Khaki Confidences at Château-Thierry
[Harper's Monthly Magazine, November 1918]
They were detraining in dense brown crowds at what had been the station before German guns had knocked it into a shapeless heap of tumbled bricks; they were pouring in on foot along the road from the west; and when I made my way along the main street to the river I found other khaki-clad lines leaving the little town, marching heavily, unrhythmically, and strongly out across the narrow, temporary wooden bridge, laid hastily across the massive stone pillars which were all that remained of the old bridge.
An old, white-capped woman, who had been one of my neighbors in the days before the little town had known German guns or American soldiers, called out to me:
"Oh, madame! See them! Isn't it wonderful? Just look at them! All day like that, all night like that. Are there any people left in America? And are all your people so big, so fine?"
"Where are they going?" I asked her, taking refuge for a moment in her doorway.
"To the front directly, the poor boys. They'll be fighting in two hours.... Do you hear the big guns off there banging away? And they so good, like nice big boys! Their poor mothers!"
I addressed myself in English to a soldier loitering near, watching the troops pass, "So they are going to the front, these boys?"
After a stare of intense surprise, a broad smile broke over his face. He .came closer. "No, ma'am," he said, looking at me hard. "No, these are the Alabama boys just coming back from the front. They've been fighting steadily for five days." He added: "My! it seems good to talk to an American woman. I haven't seen one for four months!"
"Where are you from?" I asked him.
"Just from the Champagne front, with the Third Division. Two of our regiments out there were...." He began pouring out exact, detailed military information which I would not have dreamed of asking him. The simple-hearted open confidence of the American soldier was startling and alarming to one who had for long breathed the thick air of universal suspicion. I stopped his fluent statement of which was his regiment, where they had been, what their losses were, where they were going.
"No, no. I mean where are you from in the States?"
I raised my voice to make myself heard above the sudden thunder of a convoy of munition-camions passing by and filling the narrow street from side to side.
"Oh! From Kansas City, Missouri. It's just eight months and seven days since I last saw the old town."
"And how do you like France?"
"Oh, it's all right, I guess! The climate's not so bad. And the towns wouldn't be much off if they'd clean up their manure-piles better."
"And the people, how do you get on with them?"
The camions had passed, and the street was again filled with American infantry, trudging forward with an air of resolute endurance.
"Well enough. They don't cheat you. I forgot and left a fifty-franc bill lying on the table of a house where I'd bought some eggs, and the next morning the woman sent her little girl over to camp to give it back. Real poor-appearing folks they were, too. But I've had enough. I want to get home. Uncle Sam's good enough for me. I want to hurry up and win the war and beat it back to God's country."
He fell away before the sudden assault upon me of an old, old man and his old wife, with the dirt, the hunted look, the crumpled clothes, the desperate eyes of refugees.
"Madame, madame, help us! We cannot make them understand, the Americans! We want to go back to Villers-le-Petit. We want to see what is left of our house and garden. "We want to start in to repair the house...and our potatoes must be dug."
I had passed that morning through what was left of their village. For a moment I saw their old, tired, anxious faces dimly, as though across the long stretch of shattered heaps of masonry. I answered evasively:
"But you know they are not allowing the civilian population to go back as yet. All this region is still being shelled. It's far too dangerous."
They gave together an exclamation of impatience as though at the futilities of children's talk. "But, madame, if we do not care about the danger? We never cared! We should not have left, ever, if the soldiers had not taken us away in camions...our garden and vineyard just at the time when they needed attention every hour. Well, we will not wait for permission. We will go back, anyhow. The American soldiers are not bad, are they, madame? They would surely not fire on an old man and his wife going back to their homes? If madame would only write on a piece of paper that we only want to go back to our home to take care of it...."
Their quavering old voices came to me indistinctly through the steady thudding advance of all those feet, come from so far, on so great, so high, so perilous a mission; come so far, many of them, to meet death more than halfway...the poor, old, cramped people before me, blind and deaf to the immensity of the earthquake, seeing nothing but that the comfort of their own lives was in danger. I had a nervous revulsion of feeling and broke the news to them more abruptly than I should have thought possible a moment before:
"There is nothing left of Villers-le-Petit. There is nothing left to go back to."
