FEBRUARY 17---MARCH 24, 1915
The deadlock. A narrow escape. Varying types of légionnaires. A promenade. Manoeuvres. The "Marseillaise."
February 17, 1915.
You are quite wrong about my not realizing what I was going into when I enlisted. I had not been living for two years in Europe without coming to understand the situation very well and I was under no illusion that the conflict which was to decide the fate of empires and remake the map of Europe would be a matter of a few months. I knew that it would be a fight to the finish, just as our Civil War was. The conflagration, far from diminishing, seems to be spreading. The lull during the winter has allowed each side on this front to fortify itself so strongly that, in my opinion, the deadlock here is permanent. On the Eastern front the Russians under French direction may be able to accomplish something, but so far the Germans seem to have had all the best of it. The easiest solution to see is the entrance of Italy into the hostilities, which might have the same effect as Roumania's action in the Balkan War. But personally I can see no end at present. It will probably come about through influences other than military and such as are quite unforeseen now. At all events I do not expect to be liberated this year. . . .
Our Jan. 20 rumor of going to Orléans evaporated into thin air. Now it is Feb. 27 to Vincennes. Someone has suggested that they really meant Feb. 29th. But I do hope we shall have a little change of air soon. Will stop now for it is hard writing amid a Babel of conversation.
February 26, 1915.
We have been here for six days in the trenches, out beyond the ruined village of C----- and half way up the hill to the enemy's lines. It is quite the most advanced post we have held so far. We are not in fear of an attack here but the danger from patrols out looking for trouble has kept us on the alert these last nights. Guard all night, sleep all day,---that has been the programme. The moon has made the strain much less than it would have been had the nights been dark. These advanced posts are really the least dangerous, for one is not exposed to the artillery fire, can sleep all day in peace, or, standing at the door of the dugout, watch the shells raising the mischief with the lines in the rear.
I was shot a few days ago coming in from sentinel duty. I exposed myself for about two seconds at a point where the communication ditch is not deep enough. One of the snipers who keep cracking away with their Mausers at any one who shows his head came within an ace of getting me. The ball just grazed my arm, tore the sleeve of my capote and raised a lump on the biceps which is still sore, but the skin was not broken and the wound was not serious enough to make me leave the ranks.
The Germans are marvellous. You hear their rifles only a few hundred metres off, you feel them about you all the time, and yet you can never see them. Only last night when the moon set behind the crest, it silhouetted the heads of two sentinels in their big trench on top.
Rumors continue to circulate about our going to be relieved and sent to a third line position for a while for a rest. It is four months now that we have been on the firing line,---four months with the noise of the cannon continually in our ears. The latest is that the whole 18th Army Corps, of which we are a unit, is to be replaced by a division of the new English troops. I shall like a little change, but I am becoming resigned to this life and accept with equanimity anything that comes along. I see no end to the thing; it may go on for years. . . .
(On back of picture postcard showing French infantry crossing C-----)
Here is the way we look marching, 1'arme à la bretelle. After six days repos we are going back again to the trenches tonight. In the course of a few weeks we expect to be reviewed by General Joffre, after which we shall probably go back to a second-line position for a rest. There is no chance of serious work before this time. We are just night watchmen at present, which does not please me, but which ought to comfort Mother.
March 12, 1915.
From today on, no more letters nor correspondence of any kind goes out until further notice. As this rule seems to apply to all regiments, it is probably motivated by military reasons. But if it were caused by nothing except a disgraceful article like that of -----'s that you sent me it would not be too severe. I should not think that I would need to tell you that that article is simply the low joke of a mind that thinks it funny to tell lies. If his lies did nothing worse than belittle his comrades who are here for motives that he is unable to conceive, it would be only dishonorable. But when it comes to throwing discredit on the French government that in all its treatment of us has been generous beyond anything that one would think possible, it is too shameful for any words to characterize. This man like many others of his type was long ago eliminated from our ranks, for a person buoyed up by no noble purpose is the first to succumb to the hardships of the winter that we have been through. A miserable weakling, incapable of feeling any generous emotion or conceiving any noble ideal, among the first to surrender in the face of suffering, he gives full rein to his perverted American sense of humor now that he can warm his feet amid the comforts of civilization again and it is his comrades who remain in the face of danger and suffering that must bear the odium that an act like that will throw on the name "American" as soon as it is brought to the notice of the authorities.
I should long ago have pulled strings to get into another regiment were it not, as I say and as I expected, that the winter's trials have pretty well weeded out the objectionable specimens and that the dépôts have sent us up to replace them men that are men and an honor to fight beside. . . . We have many Belgians with us here. Some French boys came up with the last reinforcement who were to commence their service this year or next and who were caught in conquered provinces when the Prussians came in. One was a prisoner in Lunéville three weeks until the French came back and drove out the invaders. Another was the youngest of six sons in a little town near Valenciennes. His five brothers were mobilized at the beginning of the war. When the Germans entered his village he was taken prisoner with all the other young men of military age and made to dig trenches for his captors. He managed to escape one night in the fog and cross the lines. There was nothing left for him but to engage in the Legion, for all his papers were lost. His mother and father remain behind in the village which is still in the hands of the Germans. If you can figure to yourself that mother, whose six sons are in the French army, not one of whom she has had any news from since August, you will have some idea of what is being gone through with over here. . . .
Among so many hours in the soldier's life that modern warfare makes monotonous and unromantic there come those too when the heart expands with accesses of enthusiasm that more than compensate for all his hardships and suffering. Such was the afternoon of the review we passed the other day before the General of our army corps.
All the morning in the hayloft of our cantonment we labored cleaning from rifle and equipment, clothes and person, their evidence of the week in the trenches from which we had just returned. At noon under the most beautiful of spring skies we marched out of the village two battalions strong.
It was pleasant this little promenade, to escape for a while from the narrow circumscription to which we are so strictly confined and get a glimpse of the outer world again from which we have been so long and so completely isolated. Here the littlest things were novel and charming---to pass through new landscapes and villages, to look on women and children again, to see automobiles and get a whiff of gasolene that has the strongest power of evoking associations and bringing back the life that we have left so far, far behind. In contrast with the sinister lifelessness and suspense that reigns along the front, here, as soon as one is out of the zone of artillery fire, all is bustle and busy operations. Along the roads were the camps of the engineers and dépôts filled with material for defence and military works-piles of lumber, pontoon bridges in sections, infinite rolls of barbed wire, thousands of new picks and shovels neatly laid out, that raised groans from the men as they passed, for Cæsar's remark about the spade having won him more than the sword holds curiously true in the Gallic wars of today, at least so far as our experience has gone.
The roads were teeming with life, lumbering wagons and mule trains mingling with thundering motor lorries and Paris auto buses in the immense work of ravitaillement, motor cyclists whizzing back and forth with despatches, chic officers lounging back in the depths of luxurious limousines that were once the pride of the boulevards. Whereas on the firing line each unit has a sense of terrible detachment, here we could feel reassuringly the nation working behind us, the tightened sinews of that great, complex system of which we are but the ultimate points of pressure in the mighty effort it is making.
For fifteen kilometers or so we marched back over hill and vale, singing the chansons de route of the French soldier---along poplar lined canals where the big péniches are stalled, through picturesque villages where the civilians, returned to their reconquered territory, came to their doors and greeted us as we passed. Once we passed a group of German prisoners working on the roads. They looked neat and well cared for and took good-naturedly enough the stream of banter as we marched by.
On the sunny plateau we were joined by the two relief battalions of the regiment that holds the sector to our left, and all were drawn up on the plain in columns of sections by four, a fine spectacle. We had not waited long when the General appeared down the road. He was superbly mounted, was followed by a dragoon bearing the tricolor on his lance and an escort of about a dozen horsemen. Four thousand bayonets flashed in the air as he rode by. Then the band struck up the march of the Second Chasseurs and under the mounted figure, silhouetted on a little knoll, we paraded by to its stirring strains. At the same time, with a great fracas, a big, armed monoplane rose from the fields nearby and commenced circling overhead to protect us from the attack of any hostile aircraft to which our serried ranks offered so tempting a mark.
Again we manoeuvred in position and while the états-majors were conversing we stacked rifles, laid down our sacks and broke ranks. I took the occasion to seek out a soldier of the -----ème and learn something of the kind of life they are leading on the plateau to our left. It is much more thrilling than ours apparently. The position is one of considerable strategic importance, so that the lines run within a stone's throw of each other, Sapping and mining go on incessantly. The noise of rifle firing never stops up there on the crest, and the nights are lit up continually with the glare of magnesium rockets. As if the menace of having the trench blown up at any moment under their feet was not trial enough, the proximity of the lines at this point subject the French soldiers to the fire of the "minenwerfer," or bomb thrower, those engines of destruction that were one of the several novelties that German prevision introduced into the present war.
