This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
One day during the latter part of August, 1915, my regiment, the 2me Étranger (Foreign Legion), passed in review before the President of the French Republic and the Commander-in-Chief of her armies, General Joffre. On that day, after twelve months of fighting, the regiment was presented by President Poincaré with a battle-flag. The occasion marked the admission of the Légion Etrangère to equal footing with the regiments of the line. Two months later—it was October 28—the remnants of this regiment were paraded through the streets of Paris, and, with all military honors, this same battle-flag was taken across the Seine to the Hôtel des Invalides. There it was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor and, with reverent ceremony, was placed between the flag of the cuirassiers who died at Reichshofena dn the equally famous standard which the Garibaldians bore in 1870-71. The flag lives on. The regiment has ceased to exist.
On the battlefield of La Champagne, from Souain to the Ferme Navarin, from Somme-Pye to the Butte de Souain, the ground is thickly studded with low wooden crosses, their plain pine boards marked with the Mohammedan crescent and star. Beside the crosses you see bayonets thrust into the ground, and dangling from their crossbars little metal disks which months ago served their purpose in identifying the dead and now mark their graves. Many mounds bear no mark at all. On others again you see a dozen helmets laid in rows, to mark the companionship of the dead below in a common grave. It is there you will find the Legion.
Of the Legion I can tell you at firsthand. It is a story of adventurers, of criminals, of fugitives from justice. Some of them are drunkards, some thieves, and some with the mark of Cain upon them find others to keep them company. They are men I know the worst of. And yet I am proud of them—proud of having been one of them; very proud of having commanded some of them.
It is all natural enough. Most men who had come to know them as I have would feel as I do. You must reckon the good with the evil. You must remember their comradeship, their espirit de corps, their pathetic eagerness to serve France, the sole country which has offered them asylum, the country which has shown them confidence, mothered them, and placed them on an equal footing with her own sons. These things mean something to a man who has led the life of an outcast, and the Légionnaires have proved their loyalty many times over. At Arras, in La Champagne, there are more than 400 kilometers of trench-line which they have restored to France. The Legion has always boasted that it never shows its back, and the Legion has made good.
In my own section there were men of all races and all nationalities. There were Russians and Turks, an Anamite and a Hindu. There were Frenchmen from God knows where. There was a German, God only knows why. There were Bulgars, Serbs, Greeks, Negroes, an Italian, and a Fiji Islander fresh from an Oxford education, — a silent man of whom it was whispered that he had once been an archbishop, — three Arabians, and a handful of Americans who cared little for the quiet life. As Bur-bek-kar, the Arabian bugler, used to say in his bad French, ‘Ceux sont le ra-ta international.’ — ‘They’re the international stew.’
Many of the men I came to know well. The Italian, Conti, had been a professional bicycle-thief who had slipped quietly into the Legion when things got too hot for him. When he was killed in Champagne he was serving his second enlistment. Doumergue, a Frenchman who was a particularly good type of soldier, had absconded from Paris with his employer’s money and had found life in the Legion necessary to his comfort. A striking figure with a black complexion was Voronoff, a Russian prince whose precise antecedents were unknown to his mates. Pala was a Parisian ‘Apache’ and looked the part. Every man had left a past behind him. But the Americans in the Legion were of a different type. Some of us who volunteered for the war loved fighting, and some of us loved France. I was fond of both.
But even the Americans were not all of one stripe. J. J. Casey had been a newspaper artist, and Bob Scanlon, a burly Negro, an artist with his fist in the squared ring. Alan Seeger had something of the poet in him. Dennis Dowd was a lawyer; Edwin Bouligny a lovable adventurer. There was D. W. King, the sprig of a well-known family. William Thaw of Pittsburg started with us, though he joined the Flying Corps later on. Then there were James Bach of New York, B. S. Hall, who hailed from Kentucky, Professor Ohlinger of Columbia, Phelizot, who had shot enough big game in Africa to feed the regiment. There were Delpenche, and Capdevielle, and little Trinkard, from New York. Bob Subiron came, I imagine, from the States in general, for he had been a professional automobile racer. The Rockville brothers, journalists, signed on from Georgia; and last, though far from least, was Friedrich Wilhelm Zinn from Battle Creek, Michigan.1
The rest of the section were old-time Légionnaires, most of them serving their second enlistment of five years, and some their third. All these were seasoned soldiers, veterans of many battles in Algiers and Morocco. My section—complete—numbered sixty. Twelve of us survive, and of these there are several still in the hospital recovering from wounds. Zinn and Trinkard lie there with bullets in their breasts; Dowd, with his right arm nearly severed; Subiron, shot in the leg; Bouligny, with a ball in his stomach. But Bouligny, like many another, is an old hand in the hospital. He has been there twice before with metal to be cut out. Several others lie totally incapacitated from wounds, and more than half of the section rests quietly along the route of the Ryt. Seven of them are buried at Craonne; two more at Ferme Alger, near Rheims. Eighteen of them I saw buried myself in Champagne.
