Albert Geouffre de Lapradelle.

War letters from France online

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Copyright, 1916, BT


Printed in the United States of America



I. At the Front 3

II. In the Hospital 53

III. In the Heart of the Country 79

IV. The Future 87

V. Last Letter 105



WE used to meet to read our news from France ;
the letters which we had received ourselves
and those which our friends had received, or perhaps
some touching passages copied from a friend's letter
by a sympathetic hand. Sometimes there were brief
cards from the front, hastily penciled between two
alarms ; sometimes there were long missives written
in the enforced leisure of the hospital, in tottering
strokes with the feeling of langorous repose in their
tepid ink. There were letters from mourners, too,
bordered in broad black lines and written in large
determined strokes; and some whose telltale pages
still kept the trace of tears. There were messages of
grief in which the stricken heart of wife or sister
strove in vain to reach or to maintain the supreme
heights of a mother's anguished calm. We read and
re-read these touching letters. We were French, and
it seemed as though they were written to us, to whom-
ever they were addressed. We made a common fund
of them, the better to appreciate their noble courage
and hope. And when our American friends, finding
us after the reading more melancholy and yet more



confident, bowed down with grief but still sustained
in pride, asked hesitatingly, "What news?" our only
reply was to hand them the letters which had arrived
on the week's steamer.

Our American friends, too, found letters from
France in their mail. We lent them ours and they
offered us theirs in return. Among them were letters
from Frenchmen at the front and in the hospitals,
but oftener letters of officials in the service of their
fatherland or from Americans in France in the ser-
vice of humanity. We read these letters with great
interest and wished to copy them. But the Americans
in America are more practical than the Frenchman
in America and much more practical than the French-
man in France. "Why copy these letters?" said
one American friend. "Print them and publish them
for the benefit of your compatriots, the old men and
the women and children who are suffering the torments
of this war." Your kind heart kindled immediately
at this suggestion: you begged our letters of us.
And when you beg, madam — is it always so or only
when you beg for France? — one cannot, one dare
not refuse.

What will our correspondents say? They thought
they were writing for our eyes alone. What re-
proaches may they not heap on us when they see
that we have given to the public their private mes-
sages without more alteration than the elimination



of a few details of too personal or too insignificant
a nature to be printed? Have we the right to allow
these self-revelations of our friends, made in the un-
constraint of privacy, to pass from hand to hand
among strangers? "Yes," you replied, "for out of
all these revelations of courage, of suffering, of hope,
there comes one single great revelation — the heart of
France. And the portrait of the France that we see
in these letters is all the more true, all the more faith-
ful, as it is painted from life, without constraint or
pose, caught without warning and left without re-
touching. Moreover this portrait of France is not
theirs or ours to keep. In this crisis, when every-
one is offering his all to the fatherland, how can
they keep for themselves any part of their experi-
ence — that is, any part of the experience of France —
France, our country which asks nothing but justice,
has nothing to fear from truth?"

From the moment of your response, I was the
accomplice of your purpose. I gave you the best
of my letters. I begged others, even perhaps to the
point of indiscretion. You were persuasive; and
taught by you, I became exacting, some even said
tyrannical. The precious booty was carefully in-
ventoried, catalogued and classified. There were the
letters of the fighters and the wounded, letters to
relatives and friends, letters still more sacred — for
have you not coaxed from me even the letter of a



little child? There were letters from scholars, from
artists, from simple honest people, Frenchmen and
Americans; letters from the front and from the
rear; letters from the hospital and from the hearth-
stone; letters from the country and from the city.
They have all been sorted, translated, annotated by
friendly hands with the delicacy of touch appropri-
ate to pages which record in suffering and sympathy
such noble wealth of courage, pride and undying

We have taken rigorous pains not to alter the
slightest phrase. These letters are the spontaneous
testimony to the moral grandeur of a nation: and
the testimony is not revised, it is simply received.
This is not a work of literature, but a tribute to
humanity. In these few pages, suffering, courage
and hope speak their simple language. And it would
be unpardonable in me, if, after this explanation of
your charitable purpose, I were any longer to keep
those who are anxious to share in the message of
these letters from listening to their sincere and
touching words.