The projectiles, as I understand it, are thrown from a spring gun, and not by explosive force, so that there is no explosion on their leaving the cannon. A sentinel with a whistle stands in the French line; whenever he sees one of these bombs arrive he gives the signal and anybody that is outside in the trenches dives into the nearest shelter at hand till the terrific explosion that they produce is past. Fortunately the fire of these machines cannot be trained with much accuracy.
I asked this soldier if they had been attacked lately and he described to me their last engagement, a typical assault in the desperate kind of struggle that goes on at these points of close contact along the front. A ditch has been dug previously to the very edge of our lines of barbed wire. For hours before the attack is to be delivered the trenches are deluged with artillery fire so intense that the French are unable to man their first line defences, but must remain back in the communicating galleries waiting the decisive moment.
Suddenly the guns are silent and simultaneously the enemy pours out of the ditch forty, thirty yards away. Some carry wire cutters, others hold the rifle in the left hand and with the right shower the trenches with grenades that they draw from sacks slung over the shoulder. The French rush to their crénaux. The roar of rifle and machine gun fire bursts out, and a brief, ferocious struggle ensues, which is simply a question of the speed and number of balls that can be discharged in a given number of seconds and the speed and number of men that in the same time can be rushed against the position.
The attack in question was a complete failure and only resulted in piling higher the heaps of dead that lie where they fell in the continuous battle that at this point has been going on now for six months, with alternations of success that in no case can be estimated in more than fractions of a hundred meters.
Before I had time to gather details of this affair from my comrade of the ----ème the order "Sac au dos" ran through the ranks. Baïonnette au canon!" "Présentez-armes!" went from captain to captain. Again the flash of the 4,000 bayonets. And while the battalions stood there, silent, motionless, the band broke out into the "Marseillaise."
At the first bars of the familiar strains even the horses felt the wave of emotion that rippled over the field and whinnied in accompaniment. There was something sublime about it there in such a place and under such circumstances. Unconsciously our lips framed the words of the wonderful song. Instinctively our eyes turned to the north. There on the furthest ramparts of the bare hills was the faint white line that marked the enemy's trenches, and two hundred, one hundred, fifty yards below, our own, where the comrades of our alternating battalions were even then engaged in the grim conflict-pressing always on, desperately, determinedly, heroically.
Quoi, ces cohortes étrangères
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers!
How marvellously every phrase of the song of 1792 applied to the situation of 1915!
Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
The crisis was the same, the passion the same! May our hearts in the hour when the supreme demand is to be made on us be fired with the same enthusiasm that filled them as we stood there on the sunny plateau listening to the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine!
All were in high spirits as we marched home that evening. We took a short cut, cross-country, for it was already getting dark enough to traverse without danger the field where we passed a while exposed to the distant artillery. The last glow of sunset shone down the gray valley, illumining with a brazen lustre the windings of the river as we tramped back over the pontoon bridge and into cantonment again. Something breathed unmistakably of spring and the eve of great events.
And that night in our candle-lit loft we uncorked bottles of bubbling champagne. Again the strains of the noble hymn broke spontaneously from our lips. And clinking our tin army cups, with the spell of the afternoon still strong upon us, we raised them there together, and we too drank to "the day."
APRIL 15---APRIL 28, 1915
Rousseau's "Confessions." Routine of the trenches. Work and exercises at the rear. Night patrol. Death between the lines. German letters. Enemies' courtesies.
TO HIS SISTER
(Written in pencil on the fly leaves of
"Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau," Genève, MDCCLXXXII.)
We have just come back from six days in C----- where we were cantonnés in the caves of the petit château that I described in my last letter in the Sun. We put in a very pleasant week here,---nine hours of guard at night in our outposts up on the hillside; in the daytime sleep, or foraging in the ruined villages, loafing in the pretty garden of the château or reading up in the library. We have cleaned this up now, and it is an altogether curious sensation to recline here in an easy-chair, reading some fine old book, and just taking the precaution not to stay in front of the glassless windows through which the sharpshooters can snipe at you from their posts in the thickets on the slopes of the plateau, not six hundred metres away. Sometimes our artillery opens up and then you lay down your book for a while and, looking through a peek-hole, watch the 75's and 120's throw up fountains of dirt and débris all along the line of the enemy's trenches.
Here is a volume from the library. I hope it will become one of the treasures on your shelves. It must be a very early if not the first edition of the "Confessions." You see it is only the first half, published probably before the work was completed. I have never read the "Confessions" except desultorily, but I am very fond of the "Promenades," which you will also find here, especially the fifth, about the Ile St. Pierre.
Spring has come here at last and we are having beautiful weather. I am going in swimming in the Aisne this afternoon for the first time. In fine health and spirits. . . .
ON THE AISNE,
I have delayed writing in the hope that something would happen here exciting enough to make really interesting reading. The London Times brings vivid accounts of the fighting at Neuve Chapelle and the copies of the Matin and Journal have personal narratives of the men who saw action in the Woëvre and in Champagne. Besides these, full of the real flavor of battle, what is there for one to say who belongs to those units that have only been waiting inactive, preparing for the great events that advancing spring ought to be bringing nearer and nearer?
Yet on the other hand these units form really the great majority of the forces now on the front, as the scantiness of the official communiqués readily shows, and a description of our life during this interlude may have the interest at least of being typical of that of most of our several million other French and English comrades.
My Servian friend was telling me last night how at one time in his country's history there was a class of soldiers who remained continually mobilized on the frontier, always on a war footing ready to defend their land. These were the Granichari, around whom popular imagination has woven a whole cycle of poetry and romance. By means of signal fires they gave warning of the Turks' approach. As we stood on guard back in the reserve trenches, alert for the fusillade that would mean the calling to arms of our company, it seemed to me that much the same thing was the case in France to-day. Only, whereas in old Servia these defenders were a picked corps of men, here it is practically the entire able bodied male population who make a living wall across the country that they are there to protect or perish for.
In this line our situation is about as agreeable as is consistent with a state of war, which indeed, we are often able almost to forget. Our earlier discomforts were largely due to ignorance and an inevitable inability to adapt ourselves to the conditions of a kind of warfare that even to the old soldiers among us was a novelty. Six months have taught us all many things; our life is now arranged with methodical regularity and proceeds along a fixed schedule.
By a system of reliefs by alternating battalions the disposition of our time is as follows: Six days in the first line trenches, six days repose in our village headquarters ten kilometers back; then six days reserve in the woods; six days again in the village, and so the routine recommences. Thus we have three distinct kinds of existence. I will give you a description of each one of these.
Of the three periods, every one of us would agree, that at the outposts is by far the pleasantest. For one thing we are fairly free from bombardment, being at a difficult angle under the enemy's crest. And even more important, we are entirely free from work. The soldier does not object to danger, which it is his business to face, but he does decidedly object to the hard labor incident to trench warfare, which he feels is really not his affair at all, but that of the engineer corps, whose number, however, is quite inadequate to the immensity of the task. The pleasantest of our life here is due also to the fact that our company's sector is not open country, but the ruined village that I described to you in my last letter, where we are able to provide ourselves with comforts which our comrades in the trenches must do without.
At C----- nowadays we are housed in a little building that was once the stable or garage of the petit chateau. During the night every one mounts guard in the trenches up the hillside; in daytime the sentinel furnished by a single post is all that is necessary, making it possible for the rest of us to enjoy complete repose and freedom.
At sundown we assemble in the court of the château, with blanket and tent cover and march out to the posts. Some of these are in a cemetery that got in the way of the flood tide of the Battle of the Aisne. The retreating Germans must have made a stand behind the mounds and grave stones, for the place has been frightfully bombarded. The shells that do not respect even the dead have shattered the monuments and burst open the sepulchres. Quantities of chloride of lime, liberally sprinkled about, are a remedy that is not much better than the evil, and the rats as big as rabbits that scurry under the banks and hedges and discourage one from lying down between watches make this the least desirable of all posts.
Better are the trenches further up the hillside, where in the calm of night, disturbed only occasionally by a fusillade or the cannon's double boom, one can contemplate at his ease the vast panorama spread out below, dim under the circling stars or emerging in the pale lustre of beautiful dawns.
Further up the slope the voices of the enemy are plainly audible. Even wider to them stretch those magnificent horizons, and I often wonder with what feelings they regard them. Beyond the utmost ridges they had once penetrated, before our victory at the Marne threw them back to the bitterly contested plateau, strewing all the fields and roadsides between with their dead. There below them southward---tempting, provoking---lies expanded, almost coquettishly, the fair realm of France, and over behind the sunset hills---Paris! Violators outwitted, is it the regret of an irretrievable defeat that fills their long watches up there, or the hope of making another and more successful assault?
