At the Enemy's Mercy

I

JANUARY 7,1915, will remain a memorable date for me. It was the day when I was unfortunate enough to be captured by the Germans. A short description will show how it happened.

The company of which I was in command had to defend a front of about a thousand feet in the very heart of the Argonne, that is, eighteen odd miles west-northwest of Verdun. Trench warfare had set in over two months before, and deep trenches had been dug in the first line, while a second line was in course of completion about four hundred feet behind the first. They were connected by communication trenches which wound round the short stumps of oaks decapitated by shells. My company front was pretty secure, for my first line, manned by one half of my soldiers, was running along the northern brow of a small plateau which dipped clean down under our very parapets to make way for a small forest brook running parallel to my trench eighty feet below. The ground rose again as steeply on the other bank, the German position lying exactly opposite ours, and on about the same level. There was no more idea of our making a frontal attack on the Germans than there was danger that they would disturb us seriously. But conditions were quite different on the right and left continuation of my trench, respectively held by the 7th and the 1st companies of my regiment. For there the slope toward the Germans was gentle and slow, and the ‘debatable land’ between the Germans and the first company amounted to a strip hardly 30 feet in depth, sometimes less. So that I was running the risk of having the Germans in the same trench with me on either of my flanks if they attacked the neighboring companies of the 46th, as was bound to happen sooner or later.

For there was no quiet in the Argonne throughout the winter of 19141915. There were no big-scale attacks, but plenty of trenches stormed and restormed: the German Crown Prince, who was in command of the army facing us, evidently tried to drive us gradually back till he got nearer to Verdun from the northwest. These attacks were to culminate in the well-known German partial offensive of July 13 and 14, 1915, which had some success at the beginning, but meant no serious advance; so that the lines in early 1917 are nearly the same as in early 1915.

On the 7th of January, 1915, about 8 A.M., we heard quite an unusual number of German shells gliding with a railway-like rumbling high above our heads (this is a pet metaphor of many poilus who have no idea what a metaphor is), and crashing a couple of hundred yards behind us. Did that mean that the Germans were up to something? It probably did, for after half an hour, as I was washing up out of a pail of water held for me by my orderly, a deafening report rose on my left, apparently very close. The pail drops on my feet and all the trench shakes and shivers as in a formidable earthquake. A most uncomfortable feeling* The Germans had presumably sprung a mine and were attacking on my left. All at once the sniping developed into regular gusts of musketry-fire. In a few seconds I had pulled my revolver, which I never abandoned, out of its case, and was rushing to the extreme left of my company front, which I well knew was for the moment the only endangered part, taking on my way a few men with me as a reinforcement.

Yells to the left! The Germans have jumped into the trench of the 1st Company, I hear from a few soldiers of that company, who are drawing back my way. I establish myself immediately, with my sergeant-major, behind a traverse,— pare-éclats (protection against splinters) as we call them,—and stand waiting there, revolver in hand, ready to fire on the first German whom I see. Suddenly, one yard off, the muzzle of a rifle faces me, and a feldgrau breast behind it. I fire from my concealed angle, something heavy splashes in the mud. Not five seconds have elapsed, as far as I can make out, when I feel a whirl and a hubbub in my head, and I myself am lying wounded in the mud, looking in vain for my revolver.

The retribution had been quick. Two Germans rush at me, wildly excited, yelling like mad, and shouting in bad French, ‘ Rendez-fous! ’ One of them takes a bad aim at me and pulls the trigger of his Mauser. The bullet hits the parapet, but not me, and I answer in the best German that I can muster, in a voice of command, ‘ Nicht schiessen ! Ich bin ein verwundeter Oberleutnant! Lassen Sie mal einen Sanitater herkommen.’ — ‘ Zu Befehl! Herr Oberleutnant.’ And the same man who tried to kill me half a minute before pulls me gently back to the now German side of the traverse and watches me good-humoredly, while his chum goes for a Red Cross orderly. I cannot move; I do not know where my limbs are, but my head is now a little clearer and I ask myself what has happened.

