Hôpital Auxiliaire No. 101,
Rennes, I le et Vilain,
May 13, 1915.
Well, I am lying between two nice, clean sheets now for the first time in nearly nine months, so I guess you know how good it must feel.
We went to the trenches on May 5th to stay forty-eight hours, as the trenches were only a little over one hundred meters apart, and there was nothing to do but stand guard and work building tunnels and boyaux toward the German trenches. When our two days were up, instead of being relieved, we were told that there was to be an attack all along that line the coming night at midnight, and that our battalion was to lead our regiment. So all that day, everyone was busy going to the rear for cartridges, food, etc., and also working throwing up an embankment nearly reaching to the barbed wire of the “Boches.” This work was very dangerous, as it was done under rifle fire and danger from bombs, but we were protected a little by our own rifle and artillery fire. I spent three hours at it and didn’t like it a bit.
We got everything ready, and at eight o’clock settled down to wait for the bombardment which was to precede the attack, but it didn’t begin. At ten o’clock, we were told that the attack had been postponed, and that the following morning we would be relieved. So we went out to our temporary trench and spent the night on guard in it. The following morning we were relieved, and marched twelve kilometers to the rear (four of them through trenches).
That night at seven o’clock I lay down thinking I would get a good night’s sleep, having had only five or six hours’ sleep in the last three days. At one o’clock in the morning, we were awakened and told to make our sacs at once. We left in short order, arriving in the second-line trenches at daybreak, where we took our position.
In a few minutes it began to sound as if all hell had broken loose, when our artillery all along the line opened up on the Germans. The d——dest bombardment imaginable was kept up until ten o’clock. Along the whole German line, you could see nothing but smoke and debris. At ten o’clock, I saw the finest sight I have ever seen. It was men from the Premier Étranger crawling out of our trenches, with their bayonets glittering against the sun, and advancing on the Boches. There was not a sign of hesitation. They were falling fast, but as fast as men fell, it seemed as if new men sprang up out of the ground to take their places. One second it looked as if an entire section had fallen by one sweep of a machine-gun. In a few moments, a second line of men crawled out of our trenches; and at seven minutes past ten, our captain called “En avant,” and we went dashing down the trenches with the German artillery giving us hell as we went.
Just as we reached the first-line trenches, a shell burst near the captain, and left his face covered with blood. He brushed his hand across it, and I heard him say “Cochons,” and that it was nothing. Then he called for everyone out of the trenches.
We scrambled out, and from then on it was nothing but a steady advance under rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire. We certainly had the Boches on the run, but at the same time they were pouring the lead at us. We would dash forward twenty-five or fifty meters, and then when the fire got too hot, would drop to the ground with our sacs in front of us, and lie there until we had our breath, and the bullets were not quite so thick. Then we would take our sacs in one hand as a kind of shield, and make another dash.
To think of fear or the horror of the thing was impossible. All I could think of was what a wonderful advance it was, and how everyone was going against that stream of lead as if he loved it. I kept that up for five hours. By then we had advanced three or four kilometers, but were badly cut up and also mixed up with men from other regiments, mostly Algerian tirailleurs. Most of our officers had fallen, including the Colonel and three commandants. (I understand that there only remain now four officers out of the whole regiment.) We had taken most of a village and were taking the rest of it. My outfit was a little to the left, and we were being raked by fire from in front and from the end of the village still held by the Germans.
Skipper Pavelka and I were lying alongside the sous-lieutenant when a messenger came and told him that the captain and lieutenant had both fallen, and that he was in command of the company. The fire had been so heavy for the last half hour that we had been advancing one man at a time to the section. The sous-lieutenant gave us the direction to take, and told us to follow him, one at a time. He jumped and dashed forward. I turned to Skipper and told him we might as well get it over with at once, so I started with Skipper behind me.
I go about twenty meters when a bullet catches me in the thigh, through the fleshy part, without touching the bone. I continue for a few steps, and then topple over. Skipper sees me drop, so drops also in order to bandage me up if necessary. But I told him I could do it myself and for him to go ahead. I crawled over to a marmite hole, and into it. There I examined my wound and bandaged it; then turned my attention to a comrade of the 156th Regiment who was lying there. He had been shot through both hips and afterwards a piece of shell had gone through his stomach. I tried to bandage him up, but he was dying and I could not do any good. He wanted water, but I had none and could get none for him. That was the cry going up everywhere, for water. I stayed there until he died.
The line had not advanced any more, and the fire was terrific. While I was lying there, three shells exploded within ten meters of me, each time covering me with dirt. The last one landed within five or six meters of me. I would hear them coming and would say to myself, “Well, it is over,” and shut my eyes. Then I would brush the dirt off, and find that I was all right. Finally, I crawled out of the hole, and up to the line where the men were; but they told me to crawl to the rear, saying the Boches might counterattack, and then I would be captured. I knew they were right, so I started snake-fashion for the rear. I made about a kilometer that way to a haystack where there were several other wounded men. It was dark then, so I rested there and put my bandage on again, as it had come off. After a while a Red Cross man came. He told us that there were so many wounded that it would probably be the following day before we could get transported to the rear. So I found a stick and managed to hobble two or three kilometers more to a farm, where there was a large number of wounded.
I slept there that night, and the following morning continued on my way. Finally, by walking some and riding a little on an artillery cart, I got my evacuation card, and at midnight was able to get on a train. It was very crowded, and by the following day my leg was too sore for me to move about much. About midnight we passed through Paris, but no one was allowed to get off. The first stop this side of Paris I was taken off, and I asked to go to Paris. The major said he would send me there, but there was so much confusion that I suppose he got mixed up. Anyway, I was put on a train and instead of going to Paris arrived here last night, and was brought to this hospital this morning.
This is a better hospital than the average, and so I really have no complaint to make. So far, I have been treated royally here. I am in the officers’ ward, and have every convenience. I went four days without any attention to my wound (there were so many more badly wounded than I that I did not have the heart to ask for care), and it has festered a little, so they may have to open it up to-night, but it is nothing bad and will soon be all right.
This has been a long letter and I am tired after it. This will do for Monsieur du Peloux also, as it is too much of a task for me to write many long letters. Send me fifty francs, not a mandat, but a bill in a registered letter, as it will be more convenient for me. You might also write the vaguemestre of my company, telling him that I am wounded and for him-to forward my mail to your address. In that way, I will be more certain of receiving it. When I am well, I will also want you to help me get eight days’ congé in Paris.
An afterthought: the Legion has again come into its own. We took the Boche colonel prisoner, this was mentioned in the papers.