All our outposts now, no less than our main lines of defence, are protected by formidable barbed wire entanglements, behind which we can rest secure from the surprises that cost us lives in the early days of the campaign. The Germans have done no less on their side. In fact night resounds with the hammering of stakes from all directions and in the quiet of his lonesome watch the sentinel imagines with amazement what will be the cost of life for either army that attempts to break through a line which seven months of continuous work have fortified with all the murderous defences that ingenuity can devise.
At 3 o'clock now the east begins to pale, and an hour later the posts can return. Picking up our blankets we hurry down the hillside, through the cemetery and back to the château on the edge of the village. An hour of animated conversation ensues as the day's distribution is made and the places laid in the straw. Then a fine siesta until the cry of "soupe" calls us all out again around 11 o'clock.
In the long afternoons no one has any desire to sleep. Warm sunshine fills the enclosed garden of the château. Here the birds are singing and the buds swelling. Shielded from the sharpshooters up the hillside, one can write, sew, clean his gun and equipment, or attend to the hundred little things that fill the soldier's idle hours. Or he can walk in the château through a shell hole in the wall, climb to the first floor over a staircase level with débris, and picking his way through the litter of insecure floors find out the little library, where beautiful books still line the shelves. Here he can read under the strangest conditions imaginable Rousseau's "Confessions" or Voltaire's "History of Charles XII."
On the evening of the seventh day, when we are to be relieved, we go out into the village and bring back loads of unthreshed grain that American harvesting machinery has bound into most convenient little bundles. These we strap on our sacks to take back to the village in the rear for bedding. I was curious to know the weight we carried on these marches, and finding a twenty kilo weight I balanced a plank and placed this on the other end. Sack, cartridge belt and portable pick more than tipped it up, besides which one must add rifle, two haversacks strung over each shoulder and two canteens. But such is the hardening of a winter's campaign that one can carry this load of well over sixty pounds ten kilometers (six miles) back over a sandy road with only one stop and feel none the worse for it at the end.
Our life during the six days in the rear is of a nature designed to counteract the effect of the six days of enforced inaction at the front. It means chiefly work and field exercises. There is always one afternoon of target practice when, after many a period in the trenches without seeing a mark, it is a pleasure to hear the Lebel speak and to get a line on one's marksmanship. In a big abandoned sugar refinery some eight or ten kilometers down the valley some fine hot showers have been arranged for all the troops in this section and a march down here with soap and towel comes on every visit to the rear and is greatly enjoyed by all.
Though these weekly returns to the rear are a relief after the strain of outpost work the element of danger is not really any further removed, for the village is well within the range of artillery fire, though hid by an intervening ridge, and shells came whistling into it occasionally, especially in reprisal for some misadventure on the. firing line. Thus the depot of the regiment on our right, who had wiped out a German post a few days before, was bombarded the other evening, and the pretty village whose old Gothic church peeks over the green ridge a mile east of us was veiled for half an hour in clouds of black smoke and the dust of the explosions in the narrow streets. A chance shell that came through the roof of a building where an artillery regiment was cantoned in our village one night cost more lives than were lost during their whole retreat from Belgium.
The third period---that in the reserve trenches a mile back in the forest from the front line--- is the six days that are looked forward to generally with least pleasure. This is because it is the duty of the companies in reserve to work on the defences and the labor is infinite. Here we live in earthen dugouts, like all the rest of the trenches, the bottom covered with straw brought from C----- and the roof made of bags heaped over with branches and dirt.
Though the week in the second line is the period of hardest work it also brings opportunities for the most excitement, for the companies in reserve are also those which furnish the night patrols of reconnaissance. Patrouille! How the heart beats to hear the word go round in the afternoon and to learn that one has been chosen to take part in it. To escape from the eternal confinement of the trenches, to stalk out into the perilous zone between the lines and there where death may lurk in every thicket and uncertainty encompasses one close as the night, to court danger for several hours under a fine starlit sky, this is the one breath of true romance that we get in the monotonous routine of trench warfare.
I have always thought that in a sense this night patrol work was the most exacting on the nerves of all soldier's duties. In great actions where comrades fight elbow to elbow there are all sorts of external stimulants and supports. Each man is his neighbor's prop, there is the spoken and the unspoken encouragement, and borne up on a wave of contagious enthusiasm, individuals act no longer as such but in mass and every one is as brave as the bravest. Besides one sees clearly, knows from which direction the danger will come and pretty much what to expect, and usually has ample time to prepare himself and muster up all his forces for the shock.
To the member of the little company creeping out over a battlefield in cold blood in the dead of night, all this is lacking. From every side the menace points, behind every turn the ambush may be hidden. He has nothing to rely on but his own sang-froid. Advancing over the ground strewn with bodies he faces in every shadow the possibility of the sudden volley at point blank that will lay him cold among them. It is a kind of adventure that the true sportsman will appreciate.
We went out, fifteen men, a few nights ago to reconnoitre a new ditch that had appeared on the face of the hillside high up under the German lines. The moon in its first quarter, highly veiled by clouds, made the conditions good. We left about 9 o'clock, marching by twos down the wood road to C-----. Once more the familiar passage through its barricaded streets, between its riddled walls and skeleton roofs and we walked on beyond and up the hill through a communication ditch to the outer trenches. Here a few brief instructions were given and the chef de poste was advised to tell his sentinels of our sortie and so we waded out over the barbed wire, for all the world like launching off over the surf from the security of land into the perilous unknown beyond.
The night was warm and windless. There were fruit trees all about this part of the hillside. They were clouded with bloom, reminding one of Japanese prints. But another odor as we advanced mingled with that of the blossoms, an odor that, congealed all through the winter, is becoming more and more intense and pervasive as the warm weather increases. Among the breaths of April, fragrant of love and the rebirth of life, it intrudes, the sickening antithesis---pungent, penetrating, exciting to madness and ferocity, as the other to tenderness and desire---the odor of carrion and of death.
We had not gone fifty steps when they began to appear, these disturbing relics of the great battle that terminated here on September 20 last, when these hillsides ran with blood. From that day, when our present lines were established, not a living soul had been in this area in daylight, and the rare few who have crossed it at night have been only the fugitive patrols like our own. What wonder then if the dead lie as they fell in the fighting seven months ago. Shapeless, dark masses as one approaches them in the dim moonlight, they come out suddenly at a few steps off in their disfigured humanity, and peering down one can distinguish arms and legs and, last and most unspeakable, the features.
Single or in heaps or files they lie---in attitudes of heroism or fear, of anguish or of pity-some shielding their heads with their sacks from the hail of shrapnel, many with the little "first aid" package of bandages in their hands, with which they have tried to stanch their wounds. Frenchmen and Germans alike, rigid bundles of soaked cloth, filling the thickets, sodden into the muddy beet fields, bare and exposed around the trenches on the bleak upper slopes and amid sacks, broken guns and all the litter of the battlefield.
The sight is one which may well be unnerving the first time, but one soon gets used to it, and comes to look upon these images of death with no more emotion than on the empty cartridge cases around them---which, indeed, in a way they do resemble. Having served their purpose the material shell remains, while their vitality has been dispersed into the universe to enter into new combinations in that eternal conservation of energy which is the scientist's faith and that imperishability of anything that is beautiful in the human personality, which is the poet's.
In general our patrols try to avoid useless collisions, which, as the English manual puts it, "serve no good end, give rise to reprisals and disturb the main body." But of course there is always the chance of running into an enemy's party, and this not infrequently happens, as the sudden fusillades along the hillside show. If a patrol comes close and an enemy's post is alarmed they throw up a fusée---one of the many German innovations in this war which go to show their superior preparedness. The repeated flare of these on a dark night outlines in white fire their battle fronts across the continent.
They have perfected two varieties, both far better than our own, which appeared on this part of the front only a short while ago. One is simply a ball of magnesium or calcium light that is thrown like the ball out of a Roman candle, its brilliance beginning just as it reaches the apex of its curving flight and lasting just during its slow fall, thus lighting up all the surrounding country for several seconds with the most intense glare. The other is the same kind of light, only of longer duration. It is projected by a bomb thrower to that side of the zone to be examined from which the wind is blowing. At the height of about a hundred feet a little explosion lights and at the same time liberates the fire ball, which is ingeniously suspended to a little parachute. It floats therefore horizontally on the wind back over the field of danger, lasting for several minutes and illuminating the country for miles around with a brilliance in which every blade of grass can be seen. When this occurs the patrouilleurs flop into any shelter they can find or, lying among the dead, escape detection as best they may.
