The Death of Charles Péguy



NOT long ago I described for American readers, for our friends and Allies, the Americans, the sentiments which inspire the young men of Franee to lay down their lives for their country; and now, still relying upon the testimony of authentic documents, I would show what manner of men are the leaders of these young soldiers, when they too are face to face with death. Our petty officers and our officers of rank, high or low, what are they in the heat of battle?

Before all else, the French officer is an exhaustless storehouse of energy, the moral storehouse of his men. Thus it is in war, and thus it is in civil life. The man who carries within him and about him the spirit of order and enthusiasm, he, and he alone, is the true leader of men.

But let us put aside all theories as to these men, for I can show you, I think, the souls within them. On December 12, 1914, I received a letter from Victor Boudon, a private in the 276th Regiment of Infantry. He had been wounded in the battle of the Ourcq, one of the momentous series of victories which made up the Battle of the Marne, the battle before Paris. This sterling fellow wrote, ‘ I had the honor to fight side by side with Charles Péguy, and under his command. He was killed September 5, at Villeroy, by my side, when we were marching to the assault of the German positions.'

There is the vital point — the point which gives just emphasis to the whole accomplishment of that noble life. Charles Péguy was one of the patriotic young writers who, having taken upon himself the task of purifying the French soul, and of arousing it to intense activity, was ever occupied with studying and holding up to admiration the great heroes of our race — Joan of Arc, for example. His entire life was one long advance to the assault of German positions; for every day that he lived Péguy realized more fully that the soil of France had long been cumbered by Germanic ideas — anomalous, sterile, and menacing. All that we have left us of his literary work denounces, attacks, and repels the spiritual invasion of our University by Germany. And he dies, sword in hand, at the head of the Soldiers of Deliverance, marching to the assault of German positions. The poem is made perfect.

From his hospital, my correspondent continues his letter: ‘I have written a brief narrative of his glorious death, which is wholly devoid of literary pretension. If you think it well to publish it, I shall be happy thus to pay my final homage to the memory of that gallant officer who was a true friend to all of us.’

Certainly I shall publish this record. It can never again be dissociated from those books of his which are among our permanent possessions. It forms their complement, and illuminates every line he ever wrote. The Péguy of the retreat to the Marne, of whom Boudon tells us, is the Peguy of our children’s children forever. Let us listen to this worthy witness, the partner of his glory.

’On August 4, 1914, the platform of the railway station of Bel-Air-Raccordement is thronged by a crowd of more than three thousand mobilized troops, all on their way to join the 276th Reserve Regiment of Infantry at Coulommiers. Along the railway embankment overlooking the near-by streets, which are black with people, the train which is to take us pulls in slowly. Cheers and farewells come from the crowd, handkerchiefs flutter in the breeze. It is four o’clock. In a few seconds our train, from the first car to the last, is decorated with flowers, festooned with flags, covered with caricatures of the Boches, and bears in huge chalk letters the inscription, “Pleasure train for Berlin. Vive la France !” while a superb sheaf of flags flutters on the front of the locomotive.

‘On the platform many friends and acquaintances met and formed little groups. An officer of the 276th, in full uniform, of a sober military bearing, yet smiling shrewdly and discreetly behind the eye-glasses which embellish a face still youthful, framed by a light beard, overlooks the entrainment with a paternal expression, and, at the same time, prepares to board the train with us. It is Charles Péguy, Lieutenant of Territorials, assigned, at his own request, to a reserve regiment.

‘But, amid all the confusion, a little touch of discipline is necessary; a few heads are turned by the excitement of leave-taking and by copious libations. . . . One obstinate recruit is determined to take his fair companion with him; a railway official rebukes him rather sharply, and it begins to look like trouble, when Lieutenant Péguy interposes: “Come, old chap, come with

me; this is no time to fight; keep that for the Bodies!” And the man follows him, docile as a lamb, declaring that “for a lieutenant, he is the right sort.” ’

Soon the train, crowded to overflowing with all this exuberant youth, pulls out of the station.

At nine in the evening they arrive at Colommiers. The people stand in line along the sidewalks. A deafening shout, ‘Vive la France!’ echoes to the skies, while some one strikes up the fierce strains of the Chant du Départ:

‘Frenchmen must live for her;
For her all French must die.’

