"In Alsace." by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
August 13th, 1915.
MY trip to the east began by a dash toward the north. Near Rheims is a little town–hardly more than a village, but in English we have no intermediate terms such as "bourg" and "petit bourg"–where one of the new Red Cross sanitary motor units was to be seen "in action." The inspection over, we climbed to a vineyard above the town and looked down at a river valley traversed by a double line of trees. The first line marked the canal, which is held by the French, who have gun-boats on it. Behind this ran the high-road, with the first-line French trenches, and just above, on the opposite slope, were the German lines. The soil being chalky, the German positions were clearly marked [Page 184] by two parallel white scorings across the brown hill-front; and while we watched we heard desultory firing, and saw, here and there along the ridge, the smoke-puff of an exploding shell. It was incredibly strange to stand there, among the vines humming with summer insects, and to look out over a peaceful country heavy with the coming vintage, knowing that the trees at our feet hid a line of gun-boats that were crashing death into those two white scorings on the hill.
Rheims itself brings one nearer to the war by its look of deathlike desolation. The paralysis of the bombarded towns is one of the most tragic results of the invasion. One's soul revolts at this senseless disorganizing of innumerable useful activities. Compared with the towns of the north, Rheims is relatively unharmed; but for that very reason the arrest of life seems the more futile and cruel. The Cathedral square was deserted, all the houses around [Page 185] it were closed. And there, before us, rose the Cathedral–a cathedral, rather, for it was not the one we had always known. It was, in fact, not like any cathedral on earth. When the German bombardment began, the west front of Rheims was covered with scaffolding: the shells set it on fire, and the whole church was wrapped in flames. Now the scaffolding is gone, and in the dull provincial square there stands a structure so strange and beautiful that one must search the Inferno, or some tale of Eastern magic, for words to picture the luminous unearthly vision. The lower part of the front has been warmed to deep tints of umber and burnt siena. This rich burnishing passes, higher up, through yellowish-pink and carmine, to a sulphur whitening to ivory; and the recesses of the portals and the hollows behind the statues are lined with a black denser and more velvety than any effect of shadow to be obtained by sculptured relief. The interweaving of col- [Page 186] our over the whole blunted bruised surface recalls the metallic tints, the peacock-and-pigeon iridescences, the incredible mingling of red, blue, umber and yellow of the rocks along the Gulf of Ægina. And the wonder of the impression is increased by the sense of its evanescence; the knowledge that this is the beauty of disease and death, that every one of the transfigured statues must crumble under the autumn rains, that every one of the pink or golden stones is already eaten away to the core, that the Cathedral of Rheims is glowing and dying before us like a sunset. . .
A stone and brick château in a flat park with a stream running through it. Pampas-grass, geraniums, rustic bridges, winding paths: how bourgeois and sleepy it would all seem but for the sentinel challenging our motor at the gate!
Before the door a collie dozing in the sun, [Page 187] and a group of staff-officers waiting for luncheon. Indoors, a room with handsome tapestries, some good furniture and a table spread with the usual military maps and aeroplane-photographs. At luncheon, the General, the chiefs of the staff–a dozen in all–an officer from the General Head-quarters. The usual atmosphere of camaraderie, confidence, good-humour, and a kind of cheerful seriousness that I have come to regard as characteristic of the men immersed in the actual facts of the war. I set down this impression as typical of many such luncheon hours along the front . . .
This morning we set out for reconquered Alsace. For reasons unexplained to the civilian this corner of old-new France has hitherto been inaccessible, even to highly placed French officials; and there was a special sense of excitement in taking the road that led to it. [Page 188]
We slipped through a valley or two, passed some placid villages with vine-covered gables, and noticed that most of the signs over the shops were German. We had crossed the old frontier unawares, and were presently in the charming town of Massevaux. It was the Feast of the Assumption, and mass was just over when we reached the square before the church. The streets were full of holiday people, well-dressed, smiling, seemingly unconscious of the war. Down the church-steps, guided by fond mammas, came little girls in white dresses, with white wreaths in their hair, and carrying, in baskets slung over their shoulders, woolly lambs or blue and white Virgins. Groups of cavalry officers stood chatting with civilians in their Sunday best, and through the windows of the Golden Eagle we saw active preparations for a crowded mid-day dinner. It was all as happy and parochial as a "Hansi" picture, and the fine old gabled houses and clean [Page 189] cobblestone streets made the traditional setting for an Alsacian holiday.
