At the Enemy's Mercy. Ii
MY review of the hospital staff would not be complete if I did not mention two more personages, one of whom we reverenced as much as we detested the other — the old brother-gardener and the very old censor.
The brother-gardener was a Luxemburger who had a thorough command of French and was very fond of speaking it with the French officers. He used to come to our room of an afternoon, chat with us about the war (he was rather pro-German in his views), pull half a dozen apples out of his deep pocket and give them to us with a frank smile. Sometimes, instead of apples, he brought us cigars. He was one of the few who seemed to realize that captivity weighed upon us even though we had no cause to complain from the material point of view. He was not of the sort who asked us bluntly, ‘What do you complain about? You ought to feel very happy, for you have more comfort than you deserve to have.’ He used to inquire whether we had any news from home, and end with the consolation that if we were captives of the Germans, he was a slave to his salads, one thing being about as bad as the other. He would then go out, smiling as he came, after shaking hands with the four of us; and a few minutes later those of us who could walk to the window would see him in the garden, bent double over his salads in an attitude of humility.
As to Walther, the old censor, I hate him to this day. I hate him for his fourscore years of villainy, for his outrageous Prussian accent, for his meanlooking face, for his spy-like manners, for the disgraceful rudeness with which he mentioned, and made fun of, things entirely personal, written to us in the letters which had passed through his hands. I hate him for willfully keeping our out-going mail for weeks in his office drawer and driving our wives or parents into the worst imaginable frights through lack of news from us. Such cruelty is all the more unpardonable because we were allowed to write only one card a week and one letter a fortnight. I hate him for showing our mail to the German doctors of the hospital and commenting boisterously on it, as was reported to me by a German Red Cross orderly. I hate him for the impertinent, challenging way he had of smoking his cigar. I hate him. That’s all.
The old brute was one of those impecunious Prussians who had swooped down on Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, and never quite recovered from the champagne they drank there. He had stayed over forty years in Metz as a policeinspector, and I shudder when I think of all the evil he surely contrived to do during that long term of years, of all the Lorrainers he imprisoned or fined for remaining loyal to France in their feelings. How much of a spy’s soul he had, a small incident may illustrate.
In the latter days of my stay in Coblenz, when I could already walk a bit with the help of my two sticks, I was sitting on a bench in the garden, when old Walther suddenly appeared before me, and started to ask a lot of indiscreet questions in a manner most mysterious to me. I was very careful in my answers, but heard only later how right I had been. My parents had apparently been frightened by the protracted lack of any news from me; so it occurred to my father to write through Switzerland to an old friend of his who was a professor at a SouthGerman university, and beg him to inquire about my health and whereabouts, in case I had been moved somewhere else. Now that friend had had the imprudence to mention that my father was an Alsatian, educated in Alsace after the annexation.
Old Walther immediately smelt a rat, thought I might be a German deserter, or a German deserter’s son, or, in default of all that, that he might get a hold of some kind over me. That is why he kept asking me questions for a quarter of an hour about my father’s age, the exact year when he had left Alsace, where I was born, whether I had myself stayed in Alsace before the Great War, and so forth, and so forth.
Most of these questions I could evade; I answered others with one ‘I don’t know’ after another. Walther finally declared in high dudgeon that I was ‘precious little interested in my father’s affairs.’ He did not even take the trouble to inquire about my health, as he had been asked to do, but announced his intention of answering my father’s friend to the effect that I was in remarkable condition, could not ask for a more up-to-date hospital, was on the whole better looked after than I would have been in France, and that it was mean of my people to dare be anxious about a prisoner tended by a ‘grossmütige Nation’ like Germany.
Nor was I the only one who had to complain of him. Many of the French privates wished they could meet him ‘ at the corner of a wood ’ after the war, so that they might have a chance of thrashing him ’like green rye.’
