AUGUST 10----SEPTEMBER 24, 1915
A brigade march. The Ballon de Servance. The view of the Alps. An improvised band. The Ballon d'Alsace. Vétrigne. In Alsace at last. Anniversary of enlistment. Return to Plancher-Bas. Alsatian school-children learn the "Marseillaise." A chance to leave the Legion. Reviewed by the Président de la République. Departure from Plancher-Bas. To St.-Hilaire by rail. March to Suippes. Night work with pick and shovel. The order from Joffre. Violent cannonade. The great battle imminent.
August 10.---Yesterday the whole brigade marched up to the top of the Ballon de Servance, our regiment from Plancher-Bas and the 1er from Plancher-les-Mines. For us it was about a thirty-eight kilometer "hike," sac au dos, tenue de campagne complète. It was one of the finest and most memorable walks I have ever taken. This was largely due to the weather. After weeks of rain (it is raining now again this morning) it was our luck to hit on a day of unbroken sunshine, not a cloud in the sky of almost tropic blue. After leaving Plancher-les-Mines the road was extremely pretty up the deep, wooded valley of the Rahin. Then came the long climb up the military road. The summit of the mountain is cleared and covered with grass. Here, favored by the fine weather of one day in a hundred, the most wonderful view spread out before us. Southward, 236 kilometers away, Mont-Blanc rose in isolated grandeur above the chain of the Jura. Further east stretched the whole snowy line of the Alps---the Jungfrau, the Wetterhorn, the beautiful mountains that I first saw at Berne a little over a year ago with André even more romantic and more enchanting now for their great distance.
After lunch I strolled away alone and found just the right point of view, where the grassy summit sheered off precipitously into the deep valley-head, dark with pine forests and full of the murmur of the stream. A sunny haze covered the plains of upper Alsace. Two captive balloons were all the signs of war that were visible. They hung there, little specks in the distance, a good deal lower than my perch on the mountain top. I sat about an hour absorbed in the beauty of that far view of the Alps that filled me with nostalgia and love of the loveliness of Earth. Strange that the last time I looked on the Jungfrau was in the company of Count von Liebermann, lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of the Prussian Guard. This was on the Thunnensee in Switzerland. I wonder where he is now. . . .
At midday we started home behind our clairons. It happened that three men, who had formed a little kind of German band with three old brass instruments that they found in the village, had brought these along. When the clairons had finished, they hit up one of the chansons de route from the ranks, much to the general surprise and amusement, and every one joined in with good will. The men were in fine spirits and we came back singing all the way.
August 16.---Another good walk today, this time to the summit of the Ballon d'Alsace, the regiment marching without sack. Left at four o'clock in the morning. Marched up through Plancher-les-Mines and followed the same road up the pretty valley of the Rahin to the point where the Servance road turns off. Here we kept straight on and then walked up through fine pine woods by steep and stony paths to the summit. Not a bad day but no such fine weather as last week. Sky full of clouds, whose lower edges cut the view from the horizons. There is a beautiful point of view on the summit, where there is a sharp descent to a deep valley, with green pastures, ponds, a winding road and a little river that flows down through pretty hamlets toward Massevaux, and out into the hazy plains of Alsace. Forty kilometers away could be seen indistinctly the factory chimneys and church spires of Mulhouse. We saw also the Hartmannsweilerkopf, where such fierce fighting has taken place this last winter. Saluted silently distant Alsace, that will probably be the scene of our coming battles. Returned in the afternoon under the same circumstances as last time.
August 19.---We are to leave tomorrow, probably for the Front!
Vétrigne (near Belfort), August 20.---We were ordered to be in readiness at any moment. Late in the afternoon it seemed as if there would be a delay; it was not until ten o'clock at night, when most of us were asleep, that the news came definitely that we were to leave today. We were roused, consequently, about two o'clock this morning to make sacks. Got off shortly after four. Marched to Auxelles-Bas, where, branching to the right, all prospect of going toward Thann and the theatre of fighting near Munster was dissipated. A beautiful morning as we crossed the continental divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Rhône and the Mediterranean from those that fall into the Rhine and the gray North Sea. Eastward into the sunrise stretched away the fair plains of Alsace. Moments of memorable emotion as we marched singing down the winding road that led us off to this glorious goal. Passed through La Chapelle-sous-Chaux and Sermamagny, where I drank during a pose with a brown Algérien of the Tirailleurs who had been at Arras. Then came around through the outskirts of Belfort to this village, where we are billeted for 24 hours.
I am sitting now under a giant pear tree on a green slope outside the town, enjoying the most beautiful landscape as it fades away gradually in the dying daylight. Wide lowlands stretch away---fields of richest green, cultivated acres, hamlets, groves-bounded toward the southeast by the "many-folded mountains" of Switzerland that rise, crest after crest, each one more faint, toward the far clouds pink in the sunset. The boom of the cannon can be heard, more distant now, in Alsace. Two captive balloons are up along the line of the front. An aeroplane returns toward Belfort from a reconnaissance beyond the lines. A convoi of motor lorries raises the dust along the white road eastward. Automobiles dash back and forth. Exquisite peaceful summer evening. The green on forest and field has not begun to be browned yet, but already in the evenings the chill of Autumn is beginning to be felt. Moments of peace, sweet melancholy, resignation self-content. In the village a chorus of soldiers singing the Brabançonne. Anniversary of the German entrance into Brussels. A year ago I left Bruges for Paris to enlist.
Mortzwiller (Alsace), August 21.---In Alsace at last. Left Vétrigne at five o'clock this morning. Followed the Cernay road through Rappe and La Chapelle. Crossed the old frontier line without demonstration. German road posts. Immediate change in architecture; picturesque houses with white plaster walls and inset beams. The people all speak German and very bad French. Many German signs about.
August 24.---Likelihood of an offensive in Alsace is not so good now. The reason we came here was to put in six days' work on the second line defenses, each regiment in the division doing its turn. This done, we return, they say, to Plancher-Bas! We have already done two days' hard labor renovating a second line trench. Today, the third, I am sick and am staying at home. Fine weather. There is considerable cannonading about here. Right near the place where we work there is a battery of at least six heavy guns that, directed by a captive balloon not far off, fire terrific volleys, to which the Germans reply weakly or not at all.
News of the fall of Kovno makes these times very grave. This means the breaking up of the last Russian line of defence and the beginning of an indefinite retreat into the interior. How much of this army will be destroyed or fall into the hands of the Germans, as a result of this latest manoeuvre, remains to be seen. Things look badly for the Allies. The only hope of ultimate victory that I can see is the Balkan States marching with us. Today is the anniversary of my enlistment.
Plancher-Bas, August 28, 1915.---Back in Plancher-Bas again! Our march into Alsace, round which I wove so much romance, was only for the prosaic purpose of working on second line defences, the same kind of work we used to do at Blancs-Sablons. We worked five days and then marched back by the same route, spending the night at Vétrigne. On the way we passed the whole 1er Etranger going out to do their turn. A tough-looking crowd. There is nothing doing and nothing apparently under way in the Upper Alsace sectors, which are held by territorials.
Putting one and two together, it seems to me that the General Staff are at present bringing behind the lines as far as possible, as in our case, the best troops and manning the trenches with. second-line formations and territorials. They are recreating a whole armée active, who are not to be put into the trenches, but will be thrown immediately into the next great offensive. A friend who has been at Giromagny, which is now the headquarters of the division, says that the charge of the 1er at Arras gave the Legion a wonderful reputation, and that we are ranked now with the best. No trenches, then, but alternation between periods of work and periods of repos and exercises until the great day comes.
I have pleasant memories of Alsace, where it is not improbable that we shall return in another week to do another five or six days of work. In the evenings we would gather in the Wirtschaft, drink deep, sing and soon recover our spirits after the hard day's labor. The people are quite German in all outward aspects. The young men are serving in the German army; their little brothers and sisters are learning the " Marseillaise " in the village school. I overheard one of these classes a day when I was sick and went up in the afternoon to the infirmerie which was situated in the mairie. After each strophe the teacher would correct faults of pronunciation, and the chorus of childish voices would repeat after him in concert, "abreuve," "marchons," etc. Outside the door in the corridor were a dozen pairs of diminutive sabots.