At the Golden Eagle we laid in a store of provisions, and started out across the mountains in the direction of Thann. The Vosges, at this season, are in their short midsummer beauty, rustling with streams, dripping with showers, balmy with the smell of firs and braken, and of purple thyme on hot banks. We reached the top of a ridge, and, hiding the motor behind a skirt of trees, went out into the open to lunch on a sunny slope. Facing us across the valley was a tall conical hill clothed with forest. That hill was Hartmannswillerkopf, the centre of a long contest in which the French have lately been victorious; and all about us stood other crests and ridges from which German guns still look down on the valley of Thann.
Thann itself is at the valley-head, in a neck between hills; a handsome old town, with the air of prosperous stability so oddly [Page 190] characteristic of this tormented region. As we drove through the main street the pall of war-sadness fell on us again, darkening the light and chilling the summer air. Thann is raked by the German lines, and its windows are mostly shuttered and its streets deserted. One or two houses in the Cathedral square have been gutted, but the somewhat over-pinnacled and statued cathedral which is the pride of Thann is almost untouched, and when we entered it vespers were being sung, and a few people–mostly in black–knelt in the nave.
No greater contrast could be imagined to the happy feast-day scene we had left, a few miles off, at Massevaux; but Thann, in spite of its empty streets, is not a deserted city. A vigorous life beats in it, ready to break forth as soon as the German guns are silenced. The French administration, working on the best of terms with the population, are keeping up the civil activities of the town as the Canons of the Cathedral [Page 191] are continuing the rites of the Church. Many inhabitants still remain behind their closed shutters and dive down into their cellars when the shells begin to crash; and the schools, transferred to a neighbouring village, number over two thousand pupils. We walked through the town, visited a vast catacomb of a wine-cellar fitted up partly as an ambulance and partly as a shelter for the cellarless, and saw the lamentable remains of the industrial quarter along the river, which has been the special target of the German guns. Thann has been industrially ruined, all its mills are wrecked; but unlike the towns of the north it has had the good fortune to preserve its outline, its civic personality, a face that its children, when they come back, can recognize and take comfort in.
After our visit to the ruins, a diversion was suggested by the amiable administrators of Thann who had guided our sight-seeing. They were just off for a mili- [Page 192] tary tournament which the –th dragoons were giving that afternoon in a neighboring valley, and we were invited to go with them.
The scene of the entertainment was a meadow enclosed in an amphitheatre of rocks, with grassy ledges projecting from the cliff like tiers of opera-boxes. These points of vantage were partly occupied by interested spectators and partly by ruminating cattle; on the lowest slope, the rank and fashion of the neighbourhood was ranged on a semi-circle of chairs, and below, in the meadow, a lively steeple-chase was going on. The riding was extremely pretty, as French military riding always is. Few of the mounts were thoroughbreds–the greater number, in fact, being local cart-horses barely broken to the saddle–but their agility and dash did the greater credit to their riders. The lancers, in particular, executed an effective "musical ride" about a central pennon, to the immense satisfac- [Page 193] tion of the fashionable public in the foreground and of the gallery on the rocks.
The audience was even more interesting than the artists. Chatting with the ladies in the front row were the General of division and his staff, groups of officers invited from the adjoining Head-quarters, and most of the civil and military administrators of the restored "Département du Haut Rhin." All classes had turned out in honour of the fête, and every one was in a holiday mood. The people among whom we sat were mostly Alsatian property-owners, many of them industrials of Thann. Some had been driven from their homes, others had seen their mills destroyed, all had been living for a year on the perilous edge of war, under the menace of reprisals too hideous to picture; yet the humour prevailing was that of any group of merry-makers in a peaceful garrison town. I have seen nothing, in my wanderings along the front, more indicative of the good-breeding [Page 194] of the French than the spirit of the ladies and gentlemen who sat chatting with the officers on that grassy slope of Alsace.
The display of haute école was to be followed by an exhibition of "transportation throughout the ages," headed by a Gaulish chariot driven by a trooper with a long horsehair moustache and mistletoe wreath, and ending in a motor of which the engine had been taken out and replaced by a large placid white horse. Unluckily a heavy rain began while this instructive "number" awaited its turn, and we had to leave before Vercingetorix had led his warriors into the ring . . .
Up and up into the mountains. We started early, taking our way along a narrow interminable valley that sloped up gradually toward the east. The road was encumbered with a stream of hooded supply vans drawn by mules, for we were on the [Page 195] way to one of the main positions in the Vosges, and this train of provisions is kept up day and night. Finally we reached a mountain village under fir-clad slopes, with a cold stream rushing down from the hills. On one side of the road was a rustic inn, on the other, among the firs, a chalet occupied by the brigade Head-quarters. Everywhere about us swarmed the little "chasseurs Alpins" in blue Tam o'Shanters and leather gaiters. For a year we had been reading of these heroes of the hills, and here we were among them, looking into their thin weather-beaten faces and meeting the twinkle of their friendly eyes. Very friendly they all were, and yet, for Frenchmen, inarticulate and shy. All over the world, no doubt, the mountain silences breed this kind of reserve, this shrinking from the glibness of the valleys. Yet one had fancied that French fluency must soar as high as Mont Blanc.
Mules were brought, and we started on a [Page 196] long ride up the mountain. The way led first over open ledges, with deep views into valleys blue with distance, then through miles of forest, first of beech and fir, and finally all of fir. Above the road the wooded slopes rose interminably and here and there we came on tiers of mules, three or four hundred together, stabled under the trees, in stalls dug out of different levels of the slope. Near by were shelters for the men, and perhaps at the next bend a village of "trappers' huts," as the officers call the log-cabins they build in this region. These colonies are always bustling with life: men busy cleaning their arms, hauling material for new cabins, washing or mending their clothes, or carrying down the mountain from the camp-kitchen the two-handled pails full of steaming soup. The kitchen is always in the most protected quarter of the camp, and generally at some distance in the rear. Other soldiers, their job over, are lolling about in groups, smoking, gos- [Page 197] siping or writing home, the "Soldiers' Letter-pad" propped on a patched blue knee, a scarred fist laboriously driving the fountain pen received in hospital. Some are leaning over the shoulder of a pal who has just received a Paris paper, others chuckling together at the jokes of their own French journal–the "Echo du Ravin," the "Journal des Poilus," or the "Diable Bleu": little papers ground out in purplish script on foolscap, and adorned with comic-sketches and a wealth of local humour.
Higher up, under a fir-belt, at the edge of a meadow, the officer who rode ahead signed to us to dismount and scramble after him. We plunged under the trees, into what seemed a thicker thicket, and found it to be a thatch of branches woven to screen the muzzles of a battery. The big guns were all about us, crouched in these sylvan lairs like wild beasts waiting to spring; and near each gun hovered its at- [Page 198] tendant gunner, proud, possessive, important as a bridegroom with his bride.
We climbed and climbed again, reaching at last a sun-and-wind-burnt common which forms the top of one of the highest mountains in the region. The forest was left below us and only a belt of dwarf firs ran along the edge of the great grassy shoulder. We dismounted, the mules were tethered among the trees, and our guide led us to an insignificant looking stone in the grass. On one face of the stone was cut the letter F., on the other was a D.; we stood on what, till a year ago, was the boundary line between Republic and Empire. Since then, in certain places, the line has been bent back a long way; but where we stood we were still under German guns, and we had to creep along in the shelter of the squat firs to reach the outlook on the edge of the plateau. From there, under a sky of racing clouds, we saw outstretched below us the Promised Land of Alsace. [Page 199] On one horizon, far off in the plain, gleamed the roofs and spires of Colmar, on the other rose the purplish heights beyond the Rhine. Near by stood a ring of bare hills, those closest to us scarred by ridges of upheaved earth, as if giant moles had been zigzagging over them; and just under us, in a little green valley, lay the roofs of a peaceful village. The earth-ridges and the peaceful village were still German; but the French positions went down the mountain, almost to the valley's edge; and one dark peak on the right was already French.
