This is the first of three closing chapters. Here we leave Henri.
In the next chapter, hopefully up by the end of this weekend, we'll see Walter celebrating Christmas in the trenches.
And this brings the novel past 251k words. I hope you enjoy it.
Paris. December 9th, 1914. “And so, how is your war? Are you on leave or is this a business visit?”
Henri kissed his father on both cheeks, then sat down across the cafe table from him. “A business visit of sorts. A few of us front line officers from the regiment were ordered back to the depot to give our reactions to the new infantry tactics manual which the general staff is preparing.”
“And what does that mean to those of us who are not initiates in the military arts?”
This was the problem Henri had suffered from throughout the trip. Looking out the window of the cafe, he could see people hurrying along the gray streets, sheltering under umbrellas from the cold December rain that was falling. A British officer, walking down the street in his khaki uniform, was the only hint that everything was not as it ought to be. Looking at those familiar streets, it was difficult to recall the world of trenches and raiding parties, of artillery barrages and machine gun emplacements, as anything other than a fevered nightmare, a dangerous alternate world into which he was in danger of slipping back at any moment, but one fundamentally apart from the world of Paris.
Paris was the regimental depot, and it was less than three hours by train from the front lines, so it was reasonable enough for the officers to return to Paris to review and discuss the draft of the infantry manual. And yet, once in Paris, the instincts and practices they had honed to stay alive during their stints in the front line seemed a distant and foreign experience. How could they make men here understand what was required there? And yet it was only through this near impossibility that the military project could be accomplished.
“In the Transportation Ministry you have policies and procedure manuals, don’t you?”
“Of course. And memos and circulars and any amount of bird cage lining which appears in my basket at intervals.”
“And yet, for the manager of a train station in a small town, he has to read those circulars carefully before lining his dear parakeet’s cage with them, because only by keeping up with all that paperwork will he know how to do his job in the way that the Ministry is directing, yes? For you, in the offices here in Paris, perhaps it’s all a joke, because you have people at the next desk and at the cafe to talk to about how things should be done. But for someone far out in the provinces, that paperwork may be the only connection he has, and if he did not read it he would not run his station properly and everyone would suffer.”
Etienne dug one of his half-smoked cigar stubs out of a pocket and rolled it between his hands before lighting it. “Point carried. But we’re not speaking of a rural train station, where the station master needs to know the signals and the proper channels to inquire for lost luggage. Surely you’re not going to tell me that soldiers consult a departmental memo in order to determine the best way to plunge a bayonet into the enemy or charge into the cannon’s mouth?”
“No, but contrary to what the newspapers might tell you, we spend very little time plunging bayonets and charging into the mouth of cannons.”
“Yet how else shall we win the war?”
It was impossible to make a civilian understand what happened at the front line. In a sense, he had more in common with the men on the other side -- although they would be happy enough to kill him and bring their own war closer to its conclusion -- than he did with the men and women who sat here in their Paris cafes. And yet, for all the troubles in his family, or perhaps because of them, Henri had never kept secrets from his father. If he did not try to make him understand, he would be allowing the war to take that from him too.
“This war is something new, Father, not merely a war of kings or governments but of races. The German race is meticulous and obedient. The French race is creative and passionate. Throughout our army, an army of over a million men, there are officers and men who know how to win the war. But that plan is all in little pieces. Someone has learned how to design a trench so that when a shell falls in it, the shrapnel is contained and few men are injured. Someone else has found a way for aircraft and artillery and infantry to work together so that the curtain of fire stays just ahead of the attacking line. And yet someone else has learned just the right kind of raiding parties and tactics to break into the enemy lines and turn those little pin pricks in the German wall into gaping rifts.
“All these things are known by someone, but to defeat the gray machine we need to bring them all together, select all of the best ideas, and teach them to everyone so that the Germans are faced not just with the inventions of the company and the regiment opposite them, but all of the creative power of the whole French race. That is when we shall crush them and free our land. And the way to do it is for the army to function as a giant school room, one vast student with a million cells making up its body. That’s the purpose of revising the infantry tactics manual, and the reason they have called back officers from our regiment and many others is to study the ideas they have collected, to learn from them, and to add our own.”
Etienne shifted in his chair, knocked the ash from his cigar, and drew on it steadily until it was fully lit again. It was difficult for him to acknowledge to his son that he had been wrong in anything, no matter how slightly. “Ah, I suppose I see it. Still, I can’t imagine that such classroom study is the whole of it. They say it’s courage and the spirit of the attack that will save us. Whether that’s all patriotic rot I don’t know, but I do think it’s unlikely many men think about a written manual when they’re under fire.”