That is the record of the first section of Company I. It has not a fortunate sound, but in the company it was the lucky section. Section III, on the night of the first day’s fighting in Champagne, mustered eight men out of the forty-two who had fallen into line that morning. Section IV lost that day more than half of its effectives. Section II lost seventeen out of thirty-eight. War did its work thoroughly with the Legion. We had the place of honor in the attack, and we paid for it.
Two days before the forward movement began, we were informed by our captain of the day and hour set for the attack. We were told the exact number of field-pieces and heavy guns which would support us and the number of shells to be fired by each piece. Our artillery had orders to place four shells per metre per minute along the length of the German lines. Our captain gave us also very exact information regarding the number of German batteries opposed to us. He even told us the regimental numbers of the Prussian and Saxon regiments which were opposite our line. From him we learned also that along the whole length of our first row of trenches steps had been cut into the front bank in order to enable us to mount it without delay, and that our own barbed-wire entanglements, which were immediately in front of this trench, had been pierced by lanes cut through every two metres, so that we might advance without the slightest hindrance.
On the night of September 23, the commissioned officers, including the colonel of the regiment, entered the front lines of trenches, and with stakes marked the front to be occupied by our regiment during the attack. It was like an arrangement for a race. Starting from the road leading from Souain to Vouziers, the officers, after marking the spot with a big stake, paced 1500 metres to the eastward and there marked the extreme right of the regiment’s position by a second stake. Midway between these two a third was placed. From the road to the stake, the 750 metres marked the terrain for Battalion C. The other 750 metres bearing to the left were assigned to Battalion D. Just 100 metres behind these two battalions a line was designated for Battalion E, which was to move up in support.
My own company formed the front line of the extreme left flank of the regiment. Our left was to rest on the high road and our front was to run from that to a stake marking a precise frontage of 200 metres. From these stakes, which marked the ends of our line, we were ordered to take a course due north, sighting our direction by trees and natural objects several kilometres in the rear of the German lines. These were to serve us for guides during the advance. After explaining all these matters to us at length, other details were taken up with the engineers, who were shown piles of bridging, ready made in sections of planking so that they might be readily placed over the German trenches and thus permit our guns and supply-wagons to cross quickly in the wake of our advance.
The detail was infinite, but everything was foreseen. Twelve men from each company were furnished with long knives and grenades. Upon these ‘trench-cleaners,’ as we called them, fell the task of entering the German trenches and caves and bomb-proofs, and disposing of such of the enemy as were still hidden therein after we had stormed the trench and passed on to the other side. All extra shoes, all clothing and blankets were turned in to the quartermaster, and each man was provided with a second canteen of water, two days of ‘iron rations,’ and 130 rounds additional, making 250 cartridges per man. The gas-masks and mouth-pads were ready; emergency dressings were inspected, and each man ordered to put on clean underwear and shirts to prevent possible infection of the wounds.
One hour before the time set for the advance, we passed the final inspection and deposited our last letters with the regimental postmaster. Those letters meant a good deal to all of us and they were in our minds during the long wait that followed. One man suddenly began to intone the Marseillaise. Soon every man joined in singing. It was a very Anthem of Victory. We were ready, eager and confident: for us to-morrow held but one chance—Victory.
Slowly the column swung out of camp, and slowly and silently, without a spoken word of command, it changed its direction to the right and straightened out its length upon the road leading to the trenches. It was 10 p.m. precisely by my watch. The night was quite clear, and we could see, to right and to left, moving columns marching parallel to ours. One, though there was not quite light enough to tell which, was our sister regiment, the 1er Régiment Étranger. The other, as I knew, was the 8me Zouaves. The three columns marched at the same gait. It was like a funeral march, slow and very quiet. There was no singing and shouting; none of the usual badinage. Even the officers were silent. They were all on foot, marching like the rest of us. We knew there would be no use for horses to-morrow.
To-morrow was the day fixed for the grand attack. There was not a man in the ranks who did not know that to-morrow, at 9.15, was the time set. Every man, I suppose, wondered whether he would do or whether he would die. I wondered myself.
