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P. Schoeler of the French Army

P. Schoeler (rank unknown, but probably a private soldier) of the French Army to D. C. Haig of Toronto. The letter is undated.

Your so cheerful and good letter of November 18 reached me last night and I read it over and over again, so pleased was I to get it.

I shall endeavour in this letter to give you an idea of what war looks like as seen by ‘the fearless warrior’ I am trying very hard to be, but let me tell you first that words fail to describe or even give a faint idea of the awfulness and horrors of the present war.

A word as to how our positions are built is of necessity. For the last two months, the war has been a war of entrenchments: that is, both the Germans and the Allies have entrenched themselves in deep trenches in which they are both invulnerable. These entrenchments are made up of three lines of defence. The first ones, the German and the French, are so close together that one can almost converse with any one in the other, and this has caused many funny incidents to occur. For instance, we often read to the Germans our French newspapers telling them of their disasters, and they read theirs afterwards telling us the German point of view. In some places the German and French trenches are not 50 years apart. In this position, no one can rest or sleep, and must always be ready to fight on a second’s notice. It is very hard and tiring.

The second line of defence is about 200 yards behind the first one. In this position one has also to be ready on a moment’s notice, but, instead of everyone watching, as in the first line, it is guarded by sentries taking their turn in shifts, while the rest of the men can rest and sleep.

The third position is about a mile behind the second position. In this one, instead of living in trenches, one lives in houses, farm houses, etc. as far as that is possible, so that it is much more comfortable. There it is also possible to wash, which cannot be done in the first two positions for lack of water.

The troops in the third position are kept for a case of emergency, to reinforce the two first lines. It is there that most of the troops are kept.

In any one of the three positions, one has to be always dressed up, equipped, with his gun near about. It makes it very uncomfortable, as we carry a heavy load of cartridges (500). I have not undressed myself ever since I arrived.

At the back of the third position are located the hospitals and the auxiliary services.

The first two positions are made up of trenches built in three units. The first one is the trench itself, from which one can shoot and direct his fire against the enemy. It is open, about six feet deep, and three feet wide. One shoots from behind the protection of what we call in French “crenaux” and is in such a way well protected from the enemy’s bullets. In the forward wall of this trench are doors conduction through stairs to deep cellars, built eighteen feet behind the surface of the earth. In those cellars, the solders take refuge when under a bombardment from the enemy’s guns, and they are absolutely immune from the danger of the ‘kolosal’ explosions of the German’s monstrous obuses [Howitzer shells].

These cellars are only in the second and third positions, as the Germans cannot bombard our first position, which is so close to theirs that they would risk bombarding their own.

Behind the firing trench are located shacks, houses built of straw and timber, the roofs of which are at the earth’s level. In these we live, sleep and rest. We do not live in the cellars because it would be too unsanitary, and it would take too long to come out of them in case of an attack, when seconds are worth hours. These entrenchments are not built in straight lines, but in a crooked, broken line in length, so as to minimize the effect of an obus falling into any part of the entrenchment, which thus only kills a few men, while it would clean out a whole trench built in a straight line with nothing to stop its effect in length.

It is useless to say that living in these shacks and cellars is most uncomfortable. When it rains, which often happens, they are filled with water and humidity. We cannot make any fire, not to show out position to the enemy, and we eat our food cold. Our food being cooked at, and brought from, the third line, when it reaches us, after having travelled a mile or two in the open air, is cold.

If you add to this time that we never wash, that we are covered with mud and dirt, that we are always under great nervous tension, that we hardly sleep, you will understand that after a week of this life we are thoroughly exhausted. We then get four days’ rest at the third line, which is of great benefit to health.

A word now as to the frame in which these tragic events take place. It is in the North of France, in vast plains where most of the French wheat is grown, flat, without trees, offering no shelter whatever, and desolate, with no horizon.

To any one approaching our battlefield, nothing particular is to be noticed, except perhaps that this year the fields are not cultivated and seem full of big holes, but no sight of guns, soldiers, trenches, everything is under the earth, and cannot be seen even at ten yards’ distance.

Being located near the sea, the plains are very misty and damp. It rains eight days out of ten, and although it is not very cold, we suffer very much from the cold, owing to the humidity in the atmosphere. During the nights it is usually very dark.

The struggle consists mostly in never ending artillery duels. All day long and during the night, one hears the booming of guns which shake the air and the earth. I must say that as far as the Germans are concerned they seem to be very poor shooters. I have been in the second position for the last six days. They are sending up a copious lot of obuses and shrapnels (sic) all the time, and although many of my comrades, as well as myself, have had many close escapes from death, they do not succeed in killing more than two or three men a day, and wounding as many, and yet firing so many big obuses must cost them millions every day.

It is under cover of dark nights that the infantry, both French and German, make their attacks. The worst one I have been given to see took place about a week after I had arrived at the front.

On that day the weather had been very windy and unsettled all day long. We had been bombarded very intensely by the Germans. When night came both the wind and the cannonade had abated. About nine p.m. I took my turn as our advanced sentry, ahead of the trenches of the second position. Just imagine a thick, tenebrous, dark night, as black as ink, a night worthy of Dante’s Inferno, full of mystery, from which the worst could be expected. One thing struck me, when I took my duties. Usually one could see during the night flashes of light from every corner of the horizon being produced by the shooting of the big guns, the explosions of obuses, the white light of electric projectors, or the luminous fuses sent up by the Germans into the air, to enable them to discover French patrols, making a beautiful electric and pyrotechnical show, the most spectacular of fireworks, but on that night, there was no light to be seen, nor were the guns booming, especially on the German’s side. I perceived also in the sky what looked like a star, but would grow in intensity or grow dimmer, or would move from left to right, as if making signals. This turned out to have been a captive balloon.

I thought this strange and unusual, and went to inform my lieutenant of what was going on. The lieutenant doubled the number of sentries, and advised us to keep a sharp lookout, as he thought the Germans were preparing some bad ‘coup’ and so they were.
I resumed my position, walking slowly up an down, trying very hard to see something in the dark night, but I could not see much. I could not help thinking, and this thought insistently would come back to me, that I was an actor playing the part of some hero in some dark drama like ‘the Tosca’. My mind was busy amusing itself with this and other thoughts, when, all in a sudden, without the least of previous advice. A hideous light illuminated the horizon, and before I could catch my breath a hail of obuses fell on our trenches, working terrible havoc, the explosion of which shook all my body, surrounding me with flames and fire, while I could hear in the far distance the noise of an intense fusillade, and terrifying shouts and cries, such as would come from a crowd of wild and savage men. The Germans had gone to the assault of our first position.

It was so sudden, so spectacular, so impressive, that for awhile to use a vulgar expression ‘I was scared stiff’ and could not move. Then, moved by instinct I ran away to the trenches and made a general call to arms, and went to knock at the door of our commander’s shack, calling him out, telling him of what had happened. By that time a great confusion was prevailing in the trenches, the men were coming out of the shacks, running in all directions, seeking the position each one has to occupy in case of an attack. Officers were shouting orders that were unheard and unobeyed, while obuses were falling down fast, making a thunder of noise, and terrifying the men and making worse the horror of the night. Some men got wounded, and it was awful to hear their cries of distress. Some got buried with earth and mud projected by the explosion of obuses near about. After awhile order was restored in the trenches, every one occupying his position, ready to fight, making himself as small as possible in the bottom of the trenches, not to be hurt by the explosion of obuses becoming more and more frequent and the storm of bullets that was passing about our ears. In the distance we could hear the echo of a terrible disputed struggle between the Germans and our men of the first position. From the darkness came the voice of our commander; “My boys, we shall have to go forward to the assistance of our comrades of the first line. I expect every one to do his duty. Everyone shall go forward to my order. Not one shall stay behind.” As an answer, the German artillery seemed to redouble the bombardment. There must have been at least six batteries spitting death and fire upon the short zone separating the second from the first position, - this to prevent us from going to reinforce our first position.

Then the order came “Forward”. The field in front of our trenches looked like an ocean, a monstrous ocean, under the effect of the terrible explosions from the German obuses; the earth was tortured and seemed to form waves of mud and dust, real waves with white caps of fine earth that was coming into our eyes, our ears and inside our clothes. The explosions were making a kind of artificial light that was hideous, that made things look unnatural, deformed, underlining their shapes as in a nightmare.
The men hesitated. To leave their shelter in the trenches looked like sure and instant death. As far as I am concerned never before had the sentiment of the irremediable and hopelessness of my case been so impressed upon me. I thought my last hour had come, and I had to bite my lips not to faint and lose my senses. At the price of a great effort I regained my composure, men were leaving the trenches, crawling upon the ground and I started also to go forward.

