Jeune légionnaire, enthousiaste et énergique, aimant passionnément la France. Engagé volontaire au début des hostilités, a fait preuve au cours de la campagne d'un entrain et d'un courage admirables.---Glorieusement tombé le 4 juillet 1916.
(Citation à l'ordre du jour de la Division du Maroc, 25 décembre 1916.)
THOSE who have read the published poems of Alan Seeger and the sympathetic sketch of his life by Mr. William Archer, in his introduction, cannot have failed to appreciate the motives that led the young American, in his great love for France and her cause, to take up arms in her behalf as a common soldier in the ranks of the Foreign Legion. But it is one thing to yield to a generous impulse and quite another to adhere faithfully to a high resolve through wretched and tiresome hours of unaccustomed hardship and distasteful surroundings. In these pages, written from day to day and from week to week, unchanged and unpolished by afterthought, in the endeavor to make them appear nobler and more consistent than they were when first set down in diary or intimate letter,---no word will be found, either of complaint, of wavering or of discouragement. The miseries of life in the trenches, the exhaustion from long marches, the ennui of inaction, are related simply and faithfully, but, at the same time, they are accepted as the inevitable lot of the soldier and borne with patience pending the arrival of the hour of battle, for which he longs. Even when cramped in the trenches, this lover of beauty can take keen pleasure in an occasional glimpse of a picturesque vista through the créneaux; nor, when his endurance is taxed to the utmost to hold out until the end of a march that lays low many a stronger man among his comrades, does he fail to remember and record the sunlit verdure of the meadows bordering the dusty road along which he toils, with heavy burden, weary almost to the point of dropping. In the lonely vigils of sentry duty, during the hours between night and dawn, when the most courageous feel spirit and hope at the lowest ebb, he can find consolation in "a kind of comradeship with the stars."
So a knowledge of the character and life of Alan Seeger would not be complete without the revelation of patient endurance and steadfast devotion to an ideal contained in this volume. While they lend a confirmatory value to his later poems, written during the same period, they enhance, by contrast, the beauty of his earlier verse, the product of years when the pleasures of life were his goal, and danger and self-sacrifice unthought of. One has only to turn from almost any page of this book, chosen at random, to the sonnets of "Juvenilia," to discover a new pathos in the lines and to feel more keenly the extent and nobility of the renouncement.
But these pages tell not merely of strain and trial. There are glorious moments of exultation in taking part in the mightiest struggle of history. There is the thrill of the "Marseillaise" and the weird martial music of the Tirailleurs. There is rejoicing in the contact with other brave and strong men. There is the pride of surmounting toil and hardship, which outlasts the suffering. And in spite of the love of life which endured to the last---inferior only to his conviction that a life could only be worth living when filled with the most vivid emotions,---we know that the manner of Alan Seeger's death was that which he himself had chosen. It threw a brighter and clearer light upon his word and deed and so dignified both that they will live the longer for the years that were cut off from his life on earth. There is solace, too, in the remembrance of what he had written, when the sight of death had become familiar and the peril of it imminent:
"Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier."
I. SEPTEMBER 27---DECEMBER 4, 1914.
II. DECEMBER 8, 1914
III. DECEMBER 14, 1914---JANUARY 11,
IV. FEBRUARY 5, 1915
V. FEBRUARY 17---MARCH 24, 1915.
VI APRIL 15---APRIL 28, 1915.
VII. MAY 10---JUNE 15, 1915
VIII. JUNE 18---AUGUST 8,
IX. AUGUST 10---SEPTEMBER 24, 1915
X. OCTOBER 4, 1915---APRIL 13,
XI. MAY 12---JUNE 28, 1916
The photograph from which the frontispiece is engraved was taken February, 1910, and was furnished through the courtesy of Mr. F. H. C. Reynolds, of Boston, Mass.
"Alan Seeger, Class of 1910." from M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920,.
Drilling at Toulouse. Camp de Mailly. A test of endurance. Sham battles. Distant cannonade. Vestiges of the recent battle. Vertus. The march to the front. Hautvilliers. The vineyards of Champagne. Verzy. Verzenay. A view of Reims. A 55-kilometer march. Fismes. Cuiry-les-Chaudardes. First days in the trenches. The nightly fusillades. Camping in the woods. Bulgarian battle hymn.
Toulouse, Sunday, September 27, 1914.---Fifth Sunday since enlistment. The arbor of a little inn on the highroad running east from Toulouse. Beautiful sunny afternoon. Peace. The stir of the leaves; noise of poultry in the yards near by; distant church bells, warm southern sunlight flooding the wide corn-fields and vineyards.
Everything is ready for departure today. We shall leave tomorrow or next day for an unknown destination. Some say Antwerp, some Châlons.
We are still held up here, though all preparations for departure have been made and every one expected to be off yesterday. We are entirely equipped down to our three days' rations and 120 rounds of cartridges. The wagons are all laden and the horses requisitioned. The suspense is exciting, for no one has any idea where we shall be sent.
We have been putting in our time here at very hard drilling and are supposed to have learned in six weeks what the ordinary recruit in times of peace takes all his two years at. We rise at 5 and work stops in the afternoon at 5. A twelve hours day at one sou a day. I hope to earn higher wages than this in time to come but I never expect to work harder. The early rising hour is splendid, for it gives one the chance to see the most beautiful part of these beautiful autumn days in the South. We march up to a lovely open field on the end of the ridge behind the barracks, walking right into the rising sun. From this the panorama, spread about on three sides is incomparably fine,---yellow cornfields, vineyards, harvest-fields where the workers and their teams can be seen moving about in tiny figures,---poplars, little hamlets and church-towers, and far away to the south the blue line of the Pyrenees, the high peaks capped with snow. It makes one in love with life, it is all so peaceful and beautiful. But Nature to me is not only hills and blue skies and flowers, but the Universe, the totality of things, reality as it most obviously presents itself to us, and in this universe strife and sternness play as big a part as love and tenderness, and cannot be shirked by one whose will it is to rule his life in accordance with the cosmic forces he sees in play about him. I hope you see the thing as I do and think that I have done well, being without responsibilities and with no one to suffer materially by my decision, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given me, doing my share for the side that I think right. . . .
Letters are taking such a long while to come from America now that I have not much expected to hear from you yet and in fact have heard nothing since I left London last month. But I ought to get something soon in answer to my letter from Rouen. I hope it will show you in good spirits, as you ought to be, for I am playing a part that I trust you will be proud of. . . .
Camp de Mailly, Sunday, October 4.---Left Toulouse Wednesday at noon. Marched through the streets behind our clairons. Came here via Limoges, Bourges, Auxerre and Troyes. Beautiful country last afternoon around Saucerre. Uncomfortable nights.
Mailly apparently was about the furthest point reached by the Germans before the French success in the battle of the Marne forced them to retreat. There are numerous vestiges of the recent battle. Some of the buildings in the village are damaged by shells, some that we passed yesterday morning in the train completely demolished. Entrenchments in the fields.
Yesterday we heard cannon for the first time. All day long the occasional rumble of heavy siege guns came from the direction of the frontier. The distance must have been 60 or 70 kilometers. This makes drilling interesting.
Last night two Germans were found in the woods near here by a patrol. One was dead from hunger and exposure and the other nearly so. He said the reason they had not surrendered was that their officers had told them that they would be shot. He said also that there were thirty or forty others in hiding in the neighborhood.
We are four battalions here, two of the first regiment of the Legion and two of the second.
Sunday, October 11, 1914.---Very beautiful fall days during the past week. The atmosphere has been quite clear, revealing the most distant horizons of the open, rolling, sparsely cultivated country of this part of France. The first frosts of nights full of stars have begun to color the trees so that each tufted top stands out separate in the yellow sunlight that floods out of skies without a cloud. This weather is unusual; the gray winter days will set in soon.
Yesterday we took a seven-hour march that made the most demand on our endurance that has yet been called for. Only one man fell out, however. We pitched our tents in a high field and went through the entire exercise of bivouacking, taking our sacks inside and lying down six men to a tent. I was sure we were preparing to spend the night, when the order was given to break camp and in a few minutes all the orderly labor was undone. The company was then formed in colonnes de demi-section par un and we started back to camp across country, making a wide detour. The whole distance was one continuous battlefield. Everywhere were exploded and unexploded shells. In the woods we came upon several abandoned French knapsacks but found no bodies, though the woods are probably full of them still.
