Lieutenant’s Story (Part III)

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

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

March 29. Hill 181, in reserve. Shelters deep underground. From the northern crest of this hill can be seen the whole system of trenches, both French and German, in the basin of Perthes. I posted myself with my field-glass between two bare bushes; a maze of white lines, much twisted and tangled; from time to time rise blackish clouds. The ruins of Perthes become every day more mournful. I was driven from my post by shells.

Every hour, exactly and methodically, two batteries fire their twelve shells. Fore-warned, fore-armed. When the moment is past, there is nothing more to fear for one hour. Unfortunately, one of the lieutenants was killed by a shell that was so very unmindful of precedent as to seek him in his dug-out.

I had the honor to be shaved under fire. The barber of the company was busy relieving me of a two days’ growth of beard when shells began to fall not far from us. ‘Go on!’ I cried; and though my barber’s hand shook, he cut off neither my nose nor my ears.

I have discovered a stove with some stovepipe. The infirmary didn’t want it, and simply threw it away, so I had it set up in my dug-out, where the air is decidedly chilly. With the pine boughs from the woods round about, which my orderly stuffs in, it keeps me warm and enables me to make some good chocolate.

It is cold. To-night we shall have to go to the first line to take planks and wire. But what a good cup of tea I shall have when I come back!

* * *

March 30. Last night a blizzard came down upon us. It was doubtless due to the violent displacement of air caused by the terrible bombardment that never for a moment ceases. I came in late—about three o’clock. We had to do a lot of trotting about; the communication trenches took up the snow, and were beginning to be muddy again. Oh, this abominable Champagne mud!

To-day we were bombarded even more than usual. Several men imprudently went to walk in full view of the enemy. Naturally shells came after them, so now the men are forbidden to go out of the shelters. I slept all the morning in front of my snoring little stove. Played cards this evening. I feel as if I were rapidly sinking to the level of the brute. For variety we go to the trenches to-night.

* * *

March 31. Our last days in Champagne. It seems we are to be laid off to recuperate and will change sectors afterward. One would say that before we go the authorities want us to become profoundly familiar with the landscape of this desolate region. We are in the second line, and before us stretches the panorama of all the trenches we have held, beginning with Hill 181. The weather is clear. The snow did not last. We can see the woods, stripped bare by shells, as well as the whole labyrinth of trenches and communications; then the ruins of the stricken village of Perthes. With my glass I can make out the first trench I occupied. I recognize it from certain little details, but we have gone a long way ahead since then, more than a kilometre.

Day comparatively calm. Nothing to do except be ready to sustain a possible attack. We sleep, read, or play cards. The Boches are still bombarding Perthes and Hill 181. The big ‘marmites’ send up into the night splendid luminous volcanoes, or else burst above the trenches in clouds that whirl off down the wind. The curious thing is that you see the explosion long before you hear it, and the hiss of the bomb sounds directly overhead at the very moment when it is bursting in the distance. I had to explain this phenomenon to my men, whose knowledge of acoustics is not very extended.

I have just witnessed a magnificent and terrible sight—a German attack in close formation crushed in less time than it takes to tell it. To the east, in the direction of Beauséjour, was an intense bombardment; then through my glass I could see gray masses emerge, gesticulating and densely crowded together. This attack was caught between two curtains of fire. The raging 75’s hurled a curtain of fire in front of them, keeping them from advancing, and one behind them that made it impossible for them to get back to their trenches. They were wiped out to the very last man. There was a mad dance in the air, of scattered limbs, mingled with clouds of dirt and smoke. The incredible part of it is that nothing was left on the ground, or next to nothing. It was as if the bodies of those men had been volatilized and made one with the air. We were transfixed with horror and filled with rapturous hope. May the fight in the open be not delayed! Our 75’s will quickly give us victory.

* * *

Holy Thursday. Our aviators are floating gracefully about in the twilight—a twilight divinely calm. It is Holy Week. The strains of the great Johann Sebastian and of Parsifal keep running through my head.

Orders have come. We are to be relieved this evening. We are going to recuperate and then, they say, to Alsace, I shall be so happy to have a chance to fight on the soil we have won back. This is our last day in Champagne. I am leaving without regret this desolate desert where I have known difficult hours and a few splendid moments. The thing that tried me most sorely was this mole-like existence, I who am always longing for large action and open and intense fighting with an enemy who is before your eyes.