We stopped at a gap in the firs and walked to the brink of the plateau. Just under us lay a rock-rimmed lake. More zig-zag earthworks surmounted it on all sides, and on the nearest shore was the branched roofing of another great mule-shelter. We were looking down at the spot to which the night-caravans of the Chasseurs Alpins descend to distribute supplies to the fighting line. [Page 200]
"Who goes there? Attention! You're in sight of the lines!" a voice called out from the firs, and our companion signed to us to move back. We had been rather too conspicuously facing the German batteries on the opposite slope, and our presence might have drawn their fire on an artillery observation post installed near by. We retreated hurriedly and unpacked our luncheon-basket on the more sheltered side of the ridge. As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and every-day activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest. [Page 201]
We had not yet made the whole tour of the mountain-top; and after luncheon we rode over to a point where a long narrow yoke connects it with a spur projecting directly above the German lines. We left our mules in hiding and walked along the yoke, a mere knife-edge of rock rimmed with dwarf vegetation. Suddenly we heard an explosion behind us: one of the batteries we had passed on the way up was giving tongue. The German lines roared back and for twenty minutes the exchange of invective thundered on. The firing was almost incessant; it seemed as if a great arch of steel were being built up above us in the crystal air. And we could follow each curve of sound from its incipience to its final crash in the trenches. There were four distinct phases: the sharp bang from the cannon, the long furious howl overhead, the dispersed and spreading noise of the shell's explosion, and then the roll of its reverberation from cliff to cliff. This is what we [Page 202] heard as we crouched in the lee of the firs: what we saw when we looked out between them was only an occasional burst of white smoke and red flame from one hillside, and on the opposite one, a minute later, a brown geyser of dust.
Presently a deluge of rain descended on us, driving us back to our mules, and down the nearest mountain-trail through rivers of mud. It rained all the way: rained in such floods and cataracts that the very rocks of the mountain seemed to dissolve and turn into mud. As we slid down through it we met strings of Chasseurs Alpins coming up, splashed to the waist with wet red clay, and leading pack-mules so coated with it that they looked like studio models from which the sculptor has just pulled off the dripping sheet. Lower down we came on more "trapper" settlements, so saturated and reeking with wet that they gave us a glimpse of what the winter months on the front must be. No more cheerful polish- [Page 203] ing of fire-arms, hauling of faggots, chatting and smoking in sociable groups: everybody had crept under the doubtful shelter of branches and tarpaulins; the whole army was back in its burrows.
Sunshine again for our arrival at Belfort. The invincible city lies unpretentiously behind its green glacis and escutcheoned gates; but the guardian Lion under the Citadel–well, the Lion is figuratively as well as literally à la hauteur. With the sunset flush on him, as he crouched aloft in his red lair below the fort, he might almost have claimed kin with his mighty prototypes of the Assarbanipal frieze. One wondered a little, seeing whose work he was; but probably it is easier for an artist to symbolize an heroic town than the abstract and elusive divinity who sheds light on the world from New York harbour.
From Belfort back into reconquered Al- [Page 204] sace the road runs through a gentle landscape of fields and orchards. We were bound for Dannemarie, one of the towns of the plain, and a centre of the new administration. It is the usual "gros bourg" of Alsace, with comfortable old houses in espaliered gardens: dull, well-to-do, contented; not in the least the kind of setting demanded by the patriotism which has to be fed on pictures of little girls singing the Marseillaise in Alsatian head-dresses and old men with operatic waistcoats tottering forward to kiss the flag. What we saw at Dannemarie was less conspicuous to the eye but much more nourishing to the imagination. The military and civil administrators had the kindness and patience to explain their work and show us something of its results; and the visit left one with the impression of a slow and quiet process of adaptation wisely planned and fruitfully carried out. We did, in fact, hear the school-girls of Dannemarie sing the Mar- [Page 205] seillaise–and the boys too–but, what was far more interesting, we saw them studying under the direction of the teachers who had always had them in charge, and found that everywhere it had been the aim of the French officials to let the routine of the village policy go on undisturbed. The German signs remain over the shop-fronts except where the shop-keepers have chosen to paint them out; as is happening more and more frequently. When a functionary has to be replaced he is chosen from the same town or the same district, and even the personnel of the civil and military administration is mainly composed of officers and civilians of Alsatian stock. The heads of both these departments, who accompanied us on our rounds, could talk to the children and old people in German as well as in their local dialect; and, as far as a passing observer could discern, it seemed as though everything had been done to reduce to a minimum the sense of [Page 206] strangeness and friction which is inevitable in the transition from one rule to another. The interesting point was that this exercise of tact and tolerance seemed to proceed not from any pressure of expediency but from a sympathetic understanding of the point of view of this people of the border. I heard in Dannemarie not a syllable of lyrical patriotism or post-card sentimentality, but only a kindly and impartial estimate of facts as they were and must be dealt with.
