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'NEATH VERDUN ***




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_'Neath Verdun_




PREFATORY NOTE


The following work has been scrutinized by the French Military
Authorities, and the word (Censored) will be found in the text to
indicate the eliminations they have deemed it expedient to make.




_'NEATH VERDUN_

_August - October, 1914_


_By Maurice Genevoix._

_With a Preface by Ernest Lavisse_


_TRANSLATED BY_

_H. GRAHAME RICHARDS_


_Translator of_:

"_Hunters and Hunting in the Arctic_" (_Duc d'Orleans_)

"_Expansion of Modern Germany_" _etc., etc._

"_Geographical Distribution of Capital_" (_Prof. A. Vergogni_)


_LONDON: HUTCHINSON & CO._
_PATERNOSTER ROW_ :: :: _1916_




Dedication

TO THE MEMORY OF MY FRIEND

ROBERT PORCHON

Mentioned in Army Orders for "admirable bravery"

KILLED AT LES EPARGES

THE 20th OF FEBRUARY, 1915




CONTENTS


I. - CONTACT IS ESTABLISHED 1

II. - THE CROSSING OF THE MEUSE 19

III. - THE RETREAT 31

IV. - THE DAYS OF THE MARNE 44

V. - BEHIND THE CROWN PRINCE'S ARMY 118

VI. - IN THE WOODS 160

VII. - THE ARMIES GO TO EARTH 205




PREFACE


The author of this work, Mr. Maurice Genevoix, is a second-year
student at the Ecole Normale, Paris. Having finished the second year
of his course and, incidentally, completed a study "on Maupassant," he
was in a position to regard with pleasant anticipation the vacation
due to fall in July, 1914 - a month later he received his baptism of
fire, and of what a fire!

He supplies us with an invaluable picture of the war.

In the first place, the writer is endowed with astonishing powers of
observation; he sees all in a glance, he hears everything. The intense
power of concentration he possesses enables him instantly to seize
upon all essentials of a particular incident or scene, and so to
harmonize them as to produce a picture true to life.

Nothing escapes him - the song or hiss of bullets, the diverse notes of
hurtling shells, the explosions, the shatterings - every tone of the
infernal uproar; the breezes that pass, those that follow the
explosions, those that have caressed the bodies of the dead "Whose
frightful odour poisons the air;" the faces of men in moments of great
crisis, their words, their dialogues; and, finally, the changing
appearances of inanimate things, for are not actions for ever
associated in the mind with the changing aspects of nature?

The pre-eminent, outstanding merit of the work, however, consists in
the never failing sincerity of its author.

Many of those accounts already published - joyous greetings from the
trenches, or light-hearted letters most carefully selected from among
many thousands - due to many reasons, such as the precautions taken by
the Censor; the reluctance among non-combatants to emphasize their own
inaction and well-being by contrast with the suffering of others; a
natural and universal desire to make the best of things; the very
human habit of seeking to explain numerous and diverse manifestations
by one simple idea, for example, to attribute every great event to the
heroism of every man involved - a heroism without an end; and finally,
the tone of the Press, the banality of its optimism - all these things
contribute to present a picture of war softened and sweetened,
abounding in "good times." Such travesty of the truth at once revolts
and fills with indignation those who fight. A war such as this has
proved to be merits at least that we should hear and face
unflinchingly the truth of it in all its entirety.


The regiment is on the march; towards the close of day it passes
through a village:

"The entrance to the village, which is indeed little more than a
hamlet, was choked with carriages, with ploughs and horse-rakes,
which had been drawn to one side. In silence we pass before the
shattered houses. Nothing remains but the mere shells of walls and
distorted chimneys still standing above the wrecked hearths. Some
charred beams have rolled almost into the middle of the roadway; a
large mechanical mowing-machine raises its broken shaft like a
stump.

"The regiment defiles through the gloomy evening; our steps
resound lugubriously and violate the surrounding desolation. In a
short while, when the last section will have disappeared over the
summit of the hill, the cold and silent night will descend again
on the village, and peace shroud the poor, dead houses."

The regiment is on the march, and it is raining:

"Resignation indeed is difficult of attainment when one knows, as
we do, the increase of our sufferings the rain involves: the heavy
clothes; the coldness which penetrates with the water; the
hardened leather of our boots; trousers flapping against the legs
and hindering each stride; the linen at the bottom of the
knapsack - that precious linen, to feel which against one's skin is
a sheer delight - hopelessly stained, transformed little by little
into a sodden mass on which papers and bottles of pickles have
left their stain; the mud that spurts into one's face and covers
one's hands; the confused arrival; the night all too short for
sleep passed beneath a coat that freezes instead of warming; the
whole body stiff, joints without suppleness, painful; and the
departure with boots of wood which crush the feet like the
torture-shoe. Hard, indeed, is resignation!"

But something turns up which makes the regiment forget the rain and
its own sufferings. It passes between lines of strangely still
bodies - and those are the bodies of Frenchmen, their brothers.

"They seem attired all in new clothes, those still figures, so
continuously has the unceasing rain poured down upon them. Their
flesh is decomposed. Seeing them so darkened, with lips so
swollen, some of the men exclaimed:

"'Hullo! These are Turks!'"

Their bodies had been "sloped backwards," facing the road, as though
"to watch us pass." The Germans, retreating after the days of the
Marne, indulged freely in the folly of arranging the bodies of their
victims after this fashion. The officer himself was for a moment
overcome by this horrifying spectacle, but:

"Come! Head erect and fists clenched! No more of that weakness
that a moment ago assailed me. We must look unmoved on these poor
dead and seek from them the inspiration of hate. It was the Boche
in his flight who dragged these sorry things to the side of the
road, who arranged this horrid spectacle for our express benefit,
and we must never rest until the brute has drunk our cup of
vengeance to the dregs."

The regiment has come to War; night falls, a night towards the end of
September:

"The cold became intense ... those wounded who had not yet been
recovered moan and cry aloud in their sufferings and distress....
'Are you going to let me die here?... Drink!... Ah!...
Stretcher-bearers!...'

"And the soldiers, hearing those agonized cries, but chained to
their posts by the word of duty, groan in anguish: 'What are they
fooling about, those stretcher-bearers?...

(Censored)

"'They are like fleas - never to be found when one most wants
them!' And the cries continue - voices soft and strained and weary
from having called so often and long:

(Censored)

"'...?' 'Mother! Oh! Mother! - Jeanne!... P'tite 'Jeanne!... Oh!
say that you can hear me, 'Jeanne!... I am thirsty ... so
thirsty!...' The cries of others make one shudder. 'Still, 'I say
I won't ... I won't die here, my God!... 'Stretcher-bearers!...
Stretcher-bearers!... 'You joint-shearers, carve me up!...
'Ah!...'"

The advance of the regiment is checked. The enemy, following his early
retreat, which at times assumed the appearance of a veritable rout,
turned at bay. The section in command of our lieutenant dig a trench
and pass forty hours in it. It has rained and it is still raining. A
furious downpour is succeeded by a trickling stream which drips
ceaselessly above their heads:

"Motionless, and packed tight together in cramped and painful
attitudes, we shiver in silence. Our sodden clothes freeze our
skin; our saturated caps bear down on our temples with slow and
painful pressure. We raise our feet as high as we can before us,
but often it occurs that our frozen fingers give way, letting our
feet slip down into the muddy torrent rushing along the bottom of
the trench. Already our knapsacks have slipped into the water,
while the tails of our greatcoats trail in it."

So one night was passed - and then a second. The relief was due to
arrive at any moment; but would it ever appear, that relief?

"As for myself, I no longer hoped for it. I had gone past caring.
We had been there a long time.... No one will come. No one could
possibly relieve us placed as we were, at the edge of this forest,
in this trench, beneath this rain! Never again would we see houses
with the lights glowing in the windows, never again see barns in
which the well-packed hay never got wet. Nor ever again would we
undress ourselves to rest our bodies and free them of this
terrible iciness...."

Then comes the end of endurance and patience:

"It is no longer worth while even to trouble oneself by hoping!"