This morning comes the unexpected news of the fall of Antwerp. This is the most important event of the war to date. It means the entire subjugation of Belgium. The Germans, as far as I can see, occupy all the territory they have coveted and all that they would keep in the event of their ultimate victory. It is my idea that they will now wage a defensive war entirely, limiting themselves to holding what they have. The impending winter will wonderfully favor them in this plan of campaign. The strong defensive lines they have reared on their front will enable them to detach large forces to cope with the Russians. On the whole, their situation seems good and the task of the French and English in driving them back a desperately hard one.
. . After two weeks here and less than two months from enlistment we are actually going at last to the firing line. By the time you receive this we shall already perhaps have had our baptême de feu. We have been engaged in the hardest kind of hard work,---two weeks of beautiful autumn weather on the whole, frosty nights and sunny days and beautiful coloring on the sparse foliage that breaks here and there the wide rolling expanses of open country. Every day from the distance to the north has come the booming of the cannon around Reims and the lines along the Meuse. We have had splendid sham battles, firing dozens of rounds of blank cartridges. Between the bonds de vingt mètres, when we lie on the ground, resting the sack on one side and with one's ear in the grass, it has been wonderful to hear this steady pounding of the distant cannonade.
But imagine how thrilling it will be tomorrow and the following days, marching toward the front with the noise of battle growing continually louder before us. I could tell you where we are going but I do not want to run any risk of having this letter stopped by the censor. The whole regiment is going, four battalions, about 4,000 men. You have no idea how beautiful it is to see the troops undulating along the road in front of one in colonnes par quatre as far as the eye can see with the captains and lieutenants on horseback at the head of their companies.
I am keeping a diary in a desultory sort of way, but aside from this I am quite incapable of any such literary effort as you suggest, for one simply has not the time. Tomorrow the real hardship and privations begin. But I go into action with the lightest of light hearts. The hard work and moments of frightful fatigue have not broken but hardened me and I am in excellent health and spirits. Do not worry, for the chances are small of not returning and I think you can count on seeing me at Fairlea next summer, for I shall certainly return after the war to see you all and recuperate. I am happy and full of excitement over the wonderful days that are ahead. It was such a comfort to receive your letter and know that you approved of my action. Be sure that I shall play the part well for I was never in better health nor felt my manhood more keenly.
This is the second night's halt of our march to the front. All our way has been one immense battle-field, little villages that are nothing but heaps of ruins, fields torn with artillery fire and heaped with the fresh graves of the soldiers, buried where they fell, a rude cross above and the képi rouge. It was a magnificent victory for the French, that the world does not fully realize. I think we are marching to victory too, but whatever we are going to we are going triumphantly. Reims is 47 kilometers away, the Germans 15 beyond.
Vertus, October 20, 1914.---Made a short morning's walk of 16 kilometers,---still through the great battle-field. The Germans retreated along the road we marched over. Everywhere in the fields on either hand were the holes made by the obus and the graves beside them where the men fell. Extraordinary evidences of the artillery fire. Pine woods with the branches all ripped to pieces; large sized trees broken clean off in the middle. Though several weeks have passed since the battle, the fields are still littered with débris. Today we passed through the villages of Marsain and Bergères. The first was completely destroyed, not a house on the main street had escaped the fire. Nothing but blackened walls and here and there the inhabitants standing with sullen faces in their ruined doorways. The scene of the marching column down the ruined street,---a scene that will become familiar to us,---was imposing.
We are in Champagne now and the hillsides, covered with yellowing vineyards, made lovely landscapes along the road, although the weather is still gray and melancholy.
Hautvilliers, près d'Epernay.---Made a march Of about 9.8 kilometers. Foggy weather that spoiled the beauties of what would have been a charming landscape. No more signs of battle; everywhere the yellow-green vineyards of Champagne. Passed through Chonilly. Expected to be cantonned in Epernay but kept on in spite of considerable fatigue to this lovely little village on the hilltop. Lodged in a most delightful place, a château which seems once to have been a cloister, right behind the old church. We are to sleep in the loft of a barn, where the straw is plentiful. There is a pleasant terrace-garden here, full of flowers, overlooking the valley; the view must be beautiful on sunny days. It seems we are going to Reims tomorrow, or close to it. We are attached to the cinquième armée. Lots of troops in Epernay; they lined the sidewalks and watched us pass. Paris autobuses in the streets. All bridges had been blown up and were replaced by temporary structures.
Verzy, October 22, 1914.---Made an early start from Hautvilliers and marched here, a distance of about 30 kilometers, with only hour halts. A hard walk; a great many fell out from fatigue. Passed through many villages; the road between Louvois and Verzy, over wooded hills brilliant with autumn foliage, was particularly lovely. Passed camps full of African troops; automobiles filled with officers and autobuses with provisions showed us that we were approaching the front. During our last halt in the woods the colonel passed along the lines with a group of officers and three generals. Shortly afterwards the sergeant returned and announced the extraordinarily unexpected news that we were to stay in Verzy till four o'clock and then leave immediately for the trenches that are only five or ten kilometers beyond here. It is two o'clock now. We are actually to be under fire then immediately. A cloudy, dismal day with occasional drizzling rains. No sound of battle here; everything quiet.
Verzenay, October 23.---Half of the regiment was sent to the trenches last night, a battalion of the first and a battalion of the second. Our men slept in Verzy in their harness, that is, wearing the cartridge belt, with sack and gun at our head. At four we got up and, assembling, marched here, a distance of only a few kilometers, where we were billeted again, in a stable at the end of the Rue Veuve Pommery. On the way we passed lots of wagons and cavalry. There were three graves by the roadside at a place Where we stopped, a post above each and a placard reading: Espion, traitre à son pays.
It will surely interest you to get a letter from the front though I have only time to write a word. I cannot tell you the name of the village where we are cantonned, for reasons of expediency. We are about 17 kilometers southeast of Reims. I am sitting on the curbstone of a street at the edge of the town. The houses end abruptly and the yellow vineyards begin here. The view is broad and uninterrupted to the crest, ten kilometers or so across the valley. Between this and ourselves are the lines of the two armies. A fierce cannonading is going on continually and I lift my eyes from the sheet at each report to see the puffs of smoke two or three miles off. The Germans have been firing salvos of four shots over a little village where the French batteries are stationed, shrapnel that burst in little puffs of white smoke; the French reply with explosive shells that raise columns of dust over the German lines. Half of our regiment have left already for the trenches. We may go tonight. We have made a march of about 7.5 kilometers in four days and are now on the front, ready to be called on at any moment. I am feeling fine, in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience. How beautiful the view is here, over the sunny vineyards! And what a curious anomaly. On this slope the grape pickers are singing merrily at their work, on the other the batteries are roaring. Boom! Boom!
This will spoil one for any other kind of life. The yellow afternoon sunlight is sloping gloriously across this beautiful valley of Champagne. I must mail this now.. There is too much to be said and too little time to say it. . . .
Verzenay, October 25, 1914.---On guard from four to six this morning. Mitrailleuse and rifle fire from the lines. Our company assembled this afternoon and we took a fine walk through the woods on the heights above Verzenay. From the open crests there were wonderful views across the valley. Reims was plainly visible in the middle distance, to the northwest. Could see the cathedral clearly and the church of Saint Remy and the heights at the east of the town where the Pommery works are and where I stood on an evening a year ago this summer when I visited Reims with A. G. The autumn foliage, on the hills, the vineyards on the slopes, the delicate tints in the eastern sky, all under a pale afternoon sun, were very beautiful. I think we were going to have some manoeuvres, but the appearance of some German aeroplanes coming directly towards us and passing overhead put an end to this plan. We ended by gathering wood for the kitchen. Afterwards we sat a long time on the grassy knolls, watching the lines across the valley. Aeroplanes circled continually overhead on reconnaissance and were bombarded with shrapnel from the lines below, without any apparent damage.