The progress of a patrol is necessarily slow and much of the time is spent flat on the ground. As one's position is often enough right next to a body, curiosity may overcome his scruples, and so he can bring back souvenirs that will the next day be the admiration of his comrades---enemy's rifles and other insignia. A notorious pilferer among us brought in five pairs of new shoes that he had found strapped to a German sack the other night.
The most interesting finds of the kind that I have seen were some letters that a man brought in a few nights ago from a German body up on the hill. They were postcards, dated the last of August and the first of September last. I wish I had taken them down textually so that you could share some of the emotion that was mine, contrasting with the poor shell of humanity up there in the grass these so living tokens of the ties that once bound him to earth. It was Austin Dobson's "After Sedan" exactly. The cards, that were wonderfully preserved, were addressed to a certain "Muskatier Maier, bei Strasburg, the 136th Regiment of Bavarian Infantry," if I remember correctly. They were headed "Mein Lieber Bruder," "Lieber Sohn"---simple little family messages, reflecting a father's pride, a sister's love, a mother's fears. Far away in some German village they have long since found his name in the lists of missing. But soon we will go out in the night and bury these bodies nearest our lines as a sanitary measure, and the manner of his death or the place of his nameless grave they will never know.
Patrol work is the only way of winning laurels in the absence of actual fighting, and the little parties that go out have no end of adventures that make the conversation of the camp for days to come. Seven weeks ago two Polish deserters came into the lines and gave us valuable information. That night the patrol that went out left the prisoners' menu card for that day stuck on the barbed wire in front of a German post. A few days ago another patrol passing the same spot found a basket in which the Germans had placed two bottles of Munich beer, a box of cigarettes, some chocolate, sandwiches and other samples of their diet, which, it must be said in justice to them, was not bad. On top were three letters addressed to us, "Dear Comrades," and couched in excellent French.
The tone of these was most polite. They said that they had been there all the winter in front of us and felt we were quite old friends now, though they had never seen any of us except at the end of bullet flight. They said that they had seen in our press reports to the effect that they were suffering from hunger and so enclosed this specimen of their daily fare to show what they were really enjoying.
The rest of the letters expressed much the same sentiments as those which are frequently shot into other parts of the French lines with bow and arrow, namely, that if we wanted peace all we had to do was to come out and sign; that England was their real enemy---why should France go on fighting and suffering terrible losses to pull England's chestnuts out of the fire? They hoped that peace would soon be signed and that a friendship and alliance would follow between France and Germany which would leave their hands free to deal with England, who for her selfishness and greed was really the common enemy of all mankind. They had three mobile posts up there in the woods, they said, and knew every time that we approached (which I don't believe), but did not fire, only signalled to each other and waited.
Firing as a matter of fact is becoming rarer and rarer along the line now in comparison to what it was in the winter, when Mauser and Lebel sputtered at each other all through the night. I have no doubt if we were to remain here much longer under the same conditions that there would be a kind of tacit understanding not to fire at outposts and that there would even develop neutral zones and surreptitious commerce between the sentinels, as I have heard from veterans was the case in the latter years of our civil war. For the evolution of hostility is naturally toward chivalry, not toward unmitigated ferocity.
The hymns of hate, the rancor and vindictiveness are the expressions of non-combatants whose venom has time to accrue in the quiet of studies far from the noise of the cannon. To the actual combatant the sense of the grandeur of his calling is too strong upon him to let such ignoble trivialities intrude. Without striking any the less strongly when the time comes he is yet ready enough to pay tribute to his enemy where tribute is deserved, and glad enough to be able to say of him as the old Spanish romancer said of his country's deadliest foe:
Aunque moros, hijos d'algo."'
MAY 10---JUNE 15, 1915
The Lusitania. Fusées éclairantes. The coming of spring. Dangers of trench life. An impending change of scene. On the march. Ludes. Puisieulx. The Ferme d'Alger. La Pompelle. The Aisne valley. Review of the eight months on the. front.
May 10, 1915.
We all had our third typhoid inoculation yesterday and every one is laid up, weak and feverish. There is a big bombardment going on up the river at Berry-au-Bac and we are all hoping not to have an alert, for it would be hard to do any work under such conditions. I do not imagine we shall have anything doing here, however, for the main operations seem to be in Flanders.
Summer has come here almost without any spring at all. The valley is very beautiful, all the orchards in bloom. Up in the woods the birds sing all day and I love to listen to the cuckoos, particularly in the early dawn at the outpost.
We have all been very excited about the news of the Lusitania. I suppose American public sentiment is terribly wrought up, but I have no hope that Washington will do anything and I was not surprised to see that Ambassador Gerard had been instructed to ask for an official report, on the basis of which a new note will be drawn up. Why in the name of all dignity does not the American government act or shut up, for the Gazette de Cologne explicitly states that all indignant protestations will be received with absolute coldness?
I cannot understand the American state of mind, nor why Americans have the temerity to venture into a declared war-zone, much less let their wives and children go there, when anyone with a grain of sense might have foreseen what has happened. They might just as well come over here and go out Maying in front of our barbed wire.
I think we are here in this sector for good now and no one talks any longer of repose. All the regiments around us are in just about the position where they crossed the Aisne in September, the life on the front is being admirably organized and we enjoy a degree of comfort now really inconsistent with a state of war. There are two shops in the village and we can buy practically everything we need.
Night of violent attacks. All yesterday we listened to the hum of aeroplanes overhead and watched them cruising about amid their little satellites of shrapnel puffs as the vertical batteries bombarded them. About an hour after nightfall the firing began on a sector a few miles to our right, at first the abrupt fusillade, then the rumble of grenades, then the cannon entered into the medley, and the rattle of rifle and machine gun was completely drowned in the steady thunder of high explosives. At regular intervals a terrific explosion as a heavy piece bombarded a village behind our lines to embarrass re-enforcements coming up.
From our outpost on the hillside we had a fine view of a magnificent spectacle. The German fusées kept shooting up like the "flower pots" to which we are used on the Fourth of July. The French fire rockets, mounting twice as high, let out their ball of vivid light that floated on the wind a minute or so over the battlefield. Beside the white glare of the fireworks the explosions of shell and bomb are momentary pinheads of red. A while and the lights become lurid and blurred in layers of smoke. The big guns far from the main scene of action begin to take up the chorus, firing on the flashes. Our own heavy batteries several kilometers back begin to thunder and we listen to the projectiles whistling overhead among the stars. . . .
Went out on guard this morning at dawn. An angle of buttercup field and forest. One would never have thought that it could be so beautiful, this world of green and blue that suddenly, almost without perceptible gradation, has succeeded the world of black and gray which has made winter so discouraging here, the air sweet with exhalations from the heavy, dew drenched grass. From the forest the sweet call of cuckoos and wood pigeons. May morning, rustle of leaves, sunshine, tranquillity. . . .
Today was the sixth and last at second line petit poste. Fine weather, warm and sunny. Some of the men, careless after a week without bombardment, were up on top of the turf-covered bombproof playing cards. Suddenly the distant boom of a cannon, and then, half a second later---whang! A shrapnel had burst twenty yards away in the branches of the grove that screened us from the enemy.
The sudden stampede into the dugout, then a heart-rending cry, and the frantic voices: " Pick up -----! pick up -----! " Two men go out, braving the momentary recurrence of the danger with that unassuming courage which is a matter of course in the trenches. They bring in the poor comrade, cruelly, mortally wounded. Another, less badly, has had his shoulder torn. We wait till the next shell bursts immediately overhead with a deafening crash. A man has been waiting for it, crouching in the doorway like a sprinter waiting for the signal. By the time the third shell comes he is far away in his race for the litter-bearers half a mile back. Until they arrive we who are not necessary to tend the wounded sit with downcast eyes and shaken nerves, trying not to look or listen, while six other shells in regular succession burst outside, the fragments pattering on the roof of the dugout and the acrid smell of the powder drifting inside.
This is the most distressing thing about the kind of warfare we are up against here. Never a sight of the enemy, and then some fine day when a man is almost tempted to forget that he is on the front----when he is reading or playing cards or writing home that he is in the best of health---bang! and he is carried off or mangled by a cannon fired five kilometers away. It is not glorious. The gunner has not the satisfaction of knowing that he has hit, nor the wounded at least of hitting back. You cannot understand how after months of this one longs for the day when this miserable trench warfare will cease and when in the élan of open action he can return blow for blow.
How is it that the enemy know so well our positions, for we are well hidden and they probably see no more of us than we of them? One principal way was explained to me by a friend who had visited the aviation fields a few days ago. While we take pains to keep concealed from the enemy's lines opposite, the aeroplanes are so much a matter of course that one scarcely takes the trouble to look up when the hum of a motor is heard, much less of ducking underground.
