A Soldier of 'the Legion' (Part II)
An American describes his experience serving in the French Foreign Legion in the final installment of a two-part series.
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Our readers will remember that at the close of the narrative in the March issue, ‘A Soldier of the Legion,’ Sergeant Morlae, who is reciting his adventures, was left curled up in a newly won German trench, dropping off to sleep, with the comfortable knowledge that he was assured, ‘with the captain’s compliments,’ of a citation. The narrative is resumed at that point.
It seemed but a few minutes when I was awakened by Collette and Marcel, who offered me a steaming cup of coffee, half a loaf of bread, and some Swiss cheese. This food had been brought from the rear while I was lying asleep. My appetite was splendid, and when Sergeant Malvoisin offered me a drink of rum in a canteen that he took from a dead German, I accepted gratefully. Just then the agent de liaison appeared with the order to assemble the section, and in column of one, second section at thirty-metres interval, to return the way we had come.
It was almost daylight and things were visible at two to three metres. The bombardment had died down and the quiet was hardly disturbed by occasional shots. Our captain marched ahead of the second section, swinging a cane and contentedly puffing on his pipe. Nearly everybody was smoking. As we marched along we noticed that new trenches had been dug during the night from sixty to a hundred metres in rear of the position we had held, and were filled by the Twenty-ninth Chasseur Regiment, which replaced us.
Very cunningly these trenches were arranged. They were deep and narrow, fully seven feet deep and barely a yard wide. At every favorable point, on every little rise in the ground, a salient had been constructed, projecting out from the main trench ten to fifteen metres, protected by heavy logs, corrugated steel sheets, and two to three feet of dirt. Each side of the salients bristled with machine-guns. Any attack upon this position would be bound to fail, owing to the intense volume of fire that could be brought to bear upon the flanks of the enemy.
To make assurance doubly sure, the Engineer Corps had dug rows of cup-shaped bowls, two feet in diameter, two feet deep, leaving but a narrow wedge of dirt between each two; and in the centre of each bowl was placed a six-pointed twisted steel ‘porcupine.’ This instrument, however it is placed, always presents a sharp point right at you. Five rows of these man-traps I counted, separated by a thin wall of dirt, not strong enough to maintain the weight of a man, so that any one who attempted to rush past would be thrown against the ‘porcupine’ and be spitted like a pigeon. As an additional precaution a mass of barbed wire lay in rolls, ready to be placed in front of this ouvrage, to make it safe against any surprise.
We marched along, talking and chatting, discussing this and that, without a care in the world. Every one hoped we were going to the rear to recuperate and enjoy a good square meal and a good night’s rest. Seeger wanted a good wash, he said. He was rather dirty, and so was I. My puttees dangled in pieces round my calves. It seems I had torn them going through the German wire the day before. I told Haeffle to keep his eyes open for a good pair on some dead man. He said he would.
The company marched round the hill we descended so swiftly yesterday and, describing a semi-circle, entered again the Schützengraben Spandau and marched back in the direction we had come from. The trench, however, presented a different appearance. The bad places had been repaired, the loose dirt had been shoveled out, and the dead had disappeared. On the east side of the trench an extremely high parapet had been built. This parapet was complete even to loop-holes—rather funny-looking loop-holes, I thought’ and when I looked closer, I saw that they were framed in by boots! I reached my hand into several of them as we walked along, and touched the limbs of dead men. The engineers, it seems, in need of material, had placed the dead Germans on top of the ground, feet flush with the inside of the ditch, leaving from six to seven inches between two bodies, and laying another body cross-wise on top of the two, spanning the gap between them. Then they had shoveled the dirt on top of them, thus killing two birds with one stone.
The discovery created a riot of excitement among the men. Curses intermingled with laughter came from ahead of us. Everybody was tickled by the ingenuity of our génie. ‘They are marvelous!’ we thought. Dowd’s face showed consternation, yet he could not help smiling. Little King was pale around the mouth, yet his lips were twisted in a grin. It was horribly amusing.
Every 200 metres we passed groups of the One Hundred and Seventieth, on duty in the trench. The front line, they told us, was twelve hundred metres farther east, and this trench formed the second line for their regiment. We entered the third-line trench of the Germans from which they ran yesterday to surrender, and continued marching in the same direction—always east. Here we had a chance to investigate the erstwhile German habitations.
Exactly forty paces apart doorways opened into the dirt bank, and from each of them fourteen steps descended at about forty-five degrees in to a cellar-like room. The stairs were built of wood and the sides of the stairways and the chambers below were lined with one-inch pine boards. These domiciles must have been quite comfortable and safe, but now they were choked with bodies. As we continued our leisurely way, we met some of our trench-cleaners and they recited their experiences with gusto. The Germans, they told us, pointing down into the charnel-houses, refused to come and give up, and even fired at them when summoned to surrender. ‘Then what did you do?’ I asked. ‘Very simple,’ answered one. ‘We stood on the top of the ground right above the door and hurled grenade after grenade through the doorway until all noise gradually ceased down below. Then we went to the next hole and did the same thing. It wasn’t at all dangerous,’ he added, ‘and it was very effective.’
We moved but slowly along the trench, and every once in a while there was a halt while some of the men investigated promising ‘prospects,’ where the holes packed with dead Germans held out some promise of loot. Owing to the order of march, the first company was the last one in line, and my section at the very end. The head of the column was the fourth company, then the third, then the second, and then we. By the time my section came to any hole holding out hopes of souvenirs, there was nothing left for us. Yet I did find a German officer with a new pair of puttees, and, hastily unwinding them, I discarded my own and put on the new ones. As I bound them on I noticed the name on the tag—‘Hindenburg.’ I suppose that name stands for quality with the Boches.
We left the trench and swung into another communication trench, going to the left, still in an easterly direction, straight on toward the Butte de Souain. That point we knew was still in the hands of the Germans, and very quickly they welcomed us. Shells came shrieking down—105 mm., 150, 210, and 250. It’s very easy to tell when you are close to them, even if you can’t see a thing. When a big shell passes high, it sounds like a white-hot piece of iron suddenly doused in cold water; but when it gets close, the sw-i-ish sound suddenly rises in a high crescendo, a shriek punctuated by a horrible roar. The uniformity of movement as the men ducked was beautiful—and they all did it! One moment there was a line of gray helmets bobbing up and down the trenches as the line plodded on; and the next instant one could see only a line of black canvas close to the ground, as every man ducked and shifted his shoulder-sack over his neck. My sack had been blown to pieces when I was buried, and I felt uncomfortably handicapped with only my musette for protection against steel splinters.
About a mile from where we entered this bayau we came to a temporary halt, then went on once more. The fourth company had come to halt, and we squeezed past them as we marched along. Every man of them had his shovel out and had commenced digging a niche for himself. We passed the fourth company, then the third, then the second, and finally the first, second, and third sections of our own company. Just beyond, we ourselves came to a halt and, lining up one man to the metre, started to organize the trench for defensive purposes. From the other side of a slight ridge, east of us and about six hundred metres away, came the sound of machine-guns. Between us and the ridge the Germans were executing a very lively feu de barrage, a screen of fire prohibiting any idea of sending reinforcements over to the front line.
Attached for rations to my section were the major of the battalion, a captain, and three sergeants of the état-major. Two of the sergeants were at the trench telephone, and I could hear them report the news to the officers. ‘The Germans,’ they reported, ‘are penned in on three sides and are prevented from retreating by our artillery.’ Twice they had attempted to pierce our line between them and the Butte de Souain, and twice they were driven back. Good news for us!
At 10 a.m. we sent three men from each section to the rear for the soup. At about eleven they reappeared with steaming marmites of soup, stew, coffee, and buckets of wine. The food was very good, and disappeared to the last morsel.
After eating, the captains granted me permission to walk along the ditch back to the fourth company. The trench being too crowded for comfort, I walked alongside to the second company, and searched for my friend, Sergeant Velte. Finally I found him lying in a shell-hole, side by side with his adjutant and Sergeant Morin. All three were dead, torn to pieces by one shell shortly after we had passed them in the morning. At the third company they reported that Second Lieutenant Sweeny had been shot through the chest by a lost ball that morning. Hard luck for Sweeny!1 That poor devil had just been nominated sous-lieutenant at the request of the French Embassy in Washington, and when he was attached as supernumerary to the third company we all had hopes that he would have a chance to prove his merit.
In the fourth company the losses were also severe. The part of the trench occupied by the three companies was directly enfiladed by the German batteries on the Butte de Souain, and every little while a shell would fall square into the ditch and take toll form the occupants. Our company was fully a thousand metres nearer to these batteries, but the trenches we occupied presented a three-quarter face to the fire, and consequently were ever so much harder to hit. Even then, when I got back I found four men hors de combat in the fourth section. In my section two niches were demolished without any one being hit.
Time dragged slowly until four in the afternoon, when we had soup again. Many of the men built little fires, and with the Erbsenwurst they had found on dead Germans prepared a very palatable soup by way of extra rations.
At four o’clock sentries were posted and everybody fell asleep. A steady rain was falling, and to keep dry we hooked one edge of our tent-sheet on the ground above the niche and put dirt on top of it to hold. Then we pushed cartridges through the button-holes of the tent, pinning them into the side of the trench and forming a good cover for the occupant of the hole. Thus we rested until the new day broke, bringing a clear sky and sunshine. This day, the 27th, — and third of the battle, — passed without mishap to my section. We spent our time eating and sleeping, mildly distracted by an intermittent bombardment.
Another night spent in the same cramped quarters! We were getting weary of inactivity, and it was rather hard work to keep the men in the ditch. They sneaked off singly and in pairs, always heading back to the German dug-outs, all bent on turning things upside down in the hope of finding something of value to carry as a keepsake.
Haeffle came back once with three automatic pistols but no cartridges. From another trip he returned with an officer’s helmet, and the third time he brought triumphantly back a string three feet long of dried sausages. Haeffle always did have a healthy appetite, and it transpired that on the way back he had eaten a dozen sausages, more or less. The dried meat had made him thirsty and he had drunk half a canteen of water on top of it. The result was, he swelled up like a poisoned pup, and for a time he was surely a sick man.
Zinn found two shiny German bayonets, a long thin one and one short and heavy, and swore he’d pack them for a year if he had to. Zinn hailed from Battle Creek and wanted to use them as brush-knives on camping trips in the Michigan woods; but alas, in the sequel they got too heavy and were dropped along the road. One man found a German pipe with a three-foot soft-rubber stem, which he intending sending to his brother as a souvenir. Man and pipe are buried on the slopes of the Butte de Souain. He died that same evening.
At the usual time—4 p.m.—we had soup, and immediately after came the order to get ready. Looking over the trench, we watched the fourth company form in the open back of the ditch and, marching past us in an oblique direction, disappear round a spur of wooded hill. The third company followed at four hundred metres distance, then the second, and as they passed out of sight around the hill, we jumped out and, forming in line sections at thirty-metre intervals, each company four hundred metres in the rear of the one ahead, we followed, arme à la bretelle.
We were quite unobserved by the enemy, and marched the length of the hill for three fourths of a kilometre, keeping just below the crest. Above us sailed four big French battle-planes and some small aero scouts, on the lookout for enemy aircraft. For a while it seemed as if we should not be discovered, and the command was given to lie down. From where we lay we could observe clearly the ensuing scrap in the air, and it was worth watching. Several German planes had approached close to our lines, but were discovered by the swift-flying scouts. Immediately the little fellows returned with the news to the big planes, and we watched the monster biplanes mount to the combat. In a wide circle they swung, climbing, climbing higher and higher, and then headed in a bee-line straight toward the German Tauben. As they approached within range of each other, we saw little clouds appear close to the German planes, some in front, some over them, and others behind’ and then, after an interval, the report of the 32 mm. guns mounted on our battleplanes floated down to us, immediately followed like an echo by the crack of the bursting shell. Long before the Germans could get within effective range for their machine-guns, they were peppered by our planes and ignominiously forced to beat a retreat. One Albatross seemed to be a hit. He staggered from one side to the other, then dipped forward, and, standing straight on his nose, dropped like a stone out of sight behind the forest crowning the hill.
Again we moved on, and shortly arrived at the southern spur of the hill. Here the company made a quarter turn to the left, and in the same formation began the ascent of the hill. The second company was just disappearing into the scrubby pine forest on top. We entered also, continued on to the top, and halted just below the crest. The captain called the officers and sergeants, and, following him, we crawled on our stomachs up to the highest point and looked over.
Never shall I forget the panorama that spread before us! The four thin ranks of the second company seemed to stagger drunkenly through a sea of green fire and smoke. One moment gaps showed in the lines, only to be closed again as the rear files spurted. Undoubtedly they ran at top speed, but to us watchers they seemed to crawl, and at times almost to stop. Mixed in with the dark green of the grass covering the valley were rows of lighter color, telling of the men who fell in that mad sprint. The continuous bombardment sounded like a giant drum beating an incredibly swift rataplan. Along the whole length of our hill this curtain of shells was dropping, leveling the forest and seemingly beating off the very face of the hill itself, clean down to the bottom of the valley. Owing to the proximity of our troops to the enemy’s batteries, we received hardly any support from our own big guns, and the rôle of the combatants was entirely reversed. The Germans had their innings then, and full well they worked.
As the company descended into the valley the pace became slower, and at the beginning of the opposite slope they halted and faced back. Owing to the height of the Butte de Souain, they were safe, and they considered that it was their turn to act as spectators.
As our captain rose we followed and took our places in front of our sections. Again I impressed upon the minds of my men the importance of following in a straight line and as close behind one another as possible. ‘Arme à la main!’ came the order, and slowly we moved to the crest and then immediately broke into a dog-trot. Instantly we were enveloped in flames and smoke. Hell kissed us welcome! Closely I watched the captain for the sign to increase our speed. I could have run a mile in record time, but he plugged steadily along, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, — at a tempo of a hundred and eighty steps per minute, three to the second, — the regulation tempo. Inwardly I cursed his insistence upon having things réglementaires.
As I looked at the middle of his back, longing for him to hurry, I caught sight, on my right, of a shell exploding directly in the centre of the third section. Out of the tail of my eye I saw the upper part of Corporal Keraudy’s body rise slowly into the air. The legs had disappeared, and with arms outstretched the trunk sank down on the corpse of Varma, the Hindu, who had marched behind him. Instinctively, I almost stopped in my tracks: Keraudy was a friend of mine; but at the instant Corporal Mettayer, running behind me, bumped into my back, and shoved me again into life and action.
We were out of the woods then, and running down the bare slope of the hill. A puff of smoke, red-hot, smote me in the face, and at the same moment intense pain shot up my jaw. I did not think I was hit seriously, since I was able to run all right. Some one in the second section intoned the regimental march, ‘Allons, Giron.’ Others took it up; and there, in that scene of death and hell, this song portraying the lusts and vices of the Légion Étrangère became a very pæan of enthusiasm and courage.
Glancing to the right, I saw that we were getting too close to the second section, so I gave the signal for a left oblique. We bore away from them until once again at our thirty paces distance. All at once my feet tangled up in something and I almost fell. It was long grass! Just then it seemed to grow upon my mind that we were down in the valley and out of range of the enemy. Then I glanced ahead, and not over a hundred metres away I saw the second company lying in the grass and watching us coming. As we neared, they shouted little pleasantries at us and congratulated us upon our speed.
‘Why this unseemly haste?’ one wants to know.
‘You go to the devil!’ answers Haeffle.
‘Merci, mon ami!’ retorts the first; ‘I have just come through his back kitchen.’
Counting my section, I missed Dubois, St. Hilaire, and Schueli. Collette, Joe told me, was left on the hill.
The company had lost two sergeants, one corporal, and thirteen men coming down that short stretch! We mustered but forty-five men, all told. One, Sergeant Terisien, had commanded my section, the ‘American Section,’ for four months but was transferred to the fourth. From where we rested we could see him slowly descending the hill, bareheaded and with his right hand clasping his left shoulder. He had been severely wounded in the head, and his left arm was nearly torn off at the shoulder. Poor devil! He was a good comrade and a good soldier. Just before the war broke out he had finished his third enlistment in the Legion, and was in line for a discharge and pension when he died.
Looking up the awful slope we had just descended, we could see the bodies of our comrades, torn and mangled and again and again kicked up into the air by the shells. For two days and nights the hellish hail continued to beat upon that blood-soaked slope, until we finally captured the Butte de Souain and forced an entire regiment of Saxons to the left of the butte to capitulate.
Again we assembled in column of fours, and this time began the climb uphill. Just then I happened to think of the blow I had received under the jaw, and feeling of the spot, discovered a slight wound under my left jaw-bone. Handing my rifle to a man, I pressed slightly upon the sore spot and pulled a steel splinter out of the wound. A very thin, long sliver of steel it was, half the diameter of a dime and not more than a dime’s thickness, but an inch and a half long. The metal was still hot to the touch. The scratch continued bleeding freely, but I did not bandage it at the time because I Felt sure of needing my emergency dressing farther along.
Up near the crest of the hill we halted in an angle of the woods and lay down alongside the One Hundred and Seventy-Second Regiment of infantry. They had made the attack in this direction on the 25th, but had been severely checked at this point. Infantry and machine-gun fire sounded very close, and lost bullets by the hundreds flicked through the branches overhead. The One Hundred and Seventy-Second informed us that a battalion of the Premier Étranger had entered the forest and was at that moment storming a position to our immediate left. Through the trees showed lights, brighter than day, cast from hundreds of German magnesium candles shot into the air.
Our officers were grouped with those of the other regiment, and after a very long conference they separated, each to his command. Our captain called the officers and subalterns of the company together, and in terse sentences explained to us our positions and the object of the coming assault. It was to be a purely local affair, and the point was the clearing of the enemy from the hill we were on. On a map drawn to scale he pointed out the lay of the land.
It looked to me like a hard proposition. Imagine a tooth-brush about a mile long and three eighths to one half a mile wide. The back is formed by the summit of the hill, which is densely wooded, and the hairs of the brush are represented by four little ridges rising from the valley we had just crossed, each one crowned with strips of forest and uniting with the main ridge at right angles. Between each two lines of hair are open spaces, from one hundred to one hundred and fifty metres wide. We, of the second regiment, were to deliver the assault parallel with the hairs and stretching from the crest down to the valley.
The other column was to make a demonstration from our left, running a general course at right angles to ours. The time set was eight o’clock at night.
Returning to our places, we informed the men of what they were in for. While we were talking we noticed a group of men come from the edge of the woods and form into company formation, and we could hear them answer to the roll-call. I went over and peered at them. On their coat-collars I saw the gilt No. 1. It was the Premier Étranger.
As the roll-call proceeded, I wondered. The sergeant was deciphering with difficulty the names from his little carnet, and response after response was, ‘Mort.’ Once in a while the answer changed to ‘Mort sur le champ d’honneur,’ or a brief ‘Tombé.’ There were twenty-two men in line, not counting the sergeant and a corporal, who in rear of the line supported himself precariously on two rifles which served him as crutches. Two more groups appeared back of this one, and the same proceeding was repeated. As I stood near the second group I could just catch the responses of the survivors. ‘Duvivier’: ‘Present.’ — ‘Selonti’: ‘Present.’ — ‘Boismort’: ‘Tombé’ — ‘Herkis’: ‘Mort.’ — ‘Carney’: ‘Mort.’ — ‘MacDonald’: ‘Present.’ — ‘Farnsworth’: ‘Mort sur le champ d’honneur,’ responded MacDonald. Several of the men I had known, Farnsworth among them. One officer, a second lieutenant, commanded the remains of the battalion. Seven hundred and fifty men, he informed me, had gone in an hour ago, and less than two hundred came back.
‘Ah, mon ami,’ he told me, ‘c’est bien chaud dans le bois.’
Quietly they turned into column of fours and disappeared in the darkness. Their attack had failed. Owing to the protection afforded by the trees, our aerial scouts had failed to gather definite information of the defenses constructed in the forest, and owing also to the same cause, our previous bombardment had been ineffective.
It was our job to remedy this. One battalion of the One Hundred and Seventy-Second was detached and placed in line with us, and at 8 p.m. sharp the major’s whistle sounded, echoed by that of our captain.
Quietly we lined up at the edge of the forest, shoulder to shoulder, bayonets fixed. Quietly each corporal examined the rifles of his men, inspected the magazines, and saw that each chamber also held a cartridge with firing-pin down. As silently as possible we entered between the trees and carefully kept in touch with each other. It was dark in there, and we had moved along some little distance before our eyes were used to the blackness. As I picked my steps I prepared myself for the shock every man experiences at the first sound of a volley. Twice I fell down into shell-holes and cursed my clumsiness and that of some other fellows to my right. ‘The “Dutch” must be asleep,’ I thought, ‘or else they beat it.’ Hopefully the latter!
We were approaching the farther edge of the tooth-brush ‘bristle,’ and breathlessly we halted at the edge of the little open space before us. About eighty metres across loomed the black line of another ‘row of hairs.’
The captain and second section to our right moved on and we kept in line, still slowly and cautiously, carefully putting one foot before the other. Suddenly from the darkness in front of us came four or five heavy reports like the noise of a shot-gun, followed by a long hiss. Into the air streamed trails of sparks. Above our heads the hiss ended with a sharp crack, and everything stood revealed as though it were broad daylight.
At the first crash, the major, the captains—everybody, it seemed to me—yelled at the same time, ‘En avant! Pas de charge!’—and in full run, with fixed bayonets, we flew across the meadow. As we neared the woods we were met by solid sheets of steel balls. Roar upon roar came from the forest; the volleys came too fast, it shot into my mind, to be well aimed. Then something hit me on the chest and I fell sprawling. Barbed wire! Everybody seemed to be on the ground at once, crawling, pushing, struggling through. My rifle was lost and I grasped my parabellum. It was a German weapon, German charges, German cartridges. This time the Germans were to get a taste of their own medicine, I thought. Lying on my back, I wormed through the wire, butting into the men in front of me and getting kicked in the head by Mettayer. As I crawled I could hear the ping-ping of balls striking the wire, and the shrill moan as they glanced off and continued on their flight.
Putting out of my hand, I felt loose dirt, and, lying flat, peered over the parapet. ‘Nobody home.’ I thought; and then I saw one of the Collette brothers in the trench come running toward me and ahead of him a burly Boche. I could see Joe make a one-handed lunge with the rifle, and the bayonet showed uflly a foot in front of the German’s chest.
Reforming, we advanced toward the farther fringe of the little forest. Halfway through the trees we lay down flat on our stomachs, rifle in right hand, and slowly, very slowly, wormed our way past the trees into the opening between us and our goal. Every man had left his knapsack in front or else hanging on the barbed wire, and we were in good shape for the work that lay ahead. But the sections and companies were inextricably mixed. On one side of me crawled a lieutenant of the One Hundred and Seventy-Second and on the other a private I had never seen before. Still we were all in line, and when some on shouted, ‘Feu de quatre cartouches!’ we fired four rounds, and after the command all crawled again a few paces nearer.
Several times we halted to fire, aiming at the sheets of flame spurting toward us. Over the Germans floated several parachute magnesium rockets, sent up by our own men, giving a vivid light and enabling us to shoot with fair accuracy. I think now that the German fire was too high. Anyway, I did not notice anyone in my immediate vicinity getting hit. Though our progress was slow, we finally arrived at the main wire entanglement.
All corporals in the French Army carry wire-nippers, and it was our corporals’ business to open a way through the entanglement. Several men to my right I could see one—he looked like Mettayer—lying flat on his back and, nippers in hand, snipping away at the wire overhead, while all of us behind kept up a murderous and constant fire at the enemy. Mingled with the roar of the rifles came the stuttering rattle of the machine-guns, at moments drowned by the crash of hand-grenades. Our grenadiers had rather poor success with their missiles, however, most of them hitting trees in front of the trench. The lieutenant on my left had four grenades. I could see him plainly. With one in his hand, he crawled close to the wire, rolled on his back, rested an instant with arms extended, both hands grasping the grenade, then suddenly he doubled forward and back and sent the bomb flying over his head. For two, three seconds—it seemed longer at the time—we listened, and then came the roar of the explosion. He smiled and nodded to me, and again went through the same manœuvre.
In the meantime I kept my parabellum going. I had nine magazines loaded with dum-dum balls I had taken from some dead Germans, and I distributed the balls impartially between three créneaux in front of me. On my right, men were surging through several breaks in the wire. Swiftly I rolled over and over toward the free lane and went through with a rush. The combat had become a hand-grenade affair. Our grenadiers crawled alongside the parapet and at regular intervals tossed one of their missiles into it, while the others, shooting over their heads, potted the Germans as they ran to the rear.
Suddenly the fusillade ceased, and with a crash, it seemed, silence and darkness descended upon us. The sudden cessation of the terrific rifle-firing and of the constant rattling of the machine-guns struck one like a blow. Sergeant Altoffer brought me some information about one of my men, and almost angrily I asked him not to shout! ‘I’m not deaf yet,’ I assured him. ‘Mon vieux,’ he raged, ‘it’s you who are shouting!’
I realized my fault and apologized, and in return accepted a drink of wine from his canteen.
Finding the captain, we were ordered to assemble the men and maintain the trench, and after much searching I found a few men of the section. The little scrap had cost us three more men. Subiron, Dowd, and Zinn were wounded and sent to the rear. The One Hundred and Seventy-Second sent a patrol toward the farthest, the last hair of the tooth-brush, with orders to reconnoitre thoroughly. An hour passed and they had not returned. Twenty minutes more went by, still no patrol. Rather curious, we thought. No rifle-shots had come from that direction, nor any noise such as would be heard during a combat with the bayonet. The major’s patience gave way, and our captain received orders to send another patrol. He picked me and I chose King, Delpeuch, and Birchler. All three had automatics—King a parabellum, Delpeuch and Birchler, Brownings. They left their rifles, bayonets, and cartridge-boxes behind, and in Indian file followed me at a full run in an oblique direction past the front of the company, and, when half way across the clearing, following my example, fell flat on the ground. We rested a while to regain our wind and then began to slide on our stomachs at right angles to our first course.
We were extremely careful to remain silent. Every little branch and twig we moved carefully out of our way; with one hand extended we felt of the ground before us as we hitched ourselves along. So silent was our progress that several times I felt in doubt about any one being behind me and rested motionless until I felt the touch of Delpeuch’s hand upon my foot. After what seemed twenty minutes, we again changed direction, this time straight toward the trees looming close to us. We arrived abreast of the first row of trees, and lying still as death listened for sounds of the enemy. All was absolutely quiet; only the branches rustled overhead in a light breeze. A long time we lay there, but heard no sound. We began to feel somewhat creepy, and I was tempted to pull my pistol and let nine shots rip into the damnable stillness before us. However, I refrained, and touching my neighbor, started crawling along the edge of the wood. Extreme care was necessary, owing to the numberless branches littering the ground. The sweat was rolling down my face.
Again we listened and again we were baffled by that silence. I was angry then and started to crawl between the trees. A tiny sound of metal scratching upon metal and I almost sank into the ground! Quickly I felt reassured. It was my helmet touching a strand of barbed wire. Still no sound!
Boldly we rose and, standing behind trees, scanned the darkness. Over to our right we saw a glimmer of light and, walking this time, putting one foot carefully before the other, moved toward it. When opposite we halted and—I swore. From the supposed trench of the enemy came the hoarse voice of an apparently drunken man, singing the chanson ‘La Riviera.’ Another voice offered a toast to ‘La Légion.’
Carefully we made our way through the barbed wire, crawling under and stepping over the strands, jumped over a ditch, and looked down into what seemed to be an underground palace. There they were—the six men of the One Hundred and Seventy-Second—three of them lying stiff and stark on benches, utterly drunk. Two were standing up disputing, and the singer sat in an arm-chair, holding a long-stemmed glass in his hand. Close by him were several unopened bottles of champagne on the table. Many empty bottles littered the floor.
The singer welcomed us with a shout and an open hand, to which we, however, did not immediately respond. The heartbreaking work while approaching this place rankled in our minds. The sergeant and corporal were too drunk to be of any help, while two of the men were crying, locked in each others’ arms. Another was asleep, and our friend the singer absolutely refused to budge. So, after I had stowed two bottles inside my heart (an example punctiliously followed by the others), we returned.
Leaving Birchler at the wire, I placed King in the middle of the clearing, Delpeuch near the edge of the wood held by us, and then reported. The captain passed the word along to the major, and on the instant we were ordered to fall in and in column of two marched over to the abandoned trench, following the line marked by my men.
As we entered and disposed ourselves therein, I noticed all the officers, one after the other, disappear in the palace. Another patrol was sent out by our company, and, after ranging the country in our front, returned safely. That night it happened to be the second company’s turn to mount outposts, and we could see six groups of men, one corporal and five men in each, march out into the night and somewhere, each in some favorable spot, they placed themselves at a distance of about one hundred metres away to watch, while we slept the sleep of the just.
Day came, and with it the corvée carrying hot coffee and bread. After breakfast another corvée was sent after picks and shovels, and the men were set to work remodeling the trench, shifting the parapet to the other side, building little outpost trenches and setting barbed wire. The latter job was done in a wonderfully short time, thanks to German thoroughness, since for the stakes to which the wire is tied the Boches had substituted soft iron rods, three quarters of an inch thick, twisted five times in the shape of a great corkscrew. This screw twisted into the ground exactly like a cork-puller into a cork. The straight part of the rod, being twisted upon itself down and up again every ten inches, formed six or seven small round loops in a height of about five feet. Into these eyes the barbed wire was laid and solidly secured with short lengths of tying wire. First cutting the tying wire, we lifted the barbed wire out of the eyes, shoved a small stick through one, and, turning the rod with the leverage of the stick, unscrewed it out of the ground and then, reversing the process, screwed it in again. The advantage of this rod is obvious. When a shell falls in the midst of this wire protection, the rods are bent and twisted, but unless broken off short they always support the wire, and even after a severe bombardment present a serious obstacle to the assaulters. In such cases wooden posts are blown to smithereens by the shells, and when broken off let the wire fall flat to the ground.
As I was walking up and down, watching the work, I noticed a large box, resting bottom up in a deep hole opening from the trench. Dragging the box out and turning it over, I experienced a sudden flutter of the heart. There, before my astonished eyes, resting upon a little platform of boards, stood a neat little centrifugal pump painted green, and on the base of it in raised iron letters I read the words, ‘Byron Jackson, San Francisco.’ I felt queer at the stomach for an instant. San Francisco! my home town! Before my eyes passed pictures of Market Street and the ‘Park.’ In fancy I was one of the Sunday crowd at the Cliff House. How could this pump have got so far from home? Many times I had passed the very place where it was made. How, I wonder, did the Boche get this pump? Before the war, or through Holland? A California-built pump to lean water out of German trenches, in France! It was astonishing! With something like reverence I put the pump back again and, going to my place in the trench, dug out one of my bottles of champagne and stood treat to the crowd. Somehow, I felt almost happy.
As I continued my rounds I came upon a man sitting on the edge of the ditch, surrounded by naked branches, busy cutting them into two-foot lengths and tying them together in the shape of a cross. I asked him how many he was making, and he told me that he expected to work all day to supply the crosses needed along one battalion front. French and German were treated alike, he assured me. There was absolutely no difference in the size of the crosses.
As we worked, soup arrived, and when that was disposed of, the men rested for some hours. We were absolutely unmolested except by our officers.
But at one o’clock that night we were again assembled in marching kit, each man with an extra pick or shovel, and marched along parallel with our trench to the summit of the butte. There we installed ourselves in the main line, out of which the Germans were driven by the One Hundred and Seventy-Second. There was no work of any kind to be done, and quickly we found some dry wood, built small fires, and with the material found in dug-outs brewed some really delightful beverages. Mine was a mixture of wine and water out of Haeffle’s canteen, judiciously blended with chocolate.
The weather was delightful, and we spent the afternoon lying in sunny spots, shifting once in a while out of the encroaching shade into the warm rays. We had no idea where the Germans were—somewhere in front, of course, but just how far or how near mattered little to us. Anyhow, the One Hundred and Seventy-Second was fully forty metres nearer to them than we were, and we could see and hear the first-line troops picking and shoveling their way into the ground.
Little King was, as usual, making the round of the company, trying to find some one to build a fire and get water if he, King, would furnish the chocolate. He found no takers and soon he laid himself down, muttering about the laziness of the outfit.
Just as we were dozing deliciously, an agonized yell brought every soldier to his feet. Rushing toward the cry, I found a man sitting on the ground, holding his leg below the knee with both hands, and moaning as he rocked back and forth, ‘Je suis blessé! Je suis blessé!’ Brushing his hands aside, I examined his leg. There was no blood. I took of the puttee, rolled up his trousers, and discovered no sign of a wound. On my asking the man again where the wound was, he passed his hand over a small red spot on his shin. Just then another man picked up a small piece of shell, and then the explanation dawned upon me. The Germans were shooting at our planes straight above us; a bit of shell had come down and hit our sleeper on the shin-bone. Amid a gale of laughter he limped away to a more sympathetic audience. Several more pieces of iron fell near us. Some fragments were no joking matter, being the entire rear ends of three-inch shells, weighing, I should think, fully seven pounds.
At 4 p.m. the soup corvée arrived. Besides the usual soup we had roast mutton, one small slice per man, and a mixture of white beans, rice, and string beans. There was coffee, and one cup of wine per man, and, best of all, tobacco. As we muhced our food, our attention was attracted to the sky above by an intense cannonade directed against several of our aeroplanes sailing east. As we looked, more and more of our war-birds appeared. Whipping out my glasses, I counted fifty-two machines. Another man counted sixty. Haeffle had it a hundred. The official report next day stated fifty-nine. They were flying very high and in very open formation, winging due east. The shells were breaking ahead of them and between them. The heaven was studded with hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful little round grayish clouds, each one the nimbus of a bursting shell. With my prismatics glued to my eyes I watched closely for one falling bird. Though it seemed incredible at the moment, not one faltered or turned back. Due east they steered, into the red painted sky. For several minutes after they had sailed out of my sight I could still hear the roar of the guns. Only one machine, the official report said, was shot down, and that one fell on the return trip.
Just before night fell, we all set to work cutting pine branches, and with the tips prepared soft beds for ourselves. Sentries were placed, one man per section, and we laid ourselves down to sleep. The night passed quietly; again the day started with the usual hot coffee and bread. Soup and stew at 10 a.m. and the same again at 4 p.m. One more quiet night, and quiet the following day. We were becoming somewhat restless with the monotony, but were cheered by the captain. That night, he told us, we should return to Suippes, and there reform the regiment and rest. The programme sounded good, but I felt very doubtful, we had heard the same tale so many times and so many times we had been disappointed. Each day the corvées had brought the same news from the kitchen. At least twenty times different telephonists and agents de liaison had brought the familiar story. The soup corvées assured us that the drivers of the rolling kitchens had orders to hitch up and pull out toward Souain and Suippes. The telephonists had listened to the order transmitted over the wires. The agents de liaison had overheard the major telling other officers that he had received marching orders, and, ‘ma foi! Each time each one was wrong!’ So, after all, I was not much disappointed when the order came to unmake the sacks.
We stayed that night and all day, and when the order to march the next evening came, all of us were surprised, including the captain. I was with the One Hundred and Seventy-Second having some fun with a little Belgian. I had come upon him in the dark and had watched him in growing wonder at his actions. There he was, stamping up and down, every so often stopping, shaking clenched fists in the air, and spouting curses. I asked him what was the matter. ‘Rien, mon sergent,’ he replied. ‘Je m’excite.’ ‘Pourquoi?’ I demanded. ‘Ah,’ he told me, ‘look,’ — pointing out toward the German line, — ‘out there lies my friend, dead with three pounds of my chocolate in his musette, and when I’m good and mad, I’m going out to get it!’ I hope he got it!
That night at 7 o’clock we left the hill, marched through Souain four miles to Suippes, and sixteen miles farther on, at St. Hilaire, we camped. A total of twenty-six miles for the day.
At Suippes the regiment passed in parade march before some officer of the état-major, and we were counted: eight hundred and fifty-two in the entire regiment, out of three thousand two hundred who entered the attack on the 25th of September.
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
- Lieutenant Sweeny has returned to America. ↩