I did not really think I should die. Yet I had arranged my earthly affairs. ‘One can never tell,’ as the French soldier says with a shrug. I had written to my friends at home. I had named the man in my company to whom I wished to leave my personal belongings. Sergeant Velte was to have my Parabellum pistol; Casey my prismatics; Birchler my money-belt and contents; while Sergeant Jovert was booked for my watch and compass. Yet, in the back of my mind, I smiled at my own forethought. I knew that I should come out alive. I recalled to myself the numerous times that I had been in imminent peril: in the Philippines, in Mexico, and during the thirteen months of this war. I could remember time and again when men were killed on each side of me and when I escaped unscratched. Take the affair of Papoin, Joly, and Bob Scanlon. We were standing together so near that we could have clasped hands. Papoin was killed, Joly was severely wounded, and Scanlon was hit in the ankle00all by the same shell. The fragments which killed and wounded the first two passed on one side of me, while the piece of iron that hit Bob went close by my other side. Yet I was untouched! Again, take the last patrol. When I was out of cover, the Germans shot at me from a range of 10 metres—and missed! I felt certain that my day was not to-morrow.
Just the same, I was glad that my affairs were arranged, and it gave me a sense of conscious satisfaction to think that my comrades would have something to remember me by. There is always the chance of something unforeseen happening.
The pace was accelerating. The strain was beginning to wear off. From right and left there came a steady murmur of low talk. In our own column men were beginning to chaff each other. I could distinctly hear Subiron describing in picturesque detail to Capdevielle how he, Capdevielle, would look, gracefully draped over the German barbed wire; and I could hear Capdevielle’s heated response that he would live long enough to spit upon Subiron’s grave; and I smiled to myself. The moment of depression and self-communication had passed. The men had found themselves and were beginning their usual chaffing. And yet, in all their chatter there seemed to be an unusually sharp note. The jokes all had an edge to them. References to one another’s death were common, and good wishes for one another’s partial dismemberment excited only laughter. Just behind me I heard King express the hope that if he lost an arm or a leg he would at least get the médaille militaire in exchange. By way of comfort, his chum, Dowd, remarked that, whether he got the medal or not, he was very sure of getting a permit to beg on the street corners.
From personal bickerings we passed on to a discussion of the Germans and German methods of making war. We talked on the finger points of hand-grenades, poison gas, flame-projectors, vitriol bombs, and explosive bullets. Everybody seemed to take particular pleasure in describing the horrible wounds caused by the different weapons. Each man embroidered upon the tales the others told.
We were marching into Hell. If you judged them by their conversation, these men must have been brutes at heart, worse than any Apache; and yet of those around me several were university graduates; one was a lawyer; two were clerks; one a poet of standing; one an actor; and there were several men of leisure, Americans almost all of them.
The talk finally settled upon the Germans. Many and ingenious were the forms of torture invented upon the spur of the moment for the benefit of the ‘Boches.’ ‘Hanging is too good for them,’ said Scanlon. After a long discussion, scalping alive seemed the most satisfactory to the crowd.
It had come to be 11 p.m. We were at the mouth of the communicating trench and entering it, one by one. Every so often, short transverse trenches opened up to right and left, each one crammed full of soldiers. Talking and laughing stopped. We continued marching along the trench, kilometre after kilometre, in utter silence. As we moved forward, the lateral trenches became more numerous. Every 15 to 18 feet we came to one running from right to left, and each was filled with troops, their arms grounded. As we filed slowly by, they looked at us enviously. It was amusing to see how curious they looked, and to watch their whispering as we passed. Why should we precede them in attack?
‘Who are you?’ several men asked.
‘A-a-ah, la Légion! That explains it.’
Our right to the front rank seemed to be acknowledged. It did every man of us good.
We debouched from the trench into the street of a village. It was Souain. Houses, or ghosts of houses, walled us in on each side. Through the windows and the irregular shell-holes in the walls, the stars twinkled; while through a huge gap in the upper story of one of the houses I caught a glimpse of the moon, over my right shoulder. Lucky omen! ‘I’ll come through all right,’ I repeated to myself, and rapped with my knuckle upon the rifle-stock, lest the luck break.
No one house in the village was left standing—only bare walls. Near the end of the street, in the midst of chaos, we passed a windmill. The gaunt steel frame still stood. I could see the black rents in the mill and the great arms where the shrapnel had done its work; but still the wheel turned, slowly, creaking round and round, with its shrill metal scream.
The column turned to the left and again disappeared in a trench. After a short distance we turned to the right, then once more to the left, then on, and finally, not unwillingly, we came to a rest. We did not have to be told that we were now in the front line, for through the rifle-ports we could see the French shells bursting ahead of us like Fourth-of-July rockets.
The artillery had the range perfectly, and the shells, little and big, plumped with pleasing regularity into the German trenches. The din was indescribable—almost intolerable. Forty, even fifty, shells per minute were falling into a space about a single kilometre square. The explosions sounded almost continuous, and the return fire of the Germans seemed almost continuous. Only the great 10-inch long-range Teuton guns continued to respond effectively.
We look at the show for a while, and then lay down in the trench. Every man used his knapsack for a pillow and tried to snatch a few hours’ sleep. It was not a particularly good place for a nervous sleeper, but we were healthy and pretty tired.
The next morning, at 8 a.m., hot coffee was passed around, and we breakfasted on sardines, cheese, and bread, with the coffee to wash it down. At 9 the command passed down the line, ‘Every man ready!’ Up went the knapsack on every man’s back, and, rifle in hand, we filed along the trench.
The cannonading seemed to increase in intensity. From the low place in the parapet we caught glimpses of barbed wire which would glisten in occasional flashes of light. Our own we could plainly see, and a little farther beyond was the German wire.
Suddenly, at the sound of a whistle, we halted. The command, ‘Baionnette au canon!’ passed down the section. A drawn-out rattle followed, and the bayonets were fixed. Then the whistle sounded again. This time twice. We adjusted our straps. Each man took a look at his neighbor’s equipment. I turned and shook hands with the fellows next to me. They were grinning, and I felt my own nerves a-quiver as we waited for the signal.
Waiting seemed an eternity. As we stood there a shell burst close to our left. A moment later it was whispered along the line that an adjutant and five men had gone down.
What were we waiting for? I glanced at my watch. It was 9.15 exactly. The Germans evidently had the range. Two more shells burst close to the same place. We inquired curiously who was hit this time. Our response was two whistles. That was our signal. I felt my jaws clinching, and the man next to me looked white. It was only for a second. Then every one of us rushed at the trench wall, each and every man struggling to be the first out of the trench. In a moment we had clambered up and out. We slid over the parapet, wormed our way through gaps in the wire, formed in line, an, at the command, moved forward at march-step straight toward the German wire.
The world became a roaring hell. Shell after shell burst near us, sometimes right among us; and, as we moved forward at the double-quick, men fell right and left. We could hear the subdued rattling of the mitrailleuses and the roar of volley fire, but, above it all, I could hear with almost startling distinctness the words of the captain, shouting in his clear, high voice, ‘En avant! Vive la France!’
As we marched forward toward our goal, huge geysers of dust spouted into the air, rising behind our backs from the rows of ‘75’s’ supporting us. In front the fire-curtain outlined the whole length of the enemy’s line with a neatness and accuracy that struck me with wonder, as the flames burst through the pall of smoke and dust around us. Above, all was blackness, but at its lower edge the curtain was fringed with red and green flames, marking the explosion of the shells directly over the ditch and parapet in front of us. The low-flying clouds mingled with the smoke-curtain, so that the whole brightness of the day was obscured. Out of the blackness fell a trickling rain of pieces of metal, lumps of earth, knapsacks, rifles, cartridges, and fragments of human flesh. We went on steadily, nearer and nearer. Now we seemed very close to the wall of shells streaming from our own guns, curving just above us, and dropping into the trenches in front. The effect was terrific. I almost braced myself against the rocking of the earth, like a sailor’s instinctive gait in stormy weather.
In a single spot immediately in front of us, not over ten metres in length, I counted twelve shells bursting so fast that I could not count them without missing other explosions. The scene was horrible and terrifying. Across the wall of our own fire, poured shell after shell from the enemy, tearing through our ranks. From overhead the shrapnel seemed to come down in sheets, and from behind the stinking, blinding curtain came volleys of steel-jacketed bullets, their whine unheard and their effect almost unnoticed.
I think we moved forward simply from habit. With me it was like a dream as we went on, ever on. Here and there men dropped, the ranks closing automatically. Of a sudden our own fire-curtain lifted. In a moment it had ceased to bar our way and jumped like a living thing to the next line of the enemy. We could see the trenches in front of us now, quite clear of fire, but flattened almost beyond recognition. The defenders were either killed or demoralized. Calmly, almost stupidly, we parried or thrust with the bayonet at those who barred our way. Without a backward glance we leaped the ditch and went on straight forward toward the next trench, marked in glowing outline by our fire. I remember now how the men looked. Their eyes had a wild unseeing look in them. Everybody was gazing ahead, trying to pierce the awful curtain which cut us off from all sight of the enemy. Always the black pall smoking and burning appeared ahead—just ahead of us—hiding everything we wanted to see.
The drama was played again and again. Each time, as we approached so close that fragments of our own shells occasionally struck a leading file, the curtain lifted as by magic, jumped the intervening metres, and descended upon the enemy’s trench farther on. The ranges were perfect. We followed blindly—sometimes at a walk, sometimes at a dog-trot, and, when close to our goal, on the dead run. You could not hear a word in that pandemonium. All commands were given by example or by gesture. When our captain lay down, we knew our orders were to lie down too. When he waved to the right, to the right we swerved; if to the left, we turned to the left. A sweeping gesture, with an arm extended, first up, then down, meant, ‘Halt. Lie Down!’ From down, up, it meant, ‘Rise!’ When his hand was thrust swiftly forward, we knew he was shouting, ‘En avant!’ and when he waved his hand in a circle above his head, we broke into the double-quick.