Well, they were not so cramped, so blind, so small, my poor old people. They took the news standing, and after the first clutch at each other's wrinkled hands, after the first paling of their already ashy faces, they did not flinch.
"But the crops, madame. The vine-yards. Are they all gone, too?"
"No, very little damage done there. Everything was kept, of course, intact for camouflage, and the retreat was so rapid there was not enough time for destruction."
"Then we will still go back, madame. We have brought the things for spraying the vineyards as far as here; surely we can get them to Villers-le-Petit, it is so near now. We can sleep on the ground, anywhere. In another week, you see, madame, it will be too late to spray. We have enough for ours, and our neighbors', too. We can save them if we go now. If madame would only write on a piece of paper in their language that..."
So I did it. I tore a fly-leaf out of a book lying in the heap of rubbish before the ruins of a bombarded house (it was a treatise on Bach's chorales by the French organist, Widor!) and wrote: "These are two brave old people, inhabitants of Villers-le-Petit, who wish to go back there to work under shellfire to save what they can of their own and their neighbors' crops. Theirs is the spirit that is keeping France alive."
"It probably won't do you a bit of good," I said, "but here it is for what it is worth."
"Oh, once the American soldiers know what we want, they will let us pass, we know." They went off trustfully, holding my foolish "pass" in their hands.
I turned from them to find another young American soldier standing neat me. "How do you do?" I said, smiling at him.
He gave a great start of amazement at the sound of my American accent. "Well, how do you like being in France?" I asked him.
"Gee! Are you really an American woman?" he said, incredulously, his young face lighting up as though he saw a member of his own family. "I haven't talked to one in so long! Why, yes, I like France fine. It's the loveliest country to look at, isn't it? I didn't know any country could be kept up so, like a garden. How do they do it without any men left? They must be awfully fine people. I wish I could talk to them some."
"Who are these soldiers going through to-day?" I asked. "Are they going out to the front-line trenches, or coming back? I've been told both things."
He answered with perfect certainty and precision: "Neither. They are Second Division troops, from Ohio, mostly, just out of their French training-camp, going up to hold the reserve line. They never have been in action yet."
Our attention was distracted to the inside of a fruit-shop across the street: a group of American soldiers struggling with the sign-language, a flushed, tired, distracted woman shopkeeper volubly unable to conceive that men with all their senses could not understand her native tongue. I went across to interpret. One of the soldiers in a strong Southern accent said:
"Oh, golly, yes! If you would do the talkin' fo' us. We cyan't make out whetheh we've paid heh or not, and we wonder if she'd 'low us to sit heah and eat ouh fruit."
From the Frenchwoman: "Oh, madame, please, what is it they want now? I have shown them everything in sight. How strange that they can't understand the simplest language!"
The little misunderstanding was soon cleared away. I lingered by the counter. "How do you like our American troops, madame?" I asked.
"Very much indeed, if only they could talk. They don't do any harm. They are good to the children. They are certainly as brave as men can be. But there is one thing about them I don't understand. They overpay you, often, more than you ask...won't take change...and yet if you leave things open, as we always do, in front of the shop, they just put their hands in and help themselves as they go by. I have lost a great deal in that way. If they have so much money, why do they steal?"
I contemplated making a short disquisition on the peculiarities of the American orchard-robbing tradition, with its ramifications, but gave it up as too difficult, and instead sat down at the table with the Americans, who gave me the greeting always repeated: "Great Scott! It's good to talk to an American woman!"
A fresh-faced, splendidly built lad looked up from the first bite of his melon, crying: "Yes, suh, a cantaloup, a' honest-to-the-Lawd cantaloup! I neyeh thought they'd heard of such a thing in France."
They explained to me, all talking at once, pouring out unasked military information till my hair rose up scandalized, that this was their first experience with semi-normal civilian life in France, because they belonged to the troops from Georgia—volunteers; that they had been in the front-line trenches at exactly such a place for precisely so many weeks, where such and such things happened, and before that at such another place, where they were so many strong, etc., etc. "So we neveh saw real sto's to buy things till we struck this town. And when I saw a cantaloup I mighty nigh dropped daid! I don't reckon I'm likely to run into a watermelon, am I? I suahly would have to be ca'ied back to camp on a stretcheh if I did!" He laughed out, a boy's cloudless laughter. "But, say, what do you-all think? I paid fo'ty-five cents for this slice—yes, ma'am, fo'ty-five cents for a slice, and back home in Geo'gia you pay a nickel for the biggest one in the sto'!" He buried his face in the yellow fruit.
