I AM going to report the story of his adventures the good adjutant-curate told me yesterday.
His history, simple enough in itself, will seem all the more widely representative, and reported whole, though abridged, will give, I think, a pretty' correct idea of what up to now the War has meant to the majority of our soldiers. In virtue of this, no doubt it will interest those who have any belonging to them at the Front; and which of us but has there some very dear to us ? As to its accuracy, that is absolute. Doubtless I had something to do with the wording of the subject; but, drawn entirely from the story and the notes of our adjutant, it has been moreover submitted to him in the form in which it is now to be read.
"Starting from M---- (a central town) on the 13th August at three o'clock in the morning, we arrived at Vesoul on the evening of the 14th. On the 17th, after a long march, we began to hear the cannon, and we halted a kilometre from the frontier.
"Next morning we passed over it at half-past four, not without emotion; we noticed on the ground, newly torn up, the posts, the milestones, the huts of the German Custom-house---all the remains of the annexation.
"Going through the Alsatian villages did not at first give us the joy we had anticipated ; the doors remained shut, and even the windows. From behind the curtains grave-faced women peered at us in silence; they had seen the first French troops beat a retreat, which had caused a certain sense of disillusionment and a fear of having again to expiate a too warm welcome. Moreover the attitude varied according to the village, and a few old men, here and there, loudly expressed their satisfaction, even going so far as to sport a military medal.
"At two o'clock, on the 19th, we halted in the village of Guebwiller, twelve kilometres from Mulhouse, which our people were preparing to re-take. All day the cannon roared. In the middle of the night, we started in the direction of Mulhouse, then in that of the Rhine. At Ilfurth we received an enthusiastic welcome. There had been fighting there the day before ; in a field of oats above the town, we discovered thirty dead, victims of this fight; two Germans, all the rest Alpine Chasseurs. One of these held in his hand the photograph of his wife upon which he had written: 'I was wounded two hours ago, on the battle-field. No one has come.'
"Our men seemed much impressed by it; up to now they had not known what war was like. We proceeded to bury the corpses ; the captain made a patriotic speech, and another priest, who is a lieutenant, and I, said the De Profundis.
"The next few days there was much coming and going. I have fancied, since, that General Pau. wished to make us out as more numerous than we were, and so to lessen the effect of the recall of troops to the North. On the 26th and 27th, we went to Lepuy-Giromagny, near Belfort, perhaps to protect the start of the Seventh Corps, of which we formed the Reserve ; and, on the 28th, we started ourselves. On the journey, especially in Seine-et-Marne and on the Grande-Ceinture, we received the warmest of welcomes."
Here I interrupted the narrator in order to tell him that the people, agitated by the thought of the German approach, saw in General Pau's troops relief and deliverance. I asked him if they had passed through Fontainebleau, and he said they had, which proves the correctness of the information received by M. N---- on the 30th August.
"We knew nothing of the situation," my new friend went on; "and great was our surprise at hearing, at Creil, that Uhlans had been seen thirty kilometres away.
"On Sunday the 30th, about one o'clock in the morning, we went down into Gasnes in Oise, and in the evening we went to Bacuël to take up the out-posts. We met Alpine Chasseurs, infantry of the Line and some of the Moorish contingent. These troops had endeavoured yesterday to stop the advance of the enemy. Now they were retreating, and in a medley that looked very much like disorder.
"This hardly cheering impression was increased the next day at the sight of the exodus of peasants that followed the Army, telling of the arrival of the Germans at their homes; and fleeing without even taking their cattle with them. Grievous and mysterious news, rumours of treachery, added still more to the general discomfort.
"During the four following days we took part in the great retreat, and little by little in the discouragement it brought with it. We fell back in the direction of Beauvais, and then towards Paris, in stages of twenty-five miles under a broiling sun. On Friday and Saturday, the 4th and 5th September, we were still falling back, but now with a turn to the South-East, and with the feeling that this time it was a case of resisting. The spirits of the troops, which had deteriorated, rose again, and the men began to believe us when we told them that their fancies about treachery were folly, and that those in command well knew where they were leading them to. To understand their discontent, their weariness and privations must also be taken into account. Every day there were twenty-five-mile marches; and the country we went through, devastated by former troops, did not even provide us with water to drink.
"On Sunday, the 6th September, we heard the sound of guns and firing. It was the cordial we needed. We marched on in the proper direction, and that night we slept on an open plain, near a village that the French shells were setting on fire because it was full of Germans. Afterward I learnt that its name was Puisieux. If only the enemy had known we were there !
"It must be supposed that in the morning they became aware of our presence, for we were awakened by a fine row and shells began to fall upon us; the first, indeed, sent some shrapnel on to the back of my great-coat without hurting me. We advanced unprotected, under the fire of the German artillery, for about twelve hundred metres, stooping at the whistle of a shell and making a carapace of our haversacks, which were often peppered but not pierced, and, thanks to them, we had scarcely one wounded. In the afternoon we paused to take breath in a deep ditch, north of Puisieux; quite calm, some smoking, others asleep, while the shells passed over our heads. That night we went through the still burning village and farther on we reached the out-posts.
"On Tuesday morning, at four o'clock, we resumed our march towards the East, under shellfire like yesterday's, and soon under the rifles of the infantry. Nothing could stop us. We knew of General Joffre's order of the day, saying that on this day's doings depended the defeat of the enemy, and that we must die rather than fall back. At half-past five the lieutenant of my section, a priest, too, was struck in the shoulder by a bullet; at six o'clock the lieutenant-colonel, and at half-past six the captain, fell in their turn.
"We took up our position in a farm, called Poligny, while we were waiting for our artillery to prepare the ground, and we dug a small trench to put the wounded in. My company took shelter in a shed, which, however, was not spared by the shells.
