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MORE LETTERS FROM FRANCE
BY CHARLES BERNARD NORDHOFF
I HAVE met some interesting types lately. One is Jean B, a sergeant of infantry. Jean has been about the world a good bit, and when the war broke out was just finishing a contract in Spain. He promptly came to France and volunteered, and had only fifteen days of training before being sent to the front for a big attack. Knowing nothing of military matters and having distinguished himself in the first day's fighting, he was made a corporal at once; and next day, when the attack began again, he and his squad were the first to jump into a section of German trench. There, abandoned in the hasty retreat, was a brand-new German machine-gun and forty sacks of ammunition. Jean is a canny boy, and before the officers had got to where he was, he had his men hide gun and cartridges in a clump of bushes.
The French made a gain of about two miles at this point, and owing to the nature of the ground,-artillery emplacements, and so forth, the new lines were nearly a mile apart. Under these conditions, both sides were constantly making daylight patrols in the broken country between the trenches; and as Jean's captain was a good judge of men, he let him take his squad out daily, to do pretty much as he pleased. Pledging his men to absolute secrecy, Jean had them hide machine-gun and ammunition a little way in front of the new French lines, and then gave them a brief drill, in mounting and dismounting the gun, tripod, and so forth. (He
had worked in an ordnance factory, by the way.) Each man carried either a part of the gun or a few belts of cartridges.
One morning, just before dawn, they crawled up close to the Germans and hid themselves in a brushy watercourse — mitrailleuse set up and ready for action. Presently there were sounds of activity in front, and as day broke, they made out thirty or forty Germans, who, so far away and out of sight of the French, were out in the open, working on a new trench. Jean's men began to get excited and wanted action, but he calmed them, whispering to be patient. He himself is the most excitable man in the world except in emergencies; a jovial type, with black hair and a pair of merry gray eyes set in a red, weatherbeaten face.
Hour after hour they bided their time, until the Germans, only 75 yards away, assembled in a group for a rest. Lying on his belly behind the gun, Jean sighted and pulled the lever, spraying lead into the unfortunate Boches until the last belt of 200 cartridges had raced through. Then it was all hands dismount the gun and retreat at top speed. Sneaking 'home' by devious ways, they smiled to see shells begin to smash into the position they had so lately left.
At supper that evening (the meal known universally as 'la soupe'), the colonel came strolling down the trench with Jean's subaltern. The lieutenant nodded and pointed, then called Jean
'Ah,' said the colonel, smiling, 'so
this is the type who was on patrol this morning-hum. I was in an advanced observation post on the hill above you and saw the whole affair with my glasses. And how many of those poor Germans did you kill?'
'I did not wait to count, my colonel.' 'I will tell you, then; six escaped, out of thirty-eight - most remarkable rifle-fire I remember seeing. It sounded almost like a mitrailleuse at work. How many in your patrol? Five? Remarkable! Remarkable! Eh bien, good day, sergeant.'
'He was a type not too severe,' remarked the ex-corporal, in telling the tale; 'in short, un bon garçon.'
This is the highest compliment a poilu can pay his officer; in fact, I once heard an ancient territorial say it irreverently of Marshal Joffre, whom he had known in younger days, somewhere in the Orient.
Jean is at home in several languages, speaking perfectly French, German, Italian, and Spanish. I usually chat with him in the latter, as in it I get the fine points of his narrative better than in French. His German was the means of getting him into an adventure such as very few men in the war have experienced. I cannot, of course, vouch for the truth of what follows; but I have no reason to doubt his word, and know him to be capable of any foolhardy rashness. Such a thing would be impossible at the present time.
One dark night, shortly after midnight Jean-on a solitary patrol-was lying just outside the wire, about ten metres from the German trench, listening to locate the sentries. There was a faint starlight. Suddenly a whisper came from beyond the wire, a low voice speaking in broken French.
'Why do you lie so quiet, my friend? I saw you crawl up and have watched you ever since. I don't want to shoot you; I am a Bavarian.'
'Good-evening, then,' Jean whispered back in his perfect German.
'So,' said the sentry, 'you speak our language. Wait a moment, till I warn the rest of my squad, and I will show you the way through the wire; there are no officers about at this hour.'
Probably not one man in a thousand would have taken such a chance, but he did, and ten minutes later was standing in the trench in a German cloak and fatigue cap (in case of passing officers), chatting amiably with a much interested group of Bavarian soldiers. They gave him beer, showed him their dugouts, and arranged a whistle signal for future visits, before bidding him a regretful good-night. 'We are Bavarians,' they said; 'we like and admire the French, and fight only because we must.'