The house began to shake to the ponderous passage of artillery. The boys in khaki turned their stag-like heads toward the street, glanced at the long motley-colored, mule-drawn guns, and pronounced, expertly: "The Forty-third heavy artillery going out to Nolepieds; the fellows from Illinois. They've just been up in the Verdun sector and are coming down to reinforce the One-hundred-and-second."
For the first time the idea crossed my head that possibly their mania for pouring out military information to the first comer might not be as fatal to necessary secrecy as it seemed. I rather pitied the spy who might attempt to make coherent profit out of their candor.
"How do you like being in France?" I asked the boy who was devouring the melon.
He looked up, his eyes kindling. "Well, I was plumb crazy to get heah, and, now I'm heah, I like it mo'' even than I 'lowed I would."
I looked at his fresh, unlined boy's cheeks, his clear, bright boy's eyes, and felt a great wave of pity. "You haven't been in active service yet?" I surmised.
Unconsciously, gaily, he flung my pity back in my face: "You bet yo' life I have. We've just come from the Champagne front, and the sehvice we saw theah was suah active. How about it, boys?"
They all burst out again in rapid, high-keyed, excited voices, longing above everything else for a listener, leaning forward over the table toward me, their healthy faces flushed with their ardor, talking hurriedly because there was so much to say, their tense young voices a staccato clatter of words which brought to me, in jerks, horribly familiar war-pictures, barrage-fires meeting, advancing over dead comrades, hideous hand-to-hand combats...all chanted in those eager young voices....
In a pause, I asked, perhaps rather faintly: "And you like it? You are not ever home-sick?"
The boy with the melon spoke for them all. He stretched out his long arms, his hands clenched to knotty masses of muscles; he set his jaw, his blue eyes were like steel, his beautiful young face was all aflame: "Oh, you just get to love it!" he cried, shaking with the intensity of his feeling. "You just love- it! Why, I nevth want to go home! I want to stay over heah and go right on killin' boches all my life!"
At this I felt stricken with the collective remorse over the war which belongs to the older generation. I said good-by to them and left them to their childlike ecstasy over their peaches and melons.
The artillery had passed. The street was again solidly filled with dusty, heavily laden young men in khaki, tramping silently and resolutely forward, their brown steel casques, shaped like antique Greek shepherd hats, giving to their rounded young faces a curious air of classic rusticity.
An-older man, with a stern, rough, plain face stood near me.
"How do you do?" I asked. "Can, you tell me which troops these are and where they are going?" I wondered what, confident and uninformed answer I should receive this time.
Showing no surprise at my speech, he answered: "I don't know who they be. You don't never know anything about any but your own regiment. The kids always think they do. They'll tell you this and they'll tell you that, but the truth is we don't know no more than Ann...not even where we are ourselves, nor where we're going, most of the time."
His accent made me say: "I wonder if you are not from my part of the country. I live in Vermont, when I'm at home."
"I'm from Maine," he said, soberly, "a farmer, over draft age, of course. But it looked to me like a kind o' mean trick to make the boys do it all for us, so I come along, too." He added, as if in partial explanation, "One of my uncles was with John Brown at Harper's Ferry."
"How do you like it, now you're here?" I asked.
He looked at me heavily. "Like it? It's hell!" he said.
"Have you been in active service?" I used my usual cowardly evasive phrase.
"Yes, ma'am. I've killed some of 'em," he answered me, with brutal, courageous directness. He looked down at his hands as he spoke—big, calloused farmer's hands, crooked by holding the plow-handles. As plainly as he saw it there, I saw the blood on them, too. His stern, dark, middle-aged face glowered down solemnly on those strong farmer's hands. "It's dirty work, but it's got to be done," he said, gravely, "and I ain't, a-going to dodge my share of it."
A very dark-eyed, gracefully-built young soldier came loitering by, and stopped near us, ostensibly to look at the passing troops, but evidently in order to share in the phenomenon of a talk in English with an American woman. I took him into the conversation with the usual query:
"How do you do, and how do you like being in France?"