This is what has happened: the Germans had hand-bombs while we had not a single one, and they had very skillfully hurled one at me, over the traverse. It burst so near me on my left, that my left tympanum was broken under the pressure of air, while I got a rich allotment of splinters in my head above my left ear, in my left hand, in my breast, in my left thigh, and in my left and right calves. Kepi and revolver had been flung away by the force of the explosion and were lying somewhere in the mud or over the parapet. And now I am lying on my back in thick Argonne mire, tinged red by my blood, and I look at the clouds scudding madly overhead, and it seems so funny to see all that reversed landscape, all those reversed trees which I used to know so well, every single one of them, but do not quite recognize now because I am gazing at them from a lying instead of a standing position. I felt just weak, so weak that I could not raise my head from the pillow of stone kindly provided by my would-be murderer. I had no notion of time, did not feel unhappy, did not quite know whether I was going to die or not, did not much care; I took it as a matter of-course to see the Germans firing at the French on both sides of me, and now and again casting a side glance at me. I think I did not even fully realize that I was a prisoner — did not resent it anyhow, as I was to do later. In short, I suffered neither physically nor morally, stripped as I apparently was of the very faculty of feeling.

How long I waited under the rain, on my soft bed of earth, watching all the time with keen interest a streamlet of clayey water playing along my breast and thigh, till it grew light pink, then crimson, and finally doubled the cape of my extended left boot, I cannot say. All I know is that some time in the course of the day, a Sanitäter came, dressed my wounds for pure form (they had already been anointed with French liquid mould), took me pickaback, tiny man though he was, and worked his way heavily, bent nearly double, over knapsacks ripped open, and rifles with their butt-ends smashed, over the tumbled corpses of French and German soldiers, till he landed me in the very crater of the mine sprung by the Germans in the morning. Quite a respectable hole, I must say, serving now as a waiting-room for a dozen wounded soldiers till they could be conveyed to the nearest ambulance. When my turn came, I was again loaded on sturdy Württemberger shoulders and taken to the dressing-station, a pretty comfortable dugout. The young Unterarzt on duty there dressed my wounds as thoroughly as was compatible with the circumstances. He told me that I was badly wounded and had more than one bone broken, but added that no vital organ had been touched.

A heap of stretchers lay near the opening of the first-aid station; I was laid on one, and four soldiers carried me in the dark, with infinite labor and precaution, at a measured step which gave a not unpleasant swing to the stretcher. We finally reached a road, at a point where ambulance carriages were to fetch a batch of wounded Germans. I was to be taken to a field-hospital with them. Again I must say I met nothing but kindness at the hands of these privates; one of them, who was slightly wounded in the arm, even insisted on wrapping me in his great coat, for I had none, and he was afraid I might be cold, with my trousers ripped open lengthwise by the bomb.

I had not waited long on the roadside when a horse-carriage halted near our rather lamentable group, and I was hoisted up inside, stretcher, great coat and all, together with three more patients. One of the poor chaps must have felt very bad, for the moment the carriage started he began to howl and must, have suffered frightfully from the ceaseless jolting. We were indeed relentlessly shaken from one side to the other, as this road, leading from Le Four de Paris to Varennes, was constantly under French artillery fire, so much so that the driver could not light his lamps for fear of being fired at. The big red cross painted on all sides would have been of little avail to us on such a pitch-dark night.

So we made slow and jerky headway, from one hastily-stopped shellhole to the next, till we pulled up before three lamp-lit windows. We were in a village of the Meuse, which I later heard was named Ecclise-Fontaine. I was in my turn hoisted down from the car, taken inside the house, and laid on an operating table. My wounds were disgracefully dirty and the German doctor cleansed them as well as he could; but nothing short of a bath could remove all the caked mud; as there was no bathroom, I had to wait another fortnight or more.

When the doctor had finished his work, I was carried to the next room where some straw lay spread over the floor, and I was deposited near other human rags that were in no better plight than my own. Some moaned deeply; I myself began to suffer very much from the many splinters scattered all over my body. I lay on my handful of straw all through the eighth of January, in a kind of doze, indifferent to all that was going on around me or inside me.

II

It was late in the evening, when I was again loaded on a stretcher and carried into an ambulance motor-car en route for Montmedy, on the other side of the Meuse, and very near the frontier of Luxembourg. The journey was a little more uncomfortable than the preceding one, because my physical sensibility had reawakened and the car was driving fast over a road apparently inaccessible to French shells, but made very uneven by heavy wheeled traffic. It was a relief when we pulled up before an old convent-like building and a bevy of old and young Red-Cross orderlies hastened to pull us out of our car and land us in the big passage, behind the bulky folding-door opened to let us in. A fat sergeant looked at the printed cardboard forms which had been previously filled up by the Unterarzt of the first-aid station and fastened on one of our uniform-buttons. He delivered orders for us to be carried up to such and such a ward, according to rank, I suppose, or to the nature of the wounds.