With characteristic good sense, Jean went at once to his captain the following morning and told him the whole story. The officer knew and trusted him and said without hesitation, 'Go as often as you want, and keep your ears open.'
So he made many a midnight crawl through the wires, after whistling the soft signal. He carried with him each time a few litres of wine (a great luxury to the German soldier), and in return they took him on long excursions through their trenches. Once he was in the German third line, more than a mile back. The sector was a very quiet one, though the trenches were close together, and one morning a crude arrow dropped into the French trench, bearing a note to Jean.
'Get into your dugouts at five this afternoon,' it read; 'there will be a bombardment, but no attack, we hope.'
Another time, after a French bombardment, a similar note dropped in: 'Don't send so many torpedoes - shells are all right, but your torpedoes have ruined some of our best sleeping-places.
Remember we are not Prussians, but Then the old gentleman rushed in, raBavarians.'
Jean is just now back from a permission. He went away a reckless, jolly sort of an adventurer, and has come back sober, serious, and tremendously in love. He told me a little about it, as we sat together in my dugout (I have a private one now, with a stove, a tiny window sticking up discreetly six inches above ground, and pictures on the walls), and the tale is so typical of wartime France that I can't resist telling
it to you.
They had carried on quite a correspondence, as godmother and godson, before the longed-for permission came; and when A-, with her parents, of course, met him at the train, she seemed like an old friend. She is charming, as I know from her photograph, and sturdy brown Jean, togged out in his special permission uniform, with his neat shoes, bright leather puttees and belt, képi de fantaisie, and gold sergeant's wound- and service-stripes, looks every inch a soldier of France. At the end of the second day, he was walking with A- and could contain himself no longer.
'Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I cannot, as a man of honor, stay here longer. I love you,there, I have said it, but I am penniless, and after the war shall have only what I can earn. Your father, on the other hand, is the most important merchant in this district so you see it would (even if you were willing) be quite impossible for me to ask for your hand. I can never thank you enough for your kindness to a poor soldier; it has given me a glimpse of Paradise.'
That evening, as he sat in his room, trying to make up an excuse to give the old people for leaving, the girl's mother came in, saying that she understood he was going, and was much hurt to think that her house had not pleased him.
diant with smiling good humor.
'But hush, maman,' he cried, 'I know all. Also I know a man when I see one. You love our little A, eh, sergeant? Well, what of it? And you are poor well, what of that? When we old ones are gone, she will have everything she is all we have, since Louis was killed at the Marne. You are a type that I love, my boy-out there at the front, helping to push the Boche out of France; do you suppose I would not rather have you for a son-in-law than some sacré espèce of a rich embusqué, riding by in his limousine?'
Rather superb, I think.
So, as an engaged man, he is making a poor attempt to be cautious. Also, he has a frightful case of cafard, that mysterious malady of the trenches, which is nothing but concentrated homesickness and longing for the sight of one's womenfolk, sweethearts, sisters, mothers. A couple of days ago, he came to me with a brilliant idea.
'See, Charlot,' he said, 'I have a scheme. You know Lieutenant P―, chief of the corps franc- tell him of me, that I can speak German and can take prisoners, and tell him to ask my captain to detach me for the next coup de main.'
To understand this, you must know that a coup de main is a raid, made after a brief artillery preparation, on the enemy trenches, not with the idea of gaining ground, but simply to get a few prisoners for information regarding regiments, and so forth. In the French army such raids are made by special selected companies of each regiment, who have no routine duty and get eight days' special leave after each raid that results in prisoners. These men are termed corps franc. As you can see, Jean thought this a quick way to get back to his fiancée.
While we talked, by a freak of luck,
who should knock at my door but Lieutenant P―, chief of our local corps franc, a very good friend and one I am proud to have. He is the perfect quintessence of a French subaltern, years old, slight, wiry, and handsome; an Anglophile in everything relating to sport, as exquisite in dress and person as Beau Brummel, and as recklessly brave as Morgan's buccaneers. He has risen from the ranks, wears a gold bracelet, and has every decoration that a French soldier or officer can get, including the red ribbon. His croix de guerre has seven citations, and he has been five times wounded. He took to Jean at once, saying that he needed an interpreter for a raid which was coming in two or three days, and promised to see the captain about it at once.
'Better come with us,' he said to me, whimsically. 'I want to run down to Paris next week, and if the sergeant here and I don't get a prisoner or two, it will be because there are none left in the first line. Come on you'll see some fun!'