Today again we started early for the mountains. Our road ran more to the westward, through the heart of the Vosges, and up to a fold of the hills near the borders of Lorraine. We stopped at a Head-quarters where a young officer of dragoons was to join us, and learned from him that we were to be allowed to visit some of the first-line trenches which we had looked out on from [Page 207] a high-perched observation post on our former visit to the Vosges. Violent fighting was going on in that particular region, and after a climb of an hour or two we had to leave the motor at a sheltered angle of the road and strike across the hills on foot. Our path lay through the forest, and every now and then we caught a glimpse of the high-road running below us in full view of the German batteries. Presently we reached a point where the road was screened by a thick growth of trees behind which an observation post had been set up. We scrambled down and looked through the peephole. Just below us lay a valley with a village in its centre, and to the left and right of the village were two hills, the one scored with French, the other with German trenches. The village, at first sight, looked as normal as those through which we had been passing; but a closer inspection showed that its steeple was shattered and that some of its houses were unroofed. Part of [Page 208] it was held by German, part by French troops. The cemetery adjoining the church, and a quarry just under it, belonged to the Germans; but a line of French trenches ran from the farther side of the church up to the French batteries on the right hand hill. Parallel with this line, but starting from the other side of the village, was a hollow lane leading up to a single tree. This lane was a German trench, protected by the guns of the left hand hill; and between the two lay perhaps fifty yards of ground. All this was close under us; and closer still was a slope of open ground leading up to the village and traversed by a rough cart-track. Along this track in the hot sunshine little French soldiers, the size of tin toys, were scrambling up with bags and loads of faggots, their ant-like activity as orderly and untroubled as if the two armies had not lain trench to trench a few yards away. It was one of those strange and contradictory scenes of war that bring [Page 209] home to the bewildered looker-on the utter impossibility of picturing how the thing really happens.
While we stood watching we heard the sudden scream of a battery close above us. The crest of the hill we were climbing was alive with "Seventy-fives," and the piercing noise seemed to burst out at our very backs. It was the most terrible war-shriek I had heard: a kind of wolfish baying that called up an image of all the dogs of war simultaneously tugging at their leashes. There is a dreadful majesty in the sound of a distant cannonade; but these yelps and hisses roused only thoughts of horror. And there, on the opposite slope, the black and brown geysers were beginning to spout up from the German trenches; and from the batteries above them came the puff and roar of retaliation. Below us, along the cart-track, the little French soldiers continued to scramble up peacefully to the dilapidated village; and presently a group of offi- [Page 210] cers of dragoons, emerging from the wood, came down to welcome us to their Head-quarters.
We continued to climb through the forest, the cannonade still whistling overhead, till we reached the most elaborate trapper colony we had yet seen. Half underground, walled with logs, and deeply roofed by sods tufted with ferns and moss, the cabins were scattered under the trees and connected with each other by paths bordered with white stones. Before the Colonel's cabin the soldiers had made a banked-up flower-bed sown with annuals; and farther up the slope stood a log chapel, a mere gable with a wooden altar under it, all tapestried with ivy and holly. Near by was the chaplain's subterranean dwelling. It was reached by a deep cutting with ivy-covered sides, and ivy and fir-boughs masked the front. This sylvan retreat had just been completed, and the officers, the chaplain, and the soldiers loitering near by, [Page 211] were all equally eager to have it seen and hear it praised.
