Albert Geouffre de Lapradelle.

War letters from France online

. (page 2 of 6)
Online LibraryAlbert Geouffre de LapradelleWar letters from France → online text (page 2 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tenant L. G. tells this amusing story:

The Boches came to visit us, bringing a convoy

*A reserve force of citizens corresponding roughly to the
German Landsturm.



of wagons to take away the food which we were
expected to leave behind us on our retreat; the
food that they took away in those same wagons con-
sisted of corpses cut to pieces by our "seventy-fives."
A week later to the day we returned their visit. But
they failed to duplicate our politeness. They didn't
send us back home. Truly their Kultur still lacks
something in refinement.

Sometimes there is a touch of bitterness noticeable
in the letters of the men at the front who find their
exploits not quite sufficiently appreciated in the
official communications.

The day before yesterday they did us the honor
of sending us an official communication. We had
been in a fight, had seen loaded ambulances going to
the rear, had crossed woods filled with corpses and
passed ravaged farms; and we said to each other,
"What a battle it has been!" No wonder we were
somewhat astonished to read in our official communi-
cation, "Situation unchanged in the Lorraine and
in the Vosges."

On Thursday the Boches stirred a bit. They
came to see what we were doing. We taught them
the pas de quatre and we played them a pretty tune
for it. They learned their lesson quickly. Two
hundred of them were left on the field. It was not
much and yet the official report simply announced:



"The Germans attacked our outposts between Bla-
mont and Baccarate, and their attack was completely
stopped." In reality they were thrown violently
back on Blamont.

Do not imagine that the soldier is bored. He has
his friends and his sweetheart.

Sweethearts! Don't be astonished. Their names
are Gaby, Madelon and Sylvia. Gaby is a little per-
son, plump, with an odor of wild cherry about her.
I never spend more than ten minutes or a quarter of
an hour with her. Sylvia is more slender and frail.
She smells of the autumn heather and I talk with
her for fifteen or twenty minutes. As for Madelon,
she is a grand lady in her splendid brown dress with
gold trimmings. She is very cultivated, too, and I
spend twenty-five minutes or half an hour with her.
Gaby, Sylvia and Madelon are — pipes. During the
long anxious hours of suspense one hardly knows
what to do. It is impossible to read or write, for
one has to be ready to start at the first signal. So
we smoke our pipes. One of my men carved Gaby
for me from a branch of wild cherry. Madelon and
Sylvia were presents from my subordinate officers.
So much for my sweethearts. As for my friend he
is a very devoted personage, very silent and always
with me. He lies at my feet with his honest brown
eyes fixed on me until he drops asleep. He is a



wonderful scout and guide. Moose is his name —
a black and yellow water dog who got himself
adopted on the tenth of September and has never
left me since.

From time to time interesting events happen. J. F.
writes from the advanced trenches on November 30,
1914, telling how the coffee, which was generally
late, arrived a day in advance:

Ah, the fine surprise ! It was brought by a Boche
who had got lost in the fog. It was a regular god-
send. We gulped down the "juice" with glee, we
even gave the Boche himself some. Then two men
and a corporal led him to the colonel's quarters.

After an excursus on strategy offered with a
layman's modesty, Lieutenant L. turns to poetry and
pens the following:


The moon steals softly o'er the vast gray sky,
And throws along the trench its shadow lean,
Where brave men, scornful of the shrapnel, lie,
Their bed a truss of straw, their roof a screen.
Before each section lies the scanty guard,
The heights above are black with thicket walls.
Past rick and windmill looms the huge facade
Of the cathedral, dumb till vengeance calls.



Sharp from the crest a sudden fusillade
That spreads along the front in enfilade!
The rattling musketry and whistling lead
Wake us to wait in calm restraint, until
A hidden cannon from its earthy bed
Shatters the living air — and all is still. 1

IN THE TRENCHES, December 7, 1914.