"Beside us were trained two machine-guns that battered, that mowed down whole rows of Germans ; a sergeant, bare-headed, perched on the top of the heap of faggots, among the projectiles, impassively directed the fire. Some of our men tried to gain a little wood to our left. A rain of shells that we met with our heads, covered by our haversacks, decimated us all the same. My major, while he was speaking, was struck dead by a splinter.
"About five o'clock there was a short lull, which we employed in clearing off the wounded from the rear to Puisieux. I, with four or five men. was ordered to take the body of the major, M. P-----, whose family I know, there.
"The next day, as we were digging his grave, we were obliged to leave off work, owing to persistent shelling. About four o'clock, Lieutenant Barrived with a firing-party, to render the last honours.
"I recited the De Profundis, and we lowered the body, wrapped in a sheet, covered it with earth, and then with flowers, putting a cross, with name and date above the grave.
"I rejoined my company that night and found that they had held out at the farm, and had only one man wounded, in spite of the falling of six big shells.
"The next day, the 9th---a Wednesday---the rout of the Germans began. After half-past two the rifles ceased, but the shells continued to rain down, and their artillery fired until night to protect their retreat.
"On the Thursday, as the firing had ceased, we went to explore the enemy's trenches. They were abandoned, leaving a quantity of munitions and numbers of corpses. I remember a trench for six men in which not one was missing. Our little 75's had done two days' work there. About one o'clock we began the pursuit, and kept it up the next day after sleeping at Betz. The inhabitants of the villages, who were already beginning to come back to them, told us that the Germans were flying in complete disorder, but yet never ceasing to believe that they were being led to Paris.
"At Villiers-Cotterets we were welcomed with cheers. At night we camped at Puisieux in Aisne, but the artillery did not stop. We saw a convoy of prisoners go by with bowed heads and in tears; it touched us rather, but, on the other hand, the population abused them.
"On the Saturday it was still the same pursuit, in miserable weather, and with scarcely a stop. We came upon the tail of the 7th Corps, of which we form the Reserve. After a short halt in the wind and rain, we started again at nine o'clock at night for the crossing of the Aisne.
"We crossed the river at four o'clock in the morning, over flying-bridges already swept by the German artillery, and camped at Port Fontenoy. My company, hardly dry yet, were sent to reconnoitre the plateau to the north of the village. The enemy was intrenched three-quarters of a mile away; we advanced upon him, but were soon ordered to draw back, so as to leave the field free for our artillery. The ground once prepared, our whole regiment went in the direction of Vic-sur-Aisne. We formed in line on the plain of Confrécourt for an attack on the German trenches. From the middle of the afternoon until evening, we advanced under the fire of the artillery.
"At the fall of night we saw coming towards us a column in fours which hailed us with: 'Camarades Franco-Anglo.' It was dark; we hesitated and let them come on. Some of them even got near enough to shake hands. They were upon us when we noticed their spiked helmets ; then they took out their rifles from beneath their cloaks and fired at us point-blank. The same thing was happening at our right and at our left; our men became confused and wavered; we fell back, but not without having many wounded, as far as the plateau where we had been drawn up in battle-array. There we spent the night in some confusion, while the Chasseurs were fortunately checking and even repulsing the enemy. We got even with him again at dawn the next day by regaining, under a hail of shells, all the ground we had lost, and we did not stop to dig our trenches until we were only six hundred metres from the Germans. We had picked up our yesterday's wounded.
So from the middle of September we remained in the trenches. The first part of the time was very hard; the commissariat was at fault, and we were not sheltered from the rain ; that has almost as large a place in my notes as the fighting itself. And yet it hardly ever ceased ; attacks and counter-attacks, sometimes by day, more often by night, from time to time mitigated by a short stay in the more peaceful dug-outs at Confrécourt where the wounded were. But the quarters improved; if straw often failed, to make up there were blankets and tent-cloths. Moreover, it was evident that little by little we were getting the better of it. When the enemy made no endeavour to advance upon our trenches, almost every night we made a jump, sometimes of a hundred metres nearer to theirs, and dug fresh ones which we connected with the others.
"That was the life I led until the 31st October, when I got my wound. The most remarkable day was the 20th September, when a furious counterattack of the Germans gained for them at first a small success, and then, thanks to the Alpins, a notable repulse with a hundred and fifty prisoners and numbers of dead; more being found as we advanced.
"About every eight days we were relieved, and each regiment went in turn to rest in the villages beneath the plateau---Port-Fontenoy, Ambligny, Vic-sur-Aisne, Berry, or Saint-Christophe. There one was relatively quiet in spite of the shells that incessantly fell upon them. Our country-visit was spent at Port-Fontenoy, which was about two hundred metres below our trenches.
"I had been there---since you wish to hear the end of my campaign---I had been there since the 22nd October. On the 28th, the Chaplain came and many went to confession. On the 29th, I said Mass at his portable altar and he served me at it, in a farm where two battalions were able to join. He preached on All Saints and All Souls. I offered the Holy Sacrifice for all the dead in our regiment; it was a Black Mass. There were a hundred Communions ; and at the end we sang two or three verses of 'Je suis chrétien.'
"Our return from the plateau to our trenches was fixed for seven o'clock in the evening ; the moonlight, which made the journey far from safe, decided us to wait till midnight. But then there began a terrible bombardment of the village---as always at the time for the relief---and we again put it off. By a coincidence which shows the perfection of their spy-system, almost every one of our reliefs was marked by cannonades and volleys from the enemy.
"At half-past twelve we started in spite of it ; we really had to let the regiment that had relieved us take their turn for rest. The night ended quietly enough.
"The next day, some men, under cover of small steel shields, dug passages in the direction of the German trenches, and at night, in the open and unprotected, we made an advance of fifty metres. For a few minutes we lay down; then, a section dug a fresh trench, while others went on with the passage---to connect it with the trenches in the rear, and so make sure of re-victualling and communication.
