Officers and Gentlemen
I. THE LAST DAYS OF COLONEL DRIANT DEPUTY FOR NANCY
COLONEL DRIANT was killed before Verdun, at the head of his superb battalion of chasseurs-à-pied, in February, 1916, on the first day of the terrible German offensive.
Driant was my friend and my colleague in the Chamber of Deputies. He represented Nancy — the same district for which I sat before I was chosen Deputy for Paris.
He wrote some excellent books. His work as an author was an extension of his military and national activity. During twenty-five years, in some thirty volumes, he strove to prepare our young men to face the new German invasion which some of us could see approaching.
When he fell, I went to Verdun. I talked much about him with his comrades in arms. Their words, like the numerous letters from his men, are stones in the monument of his glory. I began at once to collect this useful material; it was the fitting way to be of service to a hero. Thus in my narrative I shall include so far as possible the very words that have remained graven in my memory. In the glowing tales of his comrades, they were magnificent; and if, scattered through my text, they may sound awkward, what does it matter? they preserve something of the last impressions which he made upon his soldiers and his friends.
We know that the two battalions of chasseurs-à-pied which Driant commanded formed one of the links in the chain which covered Verdun to the north; one of the links in theCorps under General —.
For a long time Driant was free from anxiety. I have been rereading his letters. On November 2, 1914, he wrote me from Samogneux: ‘We are holding them here, twenty kilometres from Verdun, so that they can’t possibly place their heavy batteries within range, and they will never take Verdun.’ But for more than a year he witnessed the constant augmentation of the enemy’s stock of munitions, and called constantly for works of consolidation on our side.
During the last weeks he was firmly convinced of the imminence of an assault. ‘We have numerous and unquestionable indications,’ he said; ‘the statements of prisoners agree with our information, but there are those who still doubt.’ On February 16, he wrote to Paul Sordoillet at Nancy, ‘The Bodies are working like ants all about us. The hour of the assault cannot be far away. Never did the phrase, “By God’s grace,” seem to me less commonplace.’
One evening about this time, when Driant was returning from Verdun to Mormont farm, he said to one of his men, who was with him, —
‘ Thus far the fates have been kind to us, but the time draws near when we are going to get a severe blow. My poor chasseurs! Most of all I grieve for the battalion that happens to be in the front line on the day they break loose.'
He expected the battalion to be destroyed on the spot, without even a sight of the enemy.
That same evening, he said again, ‘ For my part, I shall never be taken prisoner. I will not! At twenty-five metres I’ll put a bullet between the eyes of the first German who comes near. As you know, when I was in the first battalion at Troyes, I was the champion revolver-shot of France.'
In the night of the 20th and 21st he wrote to a former commanding officer of his, —
‘ The attack on Verdun is near at hand, and the Crown Prince has declared, so a deserter informs us, that he is going to take the city and so end the war. He is going to find out what it costs not to take it. If destiny should be adverse to me, I want to give you once more the assurance of an affection which you cannot doubt. From the bottom of my heart I send remembrances to all my friends at Nancy to whom I cannot write. Above all things, do not imagine that I am beset by gloomy thoughts. On the contrary, I am quite calm, and convinced that my usual luck will follow me.'
In the morning he mounted his horse much earlier than usual, — a little before six, — and, as he wanted to see Major Renouard, rode to Caures Wood. It was Monday the 21st of February. He arrived just at the beginning of the bombardment — a very intense general bombardment against all our positions. It was understood instantly that this was the beginning of the attack.
Driant’s station would properly have been in the second line, at Mormont farm, which he had just left. He did not for an instant think of going back. ‘ If there is an attack,’ he had always said, ‘ I shall not stay at Mormont, I shall go with the supporting battalion. What business should I have there when both my battalions were engaged? ’
He went to the dug-out of the commander of the advanced posts, Major Renouard. The tempest of bullets was frightful, so witnesses tell me, on Caures Wood and the positions near by. All the communications were cut, and the chasseurs were isolated by an incredibly intense barrage. The 210s, 305s, and 380.s devastated the woods, overthrew great oaks at every instant, crushed and even fired the dug-outs.