Cuiry-les-Chaudardes, Aisne, October 28.---Yesterday our 9me escouade was waked early and hustled off into the darkness before the rest. Our sacks were taken and lifted into a wagon; we found that we were to be the escort of the pack train and the mitrailleuse section. A long day's march was promised us to counteract the comfort of marching without sack. It was in fact the hardest day we have had. We marched with small and few interruptions from 6.30 in the morning to 10.30 at night, in which time we covered probably about 55 kilometers. No food except the scraps we had in our musettes. We passed over roads that wind along the southern slope of the valley where Reims is situated. For miles the city lay on our right, but passing at the closest not nearer than six or seven miles I could not see clearly the extent of the damage to the cathedral. The villages lie close together here; the Prussians had passed through them all, but we saw no signs of war except at Marfaux, which had been completely destroyed by fire. Arrived at Fismes after nightfall and exceedingly fatigued, expected to be cantonned there, but kept on marching through the town and out into the dark country again. The cannonade that had been very violent all the afternoon grew louder as we advanced northward directly toward the lines. At 10.30 we halted and were told to spread our blankets in the field beside the road.
I was given sentry duty immediately on arriving and remained in front of the wagons until midnight. During this time an attack by one side or the other took place on the lines only a few kilometers from our encampment. For twenty minutes or so the rifle and mitrailleuse fire was continuous, broken every few seconds by the booming of the artillery, while magnesium lights were shot off from the trenches to light up the battle field. Very impressive in the darkness. Only a few hours before, a soldier of the 127me had been telling me at Fismes how his regiment had made such a charge a couple of days ago and had been practically wiped out, leaving 700 dead on the field. At midnight I lay down on the wet ground and managed to get some sleep before three, when we got up again and continued the march 10 or 12 kilometers to this wretched village, where we are lodged for the day in a dirty stable.
Here we are just behind the lines. We are resting and go into the trenches tonight. At last we shall be under fire.
October 29.---Slept here last night, contrary to expectation. We were all reviewed this morning, in the fields lining the road to Beaurieux, by the general. He showed the captains a new method of marching in single columns under artillery fire and we returned to Cuiry in this formation. Hope to go into the trenches tonight; they are only four kilometers over the hill from here. We have come to the point where fighting is the only thing to do. In this little village there is not a thing to be bought of any kind, not even a morsel of bread or a drop of wine. We have a foretaste of what we shall have to go through in the future. All that we shall have to eat will come from the kitchen of the regiment, and that in small quantities. The poor will be as well off as the rich and money will be the most useless thing we carry.
November 4, 1914.---Back in Cuiry again. We marched away a week ago through the forests under a moonlit sky. The road was merely a recent clearing through the trees to move the artillery over and was almost impassably muddy. Arrived at the outer line of trenches I was sent forward into a little trench in the fields to stay awake all night with a half-dozen others on sentinel duty. Rien signalé. Next day was peaceful and we spent it perfecting the little bomb-proof shelters along the lines. It was a day well spent, for the Germans that up to this time had been content to direct their fire over our heads on the French batteries behind us began now to turn it on our trenches, informed no doubt by their aeroplanes that buzzed continually overhead. The salvos of shrapnel began bursting in the woods all about us and we were compelled to stay under cover all day long. Darkness would hardly begin before a fusillade would start from the lines near by, the cry of "Aux armes, aux tranchées!" would run from door to door and we would hasten out into the night to wait in the muddy ditches while the bullets whistled about us. But these fusillades would always die out, provoked probably only by German patrols seeking to discover our position. After the first experience we were forced to stay up all night, but later we became used to it and were allowed to go back to our holes to sleep. In this way we would hustle out into the darkness four or five times in a single night, at first a little uneasy, but in the end only bothered. In the daytime we slept, oblivious to the shells that burst around us. Cannon of all calibre and at all distances---occasional rifle fire and mitrailleuses---continual whirring of aeroplanes overhead---whistle of passing shells---peculiar report of those bursting high in the air, directed against the aeroplanes.
Four days and four nights of this, in which our company lost two killed and nine wounded. Van der Veldt was killed instantly by a shrapnel ball in the doorway of his hut, only 15 or 20 yards from ours. The position of our trenches was the border of a wood facing the crest where the little village of Craonnelle is situated. Returning here we had a day of repose and then spent the last two at hard labor, digging trenches behind the outer lines. Tonight we go up into the woods again, it seems, this time not to the first line but as reserve. The company that relieved us has had a hard time, they say, and has already lost four killed.
November 10, 1914.---Fifth day of our second period in the trenches. Five days and nights of pure misery. We came up here Thursday evening, a foggy, moonlit night, bright enough to show the fields through which we ascended, spattered with shell-holes as thick as molehills, and the pine woods full of shattered trunks and broken branches. The Germans had been trying to destroy the Château des Blancs Sablons, below which our kitchens are situated, but by some miracle it has escaped. It is here that the état-major is lodged. Our position this time has been a claypit on a high summit above the château. Owing to its exposed and dangerous character very formidable bombproofs have been built at this point of the line. To these we have been confined for five days from morning to night. A big hole here in the pit, a few yards from our door, marks the place where three men of Bataillon D were killed by a shell only a few days before our arrival. We expected a heavy bombardment, but five days of continuous fog have made the firing very infrequent, though we have heard heavy cannonading at other points of the line. A brancardier was killed a few days ago and there have been a few wounded. It is a miserable life to be condemned to, shivering in these wretched holes, in the cold and the dirt and semidarkness. It is impossible to cross the open spaces in daylight, so that we can only get food by going to the kitchens before dawn and after sundown. The increasing cold will make this kind of existence almost insupportable, with its accompaniments of vermin and dysentery. Could we only attack or be attacked ! I would hear the order with delight. The real courage of the soldier is not in facing the balls, but the fatigue and discomfort and misery. Tonight we are to be relieved, but whether we are going back to Cuiry or just to the last line of trenches down by the château I don't know. What a winter's prospect if our campaigning is only going to be to alternate between these two phases of inaction and discomfort!
November 12, 1914.
I am writing you from our encampment in the woods, a few miles behind the firstline trenches, from which we have just returned for the fifth time. We usually go to a little village where the headquarters of our regiment are, but the Germans bombarded this at long range a few days ago and seem to have done considerable damage. The church has been knocked down and about thirty were killed among the population and the, artillerymen quartered there. A shell entered the hay-loft where we had slept only a few days before, killed five and wounded thirteen. So we are camping in the forest now in a big dugout that we have helped to build in other periods of so-called repose.
This is what is distressing about the kind of warfare we are up against---being harried like this by an invisible enemy and standing up against all the dangers of battle without any of its exhilaration or enthusiasm. From Belfort to the sea now it is the guerre des tranchées. I have tried to describe a little what this means in an article that I have managed to accomplish amid the worst of conditions for writing and which I will send you when it appears. In comparison with it a bayonet charge would be desirable and the command welcome to us all.
I am glad to hear that Mother does not worry too much. You probably can follow things well enough to know that I have not been in the North, where the losses have been heavy, but in the center where there has been more or less of a deadlock since the battle of the Marne, and the infantry has not figured much except as artillery support. As long as this condition lasts the danger is very slight and it may last all winter. If it does it will be more to your satisfaction than mine. . .
November 17, 1914.
I haven't seen any more of the little cards I sent you, so I will write a few lines to let you know that I am well and take the risk of the letter getting through. As you may see by the stationery, I have already received the valise and the contents were most welcome. It arrived by the wagon while we were camping in the woods. I just had time to mark the things, to transfer what I could carry to my sack and give the rest to comrades. Thaw took the zarape; I had a good blanket already. It was out of the question to carry the extra weight; you see all the property we now have must go on our backs on the marches and the weight would astonish you a little could you lift it. I am now well equipped for any weather. Yesterday we had our first flurry of snow, so you see how opportunely the things arrived. . . .
Unfortunately I left my MS. with a printer in Bruges, which is now in the hands of the Germans and the center of the fiercest fighting. After the war I shall return there and look it up. And then I shall think of America again. With my volume and my médaille commémorative I fancy I should have enough to account for my European visit in point of thought and action. This experience will teach me the sweetness and worth of the common things of life. The world will be more beautiful to me in consequence. So wait and count on my being with you next summer.