Within his palace sat the Emperor,
Worn thin and whetted sharp by the grim Fate
That rules the issue of this troubled age.
Hoping to banish thus his deepening gloom,
He gazed upon a map which showed the World.
Forth from his eyes there flashed a gleam of pride
As soon as he had passed his Empire's bounds.
He looked upon it all, and cried with joy —
"The World — the Universe — shall be my prey/'
But his eyes faded, and he knit his brows,
His heart was wrung with unaccustomed care.
With haughty gesture, then, he took the map,

i La lune glisse dans le champ du grand ciel gris,
Elle eclaire en passant le fond de la tranchee,
Ou nous sommes restes meprisant! les obus,
De la paille pour lit et pour toit, une claie.
Un petit poste git devant chaque section,
Sur la crete, de noir buissons. Dans l'intervalle,
Une meule, un moulin. A droite, a l'horizon,
Muette, jusqu'au chatiment, la cath6drale. . . .

De la crete soudain part une fusillade,

Puis, gagnant tout le front des feux en enfilade,

Et chacun se redresse a leur crepitement

Les balles sifflent, claquent. Mais nous, Impassibles,

Attendons qu'un seul de nos canons invisibles

Ebranle l'air meurtri d'un long dechirement.



But, shaken through with passion, let it fall,

"The Universe," said he, "shall soon be mine,

But not until I shall have crushed forever

The legions of the Czar; while, as for England,

I'll drive her to the utmost ends of earth,

With her, Japan shall be quite blotted out,

Leaving no sign to meet my ocean path.

Austria and France had both been brought to naught,

The French seemed weary of their silent woe;

Three weeks will be enough to throttle them.

Accounts with all the rest will soon be settled,

The English and the Russians, whom we scorn,

My faithful Prussians quickly shall enslave;

My power will overtop Napoleon's,

For treacherous Albion I shall bring to earth,

And the Cossacks, the Czar thinks none can crush,

Shall serve as targets for my great Krupp guns.

The French shall find some grace in my disdain,

For 'tis my wish to rule the Universe

From Paris as my Empire's capital.

Greater than Charlemagne shall I be known.

For to the Continents, all overspread

With Germany, and bowed beneath her yoke,

America will easily be joined.

The whole round world shall have my whim for law,

And over all its races, cowed and chained,

Shall float my eagle, with its sable wings."

He spoke, and over Europe, half asleep,

Let loose the greatest cataract of blood

That History's page has e'er blushed to record.

To block the road whereby he sought his goal,

A little folk set up a scrap of paper.

He answered only: "Punish them straightway!'*

But now, to the amazement of the world,

This little folk took up the gage of war,



Thus by one act keeping their plighted faith,

And strengthening the bonds of the Allies,

While Belgian soil became a Prussian grave.

In vain the Emperor poured forth his troops.

Our own, submerged a moment by their flood,

Took heart from Belgium's heroic stand,

And barred the way to Paris 'gainst the foe.

Von Kluck let slip the prize of victory,

Reft from him by the arrogant disdain

Nursed in the bosom of the Kaiser's heir.

They scarce had time to flee on every side,

Shielded by ramparts built of comrades slain.

In vain these modern Vandals spent their fury

Against the fabric of our sacred fanes.

For, as they fell, our glorious Cathedrals —

Rheims and Louvain — sounded the call to arms ;

And from the foeman's guns the hail of iron

Fell impotent against a living wall.

'Mid all the bloodshed, on the rim of morning,

Appears the rising sun of Victory,

And all our souls, after our days of darkness,

Are kindled into flame by its glad rays.

For, after giving Austria her death wound,

The Russians turn to meet the Prussian foe.

The Man in White, announced of old by Prophets.

Advances, with all Russia at his back.

Beneath the first wave almost overwhelmed,

The Prussians barely make good their escape;

To meet the rising tide about his borders

The whole of William's army scarce sufficed.

But now from France the tide is mounting high;

Fleeing before this merciless array,

Which he, before, had held in such disdain,

He, known to all men as the mighty War Lord,

Sought to escape the vision of his doom,

And like a madman fled across his realm.