The Boches have been bombarding rather violently. That is to be expected since this is Holy Thursday. But, in spite of everything, there has been something religious in the calm of the elements these latter days. Nature is at her devotions. This evening is superb. Shells are bursting in great numbers, and the little church of Perthes totters as if it were about to fall. Through the loopholes comes the mew of spent bullets, but these noises disturb but little the heavenly serenity of the twilight. Larks are singing, full-throated, a sublime pæan of life and joy. In the distance lie the dead, and the frightful mangled corpse of the village of Perthes.

* * *

For a month the Lieutenant’s diary records marches and more or less prolonged sojourns in various cantonments in the region of the Meuse: a calm existence, without many events of interest. At the beginning of May, however, he was sent back to the front near Artois, on the eve of the great offensive.

* * *

May 4. Once more we take up the life of war. We have been back in the trenches since last night. We had nearly lost the wont of shot and shell, although we are managing to keep up a good face. But how different this is from Champagne! Here it is comfortable, almost to the point of luxury, and the sector is as calm as calm—only a few isolated cannon-shots now and then, just to let each other know we are here.

Two false alarms last night. A soldier thinks he hears suspicious noises, gets excited, and fires like mad. The panic goes churning down the line and raises a regular hurricane in its trail.

In making the rounds, I went over the whole ground occupied by the company. From time to time a flash from my electric lamp showed me the way through the deserted communication trenches. Every one was at his post. The enemy could come on if he wished. To tell the truth, not a single shell was sent our way. The Boches have never been less troublesome.

To-day it is raining, and I regret to see that the soil of Artois gets muddy easily, too. Having nothing else to do, I asked an officer of the engineering corps for permission to go into the mine. He consented most willingly, and went down with me into the gallery. It is solidly built, and supported by heavy planks, for the crumbling earth might easily stop up this narrow space. I had to crawl on all fours a long time before reaching the end, where the listening post was. Two men were on duty there, standing with their ears close to the wall, in the yellowish light of a single candle. We were under the German trench.

On listening carefully I made out a faint murmur of voices, very indistinct and muffled. I should not have objected to overhearing the conversation of those men, who were in all likelihood to die before many days were spent. The large explosion chamber of the mine is to be stuffed with cheddite, and, at the given moment, an electric spark will send that trench and its inhabitants on a journey through the air. It wasn’t at all pleasant down in that hole. The air was stifling, and I was glad enough, after another long crawl, to find myself in the open again, if the trench may be called the open.

In order to guard against gas-bombs we have been given horrible, nightmarish masks, goggles set in a kind of pig jowl or snout made of rubber and containing a solution of ammonia. They make one look like a wild animal, and as soon as I got mine I put it on for the benefit of my poilus. They nearly laughed themselves into fits.

But life in general is calm, too calm even. I am reading Anna Karénina, which came by mail yesterday, and smoking endless pipes. The men make lots of aluminum rings. As soon as a shell lands they start out to look for the fuse, of which they fashion very artistic little rings. My soldiers have given me several. I am on most friendly terms with them all. At odd times I have bought them little extras in the way of wine or sweets, and then I manage things so that they get their letters before any of the other sections. The letters come toward midnight, with the fatigue who brings rations. I am always on hand, and along with my own correspondence, I take that of my men. It is the one great joy of the day, so why should it be deferred? To be sure, it is because I am so keen on letters myself that I like the men to share my pleasure. And if they have no light, they have permission to come to my dug-out, which is always lighted. They insist on my taking some of all their good things—candies, cigarettes, or what not—when a package comes. But I can find a way to even things up. I think I have my men well in hand. I shall be able to do some good work with them when the time comes.

* * *

May 5. At noon returned to the first line. After that the day was eventful. It was decided, by way of preparation for future offensives, to furnish the attacking sections with red and white pennons, which were to serve as signals to the artillery, and mark the first French lines. By this means the artillery will not risk peppering its compatriots in the course of an advance. To-day the order came to raise the pennons over our first lines, so that our artillery can get the range of the enemy’s positions. At two o’clock therefore they were hoisted. The astonishment of the Boches was promptly made manifest by a whirlwind of bullets, which converted these common bits of cloth into glorious trophies. Then our artillery turned loose. It was our duty to observe the range and rectify it by telephone. One by one, with mathematical precision, big shells lighted on the German positions. There must be a formidable number of batteries, for without a moment’s pause or cessation shells poured on the Boche trench for three full hours.