December 4, 1914.---Back in the same trenches. Matters have improved here. A well-to-do fermier sends a fourgon in to Fismes every few days, which brings back abundant provisions that the soldiers can buy at moderate prices. In this way we were able to fill our sacks with chocolate and canned stuff in sufficient quantity to tide us over the six days. The trenches have been much improved by the last section. The roof has been made water-tight, more barbed wire has been strung in front, and the earth out of the deepened ditches has been piled round the walls, making the dugout much warmer. By stuffing the créneaux with straw we are now allowed to make fires at night, so we can heat our gamelles and lie down to sleep in a warm atmosphere. This emplacement is on the whole the pleasantest of any we have been in. The dugout is not uncomfortable now, for we have widened it sufficiently and covered the earth deep with straw; the view in front through the créneaux is very cheerful, a broad field and orchard stretching from our position to the crest; behind is a little stream in the woods where we can wash, and there is a spring. close to a ruined mill where we can fill our canteens. Here there is a post of the 73d regiment and one can fraternize with the soldiers and hear the narratives of men who have been in the thick of it since the beginning of the war. We went on a patrol a few nights ago, advanced well in front of the lines and walked to the outskirts of Craonnelle, where we entered an old barn and brought back armfuls of straw for the dugout.
Choumu Maritza okrvavena
Zarigrade ie nache.
Raz, dva, trie,
Napred da vrvim
Ca svitchku cili,
Gueneral ie c nac
Marche, marche, etc.
Coule Maritza ensanglantée,
Les veuves pleurent
Constantinople est à nous.
Un, deux, trois,
Nous devons avancer
Avec toutes nos forces,
Notre général est avec nous.
This is the Bulgarian national hymn. My camarade d'armes Hulmaja taught it to me and we used to sing it on the marches around Mailly and coming here to the front. He wrote this out for me one day in the trenches and I wrote for him four stanzas of the "Marseillaise."
DECEMBER 8, 1914
Sentry duty. The rôle of the common soldier. Discomforts and misery of life in the trenches. The commissariat. The continual struggle of the artillery.
December 8, 1914.
This is our fourth period of service in the trenches since coming to the front a month ago. We left our camp in the woods down by the château before daybreak this morning and marched up the hill in single file under the winter stars. Passing the second line trenches, we walked for some time down a road, torn up here and there with shell holes and obstructed now and then with shattered trees. Through openings in the woods we could see that we were marching along a high ridge and on either hand vaporous depths and distances expanded, the darkness broken sometimes by a far light or the momentary glow of a magnesium rocket sent up from the German lines.
There is something fascinating if one is stationed on sentry duty immediately after arrival in watching the dawn slowly illumine one of these new landscapes from a position taken up under cover of darkness. The other section has been relieved and departs, we are given the consigne by the preceding sentinel and are left alone behind a mound of dirt facing the north and the blank, perilous night. Slowly the mystery that it shrouds resolves as the gray light steals over the eastern hills. Like a photograph in the washing its high lights and shadows come gradually forth. The light splash in the foreground becomes a ruined château, the gray streak a demolished village.
The details come out on the hillside opposite, where the silent trenches of the enemy are hidden a few hundred meters away. We find ourselves in a woody, mountainous country, with broad horizons and streaks of mist in the valleys. Our position is excellent this time, a high crest, with open land sloping down from the trenches and plenty of barbed wire strung along immediately in front. It would be a hard task to carry such a line, and there is not much danger that the enemy will try.
With increasing daylight the sentinel takes a sheltered position and surveys his new environment through little gaps where the mounds have been crenellated and covered with branches. Suddenly he starts as a metallic bang rings out from the woods immediately behind him. It is the unmistakable voice of a French 75 starting the day's artillery duel. By the time the sentinel is relieved, in broad daylight, the cannonade is general all along the line. He surrenders his post to a comrade and crawls down into his bombproof dugout almost reluctantly for the long day of inactive waiting has commenced.
Rather than imitate my comrades, who are filling the chamber with all the various noises of profound slumber, I shall try to while away some of its tedium by giving you a description of the life of a volunteer in the French army at one of the least exciting points of the present front---that is the mid-centre.
After the brilliant French victory in the battle of the Marne, the Germans, defeated in their attack on Paris, fell back to a line about midway between the capital and the frontier and intrenched themselves strongly along the crests well to the north of the River Aisne. The French, following close on their heels, took up whatever positions, they could find or win immediately behind and sat down no less strongly fortified along a line separated from that of the enemy by distances of usually only a few hundred meters. A deadlock ensued here, and the theatre of critical activity shifted to the north, where the issue is still at stake in the tremendous battle for the possession of the seaboard and the base for an enveloping movement which may be decisive. Toward the east the operations have become pretty much confined to the artillery, pending the result of the fighting in the north, which must be decided before an advance can be undertaken by either side on other points of the line.
True, occasionally a violent fusillade to the right or left of us shows that attacks are being made and at any moment are likely to be made, but these are only local struggles for position, and in general the infantry on the centre are being utilized only to support the long line of batteries that all along this immense front are harrying each other at short distances across field and forest and vineyard.
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.
My comrade in arms is a young Servian, who went through all the Balkan campaign until the war broke out with the Bulgarians. Then he deserted at Salonica, for he was unwilling to fight against his brother people, and his mother too was a Bulgarian. After the triumphs of the campaign in Macedonia the present method of fighting, is almost insupportable to him, and he frets pitiably under the forced inaction. In the Balkans there was no fighting behind earthworks, but all was in the open field and at the point of the bayonet, and seldom did the Turks await the fury of the shock.
In the evening there was no lying down in the cold and darkness, but around blazing campfires the soldiers sang the ancient victorious pæans of their people and danced their national dances. Sometimes they would kindle a big bonfire at some distance from their camp and keep only a lot of little fires among themselves. The Turks would bombard the big fire all night, but around the little ones the soldiers would be left in peace. In the squalor and darkness of our subterranean quarters he tells me often of the glories of those days and of the wonderful exploits of his people ---the onslaught at Kumanovo and the charge at Dibra, where he was shot through the body and laid up in hospital for a month and a half.
It is ignoble, this style of warfare, he exclaims. Instead of bringing out all that is noble in a man it brings out only his worse self---meanness and greed and ill temper. We are not, in fact, leading the life of men at all, but that of animals, living in holes in the ground and only showing our heads outside to, fight and to feed.
Amid the monotony of this kind of existence the matter of eating assumes an importance altogether amusing to one who gives it only very secondary consideration in time of peace. It is in fact the supreme if not the only event of the day. In France the soldier is very well cared for in this respect. In cantonment and under all normal conditions he receives ordinarily coffee and an ample day's ration of good bread the first thing in the morning; then at 10 and at 5 he is served with soup, meat and a vegetable, excellently cooked, coffee and wine, not to mention such little occasional luxuries as chocolate, confitures, brandy, etc.
In the trenches this programme is necessarily modified by the distance from the kitchens and the impossibility of passing back and forth in daylight on account of the artillery fire. When we first came to the trenches we made the mistake of having our kitchen too near in the woods. Whether it was the smoke that gave it away or one of the hostile aeroplanes that buzz continually over our heads the Germans soon found its range and with one man killed and half a dozen wounded the cooking brigade was forced to move back to the château and take up its quarters at a point in the woods at three or four kilometers from the line of the trenches.
Since then the matter of ravitaillement is arranged as follows: every morning at 3 o'clock a squad of men leaves the trenches and returns before daybreak with the day's provisions---bread and coffee, cheese and preserved foods, such as cold meat, pâtés, sardines, etc. The ration is very small, but the nature of life in the trenches is not such as to sharpen one's appetite. In the evening another squad leaves immediately after sundown. Every one waits eagerly to hear the clink of the pails returning in the dark. It is a good meal, a soup, or stew of some kind, as hot as can be expected in view of the distance from the kitchen fires, coffee and wine, and we all gather about with our little tins for the distribution.
These nightly trips to the kitchen are sometimes a matter of considerable difficulty, for frequent changes of position often find us unfamiliar with the course of the paths through the woods, which are newly cut, impassably muddy and ill defined. Notwithstanding the danger of going astray in swamp and thicket and the labor of bringing back a heavy load in the dark it is considered a privilege to be assigned to this duty because it gives a little activity to relieve the day's tedium. Single file, with rifle strapped to shoulders, we flounder on, wet to the ankles, the black forest all around, each man carrying half a dozen canteens besides his other burdens. Our water comes from a spring down by the château.
To supplement the regular rations with little luxuries such as butter, cheese, preserves and especially chocolate is a matter that occupies more of the young soldier's thoughts than the invisible enemy. Our corporal told us the other day that there wasn't a man in the squad who wouldn't exchange his rifle for a jar of jam. It is true that we think more about securing these trifles than, we do about keeping our rifles clean. Nor is it an easy matter to get such things. The country where we are now has been thoroughly fought over, so that the poor inhabitants and their stocks of goods have suffered severely from the continual passing of troops in action. The countryside is stripped as a field by locusts.