All the troops, stern-faced, file past in the fading light, behind a large unfurled flag. ’And,’ says Victor Boudon, ‘Lieutenant Péguy, carried away like the rest by the general emotion, follows the procession — keeping step like the common soldiers that we are.’

The following days are occupied by making ready for departure. Péguy superintends, with a friendly air, the equipment of the two hundred and fifty men of his company. He is everywhere at once, always ready, first at roll-call, running hither and thither, working hard, like a schoolmaster watching over his pupils. And his nickname sticks to him at once. To all of them he is the ‘Schoolmaster,’ the ‘Usher.’ He would smile as he passed along the ranks, whenever this name, always spoken in free and sympathetic friendliness, caught his ear—smile with a roguish look which seemed to say, ‘Enjoy your little joke, my boys; you’ll soon see your “Usher” at work!’

Meanwhile, in the pouring rain, the regiment goes through its training. The bayonet-charge, at the end of every drill, is Péguy’s great delight. The little rascal fairly exults in these charges, in which his pugnacious, characteristically French temperament manifests itself. You ought to have heard him, after the company had deployed as skirmishers, shout in a loud, ringing voice, ‘Ready! fix bayonets!’ then rush forward, waving his sword, crying, ‘Forward! Charge!’ The charge over, and the imaginary foe repulsed, he would replace his sword in the scabbard with a look of pride and a sigh of satisfaction which made us all smile.

At the outset Péguy obtained the confidence of his men, and of this the happy effects were speedily apparent. On August 27, in the streets of St. Mihiel, a soldier buys a newspaper and reads of the evacuation of Alsace, the withdrawal from Lorraine, the battle of Charleroi, and the invasion of France. The men are horror-stricken. ‘You see,’ says Péguy, as he glanced over the paper, ‘there has been an unfortunate wavering, that is certain. We don’t know yet what caused it. But our lines don’t seem to have been broken, and that’s the main thing. And then, I have absolute confidence in the Staff.’

That is the tone to which he held all through the retreat. It is by such natures as his that things are set to rights.

We cannot accompany Péguy through all the stages of his glorious career, but let us glance at him in the heat of battle, beside his fellow officers, in the midst of his soldiers — all valiant, eager — one and all his peers.

‘ The colonel assembles his officers and distributes maps of the district, while the boxes of cartridges are taken from the company wagons and distributed. Our artillery begins its infernal concert. We set out, in column of fours, through the beet-fields, where the walking is slippery and difficult; at this moment the dense mist is scattered, as if by the magical effect of the cannonade; and then, while the fusillade begins anew and our machine-guns crackle, we catch a glimpse, in the still misty distance, of the gray masses of Prussian infantry, in which our “seventy-fives” do terrible execution. Their sonorous gong-like reports reply to the duller hammering of the German batteries, and the melinite ploughs its bloody furrows through the lines of the barbarians, who pour from the woods as from an ant-hill. . . . “The more we kill, the more come out,” mutters an officer. Peguy is exultant; he has pulled his képi over his eyes, which shine with a fierce gleam; he marches beside us as if we were on parade. “Close up, order in the ranks there!” and in a moment, “Ready for the charge!”

‘But we are in a position which the German fire is beginning to render untenable; the shells skim over our heads with a wicked purring sound, and burst a few yards in our rear. Instinctively every head is bent at each premonitory whistle. “Don’t be afraid,” says Péguy with a laugh; “it makes a noise, but it does n’t kill.” To cap the climax a German air-plane appears above us; it has pointed out our location, which, a few seconds later, is liberally showered with shells; there is a genuine cloud-burst of them. We have to leave the spot, and, by fours, march swiftly along the road which brings us, fifteen hundred metres farther on, behind Marquivilliers. The officers issue orders with admirable calmness; Lieutenant de la Cornillère, switch in hand, is standing with Lieutenant Péguy amid the shells which plough up the road, roll along the ground in a furrow of green smoke, and burst all about us with a crash of thunder. We have “caught the squall,” and at every fresh arrival of great chunks of steel, we do a rapid “flat on your faces,” and draw our knapsacks over our heads. Our officers alone, with the colonel and major, stand on the road in the roaring storm — Péguy smiling, La Cornillère playing with his switch with an air of marvelous indifference, while Captain Guérin, his monocle in his eye, and leaning on his cane (he was severely wounded in Morocco and has to walk with a cane), superintends our retrograde movement.’