September 1.---Great and unexpected news this morning at report. All American volunteers in the Legion are to be given the privilege of entering a French regiment. I have always been loyal to the Legion, notwithstanding the many obvious drawbacks, feeling that the origin of most of the friction within the regiment was in the fact that we had never been in action, and had consequently never established the bond of common dangers shared, common sufferings borne, common glories achieved, which knits men together in real comradeship. It was a great mistake, it seems to me, not to have put the regiment into action immediately when we came on the front last year, when the regiment was strong and the morale good, instead of keeping us in the trenches in comparatively quiet sectors and in a state of inactivity, which was just the condition for all kinds of discontent to fester in. Of course discontent is the natural state of mind of the soldier, and I, who am accustomed to look beneath the surface, always have realized this, but it must be admitted that here discontent has more than the usual to feed upon, where a majority of men who engaged voluntarily were thrown in a regiment made up almost entirely of the dregs of society, refugees from justice and roughs, commanded by sous-officiers who treated us all without distinction in the same manner that they were habituated to treat their unruly brood in Africa. I put up with this for a year without complaint, swallowing my pride many a time and thinking only of the day of trial, shutting my eyes to the disadvantages I was under because I thought that on that day the regiment, which I have always believed to be of good fighting stock, would do well and cover us all with glory.
Our chance, now that we are in with the Moroccan division, of seeing great things is better than ever. This has almost induced me, in fact, to turn down the offer and stay where I am, since perhaps the greatest glory will be here, and it is for glory alone that I engaged. But, on the other hand, after a year of what I have been through, I feel more and more the need of being among Frenchmen, where the patriotic and military tradition is strong, where my good will may have some recognition, and where the demands of a sentimental and romantic nature like my own may be gratified. I think there is no doubt that I will be happier and find an experience more remunerative in a French regiment, without necessarily forfeiting the chance for great action which is so good here now. Among the regiments of the 7th Army, from which we were allowed to choose, are three of the active, who it seems are in the Meuse in exciting sectors. I have chosen the 133e de ligne, whose depot is at Belley, and will leave the rest to Fate.
September 13.---Another splendid review this morning at La Chapelle-sous-Chaux, before the Président de la République and Millerand and several generals. Perfect weather. Thrilled to the magnificent spectacle of the défilade, the "Marseillaise," the disturbing music of the Tirailleurs. The whole division was there. Flags were given to the 1er and 2me Etranger. And now on returning comes the news of our definite departure tomorrow. I have reasons to be sorry to leave Plancher-Bas. Have had happy moments here.
Suippes, September 16.---Left Plancher-Bas for good, day before yesterday evening. The fine weather which had lasted without a break for several weeks came to an end, and the gray skies corresponded with the melancholy that many of us felt at breaking forever with associations that had grown so dear to us. Marched away after dark in the rain, our rifles decorated with bouquets and our musettes filled with presents from the good townspeople. The Tirailleurs and Zouaves, coming from the direction of Giromagny, preceded us. We entrained at Champagney, about 45 men in a car. Terrible discomfort. Impossible to stretch legs or lie out flat. Several fights; had a fight myself with the corporal. Found ourselves next morning at
Vesoul and from there followed the same route as on coming, that is, up through Langres, Chaumont, Vitry-le-François, to Châlons. We had been hearing for some time of the big concentration of troops at the Camp de Châlons and were not surprised when we turned north and stopped at the way station of St.-Hilaire. Everything bore testimony of the big offensive in preparation, troops cantonned in the villages, the railroad lines congested with trains of cannon and material, but most sinister and significant, the newly constructed evacuation sheds for the wounded, each one labelled "blessés assis" or "blessés couchés." Violent cannonade as we disembarked.
Marched seven or eight kilometers up a national road and then made a grande halte at sundown for soup. Pleasant country that we marched through, the Champagne pouilleuse with its broad plains and vast distances. The good weather had come back and the waxing moon hung in the south. After the grande halte we resumed the march at ten o'clock. Everyone in good spirits and full of excitement at the prospect of the big action in preparation that everything bore evidence of. Heavy cannonading continued during the entire march and the northern skies were lit up continually with the German fusées. During our last pose, just before entering Suippes, several heavy German shells fell into the town with terrific explosions. The flashes of the cannon lit up all the sky like summer lightning. Marched into the dark, silent town about two o'clock in the morning. The civils apparently have all been evacuated. Marched on and bivouacked in an open field beyond the town. Slept well on the ground.
This morning we moved up here into a big grove and pitched tents, the first time we have done this on the front. Do not know whether we are to go up to the trenches or wait here until we go into action. The 2me Etranger ought certainly to be first. It is going to be a grandiose affair and the cannonade will doubtless be a thing beyond imagination. The attack this time will probably be along a broad front. Our immediate object ought to be Vouziers and the line of the Aisne, but it is probably the object of the Etat-Major to expel the Germans from Northern France entirely. They are fortunate who have lasted to see this, and I thrill at the certain prospect of being in the thick of it.
September 18.---Took pick and shovel yesterday evening and marched up to the front---the whole regiment---where we worked all night. Our road lay again through dark and silent Suippes, where the moonlight, less covered tonight, revealed the heaps of ruins-rent walls, shells of burnt-out buildings, and a whole quarter completely razed by the fire the Germans must have started before evacuating the town a year ago. Took the Vouziers road northward toward the trenches, where the sky was lit continually with the fusées éclairantes and the flash of the cannon. At one time during our first pose there must have been an attack of some sort, for the German rockets began popping up like "flower pots" of our Fourth of Julys, and the cannon flashes redoubled, but we could hear no fusillade for the continual rumble of traffic on the highroad beside us.
Turned off a side road after a while in the direction of Perthes-les-Hurlus. Climbed a long, gradual ascent. Our batteries fired occasionally close at hand. During last pose a half dozen heavy German shells-probably 210s---fell near a battery emplacement near us with the most terrific explosion, the singing shell-fragments falling among us. Walked through the pine groves at the summit of the crest and then came out through a deep-cut boyau to a magnificent spectacle. The position here is a valuable one that must once have been fiercely disputed, for it dominates all the low rolling country to the north. Here, illumined by the German fusées that shot up continually from their trenches a mile or so
off, lay the vast battlefield that in a few days is to see one of the most tremendous actions ever fought. The clouds had blown off, the stars were all out, the night was a glorious one. We formed a long file, one man with a pick and one with a shovel at five yard intervals down the open northern slope and started digging an immense boyau to rush troops up through for the attack. Worked all night, then marched back and arrived at bivouac at dawn. A fatiguing night but can sleep late and rest all day.
September 19.---Went up and worked again last night. Beautiful starry night; bright moonlight. A pleasure walking up, but the work was tiring and the road long. A violent artillery duel. Our advanced batteries of heavy guns fired continually. The Germans replied less frequently, but when their heavy shells fell by twos and fours the explosions were terrific beyond anything I have heard before on the front. They covered the lines with smoke, through which the fusées glimmered, blurred and reddened. The smell of powder was heavy in the air. It was daybreak when we returned. . . .
Today at rapport the captain read the order from Joffre announcing to the troops the great general attack. The company drew close around him, and he spoke to us of our reasons for confidence in success and a victory that would drive the enemy definitely out of France. The German positions are to be overwhelmed with a hurricane of artillery fire and then great assaults will be delivered all along the line. The chances for success are good. It will be a battle without precedent in history.