So I was borne up a narrow staircase to a third-floor ward, which used to be, so I was told later, the lumber-room of the convent school in peace time. My stretcher was laid on the floor half-way down the central passage, before an empty bed. A young nurse and an elderly nun helped me doff my mudand blood-stained rags — or, rather, doffed them for me, for I was not up to much. My boots cost them no end of trouble, for they were soaked with water and glued fast to my icy feet by coagulated blood. I found myself finally lying on a bed — not precisely a clean one, for my only bedcloth was, I remember, of doubtful color, much to my disappointment. I had been longing for spotlessly white bedding, raving about it in my half-delirious state; and here I was, with a dirty bedcloth under me, and a blanket soiled by ghastly dried-up drops of yellow suppuration over me.

I must say that this first impression of uncleanliness did not last long. The nuns and doctors were otherwise, I found later, extremely particular, and observed all the principles of hygiene in their tending of the wounded. They were no doubt short of bedclothes and bedding, and that is why I had to be content with another man’s.

The nuns were very nice to me. One particularly, a sweet old nun with marked Silesian accent, always tried to get me into conversation with her. I did not understand all she meant, for I was half deaf and in her conversation she was not always loyal to High German. She used to insist good-naturedly on my eating some of the fare that was provided for us — soups so thick that the spoon could stand erect in the plate, potatoes half mashed by too much boiling, sauerkraut with sausage, and, at eight in the morning, a horrid mixture passing by the name of coffee and milk. I simply could not absorb any of that stuff, much to the disappointment of the sister, who used to shrug her awkward shoulders affectionately, sigh deeply, insist again, and finally go to the kitchen, and bring back a pint of milk instead of the food which I could not eat.

I had a few Germans next to me, mostly privates who were only slightly wounded and could go about the room during the day-time; they played cards noisily for hours together, and started smoking big cheap cigars in the ward a quarter of an hour after waking in the morning. It made me sick, but I had to put up with it: I was a prisoner.

Opposite me there was a poor Frenchman belonging to a regiment of the Verdun garrison, who often cried and called for his wife. The poor chap had received a bullet in his leg, and both his legs had frozen, as a consequence of lying forty hours in a shell-hole near Malancourt before he was picked up by some compassionate German. One morning he was carried from the ward to the operating-room. He had no legs left when he was brought back; both had been amputated just below the knees. I wonder where the poor man now is. Does he live to this day somewhere in a French village, after getting exchanged through Switzerland? Or does he lie in Montmedy churchyard? There is something truly dramatic about this my ignorance regarding the fate of a companion who had roused my deepest sympathy, wrung tears out of my eyes, ant! who now is nothing more to me than a phantom memory.

It was not very long before the doctor thought I could be transferred to some better Lazarett in Germany, without immediate danger to my life. New batches of wounded were arriving every day, and all hospitals in Montmedy were full. So, one snowy morning, — January 19, 1915, — I was again placed on a stretcher, again hoisted up into an ambulance motor-car; but this time I was to be conveyed only as far as the railway-station, where a hospital train was waiting to take several hundred Germans and a dozen Frenchmen to Trier and Coblenz.

On this train, I remember, we were kindly reminded how well we were treated, how very unworthy we were of all the comfort bestowed on us, by a heinous old hag of a volunteer hospital nurse who superintended the distribution of warm meals to the wounded. She ended by asking me point-blank, fists on hips, in a shrill, explosive, triumphant voice, ‘ Nun, sind wir Barbaren ?'