The whole company received the general’s congratulations; we had the feeling that we had won a victory, but we retreated none the less. This was the retreat to the Marne, one of the most glorious pages in the history of the world. I do not hope to make you comprehend the prodigious effort that our armies put forth in the overpowering heat. Let every one think of his sons, his brothers, his friends, and question the living and the dead of those great sad days which saved France! Let us march beside Péguy, making note of only a few points.

Already there are many who can hardly walk and who bravely spend their last ounce of strength to keep up; kilometre after kilometre, village after village, and never a word of a cantonment for rest. From time to time the brave Péguy comes up and revives their flagging energy. ‘Well, well, old boy! have a little courage; brace up; we are nearly there.’ Ah! he did not bother to stand on his dignity; he knew his ‘Parigots,’ and he spoke their language to them, thee-and-thouing them in a tone of familiar fellowship, choosing the words that tingle and revive; and many a man ‘hung on’ through a sort of affection for that scholar, that ‘schoolmaster,’ of whom it was currently said, ‘Péguy — what a good old boy he is!’

Men throw away their knapsacks, they trudge on in the darkness. Péguy overhears the grumbling; he sees that things are likely to grow worse. Like the rest, he can do no more, but he goes from rank to rank: ‘Come, boys, courage! Don’t stop; I give you my word we’re almost there; I am played out myself, and hungry too; but, I entreat you, do like me.’

‘ At last, by hook and crook, spurred on by encouraging words, we reach Ravenel at two in the morning, after traveling almost fifty-five kilometres and fighting a battle, all in twenty-four hours, in terrific heat and with nothing to eat! As for eating now, there’s no use thinking about it, for there’s nothing to eat. We stretch out on the straw in a barn; two hundred men in a space big enough to hold a hundred at most; and more than that, there were a number of refugees, who had taken possession of the shelter and had to make way for us.

‘ A poor woman with young children, one at the breast, starts to go out. “ Where are you going, madame?” Péguy asks her. “Mon Dieu, monsieur, these poor boys must have their rest!” — “No, madame, I won’t allow it; you won’t find room anywhere else. Come boys, untangle yourselves. These people must lie here.” And we did it.’

The next day they start off again, without sleep, or rest, or food. Some of the soldiers pick hard green apples from a tree by the roadside. Péguy goes up to Victor Boudon and says, ‘ Give me an apple, old man.’ — ‘With pleasure, lieutenant.’

Rumors are current in the ranks that the government has left Paris for Bordeaux, but Péguy denies it vigorously.

‘For my part, lieutenant,’ says one man, ‘I believe we’re sold out.’

Péguy was terribly angry. ‘You talk like an imbecile, my man!’

By this time the company has dwindled to some thirty men. They halt. When it is time to resume the march, as there are manifest signs of indifference, Péguy cries, ‘Forward, the 19th!’

‘There is n’t any 19th,’ says a voice.

‘As long as I’m here, there’ll be one. Come on, forward, my boys!’ And off he starts.

‘All of us sprang to our feet and resumed the march,’ said Boudon.

On September 2, about four o’clock, they arrive opposite Senlis, and see the bombardment, the conflagration of the town, and the church-tower tottering under the rain of shells. In the darkness they dive into the forest of Chantilly, having lost their commissariat wagons — without food, without munitions. All about them the Uhlans are prowling. Lieutenant Péguy walks alone at the head of his company, as skirmisher.

We are approaching the last stage. I would I might stamp on your memories the glorious, sacred character of the impending struggle. The children of Paris are about to defend the City of Light against the barbarian hordes.

Many a time we have felt like smiling at the redundant periods of Victor Hugo; but the genius which dictated them to him gave them the power to make their way into our blood. In the tragic days of early September, we loved the homes and the altars of Paris so dearly that we could not conceive the possibility of surviving them. Pro aris et focis! Victor Boudon interprets with wonderful accuracy the sentiments of his battalion of Parisians — of ‘Parigots,’ as they call themselves.

