The Horrors of Trench Fighting
By Roméo Houle
[The New York Times/Current History, July 1916]
CURRENT HISTORY received the original manuscript of this remarkable narrative and can vouch for its authenticity. It is undeniably one of the most thrilling human documents of real warfare that the great struggle has thus far produced. The editor has investigated the standing of the author in his home community and obtained official confirmation of his military record. Roméo Houle was born in New Bedford, Mass., Oct. 29, 1893, at 36 Hicks Street, the son of a local barber, Zacharie Houle, and Xeline Begnoche. He has a common school education. In 1912 he moved to Montreal, where he was a barber. When war was declared he enlisted in the Sixty-fifth Regiment, First Canadian Division, Aug. 10, 1914. He was discharged Feb. 10, 1916, and arrived in America Feb. 23, on the steamship Tuscania. His father secured the young soldier's discharge through Congressman Walsh of Massachusetts on the ground that he was an American citizen and was not of age when he enlisted. He lives at present at Oxford, Fairhaven, Mass., and is pursuing his vocation as barber at Lamothe's shop, 1,335 Purchase Street, New Bedford. He made notes of his experiences while in the trenches, and the subjoined production was written by him from those notes in collaboration with his friend Arthur L. Bouvier, editor of a local French newspaper at New Haven. [Editor CURRENT HISTORY.]
The true story of the trenches has never been told. I know, because for many months I have lived in trenches. I have slept daily in dread of bullet, shrapnel, mine, and deadly gas; and nightly in fear of mine and gas and the man-eating rats.
I am one of the few soldiers living who entered the front trenches at the opening of the war and who lived to fight the Germans in the front trenches in February, 1916. Of my original company, (the Fourth of the Fourteenth Battalion, Third Brigade, First Canadian Division), which marched away to that hell at Laventie and Ypres so gayly—500 brave boys—I am one of the sixteen who survive. And returning unexpectedly, snatched by the American Government out of the very jaws of death, with the mud of the trenches still upon my clothing, I discovered how much American people have been talking of the trenches and how little, after all, they really know.
Who has seen hell? Who has experienced the horrors of Milton's terrible vision or the slow tortures of Dante's inferno? God! If Dante's dream madness were truth, and those seven circles were seven encircling battle lines in Northern France or the torn fringe of brave little Belgium, I could stand up and say there is no agony of body or mind which I have not seen, which I have not experienced. I thank God and give Him the glory that I still am sane. Gas? What do you know of it, you people who never heard earth and heaven rock with the frantic turmoil of the ceaseless bombardment? A crawling yellow cloud that pours in upon you, that gets you by the throat and shakes you as a huge mastiff might shake a kitten, and leaves you burning in every nerve and vein of your body with pain unthinkable; your eyes starting from their sockets; your face turned yellow-green.
Rats? What did you ever read of the rats in the trenches? Next to gas, they still slide on their fat bellies through my dreams. Poe could have got new inspiration from their dirty hordes. Rats, rats, rats I see them still, slinking from new meals on corpses, from Belgium to the Swiss Alps. Rats, rats, rats, tens of thousands of rats, crunching between battle lines while the rapid-firing guns mow the trench edge crunching their hellish feasts. Full fed, slipping and sliding down into the wet trenches they swarm at night and more than one poor wretch has had his face eaten off by them while he slept.
Stench? Did you ever breathe air foul with the gases arising from a thousand rotting corpses? Dirt? Have you ever fought half madly through days and nights and weeks unwashed, with feverish rests between long hours of agony, while the guns boom their awful symphony of death, and the bullets zip-zip-zip ceaselessly along the trench edge that is your skyline—and your deathline, too, if you stretch and stand upright?
Yes, I Roméo Houle, know the trench. And but for Congressman Walsh and the American Ambassador to England, and the fact that I was under age when I enlisted in Montreal—but for those men and this fact I should still be fighting, bleeding, and perhaps dying in some dirty wet trench in Northern France. I longed for big adventures, you see, and now, ah, God! I am sick of adventure, for the adventures I have had will plague my sleep until I die.
You wouldn't believe all I have seen, all I have left. Ah, no; you would say, "Roméo Houle, you are lying," were I to tell you some unbelievable things that I have really lived through. Men go mad over there. When you know what life in the first-line trenches is like you will wonder that I have returned, and that, having returned, I am still in my right mind. Sometimes, at night, I find myself again carrying the wounded back after the charge, and listening to dying soldiers telling me to look into blood-soaked pockets for last letters to their sweethearts or mothers back home. "Tell mother that I received the Blessed Sacrament before the battle began." I hear their breaking voices whisper, "Tell mother," while the thundering artillery pours its curtain of fire upon us, and our boys throw back from their rude, hand-made sling shots their deadly "jam-pots." "Tell mother!" I think all the battle front is crying now those words. O Mother of God, hear them and end this needless butchery!
