Corpses in the Drollest Positions

A French officer found that the corpses half-buried in the walls of a trench became a matter of mirth.

A half-buried corpse of a Russian soldier in 1916 (ADOC/Corbis)

I went with the guide to inspect my new quarters. The [captured German] trench was an abomination—a charnel house—with dead piled upon dead, on the ground where you walked, above the parapets, in the walls of the trench, half buried, with either their heads sticking out or their feet or their hands or their knees …

In the end, one gets used to living beside corpses, or “maccabees,” as we call them. They not only cease to make us uncomfortable, but they even make us laugh. Beyond the parapet there were two or three corpses, in the drollest attitudes. One looked as if he were invoking Allah, another was in the midst of a back somersault. One of my [soldiers] hung his canteen to a foot that was projecting over the wall; the others laughed and followed his example. The true French spirit was to the fore—an extreme adaptability, and, above all, good humor.

The odor of the corpses was nauseating, but pipes soon got the better of it. Meanwhile, shells and grenades kept pouring in on us. We were obliged to use the greatest care, and keep as near the side of the trench as possible. The shells were not very dangerous when they fell in the mud, for they either did not burst at all, or they exploded without much force; but when they went from one end of the trench to the other and landed farther on, they were indeed deadly. Toward noon a messenger came to bring orders from the captain. He was standing in front of me, nearly up to his waist in mud. Suddenly he was without a head; he tottered but did not fall; two streams of blood spurted violently from the headless body and bespattered me. It is hard sometimes not to have the right to have feelings; my men were all around me and I did not want them to see me blanch. I simply told them to cover his body with a tent sheet that was lying near, and sent word to the captain.

These various shocks hardened me. After that, I was more or less indifferent to the terrible things that happened. I even ate with good relish in the company of the head that was sticking out of the trench.

Originally titled “The Lieutenant’s Story”