Three Months In The Trenches

There was no hands-across-the-sea Lafayette stuff about us Americans who joined the Foreign Legion in Paris when the war broke out. We just wanted to get right close and see some of the fun, and we didn’t mind taking a few risks, as most of us had led a pretty rough sort of life as long as we could remember.

For my part, auto racing—including one peach of a smash-up in a famous race—followed by three years of flying, had taken the edge off my capacity for thrills, but I thought I’d get a new line of excitement with the legion in a big war, and I reckon most of the other boys had much the same idea.

We got a little excitement, though not much, but as for fun—well, if I had to go through it again I’d sooner attend my own funeral. As a sporting proposition, this war game is overrated. Altogether, I spent nearly three months in the trenches near Craonne, and, believe me, I was mighty glad when they transferred me (with Thaw and Bach, two other Americans who’ve done some flying) to the Aviation Corps, for all they wouldn’t take us when we volunteered at the start because we weren’t Frenchmen, and have only done so now because they’ve lost such a lot of their own men, which isn’t a very encouraging reason.

But anyway if the Germans do wing us, it’s a decent, quick finish, and I for one prefer it to slow starvation or being frozen stiff in a stinking, muddy trench. Why, I tell you, when I got wounded and had to leave, most of the boys were so sick of life in the trenches that they used to walk about outside in the daytime almost hoping the Germans would hit them—anything to break the monotony of the ceaseless rain and cold and hunger and dirt!

It wasn’t so bad when we first got there, about the beginning of October, as the weather was warmer (though it had already begun to rain and has never stopped since), but we were almost suffocated by the stench from the thousands of corpses lying between the lines—the German trenches were about four hundred yards away—where it wasn’t safe for either side to go out and bury them. They were French mostly, result of the first big offensive after the Marne victory, and, believe me, that word just expresses it—they were the offensivest proposition in all my experience.

Well, as I was saying, we reached the firing line on October 4, after marching up from Toulouse, where they’d moved us from Rouen to finish our training. We went down there in a cattle truck at the end of August in a hurry, as they expected the Germans any minute; the journey took sixty hours instead of ten, and was frightfully hot. That was our first experience of what service in the Foreign Legion really meant—just the sordidest, uncomfortablest road to glory ever trodden by American adventurers.

After we’d been at Toulouse about a month, they incorporated about two hundred of us recruits—thirty Americans and the rest mostly Britishers, all of whom had seen some sort of service before—in the Second Regiment Etranger which had just come over from Africa on its way to the front. They put us all together in one company, which was something to be thankful for, as I’d hate to leave a cur dog among some of the old-timers—you never saw such a lot of scoundrels. I’ll bet a hundred dollars they have specimens of every sort of criminal in Europe, and, what’s more, lots of them spoke German, though they claimed to have left seventeen hundred of the real Dutchies behind in Africa. Can you beat it? Going out to fight for France against the Kaiser among a lot of guys that looked and talked like a turn verein at St. Louis!

Why, one day Thaw and I captured a Dutchie in a wood where we were hunting squirrel—as a necessary addition to our diet—and, believe me, when we brought him into camp he must have thought he was at home, for they all began jabbering German to him as friendly as possible, and every one was quite sad when he went off in a train with a lot of other prisoners bound for some fortress in the West of France.

But that was only a detail, and now I’m telling you about our arrival in the trenches. The last hundred miles we did in five days, which is some of a hurry; but none of the Americans fell out, though we were all mighty tired at the end of the last day’s march. Worse still, that country had all been fought over, and there were no inhabitants left to give us food and drinks as we had had before at every resting place, which helped us greatly. Along the roadside lots of trees had been smashed by shell fire, and there were hundreds of graves with rough crosses or little flags to mark them, and every now and then we passed a broken auto or a dead horse lying in the gutter.

At the end of the fifth day we got our first sample of war—quite suddenly, without any warning, as we didn’t know we were near the firing line. We had just entered a devastated village when there came a shrill whistling noise like when white hot iron is plunged into cold water, then a terrific bang as a shell burst about thirty yards in front of our columns, making a hole in the road about five feet deep and ten in diameter, and sending a hail of shrapnel in all directions. One big splinter hit a man in the second rank and took his head off—I think he was a Norwegian; anyway, that was our first casualty. No one else was injured.

Our boys took their baptism of fire pretty coolly, though most of us jumped at the bang and ducked involuntarily to dodge the shrapnel, which, by the way, isn’t very dangerous at more than thirty yards, though it does a lot of harm at shorter range. Personally, I wasn’t as scared as I expected, and most of the others said the same. At first, one is too interested to be frightened, and by the time the novelty has worn off one has gotten fairly used to it all—at least that seemed to be our general opinion.

There were no more shells after that one, and we continued our march till nightfall, when we camped in an abandoned village. Next morning there were 100 big auto trucks ready to take us to a point about forty miles along the lines, and we clambered aboard them and set off at a good speed—all but twenty unlucky lads, who were left to pad the hoof as a guard for our mules and baggage. My pal, William Thaw, was among the number; he marched for thirteen hours practically without a stop, and when he reached our camp he lay right down in the mud by the roadside and went straight off to sleep, though it was raining like sixty and he was drenched to the skin. But he was all right again in the morning, though it was a man’s job to wake him up.

Next day we set off before dawn, having received orders to take our place in the trenches about eight miles away. It soon got light, and after marching about half an hour we were unlucky enough to be seen by a German aeroplane which signaled us to their batteries. The first shell burst near, the second nearer, the third right among us, killing nearly a dozen old-timers; and we were forced to break ranks and take cover until nightfall, as they’d got the range and it would have been suicide to try and go on. Pretty good shooting that at five or six miles’ distance!

The French talk a lot about their artillery, but, believe me, the Dutchies are mighty fine gunners, especially with their cannon—even the very biggest.

No Chance to Rest.

Why, one day when my company was having its usual weekly rest from the trenches, there were a couple of hundred of us bunking in a big barn fully eight miles behind our lines. About three in the afternoon along came a German aeroplane, and half an hour later they dropped a couple of shells between the barn and a church some thirty yards farther back, just by way of showing what they could do. We thought that was all, and settled down comfortably for the night; but not a bit of it! At ten o’clock sharp a shell dropped plump onto the barn itself and killed five or six and wounded a dozen more, none of them Americans. We got out on the jump, though of course it was raining; and we were wise, for in the next half hour they hit the barn eleven times without a single miss, and at ten-thirty there weren’t any big enough bits of it left to make matches of. The barn was perhaps thirty yards long by fifteen wide, but remember they were firing at a range of ten miles or so and in pitch darkness. Of course, they had got their guns trained right in the afternoon and just waited till night to give us a pleasant surprise. I did hear those were Austrian mortars, not German; anyway, they were good enough for us, I can tell you.

But to go back to my story: We broke ranks and fled to cover, and remained in hiding all that day near a ruined farm with shells falling all about, though they didn’t do much damage. But our old-timers didn’t like it one little bit. They had not been used to that kind of thing in Africa, and then the Germans and Austrians didn’t at all fancy the idea of being fired upon by their own people. In our company all of the Sergeants and most of the other non-coms were Austrian—not that they turned out later to be any the worse fighters for that. There was one Sergeant named Wiedmann who fought like a lion; he was the bravest man in the regiment. Poor chap, I’ve just heard he was killed the other day by a hand grenade, and I’m sorry. He was a real white man if ever I knew one. Our Lieutenant was a German named Bloch, and only the Captain was a Frenchman. But all this mixture of races led to some rather curious results, as the following story will show:

“The Corsican Brothers.”

Among the recruits who joined us at Paris there were two young fellows from Corsica—the Corsican brothers, we called them, as they always stuck together—who said they belonged to the Corsican militia, but preferred to volunteer, as they wanted to see some fighting right away. Besides French, they spoke English fluently, and used to jabber away together in some local patois, but they were both very smart soldiers and were soon promoted Corporals and got along fine. Every one liked them, and they stood very well with the officers as well. After we had been in the trenches about ten days these two chaps disappeared one wet night and left behind a note for the Colonel, which I was lucky enough to see. It ran something like this:

Most Honored Sir:

Though we have spent a most agreeable time in your regiment—of which we have a good opinion, although the discipline is sometimes rather more lax than we are accustomed to—we feel that the moment has come for us to join our friends, which we were unable to do at the mobilization, when we naturally preferred the Foreign Legion to a concentration camp.

We will give a good account of you to our friends and hope to have the pleasure of meeting you again before long.

Otto X——
Ober-Lieutenant, Potsdam Guards.
Hermann Y——
Lieutenant, Potsdam Guards.

Wouldn’t that fease you? The Colonel nearly blew up.

Well, at nightfall we resumed our march by separate companies. Our Captain didn’t know the country, so of course we got lost. It was raining heavily, and the mud was frequently knee deep. Add to that incessant tumbles into numberless shell holes full of water, and you will realize that we were a pretty sad procession that finally at three A. M. scrambled into the stinking ditch where we were to spend the greater part of the next three months.