About 11 o’clock, the second in command, Lieutenant Petitcollot, a mining engineer of Lorraine, who was always talking about ‘ la revanche,' was killed. The colonel was deeply affected. Shortly after, the post which had resisted most obstinately was blown up, burying fourteen men and an officer in the ruins. At two in the afternoon, not a single dug-out remained.
At four o ’clock the Germans began to fire at longer range; then there was a very slight slackening, and at the same moment several men came running in from the outposts, crying, ‘ Here come the Boches! ’
‘ To arms! ’ shouted the colonel, seizing a rifle. As he had not troops enough to face the unknown number of the enemy, he sent to Mormont farm for reinforcements, that is, for the 56th, while he himself, fully exposed to the bombardment, ran through the ruined trenches where the chasseurs were.
‘ Well, boys, how goes it? Your heart’s in the work, eh? Here we are; this is our place, we won’t budge! ’ And pointing to the bodies of those whom the bombardment had struck down, he added, ‘ What, is it so very hard to do as they did? All together now, and like them we will go on to the end!’
He at once ordered Lieutenant Rolin to recapture by counter-attack the outposts where the enemy had gained a foothold, in the northwest fringe of Caures Wood.
Lieutenant Rolin succeeded in bombing the enemy out of two trenches, and failed at the third; but about six o’clock reinforcements began to come up, in open order (to avoid heavy casualties), and dribbled into the ranks despite the barrage. Driant sent his men to support Lieutenant Rolin, and there was ground for hope that, notwithstanding the furious artillery assault, the whole wood would be ours at dawn.
The night came on. The colonel passed it walking about the forest. Whenever he met one of his men, he spoke words of cheer to him. To some of the 56th he said, ' Ah! the 56th: the boys from the North — “ grousers ” all of you! but when there’s a blow to be struck, you ’re on the spot! — You can be certain that I shan’t forget you, my boys,’ he added; and calling to Sublieutenant Debeugny of the 59th, he bade him take the names of the gallant fellows.
Several times he declared that they must wait and prepare for the great blow of the next day. Under cover of the darkness a wagonload of bombs and munitions arrived. He wrote to General—a note, of which these are almost the exact words: ‘ We shall resist the Boches whether their bombardment is irresistible or not.’
In the morning Lieutenant Rolin and his chasseurs attacked the only one of the trenches lost the day before which the Germans still held; but the enemy had had time to install machineguns there. The rush of the chasseurs was checked, but at all events they held what they had recovered the day before. They were not dislodged, but all their communications were cut. Fifteen men, whom Lieutenant Rolin sent to Driant and the rear, were killed one after another on the way.
At one in the afternoon the Germans began a formidable artillery fire. There was a solid mass of shells which crushed everything. Behind that tornado came the infantry — so close behind that many must have been struck by their own missiles. This manœuvre enabled them to debouch suddenly. They hurled themselves upon what remained of our trenches. Driant ordered Lieutenant Undenstock to lead a counter-attack with the bayonet. That officer, on receiving the order, put his bleeding hand behind his back; he had just had a finger shot off, and was fearful that his commander, seeing that he was wounded, would deprive him of that duty. Wrapping the stump in his handkerchief, he rushed to the attack amid the shouts of his men: ‘Forward! down with the Boches!’ A bullet brought him to earth. Lieutenant Belgny took his place and fell, shot through the throat.
All this heroism had its effect. The enemy was brought to a standstill. He was checked in front, but continued his turning movement. He got one claw behind Caures Wood, and even into the wood, by way of Haumont and Ville. ‘ The bullets whistled through the branches,’ says a witness; ‘ the machine-guns crackled and squalls of shot swept the thickets. Our skirmishers had no cover except ball-proofs made of stones hastily piled up, and shell-holes.
At three o’clock the colonel discovered that his men were being shot in the back. Caures Wood was partially taken in flank. Furthermore, the ammunition was giving out.
He calls his officers together — those splendid men: Major Renouard, Captain Vincent, Captain Hamel. ‘ The gravity of his determined face impressed me deeply,’ said Captain Hamel later. In a few words Colonel Driant declares that every one has done his duty honorably to the end, and that nothing can stop the enemy now. ‘ My dear friends,’ he says, ‘ a few moments more and we must either die or be made prisoners.’