"Towards dawn---it was now Saturday the 31st---as adjutant, I wanted to see how the work was going on. Some of the men, tired out, had not dug deep enough; I recalled them to their work. For ten minutes all was quiet, then the firing began. My men went, on with their work, concealing themselves as much as possible. It was then that, obliged to go in front and to cross a small space still undug (it was not more than a metre in length), I was at once hit by a Mauser bullet. It entered, as you can see, below my left eye, went through the nostril and the top of the palate, pierced my right cheek, and came out under the ear, breaking the lower jaw-bone without touching my teeth.
"At first I felt the effect of the bullet only at the place where it came out; but soon I fell, deluged with blood, and believing I was mortally wounded. Then I took courage and crawled back to the trench. There, a comrade put on a first dressing, and in spite of the flow of blood from my mouth and nose, I went on foot, leaning on the corporal, along over a mile of trench-branches as far as the dressing-station of our regiment which was installed in a dug-out.
"The surgeon cleaned the wound, dressed it afresh, and telephoned for a wheeled stretcher to take me to the field-hospital at Amblény on the other side of the Aisne.
"You see how well it all went off ; moreover, the journey was enlivened by bullets and shells falling everywhere. At midday, I was at the hospital. I staid there three days, unable to take anything or to breathe comfortably. At last they succeeded in making me swallow some milk, and then I was sent off, with sixty others, to Villers-Cotterets, where we took the train. At Aubervilliers, the clearing-station, I got out, and here I am. It was a narrow squeak, but there's no harm done; only a little disfigurement and having to keep to liquids. In a few weeks I shall be well again and I shall go back."
THE violent Battle of Dixmude---in which friends of mine have lost one of the dearest members of their family, the brave naval captain, G. M. de S. M.----sent us yesterday, in the person of an Algerian sharpshooter, a former pupil of the Brothers at Blida, one of the first wounded who have gone back to the Front.(13) Wounded at Charleroi, he had recovered in the hospital at Lannion. Returning to his dépôt in Aix-en-Provence in the middle of September, he went back to the Front at the end of the same month. He does not despair of getting there again soon for the third time, which perhaps may not even be the last.
Nothing gives a more vivid idea of the length of the War than does its present, and probably, future, duration. Here we have been fighting for a hundred days, and the number of victims is already larger than that in any other war in the past. But it appears, judging by the military operations, that it is hardly begun. If peace, as we hope, must be preceded by the absolute submission of Germany, it must be remembered that her army still occupies Belgium, a tenth of France, and a great part of Russian Poland.
But everything does not depend on military operations, however preponderating they may be ; there are also economical factors, events in the moral order and sudden interventions of Providence.
A stricter watch on the traffic of neutrals may hasten the exhaustion of Germany; having to fight under the leadership of Prussian Generals may one day rouse the pride of Austria; the Turks taking a hand in the game may put the rest of the Balkans on our side; Italy, by making her fear that the Eastern question will be settled without her; perhaps the United States by a massacre of Christians that would provoke their interference. Who knows?
And, in the balance of destiny, the accumulated weight of so many prayers, so many desires, so much suffering, does not go for nothing.
At five o'clock to-day, a touching ceremony took place.
Accustomed as I am now to the beautiful examples of faith and courage, there was one among our patients whom I had particularly noticed for the liveliness of his religious sentiments and his patience under terrible sufferings. It was the wounded man from Belfort whose coming I noted a few days ago.
That he had behaved perfectly on the field of battle I felt no doubt, but I did not know that it was to such a degree as to distinguish him among so many other heroes. He has won the military medal, and a lieutenant of sharpshooters, deputed by the Minister of War has just been to bring it to him.
A sergeant-major in the 5th Regiment of Field Artillery, Louis Schoeny (I may give his name, for we have no hope of his living, and this lamentable fear made to-day's ceremony all the more touching), Louis Schoeny, at Braisne, received two serious wounds, one tearing away the side of his face, the other fracturing his skull. Yet, he had the superhuman strength of will to remain at his post, half blinded by blood, and to serve his gun till a splinter of shell struck him in the stomach and knocked him down by the carriage.
The medal was handed to him by another brave man, the lt.-colonel of the 53rd Battery, himself under treatment at our hospital for wounds in the foot and shoulder. As far as circumstances would allow, he kept to the usual ceremonial. There were no bugles to sound the calls, but there was the military salute; and comrades looking on from their beds, and the officers came from neighbouring wards with an arm in a sling or a foot on a crutch, made up a fine audience. All of them, as well as the male and female nurses, felt the tears come into their eyes when, after the prescribed words: "In the name of the President of the Republic, and in virtue of the power conferred upon us, we award you the military medal," the wounded man asked to be raised that he might kiss the glorious. badge, and receive it with more respect.
As he pinned it among the bandages on the panting breast, the colonel's own hand shook a little.
This morning there came, dressed in the Breton peasant costume, the wife and the brother of a Reservist who died yesterday; they had started as soon as they were warned of the serious nature of his wound, and had believed they would find him still living.
M. L. C.---- brought them to me at the door of the Chapel and left me the task of telling them everything. After he left them, saying in his kindly voice : "You know that he is very bad they turned to me and said simply :
"Is he dead ?"
I tell them he had shown himself a brave and good Christian. Their looks still question me, I look down and open the door of the Chapel. After saluting the Blessed Sacrament with a genuflexion which shows me their faith, the poor creatures sit down, overcome, without tears or lamentation or words. After a little while I give them details of his piety, his resignation, his fine acceptance of his sufferings, his last requests ; then I propose that we should say a Paternoster and Ave Maria together, after which we remain on our knees for a few minutes in silent prayer. When we leave to go to the Office, where funeral arrangements are made, the wife grows a little unsteady and leans upon the arm of her brother-in-law. Neither he nor she, though their eyes are full of tears that do not fall, speak an unnecessary word, and I only now learn that there is a little girl of three left. All that they ask for is to see their dead again and take him away if possible.
