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Ch. 3: In Lorraine and the Vosges

NANCY, May 13th, 1915

Beside me, on my writing-table, stands a bunch of peonies, the jolly
round-faced pink peonies of the village garden. They were picked
this afternoon in the garden of a ruined house at Gerbeviller--a
house so calcined and convulsed that, for epithets dire enough to
fit it, one would have to borrow from a Hebrew prophet gloating over
the fall of a city of idolaters.

Since leaving Paris yesterday we have passed through streets and
streets of such murdered houses, through town after town spread out
in its last writhings; and before the black holes that were homes,
along the edge of the chasms that were streets, everywhere we have
seen flowers and vegetables springing up in freshly raked and
watered gardens. My pink peonies were not introduced to point the
stale allegory of unconscious Nature veiling Man's havoc: they are
put on my first page as a symbol of conscious human energy coming
back to replant and rebuild the wilderness...

Last March, in the Argonne, the towns we passed through seemed quite
dead; but yesterday new life was budding everywhere. We were
following another track of the invasion, one of the huge
tiger-scratches that the Beast flung over the land last September,
between Vitry-le-Francois and Bar-le-Duc. Etrepy, Pargny,
Sermaize-les-Bains, Andernay, are the names of this group of
victims: Sermaize a pretty watering-place along wooded slopes, the
others large villages fringed with farms, and all now mere
scrofulous blotches on the soft spring scene. But in many we heard
the sound of hammers, and saw brick-layers and masons at work. Even
in the most mortally stricken there were signs of returning life:
children playing among the stone heaps, and now and then a cautious
older face peering out of a shed propped against the ruins. In one
place an ancient tram-car had been converted into a cafe and
labelled: "Au Restaurant des Ruines"; and everywhere between the
calcined walls the carefully combed gardens aligned their radishes
and lettuce-tops.

From Bar-le-Duc we turned northeast, and as we entered the forest of
Commercy we began to hear again the Voice of the Front. It was the
warmest and stillest of May days, and in the clearing where we
stopped for luncheon the familiar boom broke with a magnified
loudness on the noonday hush. In the intervals between the crashes
there was not a sound but the gnats' hum in the moist sunshine and
the dryad-call of the cuckoo from greener depths. At the end of the
lane a few cavalrymen rode by in shabby blue, their horses' flanks
glinting like ripe chestnuts. They stopped to chat and accept some
cigarettes, and when they had trotted off again the gnat, the cuckoo
and the cannon took up their trio...

The town of Commercy looked so undisturbed that the cannonade
rocking it might have been some unheeded echo of the hills. These
frontier towns inured to the clash of war go about their business
with what one might call stolidity if there were not finer, and
truer, names for it. In Commercy, to be sure, there is little
business to go about just now save that connected with the military
occupation; but the peaceful look of the sunny sleepy streets made
one doubt if the fighting line was really less than five miles away...
Yet the French, with an odd perversion of race-vanity, still
persist in speaking of themselves as a "nervous and impressionable"
people!

This afternoon, on the road to Gerbeviller, we were again in the
track of the September invasion. Over all the slopes now cool with
spring foliage the battle rocked backward and forward during those
burning autumn days; and every mile of the struggle has left its
ghastly traces. The fields are full of wooden crosses which the
ploughshare makes a circuit to avoid; many of the villages have been
partly wrecked, and here and there an isolated ruin marks the
nucleus of a fiercer struggle. But the landscape, in its first sweet
leafiness, is so alive with ploughing and sowing and all the natural
tasks of spring, that the war scars seem like traces of a long-past
woe; and it was not till a bend of the road brought us in sight of
Gerbeviller that we breathed again the choking air of present
horror.