' We come nearer and nearer to Paris,’ he writes me. ‘From time to time we see in the sky the great beams of its search-lights. . . .We understand that the situation is very serious, since the enemy is barely thirty kilometres from the capital which we all left less than a month ago, with no expectation that we were to be its defenders; but in face of the dangers we have confidence, confirmed by our officers, that “They” shall not pass! At that moment we had just known the most cruel disillusionment and had passed through the most terrifying experiences, quite terrible enough to cause a disastrous panic; but, curiously, even the prophets of evil, those who saw everything black, held their peace; the wind of discouragement which had blown during the days just past died down in face of the peril which all of us alike, Parisians and refugees, felt to be close at hand. All whom we loved — wives, children, families — are in yonder great city of Paris which the barbarians covet and to which they are drawing near with savage joy; they are in these villages, too, and these country districts which are already held by our brutal adversaries; and when we meet them in the momentous battle which cannot be long delayed, it is our homes and ourselves that we are to save from defilement. In this multitude in arms in defense of the country, is the triumph of Civilization over Barbarism and the downfall of the frightful Prussian militarism. There are many opposing convictions and ideas among men who only yesterday, as sworn enemies, glared at each other with gleams of hatred in their eyes; but today all this has vanished, hatreds have melted in the single thought and hope of all: they must not pass! . . .

‘On the morning of September 5, the 55th Division of the Army of Paris, of which my regiment, the 276th, formed a part, was on the left of the army, which had at last received orders for a general offensive, ‘to be killed on the spot rather than give ground.’ Before us, on the wooded hills stretching from Dammartin to Meaux, Von Kluck’s Boches, who had dogged us step by step in our terrible retreat from Roye, were on the watch, invisible, burrowing in their trenches like cunning beasts.

‘In torrid heat the battalion made a brief halt in the pretty little village of Nantouillet. Seated on a stone, white with dust like the rest of us, streaming with sweat, with beard unkempt, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses, once more I see our dear lieutenant, brave Charles Péguy, writer, poet, soldier, whom we all loved as our friend; who, in Lorraine as well as during the retreat, insensible to fatigue, fearless under the rain of shells, went from man to man, encouraging byword and deed; running through the ranks of our company from front to rear; eating, as we ate, only one day in three, without a word of complaint; always young despite his age,1 familiar with the speech which Parisians, as most of us were, can understand; reviving with a brief phrase, sometimes biting, sometimes sarcastic or jocose, the drooping spirits; always dauntless, preaching by example— once more I see our dear lieutenant, inspiring us, when many were beginning to despair, with his unshaken convictions of final victory, while he read eagerly a letter from his family, a tear of happiness glistening in his eye.

‘An hour later, as the clock struck twelve, we reached, by a little shrublined path, the farm of La Trace, near the little village of Villeroy, where the battalion was to encamp. The whistles have barely blown the signal for a brief halt, when suddenly German shells begin to fall all about us, causing some confusion in our ranks. We are completely surprised by this terrible and unlooked-for bombardment, which kills or wounds a number of men and horses; but the battery of seventy-fives in advance of us goes gallantly into action amid shrapnel and percussion shells, at the foot of the little hamlet of La Baste. Though hard put to it at the outset, our artillery, after four hours of a terrific duel, had completely silenced the Prussian batteries. Next day, on entering the village of Monthyon, while in pursuit of the retreating foe, we came upon the shapeless débris of what had once been big guns, mingled with the bloody remnants of the Boche artillerymen, blown to bits and disemboweled by our shells.

‘While our big guns were fighting thus victoriously, the battalion formed for battle, and the company deployed in sections by fours, Péguy’s section being on the right of the line. From time to time there was a sharp order — “Lie down; curl up like snails”; this to avoid a volley of shells, which burst all about us without doing any damage. Sheltered behind a little rise in the ground, we awaited, under the inaccurate fire of the enemy, the moment for attacking his intrenchments, a fruitless attack having already been made by the Moroccans on our right.

‘At last, word came, and we started forward gladly, deployed as skirmishers, under the energetic command of Captain Guérin, who was by Péguy’s side on the right of our line. It is five o’clock; the German artillery, overwhelmed, has ceased to speak; but when we reach the crest of the bill a terrific hail of bullets welcomes us: we dash for the leveled and tangled oatstalks, where many fall; it is difficult ground. One more leap, and we find cover behind the embankment of the Iverny-Chauconin road, gasping and breathless. The bullets hiss close above our heads; we fire at five hundred metres at the Germans, who are well sheltered behind the trees and thickets that line the little stream of La Sorcière, and are almost invisible in their earth-colored uniforms. Through a gap in the trees, we can catch momentary glimpses of German companies swiftly climbing the hill, supported by the infernal fire of the battalions in front of us. They are falling back on Monthyon and Chauconin, which they partly burn for spite. . . .