Summoned to another patient, I quitted them with regret, more impressed by their dumb anguish than by all the lamentations, the cries and the tears which I have witnessed hitherto.
A little later, I hear that in the mortuary, at the sight of what was left of him, the poor wife, still silent, fell down in a faint.
The other Breton of whom I spoke before and who so greatly edified me, is still alive, and passing through baffling alternations, in which the only thing that does not change is his submission to the Will of God. His old mother, who is allowed to be at his bedside as much as possible, is not less admirable.
After a week of comparative quiet, we are once more put to the test. At the present moment, there are four in the mortuary and two others dying.
This is why I make scarcely any notes on outside events. It is not that I follow less anxiously the news of the War, but what I see most of in it is the number of dead and wounded. However, the situation seems good, especially as to what is hoped for, but not acknowledged, for fear, I think, of its being a deception. In private there is talk of very hopeful operations already begun on the East, with the Rhine for first objective, while the Russians have crossed the Oder to the South of Silesia. Please God it is true
In default of the future, it is the past, up to now almost as obscure, that is beginning to reveal itself, and some of it is no matter for rejoicing. Since the second week of September, things have been going better, but the month of August, in spite of our successes, ephemeral moreover, in Haute-Alsace, must have been terrible, and we must have made some bad blunders there. If the defeat at Mons is known to all the world, we don't yet know to what extent the driving-back went, and for my part, I find it hard to understand why our Army, in spite of the success at Guise, and especially at such strongholds as Namur and Maubeuge, found itself, one fine day, falling back from Dinant to Vitry-le-François. This will have to be experienced later on.
Later on, too, we shall see more clearly into the cause of the retreat from Lorraine, and know to what extent it was really due to the faltering of certain troops. So far as one can rely on a quite fragmentary account, the recollections of one of my wounded, a sub-lieutenant in the Reserve, make me inclined to believe that the defeat was due also to our inexperience.
I report them for what they are worth, vouching only for their sincerity.
"I received my baptism of fire on the 20th August, on the banks of the Saverne Canal. The 25th Division of Infantry had started to take Sarrebourg; the town was fortified with those great howitzers on concrete platforms whose projectiles make holes big enough to bury two or three horses. But we knew nothing about it. After Epinal we had been advancing in high spirits, without coming upon any obstacle. The regiments that had gone on before us had seen a few Germans, but we had not seen one. It was different on the 20th August, and I shall not forget it. My battalion had to hold out all day long on Hill 330, in the thick of the shells. There was no attempt even to intrench or to hide from, the aeroplanes ; they'd be more cautious nowadays. Certain companies were decimated several times. I can still see my captain giving two or three dying men the crucifix to kiss. About six o'clock, we were forced to beat a retreat, in spite of the help of our heavy artillery. When we had just crossed the Saverne Canal, the General of Division arrived with his Staff and ordered a half-turn. The whole division made a fresh attack, our cannon and machine-guns opened fire and four regiments dashed in. We went down one slope and up another under a hail of shells and bullets ; a few foot-soldiers fell back, but we went on. As soon as we got near enough to attack, we were ordered to fire in on them and the fire of the Germans diminished in intensity. To deceive us they had sounded our call for 'Cease firing'; but we had been forewarned and were well able to distinguish the difference of sound. They stopped firing, and then we did the same. When there was nothing more to be heard, we climbed to the top of the hill and joined what was left of our men---just a hundred. The night had come, and we wondered where the enemy was. Cries were heard, but at first we could not make out whether they came from the French or the Germans. Then there was silence, and then the sound of a fife and a slow and solemn chant; and in the dense darkness of the night, it was not wanting in beauty. Soon, sixty yards off, fires sprang up as if of themselves; they must have prepared them so as to discover and fire upon us. The major forbade us to go near them.
"We were not more than 470 metres from Sarrebourg, but it was too well defended to make it possible for us to enter, and, before midnight we went down to our starting-point on the banks of the canal, picking up all along the way the wounded belonging to our four regiments. The stretcher-bearers gave them first-aid ; I carried one off on my back. We were tired-out when we got to the canal; after a short sleep, we resumed the retreat, which went on for four or five days. It was made in good order, but, sadly enough, through deserted villages, and our hearts were sore at re-crossing that frontier where still lay the posts torn up with such enthusiasm so short a time before.
"But, by the 24th, we were ourselves once more, and, once fixed on the line of Mortagne, we were able to keep the enemy at bay. We did not stir from there till 10th September, when we were ordered to Oise. Reservists relieved us and held their own too; the Germans made no further advance; indeed I believe that this time, in their turn, they must have fallen back, and for good. We have learnt our lesson."
To-day I have been able to go back much farther into the past; I have seen the notes that a corporal who is a friend of mine, then in garrison in the East, wrote on the eve and the morning itself of the mobilization. Those were such weighty hours that the story of them must surely be of interest.
I abridge it a little, but add absolutely nothing to it.
"Thursday, 30th July.
"There is much talk of war. I am pessimistic and optimistic both. Moreover, I don't see how this peace-army can become a war-army. These men who say they are tired after a quarter-of-an-hour's drill, what will they say, what will they do, when ground must be defended or won foot by foot ? However, I have faith in the issue of the diplomatic negotiations. I don't think we shall have war, and as is often the case, everything will get settled at last.
" Five o'clock. The dinner-bell. I go down to the dining-room, intending to go out afterwards. All sorts of different rumours are about. The corporals are summoned to the Office. The sergeant-major, generally so arrogant, is very quiet and gentle ; he reads the mobilization orders to us and brings them up to date. I go out into the town to meet my friends C---- and B---- The last has received a packet containing excellent fruit---pears, apples, and bananas, which we dispose of at once, not for fear of the future, but because they are very ripe. What a good idea it was!
"I wrote to my mother and brother to tell them of certain measures of precaution taken, but which, as I firmly believed, would have no consequences and were to insure against what was improbable---recall of men on leave, making out of bread-rations, mobilization-lists brought up to date.
"Coming back from the post, I bring in the evening papers, which, though not alarmist, still look upon the situation as very grave.
"Night has come; we are still arguing with B----. C---- is very optimistic and I hedge as usual. B---- is thinking of a postal-order that he has not been able to change or get changed ; nobody will part with his silver, still less with his gold. I believe so little in complications that I don't think of changing an order for five francs I received yesterday. B---- takes us back to the Café de Paris and the discussion goes on.
"At nine o'clock we go back to quarters. As on any other night, we part with a hand-shake and a few jokes, and each goes back to his company. We are not to find ourselves together again. Before going to bed, I go to N----'s room to tell him what is in the papers, and then all sleep.
"Friday, 31st July.
"Midnight. The door of the room is violently thrown open, and, suddenly awakened, we hear the sergeant of the week calling out in a loud voice: 'Come! get up! Mobilization!'
"In the darkness the agitated men call to each other. I foresee much confusion in the work which will have to be done; so before getting out of bed, I order the lamps to be lighted, and advise calmness for the first time, but not for the last. The various mobilization doings are began and feverishly carried on. The section sergeant, V---- roars in his youthful and uncertain voice; every moment he is calling me, ordering the gathering together of the Reservists' effects, going away, coming back, finding that nothing is getting on, retracting his orders, adding others. It gets on my nerves. We have plenty of time before us; looking to what has been already done, three hours are amply sufficient. I am proved right in the end, for we are ready before the time.
"Belongings are put into trunks and bags more or less carefully, and piled up at the end of the room, which, in the feeble light of the funny lamps, already looks upset. I climb up to the second story more than ten times to satisfy the sergeant. In the passages and on the staircases is a too restless, too hurried coming and going, running, calling out to each other, asking the same question a thousand times before the answer is taken in and can be made use of.
"From top to bottom, and from bottom to top of the building, they question, they call out, they jostle each other unconsciously in the half-light, and all this has a far from cheering aspect.
"I pack my bag as usual, so firmly do I believe that everything will be back in its place in a few days. However, as for boots, I pack up my 'war collection' keeping on my feet those I usually wear. No towel, no soap, nor handkerchief, nor spare laces.
"Some one at the door calls into the room already in uproar: 'Two men for the cartridge-squad!' Fresh amazement, renewed recriminations. At last the selected men go, while their comrades unmake the beds and fold up the blankets as usual on getting up, and again there is grinding of teeth at having to clean the room.
"Here are the cartridges coming back. Sergeant V---- calls up each man and distributes them, writing the names in a memorandum-book as fast as he can. In a severe voice and with promise of penalties, he enjoins that no packet is to be undone.
"Now we are all ready, and, as is always the case, we have to wait. Though I try to set my mind at rest, this mobilization has more effect upon me than the preceding drilling. The diplomatic difficulties are not unknown, the rumours of war, the preparations already made, and all this has been made more serious by the more or less false and extravagant reports certain people take pleasure in circulating.
"After having made sure that the men had got with them all that was indispensable, I closed my travelling-trunk and put my personal effects into a towel, hoping to find them as usual after the mobilization.
"That done, I went down to the ground-floor passage, and, to kill time, shook hands with friends who happened to be there, or were on duty. Among a thousand improbable and extravagant things, I hear that the officers have received their outfit allowances, and that, according to yesterday's German newspapers, the French have already reached the pass of the Schlucht.
"It was nearly three o'clock now ; the dawn was coming, and in the half-light, sections filed through the courtyard. The men's képis bore their blue covers, which made their appearance still more sombre. Though still not quite believing in the seriousness of the performance, in the depths of my heart I began to be stirred up.
"At the foot of the staircase that leads to the sleeping-rooms, a voice called out: "Every one to come down!" I went up again to fetch my bag and my rifle, and came down, supposing our turn to start had arrived. There was a strict roll-call of the ranks; after which we piled arms and went back to the mess-room to eat the famous soup provided for on the mobilization time-table, and which more than once had made me smile."
Things are progressing finely. This morning at five o'clock, we received a soldier from Vic-sur-Aisne, who had been wounded yesterday morning about eight o'clock, less than a day between the time he was hit and his arrival at the final hospital, which means, unless it be some unusual injury, a certain cure. Three others who had fallen only the day before yesterday came at the same time. If it were only like this always!
Our patient from Vic is thirty-three ; the Territorials are beginning to be in it; almost all our men are married, as one can see by their wedding-rings.
This man, like the others, shows splendid spirit; but, all the same, he says, it vexes him to have fought, fought for good and all, without ever seeing an enemy.
"Didn't you really see one?" I asked.
"Not a single one, I tell you, M. l'Aumonier, or rather I did see some, but they were prisoners, near Besançon, where I came from Lyons on the 6th August. I remained at the Dépôt till the 13th October. The civilians, too, saw just as much of them as I did. But since the 15th October, when I arrived at Vic-sur-Aisne and took my place in the trenches, I've never caught sight of one. It was as well not to raise your head to find out where they were. Early yesterday morning we were told to fix bayonets and to make an advance by creeping through a field of beetroot. We hadn't been there more than a couple of hours when I was struck in the hip by a splinter of shell and by another one a little higher up. But still I saw no Germans. It's a funny kind of war."
I think I have not said anything about our black patients; yet we have had a large number, especially during the last few weeks. They were much used in September and October, foreseeing that they would have to be sent back when the cold weather came. They are truly the brave soldiers every one calls them, and ferocious enemies of the Germans. Every one of them has, as he calls it, " zigouillé" at least five or six, and the terror they inspire m the enemy is well justified. "Those Germans, they're no good."
