To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Chapter 3-1

We return to Natalie in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. The installment is a bit longer than usual (which in part explains why it took a while to get done) but I hope people will find it worth the wait.



Near Tarnow, Galicia. March 26th, 1915. For most of the Russian Third Army, the fourth week of March, 1915 was remembered because on the twenty-second the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemyśl finally surrendered. Situated in the Habsburg half of Poland, the stronghold on the River San had been completely surrounded by Russian forces since October, yet its garrison of a hundred and twenty-five thousand men had held out all through the winter. A symbol of the tenacity and disfunction of the empire it defended, the garrison had withstood artillery bombardment and increasing starvation while issuing its daily orders in fifteen different languages: Poles, Austrians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs, and Jews united only in their willingness to resist the Tsar’s army. And yet at last, supplies had run out and the hundred thousand surviving defenders had been led into captivity. Before the Russian army, the way was open to march south across the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary, or West into the heart of German Silesia towards Breslau and Dresden.

At the seventh field hospital’s first unit, however, that week was recalled as the week during which Doctor Sokoloff collapsed with pneumonia and after several days of feverous delirium was sent home on the next hospital train to recover his health. This left the field hospital to be run by four certified nurses, including Natalie as the newcomer; the staff of orderlies, nurses’ aides, and housekeeping sisters who did much of the work but provided little of the medical expertise in the hospital; and one surgeon: Doctor Sergeyev.

Sokoloff had always been the more reclusive of the two doctors, deferring to the eminence of Sergeyev’s Moscow training and retreating to his room with one of his small collection of books whenever he was not on duty. And yet the mere fact of the second surgeon had been enough to provide balance.

“I’ve done with him,” announced Sister Travkin. She poured herself a cup of tea from the samovar. The field hospital had remained in the same place for more than five months now -- a result of the winter weather and the lack of success achieved by either side’s winter offensives -- and during that time all that could be made comfortable had been. The nobleman’s hunting lodge which had been requisitioned for their use had been well furnished, yet there was no place for upholstered chairs and Persian rugs in operating theaters and ward rooms that must be scrubbed clean with carbolic solution every day.

The women’s dormitory had originally been a stable for the owner’s thoroughbreds. Its floor planks were now scoured as clean as any kitchen floor, and the common sitting area was made comfortable with rugs, chairs, and tables taken from the house.

“What’s wrong?” asked Natalie.

“He must go to bed. There’s nothing more to be done about the wards. We are quite capable of seeing to the patients for the rest of the night and there are no more expected. But he’s prowling around like an angry cat finding fault with everything, and I’ve simply done with him. He’s had more than enough out of that medicine flask of his and it’s making him more surly by the hour.”

However critical Sister Travkin might be in the privacy of the women’s sitting area, it was unthinkable to question the surgeon’s behavior to his face. The field hospital had a hierarchy as rigid as any army command, and the surgeon sat untouchable and unquestioned at its top.

This had been the advantage of having another surgeon on the staff. The diffident Doctor Sokoloff had never taken the approach of criticizing or disagreeing with his fellow surgeon. But when Sergeyev became too difficult or went too far in his self dosing using the medicine flask of vodka which he always had with him, a quiet word from one of the sisters had always been enough to get the reclusive doctor to appear and say that he felt he might as well start his shift. Whether or not he realized that he was being managed, this had always been sufficient to encourage Doctor Sergeyev to take himself off to his room and sleep off the day’s exertion, worry, and alcohol.

But now, at least until Doctor Sokoloff returned or a new doctor was sent in his place, there was no alternate authority figure within the hospital and no respected colleague who could offer to take Doctor Sergeyev’s place.

Natalie and Mamushka exchanged a glance from across the room. Then they both, with a flurry of excuses to Sister Travkin, got up and left for the hospital building to see what could be done.

As they reached the steps of the lodge they met Sister Usenko, who was descending with one of the large porcelain-finished pots which were used to carry away the waste collected from bedpans.

“Are there no housekeeping sisters or orderlies on duty?” Mamushka asked, shocked to see a certified nurse doing work which was reserved for those lower in the medical hierarchy.

Sister Usenko gave a sort of sideways nod, a substitute for the shrug that would have risked spilling the container she was carrying. “I don’t mind. It will only take me a minute.”

Mamushka stepped forward and took the bowl from her hands. “You’ve duties enough in the wards. I’ll take this. Go see to the doctor.” She left, bearing away the container towards the waste trench across the yard. For a moment as she passed Natalie caught the scent of warm urine hanging in the cold March night air.

“I know I shouldn’t, but he was so urgent to see it done,” Sister Usenko said, watching the retreating housekeeping sister.

The admission seemed to invite a sort of intimacy. “Is it bad tonight?” Natalie asked.

Sister Usenko’s face seemed to close. “Bad? I don’t know what you mean. The doctor would like to see the wards in proper order before he ends his shift. That’s all.” She turned and led the way back up the stairs with Natalie following in her wake.

They found Sergeyev on the second floor. The bedrooms of the lodge had been stripped of their old furniture and the bare rooms filled with cots, spaced just far enough apart for the nurses to get between them to turn the patients and make the beds.

Three of the rooms had bright yellow cards tacked to the door, marking them as infectious disease wards. These were the rooms which were currently most full, with cases suffering from the various diseases of poor sanitation and exposure to the elements. Through the winter, pneumonia and influenza had predominated. Now, with the thawing of the spring, cholera and typhoid sprang up among the soldiers even as the wildflowers poked up from the tortured earth in which they lived.

The other two rooms, marked with red cards, were for those suffering from battlefield injuries. With the front mostly settled into quiet siege warfare along the established lines, there were few enough of these and most of the beds stood empty.

Looking around from the top of the stairs the nurses saw that the door to one of the infectious disease rooms stood slightly open.

“Who left that door open?” Natalie asked, hurrying to close it. Leaving the door open violated the very purpose of having an infectious ward.

Sister Usenko made a hushing noise. Before she could speak, Doctor Sergeyev pulled the door open and stepped out into the passage, nearly colliding with Natalie as she went to close it. He stumbled to the side to avoid her, and in the awkwardness of the movement she could see that he had indeed had much to drink already.

“Sister Nowakówna. Are you responsible for the state of this ward?” The doctor thrust a regulation grey woolen blanket at her. “Look at this.”

“Sir!” She caught the blanket rather than let it fall from her hands, but only out of habit. This was from the infectious ward. When those blankets and sheets were changed they were carefully gathered into a laundry bag and sealed up before being taken out of the ward. The housekeeping sisters in charge of the laundry boiled them in big copper kettles for half an hour, and those who were responsible for changing the linens in the wards turned their uniforms in for similar treatment and washed their own bodies down with antiseptic solution when they went off shift. With few effective medicines to actually treat such diseases, stopping their spread was the first and most essential line of defense. And here was the doctor, plucking out a blanket which had been steeped with infection since the laundry day last week and thrusting it into her arms. “If there is some fault with the blanket, I can get a new one, but anything from the infectious ward must be collected and laundered properly.”

“Is it proper laundering?” Doctor Sergeyev demanded, “to leave an officer, a cavalry captain, with a blanket so worn it is fraying at the foot?” He stabbed a finger at the area where the threads were thinned with wear and had begun to come apart.

“I can speak with the laundresses, if you desire, sir. But there are only so many supplies that we have.”

“Sister, do not seek to put blame on the laundresses. These are your wards. Both of you.” He pointed an accusing finger first at Natalie and then Sister Usenko. “You. I. All of us are responsible down to every sheet and medicine bottle. I’m aware that we have limited supplies, but where do you think that supplies come from? They come from the support and goodwill of officials and of leading nobles. Does it not occur to you that a captain of the cavalry in particular is likely to be well connected? If he tells Princess This or Countess That we have treated him shabbily, do you think she will be inclined to outfit another hospital train or hold another fete to raise supplies for the troops? Eh? Will she?”

The two nurses remained silent in the face of this speech.

“We will inspect the bedding in every officer ward until I am satisfied that you are treating our patients properly.” Turning on his heel, the doctor started for the next door, one of the wards identified by a red card as for the wounded rather than infectious diseases.

“Doctor!” called Natalie. The words came out so loudly that he drew back just before he grabbed the doorknob.

He turned to face her, and the annoyance was so clear in his expression that Natalie found herself momentarily without words.

“Well, Sister Nowakówna? What is it?”

“I--” Why had she spoken? He was a doctor. He was her superior in training and rank. And he was a man, with all the authority and unpredictability of that sex. But he was going to infect her patients. “I’m sorry, sir, but could you wash your hands at the antiseptic station outside the infectious ward before going into the wound ward, sir? The injured men are more susceptible to infection, sir.”

He glared at her, and with a struggle she held his gaze, though at every moment she wanted to look away. “I don’t spread infection, Sister,” he said, drawing out each word separately and clearly. “I heal infections.” But he did walk back to the basin of carbolic solution which stood outside the infectious ward and dip his hands into it. As he dried his hands off, he turned his gaze back on Natalie. “Do not presume, sister, to tell me what is right to do in my own hospital.” Then he strode to the first wound ward and pushed the door open.

Sister Usenko gave Natalie a shrug and hurried after the doctor. Left alone on the landing, Natalie closed the door to the infectious ward, got a laundry bag from the linen closet, and stuffed the offending wool blanket into the laundry bag. Then she washed her own hands and arms down with carbolic solution.

Doctor Sergeyev’s ad hoc inspection worked through all the officer wards, then out to those for the enlisted men in their large canvas tents. At last, he seemed to run out of energy and could be persuaded to take himself to bed.

Natalie and Sister Usenko looked at each other.

“He cares so much,” said Sister Usenko. “That’s what it is. The idea that anything is undone just tears at him.”

Natalie shrugged, too exhausted to continue the polite facade now that he was no longer in front of them. “He’s not the only one who cares. And he’d do better to express his caring by laying off the vodka and leaving when his shift is over, not harassing the rest of us.”

“He only takes the vodka because he cares so deeply.” Sister Usenko seemed to be pleading as she said it.

Natalie watched her. Love? Admiration? Sister Travkin had muttered darkly about what connection there might be between these two. Perhaps she did love him, at least in some sense. But was there a relationship between these two in this most unromantic of places? Or was it simply that Doctor Sergeyev encapsulated for this woman what it meant to care for the patients to whom they were both devoting all their efforts. Did she love the man or the devotion?

There was no answer in the brown eyes with the dark rings of tiredness below them, the strand of brown hair beginning to slip out from beneath the other nurse’s white veil, the hollow contours of her cheeks. If Sister Travkin could see some illicit dalliance here, to Natalie there was nothing visible but a woman like her, tired from the daily work of caring for the suffering.

No single pattern shaped the days. On some, Doctor Sergeyev remained calm, diligent, and almost courtly in his dealings with the four nurses. One day in early April, when the departure of a hospital train bearing the sick and wounded back to Kiev for further treatment had left the wards nearly empty of patients, he arranged a picnic day. The officers of the nearby regimental staff offered up their mess cooks to prepare a table laden with delicacies, served under white canvas canopies, and for a cool but sunny spring afternoon the nurses in their white uniforms rambled through the tall grass of the hills collecting wild flowers. Eating fresh berries and lemon ice while receiving the gallantries of the officers in their dress uniforms, it was almost possible to forget that on another day they might be required to wield the ether mask and antiseptic solution while the surgeon cut off the limb or patched the bowels of one of these same officers.

Even here, however, the tensions of the hospital were not left behind.

“Look at those two,” Sister Travkin said to Natalie in an undertone, inclining her head to where Doctor Sergeyev kept pace with Sister Usenko was she filled a basket with flowers. “If eyes were off them for a moment, you can see what they would be doing. It’s revolting to see a nurse flaunt herself that way.”

Natalie shrugged. “I don’t see any flaunting.”

“I’m sure you’ve seen it. She constantly defends that drunken oaf and covers for his behavior. He’s a danger to every patient. You’ve seen how he drinks between every operation. How long before he slips and cuts an artery or perforates an intestine? He’d have been sent home long ago if she didn’t make excuses for him.”

“Sent home by whom?” It was true that Doctor Sergeyev’s behavior would not have been allowed to last a day back at the Prince Mikhailov Hospital in Kiev where Natalie had received her training. He drank while on shift. He forgot to bathe his hands in carbolic solution between patients. He walked through the infectious ward as if it were any other room. And yet, as she had quickly learned, the rules of the big city hospital did not apply here in the field hospital. Who was to enforce them? There was no authority above the surgeons, and Doctor Sergeyev was now the only surgeon. Whatever his faults, he was a doctor willing to live for months on end in these primitive conditions, working with short supplies among tents and buildings temporarily converted to hospital use.

Perhaps his many faults were of a piece with his willingness to serve the wounded here. If the soldiers in the trenches were the front lines of the army, field hospitals were the front lines of medical care. When an attack was launched against the Austrian army, they could feel the artillery reverberating in the air. Even as the line of battle wavered forward and back over the weeks and months, it was never more than a half dozen miles distant. The stretcher bearers and supply wagons brought the wounded directly from the lines to their field hospital, and here the casualties received their first (and occasionally their last) care. Those who could be returned to active duty within a few days remained until they were sent back. Those who needed longer treatment were send on the next hospital train to the district or city hospitals. And those for whom there was no hope remained to die.

It was not an easy duty here, and perhaps it was only one like Doctor Sergeyev who was willing to fulfill such duty, or else this duty turned a doctor into a man like Sergeyev.

“Don’t throw your hands up and ask, ‘By whom?’” Sister Travkin said. “There are standards to be enforced, even here. You know that. I see the way you cringe when he doesn’t clean his hands or reapplies an old bandage. But her. She gets that soft womanly look in her eyes and says, ‘He works so hard.’ I’ll tell you what it is. I hear he comes from a rich family back in Moscow. She looks at him and she sees gold trinkets and fur wraps.”

Natalie turned away and went to seek the company of Sister Gorka. As the conflict between the two most senior nurses escalated, Sister Gorka’s quiet had ceased to seem sullen or remote and become instead a welcome calm. A Pole from Lublin, she too spoke French and Polish as well as Russian, and in her little corner of the women’s quarters, Natalie had seen a familiar looking picture of the Virgin dressed in pink and blue rather than the dark Madonna depicted in the icons of the Orthodox.

She found Sister Gorka struggling with her tripod. The ungainly wooden structure with its hinged and telescoping legs required the help of at least one other person to assemble. It was, however, a constant at the field hospital, brought out for occasions great and small. Later Sister Gorka would retreat to a darkened room to develop her negatives and make her prints, and pass around the black and white images for members of the hospital to keep. Natalie herself had, tucked away with her keepsakes, a picture from shortly after her arrival of the four nurses standing together under the hunting trophies in the hospital’s entrance hall. The smiles of that picture seemed from another time now.

“Let me help you.” She pulled one of the tripod legs out to full length and began to work the screws which tightened it in place.

They worked together in silence for some minutes until the tripod stood upright and chest high. Then Sister Gorka unlatched the wooden case in which the camera rested, carefully padded. She screwed into the bottom of the camera the brass fitting which would hold it to the tripod. The camera, with its body of black enamel and silver fittings and its glistening glass eye looking out at them, looked like a visitor from some future world.

“Take a seat for me, in the entrance to the tent,” said Sister Gorka “I want to test the focus.”

Natalie obediently sat down on a folding stool which stood near the entrance to the white canvas awning where the refreshments were being served.

Sister Gorka bent her eye to the viewfinder, gently twisted the focus ring of the lens, and then pressed a button on the side of the camera, which gave a mechanical click.

“I’ll make a print for you,” she promised. “Your white uniform looks very striking against the dark background.”

Suddenly conscious of her hair escaping from underneath her veil, Natalie belatedly reached up to tuck the stray locks away.

“You look fine,” Sister Gorka assured her. She worked the crank on the side of the camera to advance the film and turned, looking for another subject. Two of the officers were standing beneath a tree, their hands resting casually on their sword hilts, chatting and watching as Sister Usenko continued to collect flowers with Doctor Sergeyev by her side.

Natalie remained silent until after she heard the click of the camera, then spoke. “I can’t imagine the work it’s taken to carry the camera and all the supplies for it with you ever since the hospital deployed.”

Sister Gorka shrugged. Conversation with her did not always flow easily. If she was blissfully neutral in the strife between Sister Travkin and Sister Usenko, she also had a peculiar talent for letting conversation die. But after a moment she did respond. “I had the camera before the war but it was only an occasional diversion. My father was a pharmacist with interest in photography, and when I was a girl he let me help him develop and print. That was in the old days of glass plates, you know. I think he was fascinated by the chemistry of it. It had been years since I’d touched a camera, but after he died, when I helped mother clean out the flat and paged through the old albums full of pictures, I found I wanted one, so I took some of the money that came to me and bought the very newest model. Learning about focal lengths and exposure times, and taking the train out to the countryside on my day off to take pictures of the villages and countryside, I could feel Father was still near me.

“When the war came, and all of us nurses in the hospital volunteered for field service, it seemed natural to bring the camera with me. They said the war would only last a few months. It would be history, and I was going to be in it. I’d never been in history before. What better way to document it than with the camera. I’m sure that’s important, but as the months stretched on what made me continue to seek out the film and chemicals was the time I spend in the darkness developing the film and prints. It’s solitary and precise. If I just measure the the chemicals correctly and follow the timer they turn out well. Our hospital work is so much more important, but I can do everything right and have a patient hemorrhage or take an infection. I’m so grateful to have something I can do with my hands which only depends on skill and accuracy. And it’s so quiet. The process doesn’t demand anything of your feelings.”

It was the most that Natalie had ever heard Sister Gorka speak at one time, and now she felt she knew the often silent nurse perhaps better than the others. There was a warmth to this newfound intimacy which was precious. Could it be extended? Could this other woman become a friend and confidant?

Natalie reached for something that she could share, to continue the moment of closeness and show that she appreciated it.

“You’re fortunate to have an activity which connects you to your father.” Stumblingly, she described her girlhood in the school for girls, the letter which had come from her father, her one precious meeting with him, and the discovery that because she was his natural daughter she must never meet him again. In honor of her promise, and for fear of sounding as if she put on airs, she did not name the Count or give his title. Just, My Father. “I wish that there were something which connected me to my father. Or my mother,” she finished.

She waited for the return of confidence from Sister Gorka, but the other nurse’s face remained expressionless. For a long, painful moment the silence drew out between then. Then Sister Gorka shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

She returned to adjusting her camera.

“Excuse me, Sister.” One of the officers, his face aglow, a wine glass in his hand, had approached them, providing a welcome interruption. “Would you take a picture of the whole party?”

The officers and nurses gathered where the rolling fields could serve as a backdrop to the picture. Sister Usenko held her basket of flowers, a riot of bright colors against the dark brown of the wicker basket. The other nurses were luminously monochromatic in their white uniforms, which the sinking sun made to glow against the greens and browns of the landscape. The officers stood around them, the sun glinting off polished leather straps and brass buttons, even amidst their drab brown uniforms. And just to one side of the group, as if an afterthought, stood Sister Gorka, her hand blurred in the picture as she reached to straighten her veil after running to stand amongst them. She had set the mechanical timer of the camera and then rushed to stand by the others as the gears whirred before triggering the shutter.

In the days after Sister Gorka made prints for all who had been in the picture. After the war her copy sat in a little gilded frame on the mantle of her flat back in Lublin, and she would tell visitors about the subsequent histories of all the people in it.

“There was Lieutenant Nikolaev. He was killed by an artillery shell in the May offensive, poor man. And Captain Zelenko, he caught a bad case of cholera and had to be sent to Kiev to recuperate. Lieutenant Bogdanov, the one holding the wine glass, he was the son of a prince. He came through the hospital with a bullet wound in his arm, but he recovered and fought with the Whites during the civil war. Sister Usenko is holding the basket. She sickened in the same cholera outbreak. Sister Travkin, she was a difficult one for all of being so skilled. And Sister Nowakówna. She was quite a woman. I don’t know what would have happened to me if it hadn’t been for her.”

***

During the last weeks of April, the thoughts of the hospital were all of cholera. The warmth of spring had at first seemed a welcome relief after a bitter winter, offering scenic moments such as they enjoyed at Doctor Sergeyev’s picnic. But with tens of thousands living out of doors in poor sanitation, the spring warmth and spring rains led to the tainting of the water supply and all that came with it. The yellow-carded infectious wards filled with cases, and even the hospital staff were not immune to the scourge. Several of the orderlies and housekeeping sisters fell ill, but the worst case was Sister Usenko. Her face was pale and sunken, and they carried her bed from the women’s quarters to a little attic room room in the hospital building. It would not do to have her share the infectious ward with the men.

Down the stairs went the housekeeping sisters, emptying the chamber pot of the reeking white diarrhea which was characteristic of the disease, and up the stairs they came again with bowls of gruel or hot broth, desperately trying to return to her system the fluid and nourishment of which the disease was so ruthlessly purging it.

Doctor Sergeyev visited whenever there was a moment to spare during the double and triple shifts that he assigned himself.

“He must know,” observed Sister Travkin darkly, “that the infection is particularly dangerous to a woman who is in a certain condition.”

Sister Gorka turned away and left silently at this implication. Natalie was on the point of doing them same, but then turned back to Travkin.

“That’s a vile thing to say about a fellow nurse. Especially when she could easily die.”

Sister Travkin shrugged. “I don’t believe telling the truth is ever vile. If it’s an ugly deed the truth reveals, it’s the fault of the person who did it, not the one who tells.”

“Do you know for a fact that...” It seemed wrong to even put the accusation into words. “That this is true? Or are you just telling us your guesses?”

“It’s clear enough to those with eyes to see.”

“Do you know?”


For a moment the two women held each other’s gaze, their mouths set into tight lines. Sister Travkin was the one who looked down first.

“I came into the supply room one night and saw him kissing her,” she said.

“Kissing? Is that all?”

“It’s wholly inappropriate for a nurse to behave that way with a doctor.”

“It is, but children are not begotten by kissing.”

“The begetting follows naturally enough.”

Again for a tense moment their eyes met. This time Natalie turned away. “It’s wrong to accuse her of what you don’t know.”

The accusation ate at Natalie’s mind through the rest of the day, as she changed the bandages of those wounded by war and the bedpans of those brought low by its attendant disease. To have kissed a doctor, and not in some place away from the hospital where they could meet as man and woman rather than as doctor and nurse, but rather in the inner sanctum of the profession. The violation was such that she could understand Sister Travkin’s fury. And yet she could all too easily recall the times when Madame Luterek had considered her a loose woman: Because of Konrad’s unwanted affection. Because of the moment in which she had allowed Borys’s embrace to shelter her from the sorrows of the day.

Might Sister Usenko be similarly accused, held in contempt for a moment that was misunderstood?