But here is a very real danger. It is not so much from the bombs that they occasionally drop on the lines and on the villages in the rear, but the observer up there with a camera of powerful telescopic lens is photographing all the time the country underneath. The film is developed that night and the prints scrutinized under a microscope. Details show up in this way that would escape the naked eye. It is thus that batteries and camps, posts and all kinds of military works are located.
The next day the gunner, in possession of the exact knowledge, can point his piece at leisure, and the moment when he thinks he can do most damage, sends us a few shells when the humor takes him and when we least expect them.
In billets again. Was out on guard early this morning. Suppressed excitement in the little village as the streets begin to fill with officers and soldiers. Then a friend passes. " Eh, bien! On y met," he calls out. Who that prides himself on his knowledge of French can translate that? It is an abbreviation for "on met les cannes," which, I will probably still have to explain, means that we are going to clear out. The rumor is soon confirmed. Yes, after just seven months in this more or less tranquil sector we are actually going to get the change we have all been longing for, and on twelve hours notice too. We leave tonight. Where? Nobody knows; but nobody doubts that it is to be into the thick of it.
I should like to give you some impressions of the state of mind before going into action, but unfortunately there is no time. The sacks must be made right away. Let me only say that I am heartily glad, and this feeling is increased when the news comes that poor little -----, who was wounded the other day, has died in hospital. Poor boy! It was the best thing for him.
It is good to get away from the constant danger here of dying thus ingloriously. If it must be, let it come in the heat of action. Why flinch? It is by far the noblest form in which death can come. It is in a sense almost a privilege to be allowed to meet it in this way. The cause is worth fighting for. If one goes it is in company with the élite of the world. Ave atque vale! If I write again it will no doubt be to tell you of wonderful things.
We are all in fine form, fit and eager for the assault. I think it will come soon.
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
May 24, 1915.---Left Cuiry-les-Chaudardes after almost seven months on the Aisne. Were replaced by the 34ème that came over from Beaurieux. Marched out at midnight. Stopped at dawn on the roadside on the plateau of Merval and had breakfast. Waited here for the autobuses. They arrived by hundreds about noon and, embarking, we came back over about the same route we traversed in October. Got out and had supper in a spot that looked out over the plains of Champagne, a wonderful picture, with Reims and the Cathedral in the distance. Marched from there by night to Ludes, where we passed the night in the stables of a Mumm établissement. Leave tonight for the trenches.
Puisieulx, May 25.---Spent a pleasant day in Ludes. . It is like getting back into civilization again after seven months in the woods on the Aisne,---plenty of civilians, women and children, stores open. Rassemblement at sundown. Marched here over the plains and are to spend six days here in third line and then go up to the first, near the Ferme d'Alger. An important sector with the trenches very close. The regiment has been broken up, it seems, and distributed along this part of the front. Our battalion, at least, (which is generally recognized to be the best) is detached and is alternating with the 38th battalion of Chasseurs à pied. Beautiful spring weather. Glad to be in Champagne.
May 29.---After some days of repos in Puisieulx, came up to the first line trenches yesterday evening. Full moon rising. Passed through a romantic forest, then out over the open fields to the Vesle. Crossed over an improvised bridge, then passed the canal and the railroad tracks. Here the boyau began. A fine piece of work, seven feet deep in the chalky ground and wide enough to walk in with ease. Came to first line which is very elaborately organized, and went out immediately on petit poste. Only a hundred yards from the German line. A great deal of firing at night. Both sides do plenty of bomb-throwing, but very little artillery fire here. Today went out to the outpost also from 4 to 12 m. We are right on the national road from Reims to Châlons, at a point near the fort de La Pompelle, between the Chasseurs and the 411e de ligne. The génie are doing some sapping here; they have made a lateral gallery some distance out to intercept any German saps, in case they try to repeat the manoeuvre that cost them so dear at the Ferme d'Alger a few months ago. Here they exploded mines under our trenches and occupied the crater, but later were chased out by the Tirailleurs Algériens, since when the place has remained in our possession. The lines here are so near that the two sides can talk to each other easily. We told them a few nights ago that Italy had declared war and they yelled back: "Yes, but against you!" Won't they be furious when they learn the truth!
June 3.---Are spending four days of repose in the cagnats on the railroad tracks. The canal with its high poplars where the wind rustles all day long is very pretty. It is pleasant here where we are in close contact with the French soldiers, the 38th Chasseurs, the 86th Territorials and the 411 de ligne. Not much likelihood of action, for all that is happening now is around Arras. Here the 1er Etranger was engaged in the charge at Neuville-Saint-Vaast and suffered heavy losses. Rockwell, who was transferred to the 1er a few months ago, took part in this affair and was wounded in the thigh.
June 10.---Spent six days in second line on the railroad tracks, then came back to a sector on the first, near the Auberge d'Alger. I went up yesterday and looked at the famous entonnoir. It is a huge crater, in the depths of which lie buried who knows how many Germans, Sénégalais and Algériens. The Chasseurs have strongly organized the defenses here, which form a veritable little fortress on a height of ground that completely dominates the Germans. They have pushed in very close however, at one point less than 100 meters. There is a continuous fusillade at night and the echoes that crackle back from the woodsides and distant hills, in all kinds of fantastic modulations, never have time to die into a complete calm. Once in a while a German cries out---"Hey---Français---kaput, kaput." Then piquant dialogues begin, either in French or German, for not only are the two sides near enough to talk back and forth with ease but we can hear them talking among themselves and playing their harmonicas and accordions, a kind of music which the German soldiers seem very fond of. From our little height we can see the towers of the Cathedral of Reims. Smoke often comes out of the chimneys of the factories, operating under the fire of the German heavy guns that let scarcely a day pass without throwing shells into the unfortunate city.
The French offensive around Arras seems to be extending to the south and there have been attacks the last few days at Tracy-le-Mont, between Compiègne and Soissons, and at Ville-aux-Bois, which is only a few kilometers to the right of Craonne. This may explain the surprising announcement circulating this morning, that we are to leave again tonight for a destination inconnue. This pleases me. After the long séjour at Cuiry-les-Chaudardes and Craonnelle, one craves a little variety, and the more the better. These changes are exciting, for no one knows, when we leave, where we are going to end. All kinds of rumors start. Here are some of our destinations as different rumors have them on different authorities this morning: the Dardanelles, the Sucreries de Souchez, Hurtebise, la Ville-aux-Bois and Châlons. Vamos á ver.
June 13.---Left La Pompelle at midnight and walked in the early summer dawn to la Neuville, behind Verzy. Spread blankets in a field, had coffee, lay down and had a good siesta.
Automobiles arrived at noon. Crowded into them, eighteen men to a wagon. Started back west and soon came into same road that we had walked over in October when our squad was escort for the convoi. Held this to Fismes and so back again to the plateau of Merval. Here sac au dos and we marched down to Oeuilly on the Aisne, where we went into billets for the night.
Had a fine swim in the Aisne yesterday afternoon, then early soup, rassemblement, and we started off again. Turned up the Laon road and through Moulins, came to Paissy on the plateau, where we relieved the 6e de ligne, who have been here since October. Picturesque village built along the road that crowns a deep horse-shoe ravine. Bottom filled with poppy fields, tumbling stream, distant vistas. Back in the heroic battle field of the Aisne, with its ruins in the villages and ancient trenches in the fields. Some of the 18e de ligne are also billeted here and it was they who suffered so badly in the German attack on January 25th. I talked with men who were in this affair. It seems the Germans, the morning after the attack, paraded their prisoners on the crest opposite the French.
The second and fourth companies went into the trenches some 1,500 meters beyond. Evidently they made too much noise making the relevé, for the Germans began launching bombs, which killed four men and wounded several others, including the captain of the second company. We stayed in the village in reserve.
Our section was on guard. Mine fell in the night from 12 to 2. Kept watch at a point on the edge of the plateau right beside the emplacement of a 75 which was cleverly concealed. An artilleryman of the 14e slept in a hole in the ground near by. Consigne to wake him if anything happened. Very quiet in comparison with Champagne, where there was a continual fusillade at night and where we amused ourselves in the daytime shooting through the créneaux. Those shots that were fired, however, whistled uncomfortably near the sentinels' ears, cracked in the branches and fell in the ground near by.
The villages in this part of the country are very old, built in stone blocks taken from the famous quarries of the Aisne. These are all about here, immense grottoes in the solid face of the hillside. It was in one of these that the two companies of the 18e were trapped while sheltering themselves from the bombardment.
June 15.---Came up to the reserve trenches a mile northwest of Paissy on the plateau. Here the English fought in September---it was about the extremity of their right wing---and there are many graves of British soldiers in the fields all about. We are at the head of a deep ravine which commands a pretty triangular vista of the valley of the Aisne through a frame of foliage and of the plateau beyond. Hot, sunny summer weather. A lazy period of almost complete repose. The artillery does a little close range work occasionally, but otherwise the utmost calm prevails here. They call this war!