Three times on our way to the second trench, the captain dropped and we after him. Then three short quick rushes by the companies and a final dash as the curtain of shells lifts and drops farther away. Then a hand-to-hand struggle, short and very bloody, some using their bayonets, others clubbing their rifles and grenades. A minute or two, and the trench was ours. The earthen fortress, so strong that the Germans had boasted that it could be held by a janitor and two washerwomen, was in the hands of the Legion.
As we swept on, the trench-cleaners entered the trench behind and began setting things to rights. Far down, six to eight metres below the surface, they found an underground city. Long tunnels, with chambers opening to right and left; bedrooms, furnished with bedsteads, wash-stands, tables, and chairs; elaborate mess-rooms, some fitted with pianos and phonographs. There were kitchens, too, and even bathrooms. So complex was the labyrinth that three days after the attack Germans were found stowed away in the lateral galleries. The passages were choked with dead. Hundreds of Germans who had survived the bombardment were torn to pieces deep beneath the ground by French hand-grenades, and buried where they lay. In rifles, munitions, and equipment the booty was immense.
We left the subterranean combat raging underneath us and continued on. As we passed over the main trench, we were enfiladed by cannon placed in armored turrets at the end of each section of trench. The danger was formidable, but it, too, had been foreseen. In a few moments these guns were silenced by hand-grenades shoved point-blank through the gun-ports. Just then, I remember, I looked back and saw Pala down on his hands and knees. I turned and ran over to help him up. He was quite dead, killed in the act of rising from the ground. His grotesque posture struck me at the time as funny, and I could not help smiling. I suppose I was nervous.
Our line was wearing thin. Half-way to the third trench we were reinforced by Battalion E coming from behind. The ground in our rear was covered with our men.
All at once came a change. The German artillery in front ceased firing, and the next second we saw the reason why. In the trench ahead, the German troops were pouring out in black masses and advancing toward us at a trot. Was it a counter-attack? ‘Tant mieux,’ said a man near me; another, of a different race, said, ‘We’ll show them!’ Then as suddenly our own artillery ceased firing, and the mystery became plain. The Germans were approaching in columns of fours, officers to the front, hands held in the air, and, as they came closer, we could distinguish the steady cry, ‘Kameraden! Kameraden!’
They were surrendering. How we went at our work! Out flew our knives, and, in less time than it takes to tell it, we had mingled among the prisoners, slicking off their trouser buttons, cutting off suspenders, and hacking through belts. All the war shoes had their laces cut, according to the regulations laid down in the last French Manual, and thus, slopping along, their hands helplessly in their breeches’ pockets, to keep their trousers from falling round their ankles, shuffling their feet, to keep their boots on, the huge column of prisoners was sent to the rear with a few soldiers to direct rather than to guard them. There was no fight left in them now. A terror-stricken group; some of them, temporarily at least, half insane.
As the Germans had left the trenches, their artillery had paused, thinking it a counter-attack. Now, as file after file was escorted to the rear and it became apparent to their rear lines that the men had surrendered, the German artillery saw its mistake and opened up again furiously at the dark masses of defenseless prisoners. We, too, were subjected to a terrific fire. Six shells landed at the same instant in almost the same place, and within a few minutes Section III of our company had almost disappeared. I lost two of my own section, Casey and Leguer, both severely wounded in the leg. I counted fourteen men and my command still on their feet. The company seemed to have shrunk two-thirds. A few minutes later, we entered the trench lately evacuated by the Prussians and left it by a very deep communication trench which we knew led to our destination, Ferme Navarin. Just as the entrance we passed sign-boards, marked in big letters with black paint, SCHUTZENGRABEN, SPANDAU.
This trench ran zigzag, in the general direction north and south. In many places it was filled level with dirt and rocks kicked in by our big shells. From the mass of debris, hands and legs were sticking stiffly out at grotesque angles. In one place, the heads of two men showed above the loose brown earth. Here and there, men were sitting, their backs against the wall of the trench, quite dead, with not a wound showing. In one deep crater, excavated by our 320-millimetres, lay five Saxons, side by side, in the pit where they had sought refuge, killed by the bursting of a single shell. One, a man of about twenty-three years of age, lay on his back, his legs tensely doubled, elbows thrust back into the ground, and fingers dug into the palms; eyes staring in terror and mouth wide open. I could not help carrying the picture of fear away with me, and I thought to myself, that man died a coward. Just alongside of him, resting on his left side, lay a blond giant stretched out easily, almost graceful in death. His two hands were laid together, palm to palm, in prayer. Between them was a photograph. The look upon his face was calm and peaceful. The contrast of his figure with his neighbor’s struck me. I noticed that a paper protruded from his partly opened blouse, and, picking it up, read the heading, ‘Ein’ Feste Burg ist Unser Gott.’ It was a two-leaved tract. I drew a blanket over him and followed my section.