Gerbeviller, stretched out at ease on its slopes above the Meurthe,
must have been a happy place to live in. The streets slanted up
between scattered houses in gardens to the great Louis XIV
chateau above the town and the church that balanced it. So
much one can reconstruct from the first glimpse across the valley;
but when one enters the town all perspective is lost in chaos.
Gerbeviller has taken to herself the title of "the martyr town"; an
honour to which many sister victims might dispute her claim! But as
a sensational image of havoc it seems improbable that any can
surpass her. Her ruins seem to have been simultaneously vomited up
from the depths and hurled down from the skies, as though she had
perished in some monstrous clash of earthquake and tornado; and it
fills one with a cold despair to know that this double destruction
was no accident of nature but a piously planned and methodically
executed human deed. From the opposite heights the poor little
garden-girt town was shelled like a steel fortress; then, when the
Germans entered, a fire was built in every house, and at the
nicely-timed right moment one of the explosive tabloids which the
fearless Teuton carries about for his land-_Lusitanias_ was tossed
on each hearth. It was all so well done that one wonders--almost
apologetically for German thoroughness--that any of the human rats
escaped from their holes; but some did, and were neatly spitted on
lurking bayonets.

One old woman, hearing her son's deathcry, rashly looked out of her
door. A bullet instantly laid her low among her phloxes and lilies;
and there, in her little garden, her dead body was dishonoured. It
seemed singularly appropriate, in such a scene, to read above a
blackened doorway the sign: "Monuments Funebres," and to observe
that the house the doorway once belonged to had formed the angle of
a lane called "La Ruelle des Orphelines."

At one end of the main street of Gerbeviller there once stood a
charming house, of the sober old Lorraine pattern, with low door,
deep roof and ample gables: it was in the garden of this house that
my pink peonies were picked for me by its owner, Mr. Liegeay, a
former Mayor of Gerbeviller, who witnessed all the horrors of the
invasion.

Mr. Liegeay is now living in a neighbour's cellar, his own being
fully occupied by the debris of his charming house. He told us the
story of the three days of the German occupation; how he and his
wife and niece, and the niece's babies, took to their cellar while
the Germans set the house on fire, and how, peering through a door
into the stable-yard, they saw that the soldiers suspected they were
within and were trying to get at them. Luckily the incendiaries had
heaped wood and straw all round the outside of the house, and the
blaze was so hot that they could not reach the door. Between the
arch of the doorway and the door itself was a half-moon opening; and
Mr. Liegeay and his family, during three days and three nights,
broke up all the barrels in the cellar and threw the bits out
through the opening to feed the fire in the yard.

Finally, on the third day, when they began to be afraid that the
ruins of the house would fall in on them, they made a dash for
safety. The house was on the edge of the town, and the women and
children managed to get away into the country; but Mr. Liegeay was
surprised in his garden by a German soldier. He made a rush for the
high wall of the adjoining cemetery, and scrambling over it slipped
down between the wall and a big granite cross. The cross was covered
with the hideous wire and glass wreaths dear to French mourners; and
with these opportune mementoes Mr. Liegeay roofed himself in, lying
wedged in his narrow hiding-place from three in the afternoon till
night, and listening to the voices of the soldiers who were hunting
for him among the grave-stones. Luckily it was their last day at
Gerbeviller, and the German retreat saved his life.

Even in Gerbeviller we saw no worse scene of destruction than the
particular spot in which the ex-mayor stood while he told his story.
He looked about him at the heaps of blackened brick and contorted
iron. "This was my dining-room," he said. "There were some good old
paneling on the walls, and some fine prints that had been a
wedding-present to my grand-father." He led us into another black
pit. "This was our sitting-room: you see what a view we had." He
sighed, and added philosophically: "I suppose we were too well off.
I even had an electric light out there on the terrace, to read my
paper by on summer evenings. Yes, we were too well off..." That
was all.

Meanwhile all the town had been red with horror--flame and shot and
tortures unnameable; and at the other end of the long street, a
woman, a Sister of Charity, had held her own like Soeur Gabrielle at
Clermont-en-Argonne, gathering her flock of old men and children
about her and interposing her short stout figure between them and
the fury of the Germans. We found her in her Hospice, a ruddy,
indomitable woman who related with a quiet indignation more
thrilling than invective the hideous details of the bloody three
days; but that already belongs to the past, and at present she is
much more concerned with the task of clothing and feeding
Gerbeviller. For two thirds of the population have already "come
home"--that is what they call the return to this desert! "You see,"
Soeur Julie explained, "there are the crops to sow, the gardens to
tend. They had to come back. The government is building wooden
shelters for them; and people will surely send us beds and linen."
(Of course they would, one felt as one listened!) "Heavy boots,
too--boots for field-labourers. We want them for women as well as
men--like these." Soeur Julie, smiling, turned up a hob-nailed sole.
"I have directed all the work on our Hospice farm myself. All the
women are working in the fields--we must take the place of the men."
And I seemed to see my pink peonies flowering in the very prints of
her sturdy boots!