In the village where we are billeted during our intervals of rest between periods in the trenches there is not a thing to be had for any price. Our pocket money is so much waste paper. By sending to remote towns, paying commissions and exorbitant prices, one can manage to get a few things. Once in the trenches these articles are precious beyond gold. In the course of bartering services are paid for in chocolate, for money is held as worthless for wages.
Though modern warfare does not allow us to think more about fighting than eating, still we do not actually forget that we are on a battle line. Ever over our heads goes on the precise and scientific struggle of the artillery. Packed elbow to elbow in these obscure galleries one might be content to squat all day long, auditor of the magnificent orchestra of battle, were it not that one becomes so soon habituated to it that it is no longer magnificent. We hear the voices of cannon of all calibres and at all distances. We learn to read the score and distinguish the instruments. Near us are field batteries; far away are siege guns. Over all there is the unmistakable, sharp, metallic twang of the French 75, the whistle of its shell and the lesser report of its explosion. When the German batteries answer the whistle and explosion outdistance the voice of the cannon.
When one hears the sifflement the danger has already passed. The shells which burst immediately overhead and rattle on the roof of our bombproof dugout come unheralded. Sometimes they come singly, sometimes in rapid salvos of two or three or four. Shrapnel's explosive report is followed by the whiz of the flying balls. Contact shells or marmites explode more impressively, so that the earth trembles. Shrapnel shatters trees and snaps good sized trunks as if they were twigs; contact shells dig holes eight or ten feet across all over fields. When lines are close, as ours are now, sniping goes on all the time, especially from the German side. At night sometimes a violent fusillade will bring us to arms; out of our burrows we tumble to find the hillsides ablaze with the Bengal lights from the German trenches, where our enemies are as alert and mystified and uneasy as we are.
None of these alarms has come to anything where we were, but we hear prolonged roars of rifle fire, punctuated with steady booming of artillery, from the line alongside us sometimes, which make us realize that a desperate attack is always possible.
In clear weather aeroplanes buzz overhead all day long. Both sides bombard at them with shrapnel, which makes a queer little whir when it explodes high in the air. Never have I seen the lines bring an airman down, for the puffs of yellow smoke break too low, and high up in the clouds the machine goes humming on, contemptuously dropping its signal fuses. A few days ago I did see a German aeroplane sent to the ground by a French monoplane.
We were in camp in the woods behind the lines when the familiar outline of a Taube against the winter sky drove us into hiding in our cabin. Suddenly, without having noticed its approach, I saw a French aeroplane close with its enemy. There was the popping volley of a mitrailleuse and the wounded German machine dipped abruptly and came down in a long volplane, but I could not see whether the pilot had height enough to make his own lines before his wheels struck the ground.
It is toward evening that the cannonade is .always fiercest. With darkness it almost completely subsides. Then the sleepy soldiers, cramped and dishevelled, crawl out of their holes, rouse themselves, stretch their legs and take the air. Everybody turns out like factory workmen at 5 o'clock. The kitchen squad departs, others set to work repairing smashed defensive earthworks and the night's first sentinels go on.
Sentry duty, which may be all that is melancholy if the night is bad and the winter wind moans through the pines, may bring moments of exaltation if the cloud banks roll back, if the moonlight breaks over the windless hills or the heavens blaze with the beauty of the northern stars. It has been so for the last few nights, since I commenced these notes. A cold wave has frozen all the bad ways; a light snow has fallen and at night the moonlight flooding out of a frosty sky illumines all the wide landscape to its utmost horizons. In the hollow the white shell and chimneys of the ruined château stand out among the black pine groves; on the crest opposite one can trace clear as in daylight the groves and walls and roadways among which wind the silent and uncertain lines of the enemy's trenches.
Standing facing them from his ramparts the sentinel has ample time for reflection. Alone under the stars, war in its cosmic rather than its moral aspect reveals itself to him. Regarded from this more abstract plane the question of right and wrong disappears. Peoples war because strife is the law of nature and force the ultimate arbitrament among humanity no less than in the rest of the universe. He is on the side he is fighting for, not in the last analysis from ethical motives at all, but because destiny has set him in such a constellation. The sense of his responsibility is strong upon him. Playing a part in the life of nations he is taking part in the largest movement his planet allows him.
He thrills with the sense of filling an appointed necessary place in the conflict of hosts, and facing the enemy's crest above which the Great Bear wheels upward to the zenith, he feels, with a sublimity of enthusiasm that he has never before known, a kind of companionship with the stars!
Six days is the regular period for service in the trenches under normal conditions. Often enough it seems close to the limit of physical and moral strain which a man can bear. The last night the company packs up its belongings and either in the twilight of evening or dawn assembles and waits for the shadowy arrival of the relieving sections, to whom the position is surrendered without regret. We march back over the wretched roads and pass our three days' interval of so-called rest either billeted in the stables and haylofts of the village or encamped in the woods around the château.
In bad weather the first is the more agreeable, for one has a tight roof over his head, can wash, and fraternize with the artillerymen and the soldiers of other regiments. But if the skies are clear it is pleasant to camp by the château, where a steep hillside in the forest is covered with the rude little cabins that the soldiers put up when the leaves were still on the branches. Here one may make fires at will, and at nightfall, with the smell of wood smoke and the twinkle of lights among the trees, the conditions of life in the army come closer to what we imagined they would be when we enlisted.
Such then is the part that has been assigned us in our first month of field service---a not very active part so far but one which novelty has made interesting. How long will it continue? What change will the future bring us? This is the most frequent subject of surmise and discussion in trench and cantonment. If our winter is to be nothing but a series of alternations between the discomforts of crowded dugout and squalid village there is not one of us who would not be glad to be shifted immediately to the north to bear all the rigors of an open campaign in order to share some of its action. But if victory in the north determines an advance all along the line it will be as well to be at this point as at any other.
North of us, behind the bristling crest, the frontier is not far. Between and directly on our road is the cathedral city on the hill. Little more than a year ago I walked in its ancient streets and from its lofty ramparts in the shade of its cluster of Gothic towers, looked off eastward at twilight over the broad, beautiful landscape. To dream of re-entering this city as we would re-enter it has filled many a night's watch. The crest opposite us would have been carried at the point of the bayonet, our ranks would have been thinned, but the flag would still wave in the undulating line of blue and red as it winds up the hillside to the town and rolls through the antique gateway, and our officers would look never so gallant riding at the head of each battle-worn company.
The midwinter afternoon would bathe in ruddy splendor the beautiful towers and flag bedecked balconies. From the, one would peal forth the thunder of welcoming bells, from the other the acclamation of thousands. The army of deliverance, we would enter the narrow streets of the ancient city, the first stage of our long victorious advance would be accomplished, and amid the benedictions of a ransomed people our hearts would dilate with that supreme emotion that life can offer, that emotion idealized on the fields of France, of her revolution and empire, whose name is that of the winged figure that her soldiers love to picture at the head of their victorious battalions---la Gloire!
DECEMBER 14, 1914---JANUARY 11, 1915
A dangerous position. The trench dugout. Christmas in Cuiry. A walk to Beaurieux. New Year's Day. Visit to Chaudardes. Adventure on petit poste.
December 14, 1914.
We have been camping in the woods for the last three days. These intervals of rest between our periods of service in the trenches are usually passed in cantonment at X-----, a few kilometers behind the lines. During our last absence the Germans got its range well and bombarded at long distance across the hills. The precision of their fire seems to have astonished those who witnessed it. At half past 10 at night the shells began to fall on the peaceful little village. When they ceased thirty soldiers and inhabitants bad been killed.
In the hayloft where we had slept a few nights before a marmite crashed through the roof and killed five outright and wounded thirteen of our comrades of another company. So we did not return to X----- this time. Those who remained in the village spent their time pulling down what was left of the church tower, whose peaked belfry, showing across the ridge, gave away the position of our headquarters to the hostile batteries. We halted half way and went into camp in a huge bombproof hut in the sand under the bleak branches of the winter forest.