If we put the seashell to our ear, we hear the
eternal murmur of the infinite ocean. Have we not
reason to believe that from a few simple letters we
can hear the heartbeat of a nation?

A. de Lapradelle

July 14, 1915.






ON the eighth of September a troop of soldiers
were retreating from the north. Up to the
very environs of Paris their confidence and
hope remained unshaken. An infantry sergeant
writes :

Our retreat as far as Provins has been exhaust-
ing: marches and counter-marches, engagements, et
cetera, and the Germans chasing us hard all the time
to prevent our crossing the Oise, and then the Aisne,
and then the Marne. I do my duty through it all.

On the ninth of September, the cavalry sergeant
A. F. writes from Alsace:

We have been hearing the enemy's cannon fre-
quently. We all have the greatest confidence. We


are more than ever convinced of the success of
our arms, the final victory that shall crown our
efforts. In spite of our fatigues we shall conquer in
the end.

On the eighth of September, 1914, a lieutenant
writes from Alsace:

Our unit, composed entirely of reservists, as well
as the whole division to which it belongs, was rapidly
assembled, and thanks to the fine spirit animating
every man, we were able to start immediately for the
firing line. We entered Alsace in order to cooperate
in the movement directed against Strasburg. The
movement, as you know, failed. We had to retreat.

During this retreat, foot by foot, there was no
weakening of the endurance of the troops.

In this movement my battery took part in a skir-
mish and in a very violent engagement in which the
number of Germans lost amounted to a high figure.
During eight days of struggle we took only two or
three hours' rest a night. The morale of our troops
has been excellent, and these early affairs show that
our reserve troops may prove a useful factor in the
battles to come. Retiring to recover from our losses
and get some rest, we have resumed our advance.



Little by little we are regaining the lost territory in
the region of the Vosges.

Here the letter was stopped by the receipt of
marching orders. It continued a little later with
the following vivid descriptive passage:

The flames of a village destroyed by shell fire, a
livid moonlight and a terrific storm, such were the
precursors of our entrance this morning into a pretty
village of the Vosges, where a dozen houses were
gutted, burned or totally demolished by shells.
Chickens were pecking at the door-sills of the de-
serted houses. That is war! Our men might have
been put in bad humor by all this. But no ! Their
witty remarks cheered the situation. They are laugh-
ing and chatting now, while the German bombs are
falling not far from us, whistling through the air
with metallic shrieks, followed by frightful explo-
sions. Our men are getting used to this music of a
special style.

But soon the advance was stopped and the soldiers
intrenched. The letter continues September 30:

For the last five days we have made no advance,
being busily engaged in intrenching positions which
seem to be impregnable. When we halt we have a
chance to rest and we have taken full advantage of



these five days of rest with their beautiful sunny
weather to get slicked up a bit. It is a picturesque
scene, this taking a bath between your trunk on the
left (if you can call our little kit-case with its sup-
ply of necessary toilet articles a trunk) and your
uniform on the right, with the revolver within easy
reach to seize in a jiffy if the alarm is sounded. But
once cleaned up and dressed in fresh linen what a
joy it is to stretch out on the grass in the sun with-
out thought of time! For we sleep at any moment
and so peacefully. Suddenly a light touch on the
shoulder : "Lieutenant !" A man stands before you
with his heels together, and with a smile hands
you a bit of paper: "March during the formation
of the Echelons, direction 2. . . . I" We are up
with a jump and get our uniforms buttoned. A crisp
order and the sleepers are on their feet and on their
horses. The horses start with a scratch and a
scramble, the camp is broken. The battery wakes
up too. We are feeding our ogres — modern ostriches
that swallow powder and copper voraciously with an
incredible iron digestion. Then all panting and smok-
ing after their deadly attack on the enemy these
monstrous beasts stop and give us a new period of

The soldiers spent their period of repose talking
with the inhabitants who by the Mayor's proclama-


tion had remained in the villages that had just been
evacuated by the German rear guard.

The good woman in whose house our lieutenant
was quartered told him the following story of the
occupation :

The worthy old lady with a black cap on her
white locks, her face lighted by the flame of the
wood fire burning on the hearth, keeps up a tireless
flow of anecdote, while the little granddaughter at
her side listens with wide open mouth. This woman
seems to me to personify the entire French race,
gifted with a good share of commonsense and with
intelligence not entirely devoid of malicious roguish-
ness. In language filled with an imaginative quality
she describes the departure of her three sons and her
two sons-in-law — all reservists. From two of these
men she has received no word since the war began,
and when one speaks of them a shadow steals over
her face giving it that stamp of grandeur which
grief heroically borne impresses. She told me about
the conversations she had with the Germans many
of whom could speak French; how insufferable and
naive they were in their arrogance. Then she told
of their retreat and the sudden arrival at a gallop
of two little chasseurs, blue as the summer sky, plain
brave little chasseurs ! "What a pity you are on
horseback," she said. "Why, mother?" "Because I
should like to kiss you." "Don't let a little thing



like that stop you," they cried, and were on the
ground in a minute. "What a good kiss I gave
them, monsieur; it was as if one of my own boys
had come back. Then amid cheers and flowers they
rode off toward the forest with a squadron of ten,
on the track of the last Uhlans who had left the
village two hours before. We never saw them again."
Isn't that the very soul of France?

Between the Marne and the Aisne Sergeant A. H.
writes to his uncle on September 26, 1914:

The retreat is over and the offensive resumed at
Provins. We are twelve kilometers west of Rheims,
facing the enemy's center which is making a fine re-
sistance. Their men are fighters and they are well
led. I have seen them hold their ground for hours
at a stretch in the driving rain, which shows that
their morale and their courage are good. Our re-
servists who arrived yesterday and were incorpo-
rated with the regulars have held firm under the
baptism of shells and grape-shot.

On the twenty-eighth of September, 1914, J. T.,
a very quiet man in ordinary life, writes the follow-
ing excited letter, without superscription of date or
place :

Courage good — always on my feet — bullets
through my coat twice — covered with the dirt



plowed up by shells — but as yet uninjured. Will
tell you perhaps some day the tragic details. They
are glorious and sublime. We are bearing every-
thing with absolute confidence in our victory. Vic-
tory ! That was the word on our lips when we parted
at Paris. Let us repeat it, never forgetting the men
who have fallen. If I don't come back you know
that I shall have done my duty.

And the writer kept his word. Wounded by a
bursting shell in January, he was taken to the hos-
pital at Lyon. The wound was slight and he could
write on the twenty-sixth of March:

I am going back to my place in the orchestra

J. D., who has not had a chance to wash for two
weeks, who sleeps on the ground, and has his ears
continuously rilled with the roars of cannon and
musketry, declares with simplicity in a letter of
September 26, 1914:

I love this life of bivouac though the stormy
nights are hard. What I like most about it is being
in the free air and having a feeling of unforeseen
danger, the sense of uncertainty and suspense. When
the cannon is still at night, I hear the groans and
the death rattle of the wounded who have not been
picked up in front of the trenches facing the enemy.



Our recent victories have strengthened our soldiers'
confidence until now they are regular war dogs who
don't interrupt their cooking when the shells rain
around them — not until the pieces fall into the kettle.
Still the war is hard and they are waging it against
us without mercy or humanity. Quite often the
Prussians dispatch our wounded soldiers with a lance
thrust or a blow with the butt of a musket. I know
what I'm talking about for I have seen it.

On the fifth of October, 1914, F. writes from Fou-
concourt in the department of the Somme :

The horrible rain of iron and steel that hundreds
of infernal machines are pouring on us every day
cannot dampen our courage. It is a grand thing
to fight for a holy cause like this of France. In spite
of forty continuous days of battle in the Vosges and
in Picardie, in spite of forty nights passed mostly
in icy weather under the naked stars, in spite of
hunger, rain and forced marches, and in the midst
of horrors, I find myself admiring the sublime for-
ests of the Vosges, the picturesque villages, and the
gay little houses of red brick.

Another soldier writes to his parents on the seventh
of October, 1914:

On reading my letter over I see that I have for-
gotten to tell you the best news of all. The general



in command of our Army Corps has made special
mention of our Battery in the general orders and has
nominated the captain for the Legion of Honor.

At the beginning of the warfare in the trenches,
which the French trooper copied from the German
army, J. B. was working as a digger generally dur-
ing the night or in the foggy weather. On October
11, 1914, he writes:

Our intrenchments are composed of trenches for
the riflemen standing up, and for machine guns flush
with the ground, all connected by cross-galleries lead-
ing to sleeping quarters, to rooms for the care of the
wounded, to subterranean telephone stations, to caves
for provisions — in a word a whole subterranean bar-
racks. Our "seventy-fives" are accomplishing mar-

C. writes:

We have had a severe test in Belgium. Only 126
out of 256 are left in our company and not a single
captain in the regiment. . . . For exactly twenty-
one days we have been living like moles, underground,
solidly intrenched on three hills, only eight or nine
hundred meters from the enemy.

Lieutenant G. in a letter written to reassure his
parents cannot refrain from expressing his wonder
at the fairy-like spectacle presented by Autumn in
the Vosges :



The woods are varicolored. A green meadow, a
large white mansion with broad facade and red roof,
a garden in which two roly-poly little chaps are
playing, all set against the tawny and flashing golds
of the forest, make an idyllic picture. One would
think oneself far removed from anything like war,
if it were not for the fact that two hundred meters
further on one reaches a hamlet of ten or fifteen
houses with but a single one standing intact. Stray
hens were pecking here and there. A shutter was
pounding lugubriously. A nauseating odor exhaled
from the ruins, and side by side on a manure heap
a cow eviscerated by a shell was staring with its
empty eyes at a rooster crowing his deafening cock-
a-doodle-do to the noonday sun. Life and death
side by side. In other villages where there are a
few houses still standing one gets the same impres-
sion. In the midst of the ruins, even under the fire
of the Prussian cannons, which are beginning again
to pour forth destruction, poor folks have come
back to clean their houses and get in their hay.
Life and death side by side ! Indefatigable, like ants
when their hill is destroyed, the men begin to build
anew. Is it not a token of hope for the future of
our fatherland?

There is such literary charm in these simple let-
ters of men who frankly speak their noble thoughts,



that they seem hardly inferior to this beautiful letter
of a young but well-known writer, Louis Madelin,
now Captain Madelin, the historian of Danton and
Fouche, and author of the history of the French
Revolution, which has been recently crowned with
the first grand Gobert prize by the French Academy.
From Verdun, one of the gates of France which the
Germans are especially anxious to break down, Cap-
tain Madelin writes on the fifth of November, 1914:

From the day when the admirable courage of the
Belgians and the opportune movement of General
Joffre defeated their rapid drive, the Germans' hope
of victory was forever gone. Very slowly, to be
sure, but very steadily our grand army is forcing
them back, and our enemy's main task now is to
assure a safe line of retreat. I say, "our grand
army," for it is true that, after certain mistakes
due to inexperience, our soldiers have become the
same grand army that their fathers were, that out
fathers were. They lack nothing of their mettle,
their good humor, their patriotic faith, their martial
spirit, and at the same time they adapt themselves
wonderfully to the modern tactics, to the patient,
tenacious plan of their general and chief, which re-
quires unfailing steadfastness.

I get letters from the front [as if he were not at
the front himself]. I have with the colors three
brothers, two brothers-in-laws, three nephews, eigh-
teen to nineteen years old, and these men are soldiers



of all grades in every rank of the army. They write
letters fairly brimming with courage and zeal. Some
of them have been wounded, but they returned as
soon as possible to the firing line. One of my
brothers took some Alsatian villages. He saw the
colonel and five out of six of the captains of his
battalion of Chasseurs fall. The youngest and sole
surviving captain, he took command of what was
left, led it from the Vosges to the Marne, enforced
marches of forty-five kilometers a day, keeping its
morale intact and losing not a single man. After
fighting like a lion on the battlefield of the Marne
he received his fourth galoon, richly deserved, from
the hands of the general of the army corps. He
wrote me a charming letter from the trenches in the
North, in which he said that his soldiers (like all
the rest) were accomplishing prodigies of valor.
Another of my brothers, on the staff of one of the
corps, dispatched with a message to a regiment of
cavalry, found the regiment without colonel or
major. He put himself at the head of the troops
and hustled a strong force of German infantry. I
have a little devil of a nephew who enlisted at the
age of eighteen and five days later was sent to the
front. He fought like a demon with the light in-
fantry on the Marne and the Aisne, and when his
shoulder was broken by a bursting shell he begged
the doctors to heal it quickly so that he could return



to the front. Eighteen years old! There's your
type of volunteer that shows what a generation we
have in reserve, and with what spirit they will march
to reconquer lost ground. All my life long I shall
remember the first night of my command of a
post in the Woevre, where I used to walk with my
men, the citizens and fathers of the region, every one
of them ready when called on to give his last drop
of blood for the fatherland.

You know how for the last three weeks the Germans
have been spreading the news that Verdun is be-
sieged, taken, destroyed. It is one of our favorite
jokes here. Whenever an} 7 one of us is going to
Verdun we tell him that it is useless to start, seeing
that Verdun is destroyed. But the Germans seem
to make their countrymen swallow any kind of story.
Yesterday I heard a German prisoner being examined
in the office of the colonel to whose staff I am at-
tached. The fellow had been before Verdun for
eight weeks, and yet he stupidly persisted in his
assertion that Verdun was captured. I cannot find
words to express the absolute confidence of our men
in the final success of our arms. Even during those
terrible weeks when General Joffre tested their faith
to its utmost there was no wavering. Equally inde-
scribable are the spirit of genial comradeship and of
self-sacrifice. We would all devote ourselves to
death, we would even devote our young sons to death,



if thereby we could unite Alsace-Lorraine to France
in six months or twelve months or sixteen months,
or in any number of months. I am in the best of
health and spirits.

Then follows a line in which we get a glimpse of
the secret thought of one of those Frenchmen who
are unjustly accused of wishing or having wished for
a war of revenge, whereas in reality they were grow-
ing ever more convinced that France would never
assume the responsibility before history of bringing
on such a war.

I see the dream which I cherished in my childhood,
but which I had begun to despair of ever seeing
realized, now coming true.

From Morcourt in the department of the Somme
on the seventh of November, 1914, F. describes the
warfare of the moles:

Imagine the life that our soldiers are leading at
the present moment; eight days and nights at a
stretch, sometimes even more, in the trenches. And
these men, who are sometimes only eighty meters
distant from the Boches, 1 have to be provisioned.
You see the constant danger to which our reservists

i A slang term applied to the Germans by the French
soldiers in the trenches.



and even our territorials 1 are exposed. One must
confess that our chasseurs are inspired with wonder-
ful courage.

The first of November there was a sudden attack.
We arrived near midnight before a village in which
seven or eight houses were occupied by the enemy.
We took the houses one by one by bayonet charges,
by mining and by cannon. For three days and nights
we stood attack after attack from the enemy. It
is the most terrible conflict that I have ever seen.
We made hundreds of prisoners, and picked up the
wounded whom they quite generally abandoned on
the field. At least four out of every ten spoke French.
Many of them were not more than seventeen or eigh-
teen years old, had seen no military service, and
seemed in a state of great demoralization.

Shall we ever return? What does it matter? We
march on. Some fall, others advance, and the fright-
ful drama continues to unroll before the eyes of the
dazed nations.

From day to day the troops grew more inured
to war. On the fourteenth of November, 1914, Lieu-

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Online LibraryAlbert Geouffre de LapradelleWar letters from France → online text (page 1 of 6)