But, apart from this hatred and their patience in suffering, which are common to them all, according to their country, race or tribe, they display very marked differences. The blacks who come from Northern Africa are almost as civilized as their Berber or Arab compatriots. From West Africa and the French Congo, on the contrary, along with some pretty intelligent there are others very primitive indeed.
One evening at the end of October we received a native of Guinea, from Konakri, who spoke French very decently, and even a little English. As he was wounded only in the head, he could be taken to the bath-room, into which the doctor allowed me to go. A bath is de rigueur for all the new-comers whose wounds permit it, and you can fancy that, after spending weeks, months, without undressing, they fully appreciate its benefits. It is almost always even an occasion for showing their spirit of comradeship. James J-----, the energetic and devoted bather-in-chief, tells me they all say "If the other chaps could have this !"
Our African enjoys it in a touching fashion: "Oh, how good, how good!" he repeats, stretching himself out in the tepid water; and when he is told to sit up, and to hold out his arms to be soaped, he obeys with a smile. The white lather on his skin of bronze sets off his powerful muscles and the fine proportions of his great body. The doctor is in raptures. As no one else is waiting, there is no hurry. The handsome negro feels himself all the better for the operation. Full of go he shows us what he knows of English, then recounts his brave deeds in French: "Germans no good. 'Zigouillé' two; ' zigouillé ' four " ; and at the same time his long arms out of the water imitate half a dozen times with an expressive gesture, the spitting by the bayonet.
The least civilized of our negroes at the beginning of his stay (for since then . . . !) was certainly the Soudanese Mouça Sénoco, from the village of Chibougo in the Bambarra. His entrance was sensational. As the small bone of his leg was broken, he could not be put into the large bath the evening of his arrival, and was, not without resistance, washed on his bed. But he found some means of compensation; for when he had been well scrubbed, he took a cup from the table, filled it from the basin, and, before they knew what he was about, swallowed the contents at a draught.
It had already been a job to undress him, but when they wanted to dress his wound he roared like a wild animal; he bit the nurse's hand badly, and must have taken us for Boches. We had all the trouble in the world to prevent him tearing off his bandages. Nothing could induce him to lie down in bed; he spent several days sitting up against the pillows and bolster, with hanging head, and his long arms reaching to his feet.
Taken the next morning to the operating-theatre for the draining of the wound, he looked curiously at the tube of ether and put it to his nose himself; it had only to be held there.
While he was asleep all went well, but the awakening was terrible. In spite of all that could be done, he tried to get up, and furious at being prevented, he seized the chair and threw it into the middle of the ward. They were obliged to remove the table or everything on it would have gone out of the window. When meal-time came, he ate very little and that with evident distrust, but he kept on obstinately calling for "Champagne! Tea!" the only words he knew except three or four coarse expressions which the Colonials might well keep to themselves. At any opposition he flew into furious rages.
With a view to taming him, they brought another Soudanese to see him. He wanted to bite him. Thinking that perhaps this might be a member of a hostile tribe, a second experiment was tried, and he was removed into a ward where there was a model negro, the good, sedate Maciga, from Boubou Keita, in the neighbourhood of Bafoulabé.
This proved the beginning of salvation for our young savage. Maciga, who was moreover a corporal, succeeded in quelling him, made him by degrees listen to reason, and aided by the gentle firmness of the nurses, brought him round to actual docility.
From that time progress has been rapid, and nowadays there is no nicer patient than Mouça. So far from wanting to bite you when you come near him, he is the first to say bonjour to you and to ask how you are. He lies in his bed in European fashion, and even makes a charming picture with his peaceful black face between the white sheets and the red chechia.
Since he began to improve, he whistles the bugle calls between his teeth, eats sweetmeats, looks at pictures and palavers with Maciga.
If his hurt prevents him from going out, Mouça none the less receives visits. I don't speak of the interest taken in him by every one who enters the ward to fulfil some duty or to see any other of the patients; no; Mouça receives visits from personal friends, compatriots.
To be quite truthful, it must be put in the singular! Mouça is visited by Baba Konaté, an educated and well-bred negro, with the air of a real gentleman, who is at present a servant in the Protestant Missions in the Boulevard Arago.
Baba Konaté always arrives here armed with tobacco, apples, lozenges and boiled chestnuts, which make him still dearer to our negro patients. A native of Grand-Bassam, he can make them all understand him by speaking Bambarra, which is the most widely spread tongue in French West Africa, except Yolaese. He told me so himself, for I, too, am in Baba Konaté's good graces, thanks to a hospital-attendant who discovered it and introduced me to him. And through Baba Konaté, I have made friends with Mouça Sénoco, Maciga Kata, without mentioning Akodou Toudé, Ona Couami, Kodé Kamara. . . . But I don't like to boast.
YESTERDAY evening we were told to expect a large contingent of English; four hundred were to arrive at the Gare du Nord, and we were to have forty. All our cars went there and we mobilized several others.
In fact, we received only eight of the wounded, all hit the day before near Dixmude, and all full of spirit. Like ourselves, moreover, our Allies in defending the Yser, that is to say the road to Calais, display fanatical courage. It costs us all day after day and for weeks a number of killed and wounded that hitherto would have sufficed to give lustre to a battle ; but English, Belgian, French, far from being disheartened, only rejoice that the Germans were losing still more and don't get through. And this courage is not only excitement, it remains after the battle. This morning, an Irishman of this new set asked to go to Confession and I promised him Communion to-morrow. When I saw him again in the afternoon: " Father, I've lost my leg," he said in a quite normal voice.
In fact it had had to be amputated without delay.
A little upset in spite of myself, I looked at him affectionately and spoke a few kind words.
He answered at once: "I accept the will of God."
And his face betrayed no emotion, was only a little paler from the loss of blood.