‘ But,’ says Captain Hamel, ‘ why not try to lead some of these brave fellows out of the wood? That will mean just so many more fighting men tomorrow.’
Colonel Driant consults with a glance his two battalion commanders.
‘ It is hard; I would rather die,’ says Captain Vincent.
Tears were rolling down his cheeks, and everybody present was crying.
Major Renouard approved Captain Hamel’s suggestion. All agreed. Major Renouard made sure that there was nothing left of which the enemy could make use, and the order was given to withdraw to the village of Beaumont.
What remained of the battalions was formed in four columns. Colonel Driant, Major Renouard, Captains Vincent and Hamel, each took his place at the head of one of them. Only that commanded by the last-named was to succeed in escaping almost intact.
Driant proposed trying to cross the crest behind the wood of Ville. On the edge of the wood, he was checked. He ordered his whole column to pass him, to make sure that there were no laggards, after the manner of a captain who is the last to leave his ship. He had his cloak over his arm and his cane in his hand. The instant that the chasseurs debouched into the open they were shot down by machine-guns.
The shots came from Joli-Cœur, from cover afforded by the hollow which Driant himself had dug on the plateau as a shelter for his reserves, and which the Germans had seized.
The column, which was advancing in groups, struggled on and grew still thinner; it was no longer a unit on the march, but small fragments trying to force a way through, leaving dead on the ground at every step. The course was from shell-hole to shell-hole. To convey some idea of the terrain, we may say that, during his retreat, at a near-by point, Captain Berweiler and seventy of his men occupied a single shell-crater.
‘The colonel ought not to have tried it,’ a chasseur told me. ‘He was no good at hiding.’
Just as he was jumping into a shellhole, Driant was hit in the temple, turned half around, exclaiming, ‘Oh, my God!’ and fell face to the foe. This is the testimony of Paul Coisne, sergeant in the 56th; it is confirmed, word for word, by Sergeant Jules Haquin, of the 59th, who says, ‘I put out my head to see what was going on, and I saw Colonel Driant just as he fell, facing the enemy, on the edge of the hole.’
In this extremity Colonel Driant was not abandoned by his men. Coisne jumped down beside Haquin, and together they cleared the approach to the hole so that they could draw the colonel in where they were, hoping that he was merely wounded; but they could hear the death-rattle, and saw blood flowing from his mouth. Two or three minutes later, the Germans came up and seized the two sergeants. The colonel gave no sign of life, but the two prisoners wanted to take him on their shoulders. The Germans objected.
It was between four and five in the afternoon. Lieutentant-Colonel Driant, Deputy for Nancy, lay stretched upon Lorraine soil, bathed in his own blood.
Meanwhile some men of his column joined a group of the 59th about 30 metres ahead of them, and called out that the colonel had been hit. They kept on their way. A moment later Major Renouard was killed and Captain Vincent wounded. Our men were followed so closely by the enemy that they could see Lieutenant Crampel, when, as he was made prisoner, he waved his hand to them in a despairing gesture of farewell.
Captain Hamel, a young man of twenty-eight, the sole survivor of this group of noble officers, was now in command of the two battalions. He made his way back to Beaumont with his column, the last remnant of those heroes.
To the last moment we persisted in hoping. It is the instinct of friendship and patriotism to keep hope anchored in one’s heart; and, after all, we knew nothing to make it certain that Colonel Driant had not revived; but here follows the German letter which closed the life of a great Frenchman: —
‘To MADAME DRIANT, née BOULANGER
' Chasseurs-à-pied 57/59 — France‘ WIESBADEN, 16March, 1916.
‘MADAME, — My son, a lieutenant of artillery, who fought face to face with your husband, asks me to write and assure you that Monsieur Driant was buried with every mark of care and respect and that his enemy comrades dug and decorated a fitting grave for him. I hasten to add the assurance of my profound sympathy to that of my son. He bids me say to you that there was found on Monsieur Driant’s body a medallion with three small hearts, which he wore around his neck. We hold it at your disposal. If you desire, I can send it to you through the Baroness von Glütz-Ruchte at Soleure, who will be kind enough to send you these lines. On one part of the chain there are these words on a gold background (the medallion is gold), “Souvenir of the first communion of Marie Therèse, June 14, 1902.”
