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Nancy, France: In the Trenches

January 6th, 1918

WWI-044Today is clear and sunny and the sky is humming with big planes from the aerodromes up on Malzéville plateau. Things are happening or getting ready to happen in this sector. They say the whole of France is concentrated at this moment on Nancy and a spring drive. Whether it will be us or the Boches who do the driving remains to be seen, but we seem to be the center of the maelstrom.

Pont à Mousson and its surrounding villages are being evacuated and they are working back from that front towards us. Many people are scared and are leaving Nancy, too. “Morrison’s Merry Men” of the Red Cross are helping with their enormous camions in the evacuation work. Going to our various clinics we follow the Pont à Mousson road, which leads right through Nancy to the front. We encounter all sorts of conveyances loaded with household goods, the poor old peasants sitting atop the loads. They are usually old men and women and half-grown children. The smaller children have mostly all been previously evacuated. It seems so sad to have to turn them out of their homes and scatter them broadcast over the country in other strange villages. If the Germans do break through here, and it is no secret that they are amassing a huge number of troops in this sector, these poor people will probably never lay eyes on their homes again, unless in ruins. They save the strangest things sometimes, old planks for instance, and almost always a good part of the wagon or conveyance is filled with their winter store of fire-wood. While these long strings of evacuées come down from the front, equally long strings of troops and batteries and ravitaillement convoys go up, so that our road is constantly one of interest. We are to keep our poste de secours until the last gun is fired.

Last Wednesday, our day for Pont à Mousson, Dr. Alice Barlow Brown went up in one of the Ford touring cars from Toul with Dr. Ladd, the new head doctor at the Caserne, while I drove up our two nurses as usual in the ambulance. It was Dr. Ladd’s first visit and of course he wanted to see the sights. Being free while Dr. Brown and the nurses held forth among the dead and wounded, I went with him along with an old soldier guide and Turner, who has supplanted Johnson at the Caserne as a driver. Of course it was an old story for me so instead of following the usual round of ruins, caves [cellars] and bomb and gas abris I suggested taking a trip up Mousson, which is the peak that forms a salient in the German lines. It lies on the other side of the Moselle River and dominates the town, and on its very top is a French observation post. Dr. Ladd liked the idea at once, if it could be done, so I flew off to M. Marin’s office, he’s the commissaire de police [chief of police] and a great chum of mine to see if we could get a permis [permit]. He was dumbfounded at our even wanting to go, but I wheedled until he finally phoned up to the poste d’observation and they, blithe spirits that they are, said sure, come on up.

So off we started on foot, being joined by two French aides and one of the nurses. We made quite a party. The sentries looked awfully dubious since most of the way, the road lies in full view of the German lines and within easy gun range. We were ordered to spread out two and two at rather long intervals as the Boches might have wasted a shell on us had we bunched together. For fear of snipers they made me take off my red scarf and hide it under my coat. I walked with Turner and we kept looking off toward the German trenches to see if any Boche bullets were following us up as we mounted higher and higher, and the hillside grew more and more bare and unprotected. But we saw nothing.

What we did presently hear, however, was a whanging sort of a swish through the air overhead followed a trifle later by a loud explosion. We scarcely knew whether to run or to lie flat or to seek shelter in one of the many shell craters, which lined the road. There were some abandoned dugouts, too, but they were half full of scummy water. The old soldier called out reassuringly to go on, that the Boches were shelling a French battery concealed in a wood on the other side of Mousson. And though we happened to be right in their line of fire, all the shells would go by overhead. Unless, I thought, one falls short, or a Boche gunner thought it would be a good joke to take a pot shot at us!

However, there was nothing to do but go on unless we wanted to run ignominiously back down the hill. We were now looking down on one side of the Moselle River, which cuts the town of Pont à Mousson in two. Just to the right, as we faced the town, was the famous Bois le Prêtre on the summit of an opposite ridge. The Boches hold the ridge and the right half of the wood, as well as the farther side of the river. The lower bare plain on either side of the Moselle is No Man’s Land where each side sends out men to “listen” under cover of dark. Next were the long gashes in the hillside, which were our trenches and communicating trenches.

trench-illustration-1“The trench system resulted from the natural inclination of infantry to protect itself in the face of fire. Digging was the obvious response. After the first crude shelters were scratched from the soil, engineers and sappers began to devise careful schemes of entrenchment whenever conditions would allow. For the most part, the trench system was a refinement of the siege trench tactics that had been known and used in European warfare for several centuries, but instead of leading up to a fortified city or castle, the trenches led only to opposing trenches.

The basic configuration was a line of frontline trenches facing each other with a no-man’s-land in between. The lines were angled and zigzagged to prevent enfilading fire by assaults from the other side, and there was usually a system of communication and supply trenches set at further angles that led to the rear. The forward approaches were likely to be covered by artillery and machine-gun fire and further made difficult by barbed wire and minefields.

Life in the trenches was obviously, difficult, uncomfortable, unhealthy and dangerous. In addition to the constant danger from enemy fire or attack, trench troops had to endure cold, wet, disease, and vermin.” (Burg and Purcell, Almanac of World War I, 1998; pg. 48)

Though every wood and group of trees held a concealed battery, the countryside presented as calm and peaceful an appearance as one would care to see except for the blackened and splintered trees of Priest’s Wood and the ruined town. Yet thousands of troops are massed on both sides at this very point; the earth bristles with armed men. Lying in a hollow of the hills, in German territory, was a little hamlet; so close we could see the windows in the houses without the aid of glasses. Every three or four minutes there was that curious whistling noise directly overhead, and then the sharp explosion as the shells landed on the other side of the hill. Our soldier guide guessed they were probably 210’s—some caliber! At the top of the hill and where the main road stopped to continue in a trail, we were held up in the lee of a wall by a sentry until the whole party had assembled. Then we were allowed to enter the curious little village, which crowns the top of the peak. The commandant gave us permission to go still farther up to the remains of an ancient church situated at the very pinnacle of the village and in which the poste d’observation is located. The trail to it wound round and round, cleverly camouflaged with brush and faggots (a bundle of sticks) to resemble brambles. Here and there in the mouth of a dugout, blue-coated poilus were sitting, smoking and chatting and utterly oblivious to the continual shower of shells whizzing by overhead. They say as long as you hear the shells going over there is no cause for alarm. The one that gets you, you never hear. Still, it must be rather disconcerting wondering when the one with your name on it may be coming along. The Boches are such methodical creatures that when they start shelling one spot they never deviate to play a joke on you.

We crawled out of our little communication trench at certain points and squatted among the brambles to get different views of the country—Verdun off in one direction, Metz in another. The soldiers who were acting as our escort had field-glasses, and the day was so clear—it had just cleared up after a rain—that objects stood out with wonderful distinctness.

Enclosing the ruins of the old mediaeval edifice at the top of the peak were the remains of a very ancient stone wall partly fallen away with age, partly shot away during the last three years of war. Tremendously thick and solid, it had served in the middle ages to enclose a feudal stronghold, but its origin goes back a thousand years to the days of “the grandeur that was Rome.” And now—what a commentary on civilization—the Boches are battering it to pieces!

We went, always by barricaded and hidden paths, until we reached the ground floor of the church. There, where you would least expect it, was a snug and well-protected observation post where the three soldiers on guard were very much surprised to see us. We took turns going in two by two to look through the powerful telescope trained on Metz. A cloud lifted as I looked through the glass and a brilliant streak of sunshine struck the city, twenty-one miles distant. In its light the cathedral, church steeples, and various isolated houses stood out as clearly as though only a mile away. With that bar of sunshine illuminating it, amid the surrounding shadow of the landscape, Metz became suddenly symbolic, the Promised Land.

Our trip down the mountain was uneventful. We went two and two as before but the Boches were no longer sending shells over us and we reached Pont à Mousson and our little hole in the wall restaurant without mishap.

After lunch M. Marin gave us permission to go as far as the beginning of the communicating trenches, only 500 meters from the front lines, or rather from the Boches. Well, when we got there a mean drizzle had settled down over Bois le Prêtre so that we could only vaguely see the different positions. Dr. Ladd was set on going into the trenches and as the four gold stripes on his sleeve carry considerable weight the first thing I knew he and Turner were vanishing down a boyau [narrow passageway], leaving me standing there talking to a sentry. When I beheld that, I exclaimed, “Why, there go the doctor and his chauffeur!” The sentry only grinned and shrugged his shoulders, so I, catching on at once, said, “Shall I run after them and tell them to come back?” He grinned the more at that and finally broke out laughing when I insisted, “But shall I?” So without more ado, while he obligingly turned his back, I scuttled off into the trench. Two French poilus were with them and they all looked rather surprised to see me steaming up. I said I had been sent to conduct them all back, at which they laughed merrily and we all went on.

The trench got deeper and deeper and muddier and muddier. The side toward the Boches was completely screened by cleverly arranged twigs and brambles. Here and there were dugouts and places scooped out to allow troops to pass each other. Finally we got into oozy, sticky clay that made a sucking noise every time you pulled your foot out. It was hard work walking at all. Then we came to water, up to our shoe-tops and then over. There was nothing to do but wallow along through it. In some places a sort of board latticework had been laid down in the bottom of the trench, but it was like stepping on a wobbly raft and one’s weight pushed it down so that all the water rushed up through the openings in the slats. At length it got so bad that our guide, under cover of the drizzle, which concealed us pretty well from the front line trenches, decided to crawl out of our trench, and make a detour through a meadow and regain it farther on. So they hauled us all out over the edge and we crept along single file through very wet squishy grass. On one side was a road lined with barbed-wire entanglements, on the other, our trench, which had now dropped completely out of sight so well was it camouflaged. When we entered the trench again it was much deeper, way over my head, and from time to time other side trenches branched off. Once we went through a tunnel. The whole thing reminded me of a mine except we could see sky overhead all the time. We were now in the second line trenches and so caked with mud we could hardly move. The trench twisted like a snake; every few minutes we were turning a corner. They are so constructed in order not to get a direct enfilade fire from the enemy’s guns. Not far ahead we could hear the rapid tac-tac-tac of a machine gun cutting loose. It began to be terribly exciting, though I couldn’t help but think that if anything should happen and I had to move along in a hurry I should certainly stick fast in the mud like a fly on fly-paper.

I know there should be some dramatic climax to this tale but from here on it rather peters out. The poilus said it would be impossible to take us farther as the machine guns were in action and we couldn’t very well interfere with the carrying on of the war by trying to squeeze past them. Furthermore, a few turns more and the water in the trenches got thigh-deep so that we couldn’t well plunge through it without rubber boots. As it was we were a sight. So, loath as we were to do so, we had to turn back and plod through mud and water to our starting point. There the obliging sentry was all but standing on his ear for fear his commanding officer might happen by, but we placated him with five-franc notes and cigarettes until he desisted from the savage swishing of his bayonet to and fro and became more calm.

What with scaling mountain peaks and tramping through muddy trenches let alone my regular job which is wearing enough, I was glad to get into bed that night, and if any siren alertes sounded I never heard them.