Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, December 18, 2020

Feast of the Dead—Arras 1914

From the Diary of Pierre Minault translated by his granddaughter Gail Minault

Full Diary at  Not Even Past

Pierre Minault, 43rd Fr. Colonial Infantry

31 October 1914

This morning we started out and crossed the main road from Doullens to Arras, by which the German invasion would take place, if ever our northern army were defeated. On the rail line which parallels the road there is a lot of train traffic. In the distance, large caliber guns thunder ceaselessly. We stop at Hambercamp, another muddy village where we will undoubtedly encamp. The fullness which we have experienced since we left our trenches has given us back our morale. We joke, and our Parisian jokers have rediscovered their priceless ability to wisecrack. There’s no more quarrelling.

Our cooks use their ingenuity to improve the cuisine, and we are eating like Gargantua. At night, in the barns, the stories go on and on. Most of the men tell of their exploits at the beginning of the war, the noted retreats of Neufchâteau, of Morhange, of the Marne, where men marched heedlessly forward only to be mowed down by German machine-guns. Others, according to their trade or profession develop theories about work, pay, or the effect of their work on their existence. Among us farmers we discuss the various crops, harvests, livestock. And thus time goes by and we forget a little our past suffering and the separation from our wives and our children.

But always, the uncertainty of tomorrow weighs on us. These moments of wellbeing appear only as preparation for the ills that await us, to death which can come upon us at any moment. It is wartime, and nothing can take away from that fact a small fraction of the dangers that are contained therein. Again we are to go back to the trenches this evening. It is said that the spot is “hot.” The General commanding the 2nd Army Corps came to visit us this afternoon. He questions each of us good-humoredly. For us this form of humor is of questionable taste. All day, our planes have crisscrossed the skies, miraculously evading the black bursts of German shells. It is marvelous how they escape. Yet, I have seen them doing reconnaissance each day from the beginning of the campaign and return each day to their departure point, apparently unscathed. Shelling in space [anti-aircraft gunnery] apparently poses exceptional difficulties. This morning we find ourselves at 300 yards from one of our large 155 mm. guns; its detonation was incredible. I could observe the maneuvering from a distance: after charging and aiming the gun, a soldier came forward with precaution, and pulled on a cord; immediately an enormous explosion of smoke and flames surrounded the battery, and a second later, the air was torn by a deafening noise.

Mobilizing in Paris

1 November 1914

Today, the feast of the dead. To observe it, Parisians go to the cemeteries, and we too go to such places. “Violent fighting” said a recent official press release, “including bayonet charges, have taken place in the Arras area.” I am in the trench from which it sprang, that bayonet charge. On the left, on the right, and in front one can see several hundred bodies of infantry men lying in the mud, and who, it is said, have been awaiting burial for the last three weeks. In the road by which we reached this trench, under a rain of bullets, it was a real charnel. We had to step over dead bodies to go forward: some with their noses in the mud, others on their back, seeming to sleep. Very near me here, another fell while he was going to the toilet. In front of the trench, in all directions, bodies are strewn on the ground. A machine-gun has made a clean sweep.

Since our arrival during the night, the fire of the German infantry, whose trenches are only fifty meters distant, has not stopped for a minute. You can’t take a peek over the trench, but immediately a bullet whizzes by. One of our men has just been hit in the jaw. On the other hand the Germans do not seem to have any artillery, and that certainly is small compensation. The weather is again harsh; the east wind is very cold, and my feet were near frozen all night. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to pick up the blanket of a dead man when we got here.

French Infantry 1914

2 November 1914 

When we were in Maricourt, facing weeks under infernal artillery fire of shells and shrapnel, we managed to avoid casualties, at least in the companies I was a part of. But here, under fire of only bullets, the last 24 hours has cost us one dead and 3 wounded. One of my best comrades in the first squad got a bullet in the jaw; it had first penetrated the metal shield behind which he was firing. Another one was killed outright, while peering over the parapet, by a bullet in the forehead. In the trenches, bullets can only hit you in the head. I, who am tall, have a great deal of trouble not exposing myself, watch out!

16–17 November 1914

Pierre Minault was stricken by a shot to the forehead on 16  November and died as a result of the wound the next day.


  1. A good slice of the French experience in the early war.

  2. Downloaded the complete diary. A wealth pf knowledge.