September 21.---About twenty heavy shells fell yesterday evening around the Suippes station, which is right near the park where we are bivouacking. Went out to watch them burst; no serious damage. Went up to work after supper. The dead and wounded were being carried in litters through the streets of Suippes, which had been bombarded, too. The fine weather is continuing, and it was a beautiful moonlit night, but frosty. Hard work until two o'clock digging communication ditches. Officers went down to the trenches to reconnoitre the terrain. The captain spoke to us again at rapport today, and gave us his impressions of this visit. The Colonials apparently are to lead the attack; we ought to come in the third or fourth wave. Our objective is the Ferme de Navarin, about 3 1/2 kilometers behind the German lines. Here we will halt to reform, while the entire 8th Corps, including numerous cavalry, will pass through the breach we have made. These will be sublime moments; there are good chances of success and even of success without serious losses.
September 22.---The day ought to be near at hand. The artillery is becoming more and more violent and tonight as I write here by candlelight in our tent the cannonade is extremely violent down the line toward Reims. The Germans continue to bombard Suippes and the Suippes station. Luckily they have not discovered our bivouac, for the French keep continual patrols in the air and no German aeroplane dares to come over here. Should they bombard us here the execution of these terrific 210 shells would be appalling. Today several fell in the park, not more than fifty yards from the tent. I thought they were going to bother us, but these were really bad shots at the station that had gone astray. Spend a hard night at work yesterday, leaving here at 6 P. M. and not getting back till 6 this morning. This afternoon walked to Somme-Suippe to try and buy something, but there is nothing to be had. The fine weather continues. We have received steel casques in place of the képis.
September 23.---Bombardment of the station resumed this morning. Went out to the gate to watch the shells burst. The men of the génie "beat it" as usual into the fields near by, but a few nervy ones remained to take the little Décauville engines and a trainload of shells out of danger. When the bombardment seemed over I noticed them all running back and commencing digging. Went over and joined them and helped disinter three men who had been buried alive. They had taken refuge in a deep trench that had been dug for the purpose. But a big shell had fallen right beside this trench and covered the unfortunate men with dirt. We dug and dug and finally came upon a piece of cloth. With difficulty we uncovered one after another and pulled them out, but it was too late. They had been smothered to death. . . . Wild rumors are reaching us of victories on other parts of the line. It is said the French have taken the plateau of Craonne and that the English are at Lille.
September 24.---We are to attack tomorrow morning. Gave in our blankets this morning; they are to be carried on the wagons. Also made bundles, in order to lighten the sack of all unnecessary articles, including the second pair of shoes. We are admirably equipped, and if we do not succeed it will not be the fault of those responsible for supplying us. A terrific cannonade has been going on all night and is continuing. It will grow in violence until the attack is launched, when we ought to find at least the first enemy fine completely demolished. What have they got up their sleeves for us ? Where shall we find the strongest resistance? I am very confident and sanguine about the result and expect to march right up to the Aisne, borne on in an irresistible élan. I have been waiting for this moment for more than a year. It will be the greatest moment in my life. I shall take good care to live up to it.
NOTE.-The diary ends here, with the following notation: "This diary continued in another that I will carry in the pocket of my capote." All efforts to find this have been in vain.
OCTOBER 4, 1915---APRIL 13,1916
The Battle of Champagne. Occupation of the German first line trenches. Terror-stricken prisoners. Four days under bombardment. The German second line holds. Failure to break through. The French soldier contrasted with the German. Review after the battle. A false report. The unimportance of the individual. In the rear. A week's permission in Paris. The Ford party. In hospital. Congé de convalescence. Biarritz. Recovery of MS from Bruges.
October 4, 1915.
Am writing you in bivouac in a moment of repos between two battles to tell you that I am well and in good spirits. The regiment has been in the big action in Ch---- from the beginning our brigade was the second to leave the trenches. Have been eight days under terrific shell fire. Have taken many prisoners. Am sending S---- as souvenir some German letters picked up in the trenches we carried.
October 25, 1915.
The regiment is back in repos after the battle in Champagne, in which we took part from the beginning, the morning of the memorable 25th September. We are billeted in a pleasant little village not far from Compiègne, quite out of hearing of the cannon. It seems that absurd rumors were current about the fate of Americans in the Legion, so I hasten to let you know that I am all right. Quite a few Americans were wounded, but none killed, to my knowledge.
The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o'clock the night of the 24th, and marched up through ruined Souain to our place in one of the numerous boyaux where the troupes d'attaque were massed. The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke, we marched up through the boyaux to the tranchées de départ. At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hillside or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches. When the last wave of the Colonial brigade had left, we followed. Baïonnette au canon, in lines of tirailleurs, we crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups. Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate, but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried "Kamerad," "Bon Français," even "Vive la France." We advanced and lay down in columns by two behind the second crest. Meanwhile, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchées was at an end and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures----the battalions in manoeuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers. But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side---painfully but not mortally wounded.
I often envied him after that. For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that all further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our rôle, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire.
That night we spent in the rain. With portable picks and shovels
each man dug himself in as well. as possible. The next day our
concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again
the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action.
But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners.
I went out and gave water to one of these, eager to get news.
It was a young soldier, wounded in the hand. His face and voice
bespoke the emotion of the experience he had been through in a
way that I will never forget. "Ah, les salauds! "
he cried, "They let us come right up to the barbed wire without
firing. Then a hail of grenades and balls. My comrade fell, shot
through the leg, got up, and the next moment had his head taken
off by a grenade before my eyes." "And the barbed wire,
wasn't it cut down by the bombardment?" "Not at all
in front of us." I congratulated him on having a blessure
heureuse and being well out of the affair. But he thought
only of his comrade and went on down the road toward Souain, nursing
his mangled hand, with the stream of wounded seeking their postes
The afternoon of the 28th should have been our turn. We had spent four days under an almost continual bombardment. The regiment had been decimated, though many of us had not fired a shot. After four such days as I hope never to repeat, under the strain of sitting inactive, listening to the slow whistle of 210-millimetre shells as they arrived and burst more or less in one's proximity, it was a real relief to put sac au dos and go forward. We marched along in columns by two, behind a crest, then over and across an exposed space under the fire of their 77's. that cost us some men, and took formation to attack on the border of a wood, somewhere behind which they were entrenched. And here we had a piece of luck. For our colonel, a soldier of the old school, stronger for honor than expediency, had been wounded in the first days of the action. Had he been in command, we all think that we should have been sent into the wood (and we would have gone with élan) notwithstanding that the 1er Etranger had just attacked gallantly but unsuccessfully and had been badly cut up. The commandant of our battalion, who had succeeded him in command, when he heard, after a reconnaissance, that the wire had not been sufficiently cut, refused to risk his regiment. So you have him to thank.
The last days of the week we went up into first line to relieve the tired troupes d'attaque. It was an abandoned German artillery position, full of souvenirs of the recent occupants and of testimony to their hasty departure. They did not counterattack on this sector and we finished this first period in comparative tranquillity.
Then two days repos in the rear and we came back to the battle field. The attack of the 6th October netted us some substantial gains but not enough to call into action the troupes de poursuite among which we were numbered. It became more and more evident that the German second line of defense presented obstacles too serious to attempt overcoming for the moment, and we began going up at night to work at consolidating our advanced trenches and turning them into a new permanent line. We spent two weeks on the front this time. But as luck would have it, the bombardment that thundered continually during this period did not fall very heavily on the wood where we were sheltered and we did not suffer seriously in comparison with the first days.
And now we are back in the far rear again, the battle is over, and in the peace of our little village we can sum up the results of the big offensive in which we took part. No one denies that they are disappointing. For we know, who heard and cheered the order of Joffre to the army before the battle, that it was not merely a fight for a position, but a supreme effort to pierce the German line and liberate the invaded country; we know the immense preparation for the attack, what confidence our officers had in its success, and what enthusiasm ourselves. True, we broke their first line along a wide front, advanced on an average of three or four kilometers, took numerous prisoners and cannon. It was a satisfaction at last to get out of the trenches, to meet the enemy face to face, and to see German arrogance turned into suppliance. We knew many splendid moments, worth having endured many trials for. But in our larger aim, of piercing their line, of breaking the long deadlock, of entering Vouziers in triumph, of course we failed.