The trench we marched in wound along in the shelter of a little ridge crowned with scrubby pines. Here the German shells bothered us but little. We were out of sight of their observation posts, and, consequently, their fire was uncontrolled and no longer effective. On we went. At every other step our feet pressed down upon soldiers’ corpses, lying indiscriminately one on top of the other, sometimes almost filling the trench. I brushed against one who sat braced against the side of the trench, the chin resting upon folded arms quite naturally—yet quite dead. It was through this trench that the Germans had tried to rush reinforcements into the threatened position, and here the men were slaughtered, without a chance to go back or forwards. Hemmed in by shells in both front and rear, many hundreds had climbed into the open and tried to escape over the fields toward the pine forest, only to be mown down as they ran. For hundreds of metres continuously my feet as I trudged along did not touch the ground. In many of the bodies life was not yet extinct, but we had to leave them for the Red Cross men. We had our orders. No delay was possible, and, at any rate, our minds were clogged with our own work ahead.
Making such time as we could, we finally arrived at the summit of the little ridge. Then we left the cover of the trench, formed in Indian file, 50 metres between sections, and, at the signal, moved forward swiftly and in order.
It was a pretty bit of tactics and executed with a dispatch and neatness hardly equaled on the drill-ground. The first files of the sections were abreast, while the men fell in, one close behind the other; and so we crossed the ridge, offering the smallest possible target to the enemy’s guns. Before us and a little to our left was the Ferme Navarin, our goal. As we descended the slope, we were greeted by a new hail of iron. Shells upon shells, fired singly, by pairs, by salvos, from six-gun batteries, they crashed and exploded around us. We increased the pace to a run and arrived out of breath abreast of immense pits dynamited out of the ground by prodigious explosions. Imbedded in them we could see three enemy howitzers, but not a living German was left. All had disappeared.
We entered the pits and rested for a space. After a moment we crawled up the side of the hollow and peeked over the edge. There I could see Doumergue stretched on the ground. He was lying on his back, his shoulders and head supported by his knapsack. His right leg was doubled under him, and I could see that he had been struck down in the act of running. As I watched, he strained weakly to roll himself sideways and free his leg. Slowly, spasmodically, his leg moved. Very, very slowly the foot dragged itself along the ground, and finally the limb was stretched alongside the other. Then I saw his rough, wan face assume a look of satisfaction. His eyes closed. A sigh passed between his lips and Doumergue had gone with the rest.
As we waited there, the mood of the men seemed to change. Their spirits began to rise. One jest started another, and soon we were all laughing at the memory of the German prisoners marching to the rear, holding up their trousers with both hands. Some of the men had taken the welcome opportunity of searching the prisoners while cutting their suspenders, and most of them were now puffing German cigarettes. One of them, Haeffle, offered me a piece of K. K. bread,2 black as ink. I declined with thanks, for I didn’t lie the looks of it. In the relaxation of the moment, nobody paid any attention to the shells falling outside the little open shelter, until Capdevielle proposed to crawl inside one of the German howitzers for security. Alas, he was too fat, and stuck! I myself hoped rather strongly that no shell would enter one of these pits in which the company had found shelter, because I knew there were several thousand rounds of ammunition piled near each piece hidden under the dirt, and an explosion might make it hot for us.
As we sat there, smoking and chatting, Delpenche, the homme des liaisons, as he was called, of the company, slid over the edge of the hollow and brought with him the order to leave the pit in column of one and to descend to the bottom of the incline, in line with some trees which he pointed out to us. There we were to deploy in open order and dig shelter trenches for ourselves—though I can tell the reader that ‘shelter’ is a poor word to use in such a connection. It seems we had to wait for artillery before making the attack on Navarin itself. The trench ‘Spandau,’ so Delpenche told me, was being put into shape by the engineers and was already partially filled with troops who were coming up to our support. The same message had been carried to the other section. As we filed out of our pit, we saw them leaving theirs. In somewhat loose formation, we ran full-tilt down the hill, and, at the assigned position, flung ourselves on the ground and began digging like mad. We had made the last stretch without losing a man.
The Ferme Navarin was 200 metres from where we lay. From it came a heavy rifle and mitrailleuse fire, but we did not respond. We had something else to do. Every man had his shovel, and every man made the dirt fly. In what seemed half a minute we had formed a continuous parapet, 12 to 14 inches in height, and with our knapsacks placed to keep the dirt in position, we felt quite safe against infantry and machine-gun fire. Next, each man proceeded to dig his little individual niche in the ground, about a yard deep, 20 inches wide, and long enough to lie down in with comfort. Between each two men there remained a partition wall of dirt, from 10 to 15 inches thick, the usefulness of which was immediately demonstrated by a shell which fell into Blondino’s niche, blowing him to pieces without injuring either of his companions to the right or the left.