Those were the Germans with whom I came into closest contact during my sojourn at the Brüderhaus. We did not see any people from the town, for we were not allowed to receive visitors. I remember how indignant I was when I heard once that a lady, the daughter of a German general and an old friend of my family, had tried to call on me a few days before, and had not even received permission to come up and see me in my ward, were it only for a few minutes. The only visit I ever received was that of a Protestant clergyman, the Reverend C―n, who asked to see me on hearing that I was a Protestant. He said that he was a French Swiss, but I heard later on that he was a naturalized German and a fanatic PanGermanist; one of that breed of Zürich clergymen to whom Germany is more God than God himself.
On the whole it can be said that we four or five officers made up all our mutual society. We differed greatly in our mental training, habits of thought, and views on life. Captain Pouget had spent most of his career in Tonkin and Madagascar. First Lieutenant Bélin, who also belonged to the regular army, came from a battalion stationed in Eastern Morocco. He had been caught in the whirl of war while he was enjoying a well-deserved month’s leave in Angers, after two years’ guerilla warfare on the Algerian border. He was quite enthusiastic about the sort of life he used to lead in the desert. He did plenty of ‘ strafing ’ there, but strictly limited the favor of his visits, he said, to rebel parties or ‘harkas’ which had stolen the sheep of tribes reconciled to the French rule.
The Lieutenant of Chasseurs Dunois came from the rank and file and had been a sergeant-major a long time before he was given a second lieutenant’s commission on merit. Dunois was a tiny man with dark hair, a dark complexion, dark brown eyes, a dark bushy moustache, and the dark pointed beard worn by all chasseurs who have a sense for tradition. He was extraordinarily lively in his manners. Brother Albertinus was particularly fond of him, although they could not understand each other, for he thought Dunois ‘such a typical Frenchman.’ Dunois used to tell us a lot about his family: his wife and two children were waiting for him in a little village near Beauvais, after being driven out of Amiens, not through fear of the Zeppelin and Taube bombs, but by the threats and injunctions of the head of the family; for Dunois had read in the papers that Amiens had been repeatedly bombarded and he dreaded the proximity of his home to the city gas-works, such a tempting aim for Zeppelin bombardiers! That valiant officer had had his knee-cap shattered to bits by a German bullet on November 11, 1914, but was amputated only on December 19, after the Chefarzt had decided that another day’s delay would destroy whatever life remained in him. Dunois suffered physically more than any, but I never heard him complaining.
Second Lieutenant Gérard was a reserve officer like myself. He was engaged, when the war broke out, in the very peaceful occupation of collecting flower-, vegetable-, and corn-seeds in all parts of France, with a view to reselling them to the peasant population around Le Mans.
In spite of all these differences in our ages, tempers, and professions, we got on remarkably well together. I had myself dropped all my hyper-intellectual propensities — why not say pedantries? — and we could chat together for hours, keeping up one another’s spirits. Our chief topics were — war, of course, war and peace, the ‘afterwar’ (which does not mean ‘the war after this,’ since we inclined to think, all of us, that men were not going to relapse into madness so very soon after the present appalling experience), or else, descriptions of the French sites which we preferred, traveling impressions, arguments about the qualities and faults of the English (I had sometimes to defend them), comparisons between the French and the German soldier and so forth.
The one ever-recurring topic of conversation among us prisoners was, of course, war. Our views on the subject were certainly not brilliant (for they usually turned wrong, when we tried to prognosticate the future), or paradoxical either. The most pessimistic of us were pretty confident that 1916 would bring crushing victories to the Allies; but our optimism was nevertheless not of the blatant sort. We did know that the Germans were formidably strong, because we saw every day the confirmation of our inmost fears. The Brüderhaus was very near the Union Station, so that we could watch from our windows all the train-traffic of the Moselle Valley, and of the main line Aix-laChapelle-Strasburg which runs north and south on the left bank of the Rhine. This traffic was simply appalling. Military train after military train used to file off slowly under our very windows with desperate regularity. Now it was a trainful of brand-new ammunition caissons painted a light green, which had probably left the Krupp works the day before; now a battery of fieldartillery, with its guns, its Gulaschkanonen, or field-kitchens, its horses and soldiers — these latter cheering, waving handkerchiefs, and shouting for all they were worth from the carriage-windows. Then again a train of some thirty trucks, each with its ambulance motor-car flashing its big red cross at us.
