that wind their way along the picturesque canal; the banks are green and shady, the waters dirty and placid, with only a little ripple to mark the wake of a passing barge or a little fish that here and there patient fishermen are trying to take. Not so the dusty roads with their endless stream of convoys and soldiers ever on the march. We halt outside of St. Nicholas while our officers go on ahead to arrange for our cantonment. No. 20 had a panne but rejoined us; the camion had a panne and is lost forever. It would be funny were it not such a disaster.
Every section should have three camions, an "atelier," a "cuisine," and a third for tents, tables and other equipment. We are now without any.
Our quarters having been arranged for, we move on, through St. Nicholas,---St. Nicholas du Port, if you please, because of the canal with the dirty placid waters. We rattle through the quaint streets, over the cobbles, to the delight of hundreds of dirty little urchins and their terrified mothers, and turning into the rue St. Jolain come to a stop in front of the old "brasserie" where we have been billeted.
A courtyard piled high with manure and rubbish in one corner, a latrine in the other, a rickety stairway leading to a loft and two large rooms, just evacuated by poilus who reluctantly left such luxury; soft straw fairly clean, and a roof. The straw was not left without inhabitants, however, as those of us who cleaned it up found out to our dismay.
We have for cook one Coquelin, a cousin, so he says, of that other great artist, late of the "Automobile Parc de Nancy." Thirty-five years of cooking, five years of pastry, with medals, ribands and diplomas to attest. His art must not be criticised to-day for there is only "singe" and cheese and Pinard, but he promises wonders when we are installed, as "Monsieur shall see," but "Monsieur" is doubtful, for Coquelin has an infamous reputation; the old rascal is always drunk, they say.
All afternoon they worked, these good fellows who laugh and never complain and when evening came the courtyard was a kitchen, a dining-room, a showerbath and many other things besides. The Lieutenant is logé down the street at No. 26 where I too have a room. We dine as the sun sets over Nancy and the Avions circle overhead. Night comes on, with it the stars that bring contentment, and maybe the Boches.
The work that could not be done at the parc is begun. Twenty little Fiats lined up in a row in the rue St. Jolain, surrounded by gamins, present a pitiful appearance, as dirty greasy fellows in overalls, with hammers and wrenches tear out their vitals; but they will be patched up again bye and bye as a surgeon patches up a patient when his operation is done, and will, we hope, show their gratitude in the way motors should.
Coquelin produced a very savoury rabbit stew for dinner and afterwards we strolled off to town for coffee at the "Faisan d'Or," St. Nicholas' smartest café, frequented by the military, where your officer sips his coffee and the poilu drinks his "bock" side by side-why not? Will they not be side by side in a grave later on?
The chimes in the old cathedral ring, the evening service is over. We must hurry back through the quiet little streets. It is such a beautiful night that the lights must not shine; only a few miles away as the crows and the Fokkers fly are the German lines.
A great honour has been conferred upon me. I have been appointed "Popotier" of Section 59 and bon gré, mal gré must accept. The duties of a popotier are to look after the popote or mess. A morning conference with Monsieur Coquelin, who decidedly is not all there, to compose the menu, a trip to market to bargain with the old ladies in the square for onions and salad, these are the functions of the unhappy popotier---in their way of vast importance.
I am having built by the carpenter and coffin maker two cases for provisions to fit on the running board of No. 6. He will make me a very special price because his boy was carried in one of our ambulances.
"His company left the trenches for an attack on a Friday at 10. They were obliged to retreat after being cut to pieces by machine gun fire and he fell in a shell hole with a ball in the knee and another in the shoulder. There he spent the night side by side with a dead friend for a companion. The following day his company attacked again, and again were repulsed. Unable to move, there he remained between the lines until Sunday, when a sergeant saw him and crawled out with a flask. That night two soldiers came with a stretcher and he was carried away to a dressing station, and from there taken in one of your ambulances, Monsieur, to a hospital."