‘Back! They’re falling back! In clarion tones Lieutenant Péguy gives the order to fire, indicates the range and the objectives. He stands behind us, leaning against an abandoned roadroller, upright, gallant, and fearless under the downpour of bullets which hiss about us, while the infernal tap-tap of the Prussian machine-guns beats time.

‘ That wild rush through the oat-field has exhausted our breath; we are bathed in sweat, and our good lieutenant is in the same plight. A brief moment’s respite, then, at a signal from the captain, his voice rings out: “Forward!”

‘Ah! this time it is no laughing matter. Scaling the embankment and skimming over the ground, stumbling among the beet-roots and clods of earth, bent double so as to offer a smaller target for the bullets, we rush to the assault. The harvest continues, frightful to see; the song of death hums about us. Thus we press on for two hundred metres; but to go farther for the moment, with no support in our rear and no possibility of replenishing our cartridge-belts, is sheer madness. It means a general massacre; not ten of us will get through! Captain Guérin and the other lieutenant, M. de La Cornillère, are stark dead.

‘“Lie down,” roars Péguy, “and fire at will!” But he himself remains on his feet, field-glass in hand, directing our fire — heroic in hell.

‘We shoot like madmen, black with powder, and the muskets burning our fingers. Every second there are shrieks and groans and gasps which tell their story: dear friends are killed at my side. How many are dead? how many wounded? They are past counting now.

‘Péguy is still standing, despite our cries to him to lie down — a glorious fool with that reckless courage of his. Most of us had lost our knapsacks at Ravenel, during the retreat, but a knapsack at this moment would be a priceless shelter. And the lieutenant’s voice rings out ceaselessly, “Fire! Fire! In God’s name!”

‘There is some whimpering: “We have n’t any knapsack, lieutenant; we shall all be done in!” — “No matter!” shouts Péguy, above the howling tempest. “ I have n’t one either, you see, so fire, fire!” And he straightens up as if defying the balls, seeming to summon the death which he glorified in his verse.

‘At that same instant a death-bearing bullet strikes the hero’s head, crushes that broad and noble forehead. He has fallen on his side, motionless, without a cry; in the retreat of the barbarians he had the last prevision of the impending victory; and when leaping forward like a lunatic, a hundred metres farther on, I cast a terrified glance behind, I see yonder, as one black spot amid a multitude of others, stretched lifeless on the scorched and dusty ground, half-buried in the broad green leaves of the beet-tops, the body of our brave, our dear lieutenant.’

Here is the official report of the most glorious of deaths. After the war, there will rest upon us the duty of inviting all Frenchmen to read the poet who died for us, and who sang, —

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour une juste guerre,
Heureux les épis mürs et les blés moisonnés.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans les grandes batailles,
Couchés dessus le sol à la face de Dieu.2

Péguy arrived in the other world with a splendid escort of his friends — a whole chivalry ennobled by gaping wounds. Whence, pray, comes this miracle which, at the fated moment, raises up her indispensable sons to serve France? Eternal truths have found their youthful witnesses. This war sets before us, by tens of thousands, examples whereby France shall live, as our ancestors, in days of old, lived, by the example of Roland and the blameless knights of the old ballads, and yesterday, by the example of the

heroes of the great epic. Let us try to meditate upon the sublime virtues of the soldiers of 1914-17. But, however we may profit by them, to remember them is like dipping water from the Ocean with the hand. I can take you into the woods, to see springs which I know well; but in these three years of war all the subterranean streams are bubbling to the surface, all the powers of sanctity and heroism are gushing forth, and we, overwhelmed with respect, stand on the brink of the chasm, on the shore of this new sea.

  1. Péguy was born in 1873.
  2. Fortunate they who have died in a just war;
    Fortunate the ripened sheaves and the harvested grain.
  3. Fortunate they who have fallen in the great battles —
    Fallen upon the earth in the sight of God.