This check, in conjunction with the serious turn that affairs have taken in the Balkans, makes the present hour a rather grave one for us. Yet it cannot be said to be worse than certain moments that arrived even much later in the course of our Civil War, when things looked just as critical for the North, though in the end of a similar guerre d'usure they pulled out victorious.
But perhaps you will understand me when I say that the matter of being on the winning side has never weighed with me in comparison with that of being on the side where my sympathies lie. This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German. Any one who had seen the charge of the Marsouins at Souain would acknowledge it. Never was anything more magnificent. I remember a captain, badly wounded in the leg, as he passed us, borne back on a litter by four German prisoners. He asked us what regiment we were, and when we told him, he cried "Vive la Légion," and kept repeating "Nous les avons eus. Nous les avons eus." He was suffering, but oblivious of his wound, was still fired with the enthusiasm of the assault and all radiant with victory. What a contrast with the German wounded, on whose faces was nothing but terror and despair. What is the stimulus in their slogans of "Gott mit uns" and "für König und Vaterland" beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one's side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that's like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the Frenchman who goes up is possessed with a passion beside which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worth while seem pale in comparison. The modern prototype of those whom history has handed down to the admiration of all who love liberty and heroism in its defense, it is a privilege to march at his side---so much so that nothing the world could give could make me wish myself anywhere else than where I am.
Most of the other Americans have taken advantage of the permission to pass into a regular French regiment. There is much to be said for their decision, but I have remained true to the Legion, where I am content and have good comrades. I have a pride particularly in the Moroccan division, whereof we are the first brigade. Those who march with the Zouaves and the Algerian tirailleurs are sure to be where there is most honor. We are troupes d'attaque now, and so will assist at all the big coups, but be spared the monotony of long periods of inactive guard in the trenches, such as we passed last winter.
I am glad to hear that Thwing has joined the English. I used to know him at Harvard. He refused to be content, no doubt, with lesser emotions while there are hours to be lived such as are being lived now by young men in Flanders and Champagne. It is all to his credit. There should really be no neutrals in a conflict like this, where there is not a people whose interests are not involved. To neutrals who have stomached what America has consented to stomach from Germany---whose ideals are so opposite to hers---who in the event of a German victory would be so inevitably embroiled, the question he put to himself and so resolutely answered will become more and more pertinent.
October 27, 1915.
We are in repos now, far in the rear, so do not worry. We passed a magnificent review yesterday before King George, President Poincaré, Joffre, and Kitchener---our glorious Moroccan division and I do not know how many others of Colonials---myriads of troops all returned from 'the battlefield in Champagne.
(Written upon hearing that he had been reported in the American newspapers
as missing or killed in the Battle of Champagne.)
I am navré to think of your having suffered so. I had just as soon aim my rifle at the fool who played that trick as at any German. But you know what American journalists are. . . . Very soon a week's permission in Paris. I shall be interested to see my poem in print. But I found a glaring grammatical error after sending it. I am usually more careful. Blame it to the trenches. I am writing you in a little café amid the best of comrades. You must take heart thinking of me as always content and really happy as I have never been before and as perhaps I will never be after.
November 9, 1915.
I should have arranged to cable after the attack had I known that any such absurd rumors had been started. Here one has a wholesome notion of the unimportance of the individual. It needs an effort of imagination to conceive of its making any particular difference to anyone or anything if one goes under. So many better men have gone and yet the world rolls on just the same....
Your letter naturally made me unhappy, for it is only in thinking of you that any possible doubts can rise in my mind about having done well in coming here. Philosophy, I know, cannot modify the natural sentiments of the heart, so I will refrain from commenting on your letter. I can only say that I am perfectly content here and happier than I possibly could be anywhere else. I was a spectator, now I am an actor. I was in a shallow, now I am moving in the full current. It is better in every respect, and since it was inevitable, there is no use lamenting. . . .
November 30, 1915.
The prospects are that we are to be here in the rear all winter. The entire division is in repos now and will probably remain so until next spring. We are troupes d'attaque and are only to participate in the big actions. In the meantime rest and keeping in condition.
This is a great piece of luck. I cannot congratulate myself enough on my foresight in choosing to stay with the Legion instead of going into the 170me with the other Americans. I have letters from them occasionally, and it seems they are still on the front in Champagne, in the same desolate sector---hard work at night, guard at the outposts, bombardment, grenade fights---three wounded already and evacuated. Whereas here we are quite tranquil, in a big town where everything can be had, barely within hearing of the cannon, and next week I go to Paris for eight days' permission. C'est la bonne vie. I can go into the 8me Zouaves if I want, but am not decided yet. Am quite content here. The two regiments form one now (as you see by the address) of three battalions. Our old flag has gone to the Invalides and we march now under the flag of the 1er, decorated with the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, for the citation after the Arras affair last May.
December 19, 1915.
I am just back from a week's permission in Paris. Had a very good time. The sums in bank, which I have drawn on, have often filled with pleasure moments that otherwise would have been empty and discouraging. And naturally they have made me able also to give pleasure to comrades who have nothing at all.
The division is not going to Serbia, so you need not have any inquietudes on that subject. We probably shall not see action again before spring. Then there will doubtless be another foudroyant attempt to drive the Germans out of their positions, for which I hope more success than the previous ones.
Meanwhile the conflagration spreads and there is not the smallest glimpse of hope of seeing it finish inside of years and years. This is a little disheartening. But as in times of peace there is nothing better than love and art, so in times of war there is nothing better than fighting and one must make the best of it, finding the recompense in feeling one's heart pulse in concert with those of the élite who are doing the most admirable thing, rather than with those of the multitude who are concerned with second-best things.
It must be some time now since I wrote. But you must not worry about lapses like this, for we are not on the front now and will only take part in the big actions, after which I will see that you are notified by telegraph. There is no news here. Life is uneventful.
December 27, 1915.
I received the two boxes of guava jelly in perfect condition---as if they had come from Paris instead of Cuba. . . . We changed cantonment a short time ago and marched over here to a little village about 10 kilometers south of the Aisne. We are here in reserve in case of a German offensive during the flood season, such as they made last year, where our positions north of the river are a little precarious. We face the enemy here at the point where they are nearest Paris. You can understand my satisfaction that our division is among those assigned to the most responsible posts now. Personally I don't think that the Germans are going to attack and I don't expect to see action again until next spring.
The Ford party is certainly amusing. But you make a mistake in thinking that the U. S. are hated here or even to any marked extent ridiculed. Wilson's notes are laughed at much more than Ford's excursion, for example, which is at least action, though misguided action. His supposedly generous motives are generously recognized. And the ridicule that the obvious futility of the manoeuvre might excite is tempered by the immense secret longing for peace that is the universal undercurrent in Europe now. Only all the nations have waded so deep in blood now that they think it less costly to go right over than to return where they started from, to which a premature peace would be equivalent. So it must go on till it is decided by arms. . . .
I am in hospital for the first time, not for a wound unfortunately, but for sickness. Funny I should be ill this winter when we are in the rear, whereas I passed the last from October to July in the trenches without missing a day. I usually have an attack of grippe every year in midwinter, but this time it took hold of me more seriously than ever before and the fever ran so high that I had to be evacuated. They call it "bronchite." I have been here two weeks and the fever still comes round regularly every evening, but diminishing now. The old trouble of not being able to breathe deep. I am getting well now but am weak. Until further notice do not address letters to regiment but to F. L. & T. Co. The reason is that after leaving here I shall have a congé de convalescence, after which I shall probably go to the dépôt at Lyon instead of directly back to the regiment, according to custom. Then I shall return to the regiment with the next detachment of reinforcements, but will not be assigned to the same battalion or company. This means very likely that I shall not return to the regiment for quite a while to come.
