Schoeler (rank unknown, but probably a private soldier) of
the French Army to D. C. Haig of Toronto. The letter is undated.
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.
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.
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 seconds notice. It is very hard and tiring.
second line of defence is about 200 yards behind the first one.
In this position one has also to be ready on a moments
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.
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.
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.
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.
the back of the third position are located the hospitals and
the auxiliary services.
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 enemys 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 enemys guns, and they are absolutely immune from
the danger of the kolosal explosions of the Germans
monstrous obuses [Howitzer shells].
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.
the firing trench are located shacks, houses built of straw and
timber, the roofs of which are at the earths 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 Dantes 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 Germans 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.
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.
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 commanders 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
make a long story short, after it had silenced our enemys
guns, our battery directed its fire against the German trenches,
with remarkable effect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
best regards, I wish to remain, dear Mr. Haig,
respectfully, P. Schoeler