Those who were at rest, lying close together at the bottom of the little dug-outs they had made for themselves in the bank, were sleeping or trying to sleep. More than one of them had succeeded, for resounding snores could be heard behind the blankets, pieces of tent canvas and sacking, and all the various rags with which they had ingeniously stuffed up the entrances to their rustic alcoves. One wondered how they could have overcome the sufferings the cold must have caused them so far as to be able to sleep calmly. The five months of war had hardened their bodies and accustomed them to face cold, heat, rain, dust, or mud, with impunity. In this hard school, better than in any other, men of iron are fashioned, who last out a whole campaign and are capable of the supreme effort when the hour comes.
We arrived at the Territorials' trench.
"Bon-soir, mon cher camarade."
It was the Second-Lieutenant whom I met at the entrance. He was a man of forty-two, thin, pale, and bearded. In the shadow his eyes shone strangely. Under the skirts of his great-coat he had his hands buried in his trouser pockets. His elbows stuck out from his body, his knees were bent, his teeth chattered, and he was gently knocking his heels together.
"It isn't warm, eh?" I asked.
"Oh, no; and then, you see, this sort of work is hardly the thing for fellows of our age. Our blood isn't warm enough, and, however you cover yourself up, there's always a chink by which the cold gets in. The worst of all is one's hands and feet; and there's nothing to be done for it. Wouldn't it be much better to trust to us, give us the order to fix bayonets and drive those Boches out of their trenches over there? You'd see if the Territorials couldn't do it as well as the Regulars.... And then one would have a chance of getting warm."
I felt sure that he spoke the truth, and that his opinion was shared by the majority of his companions. But our good comrades of the Territorial Force have no conception of the vigour, the suppleness, and of the fulness of youth required to charge up to the enemy's line under concentrated fire and to cut the complex network of barbed wire that bars the road. Our chiefs were well advised in placing these troops where they were, in those lines of trenches scientifically constructed and protected, where their courage and tenacity would be invaluable in case of attack, and where they would know better than any others how to carry out the orders given to us: "Hold on till death." Leave to the young soldiers the sublime and perilous task of rushing upon the enemy when he is hidden behind the shelter of his fougades, his parapets, and his artificial brambles; and entrust to the brave Territorials the more obscure but not less glorious work of mounting guard along our front.
I could make them out in the moonlight, standing silent and alert, in groups of two or three. Perched on the ledge of earth which raised them to the height of the parapet, they had their eyes wide open in the darkness, looking towards the enemy. Their loaded rifles were placed in front of them, between two clods of hardened earth. They neither complained nor uttered a word, but suffered nobly. They understand that they must. Ah! where now were the fine tirades of pothouse orators and public meetings? Where now were the oaths to revolt, the solemn denials and the blasphemies pronounced against the Fatherland? All was forgotten, wiped out from the records. If we could have questioned those men who stood there shivering, chilled to the bone, watching over the safety of the country, not one of them, certainly, would have confessed that he was ever one of the renegades of yore. And yet if one were to search among the bravest, among the most resigned, among the best, thousands of them would be discovered. Heaven grant that this miracle, wrought by the war, may be prolonged far beyond the days of the struggle, and then we shall not think that our brothers' blood has been spilt in vain.
We brushed past them, but they did not even turn round. Eyes, mind, and will were absorbed in the dark mystery of the silent landscape stretching out before them. But the night, though it was so bright, gave everything a strange appearance; transformed all living things and increased their size; made the stones, the stacks, and the trees move, as it seemed to our weary eyes; cast fitful shadows where there were none; and made us hear murmurs which sounded like the muffled tramp of troops marching cautiously. Those men watched because they felt that there was always the danger of a surprise attack, of a sudden rush of Teutons who had crawled up through the grass of the fields. They had piled on their backs empty sacks, blankets, and old rags, for warmth, and wound their mufflers two or three times round their necks; they had taken all possible precautions for carrying out their duty to the very last. And although our hearts had been hardened by the unprecedented miseries of this war, we were seized with pity and admiration. Presently one of them turned round and said to us:
"Hallo! They are lighting up over there now."
I jumped up on to the ledge and saw, in fact, lights shining in three different places some way off. After looking attentively I guessed the meaning of this quite unusual illumination in the rear of the trenches. The lights came from some large fir-trees, placed there under cover of night, and beautifully lighted up. With my glasses I could make them out distinctly, and even the figures dancing round them; and we could hear their voices and shouts of merriment. How well they had arranged the whole thing! They had even gone as far as to light up their Christmas trees with electricity, so as to prevent our gunners from using them as an easy target. In fact, every few minutes all the lights on a tree were suddenly put out, and only appeared some minutes afterwards.
We had thrilled instinctively. Suddenly there arose, all over the wide plain, solemn and melodious singing. We still remembered singing of a similar kind we had recently heard at Bixschoote on a tragic occasion; and here were the same tuneful voices again, singing a hymn of the same kind as those they sang further to the north before shouting their hurrahs for the attack. But we did not fear anything of that kind now. We had the impression that this singing was not a special prayer in front of our little sector of trenches, but that it was general, and extended without limits over the whole of our provinces violated by the enemy: over Champagne, Lorraine, and Picardy, resounding from the North Sea to the Rhine.
The Territorial trench was full of noiseless animation. The men came up out of their little dug-outs without a word, and the whole company was soon perched upon the ledge. There was a silence among our men, as if each man felt uneasy or perhaps jealous of what was going on over there. Then, as if to order, along the line of the German trenches other hymns rang out, and one choir seemed to answer the other. The singing became general. Quite close to us, in the trenches themselves, in the distance, round their brightly lighted trees, to the right, to the left, it resounded, softened by the distance. What a stirring, nay, grandiose, impression those hymns made, floating over the vast field of death! I felt intuitively that all this had been arranged long before, that they might celebrate their Christmas with religious calm and peace.
At any other time, no doubt, many a clumsy joke would have been made, and no little abuse hurled at the singers. But all that has been changed. I divined some regret among our brave fellows that we were not taking part in a similar festival. Was it not Christmas Eve? Had we not been obliged by our duty to give up the delightful family gathering which reunites us yearly around the symbolic Yule-log? This year our mothers, our sisters, and our children were keeping up the time-honoured and pious custom alone. Why did not our larger family of to-day join in singing together around lighted fir-trees? Our Territorials did not speak; but their thoughts flew away from the trenches, and the regrets of all were fused in a common feeling of melancholy.
Little by little the singing died away, and absolute silence fell once more upon the country.
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I went with G. as far as his watch-post. He had to resume his duty as officer of the watch from eleven o'clock in the evening to two o'clock in the morning. The post consisted of a kind of small blockhouse, strongly built and protected by two casemates with machine-guns placed so as to command the enemy's trenches. A machine-gunner was always on guard, and could call the others, at the slightest alarm, to work the gun. These men were quartered in a kind of tunnel hollowed out close by, and at the first signal would have been ready to open fire with their terrible engines of destruction. In the centre of the block-house a padded sentry-box was arranged made of a number of sand-bags, in which, by means of a loophole, the officer of the watch could observe the whole sector entrusted to us; and by means of a telephone station, close at hand, he could communicate at any moment with the commander of the sector at the glass-works.
G. had put on the goatskin coat handed to him by the officer he relieved. This officer was a Second-Lieutenant of Territorials, and looked completely frozen.
"Here, my dear fellow," he said, "I leave you the goatskin provided for the use of the officer on duty. I should have liked to give it you well warmed, but I feel like an icicle myself."
G. was nevertheless glad to have it. After wishing him good luck, I left him to get back to my hut, for, in spite of my cloak, the frost was taking hold of me too. The faithful Wattrelot had done his best to keep our little stove going. Profiting by La G.'s example, I stretched myself on two chairs, with my feet towards the fire. I gradually got warmer, and at the same time somewhat melancholy. What a curious Christmas Eve! Certainly I had never passed one in such a place. The walls were made of a greyish, friable earth, which still showed the marks of the pick that had been used for the excavation. The furniture was simple and not very comfortable. At the back was the bed, made out of a little straw already well tossed over by a number of sleepers. This straw was kept in by a plank fixed to the ground and forming the side of the modest couch. Against the wall, opposite the stove, was the table. This table, which had to serve for writing and feeding, and perhaps for a game of cards, this table, which was required to fill the part of all the tables of all the rooms of any house, was, strange to say, a night-table. I wondered who had brought it there, and who had chosen it. But, such as it was, it served its purpose pretty well. We used it for dinner, and found it almost comfortable, and upon it I signed a number of reports and orders. Together with the two chairs, the stove, the bed, and some nails to hang my clothes on, that table completed the furniture of the "home" where I meditated on that December night. The candle, stuck in a bottle, flickered at the slightest breath, and threw strange shadows on the walls.
It was the hour of solitude and silence, the hour of meditation and of sadness too now and then. That evening dark thoughts were flying about in that smoky den, assailing me in crowds, and taking possession of my mind; I could not drive them away. It was one of those moments—those very fleeting moments!—when courage seems to fail, and one gives way with a kind of bitter satisfaction. I remembered that months and months had passed since I had seen any of those belonging to me, and I conjured up in my mind the picture of the Christmas Eve they were keeping, too, at that same hour, at the other end of France. And the dear, good friends I had left in Paris and in Rouen—where were they at that moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking of me? How I should have liked to enjoy the wonderful power possessed by certain heroes in the Arabian Nights, which would have allowed me to see at that moment a vision of the loved ones far away. Were they talking about me, sitting together round the fire? I thought that this war had been a splendid thing to us Chasseurs as long as we were fighting as cavalry, scouring the plains, searching the woods, galloping in advance of our infantry, and bringing them information which enabled them to deal their blows or parry those of the enemy, trying to come up with the Prussian cavalry which fled before us. But this trench warfare, this warfare in which one stays for days and days in the same position, in which ground is gained yard by yard, in which artifice tries to outdo artifice, in which each side clings to the ground it has won, digs into it, buries itself in it, and dies in it sooner than give it up! What warfare for cavalry! We have devoted ourselves to it with all our hearts, and the chiefs who have had us under their orders have never failed to commend us; but at times we feel very weary, and during inaction and solitude our imaginations begin to work. Then we recall our regiment in full gallop over field and plain; we hear the clank of swords and bits; we see once more the flash of the blades, the motley line of the horses; we evoke the well-known figures of our chiefs on their chargers. That night my mind became more restless than ever before; it broke loose, it leapt away, and lived again the unforgettable stages of this war: Charleroi, Guise, the Marne, the defence of the Jaulgonne bridge, Montmirail, Reims, ... Belgium, Bixschoote; and then it fell back into the gloomy dug-out where the flame of the single candle traced disquieting shadows on the wall.
Suddenly a cold breath of air blew into my retreat. The door opened abruptly, and at the top of the steps a man, stooping over the floor of the passage, called me in an undertone:
"Mon Lieutenant, come and see.... Something is happening...."
With a bound, I sprang from my shelter and climbed up the ledge.
"Listen, mon Lieutenant."
That night in the trenches was destined to overwhelm me with astonishment, and this one surpassed all that I could imagine. I should like to be able to impart the extraordinary impression I felt; but one would have to have been there that night to be capable of realising it. Over that vast and silent plain, in which everything seemed to sleep and where no other sound was heard, there resounded from afar a voice whose notes, in spite of the distance, reached our ears. What an extraordinary thing it was! That song, vibrating through the boundless night, made our hearts beat and stirred us more than the most perfectly ordered concert given by the most famous singers.
And it was another hymn, unknown to us, coming from the German trenches far away on our left. The singer must have been standing out in the fields on the edge of their line; he must have been moving, coming towards us, and passing slowly along all the enemy's positions, for his voice came gradually nearer, and became louder and clearer. Every now and then it ceased, and then hundreds of other voices responded in chorus with some phrases which formed the refrain of the hymn. Then the soloist began again and came still nearer to us. He must have come from a considerable distance, for our Chasseurs had already heard him some time before they decided to call me. Who could this man have been, who must have been sent along the front of the troops to pray, whilst each German company waited for him, so as to join with him in prayer? Some minister, no doubt, who had come to remind the soldiers of the sanctity of that night and the solemnity of the hour.
Soon we heard the voice coming from the trenches straight in front of us. In spite of the brightness of the night, we could not distinguish the singer, for the two lines at that point were four hundred yards apart. But he was certainly not hiding himself, for his deep voice would never have sounded so rich and clear to us had he been singing at the bottom of their trenches. Again it ceased. And then the Germans directly in front of us, the soldiers occupying the works opposite ours, those men whom we were bound to kill so soon as they appeared, and whose duty it was to shoot us so soon as we showed ourselves—those men calmly took up the refrain of the hymn, with its sweet and mysterious words. They too must have come to the edge of their trench and struck up their hymn with their faces towards us, for their notes came to us clearly and distinctly.
I looked along the line of our trench. All our men too were awake and looking on. They had all got on to the ledge, and several had left the trench and were in the field, listening to the unexpected concert. No one was offended by it; no one laughed at it. Rather was there a trace of regret in the attitudes and the faces of those who were nearest to me. And yet it would have been such a simple matter to put an end to that scene; a volley fired by the troop there, and it would all stop, and drop back into the quiet of other nights. But nobody thought of such a thing. There was not one of our Chasseurs who would not have considered it a sacrilege to fire upon those praying soldiers. We felt indeed that there are hours when one can forget that one is there to kill. This would not prevent us from doing our duty immediately afterwards.
The voice drew farther away, and retreated slowly and majestically towards the trenches situated at the place known as the "Troopers of C.'s" ground, where our two lines approached each other within a distance of fifty yards. How much more touching the sight must have been from there! I wished my post had been in that direction, so that I might have been present at the scene, might have heard the words and distinguished the figure of the pastor walking along the parapets made for hurling out death, and blessing those who the next day might be no more.
Ping! A shot was heard....
The stupid bullet which had perhaps found its mark? At once there was dead silence, not a cry, not an oath, not a groan. Some one had thought he was doing well by firing on that man. A pity! We should gain nothing by preventing them from keeping Christmas in their own way, and it would have been a nobler thing to reserve our blows for other hecatombs. I know that the barbarians would not have hesitated had they been in our place, and that so many of our priests had fallen under their strokes that they could not reasonably have reproached us. There are people who will say that our hatred should embrace everything German; that we should be implacable towards everything bearing that name, and spare none of the execrated race which has been the cause of so many tears, so much blood, so much mourning. Never mind!... I think in this case it would have been better not to have shot....
A shot fired, not far from us, on our left brought me up from my shelter. It seemed strange after the complete calm of that night. It was seven o'clock. The sun was magnificent, and had already bathed the deserted plain, the fields, the heights of S., and the ruined village. In the distance, towards the east, the towers of the cathedral of R. stood out proudly against the golden sky. I looked and saw all my Chasseurs standing on the ledges watching with interest a scene which seemed to be going on in front of the trenches occupied on our left by the Territorials.
I got up by the side of one of them, and he explained to me what was happening.
"Mon Lieutenant, it's the infantry fellows who have just killed a hare that ran between the two lines, and they're going to fetch it...."
And in fact I saw this strange sight: two men had gone out in full daylight from their trenches and were advancing with hesitating steps towards the enemy's. Behind them were a hundred inquisitive heads, looking out above the embrasures arranged between the sacks of earth. A few soldiers, who had come out of the trench, were even sitting on the bank of chalky earth. It was certainly such a scene as I had hardly expected to witness. What was the captain of the company occupying the trench doing?
But my astonishment became stupefaction when I saw the hundreds of heads that fringed the enemy's trenches. I at once sent G. and a non-commissioned officer with the following order to all our men:
"No one is to show himself.... Every man to his fighting post!... Carbines loaded and ready to fire!"
The Germans opposite became suspicious on seeing our line so silent, and no man showing himself; they, too, waited on the alert behind their loopholes. But along the rest of their front their men kept on coming out from their trenches unarmed, and making merry and friendly gestures. I became uneasy, and wondered how this unexpected comedy might end. Ought I to have those men fired upon who were not quite opposite to us, and whose opponents seemed rather inclined to make a Christmas truce?
Our two infantrymen had come to the spot where the hare had fallen, very nearly half-way between the French and the German lines. One of them stooped down and got up again proudly brandishing his victim in the enemy's faces. At once there was a burst of applause from the German lines. They called out: "Kameraden! Kameraden!"
This was going too far. I saw two unarmed Prussians leave their trench and come forward, with their hands raised towards the two Frenchmen, so I consulted G.: "Ought we to fire? I confess it would be rather unpleasant for me to order our fellows to fire upon these unarmed men. On the other hand, can we allow the least intercourse between the barbarous nation that is still treading our soil and our good brothers-in-arms who are pouring out their blood every day to reconquer it?"
Fortunately, the officer who commanded the Saint Thierry artillery, and who had observed this scene with his glasses, spared me a decision which would have been painful to me.
Pong! Pong! Pong! Pong!
Four shells passed, hissing, over our heads, and burst with admirable precision two hundred yards above the German trenches. The artillery officer seemed to have placed with a delicate hand the four little white puffs of smoke which, equidistant from each other, appeared to mark out the bounds in the heavens of the frontier line he wished to forbid the enemy to pass on the earth. The Germans did not fail to understand this graceful warning. With cries of rage and protest, they ran back to their shelters, and our Frenchmen did the same.
And, as though to mark the intentional kindness of what he had just done, hardly had the last of the spiked helmets disappeared behind the parapets, when again the same hissing noise was heard, and, pong! pong! pong! pong! four shells dropped, this time full upon the whitish line formed along the green plain by the upturned earth of their trenches. In the midst of the smoke, earth and rubbish of all kinds were seen flying. Our Chasseurs cried "Bravo!" Everyone felt that the best solution had been found, and rejoiced at this termination of the brief Christmas truce.
And now our minds were free to rejoice in the great day itself in company with our good troopers. In the night there had arrived, well packed in smart hampers, the bottles of champagne which Major B. had presented to his men, and we were looking forward to the time, only a few hours hence, when the soup would be upon the table, and we should keep our Christmas by letting off the corks in the direction of the German trenches.
Our young fellow-officers were already anticipating this peaceful salvo, which would certainly be heard by the enemy.
Bradbury, Agnew, & Co. Ld., Printers, London and Tonbridge.
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Typographical errors corrected in text: Page 163: Pery corrected to Pevy