Thursday, November 8, 2018

Four Days

Jacques Gaudry stopped for a moment, both to catch his breath (at 48 he was no longer a young man) and let his wife Madelaine catch up to him. Five years his junior, life had not been kind to her. She had borne him five sons, all good strong lads, only one of whom, they knew for certain, was still alive.

Jacques looked up the road, everything was different, yet somehow the same. The stand of trees near the old mill were shattered stumps, the mill itself had one wall remaining. He wondered what had become of Henri, the miller.

When they had had to flee their small village in the fall of 1914, they had just received word that their oldest boy, Robert, had gone missing in action. His unit had been decimated by the Boche, the survivors had no clue what had happened to their son, a newly minted sergeant. One man had told them that the artillery had started firing on them, while they maneuvered, in the open, entire platoons had gone missing.

Was Robert alive, perhaps a prisoner in Germany? Or was his body lost in the depths of the Ardennes. They had no idea.

After they had resettled with Madelaine's brother and his wife, the next two boys, the twins Louis and Pierre had been drafted into the army. In time to fall, both of them, at Verdun. Life with Paul, Madelaine's brother, had been rough, but between the two men working Paul's small farm, they survived. At least they had somewhere to go, many from their village had kept trudging south, with little idea of where they were going. But continue on they must, as they were constantly reminded, the roads had to be kept clear for the army.

Why, Jacques had asked himself, so they can retreat faster from les Boches?

As always Madelaine had shushed him, "Papa, you know nothing of the Army. Remember the letters from Robert? The Army is led by very smart men."

As they breasted the slight rise before their village, they could see that there wasn't much left. Ruined houses, debris in the street and foreign soldiers camped nearby. Jacques supposed that they were les Anglais (actually they were New Zealanders, but neither of the Gaudrys spoke any English) and he wondered where the French Army was.

The provincial authorities had given them passes to return to their village to collect anything which might remain of their property. Little did the Gaudrys know that the soil around the village was badly polluted. The wells and streams were as well. Some in the government thought it might be years before the villages could be rebuilt. (Many never were, only the scarred land remains in the Zone Rouge, the red zone, the portions of northern France which were so badly torn up by four years of trench warfare, artillery bombardments, and poison gas attacks.)

When they arrived, they found...


Not even their home remained, a shattered pile of torn earth with bits of masonry mixed in, their home was gone. As was most of the village. Madelaine sat down on the verge and began to cry. Earlier in the week they had learned that their next to youngest son had been killed somewhere in the Argonne Forest. Fighting alongside the Americans Jacques thought.

First Robert, missing somewhere in the north. The twins Louis and Pierre, lost somewhere in the east. Now Matthieu, dead as well. Only young Henri remained. He was seventeen and had wanted so badly to join the army. But he was still at home. Jacques was convinced that the war was nearly at an end. His friends all said that the Boches were finished, as Lafayette had saved America, so the Americans had saved France. So they said.

The New Zealand major told his sergeant major to send one of the lads over to "see those two Froggies off," as they were expecting the Germans to start shelling them again any minute. The sergeant major had sent Billy Thompson and Hank Arrington to escort the older French couple back to wherever they came from.

Hank knew a bit of French, he had been at university when the war started, so he did all the talking. After a lot of head shaking, hand waving (could the French talk without using their hands, Billy wondered), Hank had convinced the couple to turn back. The Germans were coming and there was nothing for them here.

"Rentre chez toi monsieur." Hank insisted.

The older woman turned away and began walking, then the old man said to him, "Ma maison était ici. Tout est perdu." Then he turned as well, walking after his wife, his shoulders stooped, the weight of the world upon him.

"What he say Hank?" Billy asked, not understanding a word of what had just transpired.

"Poor bastard, seems that this was his home. No help for it, come on then, let's grab a bite before the afternoon hate." The two returned to their unit as the French couple went back to where they had come from, not home. But a place to live.

How would France ever rebuild? Jacques wondered.

Out of a population of 39,600,000, France lost roughly 1,738,000 dead and 4,266,000 wounded, over fifteen percent of the prewar population. Not to mention the cost in livestock, farmland, forests, factories, towns, villages, and cities.

When you speak of the Western Front in World War One, what you're really talking about is most of northern France and a large swath of eastern France. France was the Western Front.

Considering what the French had suffered during the war, one can understand their reluctance to do it all again with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. From the signing of the Armistice in November of 1918 to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September of 1939, was just under twenty-one years. The sons and grandsons of the men who stood against the Germans for four long years, stood scarcely two months in 1940. France was exhausted - mentally, physically, and morally by "The Great War."

But from 1914 to 1918, the stood their ground, and paid a horrible price.

Vive la France!


  1. It was eye-opening to walk the trenches at Ypres and see the regimental cemetaries, all the headstones lined up as if in formation forever. Very Eye-Opening.

    1. There are many cemeteries for war dead in Europe. Too many wars, too many dead. It pays to remember them.

  2. 104,366 Americans are buried in Europe from dealing with the Germans during the two wars in the 20th century. Since we left troops stationed in Germany after the last one things have been quite for the last 73 years.

    1. The politicians over there have maybe learned something?

      Not sure ours have.

    2. I think the politicians in the UK/Europe mainly did. The generation of post WW2 politicians in the UK were men (and women ) who had served during the war, quite a few had seen service in WW1 and I sense there was an absolute determination that such events should never happen again. The current crop of politicians in the UK are less than impressive however, and though it pains me to say it they are comprehensively outgunned intellectually by a lot of their continental counterparts and lack a basic knowledge of how things (such as transport etc.) work.

      As an aside the BBC have been providing coverage of the events on their regular news programmes and have been showing documentaries, there was a two parter about the Hundred Days campaign. Finally there is an art installation (I know, I know) called 'Shrouds of the Somme. Basically an artist has hand made 'Action Man' sized shrouded figures to depict the 72,396 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died on the Somme and have no known grave. When you see that number of figures laid out it gives you an impression of the sheer scale of the slaughter.


    3. There is nothing quite so scary as a politician who is ignorant of the past.

      I encourage my readers to go check out Shrouds of the Somme. This exhibit truly puts the losses into perspective. And that is just from one battle, and just the men who's bodies were never recovered.

      Thank you, Retired.


    Pray, indeed.

  4. The Lion of Verdun was so tired and broken from fighting the Boche and then his own people during Germany's rearmament prior to 1939 that when NAZI Germany attacked, he was spent. Philippe Pétain would go to head Vichy France as an attempt to minimize the damage from the war on what was left of his country. Imprisoned after the war and tried for his 'crimes' of collaboration, he was sentenced to death. Fortunately he died of old age (and possibly, no, probably, of a broken soul.)

    And then there are the Ossuaries. So many unknown bodies, parts of bodies, just fragments, no way to tell who or what they were, guessing on nationality, fill the Bone Houses at the great battlefields. A very chilling reminder. And every year the houses get added to as fragments are found.

    The sad thing is there were two bloody conflicts 50 years or so before that foretold what horrors would come. The trench warfare of both the American Civil War and the Crimean War were the 'Spanish Civil War' testing grounds for many of the tactics and concepts that were used and misused in World War I. Trench warfare, the power of 'quickfiring' rifles, (mostly) modern siege tactics and weapons (admittedly the ACW mortar and the WWI trench mortar are very different, but the concept and the deadliness are the same,) even the introduction of rapid-fire weapons and the uselessness of cavalry tactics on a fixed battlefield (which seems to be a lesson that keeps getting learned and forgotten since pre-Roman times.) Even Aerial Observation and Bombardment was introduced in the American Civil War (reading about the Balloon War is very interesting and eye-opening.)(And the British Air Force(s) were designed first as the eyes of the Army, then to take out the eyes of the other army, then to fight other planes. Which is one of the many reasons why RAF and RNAF losses were so high compared to German and Austrian aircraft.)

  5. I think it is difficult, if not impossible, for the modern American mind to understand the French experience in the Great War. As you artfully point out, France *was* the Western Front. It was a land invaded and occupied. For a time in 1914, it seemed almost inevitable that Paris itself would fall under the German boot. These are all utterly foreign concepts to a nation that has not had a foreign invader occupy its lands in any meaningful way for nearly 200 years.

    Even more disparate are the casualty numbers, of which we have no real basis of comparison. Even the American Civil War—considered our deadliest by counting the casualties on both sides—pales in comparison. France lost 250,000 casualties, including approximately 80,000 dead, in six days at the First Marne in September, 1914. Six days. A quarter of a million dead, maimed, and missing. There is simply no frame of reference for that. And there was still more than four years of such slaughter ahead of them.

    It is no wonder, then, that by the time the twenty-year armistice (to quote Marshal Foch) ended, France was utterly spent. I think people who make light of French military performance in the Second World War are utterly ignorant of what France endured in the First. Try enduring two battles of the Marne, Verdun, Champagne, Ypres, Artois, the Battle of the Frontiers, the Nivelle Offensive—and still more. Try losing most or all of your male relations, many of whose bodies will never be found. Try all that on for size and see if you still have much stomach for a fight.

    I am given to understand that the Great War remains poignant upon the modern French consciousness in a way it simply does not for us—an ocean away, and removed by a war with better PR. There are still many French living whose grandfathers and great uncles bore the scars of that war. And their fields and countrysides and towns that exist only in the name on an old memorial plaque with so much rubble scattered amidst the undergrowth bear those scars still.

    1. We Americans think we know war. We don't, not really. The French understand it very well.

      The physical scars are still on the land, as are the scars on the national psyche.

  6. Again a good tale; the commenters add much valuable insight. Some of those insights cause me to rethink positions I have previously held.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Thanks Paul. We do get some good commenters, don't we?

  7. I am happy that I had not been on my computer until after Mr. Martin, AW, and the others had commented.


  8. Hey Old AFSarge;

    I had read several books about the France between the wars, they had spent billions of Francs building the Maginot line
    to keep "La Boche" from the French countryside. They also had to deal with what I call "Moral rot", the communist/socialist had made huge inroads into French society and government and "appeasement" became acceptable alternative to fighting for your country. Some of the French were hardcore like Degaulle who gave the Germans a bloody nose but lacked the armored strength to continue the fight, the French had better tanks than the Germans, but their tactics were wrong, and the Germans gained air superiority and gave the Stuka free rein. The Internal rot of their society that caused the initial poor performance against the Germans had to be burned out by the occupation. The French that survived were "Born again Hard", I can't phrase it another way.

  9. I think French are getting too much bad reputation for 1940...
    No army in the world at that time was able to stand against peak-of-efficiency Wehrmacht.
    Soviets were saved by territory depth and human nad material reserves.
    UK was saved by RAF, Royal Navy and the English Channel. The order of importance is debatable.
    French had none of that, but considering the losses their bombers had on the runs on Meuse crossings, they had plenty of brave men. What they lacked was modern tactics, and even more, moderrn operational art.
    US was not having real army yet at that time...
    It was not until September 1940 that draft was reintroduced. 21 divisions in 1939. less than Poland. Blessed eb the oceans!
    (and the USN)

    1. Too right, Paweł!

      You see clearly my friend.

    2. These are excellent points, Pawel. Very well said.

    3. What France suffered from was old. They could say ancien. They had generals in their 70s running their show of an army. Germany had Rommel and Guderian and a host of others in their early 40's while the French still had relics tottering around on horses. France had more tanks than Germany and probably better tanks but they didn't do tactics and tactical development was still based on the shovel while German tactics embraced maneuver and fire. Kind of like us now.
      Rommel wrote the book on tactics. As we know our ancien general was quoted as saying he read the book when he took on the AfriKa Corps under Rommel. I had his book "Attacks" but it is gone now. I gave it to chaplain Harvey along with all the rest of my stuff long ago.

  10. It is sad to hear the ignorant talk about the supposed lack of French courage. My response to them is one word. Verdun.

    1. Precisely.

      Thank you for that, raven.

    2. You know it's almost trite to say courage but then it expected of young men. Almost a million men dead at Verdun. I've said it elsewhere but I still remember standing in a bookshop on Tottenham Court Road and a stack of books came up to my waist. Stacked. Containing the name, rate, regiment of every British soldier killed in the Great War. That's all, just that. And the stack of books reached up to my belt line.

  11. I know, vyf tiye xiybfrubf siba ri nwt= vuergsT,

    My mother's birthday but that worked just fine.

    11 November, a day that will, hopefully, live forever.

    1. A puzzle, something to tease the brain. THough it be too ealry for my brain to fully engage, I'll work on that.

      11 November, never forget.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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