Preparing to Die

An American serving in the French Foreign Legion arranged his worldly affairs before a “grand attack.”

French soldiers face German troops in 1915 in the Marne, in northeastern France. Barbed wire, popularized by cattle ranchers in the American West, first came into widespread use at this time as a tactic of war. (ADOC/Corbis)

One hour before the time set for the advance, we passed the final inspection and deposited our last letters with the regimental postmaster. Those letters meant a good deal to all of us and they were in our minds during the long wait that followed. One man suddenly began to intone the Marseillaise. Soon every man joined in singing. It was a very Anthem of Victory. We were ready, eager, and confident: for us tomorrow held but one chance—victory …

Tomorrow was the day fixed for the grand attack … Tomorrow, at 9:15, was the time set. Every man, I suppose, wondered whether he would do or whether he would die. I wondered myself.

I did not really think I should die. Yet I had arranged my earthly affairs. “One can never tell,” as the French soldier says with a shrug. I had written to my friends at home. I had named the man in my company to whom I wished to leave my personal belongings. Sergeant Velte was to have my Parabellum pistol; … Birchler my money-belt and contents; while Sergeant Jovert was booked for my watch and compass. Yet, in the back of my mind, I smiled at my own forethought. I knew that I should come out alive …

Just the same, I was glad that my affairs were arranged, and it gave me a sense of conscious satisfaction to think that my comrades would have something to remember me by. There is always the chance of something unforeseen happening.

The pace was accelerating. The strain was beginning to wear off … Men were beginning to chaff each other. I could distinctly hear Subiron describing in picturesque detail to Capdevielle how he, Capdevielle, would look, gracefully draped over the German barbed wire; and I could hear Capdevielle’s heated response that he would live long enough to spit upon Subiron’s grave; and I smiled to myself. The moment of depression and self-communication had passed. The men had found themselves and were beginning their usual chaffing. And yet, in all their chatter there seemed to be an unusually sharp note. The jokes all had an edge to them.

Originally titled “A Soldier of ‘The Legion’”