The commanding officer, having done the honours of the camp, led us about a quarter of a mile down the hillside to an open cutting which marked the beginning of the trenches. From the cutting we passed into a long tortuous burrow walled and roofed with carefully fitted logs. The earth floor was covered by a sort of wooden lattice. The only light entering this tunnel was a faint ray from an occasional narrow slit screened by branches; and beside each of these peep-holes hung a shield-shaped metal shutter to be pushed over it in case of emergency.
The passage wound down the hill, almost doubling on itself, in order to give a view of all the surrounding lines. Presently the roof became much higher, and we saw on one side a curtained niche about five feet above the floor. One of the officers pulled the curtain back, and there, on a narrow [Page 212] shelf, a gun between his knees, sat a dragoon, his eyes on a peep-hole. The curtain was hastily drawn again behind his motionless figure, lest the faint light at his back should betray him. We passed by several of these helmeted watchers, and now and then we came to a deeper recess in which a mitrailleuse squatted, its black nose thrust through a net of branches. Sometimes the roof of the tunnel was so low that we had to bend nearly double; and at intervals we came to heavy doors, made of logs and sheeted with iron, which shut off one section from another. It is hard to guess the distance one covers in creeping through an unlit passage with different levels and countless turnings; but we must have descended the hillside for at least a mile before we came out into a half-ruined farmhouse. This building, which had kept nothing but its outer walls and one or two partitions between the rooms, had been transformed into an observation post. In [Page 213] each of its corners a ladder led up to a little shelf on the level of what was once the second story, and on the shelf sat a dragoon at his peep-hole. Below, in the dilapidated rooms, the usual life of a camp was going on. Some of the soldiers were playing cards at a kitchen table, others mending their clothes, or writing letters or chuckling together (not too loud) over a comic newspaper. It might have been a scene anywhere along the second-line trenches but for the lowered voices, the suddenness with which I was drawn back from a slit in the wall through which I had incautiously peered, and the presence of these helmeted watchers overhead.
We plunged underground again and began to descend through another darker and narrower tunnel. In the upper one there had been one or two roofless stretches where one could straighten one's back and breathe; but here we were in pitch blackness, and saved from breaking our necks [Page 214] only by the gleam of the pocket-light which the young lieutenant who led the party shed on our path. As he whisked it up and down to warn us of sudden steps or sharp corners he remarked that at night even this faint glimmer was forbidden, and that it was a bad job going back and forth from the last outpost till one had learned the turnings.
The last outpost was a half-ruined farmhouse like the other. A telephone connected it with Head-quarters and more dumb dragoons sat motionless on their lofty shelves. The house was shut off from the tunnel by an armoured door, and the orders were that in case of attack that door should be barred from within and the access to the tunnel defended to the death by the men in the outpost. We were on the extreme verge of the defences, on a slope just above the village over which we had heard the artillery roaring a few hours earlier. The spot where we stood was raked [Page 215] on all sides by the enemy's lines, and the nearest trenches were only a few yards away. But of all this nothing was really perceptible or comprehensible to me. As far as my own observation went, we might have been a hundred miles from the valley we had looked down on, where the French soldiers were walking peacefully up the cart-track in the sunshine. I only knew that we had come out of a black labyrinth into a gutted house among fruit-trees, where soldiers were lounging and smoking, and people whispered as they do about a death-bed. Over a break in the walls I saw another gutted farmhouse close by in another orchard: it was an enemy outpost, and silent watchers in helmets of another shape sat there watching on the same high shelves. But all this was infinitely less real and terrible than the cannonade above the disputed village. The artillery had ceased and the air was full of summer murmurs. Close by on a sheltered ledge I saw a patch [Page 216] of vineyard with dewy cobwebs hanging to the vines. I could not understand where we were, or what it was all about, or why a shell from the enemy outpost did not suddenly annihilate us. And then, little by little, there came over me the sense of that mute reciprocal watching from trench to trench: the interlocked stare of innumerable pairs of eyes, stretching on, mile after mile, along the whole sleepless line from Dunkerque to Belfort.
My last vision of the French front which I had traveled from end to end was this picture of a shelled house where a few men, who sat smoking and playing cards in the sunshine, had orders to hold out to the death rather than let their fraction of that front be broken.
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