Heart-rending scenes these, are they not? Is it imperative that they
should be discounted? It is conceivable they may upset, even disgust,
the reader; but because they cause us pain we must not shrink from
them, for it is precisely through the medium of that pain that we
enter into intimate contact and communion with our soldiers; in
compelling ourselves to contemplate these realities, however
unpalatable they may be, we learn to accord our soldiers that
recognition, that admiration, that pity which is their due!

Equally candid are his observations on the morale of the combatants.
There are moments when they are demoralized, when they are afraid,
yes, afraid! During a bombardment, for example:

"With bodies hunched together, heads hidden beneath knapsacks,
muscles strained and contorted, agonizedly awaiting the
nerve-shattering shock of the explosions."

One day the regiment just about to enter the firing-line encounters a
column of wounded making for the clearing stations - a long column
which seems unending, and:

"It is as if, in merely showing themselves, with their wounds and
their bloodstains, with their appearance of exhaustion and their
masques of suffering, they had said to our men: See! It is a
battle that is being waged! See what it has brought us.... Don't
go on! And the men who were going forward looked upon them with
faces anxious and troubled with dread, with eyes wide and fevered,
in the grip of a moral tempest."

Is it necessary to record these weaknesses? It is, because they
represent nothing but the truth, and it is natural that the "living
flesh should shrink," willing not to die. When Henry IV. was on the
point of charging in battle his emotions so overcame him that he was
compelled to dismount from his horse. But for a moment only. And then
he charged! The enemy found it incredible that this man who hurled
himself into the fight as recklessly as any mere carabineer could
conceivably be the king of France himself. And Turenne, trembling in
the face of peril, reprimanded his body, saying: "Thou tremblest,
carcass!" After which he forced himself to go where he least wished to
go. And so is it with our soldiers:

"They are marching; each step they take brings them nearer that
zone where Death reigns to-day, and still they march onwards. They
go to enter that region of death, each with his living body; that
body which, in the clutch of terror, performs involuntarily the
motions of men fighting, eyes straight levelled, finger resting on
rifle trigger; and that must continue as long as may be necessary
notwithstanding the whistling bullets flying by unceasingly,
bullets which often times embed themselves with a horrible, dread
little noise, which makes one swiftly turn one's head as though to
say: 'Hallo! Look!' And looking, they see a comrade crumple up and
say to themselves: 'Soon perhaps it will be I; maybe in an hour or
in a minute or even in this passing second, it will be my turn.'
Then fear makes its kingdom of the living flesh. They are afraid;
unquestionably they fear. But being afraid, they remain at their
posts. And they fight the flesh, compel their bodies to obedience,
because that is as it should be, and because, indeed, they are
men!"

Such is the truth, the reality, which truth and reality, far from
depressing me, gives me strength. I see the soldier as he is, I know
him as he is, I love and admire him with complete confidence!

This work of Genevoix glorifies our poilu: reveals him as a man,
highly strung and impressionable, capable of panic - the work quotes
instances of such panic - but, at the same time, patient despite his
temperament, enduring well-nigh beyond the powers of human endurance;
a grumbler against heaven and earth, desiring always to be able
precisely to account for all things - in particular he wishes to know
where he is going and why he is going! - A jester full of strange quips
and cranks; but docile on the whole, loving those officers who show
they care for him; familiar with those who permit it, with a
familiarity purely deferential; in fine, possessed of attributes and
virtues which defy precise definition, wholly admirable without the
slightest consciousness of it.

On the 12th September, 1914, when Genevoix was perusing a notice
attached to a wall, "printed in letters two hands high," announcing
the victory of the Marne, he watched some soldiers approach to read
the placard in their turn.

"The faces of all of them were mud-stained and hairy to the very
lips ... for the most part they were infinitely wearied and
miserable. Nevertheless, these were the men who had just fought
with a courage and energy more than human; these were the men who
had proved themselves stronger far than German shells and steel;
these men were the conquerors. I should have liked to have told
each one of them of the glow of affection which suddenly surged
through me; affection for these men who have now won for
themselves the admiration and respect of the whole world, who have
sacrificed themselves without ever uttering the word 'sacrifice,'
without seeming conscious of the sublimity of their own heroism!"

