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

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Scenes from a French Dug-Out on the Western Front

French Dug-Out

Excerpts from Henre Barbusse's Under Fire

I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us.

They urge us into the rearward shelters. For our eyes the field of death vanishes. To our ears the thunder is deadened on the great anvil of the clouds. The sound of universal destruction is still. The squad surrounds itself with the familiar noises of life, and sinks into the fondling littleness of the dug-outs. . .. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath.

I see shadows coming from these sidelong pits and moving about, huge and misshapen lumps, bear-like, that flounder and growl. They are "us." We are muffled like Eskimos. Fleeces and blankets and sacking wrap us up, weigh us down, magnify us strangely. Some stretch themselves, yawning profoundly. Faces appear, ruddy or leaden, dirt-disfigured, pierced by the little lamps of dull and heavy-lidded eyes, matted with uncut beards and foul with forgotten hair.

Henri Barbusse, 1914

I went down just now, bent double, into our dug-out, the little low cave that smells musty and damp, where one stumbles over empty jam-pots and dirty rags, where two long lumps lay asleep, while in the corner a kneeling shape rummaged a pouch by candle-light. 

In the dug-out, to an audience of three, Tirette is again pouring out his barrack-life tales. Marthereau is snoring in a corner; he is close to the entry, and to get down we have to stride over his short legs, which seem to have gone back into his trunk. A group of kneeling men around a folded blanket are playing with cards--

"Mondain--that was the day after, yesterday in fact, in a dug-out that a shell smashed in. He was lying down, and his chest was crushed. Have they told you about Franco, who was alongside Mondain? The fall of earth broke his spine. He spoke again after they'd got him out and set him down. He said, with his head falling to one side, 'I'm dying,' and he was gone. Vigile was with them, too; his body wasn't touched, but they found him with his head completely flattened out, flat as a pancake, and huge-as big as that. To see it spread out on the ground, black and distorted, it made you think of his shadow--the shadow one gets on the ground sometimes when one walks with a lantern at night."

Abandoned German Dug-Out

[Inspecting an abandoned German trench] The dug-outs are filled to the brim with earth and with--no one knows what. It is all like the dried bed of a river, smashed, extended, slimy, that both water and men have abandoned. In one place the trench has been simply wiped out by the guns. The wide fosse is blocked, and remains no more than a field of new-turned earth, made of holes symmetrically bored side by side, in length and in breadth.

[Back in their own dug-out] "Hey, listen!" says Paradis, sharply, "they're shouting in the trench. Don't you hear? Isn't it 'alarm!' they're shouting?"

"Alarm? Are you mad?"

The words were hardly said when a shadow comes in through the low doorway of our dug-out and cries--"Alarm, 22nd! Stand to arms!"

A moment of silence and then several exclamations. "I knew it," murmurs Paradis between his teeth, and he goes on his knees towards the opening into the molehill that shelters us. Speech then ceases and we seem to be struck dumb. Stooping or kneeling we bestir ourselves; we buckle on our waist-belts; shadowy arms dart from one side to another; pockets are rummaged. And we issue forth pell-mell, dragging our knapsacks behind us by the straps, our blankets and pouches. 

Outside we are deafened. The roar of gunfire has increased ahundredfold, to left, to right, and in front of us. Our batteries givevoice without ceasing.

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