I fought at Ypres. I fought at St. Julien. I fought at Lacouture and Festubert. I fought at Cuinchy. I fought at Givenchy and La Bassée, and in the first-line trenches at Messines. And before all these I fought in the first line at Richebourg and Laventie, and I live, one of 16 alive out of 500.
I am an American by birth and a barber by occupation. I have shaved men for my living in New Bedford, Mass., and have shaved soldiers of necessity in time to the cracking of rifles in Northern France. I chanced to be in Montreal when England declared war. That was on Aug. 4, 1914. On Aug. 10 I enlisted in the Sixty-fifth Regiment of French Canadians commanded by Major Barre of Montreal. There were two New England boys with me in the regiment—Henri Bertrand of Attleboro and a fellow named Collette from New Bedford. There were 500 French Canadians then between the ages of 18 and 28. I left most of them buried in unmarked graves.
We left Montreal on Aug. 25 for Valcartier, where they made out of a fair barber a good soldier, I think. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught inspected us at Valcartier, and a brave sight we were in our new uniforms and our full and gallant ranks. But the Duke and Duchess would have shuddered could they have inspected us, say at Cuinchy or Messines. Our 500 got thinner the older the war grew. Our 500 will be gone, I think, all gone but me, before the war is over. I'd be gone, too, but for Congressman Walsh and the American Government, which, after all, is mine, and the one I'd best die for, if die I must for any. It was on Sept. 25 that I sailed with my regiment for Plymouth, England, on board the Cunarder Alunia. There were 1,000 men on board, half English, half French.
Thirty-three vessels sailed together in three rows of eleven boats each, with three cruisers to left and three to right of us, and one before and one behind to guard us. So great was our dread of German torpedoes and mines, it took us twenty-one days to cross. I was in the Seventh and Eighth Companies of this French Canadian regiment, the Sixty-fifth, but at the front my company was known as the Fourth of the Fourteenth Battalion, Third Brigade, First Canadian Division. The Alunia was the second to land at Plymouth, and the whole town turned out to give us a reception, with houses decorated and flags flying—for 484 of us a death bridal, indeed! Three days later we were reviewed by Lord Roberts on Salisbury Plain, and the King also inspected us. Thence we marched to Larkhill, where we remained until Feb. 12, 1915. Then we left for France.
First came St. Nazaire; then Hazebrouck, and a twelve-mile hike to Fletre, a village in the north. We had a two days' rest, and marched twenty-four miles to Armentières. At Armentières I first entered a trench. We trained there with English troops. And we lay shivering in the rain for forty-eight hours, and then gladly left for Richebourg, three miles away.
At Richebourg we entered trenches of our own. There Charles Lapointe of Montreal, the first of our company to die, looked over the edge of the trench. That is death. Machine guns all day sweep the trench edges. If you raise your hand, your fingers will be cut off as by a knife. And once I saw a poor wretch, weary almost to death of the trench, raise his right arm at full length. He was sent home, maimed and in agony, as he had wished. And who can say that his act was cowardly? He who has lived in the trenches for weeks and months knows. The soldier had courage to raise his hand. Perhaps some who clung to the mud at the trench bottom were greater cowards than he.
Well, Lapointe looked over the trench edge; and nobody knows what he saw. His brother was there to lay him down. He buried him (as we ever must the dead at the front) in a shallow pit in our trench. And the brother had for a time the agony of having to fight and feel the earth give over Charley's breast.
Two miles from there, at Laventie, we fought in the first line again. A German shell exploded over a pile of brush in a field near where I was shooting toward the German line. And we, weary of the monotony of the fighting, were overjoyed to see the ground covered far and wide with potatoes, which some farmer had hidden under hay. Potatoes! We blessed our periscope for the toothsome vision. And, marvelous to relate, we noted that the German fire slackened. Our officers could not restrain the French Canadians. On our bellies, over the death line we crawled unscathed, and, flat on the ground, wriggled to the potatoes, braving death for what we deem so common in America.
I got my share. Nor did the flaming sky pour upon us the leaden hail we feared, for the Germans held their fire while we gathered the crop we did not plant. Toward night, in the dusk, we discovered by our spectroscope that the German boys, who were cold in their trenches, were demolishing a house for firewood, an old cottage, the property, perhaps, of that very peasant who had hidden our potatoes under the hay. We had their lives in our hands. We remembered our Irish feast and word went down the line to hold our fire. Nor did one German die.
That was the Golden Rule of the battle front.
I slept in my blanket, my first night under fire, with a lump of cheese at my feet, as a bribe to the rats to spare my face. Not that I slept much. The night rocked with sound. The night is the true time for fighting, and the wire-cutters were creeping about on their dangerous errands between the trenches. The rockets now and then hissed skyward, throwing their powerful flares of light over the darkened world. Wounded men groaned. And rats, like flies in Summer, scuttled about, making queer noises, which we could hear in momentary lulls. I had not lain there long before an officer called for volunteers to examine the land between our trench and the enemy's and repair our broken barbed wire entanglements. The wires are destroyed every day by the bombardment, and must be repaired every night. It is a most dangerous duty. Yet, I gladly volunteer, with Aurele, Auguste, and other friends.
While we were at work upon the wires the Germans threw up some flares and turned our protecting darkness into the glare of midday. They poured upon us a deadly fire. We dropped among the dead bodies which littered the ground. And long I lay, sprawled across the corpse of some brave German lad killed there many days before constrained to feign death to save my life. But we did not all escape. Martin of Montreal was killed and many of our little party were wounded. But, as usual, I came back at last, moving painfully on my stomach, uninjured. I reported to Captain Desserre and told him all that I had heard and seen. And then I went back to sleep upon empty sandbags; and a cold, cold night it was.
I awoke at 7 o'clock, sore and stiff. I soon had kindled a little fire and cooked a slice of bacon and steeped a little tea for my chum, Aurele Roy of Montreal, and myself.
"I can lick the whole German Armyalone this morning!" I exclaimed in French, warmed by the tea.
"Not alone !" cried Roy, reviving also under the influence of our breakfast, "for if you begin to lick 'em, I'll be beside you." And we laughed together, little dreaming how soon our brave words would be put to the test.
I did my turn at guard duty almost cheerfully. I cleaned my rifle and bayonet, shaved myself, and washed up a little, and then thought I would get a little more rest while I could. But, alas, some one had stolen my two empty sandbags! So I took off my overcoat and spread it on the ground and covered myself with a blanket. The sun meanwhile was shining hotly on the heaps of dead bodies which lay not far away outside the trench. I was glad to cover my head with a blanket to shut out some of the awful stench. And that is how the smell of decaying bodies saved my life.
Arthur Robillard, a car conductor back in Montreal, was on guard duty. I was roused when he fell over me. As I sat up something got me by the throat and began to strangle out my life. The air was rent with awful cries. Many of my comrades lay dying and dead about me. I hurled myself in semi-madness into a huge crater near by, made by a bursting shell. There was a little muddy water at the bottom, and I fell in it, face down. The water relieved me a little, and I wet my handkerchief in it and covered my face. The green, stinking air was thus shut out, and I began to breathe easier. I crawled out, and half blindly sought my unconscious chum, dragging him back ten yards into the crater where the water was. I laid him face downward there, and he, too, revived a little, and there we lay, waiting for death.
Ten minutes later, I heard a shouting, and knew that the Germans were coming fast. Then I ran back into my trench, got my gun, and began firing as fast as I could. The rifle soon became so hot that it burned my hands. I threw it down and began throwing bombs. The order to retreat to the next trench came. My half-strangled comrade was with me. We ran together and, looking back, saw the big, strapping gray fellows of the Teuton army leaping down into our trench.
I forgot the rheumatism from which I had been suffering for several days when I saw them come, (we all suffer from rheumatism, it is one of the curses of the trenches). Meanwhile, the French had retired to their fourth line, and we were left, almost surrounded, with our left flank exposed and annihilation threatening us.
Somehow we got hold of two machine guns, and placed them where they would do the most good. One of these was running 560 shots a minute, and the other—blessed French destroyer!—was pouring out death at the rate of 700 shots a minute.
I shall never forget those Germans. When our guns suddenly spoke their front line melted; their second crumpled before this destruction; but on, on, on they came, unflinching, marching with even steps into certain death. We were like lions at bay. It was our lives or the Germans'. Then, as fourteen of us fought together, a bomb dropped amid us, and killed eleven. I came to consciousness, lying in the bottom of a trench, with Roy leaning over me.
"Are you living, Romeo!" he exclaimed in amazement. I rose dizzily. He and I and one other stood alone among our eleven dead friends.
Then Roy told me that I had been blown clear of the trench, twenty feet from where I stood, and that he had braved death to secure, as he supposed, my dead body. A careful examination showed that my only injury was a terrible bruise on the calf of my leg, where the round surface of a flying shard had struck me, but without breaking the skin. Miracles are but small matters when you fight in the presence of death.
"I'm not afraid now," I told Roy. And from then on I and all my soldier friends believed my life was charmed and that the Germans could not kill me.
We were driven back before their heavy guns to the fourth line, and were almost immediately told in haste to leave it as quickly as we could. Our engineers had mined the place, and as we fled the Germans poured down a gray horde of men. So we blew them up.
Have you ever seen a thousand men hurled to atoms by a giant blast? I cannot forget that awful sight. The whole earth seemed to leap skyward, and through and through the black mountain of earth and stones shot heads and arms and legs, torn fragments of what were once heroic men. Next to the gas which they gave us, I think our blowing them up like this was surely the worst thing men could do to men.
Perhaps you have heard of the friendship which often springs up between the Allies and their foes. I know something about it. It was at Laventie that the Germans began to amuse themselves by putting a bullseye on a biscuit box and letting us use it for a target. We then returned the compliment and set up a similar bullseye for the Teuton boys. For between Germans and Allies as individuals, there is no hate, though I must except the treacherous German prisoner I had to kill to save my life.
Every time the Germans made a bullseye, I would raise a shovel. If they missed, I put up a handkerchief. They did the same for us. And so we who sought each other's lives played together, and death spoke sharply all around. Sergeant Pichette was a wag. He put an old derby on a stick and ran along the trench as if it were a man, and the Germans fired at it. He would pull the hat down occasionally to make the enemy believe that the man under it had been shot, but soon afterward he would raise it again, thereby causing much amusement.
We used to talk back and forth—those German boys and we Canadians. They were the 157th and most friendly. "Hi! Where do you come from?" a voice in French once called over to us. "We are French Canadians," we replied with pride.
"Well, we're Canadians, too," came the astonishing answer. "We come from Ontario."
There came a pause. There was no firing. Then the German shouted, "Let me see one of your group; let him stand above the trench, and on my word of honor we shall not fire."
One of us sprang out of the trench and stood up. There fell a deep silence upon the two armies. Then many stood up, and finally the Germans, too, were rising. We talked for hours so, when the officers were not looking. When they looked we did a deal of firing but our aim was much too high.
One day the Germans threw over a bit of paper wrapped around a stone. "If you don't fire on us, we won't fire on you," some one had written. We kept that strange pact for days, until the officers, discovering this pact of peace, moved us to another part of the trenches.
Some months later, curiously enough, we found ourselves opposite the same regiment. Neither side forgot we were both Canadian, and steadfastly kept our treaty of peace. They did not consider that rough note a "scrap of paper." Not a single shot was fired and only one man was killed, and he by a stray bullet.
Because friendships started easily between hostile bodies, they kept moving a regiment from one part of the trenches to another, that we might not get too friendly with our enemies. We had no heart in the butchery, Germans or we French Canadians.
A big part of trench warfare is the mining operations. I feared the mines more than anything, I think. It was more terrible than gas poisoning to think that at any moment the earth would be rent and you would be thrown a thousand ways at once. The mining operations were carried on by trained miners, who burrow along under ground about fifteen feet below the surface. The engineers in charge figure out just how far they must dig to reach positions under the German lines, and when they have done so a fuse is run in and Fritz and Hans and their friends jump fifty feet toward heaven.
We do this; the Germans do it. It is bad work. And on both sides, we have to keep men listening all the time for the digging. When it is discovered that a mine is coming our way, we sink a tunnel deeper still and blow up their tunnel. And the Germans do the same thing with our mines. The soldier in the trench never knows when he may be blown into small pieces and that is why we always preferred to risk uncertain dangers between the lines at night, instead of lying down in the wet trench, helplessly waiting for death.
I never felt so secure, indeed, as when I was on guard between the trenches, through all the night I could hear the bullets go over me. Men go crazy there. And the insane are sent to England. But sometimes men go mad and become a menace to their own comrades and officers. They sometimes have to be killed. And there have been times when I have crouched in some first-line trench, where no communication trench joined us to the second or third line, when no doctor could reach us. And I have seen men so terribly wounded, enduring such agonies, and screaming so heart-breakingly for somebody to kill them, that our boys have done what they asked, to save them the unnecessary horror of living dismembered.
And I have seen men of good health grow so weary of the trenches that they have simply stood up at noonday. Some machine guns swiftly ended them. And others, as I have written, simply stick up their hands above the trench top and bullets trim off their fingers.
I was twenty days at Laventie. We only had the regular rifle shooting there, and were fortunate in losing not a single man of our 500 by bombs. We then marched to a point about one mile to the right of the now famous Neuve Chapelle, where we caught the Germans by surprise and took nearly 3,000 prisoners.
For two days and two nights I was firing continuously. My rifle became so hot that I had to fill my hands with dirt before firing. The fighting became so fierce that we had to employ men to do nothing else but carry ammunition to us from 200 yards in the rear. We were two and one-half miles to the left of the British. The Germans, but for us, could have got reinforcements, but we Canadians were in the way. We expected, at first, to attack them, as they were only sixty yards away. We had constructed special bridges to cross a ten-yard stream near by. Our work was to fire upon the German reserves in the rear, and this we easily did, because our guns carried for two miles. The Germans were defeated largely because they supposed the British had plenty of reinforcements.The whole thing began suddenly at 2:30 in the morning, after a quiet day. It was an earthquake. Our company until then had fought in no real battle and had lost only five men. Other companies used to declare that we had some guardian angel to protect us. Anyhow, many say that I had some guardian angel to protect me—and I am sure that I did.
Three men volunteered to go and cut the wire entanglements. Bullets were humming through the air. They crawled forth—to their deaths, we thought—but succeeded in cutting nearly all. So the Germans thought we were about to attack them. As soon as the Germans discovered what our men had done, we poured a withering fire over the broken wires, so that no man could live to reach and repair them.
The English bombarded the Germans for two whole days. Then we heard cries, and fast by us went the Black Watch, a Scotch regiment, and the Coldstream Guards. It was between 4 and 5 in the morning that they passed us, and within ten minutes they had captured the three first lines of the Germans.