"Did he get well?"
"Yes, Monsieur, if it is well to have but one leg."
"Monsieur will have the cases day after to-morrow."
All morning it rained, but in the middle of the day a beautiful rainbow brought a beautiful afternoon; the clouds that trouble the heavens blow away as do the clouds that trouble our lives.
"Ils viendront ce soir," says a wise old fellow who sits in my doorway smoking his pipe. He cocks his eye up at the sky in the manner of an old tar. They reef the sheets when the sailor shakes his head in his knowing way, for it will surely storm; they get the keys of the cellar when my friend shakes his head in his knowing way, for it means a raid.
In the evening after a long day in and about and under the car we went as usual to the Pheasant. As I passed through the crooked little streets on the door of every house there is the sign "Cave voûtée" with 20, sometimes 50 places, and I thought of my wise old fellow smoking his pipe in the doorway. For three years they have been dropping bombs on this little town, a few miles back of the front lines, so when the alarum sounds and you hear the whir of the Boche planes overhead, St. Nicholas becomes a deserted city. The inhabitants quickly disappear off the streets and into their cellars away from the rain of shrapnel of the French "75's" and the occasional bomb that blows up a whole post-office, as it did the one by the bridge a week ago.
The anti-aircraft guns in the distance are very active to-night---yes! they will surely come.
Sitting at the little tables at the Pheasant we can see the rockets and the white puffs of the bursting shells over Nancy, and as we walk back up the hill the alarum sounds---a bugle and the cathedral bells.
It is hard to conceive the magnificence of it all, hard to believe that death comes from the heavens where one sees only the stars; but the great search-lights that play in every direction see more than we, and where they point myriads of shells burst, dimming the stars. Presently our guns join in, all around us they roar. The Germans fly low, very low, the better to avoid our guns that cannot fire so well at a low angle.
Sitting in my little window I can distinctly hear the whirring propellers, directly overhead they sound, and you wonder---then they are gone. One by one the guns cease; in the distance you hear them again; the stillness is extraordinary after so much din. "C'est fini pour ce soir," for they seldom return.
It is all so fascinating that one feels nothing else except possibly a strange sensation of disappointment that nothing has happened after all.
The good people leave their cellars to the rats once more. Across the courtyard the tread of weary feet, old women with clanking keys and the wise old man who smokes his pipe in the doorway; when he nods his head in his knowing way the storm is surely over and it is time to go to bed.
Car No. 1 in charge of the ravitaillement this week is being overhauled. No. 6 has volunteered, so at we get up and with the "maréchal des logis" proceed to the station of Varangeville where we shall receive our 20 loaves of black bread and 40 litres of red wine, the famous Pinard, from the ravitaillement train in exchange for our "bons." It is early when we arrive but already there are camions large and small, crowded about the siding, come from far and near to get their bread and Pinard, too.
I learned from the waiting poilus many new words in a language quite their own, and a most excellent expression to use if ever a camion backs into you, almost crushing your toe, all of which happened to an eloquent little fellow from the "midi."
The daily allowance of meat per man is 350 grammes, so off to the "abattoirs" for our beef or mutton, whichever it may be. In a great courtyard many more camions waiting their turn, in a pen the unfortunate beasts waiting to have their throats slit, in a huge Paris bus the divided carcasses of the unfortunate beasts whose throats were slit that soldiers might live to slit others; all very degrading and disgusting.
Surrounded by enormous butchers, what makes them so enormous I do not know; what makes them so ferocious I can guess---surrounded by enormous butchers with bloody aprons and dripping knives, I cannot help but think that Tolstoy and my vegetarian friend Troubetskoy are right; but dinner will come and I shall be hungry, the bleatings will be forgotten; one must forget, to eat a chop.
There is a co-operative store in most of the cantonments administered for the army where further supplies are obtained. This is the method by which France feeds her armies.
A call at the Jardinière on the way home for vegetables and the popotier's work is done for the day.
Last night the first call for an ambulance was received from Pulligny, 23 kilometres away. No. 2 went, bringing back two "malades assis" to the "hôpital du camp." This morning Nos. 3 and 4 went out on similar errands, so No. 5 is "en planton," and as cars go out in their order, No. 6 is in reserve.
This is our first work. We are attached to the 17th Division, the 9th corps of the 8th Army, and as our division is "en repos," this will probably be the sort of work we shall have to do for the present. It is not very interesting; we should prefer active service. Our Frenchmen smile in their quiet way; they have had three years of it, a bit of everything, so they are pleased when they are "en repos".,,
Rain! how often it rains in Lorraine! They say that the atmospheric disturbances caused by the continuous bombardment is the cause.
After dinner we read in the papers about last night's raid. The Boches did no damage but they escaped as they almost always do; a plane is a very small thing and the heavens very big.
My little room under the eaves is not very luxurious, but there is a lamp to read by and the rain patters on the outside of a window pane. Not so far away stretch the miles of trenches; there are no eaves nor are there window panes for the rain to patter against. How often it rains in Lorraine!
Car No. 5 went out early this morning, so No. 6 is "en planton," interfering with our plans for the day. I had hoped to go to mass to the great cathedral that has stood for all time. St. Nicholas has always preserved it even during the Thirty Years War, when the town was destroyed by fire, and during the war of 1870; and so he always will, the good people tell you. The devout believe that only he could have stopped the German invasion when the town was threatened in 1914. Your patron saint did well, my friends; St. Nicholas would have fared no better than Rheims or Louvain at the hands of the barbarians.
A l'heure de la soupe, 12.30 by the clock, a call came for an ambulance, two "assis" to be evacuated from Pulligny, two from Frolois, so there is no soupe and No. 6 starts out upon its first errand of mercy. By the aid of our maps we find our way over the rolling hills, through Menancourt past the aviation camps, through the green woods and golden wheat fields, where ever watchful batteries of good 75's are concealed. Several regiments of our division are quartered at Frolois. In a dirty narrow little street we stop before a stable with a red cross sign. This is the "infirmerie"; a courtyard with benches for the convalescing, a low-ceiled room with heaps of straw upon which are lying huddled up in their blankets numerous "malades." In a far corner is the operating department, a stretcher upon two wooden horses with a bucket beneath and a table beside with bottles of disinfectants and surgical instruments.
We collect our two "malades," tagged and labelled like so much luggage, and proceed through the usual crowd of filthy children in the direction of Pulligny where we take on two more; one of them a great Senegal black, who makes considerable fuss at having to leave his belongings and his rifle with the bayonet he loves so well. However, the thought of a ride in a very smart ambulance consoles him, and he shows his delight and a row of white teeth in a grin of satisfaction. Out of the four, three have been afflicted with the same horrible disease, the fourth has probably been saved by a badly fractured arm.
From Pulligny we return to the "Hôpital de Triage" or clearing hospital where they and their papers are examined. One is assigned to the "Hôpital du Camp"---an excellent establishment built by the Germans for their wounded in 1870---and the others to Jarville, an evacuation hospital just outside Nancy. Good little No. 6 has performed its first task and the day's work is over.
In a little café on the way back we find some beer and cheese, and in a little garret where the rain beats against the window, a night's rest.
There is so little to do while our division remains "en repos" that our car will probably not be called out again, so we have permission to go over the motor, a two days' job. There is very little activity at the front but always a certain movement of troops. This afternoon two fresh regiments passed down the hill and away to the trenches, cheerful fellows, rested and gay, with never a thought that some will not return. In one hand a few flowers, what remains of the past; the future in the other, a grim rifle with a "Rosalie" that shines in the sun. They shrug their shoulders to shift their pack and smile as they wave good-bye, whilst up the hill with weary tread a relieved regiment comes trudging by. Covered with mud, tired and footsore, staggering under the weight of their kit, no smile upon their haggard, sweaty faces. These poor fellows have only the thought that soon they must return. Poor France! for three years your soldiers have borne the brunt of it.
