Private Drouot and His Major

The young poet Paul Drouot, grandnephew of General Drouot, the first Napoleon’s faithful follower and friend in adversity, who was known by the sonorous title of ‘Sage of the Grande Armée,’ had published, before the outbreak of the war, two collections of poems — Le Chanson d ’Eliacin and La Grappe de Raisin — which lovers of letters will keep among their precious treasures. But he fell in battle, near Notre Dame dc Lorette in Artois, a soldier in the ranks, in June, 1915; and it is time now for us to broaden the conception we had formed of him. He has gone hence to the world of heroes, and it is right for us, by the aid of authentic documents, to tell the story of his moral nobility and of the high poetic sense in which he understood his duty, and to interpret the scenes amid which he died.

Although in poor health, really a sick man, Drouot was too proud to give heed to his ailments; he wished to prove himself, in his unadorned tunic, a worthy descendant of General Drouot, and a fit member of the battalion. He was enrolled in the light infantry, and — unmistakable sign of a warrior’s spirit — he ranked his battalion above all the rest. From time to time, when his heart overflowed with admiration for his comrades and his officers, he wrote to me. Shall I read you his last letter? I received it two or three days before the fatal missive which told me of his death. It is a beautiful letter, full of good sense. There you will see, sketched on his death-bed, — the slope of that conquered trench where he was struck down, — the countenance of a true leader of men, the noble countenance of Major Made! in, who fell in the assault on Lorette; and in looking at the portrait, you will learn to know the artist, Paul Drouot himself, who, but a few days later, was destined to sprinkle with his own blood the ground from which he had lifted his beloved commander.

The picture is like one of those old groups of the knight succored by his squire, scattered through the history of ancient France — all, in their various guises, eternally true and never losing the power to stir our hearts. Paul Drouot, poet and soldier, who bears his commander, covered with blood, through the rain of bullets and the network of barbed wire, who sits weeping beside the body while he writes to me in praise of his hero, and who is destined soon himself to fall, pierced to the heart by a fragment of shell — tell me — is not he the peer of Bayard’s loyal servitor? It is the simple truth, that never, in any age, has there been so vast a number of deeds after the high French fashion!

Hearken to the voice of our dead friend; and may he forgive me for telling his story before so numerous an audience. It is done for public reasons.

‘I am going to try to give you,’ writes Drouot, ‘ a straightforward and exact account of the last day and death of Major Madelin, the brother of our friend Louis Madelin, the historian.

‘ Perhaps you may have happened to meet him? He was a Lorrainer, from Bar-le-Duc. First of all, I will introduce him to you.

‘He was tall, — very tall,-with a personal charm which you felt the moment you came within the circle of his influence — and that circle was his whole battalion. A twinkling blue eye, a shrewd expression, an unaffected elegance of manner — and then his breeding! the breeding of the officer. In short, just from listening to him, and watching him welcome them, every fresh soldier in the reserves, who came up from the station, though he may never have laid eyes on the major before, made up his mind on the spot to go through fire and water for him.

‘How well he knew them, too! how he loved them! how he could return their salutes, talk to them, rebuke or encourage them, with a glance! A wonderful man to train men!

‘As battalion commander, he was a prodigy. I have had the honor of watching him writing his reports, preparing for an assault, looking through his files; everything was done with the ease of men of superior mould who make light of difficulties. How admirable a sight to see is the creative organizer, ever ready for emergencies, for undertaking new duties, or for modifying the old ones to meet present needs. He was the noblest example of a man made in his Maker’s image.

‘The soldiers knew him through and through. Major Madelin! You could tell it by the way they mentioned his name, or saluted him, or presented arms. I wish I might describe to you what the real type of French officer is; but you know it better than I. Yet this man, this hero, at once so winning and with such control over his men, and even over the changing phases of a battle—I knew him intimately in the heat of action, and in all the activities which, in men of noble nature, reveal the heart and mind at once. He had attained this mastery when very young, as he died at thirty-six.

‘As you know, he had admitted me to his intimacy—that is to say, I had been one of his secretaries for more than three months. He had offered me the position out of great consideration, for he had learned that my poor health would not admit of my performing regular company duty. Being of his ‘ household ’ I was able to avoid many ‘fatigues’; I was always sure of finding a warm shelter, so as to take more or less care of myself; in fact, it enabled me to '' carry on.’ And this was the footing on which I stood with him: a friendly word from time to time, a moment’s conversation, and an abiding impression that, although he never told me so, he was a friend who kept a somewhat closer watch upon me than upon the other men in his battalion.

‘Twice already the battalion had gone into the trenches with orders to attack which set him all a-quiver with impatience for victory. Twice the orders were countermanded; there were signs of irritation — muttering on the part of the men, watchful exclamations from the officers. Were they making sport of the infantry?

‘The third day came. The mines were ready for the match, the dispositions for the assault minutely made. About four o’clock the artillery preparation began. We breathed again. This time the attack would surely come — only half an hour, only quarter of an hour more.

‘The Boches, on their side, were bombarding us violently. The major, who had been absolutely calm all day, apparently paying little heed to the thoughts of the passing moment but with his mind intent upon the impending attack, and confident of the event, started at last for the first line. Some artillery officers and I remained at his station in the second line, where we could watch the whole development of the assault. The hour struck. Through the dense, black smoke of the bursting shells which divided us from the first line, we perceived a thick yellowish vapor which rose slowly; the general uproar was so great that the explosion of the mine seemed almost noiseless. On the instant, the infantry darted forward. All we could see was a very narrow line of trench, from which men and more men, without end, came rushing.

Standing on the edge of a trench, with uplifted cane, waving his arms to arouse his men, an officer was silhouetted against the clouds of smoke — it was the major. For ten full minutes he stood there; we did not know whether he was applauding or encouraging his troops. Neither the artillerymen nor myself could take our eyes from that immovable figure. Nobody paid any heed to the bombardment; everybody was weeping, so sublime was the sight.

‘At last the major returned. It was necessary to telephone to the general. His voice rang out, louder than usual and more distinct. The mere sound electrified you. “ Ah! ” he cried, “ what men they are! what men! even the bugler who sounded the charge!” Then came the scene at the telephone; the distant congratulations of the brigade commander.

' But already the major was on fire to get back to the first line.

‘ One of his captains had had to prevent him from going as far as the white work, the original objective, past which the attack had now swept. His second in command was about to follow him, he, too, overflowing with feverish eagerness and joy. “No,” he said with a smile, “this time I am going to take Drouot along; he said he would like to go.”

’We started — he and I and a young artillery orderly full of snap. We walked with long strides, difficult as it was to reach the first line of trenches when the passage was blocked with prisoners, wounded, and fatigue parties. The major tossed a remark or a question to the soldiers filing past us toward the rear, but, in his haste to see what the state of affairs was, he did not stop for an answer.

In a moment we were in a position to watch in amazement the wonderful spectacle, at close quarters: another company emerged from the trench and rushed forward to attack. We could make out the holes in the enemy trenches, which had been knocked to pieces by the explosion, and the outline of the craters it had dug. Wounded men, who had fallen near by, were trying to crawl back to our lines. “Stay quietly where you are!” shouted the major, stepping out from cover, “it’s too dangerous crossing the ground between.”

‘ Meanwhile, as we hurried along the shell-wrecked trench and leaped over the piles of earth that blocked it, we raised our heads above the parapet to cast a glance at the terrain and the horizon narrowed by the smoke of the bursting shells. Suddenly the major stopped to make a more extended scrutiny of the approaches to one of the exploded tunnels. Then he went over the parapet. I started to do likewise; but he turned and said, “I explicitly forbid you to follow me! ” He ran as far as the salient formed by the land-slide at the other end of the 150 metres of open trench, and there lay flat on the edge, his head just above the crest of the depression. Evidently he proposed to inspect for himself the construction of the works we had taken. It had all been so sudden, so splendid, that my comrades about me were all a-tremble with excitement.

’I was looking in vain in my knapsack for my lost field-glasses, in order to get a better view, when the young artilleryman exclaimed, —

‘ “Why, look! I should say that your major is n’t moving!”

‘The idea that anything could have happened to him seemed to me so absurd that I replied, —

‘“He’s just watching; he is n’t going to amuse himself by getting shot.”

‘“See, now he is moving,” he added. He saw plainly what I had difficulty in comprehending. “But he’s moving in a queer way; let’s go over there.”

‘We rushed out to the tunnel. The artilleryman, getting there first, turned the major over on his side.

‘His lips were covered with blood. He recognized me.

‘“You must notify the general instantly.”

‘Those were his first words. Then he took some coffee that I offered him and tried to drink it. An infantryman had joined us, having seen from a distance what had happened. Together we carried him, as best we could, setting him down to recover our breath, hampered by the wire entanglements, being in great haste to get him under shelter, to take’him down info the trench. ‘“Take care,” he said to us as we put him down on the ground; “ look out for yourselves.”

‘We answered I don’t know what: much it mattered about us! At last he was in safety. I hurried back to headquarters, as he had ordered, to fetch the surgeon.

‘Meanwhile my comrades who had remained with him unclasped his tunic and laid bare the little wound in the neck, which was bleeding hardly at all, but of which he was to die. He spoke from time to time, inquired about the progress of the attack, and seemed again to come to life when they told him that everything was going well, that the Boches did not counter-attack, that they must have retreated a long way to their lines, that there was, all in all, great —

‘The surgeon arrived. There was nothing to be done there; he must be removed as soon as possible from the trench, about which the mar mites were raining down, and taken to the cantonment. The surgeon poured a little mentholized alcohol on a lump of sugar and put it between his teeth; but the muscular contraction which followed was so painful to the wounded man that he tried to reject the sugar. Then he said, becoming more conscious of the suffering which, perhaps, his prostration had somewhat deadened, —

‘“I am happy to suffer for France!”

‘He bade the surgeon to see to it that we were rewarded, — we who had brought him in, —and to give his regards — perhaps his adieux, for I am not sure whether he realized that he was gone — to the officers of his battalion.

‘ I had had to go away to carry out his orders. I returned to his side and was able to say a few more words to him: that I had written to Madame Madelin that he was slightly wounded. He thanked me and entrusted his saddlebag to me, bidding me be careful of it, He thought of everything, of everybody, save himself. During the long and difficult journey back to the cantonment, though he did not speak, tears flowed constantly between his closed eyelids. I cannot say why it seemed to me that he was then consummating his sacrifice.

‘Five children and a wife whom he adored, the prospect of a dazzling future, all the charms of intellect, all the joys —

‘He died as we reached the poste de secours. We buried him in one of the cemeteries where they make breaches in the wall to extend them into the adjoining fields.

‘ Speak of him, my dear master. He is of those who are most worthy to be praised by your voice, which will carry so far into the future, and which will consecrate the memory of those unspotted names which we wish coming generations to love as we love them — forever and passionately.

‘I am writing incoherently; I know it better than any one; but that must be borne in addition to all the rest.

‘I have talked about the major and not enough about the battalion. How provoked he would have been with me for that! Ah! if you knew what an admirable battalion it was, what officers — and all that we owe them! But these accounts are of those which are not meant for earthly settlement; which can never be settled for a goodly number of those ardent and devoted young hearts. How many things I could tell you which do not seem incredible to us, because we know our leaders and our comrades, but which are, in reality, incredible, miraculous — yet utterly simple.’

Could anything be nobler and more vigorous than this outpouring of a soldier — of a battalion, rather — to the glory of its commander! In these admirable pages we perceive that it is from the leader that the whole corps derives its powers, in the strenuous and painful hours, and that it retains a sentiment of infinite gratitude to him who sustains and leads it. When he wrote to me this narrative, which shall not die, PaulDrouot knew not that I should read it at his grave, and that he himself, loyal soldier that he was, would go to his rest in the winding-sheet which he had prepared for his commander.

However great his talent, the poet could never have invented, never have conceived a situation so exalted and so moving as that in which he was an actor during those hours of enthusiasm, of valor, of friendship, and of sacrifice! Ah! how holy is the door through which our young friends are escaping!