We were comfortable and able to take pot shots at the Germans and to indulge again in the old trench game of sticking a helmet on a bayonet, pushing it a little above the dirt, and thus coaxing the Germans into a shot and immediately responding with 4-5 rifles. I looked at my watch. It said 10.45 a.m.—just an hour and a half since we left our trenches and started on our charge; and hour and a half in which I had lived days and years.
I was pretty well tired out and would have given the world for a few hours’ sleep. I called to Merrick to toss me Blondino’s canteen. Mine was empty, and Blondino had left his behind when he departed with the 105-millimetre. Haeffle remarked that Blondino was always making a noise anyway.
The artillery fire died gradually down, and only one German battery was still sweeping us now. Our long-range pieces thundered behind us, and we could hear shells swooshing overhead in a constant stream on their way to the German target. Our fire was evidently beating down the German artillery fire excepting the single battery which devoted its attention to us. The guns were hidden, and our artillery did not seem able to locate them. Our aeroplanes, long hovering overhead, began to swoop dangerously low. A swift Morane plane swept by at a height of 200 metres over the pine forest where the German guns were hidden. We watched him as he returned safe to our lines.
Soon the order came down the line to deepen the trenches. It seemed we were to stay there until night.
The charge was over.
Time passed very slowly. I raised my arm to listen to my wrist-watch, but couldn’t hear it. Too many shells!
I knelt cautiously in my hole, and, looking over the edge, counted my section. There were but eighteen men. The Collettes, both corporals, were on the extreme left. Next came Capdevielle, Dowd, Zinn, Seeger, Scanlon, King, Subiron, Dubois, Corporal Mettayer, Haeffle, St. Hilaire, Schneli, De Sumera, Corporal Denis, Bur-bek-kar, and Birchler. On my left, two paces in the rear of the section, were Neumayer, Corporal Fourrier, and Sergeant Fourrier. Both these were supernumeraries. The second sergeant was over with Section II. I began now to realize our losses. Fully two-thirds of my section were killed or wounded.
I wanted information from Corporal Denis regarding some men of his squad. Throwing a lump of dirt at him to attract his attention, I motioned to him to roll onto the side of his hole and make a place for me. Then, with two quick jumps I landed alongside him. As I dropped we noticed spurts of dust rising from the dirt-pile in front of the hole and smiled. The Germans were too slow that time. Putting my lips to his ears, I shouted my questions and got my information.
This hole was quite large enough to accommodate both of us, so I decided to stay with him a while. Corporal Denis still had bread and cheese and shared it with me. We lunched in comfort.
Having finished, we rolled cigarettes. I had no matches, and as he reached his cigarette to me to light mine, he jumped almost to his feet, rolling on his face, and with both hands clasped to his face, tried to rise, but couldn’t. I’ve seen men who were knocked out in the squared ring do the same thing. With heads resting on the floor, they try to get up. They get up on their knees and seem to try to lift their heads, but can’t. Denis tugged and tugged, without avail. I knelt alongside him and forced his hands from his face. He was covered with blood spurting out of a three-inch gash running from the left eye down to the corner of the mouth. A steel splinter had entered there and passed under the left ear. He must stay in the trench until nightfall.
I reached for his emergency dressing and as I made the motion felt a blow in the right shoulder. As soon as I had got Denis tied up and quiet, I unbuttoned my overcoat and shirt and picked a rifle-ball out of my own shoulder. The wound was not at all serious and bled but little. I congratulated myself, but wondered why the ball did not penetrate; and then I caught sight of Dennis’s rifle lying over the parapet and showing a hole in the woodwork. The ball seemed to have passed through the magazine of the rifle, knocked out one cartridge, and then hit me.
When I was ready to return to my own hole, I rose a little too high and the Germans turned loose with a machine gun, but too high. I got back safely and lay down. It was getting very monotonous. To pass the time, I dug my hole deeper and larger, placing the loose dirt in front in a quarter-circle, until I felt perfectly safe against anything except a direct hit by a shell. There is but one chance in a thousand of that happening.
The day passed slowly and without mishap to my section. As night fell, one half of the section stayed on the alert four hours, while the other half slept. The second sergeant had returned and relieved me at twelve, midnight. I pulled several handfuls of grass, and with that and two overcoats I had stripped from dead Germans during the night, I made a comfortable bed and lay down to sleep. The bank was not uncomfortable. I was very tired, and dozed off immediately.
Suddenly I awoke in darkness. Everything was still, and I could hear my watch ticking, but over every part of me there was an immense leaden weight. I tried to rise, and couldn’t move. Something was holding me and choking me at the same time. There was no air to breathe. I set my muscles and tried to give a strong heave. As I drew in my breath, my mouth filled with dirt. I was buried alive!
