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.”
“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.”
“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.