All for a Few Feet of France

A French officer witnesses the chaos of battle.

French soldiers resort to the most-primitive weaponry in trying to dislodge German troops from hillside trenches. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

Originally titled "The Lieutenant's Story II and III"

March 20.

I find myself yielding to the charm of our life here. It is indeed the return to nature and simplicity; it is physical, almost animal. The primitive instincts of the race have full sway: eating, drinking, sleeping, fighting—everything but loving …

March 27.

I am writing my journal in a big underground shelter, comfortably stretched out in a hammock that my predecessor ingeniously rigged up out of two old tent sheets … We are in the same trench as the enemy—next-door neighbors in fact, and not a bit civil. Nothing but a barricade of bags of earth separates us from the Boches [Germans]. Near the barricade stand the sentries, attentive and silent. No sound is heard on either side except for the whizzing of grenades that are continually being tossed back and forth. But the sentries are well protected in the sides of the trench, and they defy the German “turtles” …

So the first German and French lines are in immediate contact. The reason is that our side has not been able to seize the whole of the trench, of which the enemy still occupies the eastern end. But this situation will not last, I think, and we shall increase our gains.

The trench is clean, except for bodies imperfectly buried here and there. We no longer pay any attention to them; but the really deplorable thing is that many corpses fall in the mud; the mud has hardened and the trench is less than five feet deep. It is impossible to make it deeper, for the least stroke of a pick brings up a piece of cloth or a bit of flesh. To circulate, we have to bend like hunchbacks. It is both painful and dangerous, so the men don’t move around much but stay in the shelters …

March 28.

What a riotous night! …

The first part of the night was uneventful, except for an abominable shower of grenades the Boches kept basting at us …

I went to the barricade and saw that the [German] trench was for a fact empty, except for the machine gunners who were on duty beside their gun. I quickly gave orders to tear down the barricade, and we ran into the Boche trench. The men of my section, according to my instructions, set up a furious fire … As we ran, we threw several grenades at the machine gunners, who sank down before they were able to turn their guns against us.

In a twinkling we reached the end of the trench … and from behind the barricade of dead men and earth fired three rounds into the retreating Germans. They were thrown into a panic. A good many must have been killed, for daylight brought to our gaze the sight of that trench piled with dead. The whole thing had not lasted more than two minutes. We were deluged with grenades, a continuous zip, zip; one of our men was killed, three or four wounded. Everything was in a wild tumult—trench rockets going up, guns firing at the double quick … Barbed wire was rushed into place and the trench reversed—minutes of mad excitement and insane activity. We were without consciousness of danger, hypnotized by the work to be done.

We were deluged with grenades, a continuous zip, zip; one of our men was killed.

We expected a counterattack … We waited. There were false alarms. A man who is a little nervous begins to fire rapidly, his neighbor follows his example, then the squad, then the section, then the whole company gets on the rampage. The machine guns begin to clatter, the second-line troops take alarm, the artillery steps in with a few shells and—the Boches over opposite, bewildered by the hubbub, send up … trench rockets, whose rays illumine the grass growing green in the spring, the tangle of wire, and several poor dead bodies lying with hands outstretched toward the opposite trench, as if pointing the path of duty to the one behind. The counterattack did not come, but shells upon shells were rained upon us … I gave my canteen of wine to my prisoners … It is nothing at all—50 meters of trench; and yet, it is a few feet of France won back again.

Holy Thursday.

The thing that tried me most sorely was this mole-like existence. I who am always longing for large action and open and intense fighting with an enemy who is before your eyes.

The Boches have been bombarding rather violently. That is to be expected since this is Holy Thursday. But, in spite of everything, there has been something religious in the calm of the elements these latter days. Nature is at her devotions. This evening is superb. Shells are bursting in great numbers, and the little church of Perthes totters as if it were about to fall … Larks are singing, full-throated, a sublime paean of life and joy. In the distance lie the dead, and the frightful mangled corpse of the village of Perthes …

May 4.

In order to guard against gas bombs we have been given horrible, nightmarish masks, goggles set in a kind of pig jowl or snout made of rubber and containing a solution of ammonia. They make one look like a wild animal, and as soon as I got mine I put it on for the benefit of my [soldiers]. They nearly laughed themselves into fits.

But life in general is calm, too calm even. I am reading Anna Karenina, which came by mail yesterday, and smoking endless pipes.

Originally titled “The Lieutenant’s Story II and III”