It is curious what a man thinks about when he is in trouble. Into my mind shot memories of feats of strength performed. Why, I was the strongest man in the section. Surely I could lift myself out, I thought to myself, and my confidence began to return. I worked the dirt out of my mouth with the tip of my tongue and prepared myself mentally for the sudden heave that would free me. A quick inhalation, and my mouth filled again with dirt. I could not move a muscle under my skin. And then I seemed to be two people. The ‘I’ who was thinking seemed to be at a distance from the body lying there.
My God! Am I going to die stretched out in a hole like this? I thought.
Through my mind flashed a picture of the way I had always hoped to die—the way I had a right to die: face to the enemy and running towards him. Why, that was part of a soldier’s wages. I tried to shout for help, and more dirt entered my mouth! I could feel it gritting way down in my throat. My tongue was locked so I could not move. I watched the whole picture. I was standing a little way off and could hear myself gurgle. My throat was rattling, and I said to myself, ‘That’s the finish!’ Then I grew calm. It wasn’t hurting so much, and somehow or other I seemed to realize that a soldier had taken a soldier’s chance and lost. It wasn’t his fault. He had done the best he could. Then the pain all left me and the world went black. It was death.
Then somebody yelled, ‘Hell! He bit my finger.’ I could hear him.
‘That’s nothing,’ said a voice I knew as Collette’s. ‘Get the dirt out of his mouth.’
Again a finger entered my throat, and I coughed spasmodically.
Some one was working my arms backward, and my right shoulder hurt me. I struggled up, but sank to my knees and began coughing up dirt.
‘Here,’ says Subiron, ‘turn round and spit that dirt on your parapet. It all helps.’ The remark made me smile.
I was quite all right now, and Subiron, Collette, Joe, and Marcel returned to their holes. The Red Cross men were picked something out of the hole made by a 250-millimetre, they told me. It was the remnant of the Corporal and Sergeant Fourrier, who had their trench to my left. It seems that a 10-inch shell had entered the ground at the edge of my hole, exploded a depth of two metres, tearing the corporal and sergeant to pieces, and kicking several cubic metres of dirt into and on top of me. Subiron and the Collettes saw what had happened, and immediately started digging me out. They had been just in time. It wasn’t long before my strength began to come back. Two stretcher-bearers came up to carry me to the rear, but I declined their services. There was too much going on. I dug out the German overcoats, recovered some grass, and, bedding myself down in the crater made by the shell, began to feel quite safe again. Lightning never strikes twice in the same spot.
However, that wasn’t much like the old-fashioned lightning. The enemy seemed to have picked upon my section. The shells were falling thicker and closer. Everybody was broad awake now, and all of us seemed to be waiting for a shell to drop in our holes. It was only a question of time before we should be wiped out. Haeffle called my attention to a little trench we all had noticed during the daytime, about forty metres in front of us. No fire had come from there, and it was evidently quite abandoned.
I took Haeffle and St. Hilaire with me and quietly crawled over to the trench, round the end of it, and started to enter at about the centre.
Then all of a sudden a wild yell came out of the darkness in front of us.
‘Franzosen! Die Franzosen!’
We couldn’t see anything, nor they, either. There might have been a regiment of us or of them, for that matter. I screeched out in German, ‘Hände hoch!’ and jumped into the trench followed by my two companions. As we crouched in the bottom, I yelled again, ‘Hände hoch oder wir schiessen!’
The response was the familiar ‘Kameraden! Kameraden!’ Haeffle gave an audible chuckle.
Calling again on my German, I ordered the men to step out of the trench with hands held high, and to march toward our line. I assured the poor devils we would not hurt them. They thought there was a division of us, more or less, and I don’t know how much confidence they put in my assurance. Anyhow, as they scrambled over the parapet, I counted six of them prisoners to the three of us. Haeffle and St. Hilaire escorted them back and also took word to the second sergeant to let the section crawl, one after the other, up this trench to where I was.
One by one the men came on, crawling in single file, and I put them to work, carefully and noiselessly reversing the parapet. This German trench was very deep, with niches cut into the bank at intervals of one metre, permitting the men to lie down comfortably.
I wanted to know the time and felt along my belt. One of the straps had been cut clean through and my wallet, which had held 265 francs, had been neatly removed. Some one of my men, who had risked his life for mine with a self-devotion that could scarcely be surpassed, had felt that his need was greater than mine. Whoever he was, I bear him no grudge. Poor chap, if he lived he needed the money—and that day he surely did me a good turn. Besides, he was a member of the Legion.
I placed sentries, took care to find a good place for myself, and was just dropping off to sleep as Haeffle and St. Hilaire returned and communicated to me the captain’s compliments and the assurance of a ‘citation.’3
I composed myself to sleep and dropped off quite content.
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.