May 14th.


Nancy, the most beautiful town in France, has never been as
beautiful as now. Coming back to it last evening from a round of
ruins one felt as if the humbler Sisters sacrificed to spare it were
pleading with one not to forget them in the contemplation of its
dearly-bought perfection.

The last time I looked out on the great architectural setting of the
Place Stanislas was on a hot July evening, the evening of the
National Fete. The square and the avenues leading to it
swarmed with people, and as darkness fell the balanced lines of
arches and palaces sprang out in many coloured light. Garlands of
lamps looped the arcades leading into the Place de la Carriere,
peacock-coloured fires flared from the Arch of Triumph, long curves
of radiance beat like wings over the thickets of the park, the
sculptures of the fountains, the brown-and-gold foliation of Jean
Damour's great gates; and under this roofing of light was the murmur
of a happy crowd carelessly celebrating the tradition of
half-forgotten victories.

Now, at sunset, all life ceases in Nancy and veil after veil of
silence comes down on the deserted Place and its empty perspectives.
Last night by nine the few lingering lights in the streets had been
put out, every window was blind, and the moonless night lay over the
city like a canopy of velvet. Then, from some remote point, the arc
of a search-light swept the sky, laid a fugitive pallor on darkened
palace-fronts, a gleam of gold on invisible gates, trembled across
the black vault and vanished, leaving it still blacker. When we came
out of the darkened restaurant on the corner of the square, and the
iron curtain of the entrance had been hastily dropped on us, we
stood in such complete night that it took a waiter's friendly hand
to guide us to the curbstone. Then, as we grew used to the darkness,
we saw it lying still more densely under the colonnade of the Place
de la Carriere and the clipped trees beyond. The ordered masses of
architecture became august, the spaces between them immense, and the
black sky faintly strewn with stars seemed to overarch an enchanted
city. Not a footstep sounded, not a leaf rustled, not a breath of
air drew under the arches. And suddenly, through the dumb night, the
sound of the cannon began.

May 14th.


Luncheon with the General Staff in an old bourgeois house of a
little town as sleepy as "Cranford." In the warm walled gardens
everything was blooming at once: laburnums, lilacs, red hawthorn,
Banksia roses and all the pleasant border plants that go with box
and lavender. Never before did the flowers answer the spring
roll-call with such a rush! Upstairs, in the Empire bedroom which
the General has turned into his study, it was amusingly incongruous
to see the sturdy provincial furniture littered with war-maps,
trench-plans, aeroplane photographs and all the documentation of
modern war. Through the windows bees hummed, the garden rustled, and
one felt, close by, behind the walls of other gardens, the
untroubled continuance of a placid and orderly bourgeois life.

We started early for Mousson on the Moselle, the ruined
hill-fortress that gives its name to the better-known town at its
foot. Our road ran below the long range of the "Grand Couronne," the
line of hills curving southeast from Pont-a-Mousson to St.
Nicolas du Port. All through this pleasant broken country the battle
shook and swayed last autumn; but few signs of those days are left
except the wooden crosses in the fields. No troops are visible, and
the pictures of war that made the Argonne so tragic last March are
replaced by peaceful rustic scenes. On the way to Mousson the road
is overhung by an Italian-looking village clustered about a
hill-top. It marks the exact spot at which, last August, the German
invasion was finally checked and flung back; and the Muse of History
points out that on this very hill has long stood a memorial shaft
inscribed: _Here, in the year 362, Jovinus defeated the Teutonic
hordes._

A little way up the ascent to Mousson we left the motor behind a bit
of rising ground. The road is raked by the German lines, and stray
pedestrians (unless in a group) are less liable than a motor to have
a shell spent on them. We climbed under a driving grey sky which
swept gusts of rain across our road. In the lee of the castle we
stopped to look down at the valley of the Moselle, the slate roofs
of Pont-a-Mousson and the broken bridge which once linked
together the two sides of the town. Nothing but the wreck of the
bridge showed that we were on the edge of war. The wind was too high
for firing, and we saw no reason for believing that the wood just
behind the Hospice roof at our feet was seamed with German trenches
and bristling with guns, or that from every slope across the valley
the eye of the cannon sleeplessly glared. But there the Germans
were, drawing an iron ring about three sides of the watch-tower; and
as one peered through an embrasure of the ancient walls one
gradually found one's self re-living the sensations of the little
mediaeval burgh as it looked out on some earlier circle of
besiegers. The longer one looked, the more oppressive and menacing
the invisibility of the foe became. "_There_ they are--and
_there_--and _there._" We strained our eyes obediently, but saw only
calm hillsides, dozing farms. It was as if the earth itself were the
enemy, as if the hordes of evil were in the clods and grass-blades.
Only one conical hill close by showed an odd artificial patterning,
like the work of huge ants who had scarred it with criss-cross
ridges. We were told that these were French trenches, but they
looked much more like the harmless traces of a prehistoric camp.

Suddenly an officer, pointing to the west of the trenched hill said:
"Do you see that farm?" It lay just below, near the river, and so
close that good eyes could easily have discerned people or animals
in the farm-yard, if there had been any; but the whole place seemed
to be sleeping the sleep of bucolic peace. "_They are there_," the
officer said; and the innocent vignette framed by my field-glass
suddenly glared back at me like a human mask of hate. The loudest
cannonade had not made "them" seem as real as that!...

At this point the military lines and the old political frontier
everywhere overlap, and in a cleft of the wooded hills that conceal
the German batteries we saw a dark grey blur on the grey horizon. It
was Metz, the Promised City, lying there with its fair steeples and
towers, like the mystic banner that Constantine saw upon the sky...

Through wet vineyards and orchards we scrambled down the hill to the
river and entered Pont-a-Mousson. It was by mere
meteorological good luck that we got there, for if the winds had
been asleep the guns would have been awake, and when they wake poor
Pont-a-Mousson is not at home to visitors. One understood why
as one stood in the riverside garden of the great Premonstratensian
Monastery which is now the hospital and the general asylum of the
town. Between the clipped limes and formal borders the German shells
had scooped out three or four "dreadful hollows," in one of which,
only last week, a little girl found her death; and the facade of the
building is pock-marked by shot and disfigured with gaping holes.
Yet in this precarious shelter Sister Theresia, of the same
indomitable breed as the Sisters of Clermont and Gerbeviller, has
gathered a miscellaneous flock of soldiers wounded in the trenches,
civilians shattered by the bombardment, eclopes, old women and
children: all the human wreckage of this storm-beaten point of the
front. Sister Theresia seems in no wise disconcerted by the fact
that the shells continually play over her roof. The building is
immense and spreading, and when one wing is damaged she picks up her
proteges and trots them off, bed and baggage, to another. "_Je
promene mes malades_," she said calmly, as if boasting of the varied
accommodation of an ultra-modern hospital, as she led us through
vaulted and stuccoed galleries where caryatid-saints look down in
plaster pomp on the rows of brown-blanketed pallets and the long
tables at which haggard eclopes were enjoying their evening soup.

May 15th.


I have seen the happiest being on earth: a man who has found his
job.

This afternoon we motored southwest of Nancy to a little place
called Menil-sur-Belvitte. The name is not yet intimately known to
history, but there are reasons why it deserves to be, and in one
man's mind it already is. Menil-sur-Belvitte is a village on the
edge of the Vosges. It is badly battered, for awful fighting took
place there in the first month of the war. The houses lie in a
hollow, and just beyond it the ground rises and spreads into a
plateau waving with wheat and backed by wooded slopes--the ideal
"battleground" of the history-books. And here a real above-ground
battle of the old obsolete kind took place, and the French, driving
the Germans back victoriously, fell by thousands in the trampled
wheat.

The church of Menil is a ruin, but the parsonage still stands--a
plain little house at the end of the street; and here the cure
received us, and led us into a room which he has turned into a
chapel. The chapel is also a war museum, and everything in it has
something to do with the battle that took place among the
wheat-fields. The candelabra on the altar are made of "Seventy-five"
shells, the Virgin's halo is composed of radiating bayonets, the
walls are intricately adorned with German trophies and French
relics, and on the ceiling the cure has had painted a kind of
zodiacal chart of the whole region, in which Menil-sur-Belvitte's
handful of houses figures as the central orb of the system, and
Verdun, Nancy, Metz, and Belfort as its humble satellites. But the
chapel-museum is only a surplus expression of the cure's impassioned
dedication to the dead. His real work has been done on the
battle-field, where row after row of graves, marked and listed as
soon as the struggle was over, have been fenced about, symmetrically
disposed, planted with flowers and young firs, and marked by the
names and death-dates of the fallen. As he led us from one of these
enclosures to another his face was lit with the flame of a gratified
vocation. This particular man was made to do this particular thing:
he is a born collector, classifier, and hero-worshipper. In the hall
of the "presbytere" hangs a case of carefully-mounted butterflies,
the result, no doubt, of an earlier passion for collecting. His
"specimens" have changed, that is all: he has passed from
butterflies to men, from the actual to the visionary Psyche.

On the way to Menil we stopped at the village of Crevic. The Germans
were there in August, but the place is untouched--except for one
house. That house, a large one, standing in a park at one end of the
village, was the birth-place and home of General Lyautey, one of
France's best soldiers, and Germany's worst enemy in Africa. It is
no exaggeration to say that last August General Lyautey, by his
promptness and audacity, saved Morocco for France. The Germans know
it, and hate him; and as soon as the first soldiers reached
Crevic--so obscure and imperceptible a spot that even German
omniscience might have missed it--the officer in command asked for
General Lyautey's house, went straight to it, had all the papers,
portraits, furniture and family relics piled in a bonfire in the
court, and then burnt down the house. As we sat in the neglected
park with the plaintive ruin before us we heard from the gardener
this typical tale of German thoroughness and German chivalry. It is
corroborated by the fact that not another house in Crevic was
destroyed.

May 16th.


About two miles from the German frontier (_frontier_ just here as
well as front) an isolated hill rises out of the Lorraine meadows.
East of it, a ribbon of river winds among poplars, and that ribbon
is the boundary between Empire and Republic. On such a clear day as
this the view from the hill is extraordinarily interesting. From its
grassy top a little aeroplane cannon stares to heaven, watching the
east for the danger speck; and the circumference of the hill is
furrowed by a deep trench--a "bowel," rather--winding invisibly from
one subterranean observation post to another. In each of these
earthly warrens (ingeniously wattled, roofed and iron-sheeted) stand
two or three artillery officers with keen quiet faces, directing by
telephone the fire of batteries nestling somewhere in the woods four
or five miles away. Interesting as the place was, the men who lived
there interested me far more. They obviously belonged to different
classes, and had received a different social education; but their
mental and moral fraternity was complete. They were all fairly
young, and their faces had the look that war has given to French
faces: a look of sharpened intelligence, strengthened will and
sobered judgment, as if every faculty, trebly vivified, were so bent
on the one end that personal problems had been pushed back to the
vanishing point of the great perspective.

From this vigilant height--one of the intentest eyes open on the
frontier--we went a short distance down the hillside to a village
out of range of the guns, where the commanding officer gave us tea
in a charming old house with a terraced garden full of flowers and
puppies. Below the terrace, lost Lorraine stretched away to her blue
heights, a vision of summer peace: and just above us the unsleeping
hill kept watch, its signal-wires trembling night and day. It was
one of the intervals of rest and sweetness when the whole horrible
black business seems to press most intolerably on the nerves.

Below the village the road wound down to a forest that had formed a
dark blur in our bird's-eye view of the plain. We passed into the
forest and halted on the edge of a colony of queer exotic huts. On
all sides they peeped through the branches, themselves so branched
and sodded and leafy that they seemed like some transition form
between tree and house. We were in one of the so-called "villages
negres" of the second-line trenches, the jolly little settlements to
which the troops retire after doing their shift under fire. This
particular colony has been developed to an extreme degree of comfort
and safety. The houses are partly underground, connected by deep
winding "bowels" over which light rustic bridges have been thrown,
and so profoundly roofed with sods that as much of them as shows
above ground is shell-proof. Yet they are real houses, with real
doors and windows under their grass-eaves, real furniture inside,
and real beds of daisies and pansies at their doors. In the
Colonel's bungalow a big bunch of spring flowers bloomed on the
table, and everywhere we saw the same neatness and order, the same
amused pride in the look of things. The men were dining at long
trestle-tables under the trees; tired, unshaven men in shabby
uniforms of all cuts and almost every colour. They were off duty,
relaxed, in a good humour; but every face had the look of the faces
watching on the hill-top. Wherever I go among these men of the front
I have the same impression: the impression that the absorbing
undivided thought of the Defense of France lives in the heart and
brain of each soldier as intensely as in the heart and brain of
their chief.

We walked a dozen yards down the road and came to the edge of the
forest. A wattled palisade bounded it, and through a gap in the
palisade we looked out across a field to the roofs of a quiet
village a mile away. I went out a few steps into the field and was
abruptly pulled back. "Take care--those are the trenches!" What
looked like a ridge thrown up by a plough was the enemy's line; and
in the quiet village French cannon watched. Suddenly, as we stood
there, they woke, and at the same moment we heard the unmistakable
Gr-r-r of an aeroplane and saw a Bird of Evil high up against the
blue. Snap, snap, snap barked the mitrailleuse on the hill, the
soldiers jumped from their wine and strained their eyes through the
trees, and the Taube, finding itself the centre of so much
attention, turned grey tail and swished away to the concealing
clouds.

May 17th.


Today we started with an intenser sense of adventure. Hitherto we
had always been told beforehand where we were going and how much we
were to be allowed to see; but now we were being launched into the
unknown. Beyond a certain point all was conjecture--we knew only
that what happened after that would depend on the good-will of a
Colonel of Chasseurs-a-pied whom we were to go a long way to
find, up into the folds of the mountains on our southeast horizon.

We picked up a staff-officer at Head-quarters and flew on to a
battered town on the edge of the hills. From there we wound up
through a narrowing valley, under wooded cliffs, to a little
settlement where the Colonel of the Brigade was to be found. There
was a short conference between the Colonel and our staff-officer,
and then we annexed a Captain of Chasseurs and spun away again. Our
road lay through a town so exposed that our companion from
Head-quarters suggested the advisability of avoiding it; but our
guide hadn't the heart to inflict such a disappointment on his new
acquaintances. "Oh, we won't stop the motor--we'll just dash
through," he said indulgently; and in the excess of his indulgence
he even permitted us to dash slowly.

Oh, that poor town--when we reached it, along a road ploughed with
fresh obus-holes, I didn't want to stop the motor; I wanted to hurry
on and blot the picture from my memory! It was doubly sad to look at
because of the fact that it wasn't _quite dead;_ faint spasms of
life still quivered through it. A few children played in the ravaged
streets; a few pale mothers watched them from cellar doorways. "They
oughtn't to be here," our guide explained; "but about a hundred and
fifty begged so hard to stay that the General gave them leave. The
officer in command has an eye on them, and whenever he gives the
signal they dive down into their burrows. He says they are perfectly
obedient. It was he who asked that they might stay..."

Up and up into the hills. The vision of human pain and ruin was lost
in beauty. We were among the firs, and the air was full of balm. The
mossy banks gave out a scent of rain, and little water-falls from
the heights set the branches trembling over secret pools. At each
turn of the road, forest, and always more forest, climbing with us
as we climbed, and dropped away from us to narrow valleys that
converged on slate-blue distances. At one of these turns we overtook
a company of soldiers, spade on shoulder and bags of tools across
their backs--"trench-workers" swinging up to the heights to which we
were bound. Life must be a better thing in this crystal air than in
the mud-welter of the Argonne and the fogs of the North; and these
men's faces were fresh with wind and weather.

Higher still ... and presently a halt on a ridge, in another
"black village," this time almost a town! The soldiers gathered
round us as the motor stopped--throngs of chasseurs-a-pied in
faded, trench-stained uniforms--for few visitors climb to this
point, and their pleasure at the sight of new faces was presently
expressed in a large "_Vive l'Amerique!_" scrawled on the door of
the car. _L'Amerique_ was glad and proud to be there, and instantly
conscious of breathing an air saturated with courage and the dogged
determination to endure. The men were all reservists: that is to
say, mostly married, and all beyond the first fighting age. For many
months there has not been much active work along this front, no
great adventure to rouse the blood and wing the imagination: it has
just been month after month of monotonous watching and holding on.
And the soldiers' faces showed it: there was no light of heady
enterprise in their eyes, but the look of men who knew their job,
had thought it over, and were there to hold their bit of France till
the day of victory or extermination.

Meanwhile, they had made the best of the situation and turned their
quarters into a forest colony that would enchant any normal boy.
Their village architecture was more elaborate than any we had yet
seen. In the Colonel's "dugout" a long table decked with lilacs and
tulips was spread for tea. In other cheery catacombs we found neat
rows of bunks, mess-tables, sizzling sauce-pans over kitchen-fires.
Everywhere were endless ingenuities in the way of camp-furniture and
household decoration. Farther down the road a path between
fir-boughs led to a hidden hospital, a marvel of underground
compactness. While we chatted with the surgeon a soldier came in
from the trenches: an elderly, bearded man, with a good average
civilian face--the kind that one runs against by hundreds in any
French crowd. He had a scalp-wound which had just been dressed, and
was very pale. The Colonel stopped to ask a few questions, and then,
turning to him, said: "Feeling rather better now?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. In a day or two you'll be thinking about going back to the
trenches, eh?"

"_I'm going now, sir._" It was said quite simply, and received in
the same way. "Oh, all right," the Colonel merely rejoined; but he
laid his hand on the man's shoulder as we went out.

Our next visit was to a sod-thatched hut, "At the sign of the
Ambulant Artisans," where two or three soldiers were modelling and
chiselling all kinds of trinkets from the aluminum of enemy shells.
One of the ambulant artisans was just finishing a ring with
beautifully modelled fauns' heads, another offered me a
"Pickelhaube" small enough for Mustard-seed's wear, but complete in
every detail, and inlaid with the bronze eagle from an Imperial
pfennig. There are many such ringsmiths among the privates at the
front, and the severe, somewhat archaic design of their rings is a
proof of the sureness of French taste; but the two we visited
happened to be Paris jewellers, for whom "artisan" was really too
modest a pseudonym. Officers and men were evidently proud of their
work, and as they stood hammering away in their cramped smithy, a
red gleam lighting up the intentness of their faces, they seemed to
be beating out the cheerful rhythm of "I too will something make,
and joy in the making."...

Up the hillside, in deeper shadow, was another little structure; a
wooden shed with an open gable sheltering an altar with candles and
flowers. Here mass is said by one of the conscript priests of the
regiment, while his congregation kneel between the fir-trunks,
giving life to the old metaphor of the cathedral-forest. Near by was
the grave-yard, where day by day these quiet elderly men lay their
comrades, the _peres de famille_ who don't go back. The care of this
woodland cemetery is left entirely to the soldiers, and they have
spent treasures of piety on the inscriptions and decorations of the
graves. Fresh flowers are brought up from the valleys to cover them,
and when some favourite comrade goes, the men scorning ephemeral
tributes, club together to buy a monstrous indestructible wreath
with emblazoned streamers. It was near the end of the afternoon, and
many soldiers were strolling along the paths between the graves.
"It's their favourite walk at this hour," the Colonel said. He
stopped to look down on a grave smothered in beady tokens, the grave
of the last pal to fall. "He was mentioned in the Order of the Day,"
the Colonel explained; and the group of soldiers standing near
looked at us proudly, as if sharing their comrade's honour, and
wanting to be sure that we understood the reason of their pride...

"And now," said our Captain of Chasseurs, "that you've seen the
second-line trenches, what do you say to taking a look at the
first?"

We followed him to a point higher up the hill, where we plunged into
a deep ditch of red earth--the "bowel" leading to the first lines.
It climbed still higher, under the wet firs, and then, turning,
dipped over the edge and began to wind in sharp loops down the other
side of the ridge. Down we scrambled, single file, our chins on a
level with the top of the passage, the close green covert above us.
The "bowel" went twisting down more and more sharply into a deep
ravine; and presently, at a bend, we came to a fir-thatched outlook,
where a soldier stood with his back to us, his eye glued to a
peep-hole in the wattled wall. Another turn, and another outlook;
but here it was the iron-rimmed eye of the mitrailleuse that stared
across the ravine. By this time we were within a hundred yards or so
of the German lines, hidden, like ours, on the other side of the
narrowing hollow; and as we stole down and down, the hush and
secrecy of the scene, and the sense of that imminent lurking hatred
only a few branch-lengths away, seemed to fill the silence with
mysterious pulsations. Suddenly a sharp noise broke on them: the rap
of a rifle-shot against a tree-trunk a few yards ahead.

"Ah, the sharp-shooter," said our guide. "No more talking,
please--he's over there, in a tree somewhere, and whenever he hears
voices he fires. Some day we shall spot his tree."

We went on in silence to a point where a few soldiers were sitting
on a ledge of rock in a widening of the "bowel." They looked as
quiet as if they had been waiting for their bocks before a Boulevard
cafe.

"Not beyond, please," said the officer, holding me back; and I
stopped.

Here we were, then, actually and literally in the first lines! The
knowledge made one's heart tick a little; but, except for another
shot or two from our arboreal listener, and the motionless
intentness of the soldier's back at the peep-hole, there was nothing
to show that we were not a dozen miles away.

Perhaps the thought occurred to our Captain of Chasseurs; for just
as I was turning back he said with his friendliest twinkle: "Do you
want awfully to go a little farther? Well, then, come on."

We went past the soldiers sitting on the ledge and stole down and
down, to where the trees ended at the bottom of the ravine. The
sharp-shooter had stopped firing, and nothing disturbed the leafy
silence but an intermittent drip of rain. We were at the end of the
burrow, and the Captain signed to me that I might take a cautious
peep round its corner. I looked out and saw a strip of intensely
green meadow just under me, and a wooded cliff rising abruptly on
its other side. That was all. The wooded cliff swarmed with "them,"
and a few steps would have carried us across the interval; yet all
about us was silence, and the peace of the forest. Again, for a
minute, I had the sense of an all-pervading, invisible power of
evil, a saturation of the whole landscape with some hidden vitriol
of hate. Then the reaction of the unbelief set in, and I felt myself
in a harmless ordinary glen, like a million others on an untroubled
earth. We turned and began to climb again, loop by loop, up the
"bowel"--we passed the lolling soldiers, the silent mitrailleuse, we
came again to the watcher at his peep-hole. He heard us, let the
officer pass, and turned his head with a little sign of
understanding.

"Do you want to look down?"

He moved a step away from his window. The look-out projected over
the ravine, raking its depths; and here, with one's eye to the
leaf-lashed hole, one saw at last ... saw, at the bottom of the
harmless glen, half way between cliff and cliff, a grey uniform
huddled in a dead heap. "He's been there for days: they can't fetch
him away," said the watcher, regluing his eye to the hole; and it
was almost a relief to find it was after all a tangible enemy hidden
over there across the meadow...

The sun had set when we got back to our starting-point in the
underground village. The chasseurs-a-pied were lounging along
the roadside and standing in gossiping groups about the motor. It
was long since they had seen faces from the other life, the life
they had left nearly a year earlier and had not been allowed to go
back to for a day; and under all their jokes and good-humour their
farewell had a tinge of wistfulness. But one felt that this fugitive
reminder of a world they had put behind them would pass like a
dream, and their minds revert without effort to the one reality: the
business of holding their bit of France.

It is hard to say why this sense of the French soldier's
single-mindedness is so strong in all who have had even a glimpse of
the front; perhaps it is gathered less from what the men say than
from the look in their eyes. Even while they are accepting
cigarettes and exchanging trench-jokes, the look is there; and when
one comes on them unaware it is there also. In the dusk of the
forest that look followed us down the mountain; and as we skirted
the edge of the ravine between the armies, we felt that on the far
side of that dividing line were the men who had made the war, and on
the near side the men who had been made by it.

Edith Wharton

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