The Germans lost 25,000 men and 3,000 prisoners. Our loss was between 10,000 and 12,000. Two days later troops came to relieve us, and in time, for we were well-nigh exhausted. We marched at night to Estaire, a pretty village eight miles away. Our men were so worn out that they dropped from weariness on the way. We spent eight days in this town and were royally treated by the French.
At midnight of the eighth day we were warned to get ready for marching again. We walked twenty-seven kilometers to Cassel, where General Dorrien, who was in charge of the battle when the English retreated from Mons in France, in the early part of the war, told us that he was going to take charge of the whole Canadian division, and that our regiment would be transferred to another army corps. He gave us three days' rest, and told us we were to occupy French trenches at Ypres.
THE BATTLE OF YPRES
Ypres is the graveyard of the old Sixty-fifth. We were carried to within six miles of the place in London buses, twenty-five men in a bus. Ypres was forty miles away. We met there the Canadian Scottish Third Brigade of 5,000 men. From the end of the bus line we tramped six miles and encamped outside the village of St. Julien, one mile away. Two battalions were in reserve at St. Jean and two were in the front line, mine being one of the two at the front.
It was at Ypres that we first met the gallant French troops. My company was on the left of the English line, so that we acted as interpreters between the French and the English. A roadway ten yards wide separated the two lines and a tunnel ran from the English to the French lines.
We found the trenches here to be forty yards from the German line and in bad condition. Firing was continuous, by day and by night. The communication trenches were in bad shape, too, and the Germans, who were on a height, raked us terribly with their machine guns. I looked through my periscope and saw between 400 and 500 unburied German dead lying between the lines. I counted 25 dead Frenchmen among them. Three months before, I was told, the Germans had tried to carry the line and neither side had given the other a chance to bury its dead. Our French neighbors were Zouaves, between 19 and 30 years of age, and the gayest soldiers I have ever fought beside. They sang gay ditties and called us French Canadians "Frères." We spent our nights in throwing grenades at the Boches and our days in the slow monotony of every-day trench life.
I rose at noon, the day after our arrival, and took the time to shave, a rare event. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, at one mile from us, we saw yellow smoke rising from the ground. This smoke was the deadly gas being thrown upon the French and upon the Scotch regiment that had taken our places while we were resting, for, of course, we were resting when I shaved. We formed at once in light marching order and went to help the Scotch.
We entered the reserve trench, and at midnight the first-line trench. The Scotch had lost half of their effectives and were returning with the French, the blood streaming from their mouths and noses, and their faces all yellow-green. The French had lost nearly all their regiment. The Germans within five minutes had occupied our first and second lines.
In half an hour the Boches began a great bombardment. At 7 o'clock they tried to take our line, repeating their attacks all the night, but we rolled them back. They came even to within ten yards of us, a flood of human waves. But our machine guns, our "coffee grinders," as we called them, mowed them down like hay, and we lost not many men.
Our artillery had plenty of ammunition. Our light guns were placed at 400 yards from the front line and the heavy artillery at one and a half miles, and some pieces as far as four miles away. The famous French Africans, called Senegalese, were fighting here with us. The Boches set fire to the City of Ypres in the night, and I watched its sullen glare against the sky. The civilian populace went running by, in dreadful condition. That night, of my friends, died Vaillant, Poitras, and Bond, all of Montreal, and two others. Poirer and Lefebre of Montreal and O. Wiseman, also my friends, had been killed during the day. Yet I lived!
Ypres was a famous battle, one of the greatest of the war, I think, till this terrible onslaught at Verdun. Our division (Canadian) reached from Ypres (Belgium) to Poelcappelle Road. At 2 A. M., before the gas overtook me, I was sent out between the lines with another man to examine the wire entanglements. We heard a sound as of some one handling pipes, but discovered nothing more. Then the Boches sent up their flares (skyrockets whose bursting bombs turned night into daylight) and we lay on the ground motionless. In the darkness which followed, we crept back over the heaps of dead toward our line. When I had almost reached the trench, another great flare burst right over us, and I had to lie still for several long moments until the welcome darkness gave me an opportunity to drop into the trench again.
Men were dying from the gas, their eyes popping, their faces green, and crying: "Water! Water! I'm choking! Air! Air! Air!" It is a frightful thing to hear your friends crying like that. I saw one die right before my eyes, rolling upon the ground as if mad, tearing at his chest. His fingers were crooked after his death, his body full of blue spots and his mouth white. Another poor wretch fell two or three feet from me, dying from the gas. He was sucking water from a dirty handkerchief.
Listen! Suppose you were fighting in a trench. The wind comes toward you, foul with odors from nameless, twisted, torn bodies unburied between you and the Boches. Near you are your brave comrades. Some lie wounded and dying in agony on the trench bottom. The bullets zing-zing eternally over your head. There is a mighty swelling from an organ more sonorous than ever human organist played. The rockets are bursting; the flares shedding white glares over the torn ground. Your coffee grinders are mowing them down.