Meanwhile, very naturally, our friends across the way began to get peevish and sent off a few blasts of little 77’s, which afforded great satisfaction to the makers of rings. One could hear them coming very distinctly: first, the six reports of the battery, then a hiss, then a detonation, not very terrifying. I was in the middle of the trench with my eye glued to a periscope. Several shells landed near; one fell on a decaying corpse in the midst of the wire, spreading about for several minutes the horrible heavy odor that reminded me of the night we buried the dead in Champagne. Another stupid shell chose to fall in the passage that led to my dug-out. The bags of and were tumbled all about, and it took more than half an hour’s work before I could get into my quarters. My things were not at all damaged. And yet at one moment the shells rained thick and fast; two or three fell on the parapet, blowing to bits several loopholes. The machine-gunners who were playing cards near their gun shut their dug-out with a tent-sheet. It is a thing I have often noticed; it proves that, after all, man is not so different from the ostrich. One has the illusion of being secure behind the most flimsy barrier, if only it keeps out the sight of the danger—a hedge, a plank, a tent-sheet. It is an insult to reason, but never mind. Brute instinct knows no reason.

So the sector that on our arrival seemed asleep has had a rude awakening. Everything points to a coming offensive. I certainly hope we shall have a share in it.

* * *

May 6. Night calm. The Boches seemed non-existent. Our artillery quieted down. I was wakeful notwithstanding. The responsibility is too great. It is raining hard. There is water in the bottom of the trench, and it is impossible to move without taking a disagreeable foot-bath. The aviators, however, give sign of great activity. Since morning we have had the joy of watching several reconnaissances. The planes were hotly bombarded, but to no purpose.

Their flight must have been successful, for no sooner had they returned than our artillery set up a terrible spitting at the German trenches. It was not hurried, but was a slow, continuous, methodical fire which must have been very deadly. From the second line we sent off the little winged bombs, the chouxfleurs whose acquaintance we made in Champagne. They leap up, not very high, then hesitate an instant before they swoop down upon the Boches, exploding with a muffled thud which makes the ground tremble clear to our trench, while a spout of black smoke rises and floats a long time. In all the sectors where I have been, the superiority of our artillery becomes every day more evident.

After dinner the question was telephoned: ‘What are the special points the different section commanders would like to see battered by the artillery in case of a drive?’ I asked for the collaboration of all my men. I had the corporals explain to them the signs by which they could recognize the machine-gun positions: better defenses; loopholes bigger; bags of sand more numerous and more carefully arranged. I took my glass and observed minutely all the points of the German trench. I went to the listening post, and with the help of a much-perfected field-glass periscope, which magnifies in addition to giving a view over the edge, I probed the German position. At the end of more than an hour’s work, utilizing the observations of my men, I was able to fix almost to a certainty the positions of four machine-guns. I marked on the plan of the trenches that had been given us the exact points to be hammered, and the document was sent along the hierarchical paths and in due time reached the artillery.

Then we indulged in a little distraction. As the rain had ceased, I went to two of my best marksmen and proposed a match. It is very amusing to try one’s skill in shooting. The objective point is a Boche loophole, that is to say, a piece of steel plate. If the balls touch, one hears a metallic ring and the hum of the ricochet. I made a good score, but I placed only nine balls out of ten, and was beaten by P., who got in all ten. The prize was a package of cigarettes.

Everybody is in a good humor to-day. There is a great buzz of conversation. Some of the men are playing checkers, others cards. One man, who is the happy recipient of an accordion, is favoring us with popular tunes which everybody catches up in chorus. Really, it is very festive. This evening we go to the second line, in the shelters. Three of the four companies of our battalion are on the firing line, the fourth is in reserve. I tis our turn now to be in reserve.

* * *

May 7. We are in marvelous shelters, where we laugh defiance to missiles of all sorts and kinds, even the 420’s. Behind the second lines, galleries are sunk, to which large staircases give access. They are surrounded by a sort of ditch which serves as a yard, on which the entrances open. Thy are vast tunnels, 15 metres underground, made by the engineers; broad, comfortable, supported by huge beams, and furnished with plank floors. They are about thirty metres long, three metres broad, and three metres high. There are beds of straw, bags for pillows, and candles for lighting—in every way comfortable. In the yard are supplies: grenades, wire, trench-shells, and casks of water. We officers have a special gallery with two compartments—a living-room and a sleeping-room. The former has a huge fireplace, a big table, several stools, and a superb lamp. The bedroom is less sumptuous: a large space covered with a thick bed of straw, where we shall sleep soundly.

There has been unusual activity along the front these two days. Staff officers keep coming and going. Men have been carrying to the first lines quantities of hand-grenades, wire, and ladders. Aeroplanes are circling busily through the air. The artillery sounds like an orchestra tuning its instruments before the symphony. Important events are in the air.

* * *

Evening. It’s coming! The grand offensive is to be launched over a wide area. In the whole of Flanders the attempt is to be made to pierce the Boche front. We are going to try to get out of these accursed trenches and fight superbly, face to face.

About five o’clock, just as we were sitting down at table, I was called to the commandant. My colleagues had also been summoned and we received our orders. To-morrow, at an hour not yet indicated, the regiment is to attack in concert with those of the nine army corps that are massed in this region. It is the grand offensive, victory perhaps. We are to go forward and jump over four enemy trenches, previously battered by the artillery, not stopping until we reach a ravine that can be seen through the glass 800 metres from our first line. We pore over the maps, and each of us makes sure of his exact goal. My company is to march at the head in deployed line and lead the drive. The commandant then shook hands with each of us in turn, and told us that he counted on every man to do his duty.

I went back to my soldiers to issue the command to get ready. Each man was to have 200 cartridges, six grenades, and three days’ rations, and was to carry his blanket slung crosswise over his shoulder. But while I was consulting the plan of the German positions with my colleagues, a message came that all orders were canceled. The sudden let-down was not entirely pleasant, but we all shared somewhat the feeling of the sorry jester who said, ‘All right, that gives us one more day to live.’ We count on coming out alive, but the nearness of danger is not without its anguish.

We have been having a fine game of poker. I lost, so I shall be lucky. I am tired. My fellow officers have been asleep this long time. I am going to imitate them. The boom of our big guns is heavy and deep.

* * *

May 8. — 10 p.m. It is for to-night. We are to take positions in the first line at 2 a.m. The time of the attack is not yet fixed. I have written a great many letters. Perhaps I have given way to my feelings in some of them. I did not tell my mother. I wrote her that new movements of troops are predicted for the near future and that she is not to worry if she has no news of me for a while. But I told the truth to my little godmother and to my old friend. …

But sadness and farewells I have put behind me. Now I am all a soldier, and a soldier filled with the determination to fight and to conquer, and exalted by the work that is before him. If I die, and these are the last words I am destined to write, I want them to be Vivevive la France!

* * *

June 9. In the silence and quiet of a little hospital room, near a window where pink and white thorn trees make a fragrant screen, I am going to try to describe the nightmare of a month ago, and finish the record of my first campaign.

As I read over the last few pages, the enthusiasm I felt when they were written comes surging back. Neither time nor suffering can take it away from me. But the horror of the terrible hours that followed our offensive on the ninth of May is a thing of the past. It has been lifted and smoothed away in this peaceful hospital by the angels who dwell in it—the sublime women of the French Red Cross. The account of the events of that day will be none the less exact for having waited. I have not forgotten any part of them.

On the night before the attack, then, we were awakened about midnight by the beginning of the bombardment. Unable to sleep, we arose and began preparations ahead of time. At last came the order to go forward to our fighting posts. One by one we moved along the dark narrow trenches leading to the first lines. Above our heads was the constant hissing of our big shells going ahead of us to the Boches. Once in the first line, we spent the hours of waiting as comfortably as we could.

Dawn came slowly. The bombardment kept growing in intensity. It was seven o’clock. Several artillery officers came into my trench to regulate the precision of the fire, which was to clear our way of all outside obstacles—wire-entanglements, chevaux-de-frise, the enemy trenches. In a short time, all was regulated, and the storm began. It is impossible to realize the din of this firing. Guns of all calibres spit forth their shells with the maximum of rapidity. This lasted three hours, three deafening, maddening hours. IN the midst of this storm of steel and fire, the brigadier-general arrived. He said a few words to me. I told him I was as sure of my men as of myself. He seemed satisfied and gave me the hour of attack, ten o’clock. Every one looked at his watch. Nine o’clock. So in an hour then—

Five minutes to ten! I take my place at the foot of my ladder. In those last moments thoughts come rapidly. ON this ladder hangs our destiny. In the trench there is relative security. What will become of us at the top of those four rounds? But no one thinks of hesitating. We seem to be in the grasp of some unknown and mighty force.

I seize my revolver and make sure of my grenades. One minute to ten. At this instant comes a rumbling detonation which causes the ground to tremble as if shaken by an earthquake. Our mines have exploded. This is the time.

‘Attention! Forward, mes petits, and vive la France!

This cry burst from every throat, and I sprang up my ladder, followed by my men. From that moment I was carried forward by the intoxication of the assault. I did not see, but rather felt, my men close to me, running by my side, and, like myself, drunk with a sublime madness. We reached the first German trench. We threw hand-grenades. But no living thing was there. Confusedly, in my forward rush, I saw heaps of earth and corpses. The bombardment had almost leveled the trench. Forward, still forward. We kept running breathlessly, carried away by the strange fascination of victory, and by the joy of treading the soil we were giving back to France, I went ahead, unconscious of those who were falling by the way. My intelligence was numbed. A greater force was urging me on.

After passing the second trench, I noticed that our ranks had thinned, but we went on and plunged into the third trench. A furious hand-to-hand fight followed. I unloaded my revolver almost instinctively on a German who was aiming at me. By this time our second wave of assault was joining us. I quickly decided to merge in it and push forward. I was covered with sweat and blood—with the blood of the Boche I had killed. I was in a frenzy. I ran toward the fourth trench, the last one to capture before reaching our goal. I went on, hypnotized by that trench which seemed to be running to meet me. I could see the enemy through the gaps that our artillery had made in their defenses.

Suddenly I fell. I was alone. Above my head the constant whizzing of bullets; near by, the significant snorting of a machine-gun. At first I was a little stunned, then I tried to rise and felt that my right arm moved with difficulty. My coat was covered with blood. My arm hung limp. I felt it. I began to understand. Wounded, of course. But what of my soldiers? I raised my head; a bullet struck the ground very near. I fell back, but I had had time enough to see. Nobody in front of me. Nobody behind me. Corpses all around. I was alone, ten yards from the enemy’s trench. I could see the Boches moving about in it. With my left hand I got hold of my revolver. But what was the use of trying to fire left-handed? I should miss and they would make an end of me.

To advance was impossible. To go back was equally impossible. The least move would be my death. The bullets over my head kept up a fearful hum. This situation could not last. If I did not get under shelter, one of those bullets would surely find me out. Near by, within a few yards, a slight rise in the ground indicated a possible cavity. With great care, without apparent motion, inch by inch, I dragged myself to it. Think of my joy! It was a large funnel, dug out by a German mine, and a score of wounded had taken refuge in it. Still another effort and I found myself among them. The cavity was five or six yards deep and very wide at the top. A few dead lay prone upon the edge—poor fellows, killed at the moment when, like myself, they saw salvation in that hole.

Above our heads the air was lashed with a terrible cross-fire. The sad truth began to come home to me that our advance had been checked after the third trench. And what of my men, my poilus whom I so loved? Dead?

But our own plight was critical. Our lives hung by a very slender thread. For the present, the unceasing fire of the machine-guns prevented our escape. Sooner or later the Germans would launch a counter-attack and put an end to us with their hand-grenades. And again, if the French pursued the offensive, they would renew the bombardment, and in all probability we should be struck by our own shells. As for surrendering to the Boches, — they were near enough, — every man of us would rather starve in that hole. These thoughts and the pain from my wound overcame me for an instant. I felt myself losing consciousness. I took a few drops of cordial that I happened to have in my bag, and revived.

Then came a short lull. Time dragged along slowly, very slowly. Toward noon a fusillade broke forth in the enemy’s trench. A ray of hope. Were the French carrying their attack to the fourth line? A man suddenly stumbled into our crater. He was one of my own soldiers. He was without his equipment. He saw me and, weeping and laughing, embraced me. I asked him where he came from and why he had no gun, no bayonet, no grenades. In a distracted voice, he told me his story.

After I had been wounded and knocked down, my soldiers kept on running forward and jumped into the fourth German trench. But their ranks had thinned, and they were too few. Some were killed, others disarmed. The latter were told by the Boches after a time, ‘You are not wanted. Get out of here.’ My men were bewildered. They could not understand. Again they were ordered to leave, and finally they climbed out of the trench and began running back to the French position. The brutes then fired upon them from behind. All were killed evidently, with the exception of this soldier, who owed his life to the crater into which he had providentially fallen.

My despair was intense, for I had lost all my brave men, and I was powerless to avenge them. To this mental torture was added the suffering from my wound. The hot rays of the sun shone directly upon us. Hand-grenades fell again into the crater. We crouched close to the ground.