He answered with a strong Italian accent, and I dived, into a dusty mental corner to bring out my half-forgotten Italian. In a moment we were talking like old friends. He had been born in Italy, yes, but brought up in Waterbury, Connecticut. His grandfather had been one of Garibaldi's Thousand, so of course he had joined the American army and come to France among the first.
"Well, there are more than a thousand of you, this time," I said, looking at the endless procession defiling before us.
"Si, signora, but it is a part of the same war. We are here to go on with what the Thousand began."
Yes, that was true; John Brown's soul, and Garibaldi's, and those of how many other fierce old fighting lovers of freedom, were marching on there before my eyes, carried like invisible banners by all those strong young arms.
An elderly woman in well-brushed, dowdy black came down the street toward us, an expression of care on her face. When she saw me she said: "Well, I've found you. They said you were in town to-day. Won't you come back to the house with me? Something important. I'm terribly troubled with some American officers.... Oh, the war!"
I went, apprehensive of trouble, and found her house, save for a total absence of window-glass, in its customary speckless and shining order. She took me up-stairs to what had been a bedroom and was now an office in the Quartermaster's Department. It was filled with packing-cases, improvised desks, and with serious-faced, youngish American officers who, in their astonishment at seeing me, forgot to take their long black cigars out of their mouths.
"There!" said the woman-with-grievance, pointing to the floor, "just look at that! Just look! I tell them and I tell them, not to put their horrid boxes on the floor, but to keep them on the linoleum, but they are so stupid, they can't understand language that any child could take in! And they drag those boxes, just full of nails, all over the floor. I'm sick of them and their scratches!"
A big gun boomed solemnly off on the horizon as accompaniment to this speech.
I explained in a neutral tone to the officers, looking expectantly at me, what was at issue. I made no comments. None was needed, evidently, for they said, with a gravity which I found lovable, that they would endeavor to be more careful about the floor, that indeed they had not understood what their landlady had been trying to tell them. I gave her their assurance and she went away satisfied.
As the door closed on her they broke into broad grins and pungent exclamations: "Well, how about that! Wouldn't that get you? With the town bombarded every night, to think the old lady was working herself up to a froth about her floor-varnish!"
One of them said: "I never thought of it before, but I bet you my Aunt Selina would do just that! I just bet if her town was bombarded she'd go right on shooing the flies out of her kitchen and mopping up her pantry floor with skim-milk! Why, the French are just like anybody, aren't they? Just like our own folks!"
"They are," I assured him, "so exactly, like our own folks, like everybody's folks, that it's impossible to tell the difference."
When I went away the owner of the house was sweeping the garden path clear of broken glass. "This bombardment is such a nuisance!" she said, disapprovingly. "I'd like to know what the place would be like if I didn't stay to look after it."
I looked at her enviously, securely shut away as she was by the rigid littleness of her outlook from any blighting comprehension of what was going on about her. But then, I reflected, there are instances when the comprehension of what is going on is not blighting. No, on the whole, I did not envy her.
Outside the gate I fell in at once with a group of American soldiers. It was impossible to take a step in any direction in the town without doing this. After the invariable expressions of surprise and pleasure over seeing an American woman, came the invariable burst of eager narration of where they had been and what had been happening to them. They seemed to me touchingly like children who have had an absorbing, exciting adventure and must tumble it all out to the first person who will listen. Their haste, their speaking all at once, gave me only an incoherent idea of what they wished to say. I caught odd phrases, disconnected sentences, glimpses through pin-holes....
"One of the fellows, a conscript, that came to fill a vacant place in our lines, he was only over in France two weeks, and it was his first time in a trench. He landed there at six o'clock in the evening, and, just like I'm telling you, at a quarter past six a shell up and exploded and buried him right where he stood. Yes, ma'am, you do certainly see some very peculiar things in this war."
From another, "We took the whole lot of 'em prisoners, and passed 'em back to the rear, but 'out of the fifteen we took, eight died of sudden heart-failure before they got back to the prisoners' camp."
I tried not to believe this, but the fact that it was told with a laugh and received with a laugh reminded me gruesomely that we are the nation that tolerates the lynching of helpless men by the mob.