Then, in a little hamlet of Alsace,
Retaken by our arms, the villagers
Gathered together at the school, and stood.
A death-like silence reigned, when suddenly-
Appeared before their eyes; — Oh, glorious day! —
Smiling and calm, the General in Chief,
Whose master hand had wrought for them their freedom.
Their hearts and his, all drunk with noble joy,
Melted together in a common rapture.
Then in a voice, tender as a caress,
He spoke: "Henceforth forever are ye Frenchmen !"
No more; but eloquence was never heard
Which better could express his deepest thought.
To these, so long beneath the tyrant's heel,
These simple words meant that from that day forth
They all should have the right to think free thoughts,
To live in freedom on their fathers' lands,
Freely to hail as brother every Frenchman,
And that each household very soon should see
Its scattered sons returning to the hearth,

This young and very brilliant Normalien, twenty-
five years of age, was killed under the following cir-
cumstances, which are described in this letter from
the director of the Ecole Normale:

June 5, 1915.

Lieutenant Leguy was designated to take com-
mand of this half-section. He knew that his mission
was a hard one; but full of confidence in his men
and in himself, he felt equal to his task and never
ceased to repeat: "To conquer without peril is to
triumph without glory." With admirable presence



of mind and calm he organized his attack, and he
himself had sandbags piled up like a stairway, so as
to enable the men to get out more quickly; no detail
escaped him. With untiring activity he went every-
where, encouraging one, explaining to another, giv-
ing all a kind word.

At last, at 14:35 o'clock, after a violent bombard-
ment, the charge was sounded; it was the signal for
the assault. A sharp fire greets our men; the re-
volving cannon, the machine-guns spit without pause ;
shells reach our line in volleys: it is certain death
for any man who shows his head above the parapet.

Lieutenant Leguy, however, climbs the slope, and
calmly leaves the trench, his saber raised; his men,
led by his example, follow him without hesitation,
and this handful of brave men disappears in a cloud
of smoke. . . .

The most part are mowed down; one of them re-
turns, his face bloody, and falls senseless in the
trench. Lieutenant Leguy also returns : he is alone ;
all his men have remained over there; but his mis-
sion is not fulfilled: he is not wounded and he wishes
to go back. He then asks for another handful of
brave men, twenty men ; all those who are there raise
their hands, and he sets out again with them, shout-
ing: "Forward, my children, for France!"

The wave of bullets mows down these volunteers
like the first. Leguy still remains standing with two



or three men; he marches straight towards the Ger-
man trench; he sees it full of Boches; he fires his
revolver at them, and encourages his men to throw
bombs and grenades.

But such heroism could not obtain grace from
death. After a short struggle, he fell, struck by an
exploding shell. He still had the strength to drag
himself to his trench, and after gathering together
his failing forces to give his information to his cap-
tain, and to tell him his fear of seeing the Boches
appearing on our right, he breathed his last, crying :
"Vive la France !"

A comrade from Canada describes the war in the
trenches in the following manner in a letter of
December 20, 1914:

Your cheerful and good letter of November 18th
reached me last night, and I read it over and over
again, so pleased I was to get it.

I shall endeavor in this letter to give you an
idea of what the war looks like as seen by "the fear-
less warrior" I am trying very hard to be, but let
me tell you first that words fail to describe or even
give a faint idea of the awfulness and horrors of the
present war.

A word as to how our positions are built is neces-
sary. For the last two months the war has been a
war of intrenchments ; that is, both the Germans and



the Allies have fortified themselves in deep trenches
in which they are invulnerable. These intrenchments
are made up of three lines of defense. In the first
ones the Germans and the French are so close to-
gether that they can almost converse with each other.
This has caused many funny incidents. For instance,
we often read our French newspapers to the Ger-
mans telling them of their disasters, and they read
theirs afterwards telling us the German story. In
some places the German and French trenches are
not fifty yards apart. In this position no one can
rest or sleep, for they must always be ready to fight
on a second's notice. It is very hard and tiring.

The second line of defense is about two hundred
yards behind the first. In this position one has
also to be ready on a moment's notice, but, instead
of everyone watching as in the first line, sentries take
their turn at guarding in shifts while the rest of the
men can rest and sleep.

The third position is about a mile behind the sec-
ond. There, instead of living in trenches, one lives
in houses, farmhouses, etc., as far as possible, so
that it is much more comfortable. It is also possible
to wash, which cannot be done in the first two posi-
tions because of lack of water.

The troops in the third position are kept for a
case of emergency, to reinforce the first two lines.
It is there that most of the troops are kept.