Louis Schoeny, the artilleryman who received the medal just a week ago, is now in Heaven, in the possession of higher and more lasting rewards. He passed away last night, facing the lingering hospital death as he had faced the fire of the enemy. He was to have received Communion this morning; seeing him worse last night I proposed the Sacrament for the Sick, and he answered simply, "I am quite willing."
I had advised his wife, who came some days ago, not to go back, although she was summoned to a sick father. Before this implicit avowal of our fears, and still more this morning when she heard of their fulfilment, she showed herself the worthy mate of a hero and a true Christian.
In this house where tragedy itself becomes the normal state, and ceases to excite remark, all were specially interested in Schoeny, and his death is a grief to all. It is such facts as this which little by little, in spite of our great numbers, create a sort of common sentiment and greater intimacy.
Some say, thinking of what Schoeny suffered after he came, "It would have been better for him, since it was to be, to die on the field of battle."
I try to answer that the eternal increase of his worth, his moral merit by enduring so well such long-drawn tortures, was no loss of time for an immortal soul.
My colleagues would take the same view of it as I do if they filled my office; they might have profited more greatly by it.
I live in an atmosphere of heroism and faith. What noble examples, and so simply given! There is my patient from Finistère, perpetually tossed about between life and death, always calm and submissive to the will of God whatever it be; and his mother, who comes every morning, shares in this fine submission.
There is the young wife, crushed but calm, of a soldier twenty-six years old, who died the day before yesterday. A fire of hope shone through her tears while she listened to my account of his Christian ending.
There is, amongst those who live, one blind man now told of his fate and by degrees resigning himself to it, helped to submit by an ingenuously sublime consort.
But what am I saying ? Heroism shines forth everywhere; never can humanity have displayed so much. Wives, mothers, sweethearts, who consent to know that those they love are on the field of battle, and who, if need were, would send them there ; men and officers who ungrudgingly hazard their lives; those men who, under fire, pick up the wounded, and those women who tend them in hospitals; those who have lost everything and are resigned and those who despoil themselves to help them. And above these thousands of examples, as if to concentrate them in one unique deed, before which history will bend the knee---Belgium ! That is to say an entire nation sacrificing everything to its dignity, its duty, its honour, and when it might by a word escape disaster, accepting rather than be false to itself, ruin, hunger, fire, murder; hunted from home with its King, with its army, holding now but a particle of its territory, and on that particle continuing to resist to its last man ; at the point of death to all appearance, yet serene, as certain of final Victory as of its duty; its hand always on its sword, and its eyes raised to Heaven to see the coming of God's justice.
Before the sublime lesson of such a spectacle there are moments when one believes one understands why the War was permitted, the world perchance having never suffered such ills, but also having never risen to such a height of moral greatness.
When, the day before yesterday, I saw our whole country celebrating with all its heart the Feast-day of the King of the Belgians, and every voice from the newspaper to the Christian pulpit praising Albert I with his people, I rejoiced over the good. done by the sight and the love of such beautiful examples, and I did not fear to compare, to match this benefit in another kind with the saving delay which we owe to the unforgettable resistance at Liége. It was well that on Sunday at Notre Dame de Paris, in presence of our Cardinal and of King Albert's sister, before an immense crowd that applauded in spite of the sacred character of the place, an eloquent preacher concluded his sermon thus : "To the whole Belgian race, honour and blessing for ever and ever!"
And I will confess to have felt it a real honour when I came across Mme. la Duchesse de Vendôme yesterday when she was going through our wards, and I welcomed her kind words as if they had come from the admirable people she so worthily represents.
Visits, even of Princes, take place here without ceremony, and it was only by chance that I heard of those of Queen Amélie and of the Prince of Monaco, as later on of the Princess Marie and Prince George of Greece. I should like to have seen the first, in whom all majesties---talents and misfortunes, virtue and rank---are united; and I should have been glad to offer once more my personal homage to the second, whom no one can know without becoming attached to him for the energy with which he pursues all that makes for the progress of men's minds, and for his devotion to France. He did her valuable services in times of peace; he served her by fighting under her flag in the war of 1870, so giving moreover an example that his son and heir has not failed to follow to-day. But if I had had to choose among these meetings I should have plumped for that which a quite providential chance procured for me; I should have plumped, in the matter of august personages, for her who was born Princess of Belgium.
We have at present not less than three hundred and fifty wounded, and every day more fresh ones come in than convalescents go out. Our five hundred beds will soon be all full ; and the active generosity of the Americans does not stop here; they will establish branches, and it is said that large contributions have been put at the disposal of our committee to found a hospital in Belgium as soon as that is possible, and another in France as close to the Front as prudence will permit.(14)
In proportion to the prolongation and extending of the War, I feel less need for noting down the tidings of it. I know now that these notes will soon appear ; a friendly publisher has just decided their fate, so why should I speak of what all the world knows, and which is, moreover, much too colossal to be reflected in my small mirror ?
For me, as doubtless for us all, the War is the unbelievable roll of battles being fought in Flanders, in Champagne, in Lorraine, in Alsace, in East Prussia, in Poland, in Galicia, in Serbia, in Turkey in Europe and Turkey in Asia ; on the shores of the North Sea, of the Mediterranean, of the Black Sea, and on the expanse of different Oceans ; a baffling and maddening spectacle, in the face of which, at certain moments, one's feelings grow numb, unable to rise to the pitch of emotion it needs.
But the War, as seen by my eyes, is above all a mixture, or rather an alternation of horrors and splendours; of frightful evil and surpassing good; it is the monstrosity of suffering, wounds, mutilations and agonies; it is the sublimity of voluntary self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, duties accepted and full of hope.