The work is not altogether devoid of moments of gaiety; the
conversation of the soldiers to which each contributes his particular
patois; the distribution of rations to the various sections; the
claims which rain down upon the corporal: "What - that sugar! Not a
very fat lump, is it? Why, the pile you just handed the 3rd is almost
double as much!" To which the corporal: "If you are not satisfied go
and make your complaint to the Ministry!"; the cutting up of a quarter
of beef by one, Martin, a miner from the North, armed with a knife
"which had been given to him by a prisoner - a good enough piece of
goods, too, which knife indeed has not its equal among the whole
company for carving up a piece of tough meat" - and the task ended, a
sufficiently difficult one, achieved as it were by the inch, Martin
triumphant, proclaiming himself to be "Some Butcher." Then there is
that lunch which our lieutenant orders on pay-day: an omelette, never
to be forgotten; a slice of juicy ham; most wonderful of jams; hunches
large and thick from a loaf of fresh bread; afterwards a pipe, the
blue, fragrant smoke of which drifts slowly up to the rafters above
us. And following these wonders, the night passed in a bed, with real
sheets and blankets upon it! The memories of other nights are
evoked - rough nights spent on heaps of stones in the fields, or on the
d├ębris of splintered trees which litter the woods, or amid the
humidity and mud of the trenches, or the discomforting dryness of the
stubble-fields - and now, to be covered from head to foot with
bedclothes in a soft, real bed!

"Not yet was our amazement exhausted ... in vain we sought with
every inch of our bodies for some hard spot, for some lurking
corner which would hurt; but no spot or corner was there which was
not soft and warm!... And we lapsed into bursts of laughter; we
expressed our delight and enthusiasm in burlesque, in jokes, each
one of which provoked fresh outbursts of laughter...."

(Censored)

"We, that is to say Porchon and myself: Lieutenant Porchon and
Lieutenant Genevoix."

There could be nothing more delightful than the comradeship existing
between Genevoix of the Ecole Normale and the St. Cyrien, Porchon.
They had been trained for widely different destinies, these two young
men; the Ecole Normale on the one hand, Saint Cyr on the other! And if
they both turned out to be excellent officers, with nothing to choose
between them, that does not merely prove the value of the education
obtained at the Ecole Normale. It proves something better and greater
than that: the deep accord, the healthy unanimity which exists between
French minds. So these two companions count the days gaily; they are
young and they are French.... But Porchon is the gayer of the two;
Genevoix envies him a little for his ready laughter, for the never
failing and welcome good humour, to enter into the spirit of which, he
says, "I compelled myself as though seeking the conquest of a
virtue...."

I like, too, the melancholy underlying this work. This war, foreseen
and predicted, but whose horrors completely transcend the imagination,
this retrograde movement towards the almost forgotten barbarity of a
humanity we thought was marching towards new horizons, was there ever
equal cause for human sadness? And there where the Germans, hailing
from all parts of Germany, of all professions and creeds, steep
themselves to satiation in joys purely cannibalistic, how shall a
soldier of France control his tears, or rather how shall he find heart
to weep?...

I am pleased, too, that those superb sentiments which sustain courage
in moments of superhuman fatigue, which exalt amid perils and horrors,
should be touched upon, however lightly, in the following pages. They
dwell in the inmost heart of us all, hidden by that timidity, that
exaggerated sense of shame, which prohibits us from revealing what is
best and most sacred in ourselves. A few words alone suffice, like
those written after a reunion of officers when a Captain found himself
in command of a Corps, because:

"The Colonel had been wounded, the commander of the 1st Battalion
also had been wounded, while the commanders of the 2nd and 3rd
Battalions had been killed.

"From the expression of the faces about me, from the serenity
reflected in each man's eyes, I gathered we were all ready to face
the future whatsoever it might contain.... It almost seemed we
leaned on one another for support, brothers by the common faith
within us. A grace exalted and fortified us!..."

And how many times does the word "Patrie" occur in these pages? Once
only, as far as I can remember. Genevoix, idling about the trenches
one day, heard the chime of distant bells drifting over the woodlands.
The Germans in their trenches heard the bells, as did our men in
theirs, but they bore not the same message for us as for them. To our
soldiers they said:

"Hope, sons of France! I am quite near you, I, the voice of all
those firesides you have left behind you. To each of you I bring a
vision of that corner of the earth in which his heart is
embowered. I am the heart of your homeland beating against your
heart. Let confidence be always with you, sons of France,
confidence and might always. I rhyme the immortal life of the
Patrie!"

But to the Germans they said:

"Madmen, who believe that France could die! Listen to me: above
the little church, the fragments of whose stained-glass windows
strew the flagstones, the steeple still stands erect. It is from
there I come to you, gaily, mockingly. Through me the whole
village defies you. I can see!... I can see!... Whatsoever you
have done I can see. Whatsoever you may yet do, I also will see.
And I fear you not at all. For I know the day will come when the
weather-cock on the steeple, who stares unceasingly towards the
far horizon, will look down upon your mad, despairing flight,
while the bodies of your numberless dead lie thick over all the
land."

ERNEST LAVISSE.




'NEATH VERDUN




I

CONTACT IS ESTABLISHED


_Tuesday, August 25th._

The order for departure descended upon us like a thunderbolt:
instantly, driven by the apprehension that something or other might
ultimately be forgotten, there ensued a precipitate scurrying here,
there, and everywhere throughout the town. Only with difficulty did I
find the time even to warn those who are dear to me. The last
inspection on the barrack-square was over. Out of the canteen, where I
had gone to snatch a mouthful of food, I rushed, crossed the yard in a
stride, and here you behold me, as erect and stiff as a ramrod, before
files of men in blue coats and red trousers.

I was just in time: the General himself had already reached the right
of my section. I stood with sword at the salute, my right hand
grasping its hilt, my left kneading the greasy paper containing my
recent purchase - a penny-worth of bread and a nameless pork
confection, which perspired.

The General halts before me; young, well set-up in his tunic, with a
face refined and full of energy.

"Good luck to you, Lieutenant."

"Thanks, General."

"Here's my hand, Lieutenant."

Did I not know it? I felt the sandwich being reduced to pulp in my own
hand.

"Don't you feel excited, Lieutenant?"

A touch of legerdemain and my sword has passed into my left hand. I
grip firmly the hand extended to me and answer loudly, distinctly,
fairly meeting his eyes:

"No, General."

And that is a lie: I am highly excited. I should have been ashamed not
to be. There were so many impressions, so many fleeting reflections to
shake me from head to foot! But I well understood that "Don't you feel
excited?" of the General. I said "No:" I spoke the truth.


We were going to Troyes. So at least we were told. From Troyes, we
were evidently to proceed straight to Mulhouse, to occupy and defend
that captured town. This also we were told.

The prospect delighted me. To go to Alsace and remain there was
certainly not so glorious as to have won our way there; but, at the
same time, the prospect was not one to be despised.

We defiled through the town: roadways echoing, handkerchiefs waving,
some laughter, some tears.

A mistake in the route cost us a few additional miles of measured
tramping. Gradually the pace grew easier, for the oldest reservists,
still plump, perspired freely, making no complaint, however.

We saw some of our wounded before the doorway of a large grey
building. They held out at arm's length for our inspection spiked
helmets and little round forage caps with red bands on a khaki ground.

"We also!" we cried. "We are going there, my friends!"

A young workgirl, fair and buxom, smiles upon me, displaying all her
teeth. She has a small, well-poised head and inviting, ruddy cheeks.
Her smile does me a world of good; for I am going to war; the morrow
perhaps will see me in the thick of it!

The train, at last. A mere black line of gaping trucks with a few
first-class carriages. Entraining is a big affair; the young major, a
dark and energetic man, urges his horse from group to group, shouting
directions and commands. A constant murmur arises from the onlookers.
Why in the name of everything has he given the order for the little
tricoloured flags, which a moment since were waving above the marching
battalion, to be removed?...

Slowly we draw out of the station as the eventide descends. The sunset
is sombre, dominated by monstrous clouds of purple and virgin gold.


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