There was more to than than Henri liked to contemplate. This new manual would doubtless help officers in the next attempt to break the German lines, of which rumor was already abuzz, but only if they had the time to read it and the ability to turn that reading into training exercises. Yet with the constant cycle of duty guarding the four hundred and forty mile long fortress that the front had turned into, there was little time left to give new training to the citizens turned soldiers who cycled through three days in the front line trenches, three days in close reserve, and three days at rest a dozen miles behind the lines.
“You’re right, of course. Changes in command and unit level tactics are easier to implement. But when it comes to training the men, it will take time. We’ll attack again by early spring. Whether we will have learned enough by then…” He shrugged. “Still, I don’t have to go back till tomorrow. Tell me about something other than the war.”
The Paris convent of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a large, shabby old house on a narrow street in the Montmartre, inconspicuous between a massive warehouse on the one side and a seedy former nightclub which had been boarded up when the artistic set abandoned the quarter for the Montparnasse. The last private owner, a lady of strong piety and stronger stubbornness, had held onto the house throughout all the neighborhood’s evolutions, disdaining every offer to buy it and knock it down, like the other houses that had once stood on either side of it, until in her will she left it to the religious order, on the condition that if it were ever sold the money would have to be given to a nearby orphanage instead.
The porter who answered Henri’s knock was an elderly nun, her skin sallow and papery against the snow white of the veil which framed her face.
“I would like to see Sister Emile,” he told her, and was answered with a grave curtsy.
“If you would come into the parlor, Captain.” Civilians might not fully understand military life, but the army must be all pervasive if an elderly nun could identify his rank from his collar tabs.
The parlor was furnished in the heavy formality of thirty years before, gilt wood and heavy upholstery, pieces which had been cherished by their owners even as the smoother lines and natural woods of the new century had left them behind, until they had been left to the convent in wills or given to the sisters by heirs who would never think of furnishing their own homes with such old fashioned styles. Near the center was a round table with several claw footed chairs tucked around it, and pulling one of these out Henri sat down.
“I will tell Sister Emile that you are here,” the porter told him.
As he waited he took out the little envelope over which he had spent so much time and thought. Before the German invasion had come between him and home, writing had been a matter of routine. It might take several days for letters to arrive, and they sometimes stopped briefly, then resumed with two or three letters delivered all at once, but there was always the reassurance that each letter was but one of many. “Little new to report, but of course I miss you,” had been a line he’d written more than once.
How much more difficult to attempt the first letter in three months, and the only letter for who knew how many more, what could very well be a last letter. How could a letter carry all the feelings of tenderness and longing, the things he wished he could confide to her, the times he saw something and filed it away with the thought, “I shall tell Philomene about that tonight,” only to stop himself a moment later?
It was impossible for the two sides of a sheet of paper to carry to Philomene and to the children everything that he wanted to tell them, so much so that several times he had thought of giving up the attempt. But Philomene would treasure a letter, however inadequate, just as he himself carried in his uniform jacket that small bundle of his favorite letters from her, along with the photograph of the children from last Easter. Pascal glowered at the camera, unhappy with how his hair had been combed down, and little Lucie Marie’s face was blurred where she had been turning to look at something in the photographer’s studio when the shutter clicked. Henri had not liked the photograph and suggested that instead of paying for more prints they wait for the next time they took the children to Monsieur Lemartre’s studio, but Philomene had insisted and now that little print would remain with him until he saw them again or until it lay with him in some trench or shell hole for enemy soldiers to find as they rifled through his pockets.
It had been impossible to know what importance that photograph would have for him. If he had somehow known, there was no way to take a picture worthy of that weight of feeling. In the same way, it was asking too much to write a letter worth being the only letter or the last letter. He could only write a letter, and if Philomene received it then what came after would determine its significance and what it would mean to her.
“Forgive me for making you wait, Captain Fournier.” Sister Emile closed the door behind her.
Henri had not heard the quiet opening of the door as he sat amidst his thoughts, and now he hurriedly pushed back his chair and stood as the sister approached him.
“No apology necessary, Sister. I’m grateful for your help. Did your mother superior approve the plan?”
Sister Emile sat and he did likewise.
“She has, but with the provisions I suggested: Only a single sheet. Nothing which could be remotely considered of military significance nor anything so personal that you would not wish it to be seen by others. And though we will send you any reply, we cannot help you send letters often. There are many families who have been separated by the war, and the more often we ask our houses in Bern and Munich to help in forwarding letters to the invaded areas, the more likely that some authority, on either side, will notice and put a stop to it.”
“Of course, of course.” He pushed the envelope across to her. “Here it is. One sheet. Open the envelope if you need to.”
The sister took the envelope and looked at the address, then nodded and slipped it into a pocket somewhere in the folds of her habit. “It will take several weeks for the letter to reach our house in Chateau Ducloux, and several more for any reply to reach us, so you must not expect anything before the middle or end of January.”
“Thank you. And if something has happened to them?”
“You said that your wife knows the sisters of our house in Chateau Ducloux. If anything has happened to the family, I am sure that they will know of it, and they will write to us in response.”
Henri nodded. An artillery shell smashing into the house. Grandpere and Pascal dragged out into the street and shot with the other village men. German soldiers pulling Philomene away from the screaming children into a back room.
Sister Emile reached out a hand and placed it over his. “We are not God, Captain. We cannot know what happens far away, even to those we love, and if we imagine and worry endlessly, we do not help them but only exhaust our own hope.”
“But what else can I do?”
“Pray for them.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“No. When you worry and imagine, you try to reach out your own will to see and help them. You attempt something you cannot do. When you pray, you commend them to God, who knows all things. And once you have put them in God’s hands, trust in Him to watch over your family and turn your own energies to what you can do here and now. Trust.”
Henri smiled and drew his hand back from her grasp. “That sounds impossible. Stop worrying? Stop thinking of my family?”
“No, don’t stop thinking. Think of them every day. But think of them in God’s hands, not yours. It seems hard, but really, it is only accepting reality. They’re beyond your reach except by prayer.”
“Well, I’ll try. You pray for them too, Sister. I expect God listens to you more than to me.”
She laughed. “Who knows.
Henri started to push back his chair, then stopped. “I almost forgot. Can I give this to you in token of my thanks for your help?”
He took another envelope out of his jacket pocket. This one was thick, because it was full of bank notes. Two hundred francs. Most men sent their pay home to support the family they had left behind. There was no way he could get money to his family, but at least this would help the sisters who might be able to get a message to them. And who could tell, it was possible that in Chateau Ducloux the sisters were helping to make sure that Philomene and the children had food on the table despite an absent father.
Sister Emile put the envelope away without opening it. “Thank you. We are, of course, happy to help. There is no fee. But any offering will help us in our work.”
Front Line Trench near Laucourt, December 13th, 1914. “Your move.”
Henri was not a strong chess player, though he’d played his share of games in the coffee shop or officer’s mess over the years, but he knew enough to understand that Lieutenant Rejol was in a much stronger position than he. He could take Rejol’s bishop. Indeed, he could do so with such ease that it seemed that there must be some reason not to do so. He stared at the board trying to see what the lieutenant must see, then decided to give himself to his fate and took the piece. Rejol smiled and moved to threaten Henri’s queen.
The chess set had been fashioned by one of the men in second section who in civilian life worked in a machine shop. The pieces were all made from brass cartridge casings, the pawns from pistol rounds and the larger pieces from rifle cartridges, each one carefully crimped, molded and cut into shape. The one side was polished bright, the other soaked in acid until they were a dark brown. Rejol had paid a tidy sum for the set, and the machinist had happily sent the money home to his wife. When the sum paid for the chess set got out, the other officers had ribbed Rejol over his profligacy.
“What can you expect from a priest?” Lieutenant Morel had asked. “He can’t spend it on women, or his god will be after him like a betrayed wife who sees everything.”
But since then Rejol had enjoyed his money’s worth and more by humiliating the other officers by turns.
Henri pulled his queen back from the bishop’s threat, and Rejol promptly rewarded him by taking the queen with his rook.
“Captain.” Sergeant Gobin, commander of the Third Section, which was standing watch out in the dark trenches, was coming down the steps into the dugout. “Tenth company has arrived. Captain Fabre should be here in a few minutes.”
Gobin pulled off his gloves and the big knitted balaclava which covered his head, then stood warming his hands over the oil heater.
“Good luck for me,” Henri said. “You’d better get the set packed up, Rejol.”
Henri pulled on his own great coat on and looped his scarf up to cover his ears as well as his neck.
At the top of the stairs there was stamping on the wooden threshold and hands pulled aside the heavy curtain which hung inside the door to prevent the dugout’s light from spilling into the trench when the door was opened and as well as keeping the cold drafts at bay. Captain Fabre and two of his section commanders came down the stairs, peeling off layers of muddy clothing as they did so.
“How’s the evening?” Henri asked.
“Just warm enough to still be muddy instead of frozen, but quiet enough.”
“Well then, if you’re ready to relieve us?”
They handed off the record book and the other military necessities. Night was the time for making trips in and out of the front line because enemy artillery observers could not see the movement of troops.
By two in the morning all was ready, and the twenty-second company set off. Two hundred and fifty men did not move through the dark quickly, nor did they move entirely silently. As the commander of the first section, Lieutenant Morel led off with the first squad of his section, while Henri stationed himself at the intersection of the front line trench and the much rougher gully which served as a communication trench, and let another squad set off every five minutes. This made departure an agonizing process which lasted an hour and a half, but it reduced the noise and spaced the men out. The Germans had the communication trench targeted and could smother it in shells any time they chose, but if the company followed precautions the enemy listening posts might not realize that a company size force was on the move, and if a stray shell should come arcing over, the men would not be so bunched together as to make a slaughter pen.
This was the maddening aspect of a landscape turned fortress. Field guns had an effective range of nearly five miles. The enemy guns were placed a mile or two behind their front line trenches, but since the German line was only few few hundred yards away from the French, men moving in and out of the front line were easy targets for artillery for two or three miles.
If they pulled back out of range of the German guns, they would leave several miles of territory open for the Germans to seize, and so they manned trenches under the eyes and guns of the enemy, and moved in and out like creatures of the night, pattering down the trenches like so many of the rats which were already moving in to share the underground fortresses with them.
At last Henri was able to set off with the last squad. The communication trench was not deep, and they moved bent over so that they would not present a silhouette against a sky dimly illuminated by the waning crescent moon.
The rainwater that had gathered in the bottom of the trench was near freezing, and in the darkness it was impossible to avoid the puddles. After the first quarter of an hour, Henri felt the water beginning to soak into his boots. The only relief from the feeling of wet socks was the gradually increasing numbness from the cold.
The communication trench stretched back just over a mile, past the point where it intersected with a second trench line, which would in its turn become the front if the first line were ever overrun by an attack. Then the trench became shallower and died away. Here was the second danger area. They were beyond the effective range of sharp shooters and of all but the most ineffective volley fire from machine guns. But they were still very much within the range of artillery. The sections fanned out slightly and moved quickly, still bent low. If their movement was spotted by observers up in one of the stationary balloons that floated above the enemy field gun battery like ghostly moons, shrapnel shells would come raining down. They would not need to be precise to find victims.
Whether it was one of these aerial observers who spotted them in the dim light of the moon, or it was simply bad luck that four in the morning was chosen for a random display of force, Henri heard the distant boom of cannons. By habit he began counting. One, two three, four, five, six, seven seconds. Then there was the scream of a shell coming down and the flash and boom of high explosive detonating a few hundred meters away. He did the math automatically. The cannons were three and a half kilometers away. With the last squad he crouched in a shell hole. fifteen men crammed into a depression three meters across blown open by a 120mm shell. If one of these shells found them, it would hurl bits of broken bodies every which way, but from anything short of a direct hit the hole hid them from the flying debris which could tear off a head or rip a bleeding gash into a man’s body.
Henri was trying to hear the number of guns that were engaged in the barrage. Perhaps two batteries of four guns each. Then there was booming from the other side and the characteristic shriek of 75mm shells flying overhead towards the German lines. Their own batteries had opened up in counter battery fire.
For what seemed an age the infantrymen of twenty-second company cowered against the ground while the artillery on both sides strove back and forth over them. Sometimes the German shells raked over them. Sometimes the French and German batteries shelled each other, the shells screaming back and forth like avenging spirits on their vengeful missions.
At last the night fell quiet again. Henri’s blood pulsed in his ears, a metronome count of the seconds as he lay pressed against the ground in the new silence. A minute. Two. This was not a pause but an actual stop. They had to begin moving again. If it was bad caught in the open like this in darkness, it would be worse once the pre-dawn light made them more visible.
He urged the squad he was with to their feet, and the men fanned out, moving across the pockmarked landscape towards the relief area. Soon they stumbled across another squad and got them moving as well. Another and another, the movement of one group of men stumbling across others and setting off a building wave of stumbling, scared, exhausted figures moving toward the relief of distance and safety.
It was a dazed but unwounded man from ninth squad, stumbling into the half-ruined farm that served as the reserve headquarters, who first made them aware that the barrage had found victims. Henri sent Lieutenant Morel out with a demi-section to look for casualties, and it was they who found the depression from which the one untouched man had been thrown clear when a shell buried itself amidst the squad and exploded.
Several of the wounded had moved away on their own, seeking help. Others lay where they had fallen. Two had crawled away only far enough to hide themselves among the underbrush and were not found until daylight. But the dead were too easily found. Six men, including Sergeant Gobin. In one unlucky shell burst, the company had suffered more casualties than in all of the last two months. This loss only seemed the more senseless when, while sappers were still digging the six new graves in the expanding field of little wooden crosses behind the reserve headquarters, a cemetery planted where the farm’s kitchen garden had been, orders arrived from the division: After their three days in the reserve line, the company make a day’s march to Montdidier, where they would be on rest and re-training until after the new year.
“How long has that been planned?” Lieutenant Morel demanded. “If they’d got those orders to us a day earlier, we could have gone with a dozen more men.”
Sergeant Carpentier, who had returned to command Fourth Section again after his wounding on the Marne, shrugged. “Or if they’d sent 10th Company first and left us in the line another day or two, perhaps they’d all be alive as well. Blind chance. None of it means anything.”
By sundown, the six low mounds with their wooden crosses were in place behind the farmhouse. Henri told the mess corporal to allow a double wine ration for the night.
“That may help a few men sleep, but it won’t give them any real peace,” Lieutenant Rejol told Henri.
He shrugged. “Do you find anything gives you real peace these days?”
“There should be a funeral.”
There were a few men in the company who went to mass whenever they were in a town or when Rejol found the opportunity to celebrate a field mass, but drawn primarily from among the Paris workers, the regiment was not a very religious one.
“Would the men respect that?” Henri asked. “I don’t think any of the men killed were among your mass goers.”
“Let me send the word around. I think you’ll be surprised. In extremity, a man remembers his God. And even for the hard bitten anti-clericals, I’m not their parish priest living off the tithe tax. I’ve been in the trenches with them. I’ve come to wonder if the Republic did the Church a favor with the draft. Perhaps if we shepherds lived in the sheep pen more often, the sheep would know our voice.”
It was indeed nearly the whole company which gathered early the next morning, among the wooden crosses behind the farmhouse, as Lieutenant Rejol draped a stole over the shoulders of his army great coat and began to say the mass for the dead.
The mass was short. Rejol stood before a table carried out from the farmhouse, and one of the men from First Section knelt at his side, offering the responses as the altar server. Some, like Henri, knelt and stood by turns, recalling the instructions in their missals at home. Most of the men, more unfamiliar with the rite, simply stood, their arms folded against the cold, shifting slowly from foot to foot. But from all there was a respectful silence. Facing them stood rank on rank of wooden crosses, including those marking the six men who the day before had stood watch and waited for their rations and joked with them. Each cross marked a man swallowed up by the earth, a man who had died to free the soil of France, or to protect the family and city he left behind, or simply because the Republic gave him no choice. How many more of them would go on, moving and talking above the ground, and how many would be planted in that soil?
Rejol closed his missal and turned to the men. “When you hear civilians talk, they speak of our sacrifice for France. On unknowing lips it seems an empty word: Sacrifice. It’s a word that paints nobility over suffering, and too often that paint is the paint of ignorance. So let us think about sacrifice.
“The Bible tells us about sacrifice. God asked Abraham for a sacrifice. He asked him to make a sacrifice of Isaac, his only son. Abraham took Isaac on a long march. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice on his back, never knowing that he was to be the sacrifice. Isaac lay on the altar of sacrifice. His father raised the knife in his hand, but God sent an angel. God said, ‘It is enough. Do not kill your only begotten son.’
“You might think that it was because God loved Isaac that he saved him from the sacrifice. But there is another story. Long afterwards, Christ our Savior hung on the cross in agony, the hand of death was poised above him and he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’
“God loved his son. But this time God sent no angel. The knife of sacrifice fell, and Christ died for us.
“Now we are on the altar of sacrifice. We are on the cross. We see our father, France, prepared to sacrifice us. We cry out, like Christ. But we must be prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice ourselves, like Christ. To sacrifice ourselves for France.
“We do not want to die. We know that sacrifice is used as an empty word, used by civilians to try to make the deaths they cause meaningful. What does it mean to be a sacrifice? It means staying in place calmly, bravely, so that the other men around us can live, even if the knife falls on us.”
Read the next installment.