For three or four days we had nothing to do but dodge the shrapnel and try and keep warm, as the enemy maintained a constant artillery fire—with a regular interval for luncheon—starting about six A. M. and stopping toward five P. M.; and they got the range. I tell you, one lies pretty flat when there’s any shrapnel about. Some of the English boys were killed the second day, but we Americans have been fine and lucky—only one killed the whole time, though we have had some very narrow shaves. For instance, Thaw had his bayonet knocked off his rifle by a “sniper” while on sentry-go, and another boy named Merlac had his pipe taken clean out of his mouth by a shrapnel ball in the trenches. It didn’t hurt him at all, but I never saw any one look so surprised in my life. Shortly afterward Jimmy Bach (who is now in the Aviation Corps with Thaw and me) had his head cut by a rifle bullet which just grazed it without doing more than make a deepish scratch. I myself had a close squeak the very day of our arrival in the trenches. A piece of shell weighing three or four pounds smashed to bits the pack on my back—including my best pipe, which I couldn’t replace until I got back to Paris—without so much as bruising me, though it scared me something dreadful.

Farewell, Whiskers!

Our company had an eight days’ “shift” in the trenches, followed by three days’ rest at a camp four miles in the rear.

During the week’s duty it was impossible to wash or take off one’s clothes, and we quickly got into a horrible condition of filth. To begin with, there was a cake of mud from head to foot about half an inch thick; but what was worse was the vermin which infested our clothes almost immediately and were practically impossible to get rid of. They nearly broke the heart of Lieutenant Bloch. He had a wonderful crop of bright red whiskers, of which he was as proud as a kitten with its first mouse, because he thought they gave him a really warlike appearance, and he was always combing them and squinting at them in a little pocket mirror. Well, one day the lice got into these whiskers and fairly gave him hades. He bore it for a week, scratching away at his chin until he was tearing out chunks of hair by the roots; but at last he could stand no more, and had to have the whole lot shaved off. He was the saddest thing you ever saw after that, with a little chinless face like a pink rabbit, and was so ashamed he hardly dared show himself in daylight.

But mud and vermin were only minor worries, really; our proper serious troubles were cold and hunger. It’s pretty cool in the middle of France toward the end of November, and for some reason—I guess because they were such a lot of infernal thieves at our depot—we never got any of the clothes and warm wraps sent up from Paris for us. It was just throwing money away to try it. My wife mailed me three or four lots of woolen sweaters and underclothes, but I never received a single thing, and the rest of the boys had much the same experience.

Running the Gauntlet.

That was bad, but the hunger was something fierce. The Foreign Legion is not particularly well fed at any time—coffee and dry bread for breakfast, soup with lumps of meat in it for luncheon, with rice to follow, and the same plus coffee for dinner, and not too much of anything, either. But in our case all the grub had to be brought in buckets from the relief post, four miles away, by squads leaving the trenches at three A. M., ten A. M., and five P. M., and a tough job it was, what with the darkness and the mud and the shell holes and the German cannonade, to say nothing of occasional snipers taking pot shots at you with rifles. I got one bullet once right between my legs, which drilled a hole in the next bucket in line and wasted all our coffee.

As you can imagine, quite a lot of the stuff used to get spilt on the way, and then the boys carrying it used to scrape it up off the ground and put it back again, so that nearly everything one ate was full of gravel and, of course, absolutely cold. More than once when the cannonade was especially violent we got nothing to eat all day but a couple of little old sardines; and, believe me, it takes a mighty strong stomach to stand that sort of treatment for any length of time. As far as we Americans were concerned, who were mostly accustomed to man-sized meals, the net result was literally slow starvation.

Repulsed With Loss.

The second night in the trenches we had an alarm of a night attack. I crept out to a “funk-hole” some thirty yards ahead of our trench with a couple of friends. It was nearly ten o’clock and there was a thin drizzle. We stared out into the darkness, breathing hard in our excitement. The usual fireworks display of searchlights and rockets over the German trenches was missing—an invariable sign of a contemplated attack, we had been told. Suddenly I glimpsed a line of dim figures advancing slowly through the darkness. “Hold your fire, boys,” I gasped. “Let them get good and close before you loose off.” They came nearer, stealthily, silently. We raised our rifles. Suddenly my friend on the right rolled over, shaking with noiseless laughter. For a moment we thought he was mad. Then we, too, realized the truth. The approaching column, instead of eager, bloodthirsty Germans, was a dozen harmless domestic cows, strays, doubtless, from a deserted farm. There were considerable casualties among the attacking force, and for a week at least the American section of the Foreign Legion had an ample diet.

The next night the three of us were out there again, but there was still no attack, though we had rather a nasty experience all the same. We were crawling back to our trench about midnight when suddenly we found ourselves under a heavy fire. One bullet went through Thaw’s kepi, but we soon saw that instead of coming from the Germans, the fire was directed from a section of our own trenches who thought there was an attack. We yelled, but they went on shooting. I was so mad that I shot back at them, but luckily there was no damage done anywhere.

Praise for Germans.