From another: "Some of the fellows say they think about the Lusitania when they go after the boches. I don't have to come down as far as that. Belgium's plenty good enough a whetstone for my bayonet."
This reminded me with a thrill that we are the nation that has always ultimately risen in defense of the defenseless.
From another: "Oh, I can't stand the French! They make me tired! And their jabber! I seen some of 'em talk it so fast they couldn't even understand each other! Honest, I did."
From another: "There's something that sort of takes me about the life over here. I'm not going to be in any hurry to go back to the States and hustle my head off after the war's over."
From another: "Not for mine. Me for Chicago the day after the boches are licked."
I listened to their home voices, running up and down the scale of all the American accents, and reflected on the universality of human nature. Just such entirely varying and contradictory sentiments, just such a mixture of idealism, materialism, narrowness, generosity, inevitably came clattering out from any group of French soldiers speaking their minds freely. There was a good deal of nonsense about this talk of racial differences, I thought to myself.
They were swept away by a countercurrent somewhere in the khaki ebb and flow about us, and I found myself with a start next to a poilu, yes, a real poilu, with a faded, horizon-blue uniform and a domed, battered blue French casque.
"Well!" I said to him, "things have changed here since the One-hundred- and-forty-second used to come back from the trenches. The town's khaki, and not blue."
He looked at me out of bright brown eyes, smiled, and entered into conversation; and at once I was acutely aware of a strong, unmistakable racial difference. As we talked, I tried desperately with the back of my brain to analyze, what it was that made him so different from all the American soldiers I had been seeing. He was a very ordinary little poilu, indeed, such as you see by thousands—a rather short, strongly built, well-knit man, with a rather ugly face, not at all distinguished in line, not at all remarkably clean as to bluish, unshaven chin, nor even as to dingy neck...but there was about his every accent, gesture, expression, an amenity, a finish, an ease that not one of the Americans had had, in spite of their perfect self-possession and fluency. Fresh from talking to so many of them, I had a vivid impression of difference.
What was the difference? I racked my brains wildly to put my finger on it, knowing that in a moment my perception of the phenomenon would pass, my familiarity with the type would reassert itself, and my interlocutor would slip back into the great mass of all other dingy, shabby, polite little poilus with whom I have chatted.
We talked, of course, of the American soldiers, one of whom came up and stood at my elbow, listening with amused astonishment to what seemed to him the insane volubility of our talk.
"Gee!" he said, when I stopped to talk to him, "I wish I could rip it off like that! I have got combien and oui down fine, but I don't get on any beyond that. Say, what does the Frenchman say about us? Now since that little affair at the Bois de Belleau they think we know a thing or two about the war ourselves, what? They're all right, of course mighty fine soldiers, but, Lord! you'd know by the way any one of them does business, as if he had all the day for it, that they couldn't run a war fast, like the way it ought to be run, like the way we're going to run it, now we're here."
I did not think it necessary to translate all of this to the bright-eyed little Frenchman on my other side, who began to talk as the American stopped.
"You asked my opinion of the American troops, madame. I will give it to you frankly. The first who came over made a very bad impression indeed. All who have come since have made the best of impressions. They are remarkably courageous, they really fight like lions, and there could be no better comrades in the world, but, oh, madame! as far as really knowing how to make modern war, they are children, just children. They make all the mistakes we made four years ago. They have so much to learn of the technique of war and they will lose so many men in learning it!"
I did not think it necessary to translate all this to the American, who now shook hands with both of us and turned away. The Frenchman, too, after a quick look at the clock in the church-tower, made his compliments, saluted, and disappeared.
I watched his back retreating fixedly, feeling that in an instant more I should have my hand on that slippery, ineffable, racial difference. There! It swam up, full and round under my fingers. I closed on it, held it triumphantly to look at it hard...and, lo! it was not a racial difference at all, but an infinite difference of age, of maturity. Not that the poilu was materially so much older than our boys, but between them lay the unfathomable abyss of four years of war experience. I realized that he alone, of all the soldiers to whom I had talked, had been able to look outside of himself and see another person there, that he alone had been in a normal frame of mind, had been conscious of what he was saying, had really looked at the person to whom he was talking. This conscious recognition of social contact had given his manner that appearance of social ease: which all the familiarity of the Americans had failed to have. They were not conversing, in spite of the fact that they were talking incessantly; they were simply so full of the exciting, rending, upheaving experiences of their lives that they must needs express their excitement, somehow, anyhow, to any one, or choke. The poilu, alas! had lived so long in the rending, exciting, upheaving experience that it was second nature to him, that he moved with ease among portents and could turn a phrase and make a gesture among horrors.
Pondering the meaning of this, I walked forward, and, coming to the church door, stepped inside.
It was as though I had stepped into another world. I had found the only place in town where there were no soldiers. The great, gray, dim vaulted interior was empty. After the beat of the marching feet outside, after the shuffling to and fro of the innumerable men quartered in town, after the noisy shops crowded with khaki uniforms, after the incessant thunderous passage of the artillery and munitions-camions, the long, hushed quiet of the empty church rang loud in my ears. I wondered for just an instant if there could be any military regulation forbidding our soldiers to enter the church; and even as I wondered the door opened and a boy in khaki stepped in...one out of all those hordes. He crossed himself, took a rosary out of his pocket, knelt, and began his prayers.
Thirty thousand soldiers were in that town that day.
Whatever else we are, I reflected, we are not a people of mystics. But then I remembered the American soldier who had said that Belgium was a good-enough whetstone for his bayonet. I remembered the rough, gloomy farmer who did not want to shirk his share of the world's dirty work. Perhaps there are various kinds of mystics.
Once outside the church, I turned to look up Madame Larçonneur, the valiant market-gardener who had been one of my neighbors, a tired young war widow with two little children, whom I had watched toiling early and late, day and night, to keep intact the little property left her by her dead soldier husband. I had watched her drawing from the soil of her big garden, wet quite literally by her sweat, the livelihood for her fatherless little girls. I wondered what the bombardment of the town had done to her and her small, priceless home. I found the street, I found the other houses there, but where her little, painfully well-kept house had stood was a heap of stones and rubble, and in the place of her long, carefully tended rows of beans and cabbages and potatoes were shell-holes where the chalky barren subsoil streaked the surface and where the fertile black earth, fruit of years of labor, was irrevocably buried out of sight. Before all this, in her poor, neat black, stood the war-widow with her children.
I sprang forward, horrified, the tears on my cheeks. "Oh, Madame Larçonneur, how awful! How awful!" I cried, putting out both hands to her.
She turned a white, quiet face on me and smiled, a smile that made me feel infinitely humble. "My little girls are not hurt," she said, drawing them to her, "and as for all this...why, if it is a part of getting other people's homes restored to them..." Her gesture said that the price was not too high.
The look in her sunken eyes took me for an instant up into a very high place of courage and steadfastness. For the first time that day the knot in my throat stopped aching. I was proud to have her put her work-deformed hands in mine and to feel on my cheek her sister's kiss.
It steadied me somewhat during the difficult next hour, when in the falling twilight I walked up and down between the long rows of raw earth, with the innumerable crosses, each with its new, bright American flag fluttering in the sweet country air. I needed to recall that selfless courage, for my heart was breaking with sorrow, with guilt-consciousness, with protest, as I stood there, thinking of my own little son, of the mothers of the boys who lay there. A squad of soldiers were preparing graves for the next day. As they dug in the old, old soil of the cemetery to make a place for the new flesh come from so far to lie there forever, I looked away toward the little town lying below us, in its lovely green setting, still shaking rhythmically to the ponderous passage of the guns, of the troops, of the camions.
At one side were a few recent German graves, marked with black crosses, and others, marked with stones, dating from the war of 1870, that other nightmare when all this smiling countryside was blood-soaked. Above me, dominating the cemetery, stood a great monument of white marble, holding up to all those graves the ironic inscription, "Love ye one another."
The twilight fell more and more, deeply, and became darkness. The dull, steady surge of the advancing troops grew louder. Night had come, night no longer used for rest after labor in the sunlight, night which must be used to hurry troops and more troops forward over roads shelled by day.
They passed by hundreds, by thousands, an endless, endless procession—horses, mules, camions, artillery, infantry, cavalry; obscure, shadowy forms no longer in uniform, no longer from Illinois or Georgia or Vermont, no longer even American; only human young men crowned with the splendor of their strength, going out gloriously through the darkness to victory through sacrifice.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald