The Lieutenant’s Story (Part II)

The second installment in a series of excerpts from a French officer’s war-time journal

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

March 17. Off duty at last! I was determined to be clean before I went to bed. A soldier employed at the bath-house was obliged to scrub me all over with a stiff brush. Not a spot on my body escaped the treacherous mud. We had two days to rest and clean up and put our clothing and arms in order. The men were allowed entire freedom. I have a comfortable billet. I even have a real bed—a bed with sheets—that I share with my friend. Joy and delight, to be able to take one’s clothes off and crawl into bed between clothes off and crawl into bed between sheets—a luxury we have not tasted for a month. And such a month!

This morning there was a drill. Not very interesting, but according to theory the men must not be left idle. I suggested that we organize games and the idea was approved.

Our mess is very jolly. We officers get together and chat, play cards, or have music. I often go and play the little organ in the church. A priest who is on the hospital nursing staff has asked me to play during services; I consented with great pleasure. There is a service every evening which many soldiers attend. They sing the hymns of the liturgy. I accompany, and I amuse myself playing some fugue of Bach or of my beloved César Franck. The organ is nothing to boast of, but I get a good deal of satisfaction out of it.

* * *

March 18. We start to-night for Cabane-Puits, which forms the fourth line of our positions. We are not to go to the trenches, it seems, but will remain four or five days in reserve. Furthermore, we shall be assigned fatigue duty. My company is escort of the flag.

* * *

Evening. We left B——-le-Château toward noon. The ceremony of departure was beautiful. The third battalion had the flag, and my company was chosen to escort it. The battalion was massed in a deployed line, my company being posted directly in front of the colonel’s house. At noon, bayonets were fired, and at the moment the flag appeared on the threshold the band and the buglers saluted and played the Marseillaise, while every man presented arms. We defiled through the village with the flag in the middle of the company, just behind my section. Then the flag was folded into its black sheath and we began the march.

Cabane-Puits is very curious—a village of primitive tribesmen with its half-buried huts of earth and branches. These dwellings are very comfortable, however, with their fireplaces and thick beds of straw. There are also dug-outs for each section. As for me, I have a private apartment which has been comfortably arranged by my predecessor. There is a bed made of woven wire hung like a hammock about twenty inches from the ground, a rough table, shelves, and a fireplace of big stones. The baggage-wagons of the regiment have come with us this far, so I have my chest and can profit by my books. Rabelais and Montaigne have promptly been given the place of honor on the shelves.

There is a shanty for everything here. The infirmary is very well installed; the offices of the various companies have packing-boxes for desks. The kitchens are in the open air. Above the firs, hanging on a stick, great kettles boil and bubble everlastingly. We had tea this evening, but, sad to say, there wasn’t enough sugar. Letters come through with more or less regularity. I have made friends with the baggage-master, who scolds me all the time for being one of those who give him the most trouble. For I have  a correspondence of almost ministerial dimensions. Take it all in all, this is better than the trenches.

* * *

March 19. A delightful existence. Weather fine. Nothing to do.

I read a little, write a little, chat a great deal with my friend H., or with the Red Cross priest, a man of extraordinary intelligence and a heart of gold. Last evening after going to bed, H. and I lay awake a long time and talked, with the splendor of the spring flooding in upon us. The cannon in the distance were raging, and in spite of ourselves we rejoiced in our comparative security. Suave mari magno1Perhaps Lucretius was not so far wrong. But this kind of selfishness is conceivable when one thinks of the sufferings of the week just past.

* * *

March 20. A very busy night. My section was detailed to clean out the communication trenches near Perthes. The mud had dried and filled them in so that they were no longer deep enough. We started at nine p.m. along Hill 181. At the entrance to the communication trenches, sheltered behind a hillock, are the headquarters of the commander of the sector, also a tool-house. Picks and shovels were piled up waiting for us. We took an equal number of each alternately, and made our way to the trenches. A guide showed us the way. They were in a very bad state from the point of view of protection, but oh, so easy to walk in! The sector we were to put in order was about two hundred metres long. With the aid of my sergeants and corporals, I measured off the exact space for each pair of men; every one set to work with a will, and at the end of two hours the job was finished. Partly to keep warm and partly to set the example, I took a pick and worked here and there. We deepened and broadened the trench and put bomb-shields every twenty-five or thirty metres, so that a bursting shell could be effective over only a limited area. Moreover, the trench was wide at the bottom, and the walls were near enough at the top to give less purchase to shrapnel. I had the satisfaction of feeling that the work had been done rapidly and well. At one a.m. we arrived at quarters. I gave the men a swig of brandy to warm them up and we all turned in.

An enemy aviator was brought down this morning. He ventured near our lines and was subjected to a lively bombardment. Swarms of white tufts circled and unfolded around the plane, which made a yellow spot in the lens of my field-glass. Suddenly I saw it dip, nose downward, and dart like an arrow to the ground. Meanwhile the smoke of the shell that did the deed spread majestically through the sky as if content with its handiwork. The aviator felt too far away for us to go to him.

I find myself yielding to the charm of our life here. It is indeed the return to nature and simplicity; it is physical, almost animal. The primitive instincts of the race have full sway: eating, drinking, sleeping, fighting—everything but loving. Lacking this, Rousseau would have found his idyl complete. But however much we are sunk in savagery, memory still is living. As well ask the spring not to be green as keep one’s thoughts from wandering among cherished images, kept fresh by almost daily letters. Beloved little godmothers, precious are your letters and welcome your delicate gifts to those who fight. We are glad to fight for you. But at times, the thought of you makes the chains of war very hard to bear. However, I am determined not to let my mind grow rusty. I read a great deal, write quantities of letters, and have two or three friends with whom I can converse intimately. What is more, I have a most interesting study in psychology always close at hand—the study of my poilus. I think I am beginning to know them better and to be their friend; they tell me their secrets and their adventures, their little family affairs, and their love-affairs. Some of them want me to read their letters, or show me photographs. All this makes it easier for me to approach each one of them in the right way to make him do his best. I have grown very fond of them, for they are fine fellows; they can even be heroes when duty requires.

I passed the evening out of doors, lying sprawled in the grass, smoking my old pipe, companion of all my warlike adventures, and chatting with my friends. The sound of the cannon was scarcely audible, and over the unruffled air came whiffs of music. We recognized the Russian Hymn and the Marseillaise and ‘God save the King.’ It is late. I have loitered outside in the marvelous night, keeping company with the spring. The air is laden with perfume as I write, but sat prata biberunt [the meadows have drunk their fill].

* * *

March 21. Sunday. This morning mass was said in the open air behind a great rock, a soldier priest officiating. Stones served for an altar. On it were two candles without candlesticks—an old-time simplicity. The gathering was large, and we sang canticles to the deep accompaniment of the distant cannon.

Nothing has happened to-day, except that few prisoners filed by. This evening several men of the company go on fatigue duty, to carry wire and shells to the trenches. I examined the shells. They have tiny wings and are fired from a cannon in the trench itself, and are very deadly, it seems. Our poilus call them chouxfleurs.

My section is on duty, for of course we have to take turns keeping guard. The service is very simple. Three sentries suffice—one near the station and store-houses, one near the colonel’s cabin where the flag is, and the third near the carriages.

* * *

March 22. Another uneventful day. The battalion had manœuvres in the woods. If only this gives promise of the fight in the open! A little alarm—several shells fell on our position. A kitchen was destroyed and a cook wounded. It is very unpleasant to be bombarded when you are in repose. In the trenches, it is part of the day’s work, and, by that token, swallowed down cheerfully. Besides, the trench is a protection; but in cantonment, where by the very definition of the word one has a right to feel secure, it is very annoying. Those Boches have no manners.

* * *

March 23. Last night I was detailed with half my section to bury the dead. The task was not a pleasant one, but it was accomplished without reluctance on hesitation. Having to do the work at night made it a shade more lugubrious. A guide conducted us to a little thicket all laid bare by grape-shot, to the south of Perthes and about three kilometres from the first lines. There was no moon, and it was very nearly pitch-dark. Trench-rockets streaked the sky here and there, and from the distance came the crack of musketry. Shells went laboring by with the heavy breathing of wild beasts in a rage. A little trench was made into a large one to receive the bodies, and then we had to set out in search of them. They had been lying there for a very long time, and it was only the recent advance of our lines that made it possible to bury them. With some difficulty we managed to make out these motionless heaps on the ground. It was necessary to search the pockets and take out papers, money, etc.; also to unfasten the identification badges that are worn on the arm like a bracelet. It was not an easy thing to do. In this, also, I was obliged to set the example. I had to put my gloved hand into the pockets of a foul mass that fell to pieces at a touch. I found nothing but a pocket-book and diary. The men then took courage and overcame their aversion. The bodies were not offensive until they were disturbed, but the least jar brought forth an odor that choked you and took you by the throat. There were three Germans among them. They were all carried in a tent-sheet to the trench and laid side by side. The articles found on them were kept carefully in separate packets. Out of twenty-seven, we identified all but three.

When our task was finished, the abbé-infirmier who had accompanied us of his own accord, stepped to the edge of the grave and said a blessing. And that priest, standing out against the darkness, lifting his voice above the noise of battle in a last solemn duty to those pitiful fragments, was very fine. Every man of us, whether moved by religious conviction or not, felt the solemnity of the moment, and knelt to hear the words of forgiveness and of life.

This evening I went to S. S. by the little train to have the death-certificates made out. The tiny mementoes had to be sent to the families—letters, purses, note-books, watches. On one of the bodies was a letter bearing the inscription: ‘Will the person who finds my body have the kindness to send this letter, together with the exact description of my grave to the following address.’ I took the letter, and wrote a few words to the family. I did my best to make a drawing of the spot where the poor wretch was buried, and told them about the blessing that had been said over his grave. And into the same envelope with mine I put that sacred letter, bloody, smeared with mud, ill-smelling—a letter from the dead.

* * *

March 24. An artillery officer who was at the village with me yesterday invited me to go and see his battery. After the daily muster of the company I started out. I had marked on my map the exact position of the battery and found it without difficulty.

The captain received me in his dug-out, a regular palace compared to the squalid quarters of us poor infantrymen. Twenty feet under ground, well supported by planks, it contained all sorts of modern comforts—a real bed, a table, chairs, besides a quantity of knick-knacks that indicated a prolonged stay. Pinned up on the walls were the charming women of Fabiano, of Nam, and of Préjelan, taken from LA Vie Parisienne; a violin was hanging in one corner, and on a table lay the sonatas of Bach. There were a number of little objects the shelves, made from fragments of shells. My host gave me tea in china cups.

All this luxury enchanted me. A telephone on the table connected the dug-out with the battery, the first line, and the colonel’s headquarters. I could not resist asking him to play, and this pupil of the Polytechnic executed for me, and executed well, the famous Sarabande. ‘Now, after the chamber-music,’ said he, ‘I’m going to let you hear the grand orchestra.’ And he conducted me to his battery.

The four pieces, all draped in foliage and well covered with earth, were silent. But they remained fixedly aimed at their invisible objective, a trench some three kilometres ahead. The captain explained to me (as I already knew) that, thanks to the hydro-pneumatic brake, the 75 did not need to be re-aimed after firing. To please me, he ordered three shells fired from each piece. He also explained the timing mechanism, which makes it possible to explode the shell at any desired distance according to the adjustment of the fuse. I even fired a shot myself. Finally I saw the little valve that has only to be manipulated in a certain way to render the piece useless if it falls into the hands of the enemy. The gunners are under orders to attend to this.

I took leave, with many thanks to my host for his kindness. I was glad to have penetrated a little into the sumptuous domain of the artillery. On arriving in camp I was told that the captain had sent in my name for promotion to the rank of second lieutenant, because of my conduct last week. I am gravely pleased.

* * *

March 25. This morning, to our great surprise, we were told to return to S. S. We reached there toward six o’clock. Same quarters as before. I noticed in passing how rapidly the cemetery has been growing of late.

* * *

March 26. Review of our brigade this morning. The two regiments assembled by sections in columns of four with flags and music. The general passed along our front as a gallop. Then we defiled. The impression of strength is immense when one feels one’s self in the midst of all these glittering bayonets, above which float the bright colors of our flags—the wall of steel that is holding back the enemy and will be able to crush him when the hour strikes. With it all comes the consciousness of one’s own rôle, which is humble and yet great. For that wall of steel is made of glittering, separate points, and I am one of them. I tis joy untold to be able to say to one’s self, ‘All my struggles and all my sufferings count for something in the great action of the whole.’

The general then went along by the different companies. He stopped and spoke to me, and told me that from to-day I shall rank in the army as second lieutenant. Naturally, this event had to be celebrated. I treated my colleagues to champagne. Just as festivities were well under way, orders came to start for the trenches. Here is the programme for the next few days: —

Two days in the first line.

Two days in reserve, Hill 181.

Two days in the second line.

It is rumored that this army corps is to be laid off a whole month to recuperate. Lots of rumors float about, fantastic and otherwise. It’s what they call ‘kitchen gossip.’ Meanwhile, we are buckling on our things, and in two hours, off we go.

I am going to write to all my people to announce my promotion.

* * *

March 27. I am writing my journal in a big underground shelter, comfortably stretched out in a hammock that my predecessor ingeniously rigged up out of two old tent-sheets. We are in an ugly sector, and we are using the mine galleries as dug-outs, for grenades are pouring.

We are in the same trench as the enemy—next-door neighbors in fat, and not a bit civil. Nothing but a barricade of bags of earth separates us from the Boches. Near the barricade stand the sentries, attentive and silent. No sound is heard on either side except for the whizzing of grenades that are continually being tossed back and forth. But the sentries are well protected in the sides of the trench, and they defy the German ‘turtles.’

The positions of the trenches are like this: —

So the first German and French lines are in immediate contact. The reason is that our side has not been able to seize the whole of the trench, of which the enemy still occupies the eastern end. But this situation will not last, I think, and we shall increase our gains.

The trench is clean, except for bodies imperfectly buried here and there. We no longer pay any attention to them; but the really deplorable thing is that many corpses fall in the mud; the mud has hardened and the trench is less than five feet deep. I tis impossible to make it deeper, for the least stroke of a pick brings up a piece of cloth or a bit of flesh. To circulate, we have to bend like hunchbacks. It is both painful and dangerous, so the men don’t move around much but stay in the shelters.

There is something very amusing here—a trench-cannon, a little one such as people fire in popular celebrations. You put powder in it, then a 77 shell (German projectiles that get sent back to them), then a fuse that is lighted with a tinder: noise—smoke—the shell goes off in one direction, the cannon in the other. The little fiend ought to take lessons of the 75’s, to cure it of going on its little dance after each shot. But there is plenty of time to re-aim, and a man especially detailed for the work takes charge of it. Of course, I couldn’t resist firing it a few times. The pedestal is gruesome. It is a corpse, well encased in mud, except that the feet are sticking out. It is a Boche. The soles of his shoes are shod with iron just like horse-shoes. This fact has caused a good deal of merriment.

The shells are sent to the trenches over opposite. For the German trench at our side we use hand-grenades, and not stingily, either. They too, of course, are making the best of their opportunities, though up to now we have no wounded. But we have had some unpleasant escapes from being overcome by gas. The Germans vary the monotony of the missiles that come over the barricade by sending gas-bombs. These bombs in bursting emit an acrid smoke that smells of Sulphur and fills the whole trench. We discovered that we could ward off the worst of the danger by putting handkerchiefs before our mouths. When these bombs burst against the trench-wall, they leave a yellow splotch.

I remain quiet very little in the trench. I have a horror of inactivity, and I don’t seem to want to read, so I wander back and forth a good deal from one end of my sector to the other, keeping an eye on everything.

A little while ago one of my poilus came to me and said, ‘I think, lieutenant, the Boches are busy mining our trench.’ I listened but head nothing. Then I went into his shelter and I did, for a fact, hear muffled blows, struck regularly. Evidently they were working underneath us. I tis very disagreeable, when you are already underground, to feel this hidden, slow work, impossible to prevent, that may blow you up at any minute. And the tiresome part of it is that since that moment, every one is convinced that he hears the strokes that are digging the abyss underneath him. Such is the power of imagination, O Pascal! The captain was notified and telephone in turn to headquarters. An officer of the engineering corps came and listened with a microphone, and said we were in no danger; in the trench  beside us a French mine-gallery has already been pierced underneath that mine.

In front of all the network of trenches there are underground listening posts, where the sappers listen with their microphones and register the least sound. This officer told me that, two days before, he had blown up a Boche mine. In order to do that, the exact location of the enemy’s gallery must be established; then a hole is bored toward it with a drill similar to the one used in boring wells. When the right spot is reached, it is packed and blown up with a ‘bickford.’ The explosion chamber of the German mine goes into the air along with its inhabitants.

The same fate awaits the mine that we have been worrying about. In mine warfare, the essential thing in the conflict is just the opposite of the war in the air, where it is a question of getting above the enemy aviator. The counter mine, on the contrary, must go beneath the enemy mine; when it reaches it at the same height, they blow it up. It sometimes happens that the miners suddenly find themselves face to face with the enemy. Then they kill each other as best they can—with hammers if they have no revolvers.

It is not very edifying, this kind of warfare. I am going to console myself y inviting my sergeants to tea.

For the fun of it, I have concocted a letter and thrown it into the Boche trench beside us. In my most polite German I invited those who were tired of waging war to come and surrender. They would be well treated by the French. The ywould simply need to present themselves, unarmed, in front of the barricade of bags of earth and whistle the first measures of a time known to all Germans: ‘Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden.’

In a little while the sentry brought me a paper. It was the answer. Here is the translation: ‘We shall be relieved to-night toward one o’clock. We will take advantage of the confusion to come, three of us together, and surrender. At midnight we shall be on sentry duty near the barricade. We count on your promise to treat us well.’ I carried this paper to the captain and translated it to him. The information as to changing troops was interesting; he is going to telephone it to headquarters.

* * *

March 28. What a riotous night! And by the same token, what a good piece of work we did! We took all the trench beside us (about fifty metres), and a machine-gun.

The first part of the night was uneventful, except for an abominable shower of grenades the Boches kept basting at us. Three of my men were wounded—slightly I think, for they were able to walk to the dressing station. About half-past ten the captain came to look over the situation, and I suggested that it might be a good idea to attack the trench at the moment they were changing. The various possibilities were considered, and finally my superior officer told me to do as I saw fit, leaving me the entire initiative in the matter. All I asked of him was to forbid the second line to fire. I sent for my friend H. and intrusted to him the command of my section after carefully discussing the various contingencies. The most devoted and intelligent of my corporals was to go with me, and I called for volunteers from the squads to help me in an undertaking that might prove dangerous. Almost all of them offered. I chose six, who armed themselves with their bayonets, and took ten grenades apiece. Then I went to the barricade and with the aid of a periscope and trench-rockets, was able to get an exact idea of the German trench. One thing bothered me—a machine-gun placed not far from us. I ordered a score or so of grenades to be thrown at it. Men were hit, but the gun seemed intact.

Shortly after eleven o’clock I heard them whistling the popular air of the Uhlans. I whistled it in turn, when presently three great gawks appeared on the barricade, with their arms raised above their heads, and jumped into our trench. I put them under strong guard and questioned them. It seems that their comrades were leaving at that very moment; they were being sent away before the arrival of the other troops. These three had managed to be put on sentry-duty and now no one was guarding the entrance to the trench. For a second the idea flashed through my head that this was a trap, and I threatened to have them shot if they were lying. But I went to the barricade and saw that the trench was for a fact empty, except for the machine-gunners who were on duty beside their gun. I quickly gave orders to tear down the barricade, and we ran into the Boche trench. The men of my section, according to my instructions, set up a furious fire in order to distract the attention of the enemy from the sector we were trying to take. As we ran, we threw several grenades at the machine-gunners, who sank down before they were able to turn their guns against us.

In a twinkling we reached the end of the trench, intersected at right angles by a communication trench. Several grenades went after the last Boches, who were going off to recuperate. Like lightning we piled up four or five bodies and rolled down several bags of earth from the parapet, brought up the machine-gun, and from behind the barricade of dead men and earth fired three rounds into the retreating Germans. They were thrown into a panic. A good many must have been killed, for daylight brought to our gaze the sight of that trench piled with dead. The whole thing had not lasted more than two minutes. We were deluged with grenades, a continuous zip, zip; one of our men was killed, three or four wounded. Everything was in a wild tumult—trench-rockets going up, guns firing at the double quick, a hasty report to the captain who came to shake hands with me. Barbed wire was rushed into place and the trench reversed—minutes of mad excitement and insane activity. We were without consciousness of danger, hypnotized by the work to be done.

We expected a counter-attack, but the German machine-gun we had put at the entrance to the communication trench defended it too well for a Boche to be able to venture in that direction. Toward the trench opposite all the soldiers had their loopholes and were on the watch ready to fire.

We waited. There were false alarms. A man who is a little nervous begins to fire rapidly, his neighbor follows his example, then the squad, then the section, then the whole company gets on the rampage. The machine-guns begin to clatter, the second-line troops take alarm, the artillery steps in with a few shells and—the Boches over opposite, bewildered by the hubbub, send up into the sky large interrogation points in the shape of trench-rockets, whose rays illumine the grass growing green in the spring, the tangle of wire, and several poor dead bodies lying with hands outstretched toward the opposite trench, as if pointing the path of duty to the one behind.

The counter-attack did not come, but shells upon shells were rained upon us. I gave my canteen of wine to my prisoners, for, after all, they were somewhat to be thanked for our success. It is nothing at all—fifty metres of trench; and yet, I tis a few feet of France won back again.

I received my reward: two big packages and five letters. In one of the packages was a big April-Fool’s-day fish of chocolate, all stuffed with candy. I divided the candy among my men, by way of thanks for their splendid conduct, and then I feasted on the letters. Oh, the comfort of letters and words of affection that come to find us out in the midst of our barbarous days!

This is part two of a three-part series.
Read part one here and part three here.
  1. Sweet it is when the winds are ruffling the mighty surface of the deep to witness the grievous peril of another from the shore. — Lucretius.