In any one of the three positions one has to be
always dressed, equipped, with his gun near him.
It makes it very uncomfortable, as we carry a heavy
load of cartridges (five hundred). I have not un-
dressed since I arrived.

Behind the third position are located the hospitals
and the auxiliary services.

The first two positions are made up of trenches
built in three units. The first one is the trench itself,
from which one can shoot and direct his fire against
the enemy. It is open, about six feet deep and three
feet wide. One shoots behind the protection of what
we call in French crenaux, and is thus well protected
from the enemy's bullets. In the forward wall of
this trench are doors conducting by stairs to deep
cellars, built eighteen feet below the surface of the
earth. In these cellars the soldiers take refuge when
under bombardment from the enemy's guns, and they
are absolutely immune from the danger of the
colossal explosions of the Germans' monstrous
obuses. These cellars are only in the second and
third positions, as the Germans cannot bombard our
first position, which is so close to theirs that they
would risk bombarding their own.

Behind the firing trench are located shacks, houses
built of straw, mud and timber, the roofs of which
are at the earth's level. In these we live, sleep and
rest. We do not live in the cellars, because it would



be too insanitary, and it would take too long to get
out of them in case of an attack, when seconds are
worth hours.

The intrenchments are not built in a straight line
but in a broken line, so as to minimize the effect of
an obus falling into any part of the entrenchment.
It only kills a few men, whereas it would clean out
a whole trench built in a straight line, with nothing
to stop its force.

It is useless to say that living in these shacks and
cellars is most uncomfortable. When it rains, which
happens often, they are filled with water and mud;
we cannot make any fire for fear of showing our
position to the enemy, and our food, which is cooked
at the third line, is cold when it reaches us, after
having traveled a mile or two in the open air.

If you add to this that we never wash, that we
are covered with mud and dirt, that we are always
under great nervous tension, that we hardly sleep,
you will understand that after a week of this life
we are thoroughly exhausted. We then get four
days' rest at the third line, which is of great benefit
to our health.

A word now as to the region in which these tragic
events take place. It is in the North of France,
in vast plains where most of the French wheat is
grown, flat, without trees, offering no shelter what-
ever, and desolated with no horizon. To anyone


approaching our battlefield, nothing particular is to
be noticed, except that this year the fields are not
cultivated and seem to be full of big holes; but no
sight of guns, soldiers, trenches ; everything is under
the earth and cannot be seen even at ten yards' dis-

Being located near the sea, the plains are very
misty and damp. It rains eight days out of ten,
and although it is not very cold, we suffer very much
from the humidity in the atmosphere. During the
nights it is usually very dark.

The struggle consists mostly in never-ending artil-
lery duels. All day long and during the night one
hears only the booming of guns, which shake the air
and the earth. I must say that as far as the Germans
are concerned, they seem to be very poor shooters.
I have been in the second position for the last six
days. They are sending us a copious lot of obuses
and shrapnel all the time, and although many of
my comrades, as well as myself, have had many close
escapes from death, they do not succeed in killing
more than two or three men a day, and wounding as
many. And yet firing so many big obuses must cost
them millions every day.

It is under the cover of dark nights that the in-
fantry, both French and German, make their attacks.
The worst one I have seen took place about a week
after I had arrived at the front.



On that day the weather had been very windy
and unsettled all day long. We had been bombarded
very hard by the Germans. When night came, both
the wind and the cannonade had abated. About nine
p.m. I took my turn as our advanced sentry in front
of the trenches of the second position. Just imagine
a night as black as ink, a night worthy of Dante's
Inferno, full of mystery from which the worst could
be expected. One thing struck me when I took my
post. Usually one could see during the night flashes
of light, the explosion of obuses, the white light of
electric projectors or the luminous fuses sent up by
the Germans into the air, to enable them to discover
the French patrols. It was like the most spectacular
exhibition of fireworks. But on that night there was
no light to be seen, nor were the guns booming. I
perceived also in the sky what looked like a star,
but grew brighter and dimmer and moved from left
to right, as if making signals. This turned out to
be a captive balloon.

I thought this strange and unusual, and went to
inform my lieutenant of what was going on. The
lieutenant doubled the number of sentries, and ad-
vised us to keep a sharp look-out, as he thought the
Germans were preparing some bad coup, and indeed
they were.

I resumed my position, walking slowly up and down,
trying very hard to see something in the dark night,



but I could not see much. I could not help thinking,
and this thought would insistently come back to me,
that I was an actor playing the part of some hero
in some dark drama like "La Tosca." My mind was
busy amusing itself with this and other thoughts,
when all of a sudden, without the least previous
notice, a hideous light illuminated the horizon, and
before I could catch my breath a hail of obuses fell
on our trenches, working terrible havoc. The ex-
plosion shook my body, surrounding me with flames
and fire, while I could hear in the far distance the
noise of an intense fusillade and terrifying shouts
and cries, such as would come from a crowd of wild
men. The Germans had gone to the assault of our
first position.

It was so sudden, so spectacular, so impressive
that for a while, to use a vulgar expression, "I
was scared stiff," and could not move. Then, moved
by instinct, I ran to the trenches and made a general
call to arms, and went to knock at the door of our
commander's shack, calling him out, telling him of
what had happened. By that time great excite-
ment was prevailing in the trenches, the men were
coming out of their shacks, seeking the position each
one had to occupy in case of an attack. Officers were
shouting orders that were unheard, while obuses were
falling fast, making a thundering noise, and making
worse the horrors of the night. Some men got


wounded. Some got buried in the earth and mud
thrown up by the explosions of obuses near about.
After a while order was restored in the trenches,
everyone occupying his position, ready to fight, hud-
dling in the bottom of the trenches so as not to be
hurt by the explosions of obuses, which were becom-
ing more and more frequent, and by the storm of
bullets passing over our heads.

In the distance we could hear the echo of a ter-
rible struggle between the Germans and our men of
the first position. From the darkness of the night
came the voice of our commander, "My boys, we
shall have to go forward to the assistance of our
comrades of the first line. I expect everyone to do
his duty. Everyone shall go forward at my order."
In answer the German artillery seemed to redouble the
bombardment. There must have been at least six
batteries spitting death and fire upon the short zone
separating the second front the first position — this
to prevent us from going forward to reinforce our
first position.

Then came the order, "Forward." The field in
front of our trenches looked like an ocean. Under
the effect of the terrific explosions from the German
obuses, the earth was torn up and seemed to form
waves of mud and dust, real waves with white caps
of fine earth that was blown into our eyes and ears.
The explosions were making a kind of artificial light


that was hideous, making things look unnatural and
deformed, outlining their shapes as in a nightmare.

The men hesitated. To leave their shelter in the
trenches looked like sure and instant death. As far
as I am concerned, never before had the sentiment
of the irremediable hopelessness of my case been
so impressed upon me. I thought my last hour had
come. At the price of a great effort I regained my
composure. Men were leaving the trenches, crawl-
ing upon the ground, and I started also to go for-

The ground was soaked from the rain of the pre-
vious days. We had not crawled forward ten feet
before our clothes were wet through, and then it
was such hard work crawling upon the ground full
of holes, with the great weight we had to carry with
us, that I was soon in a great state of perspiration.
I could not tell whether the water or the perspira-
tion drenched me most. I reached the barbed wire
defense of our position, and going through I
scratched my hands, which were bleeding and hurt-
ing me much. At times the wind would blow and
I would shiver from the cold; and all the time I
would hear obuses whistling through the air. Every
time I heard one the question would present itself
to my mind, "Where will it strike the ground?"
Several times they struck so near me that I was
buried under the showers of earth. The noise of



the explosions made my ears bleed. I noticed that
obuses very seldom struck the ground twice in
the same place, so I followed the plan of hiding
myself in the holes formed by the one just exploded,
then I would run to the next one and thus go for-

We had not made half of the distance when the
news came that the Germans had pierced our first
lines, and our men were retreating, disputing every
foot of the ground. We could see the struggle and
the Germans coming upon us.

Then the order came that we should also retreat
and go back to our trenches of the second position,
as we would make a better stand there against the
Germans, while reinforcements were coming to our

2 4 5 6

Online LibraryAlbert Geouffre de LapradelleWar letters from France → online text (page 2 of 6)