Like canard de Rouen for slaughter fattened,
By old men and lads admired, flattered,
By girls and by old women fêted, petted,
By priests and patriots cajoled, exhorted
Oozing brains from a bashed-in skull,
God in His wisdom the reason knows;
At considerable expense we bought many tins of Ripolin. The "blanc de neige" removes the bloodstains---there will be others. No. 6 looks spick and span and is at last ready for business; very satisfactory, as our cars are to be inspected to-morrow by our Lieutenant and some other French officers.
After dinner we went to the cinema.
Everywhere there are cinémas de l'armée, with comic films to amuse the soldiers. This is one of the ways that France distracts and diverts her armies.
Coquelin the impossible has been sent back to the parc at Nancy. The new "cuisto" is a great improvement.
In all the windows there are flowers and in the Cathedral a special service for the Virgin. We must have something to turn to in moments of affliction; France has become deeply religious. It is easy to guess what they have come to pray for, all these kneeling soldiers in blue and prostrate women in black.
In the afternoon I visited the aviation camp; the sun was shining when we started, but before arriving it began to pour and we were obliged to stop in a little shack for shelter. Two soldiers offered us cans to sit upon, for it was a storehouse of petrol and essence, and while we watched the rain that fell in torrents and waited for it to let up, one of them told us many tales. He was an interesting fellow, this poilu, with a keen mind and a rare sense of humour.
"There is no longer any fighting, Monsieur, no battle of the Marne, where out of a company of 200, nine were left; where men went for four days without food or drink."
It is incredible that men should be alive after such hardships, incredible that they should be sane after such horrors. My friend with the sense of humour smiles contentedly, describing how he bashed in the bald pate of a German "tant qu'il y avait de la tête je tapais dessus"; and he roars with laughter at the thought of his comrade Josef,---Josef waving his arms and shouting frantically, "Prends garde, v'la un Boche qui te vise."
"Just then, Monsieur, a bullet came into Josef's mouth, in one jaw, out of the other, shooting away a handful of teeth; that's all, Monsieur, just the teeth, n'est ce pas drôle?"
But a far-away look comes into his eyes as he thinks of his "pays là-bas"; seriously he asks when the Américains are coming, when it will be over.
In my opinion it will never end under the present conditions of fighting; the resources of men and money are greater than the destruction. The economic collapse of Germany, some great invention, a revolution, labour or socialistic troubles, the complete mastery of the air, thousands of air planes to fly across the Rhine when the harvests are golden and could be destroyed by incendiary bombs, something of this sort will be necessary.
My friend agrees, popping shells back and forth to kill a few poor devils in a trench who will be replaced by as many more is useless.
We visited the many hangars, huge tents housing seven or eight planes, Nieuports of the latest type and Spads with their wonderful Hispano Suiza motor, capable of making 200 kilometres.
The age limit is 25 years, so the aviators are mere boys; extraordinary that at 20 they can have learned all the things one must know to be a pilot; not only know how to fly, but how to shoot, how to photograph, how to navigate, how to wireless and a thousand other tricks of the trade only taught by experience. It is the most gallant service of all, the only service where a bit of chivalry remains.
They light fair and in the open, and when they die, as they all do sooner or later, they die as they fight, fair and in the open; better by far than being mangled or crippled or gassed.
A very dapper little French captain, the commander of the camp, came and spoke to us. Curiously enough he first flew with Blériot, whom I dined with not so many years ago when he arrived in London after his flight across the Channel. Thanks to the Captain's wireless operator, I have the interesting photos taken over St. Nicholas and surrounding country.
A weary trudge back to St. Nicholas and the Pheasant for dinner, then bed---then sleep, undisturbed by the Fokkers whose wings, too, have been clipped by the rain.
The amount of labour entailed by war is appalling. For the few million soldiers actually fighting, millions and millions are working, amongst them ourselves, all day it lasts. "En repos" has no other meaning; and these days of no importance are occupied cleaning, adjusting, painting. Cars are like women, just as vain, just as perverse, requiring just as much attention, and often not any more grateful.
The post arrives with news of the outside world, both good and bad, and one is a day nearer the end.
We are still without equipment. It is doubtful if we shall ever have any. A soldier's life these days is not so certain as his death, so we have decided on a trip to Nancy to purchase kitchen supplies; the "popote" will be bankrupt but the chef happy and much of our happiness depends upon his. Nancy was being bombed by German avions but the little white puffs in the blue sky were not over the road. When we returned we learned that they had come to St. Nicholas also, one of them to stay.
A little old man of 14, tattered and torn, footsore and weary, wandered into camp looking for a crust and a pile of straw. His story is that of thousands of others without a home or parents; the Germans could account for both in different ways.
Augustin Lombard, poor little chap, is taken in and will work for the run of his teeth while the section remains here.
We have heard nothing as yet about our movements, but we are anxious to go now that No. 6 is ready.
The warm sun is shining, it is too beautiful to work, almost too beautiful to fight. Many of us went to mass, Catholics and Protestants alike seem to need a bit of religion. The new chef, who is quite a "cordon bleu," surpassed himself and the popotier supplied cakes from the best pâtisserie, but the Germans came while we were lunching; five of them cruising over our heads like a battleship squadron, not any larger than birds at such a tremendous height. The "soixante quinze" on all sides blaze away at them, but how hopeless it seems; meanwhile the big guns, probably 15 kilometres away, are firing; they are bombarding Dombasle and the usines, fortunately with no success. God is not with the Germans in spite of the Kaiser.
For two hours it lasted, the blue sky dotted with white puffs, shrapnel falling with a clatter on the roofs, all so impersonal that it seems foolish. Finally they disappear in the direction of their lines and it is Sunday once more. A warm lazy day with no work to do.
Sometimes I feel as if I had gone very far away into a different world where there is no time; the days come and go sometimes with nothing to do, for we are still "en repos." One, possibly two cars go out each day, usually to Pulligny or Frolois, to evacuate "malades" or poor devils gone mad. To-day we had two, the thought of having to go back to the trenches did it. Why there are no more I do not understand, maybe because we all have had a bit of madness inoculated into us and are consequently immune.
The Boches came as usual; they never neglect us when the stars shine, but we are getting blasé and do not bother turning over in bed. The beds are soft and have sheets; soon there will be no sheets unless a winding one.
Good friends who visit this lonely spot,
Weep not, weep not.
Pray that the soul to Heaven has got
Of the body that stayed to rot.
The director of the great works at Dombasle asked us to call upon him, so we went this afternoon, and, together with some French officers, were shown over their enormous plant. Most of the huge machines that night and day work so well for France were made in Germany; that is probably why the Germans have tried so hard for the past three years to destroy Dombasle and this particular usine. At all events they have bombed it incessantly and several times caused great damage; only a few weeks ago they succeeded in demolishing the gas-tanks. The labourers go about with steel helmets and gasmasks ever in readiness, prepared when the alarum sounds to make for the specially constructed dug-outs and other safety refuges provided. There are about 2,000 workmen employed, a large percentage being blacks from Africa, and the number of women has increased from 20 before the war to 300 now. This is how France keeps her great industries going.
We walked back to the Pheasant for dinner, along the peaceful canal, where old men fish and little boys bathe, past the old church at Rossieres with its overcrowded cemetery, where women in black with eyes that are red put fresh flowers on fresh graves. They must be uncomfortable, these soldiers, buried so close together, but even the cemeteries were not prepared for such a war and they are not so efficient in France as in Germany where. they can use them for glue.
No. 6 was repainted this morning, a fresh coat of grey paint that makes No. 6 very proud, and also equipped with steel helmets and gas-masks and stocked with "singe," iodine, chocolate, plaster, brandy, pills and many other things. There is a rumour, the vague rumour that comes from no one knows where, that we shall soon be moving. The rumour grows, the "génie" is leaving to-morrow and the day after the cyclists go.
The rumour has been confirmed and we shall leave Sunday morning at eight, we think for Baccarat, but that is not certain. The English in Flanders have begun an offensive; the French at Verdun are doing the same. To-day they advanced on a 15 kilometre front; if it continues we may go in that direction. Tonight the big guns are very active, they seem to be calling us. Where the 17th goes we go.
Sunday we move on; the poor devils back into the trenches for a whiff of gas or a bit of shrapnel; we, the slaughterhouse department, to pick up the pieces. We have received orders to start for Baccarat at eight o'clock in the morning. No. 6 is ready so there is nothing to do in the meantime.
Our little vagabond was taken off to town and provided with a complete outfit; after a cold shower that I fear he did not altogether enjoy he looks very different from the forlorn little beggar who wandered into camp a few days ago. The bad news of our moving was broken to him very gently; he takes it all very philosophically, but in his quiet way 1 think certain plans are being laid, and I have an idea that somehow or other he will turn up in Baccarat.
I have a good little friend, his years are few but his usefulness great. When the unfortunate popotier with his befuddled brain has forgotten what the "cuisto" especially asked him not to forget, he coasts down the hill on his bicycle and pedals back up again with the butter, the oil or the garlic. To-day I borrowed his bicycle to go to Vitrimont, 14 kilometres away on the road to Lunéville. We took the wrong path outside of Dombasle and lost ourselves. How easy to take the wrong path in this world and lose ourselves! Sometimes it is well as in this instance when it led us up a hill and over a ridge where suddenly we came upon one of the concealed batteries that protect St. Nicholas.
We stopped to enquire the way of some officers who were scrutinising the heavens and they showed us through their glasses a Boche coming our way. It is extraordinary how they observe them, these specks in the sky. The German travels fast, the speck becomes a Taube, and presently the battery opens up and the little white puffs appear all around him. Another battery is firing, too, and he seems a bit worried for he climbs and drops and changes his direction, trying to escape the shrapnel that bursts all about him.
It is fascinating to watch; sometimes it seems as if he had been hit but the little puffs blow away and still he flies. It lasts for half an hour and then he vanishes into a cloud, full speed on his way home.
This is the first time that I have seen a battery of "soixante quinze" in action; they are marvellous indeed. We wish them better luck next time, hoping they will not be blown up to-night as a result of the Boche's observations, and continue on our way.
Along the winding canal to Crépic where I saw for the first time the unmistakable evidence of German "Kultur." Crépic was occupied by them for several days in 1914 and Crépic was put to the torch when they were forced to retire. The inhabitants who were able to flee or hide have returned to rebuild their homes; little rows of graves here and there are the homes of those who will not return.
In spite of a punctured tire we finally arrived at Vitrimont. Before the war it was a peaceful little corner of the world, where the simple bourgeois cultivated his fields and fattened his pigs, while women gathered mirabelles for confiture and fattened the children. Then war came and the German hordes swept over Lorraine, like a pest of locusts leaving desolation in their path. Fortunately their occupation did not last long and they withdrew rather precipitately without accomplishing their fiendish work as efficiently as German methods have done elsewhere. A few homes and a part of the church were left standing; out of the ruins, like the Phoenix arising from the ashes, there is arising to-day a new Vitrimont, thanks to some American ladies whose generosity and energy know no bounds. Vitrimont is being reconstructed with better streets and a finer square, with a drinking-fountain. The inhabitants will have modern houses with furnaces to keep them warm instead of heaps of manure piled high in the courtyards; they will have a school and a mill to grind their wheat.
It was indeed a great pleasure to have tea with the wonderful woman who is responsible for this noble undertaking, who for the past year has lived here and toiled, beloved by these good people whose lives she is also reconstructing. We sat in a little summer-house with geranium boxes, overlooking the green meadows; to-day all is calm and peaceful but only eight miles away are the German guns. Let us hope that they will be silenced forever before Vitrimont is rebuilt.
A dusty ride back to St. Nicholas, pursued by an endless stream of camions that ramble along the military road, shaded on either side by tall poplars and crosses.
Fortunately it is a cloudy night so the French officers who command the battery opposite our cantonment are able to dine with us at the Pheasant.
A very pleasant company and an interesting dinner; to-morrow we shall dine with them and the night after somewhere else, if one can plan so far ahead.
A day of rest spent looking forward to dining with our friends. They have promised us a show if the moon and the Germans come out, so we pray for the clouds to blow away.
It is not surprising that modern warfare has become so scientific with half the brains of the world trying to exterminate the other half. The 75 as adapted to anti-aircraft purposes is very effective. Automatically and in the fraction of a second must be made a calculation of the distance and the height of a plane, its speed, the velocity and direction of the wind and other conditions affecting both object and projectile, also the necessary corrections and the timing of the fuse to detonate the shell where it is figured the plane will be. Occasionally they bring one down.
Eleven of us sat down to dinner in the little mess shack, painted by a camouflage artist of such real merit that even the birds are deceived. Our hosts remember the cocktail of the night before, so I give the recipe of one brewed in a bucket with a lump of ice, which they have gone to such trouble to procure from the brasserie of St. Nicholas. Dubonnet, two eggs, "Poilu," two lemons and a dash of brandy, served in water tumblers; it made a good, if not altogether pleasant start.
Wonderful fellows, these hospitable Frenchmen, who seem to have ransacked the country to provide a most extraordinary dinner.
Voici le menu:
Haricots verts, sautés au beurre
Homard, sauce mayonnaise
Filet de Boeuf, pommes roties.
Langue de Boeuf, sauce piquante
Macarons de Nancy
Fortunately the clouds did not blow away and the Germans did not come. Damn the Germans; there were not many left when we got through with them. It was a happy night, like happy nights all too soon ended. We wander back through the blackness, leaving them on the top of their hill to watch, leaving them with our good wishes and the hope that we shall meet soon again.
|Starless night, tranquil, still,
Silent, calm the plain, the hill
But for the murmur of countless souls
Of bodies rotting in deep shell holes
Crying in anguish for vengeance 'til
Their wail is answered by guns that kill.
A round of the town to pay up the popote's accounts. We have lived high, still they are not many.
Mass and a wonderful sermon upon the lack of the greatest quality---gratitude; we cannot be without it to-day, we who have neither crutches nor mourning to wear.
After lunch a gas-mask drill; one cannot be too proficient in their use as every day they improve in the pleasant art of deadly fumes. No longer does it come in great clouds that one can see approaching. It comes now in shells that burst almost noiselessly, invisible and without odour, toppling over a gun crew without warning; it comes toward you wafted by the gentle summer breezes, with the sweet smell of violets or new-mown hay, but more deadly than the "aqua tofana" of the Medicis, to those who neglect their masks.
After dinner there occurred the most terrible calamity. A rude beggar had words with the chef, a gentleman of great temperament. The beggar was so unfortunate as to call the chef "malhonnête," to which the chef replied that the beggar was an "espèce de fumier." The beggar thereupon asserted that the chef was an "embusqué," and as this was beyond all endurance to a gentleman of great temperament, the beggar was driven from the courtyard with some sort of a murderous kitchen implement. The beggar thereupon complained to the Lieutenant who attempted to rebuke the chef, a very unhappy moment to have chosen, as the gentleman of great temperament was in such a state of indignation and rage that the Lieutenant received what the chef had not had time to say to the more fleet-footed beggar. I arrived in time to head off the chef who was running down the hill, frantically gesticulating, in pursuit of the Lieutenant who had retreated to the bureau.
"Nom de Dieu," said he, "they can shoot me if they will, but they cannot call me embusqué: no longer will I cook for the cochons, I, who have three years of service with the colours,---I, who have never made soup for others than gentlemen."
Here indeed was a fine mess. One must think quickly in such moments as these and handle such a delicate situation with the finesse of a Richelieu, or lose a jolly good cook. Entreaties and threats were of no avail, excuses and promises in vain.
"Monsieur, I will do anything for you, my life, my skill is at your disposal always, but I will no longer cook and that Lieutenant shall hear what I have to say."
Luck was on my side, however, for just then the threatening clouds broke and rain came in torrents to cool the ardour of the cook. Finally I persuaded him to return under the archway out of the storm to hear me further. Little by little the storm in the heavens and in the breast of the gentleman of great temperament subsided, we shook hands and I had his promise that he would allow the matter to rest until tomorrow. Not an assured victory, but I have hopes that Section 59 will not be deprived of his art, this gentleman of great temperament.
"He does his bit as best he can
With musket, sword, or pot and pan."
Our good landlady awakened us early; poor soul, she is very sorry to see us go and so touched with the little plants we sent her. "Mais le bon Dieu vous gardera; vous reviendrez et vous serez toujours les bienvenus." So we breakfast, the cars are loaded and at 9 a. m. our convoy of twenty little Fiats, headed by the staff car, with a camionette loaned by the Parc, bringing up the rear. We roll slowly down the hill and are off to Baccarat for our first active service at the front. It must have rained hard last night, the roads are without dust, a godsend to a convoy. The early morning is crisp and cool, the scenery beautiful, the journey without incident.
At 11.30, on schedule, we arrive at Baccarat, famous for the glass that adorns the white tables and the game that adorns the green. Four cars left for the front immediately, the others are unloaded and will follow in turn; mine will not come until to-morrow.
From beneath a dozen duffle bags out pops Augustin Lombard, half squashed and grinning in a sheepish way. All sorts of terrible things must happen to you, Augustin, for disobeying the strict orders meant to be disobeyed.
This sector is very quiet at present, consequently there is but little work; four cars remain constantly on duty at the four towns of Montigny, Badonviller, Herberviller, and Ogerviller, subject to orders. They leave at 12 o'clock one day, returning the next, making a tournée de ramassage on the way.
We are quartered in the great cristallerie that once employed five thousand men and is now partly shut down and partly operated by women and children.
A busy afternoon for the popotier, to find a mess hall and superintend the installation of the kitchen. We succeeded in renting a small room where we shall be very crowded but warm and dry. Monsieur le chef, a gentleman of great temperament, who must be humoured and pampered in order to exercise his art, "parce que, mon Lieutenant, les vrais chefs sont des artistes," Monsieur le chef, thank God, is contented with his facilities. He showed his appreciation by giving us an excellent dinner, after which we strolled to town for coffee.
Baccarat affords nothing very luxurious in the way of cafés. Good old "Faisan d'or," forgive us our mockery! It is the way of man and the world only to appreciate things at their true value when they have been taken from us; so our hearts are full of regrets and longing for the little garden of the Pheasant with its little tables, the cross old parrot, the genial old lady who welcomed us with such a cheery "Bon soir" and the dear little girl who brought the coffee and the "poilu."
War and the Germans have left their traces in Baccarat. Half the cathedral including the steeple has been shot away, half the town has been razed by fire. The Huns as usual before withdrawing applied the torch.
Baccarat is a centre of considerable military importance; it is here that General Marchand of Fachoda fame makes his headquarters, and it is from here that the front lines as far as ---- and as far east as----- are fed with men, munitions and food.
Never ceasing convoys arrive and leave, artillery trains come and go constantly, the weary infantry pass through on their way back into the trenches or on their way out,---what a difference!
It begins to rain, "on est bien chez soi." In a comfortable little room in the little brick house of an honest ouvrier "on se couche."