Two nights later there really did come an attack in considerable force. A lot of us crawled out into a hollow in front of our trench and, starting at about forty yards’ distance, we let them have it hot and heavy. We had our bayonets fixed, but they didn’t get near enough to charge. I think we kept up America’s reputation for marksmanship; anyway, they melted away after about half an hour, and in the morning there were several hundred dead bodies in front of the trench—they had taken the wounded back with them. The bodies were still there when I left, nearly three months later. I crawled out a night or two afterward and had a look at them, and was lucky enough to get an iron cross as a souvenir off a young officer. He was lying flat on his back with a hole between the eyes, and he had the horriblest grin human face ever wore; his lips were drawn right back off the teeth so that he seemed to be snarling like a wild beast ready to bite.

We took no prisoners at all; in fact, none of them got near enough, and our Colonel didn’t think it worth while risking a counter-charge. To tell the truth, we hardly took any prisoners any time, except here and there an occasional straggler. I’ve heard stories about the Dutchies surrendering easily, but you can take it from me that’s all bunk. I used to think that one Irishman could lick seventeen Dutchmen; but, believe me, when they get that old uniform on they are a very different proposition. On one occasion a company of the Legion surrounded a Lieutenant and eleven men. They called on them to surrender, but not a bit of it. They held out all day and fought to the last gasp. At last only the Lieutenant and one soldier were left alive, both wounded. Again they refused to give in, and they had to kill the Lieutenant before the last survivor finally threw down his rifle and let them carry him off. I heard he died on the way to the station, and I’m mighty sorry; he was a white man, if he was a German.

One remarkable thing about the prisoners we did get was their exceedingly thorough knowledge of everything going on, not only of the war in general, but of all that was taking place back of our trenches. Their spy system is something marvelous. Why, they knew the exact date our reinforcements were coming on one occasion nearly a week beforehand, when the majority of our fellows hadn’t even an idea there were any expected!

In some cases they got information from French villagers whom they had bought before they retreated. I saw one such case myself. We were bivouacked in a ruined village, and a lot of us were sleeping in and around a cottage that hadn’t been damaged. We were downstairs, while the owner of the cottage and his wife and kid had the upstairs room. One of our boys happened to go outside in the night and, by jingo! he saw the fellow coolly signaling with a lamp behind his curtain. He went along and told the Captain, who was at the schoolhouse, and they came back with a couple of under officers and arrested them red-handed. He tried to hide under the bed, and howled for mercy when they pulled him out. His wife never turned a hair—the Sergeant told me she looked as if she was glad he’d been caught. They shot him there and then in his own yard, and his wife was around in the morning just as if nothing had happened.

“Pluckiest Thing in the War.”

After that we always used to be very suspicious of any house or village that wasn’t devastated when everything round had been chewed up; there was nearly always a spy concealed somewhere not far off. To give you a case in point: There was a fine big château near Craonelle, where our trenches were, that hadn’t been bombarded, though they had stripped most of the furniture and stuff out of it. Well, one fine day the General commanding our section thought it would be a convenient place to hold a big pow-wow. He and his staff had only been seated at the table about ten minutes when a whacking great 310-millimeter shell burst right on top of the darned place, followed by a perfect hail of others. The General and his staff ran for their lives; luckily none of them were badly hurt, though they got the deuce of a scare.

After the bombardment some of us went along to look at what was left of the château, and—will you believe me?—we found a little old Dutch sous-off half choked in the cellar, but still hanging on to the business end of a telephone. I call that the pluckiest thing I’ve seen at the war, and I can tell you we were mighty sorry to have to shoot him. He never turned a hair, either, and we didn’t even suggest bandaging his eyes. He knew what was coming to him from the start; that he was as good as a dead man from the moment he got into the cellar. He told us he had been there a week, just waiting for some confiding bunch of French officers to come along and hold a meeting.

It’s funny how some men meet death, anyway. We had one nigger prize fighter along with us named Bob Scanlon. He was the blackest coon you ever saw, until one day there came a great big “marmite” that burst almost on top of him and buried him in the mud. We dug him out, and he wasn’t even scratched, but ever afterward he has been a kind of mulatto color, he was so darned scared by the narrowness of his escape.

Good Way to Die.

Another boy, an Englishman, got out of the trench one day to stretch his legs, as he said he was tired of sitting still. Some one called to him to come down and not be a fool, as the Germans were keeping up a constant rifle fire, and after a minute or two he jumped back into the trench. “They didn’t get you, did they?” called out some one. “Oh, no!” he answered, sitting down. Then all of a sudden he just keeled over slowly sideways without a sound, and, believe me, when they went to pick him up he was as dead as David—plugged clean through the heart. He never even felt the shock of it. If they do ever get me, that’s the way I hope to die.


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