You've seen the most recent installment of Stillwater, and there's more coming soon, so here's a sampling of what I've been busy with lately. These are a few selections from A Soldier Unafraid, a collection of letters written by Andre Cornet-Auquier, a French protestant who was called up as a reserve officer in 1914. Captain Cornet-Auquier was killed in action, and his family helped put together this collection of his letter which was published in English in 1918.
I am writing you a few hundred yards from the enemy's lines I have been lying only two hundred yards from the Germans and I can assure you I kept my eyes open. We are all beat out. It is ten days since I have had a wash and I haven't had my shoes off for a week I couldn't give you an idea of my complexion if I tried. It was the heavy artillery which gave me my first baptism of fire. For three hours we lay flat on the ground while the shells fell all around us. One of them burst scarcely more than five or six yards from me making a great hole in the ground and covering me with earth and debris But the worst thing about all this is the smell of the dead bodies. The other day my section was detailed to bury some thirty half putrefied corpses. You cannot imagine what this work is. Oh what horrors I have witnessed, terrible wounds and ruined villages. What brutes these Germans are to burn the farms. I am quite ready to give my life if I know that you will make the sacrifice of it for France. I feel that I am surrounded with prayers and I often pray for you all. One of my best comrades here is a priest who is also a second lieutenant like myself. A thousand affectionate remembrances to all God preserve us all as He has done so far Your son and brother who sends warmest love.
That Andre's friend is a priest serving as an active duty soldier is not unusual. The anti-clerical laws of the Third Republic had both got rid of army chaplains and required priests to serve as conscripts just like any other profession. Some priests required to serve sought out non-combatant roles such as stretcher bearers, while others served as ordinary soldiers or officers.
As the fighting settles down into trench warfare, Andre describes his dug-out.
Jan 15, 1914
The den in which I live with my friend Captain Cornier is a big subterranean room with a rather low ceiling the entrance door being especially low. In one corner is a little Godin stove which burns wood not scarce in these parts. We keep up a gentle heat in it, the thermometer registering on an average fifty eight degrees. As soon as it gets up to sixty degrees we smother and have to open wide the door. I say door for there is no window. For lighting purposes we have an old petroleum lamp which is kind enough not to smoke.
When we want to peer into the obscure corners of our room we use our flashlights. Near the stove are some shelves for our stores: petroleum, shoe grease, blacking, and brushes. In another place are our eating things: tea, chocolate, cakes, etc., etc.
Our washstand is a roughly planed board with a pail as pitcher and an old salad dish as washbowl. In addition we have a table two chairs and a stool which consists of three pieces of wood nailed to a board. This board is cracked and the legs are on the point of going each one its own way.That's what I sit on when the major comes to see us as he does every two days to take tea with us which we indulge in every afternoon when we get back from our duties. And finally at the end of the room are our beds adorable twin bedsteads so low that if we fall out of them during the night we don t go very far though they are not right on the ground and so are not damp. The ingenious man who made them provided them with a spring mattress so that the whole thing is wonderfully fine even though our sheets are simply straw. My two army blankets and cape serve as covers my haversack is the pillow and my tent canvas the pillow case. This completes the list of my bed fixings where I sleep splendidly.
In late winter, Andre's company loses its beloved colonel:
For the past two days the regiment has been in mourning for our dear colonel was killed in a pretty severe skirmish, in which our battalion did not take part, however. It has made us all sick at heart and there is no merriment now. He was a leader in every sense of the word and a noble hearted man to boot. We all had perfect confidence in him. He was prudent and courageous at one and the same time. He fell while leading in a charge two battalions. He need not have been there but this shows the kind of man he was. He knew that the task set the soldiers was a hard one and that some of them might hang back, so he put himself at their head and thereby set a good example.
We have finally got the colonel's body which was lying some six yards from the German trenches. After several unsuccessful attempts to accomplish this a soldier wrapped himself in a white sheet so as not to be too conspicuous on the snow in the moonlight and though the night was terribly cold he crawled carefully up to the body which was held fast to the ground on account of the freezing weather. He then fastened a strong rope to the body. But the frozen snow began to creak and the Boches who heard the noise commenced firing in that direction. Fortunately they could not distinguish on account of the sheet the outline of the soldier so that notwithstanding the fusillade of which he was the center he was not hit and got back safely to our lines. When the firing stopped he went back to the body and this time succeeded in bringing it home with him. But he had taken the precaution to attach a rope also to himself so that he could be pulled back to our trenches in case he was wounded. He was made a corporal on the spot given the military medal and the war cross with palms.
Later [same day]
I am just back from the colonel's funeral. I have rarely been present at a more moving ceremony. The little village church was filled with officers and soldiers in their fighting trim. The hymns were well rendered by a choir composed of troopers and the solos were given by a tenor of the Lyons opera house. At the cemetery were our regimental flag covered with crape and the cross alongside of it. Never have I been so affected. All differences and diversities of opinion disappeared in the presence of those two emblems symbolizing the two ideas for which we are fighting God and Country. The tenor in uniform sang the Requiem and the Dies Irse. A Christ expiring on the cross spread his arms above the soldiers who had a revolver at their side while in the distance we could hear the booming of the guns. What a contrast and what grandeur. It was hard to believe that in that coffin slept the beloved chief whom we would have followed anywhere. The major delegated Captain Cornier and me to be present at the burial 'because it was you two whom he loved best', he said. At the grave I wept like a child which did me good. Poor dear colonel. The general who spoke at the tomb did not hide his religious convictions. Among other things he said, "My dear friend Dayet, we had the same hopes and there is our consolation in our grief. We know that some day we shall meet in the celestial land. May God be near your widow and children."