Let us pause a moment, for instance, beside this man of thirty,(15) with his pale, emaciated cheeks, his blue eyes, his long russet beard, a real Christlike face; don't let us be deceived by the smiling calm of his expression; for six weeks, Charles Marée has endured an almost constant martyrdom; his pelvis fractured with all the consequences one can guess, weakened by hæmorrhage, his back worn out, able only to move his head and his arms. Several times we thought we had lost him, and we are still far from certain. Moreover, if he lives, it will only mean longer suffering for him. Yesterday, while his bed was being made, and talc sprinkled over it to relieve the sores, two men-nurses and four women held him above it in their arms, and it looked to me like a Descent from the Cross. He is one of our most fervent Christians. I take him Communion twice a week, and never does he complain of his sufferings. He is also one of our bravest soldiers ; he won the Military Medal, and when I asked him under what circumstances, this is what he told me confidentially, his hand in mine, for we are great friends.:
"It was given to me on, the 8th October. I had had to carry out a rather difficult mission. It was at Mazingarbe, near Vermelles between Béthune and Lens, about nine o'clock at. night. Two armoured cars with machine-guns had been signalled as approaching our lines. I was ordered to go to meet them with a twenty-five to thirty horse-power Peugeot; I was automobilist to the 30th Dragoons, so I started on the short road to Vermelles, where it was said the two enemy cars were. After about twenty minutes, I turned out the lamp and waited. There was a quarter of an hour of profound silence, and then I heard the sound of the first machine-gun. With a twist of the wheel I turned my car cross-ways, and that of the enemy came right into us. As soon as the blow was given, I sat up on my seat and killed the chauffeur and the mechanician with my revolver. But then the second machine-gun came up almost at once; the two men on it saw what had happened. While one of them stopped the engine, the other, from beneath his seat, fired his revolver at me; the bullet struck me between the thighs, and then they turned about. Very fortunately, my companion had not been hit, and he was able to take me back to Vermelles where there was a dressing-station. That same evening I was given the Military Medal, for which I had already been recommended three times."
Decorations are not rare in our refuge for the brave ; it would be monotonous if I mentioned them all. I have already spoken of an English soldier who wears the Military Medal, and we have an Arab sergeant, with a serious, refined face, who won his at the farm at Soupir by an act of devotion of which this is the official specification:
"Aïtammer Achour Benamor, sergeant in the 3rd Regiment of native skirmishers. In the fight of the 6th November, his lieutenant(16) having been mortally wounded, in a zone swept by the enemy's shrapnel, did twice cross this zone, and succeeded in bringing back the body of his officer, though himself seriously wounded in the knee."
The wound, due to an explosive bullet, is one of the worst that have been tended here. Achour Benamor will take long to recover.
Of the noble figure of an African and him who hit him with a bullet forbidden by the laws of war, which is the best exponent of real "Culture"?
One of our officers, Lieutenant André B---- has been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, for the following reason: " Commanding the leading company of an attacking column, on the 27th October, he led his men with the greatest courage under a murderous fire. Falling wounded in two places, he continued to urge on his men with vehement words and gestures."
His captain, when sending him the news, added his affectionate congratulations, and this kindly wish: "I think it will be a balm for your grievous wound."
The cross has been sent, with the usual formula, through another of the wounded, a major, himself decorated in 1870, and again for Tonkin and Tunis.
"So many others deserved it better!" whispered the young lieutenant, scarlet with emotion.
The climax of his confusion was reached when the major, having kissed him, added that: "The accolade of these ladies would ratify his."
After a moment of pretty embarassment, the wife of another officer, a patient in the same ward, took the initiative, and the ceremony was performed with equal grace and dignity. The nurses were just of an age to have their eldest sons in the Army. They had brought a splendid bouquet and the other patients tendered their own crosses.
For fear this one should not come in time, the Comte de la S----, a hospital assistant and a retired major here, got his own, which he won in Africa, in readiness.
In the same ward as our new Chevalier and very intimate with him, there is a young lieutenant of the Reserves whom I was delighted to welcome here L. de T------, one of the best writers about American matters; and who, but for the War, would be actually at San Francisco (the poor Exhibition!).
Having made a study of similar subjects, we had sometimes written to each other, and here is a rare chance of making acquaintance. I rejoice in it without scruple, for his wound, painful as it is will not prevent his using sword or pen again. Besides, the officers don't like you to pity them. There are among the men some, bearded fathers of families, that one can pet like children; but if you speak to an officer of his wounds, he only wants to change the subject. If, as an exception, he may lose his spirits and smiles, it is certainly never at the cruel time of the dressings. Under moderate pain he is always calm; when it is so piercing that he can't hold his tongue, he makes jokes.
It is truly a matter for pride to shake hands with such men; during the three months I have associated with them, I have seen none that was not admirable; officers on active service; officers in the Reserves; professors, doctors, men of business, tradesmen or agriculturists, the élite of every profession ; and the dear young fellows who had not finished their military education, and the elders who for various reasons had resigned, but who went back to serve at the call to arms. Unlike the private, who, as a rule, is rather resigned to return to the Front than eager to do so, these wait impatiently for the time when they can get back to their Command, and literally, time hangs heavy on them, anxiety possesses them, because of their companies or battalions, what one might truly call their military family. It is not that they have a brutal love for fighting for its own sake; but they are fully aware of the cause they are serving, and they burn with enthusiasm for it. They know they are not fighting only for the safeguarding of legitimate material interests, but for the independence of their own country and of the whole of Europe; to preserve for their sons and the whole human race a higher kind of life; to crush the domination of a band of assassins, incendiaries, and pillagers, who think their crimes excusable because they commit them remorselessly, and who, even more, feel a horrible pride in that no one before them has ever committed such crimes, nor with such science. Reims, Louvain, Senlis, Ypres, Belgium---so many names that minister to their shameless boast, but amongst our men, and above all with our officers, serve to keep up gloriously the clear conscience, the sacred fire of an avenging and retributive cause.
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