Then, rising from somewhere near by, comes the gas, yellow or green. Then comes a sudden stinging in your nose. Your eyes water and run. You breathe fire. You suffocate. You burn alive. There are razors and needles in your throat. It is as if you drank boiling hot tea. Your lungs flame. You want to scratch and tear your body. You become half blind, half wild. Your head aches beyond description, you vomit, you drop exhausted, you die quickly.
Every other man seemed to fall. As I fought I marveled that I was spared. And again came to me the belief that my life was charmed; that the bullet had not been melted, the shrapnel not been loaded, the gas not mixed which would cause my death. An ecstatic confidence buoyed me up. I was brave, because I was so sure of life, while all my comrades seemed groveling in death.
My platoon was under a withering fire, before which we crumpled and melted away. We left the trench, pressing forward. All hell seemed to rise suddenly from the bowels of the earth and pour over us flame and molten lead. The ground seethed from the exploding shells. The mitrailleuses vomited death.
Our thinned lines gave a yell. I saw a black hole in the ground. Sergeant Albert Pichette shouted, "Into their trench!" I leaped in. Four Germans were trying to escape on the further side. I did not fire, intending to make them prisoners. But the only thing I took was a great blow on the side of my head, and away went my prisoners.
I crawled up the trench a few feet and came upon two men trying to strangle each other. I though, then, of motion pictures I had watched back home. Here was a more terrible drama than ever the movie camera showed.
A bayonet charge is a street fight magnified and made ten thousand times more fierce. It becomes on close range almost impossible to use your bayonets. So we fought with fists and feet, and used our guns, when possible, as clubs. We lay in our prize trench for about four hours. The boys, excited because they still lived, sang and jested, and told of queer experiences and narrow escapes they had had.
By 10 o'clock came the story that the British had lost four field guns and asked our help to recapture them. I was one of twenty-one from my company who volunteered to go. So we joined men from the Tenth and Sixteenth Battalions, and at 11 o'clock prepared to storm the wood where the cannons were.
We had only forty yards of open ground to cover, but the German artillery and machine guns worked havoc among us. It did not take us long to run those forty yards. We were soon in the wood, where it was so dark that we could hardly distinguish friend from foe.
I ran in and out among the trees and asked every one I met who he was. I came upon one big fellow. My mouth opened to ask him who he was, when his fist shot out and took me between the eyes. I went down for the count, but I knew who he was—he was a German. I got up as quickly as I could, you may be sure, and swung my rifle to hit him in the head, but the stock struck a tree and splintered. I thought I had broken all my fingers.
I found three wounded men, French, I thought they were, in that gloom. So I carried them into our trench. As I brought in the last one, the officer said, "You are doing good work, Houle." I asked him why he thought so, and he answered: "You have brought in three wounded men and when we put the light on them we found they were Germans." Well, I am glad I saved them. I would have done so anyhow, had I known their nationality. For we were all trained to give a wounded man help, whether he were friend or foe.
Yet it is dangerous work, helping a wounded German. I never helped another, after the experience I had. It was one of the two occasions when I knew with certainty that I killed a man. He was a wounded German soldier. We found him suffering and weak. But we knew we could save his life and were dressing his wound. My back was turned. He took a revolver out of his tunic pocket and fired pointblank at me.
I do not know how I escaped death. Perhaps it was because his hand shook from weakness; perhaps my guardian saint turned aside that death bullet. Anyhow, he had his revolver in his hand. We had to act quickly. My officer spoke a quick word, and I made sure that he would never fire another shot.
Well, we got our machine guns. But the Germans had blown them up, and all our sacrifice of men was in vain.
We were relieved by a British regiment before morning and marched back to our billets to have a rest. I slept all the rest of the night until 11 o'clock the next morning. It was the first rest I had had in forty-eight hours, with only a slice of raw bacon and a piece of bread to eat.
These were little incidents of the bloody battle at Ypres. That afternoon some of the boys brought out tables from a house and placed them in the sun. The civilian populace, in their flight, had left behind their live stock. We caught some hens and rabbits and cooked them in wine we found in a cellar. Ah, that was a feast. I never had a better one.
Yet we were strange feasters. Had some artist been able to paint us he would have had a strong canvas. Some of the boys had their heads bandaged, and nearly all of us were covered with dirt and blood. Some sang for us, though others were downhearted. It surprised me that a few hours after we had faced death and had been suffering untold hardships we could now gather like college boys at a beer night feast and sing.
During the rest of that battle we lived in the reserve trenches, bombarded day and night. The battle lasted twenty-one days. When it was over they called a roll of our regiment. There were 500 of us when we left Montreal. As the commander called the roll, name after name was met with no response. At Ypres 480 out of 500 of us were left dead on the field. And in reality our loss had been greater than that, for our 500 had been thinned out in other actions and filled with a full roster again. Twenty of us out of 500 survived at Ypres.
We fought madly at St. Jean, after Ypres, and retreated. We rested eight days at Bailleul, marched through Steevwerck and rested eight more days there; we also rested at Estaires for eight days, then through Vieille Chapelle, and then had another eight days' rest. We reached Lacouture at night and went into battle again at Richebourg.
We arrived there in May, 1915. Richebourg is in France, eight miles from the Belgian border, on the English front. A very small agricultural village we found it, coming to it after a hard twelve-hour hike from Bailleul. We got into the Richebourg trenches in the evening. I found myself in a German trench, captured by the British. Five hours before the battle had raged, and the place was still full of wounded and dead, both German and British. Trench by trench we worked our way into the British front line. We had been reinforced by the Twelfth Battalion of reserves, which was made up of French Canadians and Englishmen; thus our decimated regiment was swelled to 365 men.
The battle was going on. Relieving the front line proved a dangerous task. We had to proceed cautiously to avoid bullets, and it took us three hours to reach the front line, which we did at midnight. Ten of our men were killed by shrapnel or stray bullets on the way.
Then came the report from our left that the Germans were trying to counterattack. Our officers called for volunteers for a bomb and hand grenade throwing party. We were gone twenty minutes, fifteen of us in all; three of us were wounded, and Carrier of Montreal was killed. We were able to report on our return that we had done effective work. After that things quieted down and gave us a breathing spell.
The next morning we were ordered to take the German first-line trenches. Our cannon began to clear the way first at 2 o'clock in the morning. The famous French 75—the French 75 which is always helping the English at difficult times blasted out the pathway over which we were to charge. We had thirty-two of these 75s—four guns to each of the eight batteries. When worked hard, these guns can fire twenty shots a minute.
We were all Catholics. At 5:30 o'clock we began to say our prayers, and soon after we were charging with fixed bayonets. We had no great difficulty in taking two lines of trenches. But when we reached the third, they rallied and drove us out. There the Germans made a counterattack, raking our flanks with their machine guns as soon as we reached their third trench. They killed 75 of us, wounded over 100, and took 20 prisoners. We were obliged to leave our wounded in their trench with the dead.
I lay until night in the German second-line trench, among the dead and wounded. There was, of course, no communication and we could not clear the place we had taken or get medical help for the men who writhed in agony all around us. A company of Highlanders from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Battalions came to our relief at night. The Highlanders and my company were given orders to capture an orchard on our left. Through this orchard ran the German trench. German snipers were concealed in the old apple trees, and the place seemed one huge shrapnel, which burst and never ceased bursting. Three-quarters of our men were killed. And I, as usual, was among the unwounded survivors.
We took the orchard trench, but were glad enough to retire at the counterattack, and unfortunately lost our orchard and our third trench. Listen! Out of 250 Highlanders, only forty came back. Of my own company, (which you will remember had been reinforced to 365 men,) only seventy came back. And Roméo Houle, with the charmed life, was again among the few who returned, and had not a single wound.
About one and one-half miles on the right of Richebourg, we took up a new position, after three days' rest in a village next to Lacouture. The Scots Greys and the Coldstream Guards were in the trenches. To our surprise, they greeted us with shouts and cheers. We asked them why they cheered us so. They answered that they thought so well of the Canadians that, helped by them, they would encounter any odds. The shooting was then going on; the Scotch had tried to advance and had been pushed back. When our company came, we all tried to advance together. Again our company had been reinforced, this time to 420 men.
The Germans occupied a hilly place. Although they were only sixty yards away, we fought back and forth for an hour. Our first two charges were stopped by their entanglements. The wires in many places were not down at all and we could not pass. Then our artillery began to mow among the wires. In thirty minutes our way was clear, and on the third tussle we got into the German trench. It was a close fight. We used even our fists. My bayonet was broken, and I used my gun as a club. There we remained until we got reinforcements. Out of 420 men, my company was reduced to eighty. No, I could not be killed.
We were at Cuinchy only two days, but we took three lines of trenches there, and retreated. The dead we left on the field covered the barbed wire entanglements. The Germans in their counterattack came at us in serried ranks. Our coffee grinders smashed their first, their second, their third lines, but they came on and on, resistless as a flood. We could not but give way and withdraw before that awful advance. They cared not for the lives of men, but thought only of the ground they gained. Every foot they advanced cost them many, many lives. But those trenches from which we retreated are now occupied by the British. All their silly outlay of men was in vain.
To the south of Cuinchy, we fought at Givenchy. Five days we were in the third line, and four in the first. German mortars opposite us were belching forth thunderous volumes of flame and death. Chaos was at Givenchy. Lightning lashed us—the swift lightning of 10,000 rifles and great batteries of field guns. Yet we destroyed their mortars and took fifty prisoners. Do you wonder that I am still proud that I fought there—proud of the French Canadians? What soldiers ever fought more valiantly? Who ever gave their lives in a noble cause more gladly? Who ever met certain death more steadfastly and unafraid? Whatever I think of war—and before I am done, I shall tell—whatever I think of war, I say that braver soldiers never lived or died than the gallant French Canadians. But oh! I am sorry to think how their handsome lines have been thinned—thinned more than most people know.