This morning we came back to the trenches for the sixth time. I happen to have kept track of our periods of trench duty (though I have lost count of the days of the week and month), but there is really nothing to distinguish this from the other stages of the monotonous existence that this guerre des tranchées imposes upon us at present. Once more the reveil in the dark, the hasty packing and departure, the march out of the woods and up the hillside, this time under the last quarter of the last moon of the year. A screen of driven clouds pales its radiance and hides the stars.
Crest after crest the forested hills spread out beneath and around us in the vast twilight. A pine grove crowns the ridge that we are mounting under cover of darkness. We have been told that the position we are going to occupy is one of extreme danger from artillery fire. It is not the gruesome recitals of the ambulance men that make us believe it. It is not the riven branches nor the craterlike holes half full of rain water in the fields. On the border of the grove are the, fresh graves of our comrades. They have written the soldiers' names on the bars of the little crosses; on the poles droop their red képis.
The section to be relieved is waiting for us in the shadow of the pine grove. Once more the hasty transfer, the descent into the black dugout, the jostling and disputes as the men get placed in the dark. A chill wind sweeps through the underground gallery. Some one strikes a match and tries to rekindle with straw from the floor the embers that smoulder here and there in holes picked out of the wall. The sergeant stops him before he has gone very far. It will soon be daylight, when no blue smoke must be seen curling out of the pine trees.
And while we are getting settled a brusque voice of command calls in through the doorway. Formally forbidden to go out during the day. It is a sinister confirmation of the reports of the peril of our situation. Certainly, shivering here in the unfamiliar dark, the prospect of the six days before us is not cheerful.
Guerre des tranchées! What is it that this word "trench" conveys to those who read it continually in the war bulletins---those who are disinterested, with curiosity; those whose hearts are at the front, with anguish? Probably much of what it would have conveyed to me before the war---a kind of open irrigation ditch where the soldiers had to fight up to their knees in water, how they slept and how they ate being questions I did not ask myself. Certainly the condition of the combatants is not anything like this, yet on the other hand the comfort and elaborate construction of some of these works of defence, such as I have seen them described by soldiers in their letters home, are of examples which I at least have never had the good fortune to inhabit.
The typical trench dugout resembles catacombs more than anything else. A long gallery is cut in the ground with pick and shovel. Its dimensions are about those of the cages which Louis XI. devised for those of his prisoners whom he wished especially to torture, that is, the height is not great enough to permit a man to stand up and the breadth does not allow him to stretch out. Down the length of one curving wall the soldiers sit huddled, pressed close, elbow to elbow. They are smoking, eating morsels of dry bread or staring blankly at the wall in front of them. Their legs are wrapped in blankets, their heads in mufflers.
Slung or piled about them, filling every inch of extra space, are rifles, sacks, cartridge belts and other equipment. A villainous draught sweeps by. Tobacco smoke and steaming breath show how swiftly it drives through. The floors are covered with straw, in which vermin breed. The straw is always caked with mud left by boots which come in loaded down and go out clean. To get new straw we sometimes make a patrol in the night to the outskirts of a ruined village in front of our lines and take what we need from a deserted stable. It is our most exciting diversion just now.
The roof of the dugout is built by laying long logs across the top of the excavation; felling trees for these coverings occupies a large part of our rest intervals. On the completeness with which these beams are covered with earth depends the comfort and safety of the trench. Wicker screens are often made and laid across the logs, sods are fitted over the screens so as to make a tight covering and then loose earth is thrown back on top. This is an effective protection against all but the heaviest shells. If the roof is badly made, out of branches, for instance, the rain drips through and makes life even more miserable inside.
Where the lines run close together the soldiers sleep in the simple trenches and fire through small holes in the wall of the combined trench and dugout. Generally there is room to build the trenches out in front of the dugout or alongside. There is a section of a company of infantry for each trench, and between the trenches there are deep communication ditches.
A squad has stayed behind in the woods to bring us the day's provisions. Before daylight it arrives and the distribution takes place. Great loaves of bread are handed down the line; each man takes his ration of half a loaf. There is one box of sardines for each two men. A cup of coffee, a small piece of cheese, a bar of chocolate must last us all day, until darkness permits another squad to leave the trench to go down after the evening soup. After food comes mail. Too much praise cannot be given the Government for handling the soldiers' mail so well. There are daily distributions on the firing line.
The short winter day has dawned. Its feeble light falls through the narrow doorways and all is now clear in the crowded dugout. The sound of voices grows less and less as the men fold themselves into their blankets, and one by one, tired out by the night watch, go off to sleep. I never could do this and have always fought against sleepiness in the morning. For with our life of darkness and chill I find a little sunlight, even if all I can get is through a narrow dugout door, is indispensable for the brightening of one's hours of reflection. I usually wait until the first cheee-pann-pann-pann! of the shrapnel bursting overhead marks the opening of the artilleryman's working day before I tumble off to sleep.
The smell of the wicker screens and the branches in the dirt on top of the trench reminds me of Christmas odors in American houses decorated with green things for the holidays. Then the smell of powder from the shrapnel kills the holiday reminder. I dare say Christmas will pass here without any change in our style of life. The insolent crest across the valley will still stand up, inviting steel to come and take it, and we shall go on waiting as patiently as we can for the day when we shall be ordered to advance against the shell and steel of the invisible enemy.
It will be a happy day for all of us, for uncomfortable inaction has more terrors than shell and steel.
December 22, 1914.---Returned to Cuiry after five days in trenches. Will be here, it seems, until Christmas. Great things seem to be brewing. Rumors of a general advance in preparation. Last night a violent cannonade and rifle fire all along the line,---the first about eight o'clock, the second at midnight just after I had come in from guard. Hope this means business.
Went to a farm near by today and, waiting for coffee to be heated, missed rassemblement of company at noon. May get into trouble for this later but it has given me at least a free afternoon. An afternoon of memorable beauty; mild, sunny weather and loveliest blue skies. Sitting enjoying it on a pile of betteraves in the field behind Cuiry. It is so seldom one can get off by oneself to have a little solitude and time for uninterrupted reflection. I shall never forget the beauty of this winter landscape, the delicate skies, the little villages under their smoking roofs. Am feeling perfectly happy and contented. This life agrees with me; there will be war for many years to come in Europe and I shall continue to be a soldier as long as there is war.
December 31, 1914.---Spent a unique and agreeable kind of Christmas in Cuiry, brightened by thoughtful friends in Paris, who sent us all packages laden with everything good to eat and wear. Christmas Day itself was one of the most beautiful of cold winter days. Rose early and walked up to the farm over the frost-whitened hillside. Hot coffee and bread. Beauty of dawn, white landscape and steaming village. Pleasure of opening packages and reading letters in the hayloft. After morning soup, rassemblement and march off to work.
But I played truant again and slipping off with gun slung over shoulder walked alone (not without considerable risk) to Beaurieux. The soldier to whom I had given my wash the week before had been moved to Beaurieux, and as it was absolutely necessary to have the change of clothing, I had to be so far unscrupulous. Beautiful walk through the sunny fields. Accomplished object in Beaurieux and enjoyed walking about town, buying the few little things that were to be bought and talking to soldiers of other regiments. Home at sundown. Heated plum-pudding and made hot chocolate after supper and stayed up late talking in candle-lit loft.
January 5, 1915.---We left the Moulin trenches and marched back to Cuiry on New Year's eve. Spent a pleasant four days there. On New Year's Day we rose before daybreak and the whole section was marched off to take a bath. We walked to Maizy and then turned off down the Canal de l'Aisne. At a point several miles beyond where the poteaux read about 16 kilometers to Berry-au-Bac and 34 to Soissons we came to a big sugar refinery. Here were excellent facilities for bathing and each man had a fine hot shower and the cold water hose turned on him afterwards if he wished. In a barge moored on the canal-side a woman sold us hot coffee and bread too. This little excursion was a pleasant diversion taking us for a moment out of the narrow circumscription we had been moving in for the past two months.
I had always been anxious to visit the little neighboring town of Chaudardes, whose picturesque belfry peeps up over the hillside only a few kilometers to the east. This was a good occasion and so in the afternoon, which was one of lovely skies and mild weather, I walked over. The little church proved to be exquisite both in line and in the patina of the old stones. It had not been desecrated either, like the poor little church at Cuiry, where the legionaries are quartered regularly now, sleeping in the pews, eating off the altar and raising a laugh sometimes by going through vulgar mockeries of the Catholic ritual. On the contrary, all was neat and well kept up inside. There was no one there when I entered except a soldier of the 36me, who was playing very well on the little organ. I sat long and listened to him in the peace and quiet of the little white-washed interior.
Wandering about the village later I came across another soldier in a black sweater with an American flag pinned to it. I remarked in accosting him that it was the drapeau de mon pays and by so doing made a charming afternoon acquaintance. It appears that the man, who was an Alsatian, had become liable to military service in the French army in some way, but going to the United States when he was 14 had escaped doing it. He was given amnesty, however, on condition of being mobilizable in case of war. Travelling on the Continent therefore at the outbreak of hostilities, he went immediately to his dépôt at Caen when the order to mobilize came out and became incorporated in the 36me de ligne. He was made cook for the sous-officiers' mess, in which capacity he was serving when I met him. He took me around to the kitchen and, seeing that his battalion was leaving for the trenches that evening and soup was early on that account, he made me stop and gave me a warm meal before returning to Cuiry. He gave me all kinds of provisions too and took me over to a ferme, where I met a young sergeant who spoke English well. We had coffee together and he told me all kinds of anecdotes about the experiences of the 36me. I returned to Cuiry at sundown.
January 11, 1915.
After weeks of inaction in trenches where the danger of attack was slight and there was nothing worse to be feared than the constant artillery fire, our company was moved last time into the little village of C-----, the most dangerous part of the sector we are holding, where the line runs too close under the crest occupied by the Germans to be menaced by bombardment but where the patrols come down every night and harass our outposts in the most nerve-racking kind of warfare. Four days almost without sleep, constant assignment to petit poste, sometimes 12 out of 24 hours on guard in the most dangerous positions. It was in one of these that I came for the first time in immediate contact with the enemy in a most unfortunate affair. I was standing guard under the wall of a château park with a comrade when a patrol sneaked up on the other side and threw a hand grenade over, which sputtered a moment at our feet and went out without exploding. Without crying to arms, I left the other sentry on the spot and walked down to the petit poste, about 100 metres away and called out the corporal of the guard. We walked back to the spot together and had hardly arrived when another bomb came over, which exploded among us with a tremendous detonation. In the confusion that followed the attacking party burst in the door that covered a breach in the wall at this spot and poured a volley into our midst, killing our corporal instantly and getting away before we had time to fire a shot.
On the 20th we shall have been three months at the front. Persistent rumors have it that we are going to be sent back to Orléans for a while on that date to rest. The English and Belgians in the regiment are going to their respective armies and the battalion is going to be generally reorganized. . . .
FEBRUARY 5, 1915
The Kaiser's birthday. A desolate village. The ruined châteaux. An empty wine cellar. An immaculate library. The sentinel's hallucinations. Comforts of a cellar. A coup d'audace.
February 5, 1915.
We are back in cantonment after eight days on the firing line. This is the longest stretch we have yet done without relief. The reason? The Kaiser's birthday. We looked for trouble on that day and there was no lack of indications that we were going to have it. There has been talk of a mysterious paper thrown into the lines with the warning that a general attack was to be made. And in the still winter nights behind the hostile crest the continual noise of distant trains and motors could be heard, bespeaking a concentration somewhere along the line.
The preceding night I was out on sentinel duty. In a clear sky, the moon, a few nights from the full, flooded the hillsides, making it impossible for patrols to circulate. Not a shot was being fired. The sinister silence confirmed every suspicion that something was under way. At midnight a French battery behind us broke it rudely and ironically by firing twelve times in succession over the crest as a birthday greeting. The enemy did not respond. And so the long night wore away and the day came and passed without incident for us.
The blow had fallen on some other point of the line. Strewn pitifully along the summit of the crest opposite we who were on guard could still see the bodies of the French soldiers where they have been lying ever since September, when the magnificent élan of the battle of the Marne finally broke on this bleak hillside and ever since when both sides have been sitting facing each other, neither risking the perils of a further attack. Once more we have been cheated in our hope for action, but it may not be for long.
The greatest change has come over our life here lately. In my last letter I described the soldier's days and nights in the trenches, and I am afraid I drew a rather gloomy though by no means exaggerated picture. For the last month, however, we have not been living in trenches at all, but in a ruined village. It has been much more romantic. Along the vast battle line from Belfort to the sea each regiment has its sector of a few kilometers to defend.
Ours is a corner of field and forest fronting on the semicircular crest of the plateau where the enemy are intrenched---a good foothold on one end of the crescent, too. Here the soldiers live in the earthen dugouts, amid all the discomforts I described. But at the foot of the hill, corresponding exactly to the position of the stage in a Greek theatre, lies the village of C-----. From all the various points of the sector that we have been assigned to its battered houses and great burned down château have been visible. Other companies, though, had held it up to a month ago, when it came round to our turn.
It was under the full moon of a month past that we marched into C----- for the first time. I shall never forget the impressiveness of that stealthy, silent entrance. We had left our cantonment at midnight. Five or six kilometers through the forest and the road came out into a pleasant open country, covered with orchards. Sharply silhouetted in the moonlight against the black slopes of the plateau behind were the bright walls and peaked tile roofs of the, typical little French town. I had become familiar in our march to the front from Mailly with the tragedy of these pretty centres of peace and happiness made desolate by war. But no scene of ruin that we passed through exceeded the spectacle that met our eyes here.
There had been no general conflagration in C----- it is true, for the Germans had not had time to fire it as they have done systematically wherever they could. But there was literally not a house that had not been riddled with shrapnel or disembowelled by the deadly "marmites " that must have fallen on it in a perfect inferno of fire. Picking our way through the débris that littered the streets we filed in through that picture of desolation that makes always so striking a background for a column of infantry advancing.
Poor ruined villages of northern France! There they lie like so many silent graveyards, each little house the tomb of some scattered family's happiness. Where are the simple, peace loving country folk that dwelt here when these windows were squares of yellow lamplight, not, as now, blank as holes in a skull? The men away at the war or already in their graves; the women and children refugees in the south, dependent upon charity. The pity of it all is that the French guns have done and have had to do the material damage.
When the Germans marched back in August there was no resistance to their advance. But it was with the artillery close on their heels that they were chased out in September. It is frightful to think that only at such a price can the French regain their conquered territory. If the enemy are to be driven across the frontier does it not mean that every town and village between must be laid in ruins? The alternative is staggering. . . .
At C----- our quarters are most picturesque. They are the wine cellars of the village's two châteaux. Here the soldiers have been able to bring straw, coal and candles, and with a good roof over their heads, safe from shells and from rain, enjoy a degree of comfort quite exceptional for a position where the crack of the German mausers as they snipe at sentinels seems at our very doors and where the mitrailleuse upon the hillside could rake our cellar door itself were it not for the encircling groves.
The big château has been completely burned down. Nothing remains but the shell. It sits in the midst of an immense, heavily wooded park, the wall of which, several kilometers long, forms part of our line of defence. Pretty paths intersect the dense groves. There are benches, here and there, fountains and summer houses. The lawn that encircles the château slopes down behind to a charming little artificial lake. Everything bespeaks the pleasure retreat of some man of wealth and taste. Before the ruined mansion, truly seigniorial in its proportions, stand ancestral pines.
Nothing could be more romantic on a moonlit night than the view of these silent walls gleaming amid the great black cones; nothing more eerie than the silent grove, in which there is never the complete assurance that the park wall completely separates one from the lurking enemy.
The little château is in the town itself, surrounded by no considerable estate. It has been ripped open with bombardment, but was not set on fire. Strange enough, the pillaging of six months has not begun to exhaust the loot that litters its floors knee deep. Here all the possessions of some once comfortable family lie scattered about as they have been pulled from desk, cupboard and bureau. Sheets and pillowcases lie mixed up with family photographs and correspondence in a chaos of disorder.
Most pathetic to me was a little girl's postcard collection---cards from all over Europe, with their little messages of love or greeting. But most precious were the remains of a beautiful library, the last thing to be violated by the rude hands that have ransacked everything else and left not a bottle of wine in the whole town. Here, stacked just as they were before the invasion, I found finely bound, immaculate sets of Rousseau, Voltaire, Corneille and Racine. The wind and rain that blew in through the immense rents in the walls had not yet harmed them in the least. They were as fresh as the day they left the famous early nineteenth century presses of which they were the choicest examples.
I took away a few of these volumes, esteeming that the pious duty of rescuing an old book doomed otherwise to certain destruction might absolve me from the gravity of the charge that such an act made me liable to.
The advanced position that we hold in this village and the fact that we are far in front of our own batteries minimizes the danger from artillery fire. Few shells, in fact, fall on C---- nowadays, then only when a group of soldiers expose themselves unnecessarily. But every night the patrols come down from the hillsides, and we are out against that war of ruse and surprise, of treachery and stealth, which is most trying to the strongest nerves. Under these conditions sentinel duty ceases to have the air of a mere formality; it means a grave danger, a terrible responsibility. And seeing that the guard cannot be too rigid at this point we are all forced to undergo with heartbreaking frequency the ordeal of the petit poste.
The petit poste is the outpost which furnishes the most advanced sentinels before the enemy. Its composition and general arrangement may vary according to circumstances, but typically they are as follows: At daybreak a dozen men and a corporal go out to the position and install themselves behind the rude shelters or defences that have been constructed.
During the day the guard is simply two men on two hour watches. At night, however, the post is broken up into three little posts of four men each. These are in turn divided into relays of two, which alternate at intervals of one or two hours, as they choose, so that each man has six or seven hours on guard during the night. At daybreak the whole squad is in turn relieved, for picket duty on petit poste is always twenty-four hours. During that time, whether on guard or off, no one is supposed to sleep.
To us, who are lodged now regularly in the cellars of the big château, guard usually falls at points along the park wall. At sunset, in little groups of four, we take up positions at a door, on a scaffolding rigged up inside, or in a little trench dug without. "Guard" means standing here with every nerve strained on the dark world outside; relief, sitting huddled in a blanket near by, walking up and down to shake off drowsiness or stamping the feet to drive out the cold.
When moon or star light makes it possible to see some distance into the orchard, field, or grove outside this job is not so bad. But when the sky is covered and complete darkness draws the lurking menace down to within a few meters of this post then the sentinel creates for himself a thousand imaginary dangers.
As the night wears on the tension begins to tell. The senses of sight and hearing become subject to strange hallucinations. Surely some one is whispering out there in the darkness. Or else it is a low whistle, or such signals as pass between the members of a patrol. A black spot in the night takes shape and seems to move. A human form detaches itself from a tree trunk. As a shot rings out near by along the wall the sentry's hand tightens on his rifle.
The very suspicion of a sound, a broken twig or a trodden stone, may startle him so that he can hear his heart beat. And so, with finger on trigger and every nerve tense he waits, alarmed enough to entertain the illusion but master enough of himself not to fire till the mark is sure.
"More than he who looks for the morning!" Never have I realized the force of this verse as in the interminable fourteen hours of these winter nights. It is heralded now by the morning star. In the last hours of darkness, amid the summer constellations just beginning to appear, the beautiful planet rises, marvellous, resplendent. Not long after the green glow of dawn mantles over the east. The landscape begins to grow visible, the black spots come out in all their innocuous detail. The little groups of men return to the central post. Here the relieving squad comes up before the stars have completely disappeared and the tired watchers are free to return to the château.
If the ordeal has been hard the compensation is delightful. I have said that the degree of comfort we enjoy in the cellars of the château far exceeds any that we had in the trenches. In these subterranean quarters, completely hidden from the enemy, nothing prevents us from burning as many candles as we like. The village cellars provide us with all the coal we need; its haylofts are still full of beautiful sheaves of unthreshed grain, just as they were stacked in midsummer last. By means of the little lake in the park close at hand we are able to keep at least comfortably clean. With these simple necessities attended to we have been able to make ourselves perfectly at home in the great stone vaults of the ruined mansion.
Here in the first hour after dawn the scene is most animated and picturesque. One by one the petits postes return. The men throw down their sacks and by candle light arrange their places for the day and hang up their rifles and equipment. The long, nervous tension finds relief in a hubbub of conversation. "Did you fire ? " "What did the volley mean at such a place and such a time?" A hundred questions pass as comrades reassembling seek to piece together the incidents of the night. Perhaps we ourselves have had a patrol out, and the adventures of these men are eagerly sought after and listened to.
Meanwhile the distribution of food takes place. A hot sup of coffee awaits the soldiers returning from petit poste in the morning. The soldier also "touches" his day's rations of wine, which, heated with a little sugar, makes an excellent sleeping potion. But most precious is the little measure of amber "taffia," or sweet rum, that is doled out only in the trenches and at the front. There is nothing like it for reviving the spirits after a night in the cold. A delicious languor steals through the limbs. Gradually the conversation subsides. One by one the candles are blown out. The soldier lays out his sleeping place carefully, lingers over his preparations, so as to know in its fulness of sensual delight the bliss of falling to sleep.
How insipid beside it seem all the refinements of comfort that peace permits! Though we return to them once more we will never think without fondness of the luxury it was in these days of strenuous toil and robust health to lie down after a night's watch, in the straw covered cellar bottom of our ruined château.
Life, then, in C----- is infinitely more picturesque, more interesting, and more comfortable than life in the trenches, which is the lot of by far the greater part of the troops along the present battle front. What it gains in these respects, however, it loses in excitement. The village itself is without strategic importance, so that the likelihood of an attack en masse at this point is less than at most others. The German position on the plateau above is so strong that, on the one hand, they have no reason to want to better it here, and, on the other hand, the French have more advantageous things to do than to risk a frontal assault.
Their lines at this point, then, are little more than the maintenance
of contact with those of the enemy, their real defensive works,
in case of need, being well in the rear. This ground has not been
very closely contested and there is plenty of latitude to circulate
in between. Confined to the underground shelters during the day
by the artillery that thunders continually all around, yet little
parties are free to go out at night and pursue more primitive
and more exciting methods of warfare. If prolonged inaction becomes
too exasperating there is always this nocturnal man hunting to
break the monotony and no lack of volunteers for it. The simplest
form of it is what we call "shooting up a petit poste."
Under the big pines in the château park we left a little mound and cross the first time we returned from C-----. In modern warfare, where the chances for individual prowess are so reduced, one must give credit to the man who can achieve it one way or another, even if he be an enemy. And it was a little coup d'audace, well conceived and well executed, that cost us the life of our corporal the first night at the château.
The third guard had just gone on. Two sentinels were placed at a point in the wall where the breach made by a shell had been rudely barricaded. Enough of the hole was left open to command a view of the hillside approaches by which an attack might be delivered, but of the ground immediately on the other side nothing at all. The moon had just risen.
The sentinels had hardly been on long enough to reconnoitre their post when a grenade fell at their very feet. The fuse sputtered a second and went out without explosion. A bolt out of the blue could not have astonished the two men more. With sickening certainty the realization came upon them that the enemy had approached without their knowledge and were standing there two yards away without their being able to strike a blow in self-defence.
It was a moment for quick decision. Yet no course of action that presented itself seemed very satisfactory. To fire was useless, for no possible angle commanded the ground just behind the wall. The call to arms might have precipitated the danger, which still hanging in suspense offered a better opportunity for overcoming. Leaving his comrade at the breach, therefore, the mobile sentry ran down to the petit poste, which was only about fifty yards along the walk, and called up the corporal of the guard, warning him of what had occurred.
A little incredulous, the old soldier buckled on his equipment, took his rifle, and preceding the sentinel, walked up the path toward the barricade. Before he had time to arrive another fuse appeared spinning over the wall at the same spot. Realizing the danger, he cried out to the sentinel who had remained, to save himself. He had hardly spoken when the bomb burst with a terrific explosion. Turning toward the petit poste the corporal shouted "Aux armes! " These were his last words. Almost simultaneously with the explosion of the grenade the enemy burst in the barricade, fired down through the smoke, and were off again before the bewildered men inside had time to answer. They shot well, for almost with the first ball the old veteran of Morocco and Tonkin fell, struck in the temple, and never moved again.
That night there was not much difference at petit poste between the two hours on guard and the two hours off. Every one was on the alert, keyed up with apprehension. But nothing happened, as indeed there was no reason to suppose that anything would. Only about midnight, from far up on the hillside, a diabolical cry came down, more like an animal's than a man's, a blood-curdling yell of mockery and exultation.
In that cry all the evolution of centuries was levelled. I seemed to hear the yell of the warrior of the stone age over his fallen enemy. It was one of those antidotes to civilization of which this war can offer so many to the searcher after extraordinary sensations.
V. - February 17---March 24, 1915
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