'But,' I said, 'what is there in it for me? I'm ruined if I'm caught in any such escapade, and in any case I get no permission.'
'Oh, we'll fix that. Maybe you'd get a nice little wound like my last one; and if not, I'm an expert with grenades; I think I could toss one so you would just get an éclat or two in the legs good for a week in Paris.'
I thanked him without enthusiasm and declined.
The sequel to this came last night as I lay reading in my bunk. The evening had been absolutely quiet, not a rifleshot along the trenches, until suddenly, about 10.30, the batteries set up their sullen thumping, mingled with the thud of exploding aerial torpedoes.
To my ears, concentrated artillery fire-not too far off-has a strangely mournful sound-heavy, dull, and fit
ful, like a dark thunderstorm in Dante's hell. The bombardment lasted exactly forty minutes, then absolute silence except for an occasional pistol-shot (no one uses rifles in raids), and once more the sudden stammer of a mitrailleuse. As I lay there, safe in my warm bunk, I thought of gallant little Pand jolly old lovelorn Jean, perhaps at that moment stealing through torn German wire with a brace of prisoners ahead of them, crouching low each time a star shell sent up its warning trail of sparks, or perhaps
To-morrow, when I go back to the village for two days' rest, I shall look for them.
April 10, 1917.
I am writing this in a new post of ours a village several kilometres from the lines, where there are still civilians. As the hospital is very noisy at night, and one would have to sleep in a barrack, packed in among the wounded, I have arranged with a motherly old woman (patronne of the local café) to let me have her spare room. I found an old cow-bell and by an arrangement of strings and hooks have rigged it so that it can be rung at night from the street below. Talk about luxury! I have a real bed (about five feet long) with sheets, pillows, and a feather-bed that reaches from feet to waist. When a night call comes, the bell tinkles, I leap out of bed, pull on breeches and coat and high felt 'arctics,' and in three minutes am off.
Useless to try to explain to the good old soul that the innocent must suffer in order that virtue shall triumph- or in other words, that the fantassin shall have amusement without beer. I comforted her with the regrettable truth that her boys will all be back when the novelty is worn off.
A great many of the men here are muleteers from the Spanish and Italian borders. Where the country is hilly and trails constitute the shortest route to the trenches, the French use a great many pack-mules to carry up provisions, ammunition, and supplies. A Western packer would be interested in their methods. Each mule has its master, who packs it, washes it, feeds it, and on the march walks ahead, leading it by a rope. The pack-saddles and rigging are wonderful - they must be when one considers that the mules often carry 300 pounds twenty miles a day, and sore backs are unknown. A mule's a mule, however, wherever you meet him these are just the same 'ornery' brutes we have at home. Their effect on the explosive southern French temperament is sometimes ludicrous. I stopped the other day to ask the way of a mule-skinner who was limping dejectedly ahead of his charge
the rest of the train was far ahead. After putting me on the road, he leaned wearily against a tree and explained that in all the world there was probably not another mule like his. It had kicked him yesterday, it had bitten him severely this morning, and just now, while he adjusted the pack, it had kicked him on the hip, so that in all
likelihood he would limp for life. While he talked, the mule sidled over, with drooping eyelids and sagging ears, and planted one foot firmly on the unfortunate Frenchman's toes. The whole thing seemed to have been done by accident - I could almost see the dotted line of innocence running from the mule's sleepy eye off into space, Without a word, the man set his shoulder against the mule, forced its weight off his foot, and tenderly inspected the injured part. Then, hands on hips, he regarded the mule with a long stare of dramatic contempt.
'Wouldst thou kill me, sacré espèce of a camel?' he said at last; 'well, death would be better than this. Come, here I am!'
The day before yesterday, when I was out at one of our posts on the front, an Austrian 88mm. shell fell in a crowd of mules and their drivers. Fortunately no one was hurt (by one of the freaks of shells), but three mules were killed by the splinters. That night, with some misgivings, I tried a steak from the hind-quarter of a five-yearold mule. It was bully. When you come to think of it, a mule is just as good food as a steer.
A week ago I was waiting at a front post for some wounded, when a mule train came by, packed with the huge winged aerial torpedoes so much in vogue just now. Each mule carried four of these truly formidable things. As the last mule passed, he slipped on the muddy slope, his feet flew out, and down he came with a whack, torpedoes and all. You ought to have seen officers, men, and mulelike fragments of a bursting shell. As the mule showed signs of struggling, we had to rush back and gingerly remove the load before helping him up.
us scatter, drivers,
These torpedoes play a great part in war nowadays. They are cheap to man