The ground was soaked wet from the rain of the previous days, we had not crawled forward ten feet before our clothes were wet through, and then it was such hard work crawling upon the ground full of holes, with the great weight we had to carry with us, that I was soon in a great state of perspiration. I could not tell whether the water or the perspiration drenched us most. I reached the barbed wire defence of our position, and going through them I scratched my hands, which were bleeding and hurting me much. At times the wind would blow and I would shiver from the cold; and all the time I could hear the obuses whistling through the air. Every time I would hear one the agonizing questions would present itself to my terrified mind, “Where will it strike the ground?” several times they struck the ground so near that I was buried under the displaced earth. The noise of the explosions made my ears bleed. I noticed that obuses very seldom struck the ground twice in the same place, so I followed the plan of hiding myself in the holes formed by one just exploded, then I would run to the next one, and thus go forward.

We had not made half of the distance when the news came that the Germans had pierced through our first lines, whose men were retreating, disputing every foot of ground. We could see the struggle and the Germans coming upon us.

Then the order came that we should also retreat and go back to our trenches of the second position, as we would make a better stand there against the Germans, while reinforcements were coming to our help.

And so we did, at the price of great pains and sufferings, and always under the intense bombardment. We took our position behind the ‘crenaux’ waiting for the worst. It was not 25 minutes since the attack had started. I was feeling much better, although shivering from the cold, my clothes being all wet through, my face and my hands being covered with mud, which also filled my ears and my eyes.

Suddenly, we heard a great noise at the back of us, a noise of chains, iron, wheels, of horses pulling hard and in great number, and of swearing, hurrying men. Before we had time to realize what had happened, a lightning, a thunderbolt struck through the air; we could feel the heat of it; a deafening rearing shook the earth, while the displacement of air was so great that we were thrown against the forward wall of the trenches. One of our famous 75 batteries had just arrived upon the ground, and had just started to make the Bosches (name by which we call the Germans) dance.

Oh, my dear Mr. Haig, how I wish you had been here. It was most wonderful. I had heard a great deal about the superiority of the French artillery, but the most eulogistic compliments are not enough to tell the truth. Within ten minutes, our single French battery had silenced the six German batteries, and with such a maestria. The German obuses are certainly very redoubtable, they make a terrific noise and great destruction, but ours! It is frightful. They explode dryly, brutally, as if with anger. They have a dry, quick effect, and for five minutes one can hear the noise of all the debris, materials projected into the air by the force of the explosion,, falling down upon the ground.

They work terrific havoc, and do a quick work, as against the German obuses which make perhaps more noise, and more Kolossul’ but seem to have no backbone, lacking of energy.

One can hear German obuses coming and whistling through the air for thirty seconds. Ours seem to get there ten times as quickly, and to go straight to their objective.

To make a long story short, after it had silenced our enemy’s guns, our battery directed its fire against the German trenches, with remarkable effect.

By that time, a ‘bataillon’ of chasseurs, who are the best men of our infantry, has also arrived upon the scene. They made a wonderful ‘charge a la baionnette;, and repulsed the Germans to their trenches, taking many prisoners. The next day we buried the dead: there were 3,000 Germans dead: our loss was 200 dead. Such a difference between their and our losses is accounted for by the fact that they had to swamp our first line of entrenchment to get through.

I was told the next day, by a man who was in the first line, that it was a question of shooting fast enough to kill them all. The Germans came to the assault of our first line in such great numbers that our men did not have time enough to shoot and kill them all, and thus were finally swamped. To back up this statement, he told me they had fired 450 cartridges each, within 25 minutes.

The whole attack lasted about an hour; after it was over, our artillery bombarded the German entrenchments for over an hour, causing them, no doubt, much further losses.

I had to resume my function as a sentry until 11 p.m. but I enjoyed it, I assure you, watching our big obuses through the air, and contemplating the destruction they made.

When I went to bed (of course there is no bed) I was so exhausted by the terrible minutes I had lived, that I hardly took the time to take off my wet clothes, I rolled myself into a blanket and fell soundly asleep upon the earth of our shack, of so brutal and soldatesque slumber, from which nothing could have awakened me.

Since then I have assisted in three more attacks, so I am getting used to it and hold my own better now. However, I shall never forget those anxious moments of the first attack.

With best regards, I wish to remain, dear Mr. Haig,

Yours respectfully, P. Schoeler

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