Seeing the division is not on the front, this does not displease me at all. The life in the rear in time of war has lots of drawbacks.. What it gains in security it gains also in ennui. It is excessively hard, consisting of daily drills and, three or four times a week, all day battalion or regiment manoeuvres, combined with long marches and all kinds of devices to keep the troops in shape. This is all right in good weather, but good weather in France is rare in winter. The divisions of the colonial corps which are to do big work in the spring are being put through the hardest kind of training, for modern warfare has proved such a novelty that organization and instruction has practically had to be begun anew. But all this is chiefly important for the officers and sous-officiers. I know my business well enough now to be able to dispense with it very easily. I shall get rest and a change of air, liberty and solitude and even the chance to write a little.
As for my book of poems, it is better not to talk about that. It is the great disappointment of my life. . . . When I was in Paris I met the whole Embassy, from the Ambassador down, and they have taken the matter in hand and may surreptitiously be able to extradite the MS. If it is lost it will be a terrible blow to me.
You are right in making the most of past moments of happiness. There is a common bourgeois notion which, associated with the common bourgeois ideal of a man finally making enough money to be able to retire and live on his income, pictures the happy life as a kind of steady progression through a series of ups and downs toward a kind of plateau, the summit of which once attained, he can thereafter march along tranquilly on a level of unbroken and indestructible well- being. It is perfectly clear that such a notion is entirely illusory, in the multiple accidents to which life is susceptible, for even supposing that he has attained such a level by the realization of every other earthly ambition, he is always walking on the unstable brink of the love that he has created for himself and upon which he is dependent, the crumbling of which beneath his feet by death or abandonment would immediately plunge him into the blackest of abysses, where everything else that he had realized would mean nothing. As for myself, I look upon life as a series of ups and downs, right up (or down) to the very end. The idea of being any higher at. the end than at the beginning was never part of my reveries. I never conceived the advent of a moment when turbulence and strife could be thought of as put definitely behind one. But I clung passionately to, and drank deep of, such moments of happiness as circumstances set before me---the importance to me was the moment that joy rescued from oblivion---and for me the measure of a happy life was simply the proportion in which the sum-total of these moments of happiness, scattered indiscriminately through it, outbalanced the sum-total of the unhappy ones.
I may not be back with the regiment until spring, but I shall march with it to the big attack. This summer will see the decisive campaign of the war. If we can break through, carry trenches and fortins, get them on the run, advance north, north, through nights red with the flame of burning villages, enter the big conquered cities and deliver a population for two years captive and oppressed, it would be the experience of a thousand years, an emotion that would more than compensate all the sacrifices I have made, something really worth risking your life for. If we don't do it this time, it will be about proven that it can't be done. . . .
February 26, 1916.
Your letter finds me here in the hospital, where I have been for a month now for a "bronchite " or "congestion pulmonaire" or whatever they call it. . . . I shall soon get out and then will have a month's congé de convalescence, which will mean two months' rest and freedom and comfort behind the lines out of a winter of the worst kind of weather. Then rejoining the regiment I shall be just in time for the big offensive, which is the only thing that really matters.
Your letters always have a double interest for me, not only, relatively, as coming from yourself, but also, absolutely, as emanating from a very unusual personality. Old man Yeats (whom, by the way, you ought to know if he is still at the old stand, quatre cent et quelque West 29th St., chez Mlles. Petitpas) used to define Culture as the understanding and the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. You seem to have this understanding to a remarkable degree. Remarkable particularly because among women, who are ipso facto denied the numerous occupations that men have to choose from to make life seem worth while, it is pre-eminently sensibility that is developed far beyond and to the expense of all the other faculties, like the rose that gardeners make exquisite by cutting off all the other buds on the stalk. And remarkable again because the emotional life is not closed to you, as it is to the vast majority of "intellectual" women, whose intellectuality is only a recourse to cover a bald spot, but yours when you choose to yield yourself to it.
Of all the formulas that claimed my early youth, one to which I can still adhere is that of the three categories, the lust for power, the lust for feeling and the lust for knowledge, to one or the other of which I can assign all those who, in their passion to live fully, are the supermen, the elite of humanity. Take as respective types Napoleon, Byron, Pico della Mirandola. All superior minds attach themselves more or less remotely to one of these three ideals. . I make no distinction between them; those who attain eminence through either one may, in their way, be equally admirable. It is through knowledge that you seek revelation; I seek it through feeling. But I understand the paths that you have chosen, because, as a matter of fact, I started out on them myself.
As you may remember, in the years when I was at college, I was a devotee of Learning for Learning's sake. My life during those years was intellectual to the exclusion of almost everything else. The events of that life were positive adventures to me. Few, I am sure, have known more than I did then the employ of intellect as an instrument of pleasure. I shut myself off completely from the life of the University, so full, nevertheless, of pleasures. I scoffed at these pleasures that were no more to me than froth. I felt no need of comradeship. I led the life of an anchorite. At an age when the social instincts are usually most lively I came to understand the pleasures of solitude. My books were my friends. The opening to me of the shelves of the college library, a rare privilege, was like opening the gates of an earthly paradise. In those dark alleys I would spend afternoons entire, browsing among old folios, following lines of research that often had no connection with my courses, following them simply for the pleasure of the explorer discovering new countries. I never regret those years. They made their contribution. Their pleasures were tranquil and pure. Their desires were simple and all the means of satisfying them were at hand.
I need not describe to you my apostasy from learning, because you can find it described perfectly by Balzac. Take the case of Eugene de Rastignac in Père Goriot or more particularly of Raphael de Valentin in the Peau de Chagrin. Young men, absorbed, like myself, in their studies, accepting cheerfully solitude and poverty in the pursuit of their one interest, they were suddenly éblouis by the vision of the world and the more glittering forms of pleasure to be had through the instrument of Sense. Straightway the charm was broken. From that moment they were haunted by an image that destroyed irremediably the peace of mind, the singleness of purpose, the power of concentration, so essential to the intellectual life. Their poverty became irksome, their isolation intolerable. Obsessed by the burning vision of Happiness, they left the quiet groves of the Academy and went down into the city in search of it.
It has been the history of many young men, no doubt. But my hedonism, if such it may be called, was not superficial like that of so many, to whom the emotional means only the sexual. I was sublimely consistent. For seeing, in the macrocosm, all Nature revolve about the twin poles of Love and Strife, of attraction and repulsion, so no less in the microcosm of my individual being I saw the emotional life equally divided between these two cardinal principles. The dedication to Love alone, as Ovid prettily confesses his own in more than one elegy, is good as far as it goes, but it only goes half way, and my aspiration was to go all the gamut, to "drink life to the lees." My interest in life was passion, my object to experience it in all rare and refined, in all intense and violent forms. The war having broken out, then, it was natural that I should have staked my life on learning what it alone could teach me. How could I have let millions of other men know an emotion that I remained ignorant of? Could not the least of them, then, talk about the thing that interested me most with more authority than I? You see, the course I have taken was inevitable. It is the less reason to lament if it leads me to destruction. The things one poignantly regrets are those which seem to us unnecessary, which, we think, might have been different. This is not my case. My being here is not an accident. It is the inevitable consequence, as you see, of a direction deliberately chosen.
I often wonder if you will ever experience a revolution of sentiment similar to that which I have described and play truant to the idols to which you have hitherto been faithful, absorbed by a new passion which you will find suddenly become all your life and all your thought and all your desire. . . . You have doubtless learned a great many things this year. To what you already know let me, in closing this letter, add one piece of advice. Do not allow Age alone authority in giving counsel. There is that authority also which he alone possesses who, having stood at the very gates of Death, not knowing at what moment his call might come, has, looking backward, surveyed life in the perspective that can be had from this angle alone. I have seen my life all unrolled, in such moments. And I can assure you that in that panorama everything else faded away, obscured in the haze of oblivion, through which only gleamed clear and distinct, like green, sunlit islands, the hours when we have loved and been beloved.
Therefore hear this my advice. If ever you find yourself suddenly devoured by the divine passion, consult only your heart. Yield to your instincts. Possessed by the force which holds the stars in their orbits, you cannot err. For it is Nature that is asserting itself in you, and in Nature alone is Truth. What though your abandonment to it bring deception and unhappiness. You have yet enriched your life with some particle of a beauty that can never fade.... For love is the sun of life. The soul that draws near to it is beautiful as Venus, whose rays, so close it is, are never seen but mingled with the sun's own. The lives that deny it are like Neptune or those dead planets still farther off, if such there be, wandering around in the cold, outer spheres, without greenness, without warmth, without joy. . . .
ARGIZAGITA, BIARRITZ, BASSES-PYRÉNÉES
March 7, 1916.
I hope you got my letters from the hospital soon enough to be reassured about my not being at Verdun. This ought to have been a comfort to you. Of course, to me it is a matter of great regret and I take it as a piece of hard luck. I know the division left early for the scene of action, a kind of fourth alarm, like in a fire, that brought it all the way from the Camp de Crèvecoeur in the Oise. But I have been unable as yet to find whether they have been engaged or to what extent. All my letters to this effect remain unanswered.
The French seem to have done very well in this battle and I am quite satisfied with the result so far. If the Germans find themselves unable to advance on this front, as it looks at present, this affair may mark the turning point in the war, and is sure in any case to have a very important effect on it.
Was it not good of Madame de Bonand to invite me here for my convalescence ? It is a most beautiful place; I don't believe there is a finer site in Biarritz. The house too is the very ideal of comfort and luxury. Fancy me after a year and a half of sleeping with my clothes on in trenches and haylofts, sleeping now in a most voluptuously soft bed in a pink and white room, with a tiled bathroom adjoining. A little reading lamp is by my pillow at night; in the morning around ten o'clock I press a button and a maid comes, opens my shutters and brings me café au lait and toast and jam. The view from my window is superb: to the right a little corner of sea that looks for all the world like the pictures of the bay of Naples, with a mountain, like Vesuvius, behind. Then all around the rest of the horizon the long line of the Pyrenees, covered with snow now, right to the foot. The air, of course, is fine and I ought soon to be in the best of shape again.
I am sorry to hear that you could not stay in Havana. . . . All climates are alike to me, but the best now are those that smell of powder in the day and are lit by the fusées éclairantes at night. Well, bon courage, and lots of love. . . .
I have been negligent about writing, but seeing that I have not been in danger, I did not feel the same need to keep you informed. . . . I have greatly enjoyed this vacation, which, with the time I was in the hospital, will have given me three months and a half out of the army. I have had the less cause to regret it because neither the regiment nor any units of our corps d'armée have been in action, but have still remained in reserve, engaged only on strengthening the back lines of defense---tiresome work. When I go back the first of May, I shall probably be just in time for the big spring attacks.
Did I write you that the Embassy have managed to get my MS. from Bruges? It was very interesting to reread this work which I had entirely forgotten. I found much that was good in it, but much that was juvenile too, and am not so anxious now to publish it as it stands, but will probably make extracts from it and join with what I have done since.
I shall go back the first of May without regrets. These visits to the rear confirm me in my conviction that the work up there on the front is so far the most interesting work that a man can be doing at this moment, that nothing else counts in comparison. . . .
MAY 12---JUNE 28, 1916
A month in Paris. A view of the invaded country. The death of Colette. A visit to the German barbed wire. Bellinglise. Subterranean lodgings. The "Ode to the Memory of the American Volunteers fallen for France." A forest abode. The welcome colis. Quiet preceding the Somme offensive. The last sonnet. A hard march. Leaving for the attack in first wave. . . .
May 12, 1916.
After spending a very happy month in Paris, I came back to the front the first of this month. I took my fill of all the pleasures that Paris can give (and it was Paris at its most beautiful). I lived as though I were saying goodbye to life, and now I am quite content to return.. It means no more to me than going to the country for the summer; I have the feeling of being in an immensely magnified boys' camp, where work is play, war a sport, and everyone is joyous and light-hearted.
This bright impression is due partly to Spring, partly to the beauty of our surroundings, and to the tranquillity of the sector. We are in the depths of the spring forest; violets and lilies of the valley bloom in the beechen shade; cuckoos and wood-pigeons croon in the heavy foliage. Our trenches are at one side of a little open valley, and the enemy on the other. But neither side bothers the other very seriously; you seldom hear a rifle-shot, and even the artillery is not very active. We are not here to fight, but simply to replace troops that have gone to Verdun, and, incidentally, to put in a lot of hard work strengthening our lines. There have been days ,when the réveil was at 3.30, rassemblement at 4, work till 10, soup and repos till 11.30, and then work again till 5. Hours like this would mean a strike in time of peace when men earn ten francs a day for day labor; here where they earn five sous, no one murmurs.
Our position here is a very dominating one, and from the artillery observation posts or through holes in the foliage you can look way back into the pays envahi. It is a most beautiful landscape---forests, orchards, the red-tiled roofs of little villages that the French artillery has carefully spared. There is something fascinating to me about these deep northern horizons. This north of France has become a kind of enchanted land to my imagination, so inaccessible it seems, so mysterious, so isolated from the outside world. To think that these thin lines of turned red earth in front of us, these réseaux of barbed wire, and an utterly invisible enemy behind them, prevent us from going forward and liberating it! I have sat long musing on these beautiful vistas and wondering what is going on in those lost cities and villages of the north, where three and a half million French have been living for almost two years now, completely cut off from the rest of their countrymen. They tell me that Easter morning the artillerymen through a telescope saw the civilians going to church along a country road seven or eight kilometers behind the lines. A patrol that approached very near a village situated right on the German lines reports having heard a woman's laugh in the night. All I have heard here is the eternal "Français kaput!" that the Germans shout over at sunrise all along the front.
I had expected to return just in time for a big offensive, but as yet one sees no sign of it. Perhaps the Verdun affair has really retarded our plans, as the Germans no doubt intended in making it. Our general of division is reported to have been very anxious to go to the Meuse, but was told to be patient, that a much greater honor was being reserved for us later. Our whole corps d'armée has been unaffected by the battle at Verdun. I hope that there are enough others like it to enable us to resume the offensive in the near future with as good chances as we had in Champagne last Fall, when somebody blundered and we fell just short of success. Cambrai, St. Quentin, Laon, Vouziers---what an emotion to march into them behind our flags unfurled and musique en tête! It will be hard, but I cannot think that it is impossible. . . .
May 13, 1916.
I presume you received my letter of a few days since. This is the third day of our period in repos. It has been raining all day, which is rather welcome, because it has meant no work---even in repos, you know, we are supposed to work, just to be kept occupied and out of the mischief that Satan is supposed to find for idle hands.
The château, in the grounds of which we are barracked, has a most beautiful name----Bellinglise. Isn't it pretty? I think I shall have to write a sonnet to enclose it, as a ring is made express for a jewel. It is a wonderful old seventeenth century manor, surrounded by a lordly estate. What is that exquisite stanza in "Maud," about " in the evening through the lilacs (or laurel) of the old manorial home? " Look it up and send it to me. Or send me a little copy of "Maud" complete. But that would be too hard to find. . . .
After a delightful month in Biarritz and another in Paris, I came back here the first of the month. I had really had such a good time, as I say, that I returned quite light-hearted.
The sector was the quietest I had seen and one of great beauty, in the depths of the spring forest. Life here, in spite of the hard work, seemed no more than camping out and war only another way of spending the summer agreeably. These bright impressions, however, received a terrible shock yesterday and as I am still under the emotion of it, I will describe it to you.
With the warm weather we had left the underground bomb proofs and pitched little shelter tents under the trees, where we slept or rested between the hours of guard. The dugouts were too hot and dirty and the sector seemed so calm that there was no danger. There were daily artillery duels, but battery sought battery and we were never troubled. Yesterday morning, however, a German aeroplane came over our lines. The cannonade was violent all day, but no one pays any attention to that and most of us were lying down under our toiles de tente, when suddenly "whizz-bang!" "whizz-bang!" "whizzbang!" a terrific rafale of shrapnel began bursting right in our midst. Rush for the abris. But that there were victims was inevitable. Moans from outside. Cries to lend a hand. A sergeant and seven men had been touched. The most serious case was Corporal Colette, a splendid fellow whom everyone liked. They took him away on a litter, but he died before reaching the ambulance. Havoc in our little camp that had been so peaceful. Air full of dust and smell of powder, ground littered with leaves and branches, tents, clothes, equipment, riddled with holes, ground splashed and trailed with blood. Naturally since then we have had to come back into the bombproofs, where deep underground, we live in holes like those that I remember pictured in our old natural histories, that show a gopher, an owl and a snake all living happily together in the same burrow. Here it is men, rats, and vermin.
This is a typical episode in our life here on the front. It happens quickly and is quickly forgotten. Life is so cheap here. The soldier's life has its hard moments, but the bright side is not lacking either---good health and good comradeship, the allurement of danger, joys of the open air, the march, and the celebrations when we go back to the rear.
I am writing you this from the first line trenches. A French aeroplane is circling overhead and being bombarded by the Boches. It is the close of a beautiful spring day. With nightfall we will go to the outposts to resume the guard. We do not take this sector very seriously, for we all know that big things are in preparation, wherein our division expects to win new laurels. This is simply an interim. . . .
May 23, 1916.
The week in the trenches was a week of the most beautiful weather. . . . These days were saddened by the death of poor Colette in the bombardment and by the suffering of his brother who has now returned after the burial. They were marked on the other hand by two afternoons of rather memorable emotion. Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocketstick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, "courting destruction with taunts, with invitations," as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d'embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.
Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . . I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
Here where in happier times the huntsman's horn
May 22, 1916.
May 23, 1916.
We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque --- immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.
The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o'clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature's program goes on just the same.
The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.
Goodbye; bon courage.
June 1, 1916.
What a bitter disappointment! After having worked feverishly on my poem and finished it, in spite of work and other duty, in the space of two days, behold the 29th comes and the 30th, and no permission arrives. It would have been such an honor and pleasure to have read my verses there in Paris; I counted on seeing you and getting a moment's respite from the hard life here. To have raised my hopes and then left me in the lurch like that was certainly cruel. I am awaiting an explanation. I sent my ode yesterday to those who asked me for it, to show that I at least had done my part. They may be able to publish it in the New York Herald, but not having graced the occasion for which it was written it is as good as still-born and shorn of all effect.
Meanwhile we have come back to première ligne and are again in the little camp where Colette was killed. Strange how quickly one forgets here on the front. For a few days after that disaster the men kept to the abris, but now we are again careless as before and are living outside in the fine weather, though the same thing may happen again at any moment. I have a charming little house, made by bending down saplings and tying them overhead into a leafy roof. In this I have made a bed out of four logs, fastened into a rectangle about three feet by seven, between which chicken wire is strung, and then spread with new straw; voilà a most clean and comfortable couch. All around are sylvan scents and sounds and the morning sunshine slanting through the heavy foliage.
What have I to thank you for since my last letter? The briquet, I think, and the aluminum flask, both of which were exactly the right thing. You cannot imagine what pleasure it is to receive these parcels. You see now we are living entirely in the woods, and never go back to the village cantonments, so that it is extremely difficult to get little luxuries of any kind. The quart and a half of wine (quarter of a litre, understood) that the government gives must suffice and the coarse army bread must be eaten dry, and the meal finished without dessert. That is why colis are so welcome and the pleasure of receiving them comparable to nothing except that of a child opening his Christmas stocking. Is it not pathetic to be in a state where a man's utmost possibilities of volupté are confined to the vulgar sense of taste, the lowest of all?
The noticeable young man you describe as having seen at Lavenue's was probably myself, for it was my pleasure in those days to be noticeable just as now it is exactly the opposite. Where once it was my object to be individual, it is now an even greater satisfaction to merge into the whole, and feeling myself the smallest cog in the mighty machinery that is grinding out the future of the world, whatever that is to be.
June 4, 1916.
We are back again from another six days in the trenches,---back, I say, but not very far, about 500 metres from first line perhaps, in the big quarry that I think I have already described to you. The six days went off fairly peacefully, though the Germans became aggressive at times and approaching our posts under cover of the forest in broad daylight took pot shots at our sentinels, without however doing any damage. This sector has one exciting feature which I have not found in others: the deep woods allow patrols to circulate between the lines in daylight. There are frequent encounters and ambuscades. This is very good sport.
I hardly think that we are to be here much longer. The enemy are so pushing the game along all the fronts that our reserves will soon have to be thrown in. There is this comfort, that when we go, it will not be to sit in a ditch, wait, and be deluged with shells, but we will go directly into action, magnificently, unexpectedly, and probably victoriously, in some dashing charge, even if it be only of local importance. In that moment, trust, as I do, in the great god, Chance, that brings us in life, not only our misfortunes, but our greatest bits of happiness, too. Think of so many who are ingloriously stricken by accident in time of peace. War is another kind of life insurance; whereas the ordinary kind assures a man that his death will mean money to someone, this assures him that it will mean honor to himself, which from a certain point of view is much more satisfactory..,
I was asked by a committee in Paris to write an ode in memory of American volunteers fallen for France and to be read on Decoration Day at a little ceremony before the statue of Washington in Paris. They were to get me a permission of 48 hours for that purpose. I had only two days to work in, days full of boyau-digging with pick and shovel, but by making an effort I managed to compose the poem in time. And then, after all, the permission never arrived. Imagine if I was not disappointed.
We are having the most beautiful weather and I am in excellent health. I sleep outdoors as much as possible. Of course we would be out all the time if it were not for the shelling, which makes it often advisable to keep to the abris. These are formidable affairs now,---tunnelled dugouts, thirty feet or so underground. Inside beds of stretched chicken wire are made in tiers like berths in a ship. . . .
June 4, 1916.
I hardly think we shall be here much longer. I have a presentiment that we are soon going into action. The last rumor is that we are soon to go to Verdun to relieve the 2nd Moroccan division. That would be magnificent, wouldn't it?---the long journey drawing nearer and nearer to that furnace, the distant cannonade, the approach through the congested rear of the battle-line full of dramatic scenes, the salutations of troops that have already fought, "Bon courage, les gars!" and then our own début in some dashing affair.
Verdun nous manque. I should really like to go there, for after the war I imagine Frenchmen will be divided into those who were at Verdun and those who were not. . . .
June 15, 1916.
I have been back in a little village in the rear for ten days, part of a detachment sent to learn the working of a new arm, which will be used for the first time in the coming attacks. These have been ten days of comparative comfort and pleasure, for one can sleep peacefully at night, take shoes off for a change, and in the days after soup there are little inns where one can sit before a table once more and enjoy coffee and bread and jam and wine, between 5 and 8 in the evenings. The new arm, which I am not at liberty to describe, is an excellent weapon and ought to give good results. I am glad to have charge of one, for it is a more or less responsible position, and one where there is a chance for personal initiative.
The hour of our being relieved here seems more and more near now. We shall probably go back for a short repos before the big attacks which should not be far off now. I am not going to write you any more at length before these big events come off. Words are perfectly futile at such a time and serve no earthly purpose. I have already said all I have to say,---how I am glad to be here, have no regrets, and would wish to be nowhere else in the world than where I am. We both have to be brave, and you, even, one thing more,---patient. When we go into action, you will know it, for the French communiqué will be brilliant that day for the first time since we helped make it so last Fall in Champagne. As I say, we shall probably not leave the trenches in first wave, but will be troupes de poursuite. If we do as well as the Russians are doing in Galicia, we ought to have some wonderful moments. If wounded, will telegraph immediately. . . .
June 18, 1916.