The railway traffic was specially intense and demoralizing for us throughout the month of April, 1915. We knew only later that all that war-material streaming day and night under our windows was part and parcel of the big spring offensive of Field-Marshal Mackensen in Galicia. But at the moment we were aware only that a big action was being planned somewhere by the Germans, without being able to say whether on the Eastern or on the Western front, for the orientation of the railway tracks (north and south) did not point to the one destination more than to the other.
It was, if possible, even more painful for Frenchmen to see every day trainload after trainload of French iron ore working its way toward the industrial district of Westphalia. That ore came direct from the Briey and Longwy mines, which had been conquered by the Germans as early as 1914, and which they were now working at full pressure, with the help of Russian prisoners, to provide all their arsenals with the necessary quantities of iron and steel. We knew that Germany would have been short of iron ore if she were not in possession of the French lodes; and we stood there powerless, motionless, sometimes with tears in our eyes, while the riches of France were migrating eastward, to be turned into guns and shells which would kill the sons of France.
This sight was almost worse than a bad communiqué; it was defeat made visible to the eye, defeat made audible to the ear, defeat hammering at our very hearts. Our grief was so keen that we did not even resent the jubilant grins which were noticeable on the faces of the wounded German soldiers who rushed to the corridor-windows in order to see the ore-trains pass. Our emotion was only a little less deep when we saw the same trains rolling back from the Rhine and Ruhr districts with their freight of coke, evidently destined to feed the blastfurnaces of French Lorraine.
All this made up a sum of daily moral sufferings which were infinitely worse than whatever physical twinges of pain we might feel in our beds or on the operating table. We were one in our smarting sorrow, in our hopes and wishes. Never have I more clearly realized that French I was and French I would remain, although I had spent more years abroad than at home.
Our morale, in spite of all these ordeals, could not be said to have ever been actually or consistently low. We did have moments of self-forgetfulness, moments when we were far from the present and lived only in our books and past days of happiness. A new wave of optimism and hope swept us into almost immoderately high spirits when we received another companion in the person of an English captain of the Indian army, Captain Ayres, of the Third Gurkha Rifles. He had had his ankle shattered by a bullet. We did not think he would ever recover the use of his foot. Incredible though it seems, he can now take hour-long trips on foot in the neighborhood of the Swiss place in which he is at present interned. He was a tall man, under forty, who had been trained at Sandhurst and spent most of his career out in India, playing polo, shooting ducks, and accumulating inexhaustible reserves of fun and humor. He used to tell us all sorts of interesting things about the great Coronation Durbar, about the way ‘our little King,’ as he liked to refer to King George, had behaved at Delhi; about the grand time which Tommies have in India, and the little work they have to do; about manœuvres in the Ganges plain; about the fabulous sums of gold which lay concealed in the Hindoo slums, and about German spies working hard to get information out of young subalterns at Indian headquarters, years before the world-war started.
But his humor was tickled most when he meditated on the infinite labor which it had cost him to reach Europe with the Indian Expeditionary Force; on the many thousand miles he had had to travel; on the many weeks he had spent on the way — and all that for the sake of fetching a German bullet near Neuve-Chapelle within the first minute and a half of his presence on the fighting line. Was it really worth while, he would ask, to give himself so much trouble, only that he might answer after the war, — should anybody ask him whether pars fuit, — ‘Yes. But war did not last very long for me, just a minute and a half, by my watch.’
His confidence in the victory of the Allies was an article of faith with him, and he received the news of the crushing defeats of the Russians in May and June, 1915, with perfect equanimity. He used to make fun of the Germans with so much naturalness that they hardly ever noticed it and rather liked him for his pleasant manners and his smiling gentlemanliness.
My French fellow officers, — with the exception of the captain in the colonial army — had never met an English colleague before and were on the whole very favorably impressed, although they inclined to think there was a good deal of ‘snobbishness’ in his love of open windows and in his horrible partiality for a draught on waking in the morning. I was charged with low apery for siding with the capitaine anglais in that manœuvre of his. But with this one trifling reservation, my French friends were on the very best of terms with Captain Ayres, while he himself paid homage to their military spirit, enlightened patriotism, and good-natured simplicity.