It seems we are going to make another move tomorrow. They say we are going back to Aï, near Epernay, where we shall form part of a division of reserve. This news pleases me immensely. If true it means almost certainly that we shall have henceforth no lack of action and movement and variety. These troops will probably be thrown in to attack at any point along the front where they are needed.
Here then is a fitting place to close this first chapter of my experiences. That we have been eight months on the front without having once attacked or been attacked need not cause any surprise, for a great part of the troops now in the trenches are in the same position. It seems to have been pure hazard that an easy sector fell to us, just as it was good luck that our battalion and Bataillon D had the low sector at Craonnelle, whereas F and G, who were on the crest of Ouldres, suffered almost daily losses during the winter from bombardment. The winter in the trenches was certainly hard, but it is already far enough away for the miseries to fade out of the picture, and for the rest to become tinged with the iridescence of romance. What is Virgil's line about the pleasure it will be sometime to recall having once done these things? I have known that all along, through no matter what fatigue and monotony. Never have I regretted doing what I am doing nor would I at this moment be anywhere else than where I am. I pity the poor civilians who shall never have seen or known the things that we have seen and known. Great as are the pleasures that they are continuing to enjoy and that we have renounced, the sense of being the instrument of Destiny is to me a source of greater satisfaction.
Nothing but good can befall the soldier, so he plays his part well. Come out of the ordeal safe and sound, he has had an experience in the light of which all life thereafter will be three times richer and more beautiful; wounded, he will have the esteem and admiration of all men and the approbation of his own conscience; killed, more than any other man, he can face the unknown without misgiving---that is, so long as Death comes upon him in a moment of courage and enthusiasm, not of faltering or of fear; and that this may, if necessary, be the case, I shall strain all my will the day that it comes round to our turn to go into the furnace. I have a feeling that that day is near at hand.
JUNE 18---AUGUST 8, 1915
Magneux. Châlons-sur-Vesle. The first line trenches. A quiet sector. German rejoicings over the news from Russia. Salut in the village church. The MS at Bruges. Permission in Paris. Back to the trenches. Belgians and Russians leave the Legion. Departure for Haute-Saône. Journey in cattle cars. Vesoul. Plancher-Bas. "Le Cheval Blanc." Pleasant days in the rear. A review at Chaux-la-Chapelle. The "nouba." General Lyautey. A walk with Victor Chapman. For love of France. The tragedies of the village.
June 18, 1915.
Received your letters and clippings yesterday on the march. I am not thinking of anything else but the business in hand, and if I write, it is only to divert the tedium of the trenches and to get a little intellectual exercise of which one stands so much in need now. You must not be anxious about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud, like a Spartan mother, and feel that it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause whose righteousness you feel so keenly. Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals but everyone should bear some part of the burden. If so large a part should fall to your share, you would be in so far superior to other women and should be correspondingly proud. There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier. So do not be unhappy but no matter what happens walk with your head high and glory in your large share of whatever credit the world may give me. . . .
Magneux, June 19, 1915.---Left the reserve trenches above Paissy yesterday at 2 o'clock. Relieved by the 218e. Marched down the picturesque ravine through Moulins into the valley of the Aisne. Crossed the river at Hautes-Rives, then past the sugar refinery where we have been coming to bathe during the winter. Sunny, very hot afternoon.' Came pretty near to dropping on the climb up to the plateau of Merval. Stopped halfway up and had supper in the fields. Then continued through Merval and Baslieux here to Magneux, near Fismes, where we have spent the night. Many civilians here and conditions apparently quite normal. Saw electric lights and railroad trains for the first time in eight months. German aeroplanes have been dropping bombs on Fismes regularly of late and a while ago killed seventeen soldiers d'un seul coup. Our protection against aeroplane attacks is very inferior to the Germans', whose special aeroplane guns shoot very accurately, whereas our ordinary field pieces, turned on so difficult a mark, go very wide.
Châlons-sur-Vesle, June 20.---Left Magneux at 3 o'clock this morning. Marched down the route nationale through Jouchery and Muizon here to Châlons-sur-Vesle, where we arrived at 8.30. Fine summer weather; stood the march well and enjoyed it. A fugitive glimpse of the cathedral towers. I am afraid the Germans are going to bombard Reims and the cathedral as a reprisal for the recent French air raid on Carlsruhe. This morning as we left Magneux we saw a Taube and a few minutes later beard the explosions of the bombs it let fall on Fismes. Why can't the French stop this?
Do not know how long we are going to stay here or whither we are going. Would that we could take part in an assault on the Fort de Brimont, where the Germans have placed the heavy guns that fire on Reims and the cathedral. Fitting death for an artist, to fall avenging this outrage to Art in one of its most perfect manifestations.
Appel this evening at nine. Took a solitary walk about a mile out of the village. Found a high spot that commanded a wonderful view toward the east, with Reims and the cathedral about 10 kilometers off and beyond Nogent and the heights from which the enemy dominate it. Very beautiful country. The first harvest has been reaped and the tan of the haystacks and stubble and the scarlet of the poppy-fields mingles with the fresh green of the early summer landscape. In the distance could be heard the rifle shots and the occasional booming of cannon, but here all is peaceful and quite normal. The women and children have all returned, the men work in the fields, the church-bells toll the hours and quarters. Sat for a long while looking eastward, till the city and the roofless cathedral faded out in the twilight and the waxing moon brightened in the south. Tomorrow we go to the trenches.
June 23.---Came up to the first line trenches at sundown day before yesterday. Marched single file through what seemed miles of boyau. An immense labor has been spent upon these long zig-zag ditches, often six and seven feet deep in the chalk. Went out immediately on poste d'écoute until midnight. A very quiet sector here, with practically no artillery nor rifle fire. There seems to be a kind of entente not to shoot on either side. But the reason may be that the trenches here are on a level plain and the tall grass makes each line invisible to the other. The guards, in the daytime, watch by means of a periscope, through which, raised about a yard above the parapet, the white line of upturned chalk can be seen over the tops of the meadow grass and flowers some two or three hundred yards away. We are about four miles up the line from Reims, about a mile out in the plain from the route nationale where the kitchens are. In front of us is the Fort de Brimont. We have a fine unobstructed side view of the cathedral. The chimneys of the city are smoking. This sector is really too quiet, it is a place for territorials. I do not believe we shall be here long.
June 26.---On poste d'écoute last night from 8 to 12. Great celebration among the Germans opposite,---drunken songs and uproar. Today came the news of the Russian evacuation of Lemberg. That was the reason then. This success of the German armies is of an importance that all the depreciation of the Allied press cannot serve to blind one to. It looks as if munitions were seriously lacking in Russia. I seem to see now the reason for Hindenburg's raid into Courland and the capture of Libau. In conjunction with the present advance in Galicia, this makes a more and more dangerous salient of the Russian central front in Poland. I believe that the Germans will cut in now from north and south and that Warsaw will be theirs within a month. If they will not then have utterly destroyed the Russian armies, they will at least have so far paralyzed them that they will be incapable of any serious offensive for many months to come. Entrenching therefore on a line that they will be at liberty to choose, the Germans will leave on the eastern front just sufficient troops to cope with the demoralized enemy and transport the bulk of their mighty offensive power, flushed with victory, either to the Italian or more likely to the French front.
It would seem as though now, if ever, were the moment for our great offensive here, for the trenches opposite are probably denuded more than they will ever be at any time to come. But the battle around Arras has been raging now for a month or more and yet we seem unable to make any serious progress. Optimism does not run very high among us these days and it is not encouraged by the singing and noisy confidence of the enemy opposite.
Merfy, June 29.---Rumor has it that we are not to be here long, but will make another change of sectors even before our next trip to the trenches. Another winter campaign that we have all been dreading has now become a certainty, and the English papers are not hesitating to talk about the postponement of the Allied offensive until next spring. The Kaiser, however, has made a speech in Berlin, saying that the war would be over before winter.
May 3, 1915.
We have been spending six days in a pleasant little village here behind the lines. Life has resumed much of its normal aspect. Every evening there is salut in the old church and on Sundays mass. The nave is always crowded with soldiers, even though there be few real believers among them. But these services, where the voices of the soldiers mingle in the responses with those of the women and little children of the village, are always peculiarly moving to me. The Catholic religion, idealizing, as it does, the spirit of sacrifice, has an almost universal appeal these days.
Things don't seem to be going very well for the Allies of late. More discouraging to me than the Russian defeats in Galicia is the check of our offensive around Arras, which without doubt was not a local action intended only to gain a strategic position, but was an attempt to break the German lines, deliver Lille, and determine a German retreat from the north of France. In this larger end we seem to have failed. The first regiment of the Légion Etrangère led this attack very gallantly and were almost annihilated. I have friends who were wounded in this affair and I envy them, for we are still condemned to the same old inaction. . . .
Had I the choice I would be nowhere else in the world than where I am. Even had I the chance to be liberated, I would not take it. Do not be sorrowful then. It is the shirkers and slackers alone in this war who are to be lamented. The tears for those who take part in it and who do not return should be sweetened by the sense that their death was the death which beyond all others they would have chosen for themselves, that they went to it smiling and without regret, feeling that whatever value their continued presence in the world might be to humanity, it could not be greater than the example and inspiration they were to it in so departing. We to whom the idea of death is familiar, walking always among the little mounds and crosses of the men "morts au champ d'honneur" know what this means. If I thought that you could feel about me as I feel about them, the single self-reproach I have, that of causing you possible unhappiness, would be mitigated.
I do not say this because I do not expect, eight chances out of ten, to come back safe and sound, but because it is always well to fortify oneself against the undesired event, for by so doing you will make that, if it happens, easier to bear and also you will make the desired, if it occurs, doubly sweet.
The article about Rupert Brooke, in which my name was mentioned (owing to the fact that the editor of this department of the Literary Digest is an old friend of mine), gave me rather more pain than pleasure, for it rubbed in the matter which most rankles in my heart, that I never could get my book of poems published before the war. . . . But there is no use crying over spilt milk. I have no doubt the MS. is safe in Bruges, buried as it is; safer, indeed, than it would be, subject to the risks of transportation now. I have good friends who will charge themselves with it if I should be prevented from doing so myself.
We have finished our eighth month -on the firing-line. Rumors are still going round of an imminent return to the rear for reorganization. I think they may really be true this time. I will try to locate parcels, but do not send any more till I do. . . .
La Neuvillette, July 8.---Our last six days in the trenches were broken by the most memorable, extraordinary, and happy event since we enlisted. On the evening of July 3rd the sergeant came quite unexpectedly to get the names of all Americans wanting permission of 48 hours in Paris! We could hardly believe such good fortune possible. But it seems the American journalists in Paris had made up a petition to get us a Fourth of July holiday, and the Minister of War had accorded it. We fairly danced for joy. To see Paris again after almost a year's absence!
We were to leave immediately. So packing our sacks we walked down the boyau about nightfall to the poste du commandement, where we left all our equipment and got our individual permissions. Then to Merfy, where we spent the night. Next day after breakfast in the village we marched---thirty-two of us in all---to the railway station of Moulin-de-Courmont, on the line from Fismes to Reims, where we got on. the train at two o'clock and left. Arrived at Noisy-le-Sec at nine and continued to the Gare de l'Est on another train. Joy to walk in the streets of Paris again.
Notable absence of men in Paris; many women in mourning. A great many wounded soldiers on congé de convalescence, almost all wearing the old dark blue capote and red trousers. A little malaise and discouragement among the Parisians, probably at the absence of good news from Arras, the certain prospect of another winter's campaign, and the great weariness of the war, which it is difficult for them to realize so far from the front. The visit did me good, on the whole, for with all its bringing home the greatness of the sacrifice I am making, it showed me clearly that I was doing the right thing, and that I would not really be so happy anywhere else than where I am. The universal admiration for the soldier from the front was more than any pleasure. It was a matter of pride, too, to salute the officers in the street, especially the wounded, and feel the fellowship with those who are doing the noblest and most heroic thing that it is given to men to do. . . .
Back to the first line trenches again. Then came down here to second line, where we are cantonné in a big glass factory just at the point where the Aisne canal crosses the route nationale. Factory knocked to pieces by bombardment. Very near Reims, where I hope to get permission to go for a day before we leave. The specialty of this place is beer, which the soldiers bring out from Reims every day at three o'clock.
Rumors of great changes in the regiment which have been going about for a long time, seem now to be coming to a head. The Russians, it seems, are to be sent to the Russian army or allowed to join a French regiment. The same with the Belgians. What is left of us after this drain will be joined with what is left of the 1er Etranger after their charge at Arras, and formed into a single régiment de marche. To put through this reorganization will probably mean our going to the rear for a certain time. Juvisy is the place the rumor has it we are going and the date of our departure July 12. Vamos á ver!
July 11.---Section de garde yesterday. Put in eight hours under the bridge where the national road crosses the canal. Today a comrade and I were to go to Reims, for the captain had promised us permission. I was very anxious to see the state of the city and of the cathedral. But no such luck. We had only come back from the poste de police a few hours when "tout le monde en tenue, faites vos sacs" ran down the line from section to section. At first we thought it was an alerte, but a few minutes later the real explanation came. All Belgians and Russians to leave for the rear immediately! This long-heralded change at last arrived. Great delight among those affected. Great cafard among those not, for it meant that we who were left would have to go back immediately to the trenches, after only two days in second line, to replace the men lost from Battalion F. This we did about midnight and, while half the regiment was noisily commencing its journey back to Orléans, the rest came up through the boyaux to their old emplacements, where after a night on guard we now are. For how long? The departure of the Russians and Belgians will take almost two-thirds of the strength of the regiment. Will it be possible to reorganize here on the front, or will it mean going back for a while to a point behind the lines? We all hope, so. But all is veiled in secrecy at present.
Courcelles (near Reims), July 12.---Stayed in the trenches only twenty-four hours. At midnight we were relieved by the 75th Territorials. Marched back down the boyaux to the glassworks at La Neuvillette, and then continued on down the dark towpath of the canal to Courcelles, on the outskirts of Reims, where we were comfortably cantonnés for the night. Have been working hard all the morning on corvée with the génie. We made three trips to Merfy in a big motor lorry, which we had three times to load and unload with planks and logs. Waiting here with sacks made, expecting momentarily to move. Was accosted this morning by a corporal in the 75e Territorial, who remembered seeing me in Lavenue's at Paris, and recognized me, in spite of moustaches and short hair. I remembered him, too.
Couthenans (Haute-Saône), July 15.---Spent a quiet night and day in Courcelles. Then yesterday morning before daybreak, réveil, sac au dos, et départ. We marched to Muizon, and there the battalion entrained for the first time since the trip to Mailly in October. Cattle cars with benches, one section per wagon, very crowded. An exciting journey, for no one had any idea where we were going. The first general supposition was Orleans, via Noisy-le-Sec, for we knew at least that the chief reason for our going to the rear was reorganization, after the serious thinning of our ranks occasioned by the loss of the Belgian and Russian volunteers, and probable amalgamation with what was left of the 1er Etranger that was cut up at Arras. This hypothesis was shaken, however, at a junction near Fère-en-Tardenois, when we turned southward on a branch line to Château-Thierry. We still cherished hopes of going to Orléans by a roundabout way, even as far as Châlons, and watched eagerly every junction where a line turned to the right. When at Châlons we forked to the left, the last ray of hope was extinguished and every one was sure that we were headed directly for the terrible sectors of the Argonne and the Meuse. But this discouragement was relieved when, after passing Vitry-le-François (where there was a cemetery filled with crosses for the men who fell in the big battle here in September) we did not branch up to Bar-le-Duc, but turned south to Saint-Dizier. The impression then began to grow that we were going down to Lyon, the dépôt of the 1er Etranger, and thence to the Dardanelles.
Next morning, however, after one of those frightful nights in troop trains, where, packed together, one cannot stretch out in spite of sleepiness, we woke up at Vesoul. Alsace then seemed to be a certainty to everyone. I for my part was glad, for it is of all places the one which I would choose to fight in and, if need be, to fall. At Belfort we learned our true destination---Montbéliard. Arrived here we expected to go immediately into some caserne. No such luck.
In spite of lack of sleep and the fatigue of the journey, we had to put sac au dos and start off in a pouring rain on a ten kilometre "hike" to Couthenans. In the villages on the way were cantonned the Algerian tirailleurs who had taken part in the Arras actions. Splendid-looking troops in their new khaki uniforms. Here had been cantonned the remains of the 1er Etranger, but they moved them elsewhere, for there was some idea against the two regiments coming in contact. So now we are back again with the old Moroccan division, the troupes d'élite. We shall be here probably several weeks and then go immediately into some important action. It looks as if the Germans will make an attempt to regain the ground we have taken from them across the Vosges; there are even reports that Hindenburg is coming into Alsace. I expect that we shall go into something very exciting shortly. Meanwhile we are. to be reorganized and put through exercises such as we had in Toulouse and Mailly. The country here is very pretty and the inhabitants gentils.
Plancher-Bas (Haute-Saone), July 17.---All previsions were reversed last night, when the order came to hold ourselves in preparation for immediate departure. This morning réveil at 4 o'clock and sac au dos. Marched here about 18 or 20 kilometers, through a pleasant hilly country, covered with deep woods and rich meadows, the heavy verdure and vegetation of a land of frequent showers. Beyond Chagey passed a monument to the local soldiers of 1870 and presented arms as we marched by. Had a good breakfast at the little inn on arriving; then went out with the squad on 24 hours' guard. The whole Légion Etrangère is marching with us and every one expects that we are going into action. I have had the pleasure of meeting Victor Chapman, who is in the mitrailleuse section of a regiment de marche of the 1er. It will be pleasant to be together in the big events that we are undoubtedly soon to take part in.
July 19.---I guess we are to be here some time. It is a delightful cantonment. In the little inn, "Le Cheval Blanc," right opposite the house where we are billeted, one can dine very well and linger over coffee and petits verres. It is the arrière in every sense. Once or twice I have fancied that I caught the distant voice of the cannon in Alsace, but in general one feels far removed from the theatre of war. It is the first country we have been in near the front that the Germans have not passed through, and all the civils are here pursuing their ordinary occupations. The race seems to be strong here, the peasant women buxom and often really pretty.
We are right at the foot of the Vosges and the scenery is charming. This morning everyone was full of good will and good spirits, and we really enjoyed the drill and exercises in a big meadow near the town, under a blue sky washed clear by the last few days' rains. We shall probably put in a good deal of time in field exercises from now on, which we are really in need of after a winter in the trenches. They will stand us in good stead if we are to attack in Alsace, as I hope. King returns today after two months' permission, and reports that the French are concentrating here in the East, in view of big operations to come. Wagon-trains of the Moroccan division pass through here continually, conducted by swarthy indigènes in khaki and red fez. They will be good men to fight beside.
Today comes the report that the Germans have crossed to the northern front in Poland, and are therefore seriously threatening the Warsaw-Petrograd Railway. The military situation on the Russian front is very interesting. The Grand Duke will be forced to risk a decisive battle around Warsaw or else abandon it. The first is dangerous for him, the latter a terrible loss. Indeed, it is doubtful if he will now have the time or the means to withdraw his centre in Poland. If the Russian centre is surrounded and forced to capitulate it will be the débâcle so far as our Ally is concerned, and the transfer of immense forces from the eastern to the western front will make our task doubly hard.
July 27.---Pleasant days here in the rear. Morning and afternoon we generally have exercises, marches militaires, and reviews. But there is always plenty of time on each side of the morning and evening meal to rest, read, or loaf. This we do---King and I usually---in the cafés of the village. There is the "Cheval Blanc" across the street, but pleasantest of all is the Café de la Gare, on account of the pretty gosse that serves one there. I am reading Treitschke's "Lectures on Politics," that Chapman lent me, and the daily papers, where the news from the Russian front these days is very passionnant. The country people here are interesting and agreeable. Next door I sometimes speak with the old man whom one usually finds walking up and down in his yard alone after dark. His son disappeared in the forest of Apremont in October, and has never been heard of since. It was his only son; the daughter showed me one day the photograph of her brother, a fine-looking young fellow, a corporal in one of the Belfort regiments that marched into Alsace at the beginning of the war. It is one of the thousands of similar tragedies with which France is filled these days. Of the initial offensive in Alsace and the disastrous adventure at Mulhouse the people here will tell you much, showing the utter foolhardiness and unpreparedness of the enterprise, notwithstanding its gallantry. Bands of permissionaires pass through the village daily, for they have begun to give eight days' permissions to the men on the front, and it may be in the course of a few months that I shall be able to see Paris again. Meanwhile our plans are completely unknown to us and to the commandement, too, probably. There is a rumor that we shall be here till the 10th of August. Quién sabe?
July 30.---Passed a splendid review the day before yesterday at Chaux-la-Chapelle. Got up at daybreak and were off before half past three. Marched the nine or so kilometers over to the review grounds, each battalion behind its clairons. The rainclouds had passed over, the sun was up in a glorious sky. The whole Legion was there, and we drew up in a large rectangular field, the woods on one side and a beautiful view of the near mountains at the end. Here we were joined by the rest of the division, two regiments of Tirailleurs Algériens. They filed in behind their music---the famous nouba---whose effect was most novel and émotionnant, an alternation of clairons and a number of curious wood-wind instruments, supported by bass and treble drums. Their brilliant ancient uniform has been replaced by the ordinary light blue capote, baggy khaki trousers and red fez. While waiting for the arrival of the general, we intermingled and fraternized one with another. In the 4ème Tirailleurs Boubaccer found his younger brother, whom he had not seen for ten years. He is sous-lieutenant now. It was this regiment that was in the action at the Ferme d'Alger that I described earlier. It seems the explosion of the mine killed about a half section of the Tirailleurs. The rest, after their counter-attack had chased out the assaulting party, threw dead, wounded, and prisoners into the hole and started burying them alive. "Khouya, khouya! " (Brother, brother) cried the unfortunates. "Mais nous avons répondu 'Je connais bas khouya'" the tirailleur continued, and they were all buried up. . . .
Suddenly the clairons sound the sonnerie of the general, and we all rush to the faisceaux. Baïonnette au canon! As he rides by, whom should we recognize but the famous Lyautey himself, only recently arrived in France. He rides along the ranks and raises his hat as he passes the porte-drapeau of the Tirailleurs, who dips the flag at the same time. He visits the detachments of cavalry and artillery, also, whose trumpets sound their own sonnerie for the occasion. Then he dismounts in the centre of the field with his staff, receives all the officers and the sous-officiers whom he had known in Morocco, and decorates several officers and soldiers, to whom he gives the accolade. After this the nouba takes position opposite him and the whole division files by to its curiously exciting music. Return to Plancher-Bas, where we arrive about 2.30 P.m.
July 31.---Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Etranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers---old légionnaires were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied.
Today comes the news I have been expecting, that the Russians are to evacuate Warsaw. The Germans then will enter probably on the anniversary of the declaration of war, and a wave of enthusiasm will pass over the country, which will drown all memory of past reverses and all discontent at the unlooked-for prolongation of the conflict. The great question now is whether the Russians started their retirement in time, and whether they will be able to extricate their central army from the difficult position in which it is placed. If they do not, it will mean disaster. Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie. Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire. It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridoe buzz. "Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni." It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.
August 7.---Coming into the Cheval Blanc this morning I found cloth labels lying out to dry on a table, addressed in indelible pencil to the son of the house, who was made prisoner at Lassigny in the first weeks of the war, and who is now in a concentration camp at Cassel, in Germany. They send him bundles of bread and good things to eat every week through the Croix Rouge of Geneve, and these envois seem to arrive regularly. I remarked to the good woman that her son was really happier as a prisoner than he would be in the trenches, and that she especially ought to consider herself happier than so many other mothers, who must worry all the time and remain in continual uncertainty, but her eyes showed that she had been crying, and she was unable to speak.
It is in these villages behind the lines that one gets an idea how the country is suffering. There is more than one young man back here without a leg or an arm. There is the case of the old man next door that I have already mentioned.
But the most tragic seems to me that of a mother whose only son appeared early in the list of missing. After months of uncertainty she read his name one day in a list of prisoners in Germany. Full of joy she wrote him and began sending packages. But one day, after several weeks had passed, she received a letter from the soldier she had written to, saying that he had received the letters and packages, that his name was indeed identical with that of the person to whom she addressed them, but that he came from quite a different locality, and was not the son that she sought! And she has never heard anything more.
Today comes the news of the evacuation of Warsaw!
August 8, 1915.
I may have been a little careless about writing lately. It is because still being in repose far from the firing line the sense of being out of danger had the effect of lessening the importance I attached to keeping you assured that I was getting along all right. . . .
You must not delude yourself about any revolutions in Germany or an early termination of the war. Look upon my being here just as I do, that is, as its being a part of my career. I am not influenced by the foolish American ideas of "success," which regard only the superficial and accidental meanings of the word---advancement, recognition, power, etc. The essence of success is in rigorously obeying one's best impulses and following those paths which conscience absolutely approves, and than which imagination can conceive none more desirable. Given my nature, I could not have done otherwise than I have done. Anything conceivable that I might have done had I not enlisted would have been less than what I am doing now, and anything that I may do after the war is over, if I survive, will be less too. I have always had the passion to play the biggest part within my reach and it is really in a sense a supreme success to be allowed to play this. If I do not come out, I will share the good fortune of those who disappear at the pinnacle of their careers. Come to love France and understand the almost unexampled nobility of the effort this admirable people is making, for that will be the surest way of your finding comfort for anything that I am ready to suffer in their cause.
IX. - August 10--September 24, 1915
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