Back again on the front. But by a lucky chance our return fell just the morning after the company had come back to the barraquements in the park of the chateau for a week's repos after five weeks in the trenches. So this has prolonged a little the bonne vie of the arrière. No village to buy things and have afterdinner coffee in, but very beautiful surroundings, quiet walks to muse in, peace, and for material comforts milk and eggs can be bought at the château now. I sleep no longer in the barraquements but have spread my bed out in the woods, and although I have not been able to find any straw yet, I sleep very well on the ground. . . .
Do not worry about the length of your letters or the pleasure it gives me to receive them. Cicero, asked which of Demosthenes' orations he liked best, replied: "The longest." It is the same thing.
The prospects of an early relève, of a change of scenery and participating in a big action, make these days very exciting. Will let you know about all our movements.
Left our quiet sector in the centre this morning, relieved by a territorial regiment. Have marched here to a little village in the rear. Tomorrow take the train for an unknown destination. Fine hot summer weather. The big attacks will come soon now. Wish us good success. It is very exciting to be on the move at last, and I am happy and contented. I return you the Tennyson, to lighten my sack. I am twenty-eight years old tomorrow.
[Note: This letter enclosed his last poem:
Clouds rosy-tinted in the setting sun,
Depths of the azure eastern sky between,
Plains where the poplar-bordered highways run,
Patched with a hundred tints of brown and green,
Beauty of Earth, when in thy harmonies
The cannon's note has ceased to be a part,
I shall return once more and bring to these
The worship of an undivided heart.
Of those sweet potentialities that wait
For my heart's deep desire to fecundate
I shall resume the search, if Fortune grants;
And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance.]
June 24, 1916.
. . . We had a hard journey coming here. After an early morning's march of about ten kilometers, we took the train and made a trip of four or five hours. Then we started off in the heat of the day on what was without exception the hardest march I have ever made. There were 20 kilometers to do through the blazing sun and in a cloud of dust. Something around 30 kilos on the back. About 50 per cent dropped by the way. By making a supreme effort I managed to get in at the finish with the fifteen men that were all that was left of the section. The men were out of training after so long in the trenches without practise. The battlefield has no terrors after trials like these that demand just as much grit and often more suffering.
I shall probably write nothing but post-cards henceforth. In moments like these, words are futile. Think of me when you read the first big communiqué, which we shall have had a brilliant share in making.
June 28, 1916.
We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the
biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the
first wave. No sacks, but two musettes, toile de tente
slung over shoulder, plenty of cartridges, grenades, and baïonnette
I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quo existant.
I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.
The happenings of the next few days, the last that Alan Seeger passed on earth, have been told by his comrade and friend, Rif Baer, an Egyptian, in these words:
During the night of June 30-July 1 we left Bayonvillers to move nearer the firing line. We went to Proyart as reserves. At 8 o'clock on the morning of July 1st there was roll call for the day's orders and we were told that the general offensive would begin at 9 without us, as we were in reserve, and that we should be notified of the day and hour that we were to go into action. When this report was finished we were ordered to shell fatigue, unloading 8 inch shells from automobile trucks which brought them up to our position.
All was hustle and bustle. The Colonial regiments had carried the first German lines and thousands and thousands of prisoners kept arriving and leaving. Ambulances filed along the roads continuously. As news began to arrive we left our work to seek more details; everything we could learn seemed to augur well.
About 4 P. M. we left Proyart for Fontaine-les-Cappy and in the first line. Alan was beaming with joy and full of impatience for the order to join the action. Everywhere delirious joy reigned at having driven the enemy back without loss for us. We believed that no further resistance would be met and that our shock attack would finish the Germans. After passing the night at Fontaine-les-Cappy we moved in the morning toward what had been the German first lines. I passed almost all the day with Alan. He was perfectly happy.
"My dream is coming true," he said to me, "and perhaps tomorrow we shall attack. I am more than satisfied, but it's too bad about our July 4th leave. I cannot hope to see Paris again now before the 6th or 7th, but if this leave is not granted me, 'Maktoob, maktoob,"' he finished with a smile.
The field of battle was relatively calm, a few shells fell, fired by the enemy in retreat, and our troops were advancing on all sides. The Colonials had taken Assevillers and the next day we were to take their place in first line. On July 3rd about noon we moved toward Assevillers to relieve the Colonials at nightfall. Alan and I visited Assevillers, the next morning, picking up souvenirs, postcards, letters, soldiers' notebooks, and chatting all the time, when suddenly a voice called out: "The company will fall in to go to the first line."
About 4 o'clock the order came to get ready for the attack. None could help thinking of what the next few hours would bring. One minute's anguish and then, once in the ranks, faces became calm and serene, a kind of gravity falling upon them, while on each could be read the determination and expectation of victory. Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.
The first section (Alan's section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.
He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .
Another participant in the attack upon Belloy-en-Santerre wrote for La Liberté of Paris the stirring account, of which this is a translation:
Six o'clock at night.
The Legion attacks Belloy-en-Santerre. The 3rd battalion is to carry the southern part of the village. With a rush, it starts, its two leading companies pressing straight forward, beneath the crash of bursting shells, across a chaos of detonations. . . . En avant!
The men hurry on, clutching tightly their arms; some set their teeth, others shout.
Three hundred metres yet to cross and they will reach the enemy. . . . En avant!
But suddenly, hands relax their grasp, arms open, bodies stagger and fall, as the clatter of the German mitrailleuses spreads death over the plain where, but a moment before, men were passing.
Hidden in the road from Estrées to Belloy, they have taken our men in flank, cutting to pieces the 11th company.
Cries of anguish come from the tall grass, then the calls of the unhurt for their chiefs. But all, officers and subalterns, have, fallen.
" My captain.... My lieutenant.... Sergeant. . . . "
Suddenly a voice is heard: "No more chiefs left. Come on, all the same, nom de Dieu! Come on! Lie flat, boys, he that lifts his head is done for. En avant!"
And the legionaries, crawling onward, continue the attack.
The wounded see the second wave pass, then the third. . . . They cheer on their comrades:
"Courage, fellows, death to the Boches! On with you!"
One of them sobs with rage: "To think I can't go too!"
And the high grasses shudder, their roots trodden by the men, their tops fanned by the hail of projectiles.
From the sunken road the German mitrailleuses work unceasingly. . . .
Now, in all the plain, not a movement; the living have passed out of sight. The dead, outstretched, are as if asleep, the wounded are silent; they listen, they listen to the battle with all their ears, this battle so near to them, but in which they have no part. They wait to hear the shout of their comrades in the supreme hour of the great assault. . . . " Where are they now?" they murmur. . . .
Of a sudden, from the distance over there towards Belloy, a great clamor is heard:
" En avant! Vive la Légion. Ah. . . . Ah.... Ah ......
And the notes of a bugle pierce the air; it is the brave Renard who sounds the charge.
The Legion, in a final bound, reaches the village. . . . The grenades burst, the mitrailleuses rattle. . . .
A time which seems to the wounded, lying in the field, to be beyond measure, interminable, a time of anguish, during which one pictures man killing man, face to face, in hand to hand conflict.
The dying look up, the wounded raise themselves, as if all must see how the battle goes.
Then from across the field of combat a cry arises, swells, grows louder, louder: "They are there, it is over, Belloy is taken!"
And the wounded cry: "They have won. Belloy is taken!"
They are magnificent, those men, haggard, bleeding. It is the Legion fallen that salutes the glory of the Legion living:
" Belloy is ours! Vive la France! Vive la Légion! Vive la France!"
Among those who, in that fine onslaught that no fire could halt
Parted impetuous to their first assault,
one of the first to fall was Alan Seeger. Mortally wounded, it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the Legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.
It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought,---to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre.
There, on the outskirts of the little village,
The soldier rests. Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
At peace beneath the eternal fusillade. . .
That other generations might possess
From shame and menace free in years to come
A richer heritage of happiness,
He marched to that heroic martyrdom.
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