Bain News Service / Library of Congress

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.

February 12. On the train, which at last is bearing us away to the war. My companions are asleep, wearied by a day and night of this endless journey. But I cannot sleep for joy. One thought possesses me. I am on my way to fight! Had I so wished I could have remained with the general staff as interpreter, but what I crave is action—the intense, mad action of battle. The enthusiasm of the first days of the war has not left me, but grew ever greater during the long months I had to spend in training camps, where I learned first to be a soldier, then an officer. But as soon as I received my appointment to the rank of aspirant, I asked for and obtained permission to start for the front. Am I cherishing illusions? Is it real, this glory of war that makes my head swim? The sadness of saying good-bye to my mother I have left far behind. The weight already began to lift when we made our triumphal departure from that little snow-covered town, through which we marched with the band at our head and the Marseillaise on our lips and in our hearts, amid the cheers of the people.

Just now the train is going through a beautiful bit of country. Never has the valley of the Saône that I know so well seemed so fair to look upon. Truly, ‘la doulce France’ is a mistress we may proudly live and die for. Die? No. I have a conviction that I shall not be killed in the war; I feel sure I shall be able to do my duty to the end, and once my task is finished, return to my mother and my own life.

* * *

February 13. We have just got out of the train. I am writing in the kindly warmth of a room some peasants have put at my disposal.

This morning, in the fog and chill of an early February dawn, our train stopped in the middle of a vast plain, grisly and wet, whose monotony was unbroken except for a few clumps of trees. The bugler gave us the signal to detrain by playing the regimental march. Instantly the men streamed out, still heavy with sleep, and benumbed by these two days of traveling. I hurried to the cars of my section, lined up my men, and stacked arms while waiting for orders. Fatigues were detailed at once to get rations and unload the cars.

But where were we? No one but the commander knew our itinerary in advance, for of course it has to be kept secret. We had a vague idea we were bound for Champagne. The station bore a name I did not know: Cuperly. I looked on my map and found that this village was right in the field of Châlons, several kilometres to the south of the villages of Perthes and Hurlus, which have so often been mentioned in the dispatches of late. So we are to be launched in the midst of an offensive! What joy!

I hastily scribbled a card to my mother and gave it to a trainman, who promised to mail it.

As we stood waiting in the cold, our attention was drawn to the auto-busses of a provision convoy going along the road, phantom-like, through the fog. And we noticed also a dull rumble like a prolonged roll of thunder. It was cannon. ‘Sling equipment! Take arms! Fours right! Forward! March!’ And the battalion swung into a road that was broken up and covered with mud—a gray, filthy, liquid mud that seemed to flood the whole countryside. An artillery convoy came by and spattered us badly. It was cold. Two kilometres farther on we halted at the edge of a village where we were to breakfast. I promptly attended to the kitchens of my section; two men from each squad went to get wood, and before long four fires burned merrily. Pans were brought forth from their places above the knapsacks, and soon the portions of coffee and sugar provided us with a ‘juice’1 that was much appreciated in the dampness of the winter morning. I gave orders to warm some canned beef in wine for the men, and they had a real feast. While our soldiers were resting after their meal, we section commanders, together with the other officers, accepted the hospitality of some artillery officers, who made us welcome with several bottles of champagne. The festivity was at its height when the bugle sounded. It was time to start out once again. For what destination? We did not know.

We marched two hours along the slippery road before coming to La Cheppe, where we were to await the return of the brigade that was in the trenches. We took possession of our quarters. My section was comfortably billeted in a large barn well supplied with straw, and I chose to make my abode among my poilus. I should like to be in closer contact with them; I am determined to make friends with them. When the regiment left the training camp I was able to procure a few little extras that they wanted, and this evening they came and invited me to dinner. The artful member of the third squad had succeeded in getting into the good graces of an old peasant woman, who gave him two chickens. The men insisted on my doing the honors, and I accepted with great pleasure. We chatted together familiarly, and I told them how glad I was to be at the front, and enlarged especially on the great things I expected of them. ‘With you, mon aspirant, we will go anywhere,’ said a corporal; and they all applauded. Of course, I was immensely pleased.

* * *

February 14. The booming of the cannon all night kept me from sleeping. However, I was snug and warm in my bed of straw beside my dear friend Henry. We are glad to be together at the war after being chums in college.

I am on duty this morning with my section. We are posted for police duty at a crossroads, and we are instructed, in addition to keeping order in the village, to regulate the movements of the convoys which pass incessantly. What an infernal whirl! Not a minute passes without something going by—a great ammunition train, heavy cannon drawn by motor-tractors, a regiment of infantry returning from the trenches, muddy but triumphant. The poilus are radiant. We surround them. They give details. Good news! ‘Hot fight, all right, but the Boches are catching it like fun.’ And then there go our old Paris auto-busses, transformed into meat wagons. Some of them still flaunt their signs, ‘Madeleine-Bastille,’ ‘Neuilly-Bourse,’ ‘Clichy-Odéon.’ One is marked ‘Complet,’ and the places, if you please, are filled by huge cattle. O auto-busses of Paris, you forget your luxurious existence of Parisian bourgeois, and jolt bravely on through the mud of Champagne, accepting these hardships to save your country. We take off our hats to you in your coat of mud, for you also are doing your duty. Weather still lowering. I took out of my little chest my old volume of Rabelais and I occupy my leisure moments feasting on the exploits of Picrochole. I have brought along a few books that are easy to handle, mostly our great classics that I have been neglecting these latter years. I wish to keep up my intellectual life.

* * *

This morning found us in the trenches—at last! The region opposite us was fairly uninteresting—barbed wire, torn-up earth, skeleton trees, and dead men’s bodies. And the enemy was there, within 150 metres. I discovered this rather promptly, and, moreover, had a narrow escape. At a certain moment, very early in the morning, I went into the communication trench that formed the eastern end of my trench. There was a large hollowed-out place through which one could get a better view of what lay in front of us: at the left, the ruined village, in front, the labyrinth of trenches, and the skeleton wood. Suddenly, as if warmed by some instinct, I turned away a little. Five or six bullets, undoubtedly intended for me, whistled through my window, one of them grazing my field-glass. Not a little shaken up, I left that dangerous spot. I soon began to laugh, and I should have enjoyed telling my neighbors, the Boches, that they had missed me. But I was more prudent after that.

Besides, everything was silent except for an occasional shell that passed high above our heads and burst so far away that we could not hear it explode. Listening-patrols, being useless during the day, were replaced by two sentries for each half-section, who watched through the loop-holes of the trench itself. The men in their warm dug-outs smoked their pipes, ate, read, or played cards. If this is war, thought many of them, it isn’t half bad. But like most good things, it did not last. At nine o’clock a messenger came to tell me that the captain wanted to see me. I went to this headquarters, situated in the second line. Orders had just come. A French attack was to be delivered on the Boche trenches north and east of Perthes, and we were to sustain it. The object to be gained was as follows: the firing line was far from being straight; as a result of the vicissitudes of the recent fighting, the German trenches made a salient into the French trenches; it was desirable to destroy this salient. Here is a sketch of our position:

We were at A. To attack at this point would have been costly, for the distance between the two opposing lines was more than 150 metres. The plan was, therefore, to attack at C and B, so that, once having taken the German trenches C1 and B1, the whole system could be enfiladed. Our rôle was to put them on the wrong scent, and, at a specified time, to make as much noise as possible with our guns and machine-guns, in order to attract attention to ourselves at the moment when the main attack was being launched elsewhere.

So I went back to my trench and gave the men the necessary instructions. About ten o’clock we were startled by four loud reports coming almost simultaneously. It was a battery of 75’s, stationed two hundred metres or so behind us. At the same instant the shells went whistling over our heads and raised four black clouds in the trench opposite. It was the beginning of the bombardment. It was very violent. At the start we all ducked, but we gradually got used to it and learned to distinguish the difference in sound of the French firing. Some of the shells went by at mad speed and burst almost at once. Others took their time, especially our Rimailles, nicknamed the ‘ox-cart,’ which seems to take an airing before going to tell its tale to the Germans—and its tale is generally a terrible one.

Posted at a loop-hole, I watched through my glass the effect of the bombardment. All the German trenches as far as the eye could reach were filled with constantly recurring explosions. They looked like an uninterrupted line of volcanoes. The noise and the superb masses of earth thrown up into the air fairly intoxicated me. The Boches in their turn began to answer, and, scorning us poor infantrymen, sent their shells far in our rear, in quest of the gunners and their pieces. The chorus grew deafening. The sensation was that of being under a roof of steel—invisible, but with the voices of all the fiends. And in the midst of all this din, two larks kept flitting about joyously, and mingled their song of life with the dull chant of the engines of death.

New orders came, and I called together in my dug-out my two sergeants and four corporals. We were ordered to fire during exactly four minutes, from one minute past twelve to five minutes past twelve. A supply of cartridges was placed beside each loophole, so that every soldier could fire the greatest number of shots in the given time. All guns were inspected.

The bombardment was growing more intense, and it was no longer possible to distinguish the shots from each other. It was one uninterrupted boom—the efficiency fire that the Germans call trommelfaren, or drum-fire. For half an hour the uproar was enough to drive one mad; my head felt as if it were bound with iron and about to burst; and yet, in the midst of it all, it was a great satisfaction to think that the Boches were having to endure, in addition to the noise, the very deadly effects of our artillery. We were unquestionably better off than they. At ten minutes to twelve every one was at his post, and I also took my place with the second half-section. I had carefully set my watch according to the time that is telephoned every day at noon and midnight to the various officers’ headquarters. At one minute past twelve the artillery lengthened its range. This was the moment, and I whistled. Immediately the guns began their clatter and the machine-guns their regular chop. At twelve-five another whistle. ‘Cease firing.’

I had no sooner whistled than half a dozen Boche 77’s fell very near our trench. As there was nothing more to be done, every one except the sentries went into the dug-outs. We were hotly bombarded, for the first six shells were followed by others and still others. We had not been looking for this, and the surprise was a trifle disagreeable. We had of a certainty fulfilled our mission well, for we had drawn both their attention and their fire. For two hours we were deluged with shells, and each one that came seemed to be coming straight at us, and in spite of ourselves we shrank together and ducked, measuring anxiously with our eyes the depth of the dug-out. Mine was fairly safe. I stayed in it some time with my sergeants, and we were none of us very happy. To tell the truth, the situation is a stupid one. The rôle one plays is purely passive, and it is not pleasant for a reasoning human being to sit by helplessly and feel coming toward him a mass of brutish matter capable of annihilating him. Several shells fell near my dug-out. One even landed in the little winding trench that led to it, but the splinters were stropped by its turns. Otherwise, I should have received a visit from them.

But I could not desert my men entirely, so I went around to the various dug-outs. Sitting huddled together, my soldiers were not any more used to this kind of entertainment than I was, and would doubtless have preferred to be somewhere else; but no one was hurt and they were glad to see me. On coming in contact with them I resumed my rôle of chief, and, true to the theory of William James, by pretending not to be afraid, I very soon discovered that I was not afraid. I chatted with them and cracked jokes, and, all of a sudden, everybody felt better. Then I went back to my own quarters and made some tea on my brazier.

Shells were still raining down, but as none of them had done any harm up to that time, we bothered no more about them. They fell more especially in front of the trench, in the wire entanglement That set me to thinking, and together with the machine-gun lieutenant I examined the situation. The Boches had had battered down the parapet in several places, and the barbed wire was pretty badly damaged. Were they going to amuse themselves by attacking us? I doubled the sentries and gave orders that as soon as the bombardment slackened, every man should run to his loop-hole. I wondered what was up, as I did not know the result of the flank attack. I had no sooner sent word to the captain and the section commanders on either side, than I saw, through my glass, points of bayonets here and there gleaming in the sun above the edge of the enemy’s trench opposite. ‘Every man at the loopholes!’ I shouted; and in the midst of the downpour of shells every one ran to his post. Several of the men were covered with dirty by explosions; one even was knocked down by the impact of a bursting shell; but no one was hit.

Suddenly form the German trenches, like devils from their boxes, emerged the infantrymen, yelling and running toward us, waving their arms. They were in close formation, three deep, I think, so that nothing could be easier than to mow them down. I quickly seized a gun and fired with the rest. The machine-guns started in immediately, and hardly more than a minute later our assailants took flight, leaving many of their men on the ground. At fifty metres from us, forty or more Boches were lying flat on their faces as if waiting for the order to stand up. The machine-gun had done its work well. So the assault was beaten back, but every one remained at his post. Wounded men dragged themselves painfully to their lines; others were groaning. No one thought for an instant of firing at them. Then, when the danger was over, came a wave of emotion; I was frightened, but the joy of having escaped from a real danger made me very happy. ‘Now you’re real poilus,’ I cried to my men. Everybody lighted a good pipe and a bluish smoke mounted up to the God of Battles, like the incense of gratitude.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. A few disgruntled shells came our way, but we had as an offset the thrilling sight of a splendid aeroplanes, in a half-circle, flew over the German trenches. From time to time one of them dropped a spurt of flame into the deepening twilight, a signal for the artillery. Shells flew around our war-birds like a multitude of snowflakes that remained floating a long time in the calm air. But without paying the least attention, the aviators continued their proud flight, and it seemed to us poor buried infantrymen that they were bearing aloft all our pride as Frenchmen, all our will to conquer. We were enchanted, but at the same time a little moved. Then, slowly, night fell. The order came to detail two men from each squad to go with tent-sheets, under orders of the corporal on duty, to fetch rations from the kitchen.

The trench was then organized for the night. Listening patrols were posted in front of the trenches; it was decided that one squad from each half-section should watch at the loop-holes in case of a return offensive of the enemy. About ten or eleven o’clock it was time to think of mending the barbed wire. The fatigue brought a great quantity of the Brun networks, which fold and unfold like an accordion. They are very complicated and are fastened into the ground with a sort of fork. I wanted to direct the work myself, so, accompanied by six men, I crawled twenty or thirty metres form the trench; the work went on without a word being uttered. The six rows of wire were placed one behind the other, and in front were fixed strong chevaux-de-frise. We were then in the midst of ‘No Man’s Land,’ near the German corpses. We could hear the groans of the wounded, and some little moving about, which indicated that the Germans were coming to pick up their men. But we made no attempt to molest them, whereas soldiers who are old in the knowledge of this war tell me that German snipers are always trying to put a stop to the work of the stretcher-bearers.

This afternoon, everything being quiet, I invited the neighboring section commander to come and spend a little time with me. In the trenches we rarely have anything to drink but wine and coffee, and, by way of a special feast, I decided to make some chocolate. So I sent for a canteen of water, and poured some of the precious fluid into my pan and devoutly emptied in the chocolate and sugar. It was simmering gently on my brazier, and I was just on the point of adding condensed milk, when some one called me from the outside. It was my orderly coming to see if I needed anything. I invited him to join us, but at that precise moment the stupid battery of a 77 began to spit its six shells at us. Two burst so near that my faithful ‘tampon’ stumbled in fright and fell headlong, taking with him brazier, saucepan, and chocolate—our chocolate so nearly ready, which our eyes were drinking so hungrily. The poor chap was most unhappy. I laughed; but I must confess my laugh was a bit sickly. At that moment I detested the Germans worse than ever.

An exciting thing happened last night. It had been snowing, and about one in the morning, when I was chatting with the machine-gunner, the sentry outside began to fire. At the same moment a voice rang out in the night, ‘Kamerad, Kamerad!’ I quickly sent up a trench-rocket, and the light showed me a German soldier crawling toward us with a great clatter of tin-ware. I cried to the sentry to let him alone, and called to the man himself in German to come on. He appeared on the parapet and jumped into the trench. I had him taken to my headquarters and there, revolver in hand, ordered him to disarm. He had no weapons but his bayonet and a belt full of cartridges, but he was loaded down with canteens. I questioned him in German. He was a great big Bavarian who had got his fill of the war. Today’s bombardment, absolutely terrible, he said, had determined him to flee. He managed to be detailed for water-fatigue, then made his way to our lines. He had had nothing to eat, for our bombardment had made it impossible to bring up food. I gave him some bread and chocolate while waiting for supper to arrive. I kept him until morning in order to ask him certain questions, especially as to the effect of our artillery on the trenches opposite. He told me that the attack of the day before had cost them many men, and furthermore, pointed out without much urging the positions of their machine-guns and also of a certain little revolver cannon that greatly annoyed us. I communicated this information to the artillery, and since then the revolver cannon is silent. I kept the man’s cartridge-belt, and the canteens, rather good ones, which I distributed among my men. In the morning our Boche was sent to the commander. A happy man was he to have said good-bye to war.

* * *

March 4. This morning, reveille at eight; review of arms and clothing—a formality quickly gone through, for the men understand that their gun is their best friend and they take great care of it. And in spite of certain accounts in the papers, the soldier is not fond of being dirty. He does not revel in his mud and filth, but suffers from it. Some of this misapprehension is probably due to the false derivation credited to the word poilu. It is not derived from the fact that the soldier is hirsute and unshaven. It is not derived from the fact that the soldier is hirsute and unshaven. It is an old word. Under the First Empire they were the grenadiers with their bear-skin bonnets, Napoleon’s best troops. They called brave à trois poils any one who was worthy to be a grenadier. To-day the word poilu simply means a good soldier.

At last, this afternoon the baggage-master announced that our communications with the rear were open. He brought us a quantity of letters; I had for my share thirty-two. ‘Joy, joy, tears of joy,’ as Pascal said under slightly different circumstances.

* * *

March 15. We returned yesterday to cantonment. During the last five days, the most terrible I have yet spent, I have not had a minute of physical or mental quiet to write a single line of my diary. I have run the gamut, I think, of nearly all the emotions afforded by war: bombardment, attack, counter-attack, all the while in a most precarious position, long painful marches through the communication trenches, and, above and over all, the mud, that terrible enemy, much more terrible than the Boches. For the Boches have their moments of respite. The mud is there ever and always, implacable and relentless—the mud that keeps you from walking, chills you, clutches you, weighs you down, and drives you to despair. Five days of dragging one’s self along up to the waist in the horrible, cold, gluey paste. It began as soon as we left Cabane-Puits. But at first it was bearable. We slipped or got stuck or splashed or splattered, but that was a mere nothing. The terrible part came when we went into the communication trenches. IT was fortunate that our knapsacks were at Hill 181 and not on our backs. The chalk of Champagne, when combined with water, rapidly forms a soft past in which one plunges up to the waist. And it was necessary to march in this; in other words, to put one foot before the other, to pull it out with enormous effort, only to replunge it in the mire, and so on for five kilometres. At the start, the effort was a conscious one, but at the end of the first hour the motions became automatic; all one’s sensations resolved themselves into one dull pain in the whole body. Several times I got my leg stuck, and had to appeal to the man behind me to help get it out. One of the lieutenants left his shoe in the mud; he was literally caught like a lark on a lime-twig, and when, by dint of desperate efforts, he brought forth his shoeless foot, a great laugh went round. But a little farther on we were sobered by a terrible discovery. We found the body of a soldier who had perished in the mud; he had evidently fallen while alone, and was not able to extricate himself from the horrible embrace of the mire. This was the first corpse I had seen and I was much affected.

And then the tiniest of obstacles interrupted the march and upset the distances—a telephone wire getting loose from a crumbling wall, a soldier who was struck, a fatigue coming in the opposite direction: those ahead would have to stop and the ones behind struggle to march at the double to catch up with them. A regular march was impossible.

At the end of three hours we reached the village of Perthes, or rather, the ruins of Perthes, melancholy wraith of a village—a few dismantled walls, barns that looked as if they lay in the path of an avalanche, and a church by some miracle still standing, though all ruinous. Just at that moment we were obliged to halt in the communication trench. The Boches were firing shrapnel. We huddled against the bank. I was so tired that I slept a few minutes standing up, leaning on my stick. The sensation that people were moving awoke me, and once more began that slow, automatic, painful advance. A cold rain was falling, which in spite of my mackintosh trickled down my neck to my chest. Occasional spent bullets to my chest. Occasional spent bullets went grunting over and our heads. Each moment seemed eternal.

The day broke, still overcast. We had been on the march more than four hours. Several shells burst near-by. One man had his head blown open, and remained standing. It was necessary to push this ghastly thing against the wall of the trench and nearly climb over it.

At last, after a long time, we stopped. I went with the guide to inspect my new quarters. The trench was an abomination—a charnel house—with dead piled upon dead, on the ground where you walked, above the parapets, in the walls of the trench, half buried, in the walls of the trench, half buried, with either their heads sticking out of their feet or their hands or their knees. We were in a communication trench that had just been seized and hastily repaired to make it tenable. I was horribly agitated, but I managed to listen to the explanations of the officer I was replacing. We should have to use the greatest care. The trench was caught in an enfilade. Alas, our predecessors had not had a very gay time. They lost more than twenty killed or wounded. A pleasant prospect, truly. I went to get my men, and told them beforehand what to expect, so that they might be spared the worst of the shock I had had. It was not very cheering, the sight of all these dead, but our sufferings in the mud had dulled our sensibilities.

There are no dug-outs of course, and no possibility of digging any in this earth that crumbles at each stroke of the spade. I took my place nearly in the middle of the trench, on what looked like a seat that some ingenious soldier had dug in the wall. As it was rather high, I asked my orderly to dig down a little so that I could sit more comfortably. Several strokes of the pick brought to light the cloth of a uniform. I was sitting in the lap of a corpse. I went and took up my domicile a little farther on. The explosion of a shell knocked down some of the earth of the wall opposite, and in the breach appeared the green and earthly head of a corpse. From that moment, this head was my vis-à-vis, and once the first shudder of disgust had passed, I thought no more about it.

In the end, one gets used to living besides corpses, or ‘maccabees,’ as we call them. They not only cease to make us uncomfortable, but they even make us laugh. Beyond the parapet there were two or three corpses, in the drollest attitudes. One looked as if he were invoking Allah, another was in the midst of a back-somersault. One of my poilus hung his canteen to a foot that was projecting over the wall; the others laughed and followed his example. The true French spirit was to the fore—an extreme adaptability, and, above all, good humor.

The odor of the corpses was nauseating, but pipes soon got the better of it. Meanwhile, shells and grenades kept pouring in on us. We were obliged to use the greatest care, and keep as near the side of the trench as possible. The shells were not very dangerous when they fell in the mud, for they either did not burst at all, or they exploded without much force; but when they went from one end of the trench to the other and landed farther on, they were indeed deadly. Toward noon a messenger came to bring orders from the captain. He was standing in front of me, nearly up to his waist in mud. Suddenly he was without a head; he tottered but did not fall; two streams of blood spurted violently from the headless body and bespattered me. It is hard sometimes not to have the right to have feelings; my men were all around me and I did not want them to see me blanch. I simply told them to cover his body with a tent-sheet that was lying near, and sent word to the captain.

These various shocks hardened me. After that, I was more or less indifferent to the terrible things that happened. I even ate with good relish in the company of the head that was sticking out of the trench. The day passed slowly, full of the anguish of explosions, to say nothing of the pain of moving and the cold that came from sitting motionless in this prolonged foot-bath.

Night fell early. Then came orders. In the darkness a trench was to be dug, joining the two ends of our position. The men were to start at the same time from the two communication trenches and meet before daybreak. The digging was done form the trench itself, working forward as the new trench advanced. Several times corpses were turned up; the place was a regular cemetery. The work went on rapidly. The trench was to be only a metre deep and the earth was very easy to dig. But the Boches threw hand-grenades, and I received for my share a splinter near my right eye. I stopped the bleeding and remained at my post. At three in the morning the crews met.

Rations arrived in very bad shape. The cooks had to make the same long trip through the mire that had cost us so many efforts. So they brought us the coffee cold, meat all covered with mud, and vegetables that had to be thrown away. The wine alone arrived intact. Instead of its being brought in pails, I had taken the precaution to have it put in tightly stoppered canteens, the same ones the Boche was carrying when he crawled up and surrendered. Although the fatigues had slipped down several times or been knocked down by the impact of shells, the pinard arrived untouched, to our very great joy. By good luck, every one was well supplied with canned goods.

In the morning, although we were exhausted by a sleepless night in addition to the strain of all our other hardships, the order came to attack. There was a good deal of grumbling, but I showed my men that, if our situation was pitiable, the thing to do was to improve it. It was to the interest of all of us to go across the way, where we should certainly be more comfortable, and the attack would not be dangerous. We should dash to the assault from the trench dug the night before, at a moment when the Boches did not expect it, and there would be so little ground to cover that the risk would not be great. Besides, it was our duty, and I was certain my poilus would keep the promise they had made me to follow wherever I should lead.

At two o’clock the whole company was to take its place in the new trench; at 2.10 we were to deliver the attack. However, things did not happen according to schedule, and the Germans gave us the opportunity to take their trench almost without any losses on our own side, but with many losses on theirs.

Toward eleven o’clock, when our bombardment had only just begun, our machine-guns began to clatter, and likewise all the guns at the loop=holes. It was the Boches attacking. They had a hankering after the trench we had dug during the night, and wanted to launch an assault on our lines from that point—the exact thing that we were planning to do to theirs. They came on in full force, but there was time for the machine-guns to mow down numbers of them before the first ones reached the new trench. The mud kept them back, and the poor wretches made a tragic struggle to get their feet loose and to hurry. Three successive waves started. The machine-gun at the end of our trench was quickly shifted, and enfiladed our new trench full of Boches, killing nearly all of them. It was horrible but magnificent. But others were coming on. Then I commanded, ‘Fix bayonets! Forward! Forward!’ and we dashed against the assailants. The whole company followed my example and rushed forward. Was it to be a hand-to-hand fight? Our murderous grenades crushed the first row, and in the face of our air of determination the others hesitated, then turned tail. We threw grenades at them and fired at close range. We kept sticking in the mud and stumbling over bodies; but the opportunity was too good to be lost. We followed them home; their batteries and machine guns could not fire for fear of hitting their own men. They had no sooner reached their trenches than we were at their heels, stopping just long enough to shower in grenades before we jumped in after them. I had a feeling that some one was aiming at me and I emptied my revolver point-blank into the head of an Oberleutnant who was wearing a monocle. I did this automatically by reflex action. I seized another enemy by the throat and struck him in the face with the butt of my revolver. He fell like lead. But the hand-to-hand fight did not last long. The forty soldiers who were left quickly surrendered.

‘Quick! Quick!’ I commanded. ‘Reverse that trench!’ In other words, pierce several loop-holes and turn the German machine-guns against their own trenches. We stopped up the communication trench, and opened up the ones toward the rear, and the prisoners filed through my former trench, which was once more a communication. We then prepared to ward off the counter-attack. Barbed wire was brought and securely fastened. The Germans proceeded to treat us to reprisal fire, which damaged our newly conquered trench rather badly, but did little real harm.

I lost nine men in all, four killed and five wounded. The Germans had been neatly outwitted. By quarter past eleven we were established in our new positions. These events had lasted but a very few minutes—the hand-to-hand fight just long enough to let me kill two Germans.

Nevertheless, the situation was none too cheerful. The German corpses were all about. Our grenades had done their work well, and any wounded were drowned in the mud as they fell. As we walked, the bodies sank in deeper, for the bottom of the trench was literally covered with them, forming a sort of carpet under our feet. In spite of it we were radiant. The commander expressed his satisfaction. The counter-attack might come at any moment, but we were ready for anything; as for shells, we laughed at them. Every one gathered trophies. I carried off the revolver and field-glass of my Oberleutnant, also his notebook, which I proposed to decipher and hand over to the staff officers.

Night fell gradually. The air was very sharp, and it began to rain again. We all looked like Capuchin friars, with our blankets wrapped around us and our tent-sheets over our heads. No one could sleep, or rather, no one was allowed to sleep; but as I made my way with great difficulty back and forth in the trench, I saw several men asleep, holding their guns at the loop-holes. In order to keep them awake I made them fire salutes to the commandement. The bombardment was intense all night, but it was directed more especially against our second lines. That augured a counter-attack for the next day. At midnight word was sent that we should be relieved at 2 a.m. General rejoicing. At last we should be able to get some sleep! Quickly we folded blankets and tent-sheets, but we had a long wait in the rain that was falling and in the shells that were falling. It was not until daybreak that the others came to relieve us. And then began anew the fight with the mud. It took us nearly two hours to reach Perthes. There we learned that we were not to be sent to recuperate, but were to reinforce the third line in the fortified dugouts of Hill 200. Then we left the communication trenches—for they were in too bad a state—and walked in the road, almost in the open. A rather high parapet protected us from bullets and from being seen by the Germans, who were about a kilometre to the north. But we had to march bent double, alternately making rapid leaps and stopping. Of course, a few bullets came our way, but the Boches had not seen us and we were not much molested. Once, when we stopped, I saw lying in the road beside me a dead soldier, with his pipe still in his mouth. Evidently we had not suffered much.

After 500 metres on the road, we had to go into the communication trench again, that is to say, begin to flounder through the mire. A big German shell had fallen into the trench without bursting, and we had to climb over it. Dangerous engines those, that a mere trifle may cause to explode. I wonder now how we managed to keep going for antoher hour, for it seemed at every step that we should drop in our tracks. It ahd been impossible to send up rations, and we had nothing to drink. Some of the men suffered so greatly from thirst that they scooped up in their hands the muddy water that was lying stagnant in the trench and quaffed it with delight. I had a flask of mint, and I drank a swallow that refreshed me greatly. We were so tired toward the last that we could neither see nor feel, but stumbled on with our eyes shut, some of the men asleep as they went. At last we arrived.

These dug-outs were a sort of cave made in the side of the hill—large galleries well propped with planks, with the entrance carefully protected by a regular rampart of bags of sand. The minute we arrived we threw ourselves down and slept and slept, in spite of the big German shells that were bursting with a frightful hubbub, in spite of a French battery concealed near by, which kept up an incessant fire, and in spite of our consuming thirst. We did not wake up until the commissary arrived, bringing letters and rations. Everybody demanded the letters first. We were in such sore need for a few words of endearment, much more so than of food! I got five letters, which I read with delight. I also got some eggs which my little godmother managed to send me from Lorraine; and they were a wonderful feast, sweet as a caress of the one who sent them.

Then we ate, and went to sleep again. We can’t be entirely brutish, since letters bring us such joy. We have killed men, under penalty of being killed ourselves, and also because it was our duty, but these combats took place in a sort of frenzy, of action, of enthusiasm, and of suffering. I have killed two Germans and I am proud of it, and yet, I have not the soul of an assassin.

At eight in the evening the major received word that two companies were to be sent to the trenches. All the troops were jaded, all had labored long and hard; we drew lots—the 11th and 12th. So I had to set out again. I went to rouse my men. They grumbled a little but obeyed philosophically, buckling on their equipment and folding their blankets. At nine o’clock we set out to traverse in the opposite direction the ground we had come over in the morning: trench, road, trench, village, trench, mud, and again mud. It was impossible to maintain distances. One section got lost and had to turn back; then troops were met coming the other way, the ditch was narrow, and it was slow work squeezing through. Order was once more established as we came near our goal. The night was full of the uproar of a battle. The machine-guns were emitting in the distance the regular click of a sewing-machine, while the little guns sounded like the sputtering of fish in a frying-pan. A few bullets whizzed by. I heard one of the men say in his utter weariness, ‘I hope one of those bullets is for me!’ I chided him mildly, but it was exhaustion that wrung this cry from him, for the day before at the moment of the attack he had fought with the bravest.

We arrived at an empty second-line trench that we were to occupy and defend, in case of need. But it was very different from having the enemy right before us, and we could be comparatively tranquil. We went to sleep sitting in the mud, or in the dug-outs, where the brittle earth crumbled and fell in tiny frozen pellets. We slept the rest of the night and spent the following day almost without moving, wearily awaiting the moment to depart. We were disgustingly dirty, caked with mud from head to foot. We scraped it off our hands and faces with our knives; our hair was a strange substance that looked as if it would withstand any possible process of cleaning.

Toward eight in the evening orders acme that we were to be relieved. They were greeted with a satisfaction not unmixed, for no one smiled as the prospect rose before him of the return trip through those communication trenches. Slowly, with many difficulties, and at the cost of great efforts, we made our way once more through the mire—simple automatons with very little more notion of time and space than a pendulum on the end of its pivot.

We reached Hill 181 and solid ground, solid except for big shell-holes filled with water. A number of the men, blind with fatigue, fell into them, and had to be pulled out with rifles butts. Shells were falling, so we changed into open formation to march the 500 metres that lay between us and the kitchens. Hot coffee awaited us there, but we could not stop long enough to drink it, as the shells were coming down too fast. It was not until some distance farther on, when the coffee was cold, that we were able to refresh ourselves. The Germans were keeping up a continuous bombardment of Cabane-Puits, so that we could not stay there, but had to go to B—— le-Château, twelve kilometres beyond.

The long column of the regiment wound through the plain four hours longer, with numerous halts and untold weariness. The knapsacks that we had picked up again dragged heavily on our shoulders. From time to time, exhausted men left the ranks and lay down in the road, falling asleep with their packs on their backs. We were very near the end of our tether, when the cock on the steeple appeared at a turn of the road. A long halt was made here, and the stragglers had time to regain their places before we marched into the village. Was it possible for us to shoulder arms and keep step, in our state of exhaustion?

Yes, indeed, and it was sublime. The colonel, before dismissing us to recuperate, wished to have us file before our flag, our beloved flag, blackened and torn by battles. We had earned this honor, and it made us forget everything else. Every man of all the mud-smeared ranks felt that his very soul was wrapped in the glory of that sacred emblem for which he had suffered so much and so willingly. Now, as a supreme reward, while we still bore upon us the marks of duty well done, we were to perform in the presence of the flag an immense and joyous act of faith in our native land. All the men felt the solemnity of the moment; and to the ringing notes of the farewell hymn that tells us to live and die for our Republic, these worn and footsore men, so covered with grime as to have scarcely a human semblance, defiled before the flag and presented arms as they never had presented them before. And when I saw my men stand up proud and straight to present arms, putting into this act all the strength that was in them, and when it was my turn to salute our colors, I was so stirred that the tears ran down my mud-stained cheeks. I am happy. I give thanks for all I have suffered, since it has won for me the joy of this moment.

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.

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  1. In the original jus—soldiers’ slang for coffee. — The Editors.