Presently the French 75’s and 105’s began to burst over the German trench. They were very, very near us. One 75 exploded just above our heads, and the impact threw the body of a dead soldier almost on top of me. A shell burst and blew to pieces that very soldier of mine who had escaped the odious massacre. We quickly threw a tent-sheet over this abomination. We were fully conscious of the horror of our situation. Another explosion cut off the foot of a sergeant, and, in spite of his screams, I poured a flask of iodine on his wound. Then, for the first time, I abandoned all hope. We had made a sacrifice of our lives and waited, motionless, resigned, trembling.

But an idea came to me. There were heavy planks in the bottom of the crater, which had been used to prop the explosion-chamber of the mine. With much difficulty, we moved them together, leaning them against the side of the crater. Under this shelter we all huddled. Several times our wooden structure was violently shaken by explosions, and our wounds were racked at each shock. This lasted a long time, an infinitely long time. The hours do not seem to move under such circumstances.

Finally the captain of the company which marched immediately behind us, the only man in the crater who was not wounded declared that he was going to the French trench to have the firing stopped. In spite of our protests, for we were sure that he would meet death on the way, he went out under the bombardment. A long time afterward the firing from our side stopped. Could the captain have reached our trenches? And hope revived in us again. We all wanted to leave that inferno at once. But the German machine-guns started in afresh. We must wait for the night.

The sun was getting low. The bombardment ceased, and we came out form under the protection of our planks. We stretched out on the ground, which was all furrowed by shells. The wounded were moaning, some had the death-rattle. I was completely exhausted, and somehow I fell asleep. When I awoke it was already dusk. The hour of deliverance was near. But as soon as night came, rockets flashed from the German trench and a fusillade burst forth. Possibly some of the wounded had tried to return to our lines and were being shot from behind. Our hope grew dim and we wondered if we should ever get away. We were horrified to think we might have to spend another day in that hole. Better die at once, die in the effort to get back, die with hope in our hearts.

Toward nine o’clock the man least wounded among us decided to venture forth. His plan was, on reaching the French line, to request that a trench be dug out in our direction so that we could return in safety. We agreed upon a signal to be given by our machine-guns. Twice-four sharp shots to establish the communication. Three times three slow shots would indicate that we must wait until they came for us. Three times three rapid shots that we should have to escape by our own means.

Half an hour or more elapsed. Rockets kept flashing in the night and the machine-guns never stopped. We began to fear for the fate of our comrade. But at last came the signal—three times three rapid shots. Hurry back, hurry back, hurry back, said the French guns. We had to count on ourselves alone, and we decided to crawl toward our lines.

One by one, at long intervals, we left. Only one could not leave, the man wounded in the stomach. ‘So you forsake me!’ he moaned. I spread my blanket over him and promised to send for him. I knew this was impossible, but my deception might help him to die in hope. I knew also the terror of dying there slowly, and lone, all alone. But he was beyond our help.

I could not crawl on my stomach I was obliged to lie on my back, and advance head first toward the French lines. The rockets gave me a glimpse of our trenches. They were several hundred yards distant. I pushed myself along with my feet as does a man when swimming on his back. As soon as a rocket flashed its light I remained motionless, feigning death among the dead. And in those few instants of immobility, I could hear my heart beat, and moans and cries of men dying, and of wounded calling for help. I passed by a soldier who was groaning feebly. I recognized him and tried to drag him with me. With great difficulty I managed to pull him a few feet. And then I saw that I was dragging a corpse.

This Cavalry lasted long, frightfully long. Several times I bumped my head into dead bodies. Crawling backward I could not see these obstacles. At one moment, I found myself under a corpse. The body was in a kneeling position and leaning forward. I had its face against my face, and its open eyes seemed to stare at me. The magnesium light of a rocket made that face appear still more livid. I worked myself free and went on over that rough, chaotic ground, falling into shell-holes, jostling the dead. But my whole being was strained to the one idea—to go back, to reach the French trench to which I was drawing nearer and nearer. I began talking out loud. Without knowing it, I must have talked a good deal. I found myself saying over half-forgotten snatches of Virgil: —

Est in conspectus Tenedos, notissima fama
Insula, dives opum—

It was indeed in conspectu, that trench, and likewise dives opum—richer than any Island of the Blest.

* * *

Meanwhile German shells kept falling in rapid succession. I was covered with earth several times, and once roughly shaken up. But now the goal was very near. I shouted with all my strength, ‘France! France! I am a lieutenant of the Eleventh Company.’ I dimly heard voices saying, ‘This way, this way!’ I directed myself by those voices. I was exhausted. I got entangled in wire-defenses. My arm hurt unbearably. A shell that fell near stunned me. I felt myself being seized and pulled. I fell into the trench—the French trench. Then I fainted.

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