She knew how possible it was, and yet to be on the outside, to hear the accusation rather than to be accused, was to see all the ugliness and none of the reason. There was no peace from these thoughts until at the end of her shift Natalie herself took one of the bowls of hot broth and took it up the narrow stairs to the room in the attic where Sister Usenko lay. There the reality of suffering overcame all other thoughts.

Her body lay, pale and hollow, on the narrow bed. Natalie sat next to her and spooned broth into the lips which were cracked from her body’s effort to expel all fluid from it.

Sister Usenko leaned into her as she received the nourishing liquid. This body was not a nurse, with all the professionalism and distance that vocation required. It was not a temptation or a sin. It was the frail body of a child, which asked only for food and warmth and affection which might perhaps keep it alive.

For a long time, even after she had given her all of the broth, Natalie sat with her arm around the other woman, holding her close. Then at last she lay Usenko down to sleep, descended the stairs, and went to the little room where she gave herself the washing down in carbolic solution which the infection protocol required. She went to bed, exhausted but at peace.

The next day brought the turning point. Cholera was a vicious but quick disease. Sister Usenko was able to hold her fluids; the bouts of diarrhea stopped. She was able to sit up on her own and eat normal food. But her strength was gone. It was clear that her convalescence would be long. The field hospital, with its heavy load and few resources, was no place for it. She left on the next hospital train, bringing the field hospitals staff down to three nurses.

Sister Travkin seemed to gain a new balance from this ending, but although she was now the most senior nurse there was little trust between her and the other female staff.

Doctor Sergeyev also became quieter. He no longer took his accustomed double and triple shifts. When his time for the day was over, he went to his room, or for a long walk among the woods.

Thus things continued through the last days of April until the May offensive began.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Chapter 2-3

This section concludes Chapter 2. Chapter 3 will focus on Natalie.


Mourmelon-le-Grand, Champagne , France. May 4th, 1915 Orders to move the regiment to the rear had come in the last week of March. It had been a journey of only fifteen kilometers, a morning’s easy march, to the town of Mourmelon le Grand and the nearby military Camp de Châlons.

The camp had hosted soldiers since Napoleon’s time, and even during the long years of peace had been the site of annual maneuvers. There were rows of large canvas tents where the men had cots to sleep on. As an officer, Henri received a room in the officer’s barracks building. It was small and bare, but it did at least offer a small degree of privacy: a door that he could shut, a window looking out on the dusty street where men marched by at all hours, a bed with a thin mattress, and a small bureau on which he put his photograph of Philomene and the children.

When a town of five thousand is host to an army division three times that size, the needs and wants of the soldiers shape the character of the town. Mourmelon le Grand offered more than the usual small town’s share of bars and brothels. There was even a makeshift theater for watching moving pictures. Soldiers crowding into its chairs could watch by the flickering light of the projector as Inspector Juve pursued Fantômas, the criminal master of disguise, through the streets of their native Paris.

Fewer of the soldiers frequented the church, even during Easter week, which came just after the 4th Division settled in the camp. Attending Easter mass, Henri found himself surround primarily by the women, children, and old people of the town itself. Little girls were in their bright dresses. Several of the boys were wearing miniature uniforms in honor of absent fathers. Too many of the women were dressed in black. Watching these familial scenes was enough to recall Easters of years past, of Philomene putting the children into their best clothes for church, of the rich loaf of brioche for breakfast and the roasted lamb and potatoes for dinner. There were no such comforts in the officers’ mess that night, though there was wine and gin in copious amounts to make up for the everyday nature of the fare. Though few soldiers from the company had appeared in the church on Saturday night, so many were absent from muster on Monday morning as they slept off the effects of the night before that the senior sergeant set the men to cleaning latrines on Tuesday as a penance for failure in devotion to the military laws.

After this initial disruption the division settled into the routine of life behind the lines. The company drilled. They performed fatigue duty. They took long marches to keep the men fit. The mess kitchens served out three times a day food that was monotonous but nonetheless healthy and filling. Wounds, physical and mental, had time to heal, and men who had become thin and sallow during days when all too often hot food could not be brought to the front line trenches due to artillery fire or supply problems gradually regained their health.

With this safety and health, however, came certain discontents. It was nine months since the men had been called up to active duty, and most had received no leave during that time. Despite the drills and training, camp life was incapable of filling all the hours of the day. Different men sought to fill their remaining time in different ways.

The town’s bars were always full, and the number of men under disciplinary action for public drunkenness and for the fights which went with it gradually grew. Such sprees were, at least, fairly quick to recover from. More concerning to the medical section were the number of men being hospitalized for venereal diseases. While the brothels were of at most dubious legality, the army had acknowledged them sufficiently to conduct regular inspections of the women in them in an attempt to control the spread of infection. Yet in the crowded conditions of town and camp, this was not enough to avoid difficulties. When one of the prostitutes became ill, more than two dozen soldiers from the division ended up in the hospital even though she has removed from work as soon as symptoms appeared.

The fate of soldiers injured at the front was uncertain, however much the nation spoke of the field of honor. The pensions that existed for men disabled by the ravages of war were as yet insufficient to keep men off the streets, the rates having been set according to the cost of living during the last war, forty years ago. Everyone agreed, at least, that these conditions would be improved as soon as the Republic had sufficient time to consider the matter. But if the men used up by the war had little recourse, the women used up by those men had none. Those who provided lonely (or simply lustful) soldiers with a solace of companionship for pay were already on the lowest step of society’s ladder. Should they become infected and rejected from the purpose to which they had been relegated, they no had fallback other than begging.

For all these reasons, it seemed best to wink at those instances where soldiers’ women from back home came to stay, forbidden though such visits technically were by military regulations. Not a day passed but Henri and the other company commanders received some report of a soldier’s wife being found in the barracks or a man slipping out of camp at night to visit a woman staying in one of the town’s boarding houses.

Nonetheless, this latest seemed to go too far.

“I have received a letter,” said Henri, holding out the folded piece of paper to Sergeant Sellier. “It is from a Madame Marchal, on whose farm I believe your section was quartered while we were in de Perthes les Hurlus.”

The sergeant did not take the letter, but the way that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other suggested he had some idea what it said.

“Well, sergeant?”

“Is she asking about Marthe, sir?”

“She is indeed asking about her daughter, whom she says she vanished a week ago. She seems to think that you are somehow involved in this.”

“She’s wrong there, sir. That is to say, I had nothing to do with Marthe running away from home. I was as surprised as anyone when she turned up here.”

“So you are involved. And you have this Marthe stashed away somewhere here in town?”

“Hardly stashed away, sir. She’s in a perfectly respectable boarding house. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

Henri sat back in his chair and fixed Sellier with a steady gaze until the sergeant began to shift his weight from foot to foot again.

“What is to be ashamed of is that I am having to deal with letters about the whereabouts of a woman’s sixteen year old daughter. Am I running an infantry company, Sergeant, or a school?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Sellier said, looking at the ground. “I didn’t know she was sixteen,” he added. “She looks older.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant held up his hands, as if cupping a large bosom.

It was impossible to resist a snort of amusement. However, it was equally impossible to allow him to simply laugh it off. “Perhaps you can help me draft the letter then, sergeant. ‘Madame Marchal, I regret to inform you that my sergeant does indeed have your young daughter. However, he would like me to convey to you that he is entirely blameless in the matter because she has large breasts!’”

“I didn’t mean it as an excuse, sir.”

“Well how about if you tell me what you do mean by keeping this woman’s daughter around for your amusement. Running about with your host’s daughter while we were stationed there causes enough resentment. Taking her along with you… I would have expected better judgment from you.”

“It’s not like that.”

“What is it like, then?”

“She’s pregnant, sir.”

This earned a moment of silence, as Henri wondered if he would have to be the first to inform to the aggrieved farmwife.

“She hasn’t told her mother yet,” the sergeant continued. “She ran away to find me and now she’s insisting that I marry her. It’s the damnedest situation, sir.” However fearsome Sellier’s reputation as a labor organizer among the warehouses in Paris, this quintessentially bourgeois set of negotiations appeared to leave him genuinely at a loss.

When Henri had begun the conversation, the purpose had been clear enough. Sellier must be castigated for his reckless behavior and ordered to conduct himself with less scandal. Now it seemed the sergeant might need advice more than a scolding.

“Have a seat,” Henri offered, with a wave of his hand.

Sellier took it, leaned his elbows on his knees, and ran the hand which was not holding his hat through his hair, making it stand on end.

“You’ll have to excuse my indelicacy,” said Henri. “But experience dictates the first question for an officer in this situation is: Do you believe that the child is yours?”

“Must be,” said Sellier. “She was a virgin when I first had her, even if she knew her way around a bit. And she’s not the sort of girl who’d be unfaithful if you were around.”

“And do you want to marry her?”

“I don’t mind, but it’s not that simple.”

“How so? You’re not married already?”

“No! Nothing like that. It’s just-- She says that a civil certificate isn’t enough. She wants to get married in front a priest. Says that otherwise her mother won’t consider it a marriage at all and will beat her fit to kill the child.”

It was a strange sort of piety that would seek to hold the creation of life sacred by taking it, but he had seen enough of the harsh country morality among the farmers in his own village to imagine this description was accurate.

“Well, you know there’s a solution to this problem, don’t you?”

Sellier visibly brightened. “There is?”

“You could marry her in front of a priest.”

He sagged again. “I thought you meant besides that.”

“Is it such a terrible fate? I did it once upon a time, you know.”

“But you’re religious, sir.”

“I wasn’t then.”

“All the worse. Look what it’s done to you.”

Henri shrugged. “It takes different people different ways.” Sellier’s description of his girl did not make her sound the sort likely to make a convert of him.

“It’s a matter of principle,” Sellier said. “I’ve never been religious. It would be dishonest to take it up now. I don’t hold with the church having power over marriage, or anything else for that matter. They had their chance to ally with the people against the rich, and every time they supported the powerful over the common man. Maybe Jesus himself was a radical, but that was a long time ago. Religion nowadays is nothing but a means of oppression and control.”

In this declaration of principles the sergeant regained some of his customary fire.

“Well then,” said Henri. “It sounds like you have your mind made up. You can take this letter with you as a reminder that you and your Marthe need to write to Madame Marchal and let her know where her daughter has got to. And if either of those women tries to force bourgeois convention on you, you just stand on your principles and tell her about how religion is a tool of oppression. She’ll come around.”

The effectiveness of this approach was made clear that night when Sellier slumped into the estaminet favored by the officers and NCOs and ordered a glass of beer.

“What’s this?” called Lieutenant Morel, who had been leading the charge against the forces of sobriety for some time already. “I thought I heard you had adopted a more domestic set of vices.”

Sellier grunted a wordless response and tried to ignore him.

“Come, Sergeant,” Morel went on, unwilling to let his quarry go. “They say, ‘The dairy farmer doesn’t have to pay for milk,’ but there’s another universal truth. The farmer must stay home and attend to the milking, or else the cows will get restless.”

“To the devil with your farmers and cows,” Sellier replied. “Now she won’t even sleep with me, if you must know.”

Morel raised an eyebrow. “That’s closing the henhouse door once the fox is inside, isn’t it?”

Sellier threw his arms out. “Please! She’s unhappy, and there’ll be no peace at all unless I can sort out this marriage problem, to which there’s no solution I can see.”

Lieutenant Rejol waved his fellow lieutenant away. Then he called for two glasses of gin and sat down next to the sergeant. “So I hear your woman wants to get married in front of a priest?”

The sergeant laid out his tale.

“I know that you’re not religious, but have you been baptised?” Rejol asked.

“No, sir. Or is it, ‘Father’?”

“It’s both; I’m only one man. But ‘sir’ will do when we’re having a glass of gin together in uniform.”

“I don’t know that I believe in much, sir, besides justice and the world that we can touch and see. This last year seems to give proof to that. I’ve seen no sign there’s anything of us that keeps on after the body dies. But if I need to get water poured over my head or some such thing so you can give Marthe what she wants, I’ll do it. I’d feel better about it having you do the job, since you’re a comrade of sorts as well as a priest. At least you know what it’s about. If more priests lived down here with the people rather than in their churches collecting their tithes, perhaps religion would be something the common man could believe in.”

“Perhaps it could, sergeant, but I can’t baptize you, if that’s what you mean.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you’ve just told me you don’t believe.”

“What of it? You baptize babies, don’t you? They can’t believe anything.”

“Children are baptized on the basis of their parents’ intention to bring them up in the faith. Their parents answer for them. You, on the other hand, are quite capable of answering for yourself, and if you couldn’t say ‘I do’ when asked if you believe in God and in his Holy Catholic Church, then you can’t be baptized.”

“Am I to lie to you then? Do I have to tell you I believe in God when I don’t if I want to marry Marthe? No offense to you, sir, I’m sure you don’t make the rules, but there’s a reason they talk about lying priests if if that’s the way your church runs things.”

“Calm yourself, Sergeant. I didn’t say that you have to be baptized to get married. It just makes things different.”

Sellier folded his arms and turned a suspicious gaze on Rejol. “Different how?”

“I’ll have to get the bishop’s permission. You’ll have to agree to let Marthe raise your children Catholic. And--”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then I can’t perform the marriage. And since you say Marthe won’t get a civil marriage with you unless you agree to the church marriage as well, you won’t be married to her at all and she’ll probably have the baby baptized anyway -- or send the poor thing off to be raised by the sisters at some home for foundlings. So you might as well agree.”

The sergeant shrugged and knocked back the glass of gin that Rejol had ordered him. “She can raise them Catholic if she wants to. I won’t stop her. But I will tell them it’s a bunch of damned nonsense. Then they can sort it out for themselves.”

“As must we all, Sellier.” Rejol finished his own gin and pushed his stool back from the bar.

“Is that all, sir? What do I have to do now?”

Rejol clapped him on the shoulder. “Go back and tell your woman that I’ll get things sorted out within a few weeks. I’ll write to the bishop here and have the parish read the banns. Meanwhile, you get yourselves off to the city hall and have the mayor marry you in the eyes of state. If we get ourselves sent back to the front and some artillery shell has your name on it, you don’t want to leave her without a widow’s pension.”

“Right. Yes. Back to Marthe and tell her we’re getting married.” Sellier stared down at his glass for a moment. “Just one more, first.” He raised his glass and waved it at the bartender, who approached him.

Lieutenant Rejol turned and started for the door. Henri followed him.

“You’re going to a great deal of trouble for Sellier. It’s good of you.”

Rejol shrugged. “It’s not for him. I don’t know if he’ll make much of a husband, our sergeant.”

“Why then?”

“For that poor child he’s already got on his Marthe. Do you have any idea what it is to be a bastard? The home where I was chaplain back in Paris was full of them. Lonely children taught cruelty by a cruel world. Even if he abandons her or is killed, if this allows that girl to call herself a married woman and live in something like respectability in her town, it’s worth any trouble on my part. Otherwise it’s the street corner for the mother and the orphanage for the child.”

Over the following weeks, the machinery of city, church, and army all lurched themselves into motion on behalf of Sergeant Sellier and his bride. In the city hall of Mourmelon-le-Grand, officiated by the mayor and witnessed by a smattering of the company’s officers and NCOs, Marthe became Madame Sellier in the eyes of the Republic. At the beginning of June, with a formal dispensation from the Archbishop of Reims in hand, Lieutenant Rejol blessed their marriage on behalf of the church in a small ceremony which, due to Sellier’s status as an unbeliever, was held on the steps of town’s gothic church rather than inside..

Madame Marchal had arrived by train the night before the witness the event. As soon as the lieutenant emerged from the church, looking alien to his fellow soldiers in the heavy brocade vestments borrowed from one of the town priests, the farmwife produced a large lace-trimmed handkerchief with which she mopped tears throughout, until at the end she rained down maternal kisses on the bewildered sergeant, declaring him to be the best son-in-law that a mother could wish for.

The officers and soldiers celebrated in their own fashion, invading one of Mourmelon-le-Grand’s better establishments to toast the new husband until he required his two corporals to help him back to the lodgings he shared with Marthe.

Henri pulled the sergeant aside while the festivities were still beginning.

“Here’s the company’s wedding present for you, Sergeant.”

He handed the typewritten piece of paper to Sellier: a fourtee- day leave pass which after long petition Henri had successfully wrested from the regimental staff.

“Two weeks, sir?”

“That’s right, you can take Marthe back to visit Paris.”

“And stay in a real hotel, away from the army. Thank you, sir. Thank you.” The sergeant hugged him and kissed both Henri’s cheeks, already emotional with the first flush of wine and the day’s events.

It had been no small feat to gain this permission from the machinery of army inertia. The rules by which the activated army reserves were governed had been designed, decades before, with a brief, sharp conflict in mind. Provisions were made for professional army soldiers and even those on their two-year conscription to receive leave at intervals. There were no such allowances, however, for the men called up to serve until the end of an emergency. Now, ten months since mobilization with no end in sight, most men had still received no home leave at all. For Henri, with his family trapped on the other side of the lines, this might be of little importance, but for most other men in the regiment, family was just a few hours train ride away in Paris, yet utterly inaccessible.

They saw the newlyweds off on the train platform the next day. Sellier looked strangely unfamiliar in the worn civilian trousers and coat he had dug out of his belongings. Marthe looked like a child dressed up her her mother’s clothes wearing her new best dress, a second-hand yellow silk which Sellier had bought her for the wedding. Had it been impossible to find a dress that fit properly within the strained resources of the small town, crowded with soldiers and depleted of luxuries by the war effort, or was this a way to hide the signs of the baby they were expecting?

She was younger than Philomene had been when Henri had first met her. Perhaps Sellier himself was younger than Henri had been when he had met his wife. The couple climbed aboard the train and waved to the assembled soldiers and officers. Marthe blew a kiss towards them as the train began to chuff off from the station. This local line would take them to Reims, and from there they would catch the train south to Paris.

In the other direction from Reims, less than two hours north on the main line, was his own home, his own wife and children. But that line was cut. There were trenches and artillery and a whole army of invaders that stood between him and that short train ride home. How long before he could go to spend two weeks with his own wife? How many of them would ever enjoy two weeks of peace with their families again?


Read the next installment.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chapter 2-2

I apologize for the long delay -- various events in life intervened -- but this is also a nice long section, almost double the average length. One more section for Henri to come in order to complete Chapter 2.



Near de Perthes les Hurlus: Champagne , France. March 13th, 1915 “A man with that attitude has no business commanding any unit. What example does he set for the men under his command?”

There had been times when Henri had asked himself this same question, but not about matters such as the one needling the inspector commandant facing him. “I understand, sir,” he said, giving a slight bow. “I will speak to Sergeant Sellier about his decorum.”

The commandant’s carefully waxed mustache twitched and he passed his walking stick from one hand to the other. “I would not presume to tell you how to manage discipline in your command, Captain Fournier. But I advise you to do something. I advise it strongly. Pride and discipline are what distinguishes an army from an armed mob. Never forget that, Fournier. We cannot control a mob. We create one to our peril.”

Henri and the commandant exchanged salutes, and then the commandant turned to his car. The corporal wearing transport insignia who had been hanging discretely back while the officers spoke now hurried to open the door of the shiny blue Panhard Levassor, from the hood of which a little 4th Corps flag fluttered. He closed it on the commandant, and turned to give Henri a quick smile and shrug before going around to driver’s door and starting the engine with a full-throttled roar.

As the car churned away, throwing up mud from the rain-soaked road behind it, Henri considered the merits of the situation. If he failed to discuss the incident at all with Sellier, it would encourage more behavior of the same sort. If he took disciplinary action… Sergeant Sellier’s cleaning section was beginning to show real promise as specialized trench fighters. That brought some rough edges. He’d have a few words with the sergeant about the treatment of staff officers visiting from Corps Command, and with luck there would be a chance soon enough for the newly promoted NCO to expend his energies in other ways.

The freshly organized Cleaner Section was quartered at Marchal Farm, a quarter mile outside of the town. The territorial reservists, a battalion of which were engaged in various sapper duties around the 104st Regiment’s sector, had turned a pasture there into a model stretch of trench which Sergeant Sellier had spent the last two weeks drilling his men in assaulting and cleaning.

Henri found the section gathered in the barnyard; the men eating the thick pea soup which provided a frequent supper. The corporals stood up as Henri approached and saluted, while the men went on with their eating, assuming that they were safely below the notice of the officer.

“He’s up at the house, sir,” one of the corporals replied to Henri’s enquiry.

Madame Marchal answered Henri’s knock. Farm women here, as at home, seemed to come in two ages: young and old. This lady was the latter, her face lined and brown, her torso thick, a black kerchief tied over her hair. She could have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty.

“Excuse me, Madame. I am looking for Sergeant Sellier.”

“He’s not here, Captain.”

She made as if to shut the door, but Henri put a hand out to stop it. “His men told me that he was at the farmhouse.”

“I tell you, he’s not here. It’s bad enough with the hired men called up, the cattle requisitioned and us not paid half what they were worth, and soldiers all over the property. Am I a nursemaid now too with so many charges? Unless...” she stopped in mid protest. She turned and shouted back into the house, “Marthe! Marthe!”

At the first shout there was no reply, but as it was repeated more loudly and Madame Marchal advanced on the staircase Henri could hear another woman’s voice shout in reply from upstairs.

“In my room, Mama.”

“In your room doing what?”

“Saying my prayers. I’ll be down presently.”

“Your prayers!” The old woman shrieked the words as a wrathful accusation. “I’ll show you prayers, you slut!” She seized a knobby walking stick from the enameled metal stand by the bannister and advanced up the stairs with surprising speed, banging the stick on the steps and the walls as she sent and shouting with such increasing speed and shrillness that her Champenois accent became impossible to understand. Answering shouts could be heard from upstairs.

Henri took a few steps back from the front door and waited, as Madame Marchal began to rattle at the upstairs door and pound on it with her stick. Then the door opened and the pounding was replaced by a crescendo of voices. A moment later Sergeant Sellier appeared outside, a reddened lump visibly rising on his forehead.

“Good evening, Captain.” The sergeant came to something like attention and saluted. The screams coming from the upper story of the farmhouse suggested Madame was belaboring Marthe with her stick.

“Is someone being hurt?” Henri asked.

“Not seriously, I think, Sir.”

It seemed a bad situation to leave Marthe in, however much fault -- or anything else -- might have lain with her. However the Madame Marchal had clearly seen more than she wanted of the army for the evening, and further intervention might make things worse.

“Walk with me,” ordered Henri, and Sergeant Sellier fell into step beside him. Since the men of the cleaning section were gathered in the barnyard, Henri made for the lane back towards the town. He waited until they had gone a few hundred yards, letting the sergeant contemplate the several reasons why his company commander might want to speak to him. “I heard about your little run in with the commandant from Corps Command.”

If the sergeant’s conscience was tender on this topic he did not show it, for he broke into a laugh. “I thought he would have known when to let a matter lie.”

“Oh?”

“He came out looking the fool, I can tell you.”

“He said I should have you put under arrest.”

This drew another laugh by way of response.

When no further explanation seemed forthcoming Henri said, “Why don’t you tell me your version of the events.”

Sellier shrugged. “I’d divided the section into two groups and set them to doing bombing drills. They’re good. As good as they’re going to be without the chance to practice with real grenades. It’s all very well to tell them to count and know when the five seconds are up it will explode, but they can’t take throwing the dummy bombs seriously until they’ve had more experience using the real thing.”

“I understand, but until we get more supplies in, live grenades are to be saved for use in combat. You’ll get your chance soon enough. Now come to the incident with the commandant.”

“Well, as I say, the men were doing bombing drills, and that fine fellow comes up in his shiny blue car and wants to watch. He says, ‘Where’s the the commander here, soldier?’ and I told him, ‘That’s me.’ Then he began to rant that I was a disgrace and the men would never respect the army or their duty when their officer didn’t bother to shave or clean his uniform or wear proper insignia. I took it in good humor and told him that us front soldiers have enough struggle with the enemy without fighting the battle of the razor every day. But he told me to stop playing the fool. Then I lost my temper and told him that he could go fuck himself, and he drew his pistol and said he wouldn’t allow such vulgar insubordination, that it was next door to mutiny.”

The sergeant cast a sideways glance at Henri, but he was keeping his face carefully neutral.

“I’m not accustomed to letting people threaten me. I told him so. And, it’s possible that I just put a hand on my rifle while I was telling him -- not meaning anything by it, of course. A man has to put his hand somewhere. Perhaps he thought I meant something I didn’t, because he turned red and then white as a petticoat. Then next thing you know he was gone.”

“You spoke disrespectfully to a senior officer and then threatened him with your rifle?”

“Well, perhaps if you were to put it harshly.”

“Isn’t that how he’ll put it when he reports on it at Corps Command?”

“He could, but then he’d have to admit that when a scruffy-looking sergeant touched his rifle, he pulled up his skirts and ran off. He’d sound at least as bad as I would. So if you ask me, he’s likely to keep it quiet.”

There was a maddening logic to this which was hard to answer. It was easy to see in Sellier’s instinctive cleverness, determination to win, and hatred of authority the warehouse labor organizer that he had been in Paris before the war, and it was because of precisely these traits that Lieutenant Rejol had suggested the then-corporal to lead the Cleaner section. And yet, these same traits made him consistently frustrating as a subordinate.

Henri stopped, forcing the sergeant to bring himself up short in the middle of the lane as well. “No doubt you’re right, Sergeant. I hope you are, because it could go badly with you if he tried to force a court martial. But nonetheless this cannot become a repeat performance. The men of your section need you, and I need you. It’s not worth risking all that to put a rude staff officer in his place.”

Sellier’s mouth drew together in a half scown and his bushy eyebrows glowered. He held the pose, half angry, half thinking, for a moment that drew out painfully. Many a warehouse owner had capitulated while fixed with that gaze, but Henri faced it down with bland calm until the sergeant gave a sharp nod.

“All right, sir.” He cocked his head to one side, as if the angle allowed new thoughts to settle into place. “I wanted to put that dress-uniformed shit in his place, but I suppose I should be able to overlook it and feel sorry for him. After all, it’s him that’ll be the loser in this war even more than the soldiers opposite.”

“You think we’ll lose the war?” Henri hadn’t expected defeatism from this quarter. Despite his politics, the sergeant brought plenty of fire to his work.

“What, France lose the war? Of course not. We’ll win in the end. We are fighting to defend our own soil. What reason, in the end, does the German worker have to lay down his life for the Prussian militarist class? But there’s no going back to the plutocracy which led us into this insanity. Mark my words. This is a working man’s war, and when the workers of Europe look back on the blood they have shed to end militarism, there will be a new world. A united Europe. An end to capitalism and nationalism. Professional officers like that stuffed shirt from Corps Command will discover they fought a war to create the socialist paradise. It’s like how when a parasite becomes too successful, it kills the host animal and puts an end to itself.”

There was too much here to argue, and what was the point if it was what kept Sellier fighting? Henri shrugged. “Don’t forget, I was one of those professional officers too. Maybe you can put in a good word for me when the workers’ paradise comes.”

“You’re different. You’re in the line just like the rest of us. I’ve no bone to pick with any man that’s got mud on his boots.”

“Well, in the meantime, keep your section at it with the drills. I suspect we’ll be sent into the line again soon enough.”

***

The spring of 1915 faced the French army command, the Grand Quartier Général led by General Joseph Joffre, with a strategic problem. The sweeping German attack of the summer had been stopped. The long grinding battles of the fall -- from the mountains of Alsace near the Swiss border and the fields of the Marne outside of Paris to the mud of Flanders on the Belgian coast -- had ended any chance for Germany to win the war quickly by encircling the French army as in 1870 or by pushing through to Paris in one quick thrust as they had so nearly done in the opening weeks of the war.

If Joffre had allowed himself to be surprised by the German thrust through neutral Belgium, he had remedied the mistake with his ‘miracle on the Marne’. He had sacked more than fifty generals, weeding out those who have proved panicky or timid on the battlefield. And his army was now fully mobilized and deployed. Over three million French men in uniform now manned the seven hundred kilometer front which stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel. Even setting aside the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian Army, there were four French soldiers for every meter of the front. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they could have formed two unbroken lines stretching the entire length of the battle line. With that massive defensive force dug in to prevent further capture of French soil, and with their Russian allies tying down over a million German soldiers on the Eastern Front, the danger of a further German offensive was for the time being small.

And yet, stopping the German advance was not enough. If it was almost impossible for the Germans to move forward, there was no easy way for the French army to dislodge the more than two million German soldiers still on French soil. Important cities including Lille, Douai, Cambrai, and Sedan remained under German occupation and with them much of the country’s iron, coal, and textile production capacity.

The enemy must be driven from French soil. But from the first attempts at a breakthrough attack during the winter, it was clear that this would take not only a concentration of well-trained and battle-tested men, but an overwhelming quantity of war materiel. Before the attack the German first and second lines must be pulverized for hours or even days. And once the infantry moved forward, long range artillery must drop a curtain of fire between the enemy’s positions and his reserves so that reinforcements could not move forward. Such tactics required artillery shells in the millions. Pre-war stockpiles were depleted. Factories and workers must be converted to war production. In the Chamber of Deputies, officials spoke of a Shell Crisis.

A breakthrough that could end the war would take time. Perhaps in the summer or fall there would be the munitions needed. By then too, the few shattered divisions left of the British pre-war professional army would have been supplemented by the hundreds of thousands of volunteers now training for the new Kitchener Armies across the channel.

But in the meantime, it was unacceptable to sit idly by while German troops occupied French land. Small, regional attacks were the answer. Bite off a small piece of the enemy’s line, and hold it against all attempts at counterattack. Fight by fight the soldiers would learn the art of this new kind of war, and meter by meter they would drive the enemy of France’s sacred soil. General Joffre, known for his appetite and the meals which punctuated his daily routine at GQG had given the tactic a name: Grignotage. Nibbling.

***

Near de Perthes les Hurlus: Champagne , France. March 19th, 1915 It was for one of these nibbles that VI Battalion was ordered back into the front line. There was a bulge in the German line where their trenches followed the contour lines of a slight rise, three hundred meters across and a hundred and fifty deep. On the map in headquarters, this rise was labeled Cote 12. The little stand of trees which had given it this name were now shattered, lifeless trunks, hammered by artillery during the attack of three weeks before, which had failed to take the cote even as other areas of the German front line were captured. Small though it was, Cote 12 was home to a troublesome machine gun, with the habit of dropping indirect fire into a communication trench a kilometer away, where it had often harassed reinforcements and ration parties trying to reach the front line. Rising gently to a height of eight meters on an otherwise flat terrain, the Cote also offered good views of the fields sloping away on all sides, and thus a place where enemy artillery observers could survey the results of their destruction.

For all of these reasons it was deemed necessary to take the Cote. It was a task the regimental planners judged too small to merit any serious artillery preparation. “Assault sections will infiltrate the enemy lines under cover of darkness and eliminate any resistance,” the orders Henri was given explained. “Reserve sections will then move forward to hold the line against any counterattack.”

“This seems like it might benefit from your particular brand of mayhem, sergeant,” Henri said, handing the orders to Sellier.

The sergeant leaned close to the kerosene lantern which shed its yellow light around the dugout which served the company’s officers as both headquarters and bunk room, reading the typewritten sheet which had arrived from the regimental headquarters.

“Tonight. Can we get proper supplies in time, sir?”

“I sent a request back with the runner who brought the orders asking for twelve cases of grenades.”

Sellier hesitated, his lips moving silently in calculation. “That’s not even ten grenades for every man.”

Henri shrugged. “Twelve cases is more than we’ve seen yet. And remember there will be four other assault sections from the other companies in the battalion. They need supplies as well. At least you got your revolvers.”

“We did.” Sellier grinned. “We’ll look like proper officers now with pistols instead of those long rifles and pig stickers.”

The group that assembled in the assault trench shortly after midnight did not look particularly officer-like. The 104th Regiment had not yet received the new, dull blue uniform which was intended to provide better camouflage than the red trousers and dark blue tunics in which they had gone to war the previous autumn. Sergeant Sellier’s solution had been to order his men to roll in the mud until their uniforms became naturally camouflaged. They had left their unwieldy backpacks in their dugouts along with their rifles. Instead each man carried a canvas bag over one shoulder in which he carried his nine or ten grenades. The revolvers which the Cleaner Section had managed to procure, old 1874 models which had been officially replaced by the 1892 revolver issued to officers, had not come with holsters, and so the men carried them thrust under their belts like highwaymen. To complete the piratical look of the assembly, the man had collected a variety of knives, ranging from butcher’s cleavers taken from abandoned houses in the war zone to hunting knives and daggers. These they carried in hand-made scabbards or simply tucked under their belts.

“Are you here to see us off, sir?” Sergeant Sellier asked.

Henri shook his head. “I’ll be coming with you. How better to see your assault tactics in action?”

“Sir, in a night assault, I can’t guarantee your safety.”

“If anyone’s safety is guaranteed in this company, sergeant, I’m unaware of it.”

Doubtless it was little to Sellier’s taste to have a commissioned officer along to witness his cleaning section in action for the first time. Henri had experienced the same unease often enough when some officer from the Regiment of Division insisted upon watching the company in action. It would do the sergeant good to experience the same in his turn. And if trench-clearing sections like this were the future of infantry tactics, Henri was determined to see them in action.

One o’clock arrived, and the men filed silently up the ladders. There was no artillery preparation for this attack and no blowing of whistles or shouting of battle cries. Once at ground level in no man’s land, the four squads moved forward silently in open order. The moon, a sliver of a waxing crescent, had already set, and broken clouds obscured patches of the stars. They made their way by memory along the zig-zagging path through the gaps in their own wire, then crept forward, bent double to avoid being visible against the sky. Even with eyes which had long adjusted to the dark, shell holes and wreckage were only darker patches in a world of shadows. Henri felt before him with his hands before taking each step.

It seemed hours passed as he and the shadowy forms of Sellier’s men traversed the open space between the French wire and the German entanglements less than three hundred meters away. Yet when Henri pulled out his watch and strained to see its hands in the starlight, as the men worked at the German entanglements with wire cutters, he saw that less than ten minutes had in fact passed.

Wire cutters were not in great supply. As the army had planned for war, they had not been among the obvious weapons. And yet, in the war of improvisation, both sides had quickly found that tangles of barbed wire stretched between large x-shaped wooden trestles formed a formidable barrier to prevent men, in masses or even individually, from rushing up to (or away from) an entrenched fortification. Now that both trench lines were protected with this potentially deadly barrier, only two ways of getting through had proved effective: heavy artillery which blasted both wire and trestles to pieces, or long handled cutters which could be used to snip through the heavy wire one strand at a time.

As each strand gave way, the jaws of the cutters gave a metallic click, which in the nighttime silence seemed agonizingly loud. How could the German sentinels have failed to hear them already?

Henri settled down against the ground and waited while the snip, snip of the cutters continued.

It must have been one of the other assault sections that the Germans first heard. There were shouts from somewhere further around the curve of the Cote’s defenses. Rifle shots boomed, and in reply came a series of grenade blasts. Then the machine gun, at its emplacement halfway up the rise, came to life and began to fire sweeping bursts. The flash of its muzzle was visible in the blackness, a sputtering white that left ghostly dazzle marks obscuring the night vision of anyone who looked into it. It was not firing at them. Not yet. The men remained motionless where they crouched or lay. The Germans must now be watching and listening.

A moment passed which seemed immeasurably long. The shots began to die down. Then there was a pop, followed a moment later by a crackling hiss, and the whole area was bathed in the harsh, bright, white light of a flare.

The scene was a jumble of harsh illumination and black shadows, which moved slowly as the flare drifted down. Henri tried to press himself into the muddy slope and become invisible. One moment passed. Two. Three. Then there were shouts from close above up the slope and a rifle blast that was ear splittingly painful. More followed. Henri felt more than heard a bullet slap into the ground within arm’s reach of him.

The soldier closest to him rolled onto his back so that he could reach into his canvas grenade bag more easily. There was a scraping sound which Henry could hear clearly as the man pulled the friction fuse. Then with a straight-armed lob he sent the grenade arcing through the air towards the trenchline above. Several seconds passed, and then there was a flash and explosion from above in the trench.

More explosions followed, while the Germans continued to fire at anything they could see. The machine gun swept over their part of the line and bullets plowed the soil around them. Its emplacement was too far up the slope for even a good throw to land a grenade in it, though the section tried a dozen times, the grenades bouncing back down the slope until they exploded behind the frontline trench instead.

Henri lay still as the firefight continued. He had no grenades. His revolver was in its holster, but there was nothing he could see to shoot it at. If he moved, he would only draw the fire of the now-alerted Germans onto him. The wire was still not cut. The man who had been wielding the cutters was shot as he tried to complete the break in the entanglement, and was slowly crawling back towards the French lines while gripping his bleeding shoulder.

Was there any chance left for the attack to succeed? If there were some way to summon help, some way to tell the battery of 75mm field guns arrayed two kilometers behind the front line precisely where to put their shells to good effect, perhaps they could still have taken Cote 12. But pinned down as they were by enemies that they could not clearly see, blocked by wire entanglements that they could not cut without making themselves easy targets, they were faced with two bad choices: lie in place and hope that the Germans did not see and shoot them, or retreat back to their own lines and present themselves as easy targets while they did so.

It was Sergeant Sellier’s section which had made the attack, along with assault sections from the other companies of VI Battalion. Should he leave Sellier to decide when to pull back? Yet it was Henri’s company, and thus was it was his men who would die here without any real chance of success.

He put his whistle in his mouth.

With the cold metal between his lips, tasting of failure, he hesitated. He was an observer. If he took it upon himself to sound the retreat, would it appear he lacked the courage of the assault troops? Talk, muttered in the front line shelters, could be a dangerous thing. If once the men came to believe their captain lacked the will to remain under fire, how well would they fight when next hard pressed? Perhaps he should leave the decision to Sellier. Or would the sergeant in turn be hesitating for fear of looking weak before his captain?

Trying to avoid making any sound that would give away his position, Henri pulled himself up into a crouch and moved quietly towards the sergeant. From up the slope, there was another pop and hiss. Henri threw himself to the ground next to the sergeant as the white light of another flare flooded the scene with its harsh light.

“Do you think we have any chance of taking the trench now they’ve been alerted?” Henri leaned close and spoke the words into Sellier’s ear, trying to avoid the hissing notes of a whisper.

The sergeant shook his head. “If we were through the wire. But no. Not now.”

“You have to pull back before we lose more men.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll sound the retreat.” Sellier raised his own whistle to his mouth.

“Wait.” In the time it had taken to consult the sergeant a new problem had occurred to Henri. “If you just blow the retreat, most of the men will turn their backs and run for it, and the Germans can send up a flare and shoot them down like so many rabbits.”

“What else can we do? We can’t stay here.”

“We’ll keep one squad here, throwing grenades up into the trench, in order to keep the Germans from turning the retreat into a shooting gallery. Once the other three squads have made it back safely, they can pass the word for our machine gun emplacement to put the Cote under fire, and the last squad can make a run for it.”

Sellier nodded. “I’ll pass the word.” He clambered off on all fours to explain the plan to his squad leaders.

Henri and Sergeant Sellier both stayed with the squad covering the retreat. Some of the men making the run back to their own lines had left their bags of grenades behind, and the dozen men of First Squad were able to keep up a steady rain of grenades on the front line. That kept the nearby German defenders quiet, but the machine gun was not intimidated, and several men fell under its chattering fire during the minute it took them to dash back towards the French lines.

Some lookout must have seen the cleaning squad’s predicament. As they were bunching up at their own wire, slowed by the necessity of getting through the narrow, zig-zagging path through the entanglements, and thus forming a perfect target for the German gunners, the French machine gun came to life, pouring suppressing fire onto the German machine gun and either wounding its crew or causing them to take cover.

“Now!” Henri and Sellier shouted at the same moment, and the men of First Squad jumped to their feet and began running back across no man’s land.

For a moment it was exhilarating to be moving so fast, and away from danger. Despite the age and experience that knew better, it was as if they were invincible. Then with a flash and earsplitting crash the first German mortar shells began to fall among them, and the world became fear and madness.

Artillery shells ripped through the air just below the speed of sound, giving heavy artillery shells their characteric rumble and field artillery a shriek as they approached. It was a topic of morbid discussion whether it was actually possible to tell if a shell was coming right towards you and dive out of the way towards cover. Those who survived to speculate in frontline dugouts might well have been those who were not quite in the path of incoming death. And an unlucky man might just as well dive into the shell’s path as away from it. But the fact that the shells could be heard approaching gave some small illusion of warning. If the shriek or rumble of a shell told you to drop to the ground, silence told you that you were safe. These light mortars, on the other hand, seemed to come from nowhere. At times you could hear the pop of the shell being fired from its tube. Then there was silence as the finned shell about the size of a large apple flew up into the air, came to a momentary pause, and fell powered only by its own weight until striking the ground it triggered the percussion fuse which set off a blast of high explosive and flying fragments, killing or maiming anyone within a meter or two of the impact.

As the first shell exploded a half dozen paces in front of him, Henri instinctively threw himself to the ground. A scattering of dirt which had been thrown up by the explosion pattered down around him. The night was utter blackness after the flash of the explosion had caught him with his eyes open. One second passed. Two. Another shell exploded off to the right. In the momentary flash across the landscape Sellier’s boots were visible working against the ground. He too had dropped for cover, and he was now crawling forward. Two shells exploded at once. That was at least two mortars firing at them.

Henri pulled himself up enough to look forward. It was at most fifty meters to the wire. He could run that in seconds. One or two shells, at the most, that could fall as he ran. Yet every instinct warned that it was foolish to be up and exposed as these blasts went off around him. And getting through the gaps in the wire would mean slowing down.

Another shell fell close enough to shower him with earth. If one came any closer, cowering against the ground would be of no protection.

Safety was back in the trenches. The dugouts went down meters into the chalk which underlay Champagne’s thin topsoil. Even heavy artillery would be of little danger there. Like some small creature of the field in happier times, safety was to be found in getting out of the open and into a burrow.

As the next shell fell a few dozen meters to the left, Henri got to his feet and ran.

“Come on! We’ll be safe back in the lines.”

In the brief flashes of light he could see other men running along with him. Two more mortar shells and he was at the wire. Slowing down enough to thread the twisting path was difficult as mortar shells continued to fall. The barbs of the wire grabbed at his clothes, and in pulling them free he cut his hands. It took a particular kind of discipline to remain still when a mortar shell fell nearby. Every instinct said to drop to the ground, but diving for cover in on this narrow path among the wire would almost certainly mean becoming entangled. At last they were through, and ran the last twenty-five meters to the assault trench they had left less than half an hour before.

For a moment after sliding down into the trench all he could do was breathe. The other men of First Squad were slithering or dropping down the sides of the trench, a few injured, others shaking with tension and exhaustion. One of the men from another squad handed them a bottle and the newcomers passed it from hand to hand. Henri accepted it when it came to him and took a single swig, harsh brandy burning its way down his throat to provide a warmth and calm that gradually spread through his body. It was at that moment that Sergeant Sellier tumbled down the ladder into the trench and shook himself off.

“Are you wounded?” Henri handed him the bottle.

“No.” Sellier took a drink. “How many back so far?”


Between them they counted off the men who had just returned with them. Nine.

“Three still out there. I’ll get the counts from the other squads.” Sellier handed the bottle off to another man and set to looking for his two sergeants and four corporals among the disorganized crowd of his section. Some men sat their their backs against the all of the trench. Some milled about talking softly. Another man slid down the side into the trench, letting out a curse as a wooden wall support dug into his ribs.

“Seven men are missing. Four have gone back to the hospital,” Sellier said, when he returned. “And not damn much accomplished for it.”

“Perhaps a few went to ground and will still make it back.”

Sellier shrugged.

“For now, let’s get the men underground. There’s still a chance of a few hours sleep before dawn stand-to and after this they’ll need it.”

***

Henri was awakened from the dreamless sleep of deep exhaustion by someone shaking his shoulder.

“Morning alert already?”

“Not quite yet, sir. But there’s something you should see.”

Henri followed up the steps from the dugout into the trench. In the pale pre-dawn light, a knot of men were standing on the fire step. Then he heard a long wavering cry, a sound that made his teeth and shoulders clench, a wail of raw suffering that at last trailed off into sobs and ceased.

“What is that?”

Lieutenant Morel turned and gestured for Henri to join him on the fire step. “This happened half an hour ago. Poor bastard.”

Snipers had been a particular problem along this stretch of line, and so a low wall of wooden planks had been built along the top of the trench. The wood could not stop a bullet, of course, but it concealed the heads of men looking towards no man’s land. Henri peered through the narrow gap of the fire slit. The unearthly wail began again, and now his eyes were drawn to its source. A man was trapped amid the wire entanglements which here stood about thirty meters from the front line trench. His body was contorted, as if he had fought against the wires that held him and managed only to tangle himself more deeply among them.

“Who is it?”

“Caubel, from Sellier’s section. He’s badly wounded. Perhaps he’d lost consciousness for a while or become lost in the dark, but he must have determined to make a dash for it as the first hints of light were coming on. The men on watch saw him run toward our lines at the first hints of light. But he must not have seen the wire, because he ran straight into it, and in fighting it he’s only made it worse.”

“Has anyone gone to help him?”

Morel lowered his voice and spoke close to Henri’s ear. “I don’t want to hurt the men’s spirits by being seen to refuse to help a soldier in trouble, but I’m not sure there’s much point. Do you see that hanging down there? I think those are his intestines. Is it worth risking a man’s life to bring in someone who will die soon anyway?”

Again the man gave his desperate, wordless call, and Henri could see the body thrashing amid the wires that held it.

“We can’t just leave him there. Ask if anyone is willing to volunteer to go bring him back.”

Several men offered to go. Morel picked one, and the volunteer climbed over the wooden barricade and then crawled rapidly out to the man trapped in the wire. Getting to him on the far side of the wire took more time but at last the man found a place where he could slip under the wire.

They could see him next to the trapped man, trying to pull him down, but despite tugs that made the trapped soldier give his desperate moan again, he remained stuck. The men on the fire step watched anxiously as the rescuer tried again and again to pull the trapped man down off the wire. At last, he cast caution aside and stood up in order to reach him better.

Then they saw the rescuer pitch forward and crumple. An instant later the rifle shot echoed across the no man’s land to them. Morel swore. The rescuer did not move, but a moment later the trapped man wailed once again.

“God, why couldn’t the sniper have put him out of his misery?” Morel asked.

“Because now he’s bait. No one else is to try a rescue during daylight. If he lasts till night, we can get to him.”

During morning stand to, and breakfast, and through the first watch the desperate cries continued at intervals. Nerves began to wear thin. Fresh wails were followed by cursing. One man sought Henri out and begged for permission to make another rescue attempt.

“Lieutenant Rejol told me you said we mustn’t go until dark, but I can’t stand it any more, sir. I’d rather be shot trying to help him than have to sit all day listening to his agonies.”

“I’m sorry, soldier. You can take a stretch down in one of the dugouts where it’s quiet, but I can’t allow more men to be killed attempting the rescue. That poor fellow won’t survive more than a day or two with that stomach wound even if he is brought in.”

As noon approached, Henri went to look at Caubel again. He was, if anything, more tangled in the wire than before, and in the full light of day it was indeed clear that a stomach wound had left some of his intestines hanging out. How he had survived this long was impossible to understand. At times, a seemingly small injury could kill a man outright. A single, clean bullet hole at times caused instant death. There mere shock of a large explosion near by could kill a man, his insides pulverized but no visible wound on him. Yet here was this man with his innards hanging out, suffering and crying for hours on end, and unable to die.

“This can’t go on,” said Sergeant Sellier, climbing up to stand next to him on the fire step.

“Perhaps he’ll last to sundown and we can rescue him.”

“What for? So he can suffer in the hospital for another day or two before dying of infection?”

Henri shrugged. “Or perhaps there’s mercy in the world and he’ll die soon.”

“I’ll show you mercy in the world.” Sellier turned to one of the soldiers standing nearby. “Give me your rifle.”

The man handed over his Lebel, and Sellier worked the belt to chamber a round, then rested it on the fire slit.

“Sergeant, you can’t just shoot him.”

“Why not, sir?” Sellier was already taking aim.

“Because that’s murder.”

“What else would you call the work we do here, sir?”

“That’s different. You can’t shoot one of our own men, one who’s wounded.”

“Watch me, sir.”

“Sergeant!” Henri put his hand over the rear right of the rifle and Sellier raised his head to give him an annoyed look. He lowered his voice, “If you can reconcile it with your own conscience that’s your affair, but what message are you sending these men if they see you shooting one of your own soldiers?”

“I’m sending them the message that I’d never leave them to suffer needlessly, sir. And I hope they’d do the same for me. What possible purpose is there in letting Caubel hang out there on the wire, crying in pain? Even if we could bring him in now he’s only have a couple days fevered suffering in the medical tents and then die there. If he had a pistol in his reach and his wits about him he’d probably end it himself right now.”

“That’s as may be, but you can’t shoot your own man.”

Sellier pulled the rifle away from Henri’s grasp, took several steps to the side where he was well out of reach, then took careful aim and fired.

Henri turned back to the firing slit. Caubel still hung tangled in the wires. He was not moving. There were no more cries.

Sergeant Sellier handed the rifle back to the soldier who had given it to him. “The misery’s over for him.”

That night, once the moon was down, Lieutenant Rejol climbed out of the trench and crawled out to where the body hung. He untangled Caubel’s body from the wire and carried it back to the trench. Then he made a second trip to bring back the body of Caubel’s would-be rescuer.

“Why did you risk your life for that?” Henri asked, when he heard about it next morning. “I’m not so flush with good lieutenants that I can afford to lose one to a sniper.”

“It’s Lent,” Rejol observed. “You’re a religious man, aren’t you, captain? Haven’t you been praying your stations of the cross?”

“What about it?”

“The thirteenth station. We still owe respect to the body, even after it is dead.”

On the third day, the regiment was ordered back to reserve positions, out of the front line. They took their dead with them, and in the makeshift cemetery behind the field hospital, with its rows of rough wooden crosses, Rejol said a funeral mass, a black and gold stole draped over the shoulders of his uniform tunic. Most of the company attended.

Read the next installment.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chapter 2-1

This took longer than I'd expected, but I hope you'll enjoy it now it's here. We're with Henri, on the front lines.


7th Division Headquarters: Champagne , France. February 26th, 1915 The staff officer bore the same captain’s insignia as Henri, yet the difference in status between a captain on the divisional staff and a captain commanding an infantry company was clear. Captain Vasseur looked to be little more than thirty. His hair and mustache were carefully trimmed. His gold rimmed glasses would have looked just as appropriate in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. The uniform tunic he wore was new and of the pale Horizon Blue color which was only just being issued and had not yet made its way to the 104th Régiment d'Infanterie where the more muted colors might have actually helped the men blend into their surroundings better than the dark blue coats and red trousers of the old uniforms.

Vasseur shuffled the papers of Henri’s report. “I’ve read what you wrote, of course, but help me to understand it better. You took the German first trench with few casualties.”

“Yes. With only three men wounded and none killed.”

“And then after you had captured the trench, that is when the casualties came?”

“Yes.”

***

Front Line near de Perthes les Hurlus: Champagne , France. February 23th, 1915 It had still been dark that Tuesday morning, just after 6:00 AM, when the company had filed into the jumping-off trench that the sappers had dug over the last few days, jutting out at a right angle from the front line. The attack trench was narrow -- only three men could stand abreast in it -- and it was shallow. The men crouched down to keep their heads safe below the level of the earth.

The weather, the week before unseasonably warm, had turned cold again. Men pressed together in small groups, sharing warmth and seeking the reassurance of human touch at one and the same time. Henri’s back and shoulders ached, tensed from both fear and cold. He closed his eyes for a moment and with deep breaths tried to force the painful knots in his soulders to unwind. At least the ground would be firm, frozen hard.

“Sergeant Bertrand.”

The supply sergeant, a replacement who had arrived in January but already used to the necessities of keeping quiet in the forward trenches, moved next to him and leaned his head in to hear.

“Have the brandy ration served out now. It’ll keep the men warm and they’ll be past the first dullness by the time we advance.”

The sergeant nodded and moved off again, moving like an ape, doubled over, with hands swinging close to the ground. A strange fate that modernity should have brought man back to his origins.

In a few moments Henri could hear the shifting and clattering of the men taking off their heavy packs and getting out their tin mugs to accept the warming draft that Bertrand was spreading among them.

The company had been on the move since two that morning, when the sections had formed up on the streets of Suippes. It had taken four hours to cover the three miles from the village to the front line, first walking beside the unpaved country roads along which horse wagons and motor trucks lumbered, carrying supplies and artillery shells forward, then through the network of trenches to the front line. Logistics officers had stood at each crossroads, guiding them through the maze of trenches crowded with other traffic, as units that had been in the front moved back for rest, and others moved forward for the attack. With so much confusion and congestion in the network of defenses, there was no chance that coffee or hot breakfast could make it from the mobile kitchens to these attack trenches, and so the day’s brandy ration was the practical solution to giving the men a little warmth and comfort before the attack began.

“Care for a drink, sir?” Lieutenant Morel held out a small, flat bottle. “None of your government issued brandy here. Picked it up when I was on leave last month.”

“Not yet,” said Henri. “Offer me some when we have their trench and I’m your man.” On quiet days, the wine or brandy ration gave the men a distraction from the tedium and loneliness of military life. Before an attack, it tamped down fears and made men more willing to fight. But the clumsiness that often came with that courage was something an officer could ill afford at the start of an attack, however attractive the warmth and solace it might bring. Afterwards there would be time enough.

Henri pulled out his watch when the first shells screamed over. Seven o’clock. The sky was beginning to glow with the diffuse light of approaching dawn. To the rhythmic shriek of a 75mm shells passing over thirty times a minute and the thunder of those shells exploding on the German front line trench three hundred yards away was added a more steady mechanical buzz. Henri looked up, as did others, and soon they could see the white shape against the lightening blue sky. With its enchanting slowness an aeroplane was flying forward to observe the accuracy of the bombardment that was being poured upon the German positions.

At seven twenty, with the light strengthening but the sun still below the horizon, the tempo of the shelling increased. No longer could they distinguish single shells passing overhead. Instead there was a single flow of noise, the high pitched sound of shells above and the thunder of the bombardment hitting the German line, explosions which they could now feel through the ground as well as the abused and quivering air. Over it all, the aeroplane droned slowly, making big circles like a carrion bird above the front lines. The slow two-seater carried a heavy wireless set which allowed the observation officer to tap out messages to the artillerists telling them where their shells were falling to most effect.

Signalling to his section leaders, Henri advanced through the huddled men to one of the short scaling ladders at the end of the attack trench and climbed its few steps up to ground level. The men filed after.

Up here he could see the fountains of smoke and earth erupting from the German lines, a billowing and quivering cloud, dark with the occasional flash breaking through from within the undulating mass of destruction. The officers and NCOs formed up the company into sections, each group of sixty men filing through a gap pre-cut in the barbed wire entanglements which guarded the French line. Across the no man’s land they moved, the lines fanning out as the men picked their way across the uneven, frozen ground. Just as well, lest a German shell catch a clump of men and wipe out a whole squad at a blow. It was only as they came within a hundred yards of the German trench the the men went to ground again, waiting for the deadly rain of shells to cease before they could move any closer. They were so close to the barrage now that the concussions echoed in their chests while the sound rang in their ears. Stray fragments from a shell that fell short set two men screaming, and stretcher bearers trotted forward silently to do their lifesaving work.

The enemy lines remained empty and motionless under the pounding fury of the shells. No rifles appeared on the parapet. The defenders were down in their dugouts, sheltering from the attack.

Then the shells stopped. 7:30. A ringing, screaming silence which seemed in the first moment to tear at the senses with its sheer absence of noise.

Henri fumbled his whistle to his mouth and blew it as he heaved himself to his feet, drew his pistol, and rushed forward. He could hear other whistles shrilling too, his lieutenants and NCOs and those of the other companies in VI Battalion to the right and left of them.

As he reached the German wire he looked back. They were following, just as they should. He saw no bodies lying on the ground, and still there was no activity at the German parapet. This silence could last only seconds more. In the bunkers dug deep under the German lines, the soldiers must be grabbing weapons and rushing up the stairs to meet them.

The high explosive shells had done their work on the German entanglements of barbed wire. It slowed him only a moment to pick through the gaps and shallow craters which had been blasted in the defensive barrier. A few dozen paces more and the parapet. This was the most terrifying moment of all. At any moment a rifle’s muzzle might appear, and it would be a bad soldier who could fail to hit him at this distance. His reason, his very body, screamed to stop, to slow. But the training -- distilled by the army from its experiences of the last six months -- was clear: the soldier is most in danger as he moves towards the parapet. Do not stop. Do not slow, until you are in the enemy trench. Then you can see your enemy as well as he can see you, and your chances are greatly improved.

He reached the parapet and, with a muttered prayer as his boots left the ground and his overcoat flared out around him, jumped down into the enemy trench.

It was empty, save for a grey-clad body that lay on the ground a half dozen paces away, and Corporal Sellier who had half-slid down into the trench a moment before Henri jumped. Soon more men appeared to right and left.

“Sixth Squad, come on!” shouted Corporal Sellier, and led his men off down the trench. Henri took a moment to lean back against the trench wall. His breath steamed in the cold morning air, but he felt hot enough to wish he could tear off his heavy wool overcoat. It would pass soon enough. Lieutenant Morel’s brandy would be welcome now too. Perhaps he’d find him.

Pushing away from the wall, Henri started down the trench after Sixth Squad. The trench walls were lined with tree branches woven together like a basket. The floor was lined with heavy wooden planks. Every twenty yards the trench turned, following a sawtooth path which made it impossible to look, or shoot, too far in a straight line. Each turn was a question: What was beyond it? Friend or foe?

Henri had just passed the first turning when Lieutenant Rejol came down nearly on top of him. Both men shouted and Henri half raised his revolver before seeing who the other was. Then they attack turned into an embrace instead.

“I’m glad it’s you. Are you alright? Any trouble?” Henri asked.

“Got hung up in the wire.”

“I almost shot you. Why don’t you have your pistol out?”

“Because I don’t want to shoot you.”

“You didn’t know it would be me.”

Rejol shrugged. In civilian life, before he was called back up into the army, Maurice Rejol had become a priest. The French Republic, however, was resolutely secular. Priests remained subject to mobilization just like men their age of any other occupation.

“If you won’t take the basic precaution of drawing your weapon, there will be no one but you to blame if you’re killed,” Henri said.

“I think I’ve seen enough men die while bearing weapons by now to know that holding a gun is no talisman against death.”

It was Henri’s turn to shrug. “I respect your principles, father. But what are you going to do if you meet a German at one of these sharp turns? Bless him?”

“I might just.”

From further down the trench they heard confused shouting and followed by shots. Both men ran toward the sound. By the time they reached Sixth Squad, Corporal Sellier and his men were herding a dozen Germans with their hands behind their heads into a bay in the trenchline where a machine gun tripod stood empty.

“Any officers among them?” Henri asked, scanning the captured men for rank insignia. A captured officer could provide useful intelligence about troop strength and position.

“He resisted capture and I had to shoot him,” said Corporal Sellier, jerking a thumb.

Now Henri saw the body, sprawled on the rough boards of the trench floor, as if he had been shot while running away.

He turned the grey-coated man over. His chest was an ugly sight. Blood soaked his tunic, the three ragged exit wounds barely distinguishable from the sticky, pulsing mess of red. He gasped for air and his eyes fluttered.

“This officer is wounded,” Henri said. “Call stretcher bearers.” That at least was a more honorable task then what he must do next. Folding back the German’s overcoat he checked the man’s pockets. A little leather bound prayer book, the spidery Gothic lettering stamped on its cover looking darkly medieval. A folded letter, which even Henri’s cursory German skills could tell was from the man’s wife, no military secrets here. A photograph of a little boy in miniature soldier uniform sitting aside a wooden horse. A box of matches. A half smoked cigar wrapped in a handkerchief.

Henri shoved the item’s back into the officer’s pockets, guilty at the bloody smear he left on the letter.

“How about his watch?” asked Corporal Sellier. “German watches are good, yes?”

“Did you send for that stretcher bearer?” Henri replied, ignoring the suggestion of plunder.

“He won’t survive that chest wound. If the stretcher bearers are going to risk their necks crossing no man’s land, it should be for our men.”

“Call them, Corporal.” Henri let an edge creep into his voice, and this time Sellier saluted and sent a man from his squad in search of stretcher bearers.

“Form up the rest of the squad,” Henri ordered. “Rejol, take Sixth Squad and find the rest of your section. Get this sector of the front line swept.”

Henri continued down the front line trench, gathering up stray men, putting squads and sections under officers or NCOs, ordering them to secure the intersections with the communication trenches. He routed a half dozen men out of a bunker where they had found bottled beer and a gramophone. The tinny sound of a walz echoed up the stairs of the tunnel as Henri drove the men before him, back to the work of securing the trench.

Everywhere were the signs of the half hour’s bombardment which had preceded their attack. Floorboards were smashed and wicker walls blown out where explosive shells had caved in the trench itself. Shell fragments, jagged pieces of metal up to six inches long, were embedded in the wooden planks here and there, while in other places scattered blasts of round holes showed where timed fuses on shrapnel shells had sent their inch-wide round bullets down from above.

After twenty minutes, the front line was secure. The company had rounded up nearly fifty prisoners. They made them stack their rifles in a dugout and then Henri sent them back to the French line under the guard of Twelfth Squad. One of his own men had been wounded in the brief, confused fighting in the trenches, but both could walk back to the mobile hospital under their own power. The German dead they could leave where they lay until later. Now they must push on.

The German line in this sector consisted of two fire trenches spaced a hundred and fifty yards apart. These two parallel fire trenches, connected every hundred yards by perpendicular communication trenches, formed the first German defensive line. The second line of defense, which the attack timetable called for their regiment to assault at nine o’clock, after a second preparatory bombardment, was a similar pair of trenches half a mile further back, beyond a wooded rise that made it difficult for French artillery observers to target.

Henri sent Lieutenant Rejol, leading Second and Third Sections, up the first communication trench. Then Henri and Lieutenant Morel gathered the remaining two sections at the intersection with the second communication trench.

As the men stood close around him, Henri gave his instructions. He could not afterwards remember the words. His recollection was like a dream, of his mouth moving without any knowledge of the words, of the faces -- intent, nervous, grim -- looking at him, and then of the stick grenades awkwardly tumbling through the air.

How could an attack possibly come from behind, from the fire trench they had just cleared? Fortunately, it was not the rational part of the mind which was responsible for reaction to the sight of a hand grenade. Everyone burst into instant motion. In the tight quarters of the trench someone collided with Henri and shoved him back against the wall of the trench. Shots rang out. Henri struggled to draw his own revolver, pushing away the man who had stumbled against him. Men nearer to the fire trench fought to level their rifles in the press of bodies. The grenades went off with a flash and an earsplitting report. There was shoving and struggling as some men tried to get away from the explosions while others tried to get at their attackers. Several men were on the ground, screaming, struck by fragments from the grenades.

***

7th Division Headquarters: Champagne , France. February 26th, 1915 “And how was it that you were attacked from the rear in a trench that you had just cleared?”

The staff officer’s tone was dispassionate, but being asked the question by this well-groomed man in his brand new uniform caused anger and frustration to clench at Henri’s throat.

“At the moment we knew only that we were attacked, and by the end of the firefight there were no German prisoners to interrogate. It wasn’t till that night, digging in to hold what we still possessed after the attack on the second line beyond the ridge had failed, that we realized what must have happened. One of the large bunkers under our sector of trench had passages leading up to both the firing trenches. The squad of Germans must have gone through this bunker to come up behind us and attack us unawares.”

Captain Vasseur made rapid jottings in his notebook. “And your men who cleared the bunkers did not notice this second passage leading up to the other fire trench still in German hands?”

“No.” Of course they had not. The attack squads were supposed to move quickly. If no enemy appeared, they moved on. Letting them slow and search only led to looting and shirking.

“It’s understandable of course. It could happen to anyone. But perhaps there are a few suggestions I could make that would help you in future.”

The other officer’s last sentence robbed all that came before of reassurance. Did he think that the frontline officers were incompetent fools? Let him try to lead a company and clear a sector of enemy trench. Had he even been in combat, or had he spent the last six months in staff positions telling others how to do their jobs?

“There’s no way to make a detailed search of every dugout and bunker while maintaining the speed of the attack,” said Henri. “We clear them as best we can. We’ll do better in future. But attack cannot be without risk.”

“Of course, of course.” The staff officer held out his hands. “Don’t misunderstand me, Captain Fournier. You were there and I was not. Nor can I claim credit for any of these ideas. I sit here. I interview men like you who have fought in the front lines. They tell me what worked and what didn’t. When I hear of something that worked well, I write it up. And then I read reports from others like me in other divisions. It’s not glorious work. But day by day, we learn. And one of these days, we’ll defeat these invaders.”

It was an honorably made little speech. Despite their equal rank, this man who talked with colonels and generals every day was under no obligation to treat a reserve captain from the line with consideration. He was going out of his way to polite, and if Henri had any justice -- or self interest -- he must find some way to return the courtesy. After all, had this man done anything to cause offense? Nothing, except to have the duties and influence which, had obligations to family not intervened, Henri himself might have had.

“I’m sorry.” Henri gave a slight bow of the head as he said the words. “You said there were suggestions you could make? What has worked for other units?”

Vasseur closed his notebook and steepled his fingers. “Our infantry companies are designed for fighting open warfare in the field: two hundred and fifty riflemen all trained to do the same things with the same weapons. However what we’re fighting now is essentially siege warfare. That takes specialized troops. Designate one of your sections as trench cleaners. They hold back in the initial attack, and follow along to clean out every bunker and dugout. It’ll be their job to be sure that you aren’t taken from behind by enemies who’ve hidden underground.”

This was the great insight? Assign a whole section to clearing duty? “That’s a quarter of my men. It will decrease my attacking strength.”

“Your men will attack better if they aren’t slowed down by having to clear every shelter. But this is not just a duty assignment. Don’t assign one of your existing sections or rotate the duty amongst them. Pick the right NCO to command the cleaners. Pick the right men. You need killers; not your nice farm boy who follows along bravely in the attack but fires his rifle high because he doesn’t really want to kill anyone. These men will be clearing rooms. Not every Poilu is going to like that.

“Once you have the right men, you’ll need to train them differently. Each squad in the section should learn to fight independently. That way you can assign a squad of cleaners to follow each section of attacking infantry. They also need to be armed for close quarters fighting. Rifles and bayonets will only get in the way in a bunker. Have your supply sergeant to talk to division and tell them I approved you to form a cleaner section. They’ll need hand grenades, revolvers, and knives. The supply situation is wretched, but they’ll do what they can for you. The 104th Regiment is being rotated out of the front line for a bit to recover from Tuesday’s attacks, so you’ll have some time for the training and equipment issues.”

Henri nodded. What he thought of these suggestions he wasn’t yet sure, but he must at least show outward assent. If the in the end decided to ignore the advice… Well, this fellow would probably be promoted to some other duty soon enough, and perhaps he’d even remember which company commanders had obediently listened to his ideas.

“I know it sounds like a great deal of change, I know.” Captain Vasseur leaned forward and spoke in a lower tone. “I wouldn’t throw all this any every officer. But I see from your file that you were a professional soldier before going to the reserves. These mixed function companies are the future. The army needs our most experienced officers to test these tactics and tell us what they learn. We’ll have to learn a new kind of fighting if we’re to defeat an enemy dug ten meters into the ground.”

Read the next installment.