I quote this as eminently representative of the Germans’ attitude toward their prisoners. Whenever a German officer or doctor thinks he is behaving at all courteously toward the prisoners who have been put under his charge, — as a matter of fact, courtesy is becoming more and more the rule in the Germans’ treatment of their captives, — whenever he can offer them decent quarters, say new barracks, and the use of up-to-date shower-baths, he never fails to ask,‘ Nun, sind wir Barbaren?’ Or if he does fail to ask the question, he looks it and invariably answers it to his satisfaction with a grin or a wink or some other outward sign of self-complacency. There is no denying it: the Germans have intensely resented the accusation of barbarity hurled at them from the very first by the Entente press, and a good many of the improvements introduced into the prisoners’ camps are traceable to this very simple piece of reasoning: ‘ Wait a minute. I am going to show you that I am not a barbarian, and I am going to be photographed in the act of not being a barbarian, and I will print thousands of these photos, collect them into albums, and send them to the neutrals, so that they shall see — and believe.’

Whether it would not have been better policy for the Germans to ignore that supreme reproach, forego all spirit of propaganda, and give their prisoners bathing accommodation, tenniscourts, reading-rooms, as a matter of course, en grand seigneur, without a word of explanation or self-commendation, I am no qualified judge to decide; but one thing I know: the German culture, whether deep or shallow, would have seemed deeper to me if the second way of proceeding had been unanimously adopted — if the German right hand had ignored what the left gave us, instead of frantically pointing to it.

III

My arrival in Coblenz was welcomed by me as the temporary end of all the hardships incidental to traveling in my state. Thirty-six hours of jolting had harassed me more than I can say, and I was yearning for a bed which would stand still. I found it in an asylum for old people built by the Brothers of Mercy (Barmherzige Brüder), and usually known in Coblenz as the Brotherhouse (Brüderhaus). It had been requisitioned by the military authority and converted into a military hospital. A few old pensioners, those who paid for board and residence, had been allowed to stay in one of the side wings. The brothers continued to be active in various capacities.

The building struck me as large and new, clean and hospitable. I was taken into the lift and up to the operating room, where a nice-looking young doctor in white overalls — I heard later that he was Unterarzt Zeisler — removed all my soiled bandages and dressed all my wounds — that is, almost my whole body from head to ankles. I was then taken to the bed assigned to me in the officers’ ward. That ward was a room of middling size, spacious and light, in which I found three French officers who were having supper and who hastened to make me welcome in my new quarters. They seemed to be as glad to receive a new companion as I was to be again thrown with fellow officers.

One of them, Captain Pouget, belonged to the second regiment of colonial infantry. He had lost one arm. Then there was First Lieutenant Dunois, a chasseur, who had lost a leg at the battle of the Yser. Second Lieutenant Gérard, who belonged to a Norman infantry regiment, had been less severely wounded, though his broken shin was yet far from being healed. He had been captured somewhere in Belgium on August 22, 1914.

They all assailed me with questions, which was but natural, for two of them had been prisoners five months, the third two months and a half, and neither had any idea of what trench-warfare was. So I had to tell them in a rush that, when I had left the front, a fortnight before, the morale of the French soldiers was unbroken. This seemed to surprise and delight them, for the Germans had told them time after time that the French were fighting more and more slackly, that they were sustaining enormous losses and that their exhaustion was complete. I told them how a trench was dug, and what a hand-grenade looked like. They were greatly amused at hearing that the German grenades, those in use in January, 1915, looked exactly like tins of bully-beef, and they teased me ever after for having allowed myself to be downed by a harmless hand-thrown tin. They held that bullets were far smarter, far cleaner.

Needless to say, we got on splendidly together, although we sometimes disagreed as to whether the windows were to be shut or open. I was for the windows wide-open, could never have enough air, while Captain Pouget, who had served for years in Tonkin and Madagascar, preferred heat and stuffiness to a breath of fresh air. The other two officers did not much care, and remained neutral. I mention this trifling fact because it is so characteristic of the average elderly Frenchman, whether he has served in the colonies or not: he has a prejudice against air. A draught will drive him mad. As to keeping his windows open at night, rather la mort sans phrase — death without a word. This is of course true of the older officers only; the younger generation, with its practice of sports and hygiene, is far more progressive.

As I spent five monotonous months in the Briiderhaus and had daily intercourse with the German brothers and doctors all the time, I had a large field for my observations. My knowledge of the German language helped me a good deal, as I was appealed to whenever a French or English wounded soldier and a German doctor did not understand each other.

The doctors were very good and able. The Chefarzt, Doctor Wehrli, a young mobilized surgeon of Aix-la-Chapelle, was a very bold advocate of the new methods in surgery, and saved a great many French lives through his skill and his coolness. Of course he was all for interesting cases, and slightly disregarded patients who could only boast of a broken leg or a Fleischwunde. (This last word he pronounced in a tone of unmitigated disdain.) Such wounds, even if purulent, which they almost all were, he left to themselves. They were hardly ever disinfected, peroxide being considered far too costly a drug. Light cases were dressed every few days by a brother ora Sanitäter, and many a time I have seen one of those extemporized medical assistants pick a sterilized gauze out of the covered glass case with unwashed hands, drop it accidentally on the floor, pick it up again, and spread it over a rankling wound.

Brother Albertinus, an ex-Uhlan of herculean build, who had left his spear for a rosary, nobody ever knew why, was particularly bad in this regard; but he was pardoned his unsound hygiene for the sake of his inexhaustible goodhumor. His hearty jokes and hailfellow-well-met trick of patting your shoulder to cheer you up made you forget his roughness and his over-martial manners. He was of course frightfully sorry that he could not ride with his brother Uhlans in the marshes of Mazuria and aim his lance at some Siberian Cossack with Wotan-like battle-joy.

The medical staff proper consisted of two more doctors with the rank of Unterarzt, one of whom, the blond Doctor Donhoff, was a very pleasant man and a gentleman born. I was not surprised to hear that he had served as an Einjähriger Freiwillige in a regiment of the Guard at Potsdam. The Guard regiments are the real elite of the German army. They are officered by men of tact and breeding, as was confirmed to me later by my brother-in-law, a cavalry officer in the Austrian army: he did not like the Germans before the war, nor does he like them much more after fighting and billeting with German officers for months, but he owned to me that he made an exception for the Guard officers, whom he considered quite decent fellows. Doctor Donhoff was fond of a chat, and used to discuss the news of the day with us in the afternoon without too much bias. Once he even did an unprecedented thing: when the Arras offensive of May, 1915, started, he was the first to announce to us that the French had taken Carcncy and captured several thousand prisoners. He did not try to belittle that success of the French arms. He seemed almost glad he could give us good news after the bad reports we had received from the Eastern war-theatre ever since the Germans and Austrians had broken the Russian front in Western Galicia. Let credit be given to humaneness whereever it may exist; Doctor Dönhoff was humane in the full meaning of the word.

IV

There was even more than humaneness, there was deep sympathy, almost motherly pity, in the two old German Red-Cross orderlies who waited on us — Friedrich and Otto. Friedrich was tall and stringy (we had nicknamed him Fil-de-Fer); Otto was short, fat, and awkward, but so good, so generous in his feelings, so tender in his way of looking at us, so prone to tears in spite of his white hair and his fifty-five years, that even we Frenchmen, who are supposed to have a knack of detecting the ridiculous and to detest sentimentality, especially in a German, never made fun of him. We simply could not. Every one of his tears was an offering of the heart. I do not remember having ever seen a man to whose sincerity and family virtues I would have sworn so willingly as to Otto’s. His round face, his way of toddling about in his palegray apron, his awkward way of sweeping under the beds — all carried absolute conviction.

The poor man had seen better days before the war. He had been a jeweler in Mannheim (Baden). As his shop was a branch of a Parisian firm, he had had to close down very early in the war, without other chance of earning a competency for his wife and five children than by offering his services to the state as a volunteer Red-Cross orderly. He was paid at the low rate of one mark and a few odd pfennigs a day, with board and lodging free. His wife got a ridiculously small allowance from the state for her husband, who was considered as a mobilized soldier, and an even smaller one (nine marks a month), for each of her children under sixteen. All that put together was utterly insufficient to feed the whole family. So the elder daughter, a seventeen-yearold girl, whose photograph Otto showed us several times, chose of her own accord to eke out the family income and reduce by one the number of mouths to be fed, by going into service as a maid. She was engaged by a Homburg porkbutcher’s wife, who told her she would have to look after her small children. As a matter of fact, as she had no training and no experience, she was made to wash the shop and do all kind of gross work the livelong day, in return for bad food, a garret-bed, five marks a month, and plenty of abusive words for her slackness in work. The brave girl never complained to her father, who accidentally heard of this maltreatment through a third person. He took immediate steps to get his daughter out of this hell.

Nor were these his only tribulations. He had a very weak heart and could not do much scrubbing in the wards and passages without taking a rest of a few minutes every now and then. Now, this was not at all to the taste of the brother in charge of the ward, Brother Primus, as antipathetic a type of monk as I have ever seen. I rather think he embodied most of the vices which Rabelais and all satirists before and after him deemed inherent in monachism. Hypocrisy led the cortege in him; spitefulness followed hand in hand with hardness of heart. Stupidity lay stamped on his whole face, particularly on his chin, which reminded us so strongly of a rabbit’s muzzle that we had nicknamed him ‘the ecclesiastical rabbit.’

Otto was his pet aversion. Otto could never please him, whatever he did. Granted that Otto knew how to set a diamond or tell a genuine from a false pearl, whereas a broomstick in his hand, plates to be washed, a floor to be painted with encaustic converted him into a helpless, clumsy creature; still, would it not. have been better to teach him how to do things, instead of bullying him because he had happened to break a piece of crockery worth five sous? I was often revolted at the cruelty with which Brother Primus used to humiliate him and affected to treat him like a born scullion, precisely because he knew that Otto was much above his present position. How many times I had to comfort the white-haired wretch! How many times did I try and persuade him that this war was only a passing crisis, that he would see better times again, that peace would close the family ring around him for good and all! Seldom have I seen a man more thankful than he was for the interest we took in his family circumstances.

I think he would have done everything for us. He used stealthily to bring me a cup of warm milk, because he had noticed that I did not care for the indifferent. coffee we were given morning and afternoon. It goes without saying that I never asked for that milk. On the contrary, I scolded him; I showed him that I could very well do without milk; but he remained deaf to all my remonstrances. He literally seemed to revel in his exultation at having overreached ‘den Primus,’ as he used to call the brother, with an inimitable expression of rancor.

As he had two afternoons off every week, he used to ask us whether he could not bring us something back from town, and looked never more pleased than when we gave him a long list of things we needed: tobacco, toothpaste, slippers, letter-paper and other articles of that description. After a while Brother Primus got wind of what was going on and forbade Otto to bring anything back to us from the city shops. The only effect of this prohibition was to make Otto conceal in his deep greatcoat pockets what he had hitherto carried half openly under his arm; and to procure him once more the ineffable delight of having taken in ‘den Primus.’ Primus, however, could not have been quite blind to these goings-on, for it was not long before Otto was transferred from our ‘station’ on the second floor to a station of German wounded one floor higher. Otto could not check his tears when he broke the news to us, but he offered to come down occasionally and see us, although, or because, he was not allowed to. The kindly creature was as good as his word, usually choosing the time when the brothers were attending the afternoon office in the chapel of the Brüderhaus.

But his visits grew necessarily fewer, for he was afraid of being spied upon and reported to the Brother Superior, whom Brother Primus had circumvented and to whom he had represented Otto as a lazy servant who was getting on indecently well with the French officers and soldiers. So I did not see much of him after the beginning of May. All we could do was to nod to each other when I was carried up to the operatingroom through a passage swept by Otto. I remember how he once grasped his broomstick with one hand at each end, without saying a word, and acted as if he were going to break it against his uplifted knee. He seemed to be quite beside himself with indignation at some new affront which he could not tell me. He deeply resented being assigned only rough work, although he had successfully gone through his first-aid examination and knew how to dress a wound properly. His certificate availed him nothing and the brothers never allowed him to look after a single invalid — out of sheer maliciousness, he said. He laid his many misfortunes to the fact that he was a Protestant.

The denouement of that duel was not long in coming. Otto and Friedrich were ordered to pack and make ready for the first of June. They were hardly left time enough to come to our room and say farewell. They told us they had been detailed to serve in the Ambulance service on the Russian front. That is all they knew as to the term of their journey. I have never heard of them since.

We were all greatly affected by their departure. I think the fatherland has been unfair to these two — to Otto in particular, whose white hair and heartdisease deserved to be taken into consideration, if anything did. Otto was manifestly unable to resist the strain of service in a field-hospital; even less was he able to act as a stretcher-bearer on the battle-field. I am afraid that the broken-down old jeweler of Mannheim is now having a longer rest than that which Brother Primus grudged him, somewhere out in Poland, in one of the extemporized graveyards annexed to every military hospital, large or small.

(To be continued)