‘Monsieur Driant was buried beside Major Étienne Renouard, of the same battalion, 57/59 Chasseurs-à-pied, on the edge of Caures Wood, between Beaumont and Flabas.
‘ The grave is to be cared for, so that you will be able to find it when peace returns.
‘Accept, madame, the assurance of my distinguished consideration.
And soon there arrived from the King of Spain confirmation of this intelligence and even more precise detail.
MADRID,April 3, 15h. 10m. ‘MARTIN, chef protocols, Paris, —
‘ We learn from Berlin that the grave of Colonel Driant has been found, near Beaumont and Caures, beside that of the major of the 59th Chasseurs, and those of seven of his men. Regards.
Let us not even yet take our leave of this glorious mound of earth. Beside this grave words have been spoken so fittingly, with such an accent of truth words so expressive of their subject, that I must set them down; they are the best portraits of the dead. And if they seem only to concern a Colonel Driant who fell in the midst of his gallant chasseurs, face to the enemy, to save France in the great battle of Verdun, let us not hesitate to tarry and to gather for our remembrance radiant deeds and words.
Should I myself demur; should I be afraid lest individuals seem too trivial amid the preoccupations in which we are involved by the vast drama, and the nameless sacrifices which flow like a river of blood? In painting the best type of soldier, I paint to the best of my ability the army of 19141916 — the whole moral force of the country; I assist in collecting the treasure to which future ages will come to kindle the imagination and warm the heart. Is Driant dead? He breathes, he acts, he creates; he lives as an example!
Look at him as he survives in the hearts of his men. One of them tells me, —
‘He looked out for the welfare of his men; he never met one of us without stopping him. “Well, chasseur, is everything all right?’' If you had asked the chasseurs what they thought of their colonel, “He’s the father of the battalion,” one would have answered; and another, “He’s the best there is!” The words would have varied, but the idea was always the same.’
Another writes me, —
‘I believe that under the circumstances his “children” showed themselves worthy of their “father”; for to us the colonel was always “Father Driant.” He was so fatherlike, and so full of kindly consideration! . . . There was nobody who feared to go to him and ask for what he needed; he knew that his children were boys from Northern Lorraine and the Aisne, from those invaded districts which are groaning under the heel of the oppressor; and he had put them at their ease by saying, “Ask and you shall receive.” There was never need of an intermediary; you knocked at the door of his modest dug-out, and received from him with affection what you asked him for: boots, drawers, shirts, pipes, tobacco. What would n’t he have done for his chasseurs!
‘ And now he has died, died like a brave man, face to the foe! Is not this the fulfillment of his dream, and, as it were, the apotheosis of his “ works ”? (Letter from a wounded private of the 56th: Br—.)
And still another: —
‘ He went very often to the outposts, at all hours, and had haversacks full of tobacco and chocolate brought behind him. He would say a few words to the sentries, and then, turning to the man who was with him, “ Give him some tobacco.” '
And in addition to his kindness of heart there was his fearlessness: —
‘ I was with him on the 17th of the month,’ a soldier told me. ’When a bullet passes close to you, you instinctively duck your head. But the colonel knew no such motion.’
Again, on the same subject: —
‘ His indifference went to the point of rashness,’ said a chasseur. His indifference: do you not like that proud and transparent word to describe courage? And he adds, ‘ No one can contradict this: Colonel Driant was never afraid. He sought out corners just a little bit dangerous, where the bullets came from time to time. “ Colonel,” some one would say to him, “ don’t stand on that spot; the Boches have been firing at it since morning.” That would pique his pride: he would go there and say, “ You know well enough that they’ll never fire at me.” ’
Here is another anecdote that I have heard from his men: —
‘ At Gercourt, on September 1, 1914, after he had entered the village, riding, crop in hand, at the head of the 56th, he was ordered to fall back. Many men, among them Lieutenant Delcassé, who was wounded, had fallen. The bullets spat out by the machine-guns at the top of the church-tower were whistling round our ears, and the colonel (then major), rode backward, with no sign of haste. Observing the amazed look of a corporal, he said, “ You wonder what I am doing, do you, my boy? Well, I am keeping my face to the foe, for I don’t propose to have any one say that Driant died with his back to the Boches.” '
Driant found a death in harmony with his whole existence, and his last sacrifice would have contented his soul. It takes its place so naturally at the end of his days that he seems to have foreseen it, to have dreamed it. Do but read this page, which I have copied from his Robinsons Sous-marins, and compare it with the narrative I have given you.
‘I am on a battlefield. The bullets sing their death-dealing song through the ranks, which grow thinner and thinner; the melinite shells burst, sending forth their characteristic puffs of black smoke shot with gleams of red.
‘The air is poisoned with their acrid vapor; I breathe with difficulty.
‘I have no idea where and why I am fighting.
‘Is this the war of revenge so long dreamed of? What is this forestcrowned ravine of which my feverish glances search out the details? Are we in France or in Germany?
‘ By my side chasseurs-à-pied are firing, firing without pause, lying in the furrows. . . . Behind them subalterns run hither and thither, stooping low, to point out the objectives, and rectify the elevation.
‘I recognize faces of friends; I try to call out to them.
‘A word of command: “Forward!”
‘An inspiring air, if ever there was one, — the Charge, intermingled with strains from Sidi-Brahim and the Marseillaise, — and the whole line moves toward the wood.
‘I raise my arm, waving a sword which feels heavy, heavy as an axe or as a sledge-hammer.
‘I try to shout, “Forward!” suddenly a sharp pain passes through me: I have heard distinctly a nearer hissing sound amid the intense humming of the projectiles which pass in frenzied swarms, and I fall to the ground, seated pointing to the hill with my arm which seems to grow ever more numb and lifeless.
‘A bullet has entered my side, fulfilling its muttered destiny in the dull sound of pierced flesh and crushed bones: then another strikes me in the centre of the forehead, and it seems to me that my brain bursts like a ripe pomegranate. An icy hand stretches me at full length in a furrow, amid poppies and bluebells.
‘Silence: the artillery-fire slackens, the fusillade dies away; darkness overspreads the heavens.
‘I am close beside a little beardless soldier, with a blue cloak, and on the collar I read, “No. 1,” the number of the battalion which I love above all else. The little chasseur’s eyes are closed; he seems to sleep; but he has, as I have, a hole in the centre of his forehead.’
Driant dreamed a true dream. He sleeps beside ‘ his little chasseurs.’
II. PAUL DROUOT
In an earlier paper 1 I have put before the readers of the Atlantic the eloquent and moving letter in which the young poet, Paul Drouot, described to me the last hours of his beloved and honored chief, Major Madelin, who died for France early in the war.
There is more to be said of Paul Drouot. I have shown how exalted are the sentiments which attach our soldiers to their officers. Another document, no less authentic, will allow us to probe still deeper into the generous nature of that poet dead on the field of honor, and so to see how a young man typical of France consummates his sacrifice and enters the ranks of heroes. To this end I shall make use of a very beautiful letter written by a friend and comrade in arms, Henri Massis, a young writer already wounded and decorated with the croix de guerre.
‘When the mobilization began,’ writes Massis, ’I met Paul Drouot at the depot near Langres. It was a great satisfaction to our families to know that we were together. I was already well aware of the loftiness of his character and its fine quality; I knew how his imagination turned instinctively toward every form of grandeur, and how he loved only the most vigorous, the most heroic, the most religious of the works of the human intellect. Our friend had his eyes fixed on all the things which are eternal, on all that can make the divine manifest upon the earth. Led by aspiring masters, he had garnered the greatest poems of mankind. He revered the Greeks, the Hindus, the great Englishmen, Hugo, whom he idolized. But is this the time to speak of literature? Nevertheless it was in the field of literature that he toiled to compose that heroic, glowing vision of life and of man which was inspired by the Catholicism which he had lost and found again, and which affords a perfect proof of his sincerity.
‘Meanwhile, when war was a fact, he straightway emptied his soul of all that there was within it of youthful enthusiasm, all that tendency to levity due to the turbulence of young blood, to make room for something more serious and more virile—something which those who knew him best had already discerned in his passionate ardor. Drouot had recovered the faith which a Christian mother — how splendid she was! — had implanted in his heart. I shall not forget the prayers we said at night, in that garret where for three months we slept on the straw; nor, above all, that Mass which we said at Hûmes for Péguy and Psichari, when we partook of communion together.
‘Then, after those uncertain and distressing months, we started north with the Third Chasseurs. On December 20 we arrived together at our destination — on a terrible night of cold and dread, which gave way to dawn only to reveal to us a ghastly charnel-house of mud. It was our first experience with the realities of war. That march down to Houlette, when we stumbled over dead bodies and rubbed against the unknown shapes of the men we were going to relieve, will live forever in my memory; it was our descent into hell. And yet, in the morning, we were light of heart, and glad to have reached at last that spot to which we had looked forward for three long months in the dreary idleness of a dépôt.
‘Despite his feeble health, Drouot, jealous for the honor of the name he bore, had insisted upon serving. I know all that he suffered physically, in order to do his duty, to prove himself worthy of his grandfather, the general in the Grande Armée, and worthy, too, of the noble plans he himself had conceived. He was of those on whom we could rely for the work which will have to be undertaken immediately after the war, in order that all the virtues which the war has revived, and which are destined to regenerate France, may flourish in their full vigor. In the discharge of his duties he came to regard himself as the historian of our glorious battalion. May we some day be privileged to read the sheets which he wrote in feverish haste, in the evening after so many fierce engagements: they must not be left anonymous, although written with no thought of having his name appear. They will console us in a measure for the loss of the work which he had scarcely begun, and they will have for a fitting conclusion his own beautiful death.
‘In the evening of May 9, after the victorious assault in which the battalion had captured the enemy’s position, Major Madelin selected him to go with him to inspect the captured ground. “I will take Drouot,” he said. “It was a very great honor, madame,” wrote our friend, in the letter informing his commander’s widow of his heroic death. Drouot was most deserving of such an honor.
‘He had been proposed for the military medal, and as the suggestion was not adopted, he wrote me a few days ago: “As for the medal, you alone, knowing me so well, can understand me when I say that I am glad that the suggestion did not get beyond the army corps, and was changed to a ‘ citation ’ in the order of the day. It was much wiser, much more suitable for me, and much fairer. Think of all that one must needs have done to earn the medal! I thank God from the bottom of my heart for permitting me to do what I did for our wonderful and dear Major Madelin.” And he added, “ May He continue to bestow his favor on me; I ask it every instant for my mother’s sake!”
‘ Alas! he has followed his chief, and has rejoined him among the pure in heart, among the noblest whose sacrifice is of still greater worth than their merits.
‘It was with absolute resignation, I am sure, that he consummated his sacrifice. Although he loved life with a delightful enthusiasm, he took a serious, almost tragic, view of it — a view which was in full accord with his Christian belief. The experience of pain — that is what especially impressed him in the lives of his fellow mortals, and only the great mystery of Providence seemed to him capable of accounting for it. Did he not request me, when I returned to the battalion, to bring back with me Blanc de Saint-Bonnet’s admirable book on Suffering?
‘ Dear master, I am done, having expressed so poorly what I feel so profoundly. I am in haste to do but one thing — to avenge him in his turn; and it will not be long.'
What a letter! What sublime young men! to what regions are we transported !
You remarked, did you not, that touching scene in the letter I have put before you? Two young soldiers kneel on the straw of their garret to pray according to the precepts of the Church, and to associate themselves in spirit with the young engineers, Psichari and Péguy, who died piously for their country! This carries us beyond the reaches of our vision. These young men, leaving Foustel de Coulanges and us who struggle far behind them, have in religion a living force, a sure support — life itself. Here, you will notice, we are witnessing something very different from those men — excellent men, no doubt — who, on coming out of the trenches, seek absolution. To the Psicharis, the Péguys, the Paul Drouots, death is nothing; they pray because it is a joy to them to pray, because their profoundly sensitive souls expand in that communion with the invisible.
These are matters of which we have hardly the right to speak, yet which we ought to say. Is it not well for us to call attention to whatever there may be of sweetness and beauty mingled with all the ghastliness of this war? We press aside the overhanging branches and reveal the spring of pure water beneath.
- See the Atlantic for January, 1918.↩