What with reading and chatting, days did not seem to us so dreadfully monotonous as an active and healthy man might imagine. As long as there was no getting out of bed during the daytime and no sleeping at night, I confess that I often inclined to think with the poor sleepless poilu on his hospital bed that ‘Le temps, c’est un Boche’ (translate: Time is my worst enemy). But when we all started more or less to hobble along with the help of crutches or sticks, the days seemed much shorter. We got up none too early in the morning, after a breakfast which was good till the famous decree of February 15, 1915 spelled death to the excellent Brödchen which we were given the first weeks, and milk as well as butter gradually disappeared from the tray.
Our wounds were, most of the time, dressed in the morning about ten, and in the morning, too, we were allowed to go to the ‘Medicum’ (a room for mechanotherapy), where we tried to improve our ankylosed articulations. We received our mail later in the morning. It was brought up to us by a very polite Feldwebel, every envelope bearing the stamp or signature of that horrid Walther, as a proof that it had been conscientiously read by him and found to contain no offence to the Fatherland, or any statement which might lead us to think that the Allies were not irretrievably lost, according to the German official doctrine. Of course the censor could be baffled in many ways. I do not think he was a dupe when a private’s wife wrote to her husband that ‘grand’maman Françoise’ (read: France) had a cancer (read: German invasion), but hoped to be soon and successfully operated on (read: great offensive); that said husband had no business to worry overmuch about her, for she had quite an extraordinary constitution, etc., etc. But he no doubt was taken in when the letters were written by more inventive persons on the code or sympathetic-ink system.
It is hardly worth while saying how delighted we were when we got letters from our wives or children; how every morning led up to the minute when we got our mail; and how crestfallen we were when there was nothing for us.
We had lunch at twelve, in our room. The food was good and abundant, although it was bound to follow the descending curve of the German reserves in food-supply.
The afternoon was mostly spent in reading, writing, or playing — chess and cards being the pet avocations of my companions. From two to three we were allowed to go to the garden, which consisted of a few grass-plots and a few shaded alleys. It was a funny sight to look at — our group of invalids dressed in our hospital suits of linen cloth, chatting and smoking merrily, basking in the sun when there was any, or limping around the grass-plots, under the watchful eye of our sentries. Those who had been brought to the garden in their bath-chairs were, if anything, more cheerful than the others.
I shall always remember a certain afternoon when Captain Ayres, after trying to work his three-wheeled ‘pram’ alone, by pushing with his hands on the spokes of the two sidewheels, was inspired to stand one of his crutches between his feet and his extended right hand, fasten his light blanket to the top of the crutch, sailfashion (it was a very cold, windy day), spread out the lateen-sail thus obtained with his left arm, and sail off, bathchair and all, noisily cheered by the whole crowd of us, and, if I remember well, by a few street-urchins who had climbed up the wall for the occasion. More often than not he ran himself into the trees or the grass-plots, for his front-wheel was waggling desperately to right or to left; but he found willing hands to shove him back into the right path, and, after a while, a new gust of wind drove him a few yards ahead, till the same accident once more prematurely shortened his tack. Everybody roared so much that the German doctors and Brother Albertinus came out on the balcony and joined in the general laughter and cheering.
We had bread and butter and coffee and milk again after the promenade, and nothing more happened before supper and the evening communiqué. We found the latter printed in the Coblenzer Zeitung, a small four-page evening paper. It was great excitement to hear the latest news, which I translated into French or English to a breathless audience when my eyes allowed me to read. We often admitted a soldier or two, who reported the ‘official news’ to the other poilus. I thought it an advisable thing to do, because the Germans were constantly sowing the seeds of demoralization among the privates, who could not read the German papers and were perforce influenced by the fantastic stories circulated in broken French by the Feldgrauen. The Coblenzer Zeitung also published, following the German communiqué, the afternoon and evening Paris communiqués, which were of course in greater demand among us, although they always joined on one full day later than the Berlin reports.
The evenings did not seem too long to us, for we had at the end so far recovered the use of our limbs that we could move about in the passages. Somehow we had never exhausted our conversation-topics. I thought at first that this sociability and talkativeness were a characteristic of the French, but I found out later that the Russians and English were just as bad in that regard as we were.
We had to put out lights at 10 p.m. Discipline was not over-strict on the whole, although in the corridors there was quite a superfluous display of sentries with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets. They were relieved every two hours, and the clicking noise of the five rounds of ammunition extracted from one man’s Mauser and introduced into the other man’s, was supremely unpleasant at 1 or 3 A.M. to the ears of a sleepless patient. Even the measured tread of the sentries with their heavy nailed boots did not jar so much on my nerves as this clicking of their Mausers. I think the Germans wanted to remind their wounded prisoners that they were prisoners before all, and not simply unlucky wounded fellow creatures. What could be the object of these many sentries? It was hopeless for us to try to escape. Most of us could not walk properly, the house-doors on the garden were locked at night, and so were the street-doors; besides, we had only our hospital suits, all our other articles of clothing being stacked in the garret, the key of which lay safe in the Feldwebel’s pocket. I must add that very few of us knew German, whereas a thorough knowledge of German is the primary condition for any serious plan of flight. Germany is, I think, the only power which sports loaded rifles in hospital wards, hundreds of miles behind the front. In that regard, as in all others, the Austrians are much more humane in their treatment of their prisoners.
Most of the sentries were, a little to our surprise, decent and discreet. Some were brutes. It was of course forbidden to smoke in the wards. Now one or two of our jailers found no better way of exasperating us than opening our door every five or ten minutes, and peeping in — head, peaked helmet, bayonet and all — to see if any one was smoking. One even sniffed noisily, that his nose might confirm to him that there was no smell of burned tobacco in the room. He would then slam the door to, and the same noisy process started again from the beginning a few minutes later. Exasperating is far too weak a word, I am afraid, for such provocations. We would have liked to kill the creature, but what could we do? We were only prisoners, human beings meant to be periodically humiliated and bullied. We complained to the Brother Superior and to the doctors, but nothing was changed, and it always lay in the power of any particularly ‘vache’ sentry (‘vache’ is a slang superlative for ‘objectionable’) to make us literally wish that either he or we were under three feet of earth, so enraged we sometimes were.
Those days spent in a German hospital go back almost two years, but they stand as vivid in my memory as if I were even now in the Brüderhaus at Coblenz. My diary was taken from me by the Germans, but I have forgotten nothing of the daily happenings and routine of my hospital life. These jottings are only a faithful record of what was. My story is not a thrilling one. I have not reported a single case of German atrocity, because I have not seen any myself. I have been told most horrible things by English and French prisoners taken in the first two months of the war, as to the treatment which they received at the hands of the Germans. I am persuaded that what they told me was absolute truth, but I think that no one but an actual witness should take upon himself to denounce the Germans. The charges against Germany are so great, so awful, that no one should come forward with a second-hand tale of horror.
I will say only by way of conclusion what every officer now imprisoned in Germany would say with me: the Germans’ treatment of wounded enemies has grown more and more humane in proportion as the war lasted longer. Officers taken in 1914 had, I know, much to suffer at the hands of the Germans, and many have actually seen things which pass imagination. After three months’ war, such cases were quite exceptional. French prisoners picked up on the battlefield in the course of the Champagne offensive of September, 1915, or during the German advance toward Verdun in 1916, are unanimous in their praise of the Germans’ correctness and even courtesy. Fancy Frenchmen praising the Boches for their courtesy! The latter must indeed have been unspeakably correct and courteous to have wrung such a compliment from their French prisoners. It always delighted me to hear these frank statements of my fellowcountrymen, for they proved to me that the French are not so blinded by their hate that they cannot be fair to their chief, their only enemy.
- The first part of Lieutenant F. S.’s narrative appeared in the April Atlantic. — THE EDITORS.↩