Two of our men cared for ten prisoners. A Sergeant led them away. I suppose that they are in England now, spectacles for the curious. They were brave men. I am sorry for their captivity, on their account; but glad to see their terrible martial strength thus ebbing. When we took a trench, the Germans would throw up their hands and cry "Comrade." The Saxon Germans always surrender the quickest, because they are so nearly akin to the English. The Bavarian Germans and the Prussian Guards are different propositions.
At Béthune, a town of 50,000 population, we had a ten-day rest. They shifted us to Oblingham—and then another rest. And then three more weeks of fighting at La Bassée. It was the same story!
I had fought in the first line of the battle front until all the bed I knew was wet earth, and all the rest I knew were snatches of sleep obtained during lulls in the rocking tumult. From almost the very opening of the war I had fought. And long since I had had my fill of the fighting.
The American Consul at London wrote me a letter. It came, I remember well, in October, 1915. It brought me my first ray of hope—my first real hope of life. For I knew that that strange chance which had spared me so many months, when so many of my comrades had died would not always be mine. I knew that death fought by my side in the day and slept with me in the night. I saw him grinning at me from the twisted features of those shot in the battle. I heard him gibbering on the horrible field at night!
The Ambassador gave me the hope that, having been under age and an American by birth when I enlisted, my Government might secure my discharge. Influential friends were working for me.
On Jan. 10, 1916, in the forenoon, I was notified to report to headquarters, 300 yards behind our firing line. I laid low in the front trench all day, fearful lest at the last moment I should be shot. For a friend, who had obtained a long furlough for rest in England, on the very eve of his departure, had been killed by my side a few days before. It seemed so pitiful an ending, just when he was going home.
So eager was I to leave, that I planned the best I could how to escape. But I knew that if I yielded and went, I should forfeit my life. By a great effort, I restrained myself. But at 4:30 o'clock I could stand it no longer. My friends wept at the parting—for joy for my sake that I was going back to life; for grief that they were left, to die probably, so far from their fair Canada.
At 4:30 o'clock, then, with last handgrips and the well-wishes of all, I jumped a little ditch and crept on hands and knees in a circuitous way to the headquarters.
I walked seven miles to the railroad. The firing sank away. The trenches and their fevers, their wounded and dead, their noxious odors and their deadly gases, and the man-eating rats—all became a memory. I was free, going home to my wife and child, my parents, my friends, unwounded.
I take no credit for any special courage in the field. If I was brave, it was because I had to be so. We were all brave, who kept our senses. We became accustomed to a large degree to the incessant intimacy with dangers and death. We could look without wincing at frightful things. And yet—I have promised to write what I think of war.
I know not what word could adequately describe war. Man's poets have never imagined any description terrible enough. "Hell" is too weak a word, after Ypres and Richebourg. It is all a great slaughter house, legalized by Princes and Kings. And it is more horrible than the slaughter house, because the forms of death planned are more cruel, more mad, more devilish.
I was not altogether free from hurts. There is a dent in my skull from a spent bullet, which failed to kill me. And I got a terrible bruise on the leg from a shard that did not break the skin. But I live, thank God, one out of the 16 of those 500 men, most of whom we left behind at Ypres.
If you Americans have the choice, never vote for war. You do not know what war is, who have not seen it. I did not know. I could not know. It is not like the sanguinary conflicts of the civil war—they were little fisticuff battles compared to this gigantic slaughter of heroes. Now calm science, cruel, unutterably cruel, calculating a hundred deaths with the precision of the crazed murderer, lays out the battle schemes, and goes seeking through science for new forms of death more horrible than the old. We fight underground and undersea, on the land and in the air. We fight with fire, with steel, with lead, with poisons, with gases, with burning oil. We are lower than the brutes, lower than the lowest and most degraded forms of life.
I do not know why we fought. No Archduke's little life was worth the titanic butchery of the world war. The beginning was petty and small. And I, looking back at horror, horror, horror, cannot forget the extraordinary friendships we made with the men in the enemy's trenches. We were both only human beings, after all, Fritz and I. We had no wish to kill each other. We had much rather sit at the same table, with our wives and children around us, and talk of gardens, of fair pictures, and of great, books. But for our officers and the nations which they represented peace would have been declared right there in the trenches--and that by the soldiers themselves.
I am only Roméo Houle, a barber. But I have lived—God, I have lived! All the slaughter of heroes by the Meuse and on the Belgian border and in Northern France has passed before my eyes. And I, Roméo Houle, am forced to write this:
Man is given life to enjoy it, not to destroy it. We cannot make ourselves better or the world we live in more worth while by killing each other like beasts gone mad. I thank God that the nightmare is over. Only in my dreams do the cannon roar over the line at Ypres. And such dreams are quite terrible and real enough. I hope never to fight again.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald