A Zouave's Story
By Philip Gibbs
[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]
CREIL, Sept. 10.—I could write this narrative as a historian, with details gathered from many different witnesses at various parts of the lines, in a cold and aloof way, but I prefer to tell it in the words of a young officer of the Zouaves who was in the thickest of fighting until when I met him and gave him wine and biscuits. He was put out of action by a piece of shell which smashed his left arm. He told me the story of the battle as he sat back, hiding his pain by a little careless smile of contempt, and splashed with blood which made a mess of his uniform.
"For four days previous to Monday, Sept. 7," he said, "we were engaged in clearing out the German bosches from all the villages on the left bank of the Ourcq, which they had occupied in order to protect the flank of their right wing. Unfortunately for us the English heavy artillery, which would have smashed the beggars to bits, had not yet come up to help us, although we expected them with some anxiety, as big business events began as soon as we drove the outposts back to their main lines.
"However, we were equal to the preliminary task, and, heartened by the news of an ammunition convoy which had been turned into a pretty fireworks display by 'Soixante-dix' Pau, my Zouaves, (as you see, I belong to the First Division, which has a reputation to keep up, n'est ce pas?) were in splendid form. Of course, they all laughed at me. They wanted to get near those German guns and nearer still to the gunners. That was before they knew the exact meaning of shellfire well.
"They did good things, those Zouaves of mine, but it wasn't pleasant work. We fought from village to village, very close fighting, so that sometimes we could look into our enemy's eyes. The Moroccans were with us. The native troops are unlike my boys, who are Frenchmen, and they were like demons with their bayonet work.
"Several of the villages were set on fire by the Germans before they retired from them, and soon great columns of smoke with pillars of flames and clouds of flying sparks rose up into the blue sky and made a picture of hell there, for really it was hell on earth. Our gunners were shelling Germans from pillar to post, as it were, and strewing the ground with their dead. It was across and among these dead bodies that we infantry had to charge.
"They lay about in heaps. It made me sick, even in the excitement of it all. The enemy's quick-firers were marvelous. I am bound to say we did not get it all our own way. They always manoeuvre them in the same style, and a very clever style it is. First of all, they mask them with infantry; then, when the French charge, they reveal them and put us to the test under the most withering fire. It is almost impossible to stand against it, and in this case we had to retire after each rush for about 250 meters. Then, quick as lightning, the Germans got their mitrailleuses across the ground which we had yielded to them and waited for us to come on again, when they repeated the same operation.
"I can tell you it was pretty trying to the nerves. My Zouaves were very steady in spite of fairly heavy losses. It is quite untrue to say that the Germans have a greater number of mitrailleuses than the French. I believe that the proportion is exactly the same to each division, but they handle them more cleverly, and their fire is much more effective than ours.
"In a village named Penchard there was some very sharp fighting, and some of our artillery was posted thereabout. Presently a German aeroplane came overhead, circling round in reconnoissance, but it was out for more than that. Suddenly it began to drop bombs and, whether by design or otherwise, they exploded in the middle of a field hospital. One of my friends, a young doctor, was wounded in the left arm by a bullet from one of these bombs, but I don't know what other casualties there were. The inevitable happened shortly after the disappearance of the aeroplane. German shells searched the position and found it with unpleasant accuracy. It is always the same. The German aeroplanes are really wonderful in the way they search out the positions of our guns. We always know that within half an hour of observation by aeroplane shells will begin to fall above gunners, unless they have altered their position. It was so in this fighting round Meaux yesterday.
"For four days this hunting among the villages on the left bank of the Ourcq went on all the time, and we were not very happy with ourselves. The truth was we had no water and were four days thirsty. It was really terrible, for the heat was terrific during the day, and some of us were almost mad with thirst. Our tongues were blistered and swollen, our eyes had a silly kind of look in them, and at night we had horrid dreams. It was, I assure you, intolerable agony.
"I have said we were four days without drink, and that was because we used our last water for our horses. A gentleman has to do that, you will agree, and a French soldier is not a barbarian. Even then the horses had to go without a drop of water for two days, and I'm not ashamed to say I wept salt tears to see the sufferings of those poor, innocent creatures who did not understand the meaning of all this bloody business and who wondered at our cruelty.
"The nights were dreadful. All around us were burning villages, and at every faint puff of wind sparks floated about them like falling stars.
"But other fires were burning. Under the cover of darkness the Germans had piled the dead into great heaps and had covered them with straw and paraffin; then they had set a torch to these funeral pyres.
"Carrion crows were about in the dawn that followed. One of my own comrades lay very badly wounded, and when he wakened out of his unconsciousness one of these beastly birds was sitting on his chest waiting for him to die. That is war.
"The German shells were terrifying. I confess to you that there were times when my nerves were absolutely gone. I crouched down with my men (we were in open formation) and ducked my head at the sound of the bursting shell, and I trembled in every limb as though I had a fit of ague.
"It is true that in reality the German shells are not very effective. Only about one in four explodes nicely, but it is a bad thing when, as happened to me, the shells plopped around in a diameter of fifty meters. One hears the zip-zip of bullets, the boom of the great guns, the ste-tang of our French artillery, and in all this infernal experience of noise and stench, the screams at times of dying horses and men joined with the fury of gunfire and rising shrill above it, no man may boast of his courage. There were moments when I was a coward with all of them.
"But one gets used to it, as to all things. My ague did not last long. Soon I was shouting and cheering. Again we cleared the enemy out of the village of Bregy, and that was where I fell, wounded in the arm pretty badly by a bit of shell. When I came to myself a brother officer told me things were going on well and that we had rolled back the German right. That was better than bandages to me. I felt very well again, in spite of my weakness.
"It is the beginning of the end, and the Germans are on the run. They are exhausted and demoralized. Their pride has been broken; they are short of ammunition; they know their plans have failed.
"Now that we have them on the move nothing will save them. This war is going to be finished quicker than people thought. I believe that in a few days the enemy will be broken and that we shall have nothing more to do than kill them as they fight back in retreat."
That is the story, without any retouching of my pen, of a young Lieutenant of Zouaves whom I met after the battle of Meaux, with blood still splashed upon his uniform.
It is a human story, giving the experience of only one individual in the great battle, but it gives also in outline a narrative of that great military operation which has done irreparable damage to the German right wing in its plan of campaign and thrust it back across the Ourcq in a great retiring movement which has also begun upon the German centre and left.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald