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MY TRIP TO VERDUN--GENERAL PETAIN FACE TO FACE

THE MEN WHO HOLD THE LINE--WHAT THEIR FACES TOLD OF THE PAST AND THE FUTURE OF FRANCE

My road to Verdun ran through the Elysee Palace, and it was to the courtesy and interest of the President of the French Republic that I owed my opportunity to see the battle for the Meuse city at close range. Already through the kindness of the French General Staff I had seen the Lorraine and Marne battlegrounds and had been guided over these fields by officers who had shared in the opening battles that saved France. But Verdun was more difficult; there is little time for caring for the wandering correspondent when a decisive contest is going forward, and quite naturally the General Staff turned a deaf ear to my request.

Through the kindness of one of the many Frenchmen who gave time and effort to make my pilgrimage a success I was at last able to see M. Poincare. Like our own American President, the French Chief Magistrate is never interviewed, and I mention this audience simply because it was one more and in a sense the final proof for me of the friendliness, the courtesy, the interest that the American will find to-day in France. I had gone to Paris, my ears filled with the warnings of those who told me that it was hard to be an American in Europe, in France, in the present hour. I had gone expecting, or at least fearing, that I should find it so.

Instead, from peasant to President I found only kindness, only gratitude, only a profound appreciation for all that Americans had individually done for France in the hour of her great trial. These things and one thing more I found: a very intense desire that Americans should be able to see for themselves; the Frenchman will not talk to you of what France has done, is doing; he shrinks from anything that might suggest the imitation of the German method of propaganda. In so far as it is humanly possible he would have you see the thing for yourself and testify out of your own mouth.

Thus it came about that all my difficulties vanished when I had been permitted to express to the President my desire to see Verdun and to go back to America I was sailing within the week able to report what I had seen with my own eyes of the decisive battle still going forward around the Lorraine city. Without further delay, discussion, it was promised that I should go to Verdun by motor, that I should go cared for by the French military authorities and that I should be permitted to see all that one could see at the moment of the contest.

We left Paris in the early afternoon; my companions were M. Henri Ponsot, chief of the Press Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and M. Hugues le Roux, a distinguished Frenchman of letters well known to many Americans. To start for the battlefield from a busy, peaceful city, to run for miles through suburbs as quiet and lacking in martial aspect as the regions beyond the Harlem, at home, was a thing that seemed almost unreal; but only for a brief moment, for war has come very near to Paris, and one may not travel far in Eastern France without seeing its signs.

In less than an hour we were passing the rear of the line held by the British at the Battle of the Marne, and barely sixty minutes after we had passed out through the Vincennes gate we met at Courtacon the first of the ruined villages that for two hundred miles line the roadways that lead from the capital to Lorraine and Champagne. Suddenly in the midst of a peaceful countryside, after passing a score of undisturbed villages, villages so like one to another, you come to one upon which the storm has burst, and instead of snug houses, smiling faces, the air of contentment and happiness that was France, there is only a heap of ruins, houses with their roofs gone, their walls torn by shell fire, villages abandoned partially or wholly, contemporary Pompeiis, overtaken by the Vesuvius of Krupp.

Coincidentally there appear along the roadside, in the fields, among the plough furrows, on every side, the crosses that mark the graves of those who died for France or for Germany. Along the slope you may mark the passage of a charge by these crosses; those who fell were buried as they lay, French and Germans with equal care. Indeed, there is a certain pride visible in all that the French do for their dead foes. Alongside a hamlet wantonly burned, burned by careful labor and with German thoroughness; in villages where you will be told of nameless atrocities and shameful killings, you will see the German graves, marked by neat crosses, surrounded by sod embankments, marked with plaques of black and white; the French are marked by plaques of red, white and blue, and the latter invariably decorated with a flag and flowers.

Once you have seen these graves by the roadside going east you will hardly go a mile in two hundred which has not its graves. From the environs of Meaux, a scant twenty miles from Paris, to the frontier at the Seille, beyond Nancy, there are graves and more graves, now scattered, now crowded together where men fought hand to hand. Passing them in a swift-moving auto, they seem to march by you; there is the illusion of an army advancing on the hillside, until at last, beyond Nancy, where the fighting was so terrible, about little villages such as Corbessaux, you come to the great common graves, where a hundred or two hundred men have been gathered, where the trenches now levelled are but long graves, and you read, “Here rest 179 French soldiers,” or across the road, “Here 196 Germans.”

Take a map of France and from a point just south of Paris draw a straight line to the Vosges; twenty or thirty miles to the north draw another. Between the two is the black district of the Marne and Nancy battles. It is the district of ruined villages, destroyed farms; it is the region where every hillside so it will seem to the traveller is marked by these pathetic crosses. It is a region in which the sense of death and destruction is abroad. Go forty miles north again and draw two more lines, and this is the region not of the death and destruction of yesterday, but of to-day; this is the front, where the graves are still in the making, the region of the Oise to the Meuse, from Noyon to Verdun.

On this day our route led eastward through the villages which in September, 1914, woke from at least a century of oblivion, from the forgetting that followed Napoleon’s last campaign in France to a splendid but terrible ten days: Courtacon, Sezanne, La-Fere Champenoise, Vitry-le-Francois, the region where Franchet d’Esperey and Foch fought, where the “Miracle of the Marne” was performed. Mile after mile the countryside files by, the never-changing impression of a huge cemetery, the hugest in the world, the stricken villages, now and then striving to begin again, a red roof here and there telling of the first counter offensive of peace, of construction made against the whirlwind that had come and gone.

Always, too, nothing but old men and women, these and children, working in the broad fields, still partially cultivated, but no longer the fields of that perfectly cared for France of the other peace days. Women and children at the plough, old men bent double by age still spending such strength as is left in the tasks that war has set for them. This is the France behind the front, and, aside from the ruined villages and graves, the France that stretches from the Pyrenees to the Marne, a France from which youth and manhood are gone, in which age and childhood remain with the women. Yet in this land we were passing how much of the youth and manhood of France and Germany was buried in the graves the crosses demonstrated at every kilometre.

But a hundred miles east of Paris there begins a new world. The graves, the shell-cursed villages, remain, but this is no longer the France of the Marne fighting and of the war of two years ago. At Vitry-le-Francois you pass almost without warning into the region which is the back of the front to-day, the base of all the line of fire from Rheims to the Meuse, and suddenly along the road appear the canvas guideposts which bear the terse warning, “Verdun.” You pass suddenly from ancient to contemporary history, from the killing of other years to the killing that is of to-day the killing and the wounding and along the hills where there are still graves there begin to appear Red Cross tents and signs, and ambulances pass you bearing the latest harvest.

And now every village is a garrison town. For a hundred miles there have been only women and old men, but now there are only soldiers; they fill the streets; they crowd the doorways of the houses. The fields are filled with tents, with horses, with all the impedimenta of an army. The whole countryside is a place of arms. Every branch of French service is about you Tunisians, Turcos, cavalry, the black, the brown, and the white the men who yesterday or last week were in the first line, who rest and will return to-morrow or next day to fight again.

Unmistakably, too, you feel that this is the business of war; you are in a factory, a machine shop; if the product is death and destruction, it is no less a matter of machinery, not of romance, of glamour. The back of the front is a place of work and of rest for more work, but of parade, of the brilliant, of the fascinating there is just nothing. Men with bright but plainly weary faces, not young men, but men of thirty and above, hard bitten by their experience, patently fit, fed, but somehow related to the ruins and the destruction around them, they are all about you, and wherever now you see a grave you will discover a knot of men standing before it talking soberly. Wherever you see the vestiges of an old trench, a hill that was fought for at this time twenty months ago, you will see new practice trenches and probably the recruits, the “Class of 1917,” the boys that are waiting for the call, listening to an officer explaining to them what has been done here, the mistake or the good judgment revealed by the event. For France is training the youth that remains to her on the still recent battlefields and in the presence of those who died to keep the ground.

Just as the darkness came we passed St. Dizier and entered at last upon the road to Verdun, the one road that is the life line of the city. For to understand the real problem of the defence of Verdun you must realize that there is lacking to the city any railroad. In September, 1914, the Germans took St. Mihiel and cut the railway coming north along the Meuse. On their retreat from the Marne the soldiers of the Crown Prince halted at Montfaucon and Varennes, and their cannon have commanded the Paris-Verdun-Metz Railroad ever since. Save for a crazy narrow-gauge line wandering along the hill slopes, climbing by impossible grades, Verdun is without rail communication.

It was this that made the defence of the town next to impossible. Partially to remedy the defect the French had reconstructed a local highway running from St. Dizier by Bar-le-Duc to Verdun beyond the reach of German artillery. To-day an army of a quarter of a million of men, the enormous parks of heavy artillery and field guns everything is supplied by this one road and by motor transport.

Coming north from St. Dizier we entered this vast procession. Mile after mile the caravan stretched on, fifty miles with hardly a break of a hundred feet between trucks. Paris ’buses, turned into vehicles to bear fresh meat; new motor trucks built to carry thirty-five men and travelling in companies, regiments, brigades; wagons from the hood of which soldiers, bound to replace the killed and wounded of yesterday, looked down upon you, calmly but unsmilingly. From St. Dizier to Verdun the impression was of that of the machinery by which logs are carried to the saw in a mill. You felt unconsciously, yet unmistakably, that you were looking, not upon automobiles, not upon separate trucks, but upon some vast and intricate system of belts and benches that were steadily, swiftly, surely carrying all this vast material, carrying men and munitions and supplies, everything human and inanimate, to that vast grinding mill which was beyond the hills, the crushing machine which worked with equal remorselessness upon men and upon things.

Now and again, too, over the hills came the Red Cross ambulances; they passed you returning from the front and bringing within their carefully closed walls the finished product, the fruits of the day’s grinding, or a fraction thereof. And about the whole thing there was a sense of the mechanical rather than the human, something that suggested an automatic, a machine-driven, movement; it was as if an unseen system of belts and engines and levers guided, moved, propelled this long procession upward and ever toward the mysterious front where the knives or the axes or the grinding stones did their work.

Night came down upon us along the road and brought a new impression. Mile on mile over the hills and round the curves, disappearing in the woods, reappearing on the distant summits of the hills, each showing a rear light that wagged crazily on the horizon, this huge caravan flowed onward, while in the villages and on the hillsides campfires flashed up and the faces or the figures of the soldiers could be seen now clearly and now dimly. But all else was subordinated to the line of moving transports. Somewhere far off at one end of the procession there was battle; somewhere down below at the other end there was peace. There all the resources, the life blood, the treasure in men and in riches of France were concentrating and collecting, were being fed into this motor fleet, which like baskets on ropes was carrying it forward to the end of the line and then bringing back what remained, or for the most part coming back empty, for more for more lives and more treasure.

It was full night when our car came down the curved grades into Bar-le-Duc, halted at the corner, where soldiers performed the work of traffic policemen and steadily guided the caravan toward the road marked by a canvas sign lighted within by a single candle and bearing the one word, “Verdun.” All night, too, the rumble of the passing transport filled the air and the little hotel shook with the jar of the heavy trucks, for neither by day nor by night is there a halt in the motor transport, and the sound of this grinding is never low.

It was little more than daylight when we took the road again, with a thirty-mile drive to Verdun before us. Almost immediately we turned into the Verdun route we met again the caravan of automobiles, of camions, as the French say. It still flowed on without break. Now, too, we entered the main road, the one road to Verdun, the road that had been built by the French army against just such an attack as was now in progress. The road was as wide as Fifth Avenue, as smooth as asphalt a road that, when peace comes, if it ever does, will delight the motorist. Despite the traffic it had to bear, it was in perfect repair, and soldiers in uniform sat by the side breaking stone and preparing metal to keep it so.

The character of the country had now changed. We were entering the region of the hills, between the Aisne and the Meuse, a country reminiscent of New England. Those hills are the barrier which beyond the Meuse, under the names of the Cote de Meuse, have been the scene of so much desperate fighting. The roads that sidled off to the east bore battle names, St. Mihiel, Troyon, and the road that we followed was still marked at every turn with the magic word “Verdun.” Our immediate objective was Souilly, the obscure hill town twenty miles, perhaps, south of the front, from which Sarrail had defended Verdun in the Marne days and from which Petain was now defending Verdun against a still more terrible attack.

And in France to-day one speaks only of Verdun and Petain. Soldiers have their day; Joffre, Castelnau, Foch, all retain much of the affection and admiration they have deserved, but at the moment it is the man who has held Verdun that France thinks of, and there was the promise for us that at Souilly we should see the man whose fame had filled the world in the recent great and terrible weeks. Upward and downward over the hills, through more ruined villages, more hospitals, more camps, our march took us until after a short hour we came to Souilly, general headquarters of the Army of Verdun, of Petain, the centre of the world for the moment.

Few towns have done less to prepare for greatness than Souilly. It boasts a single street three inches deep in the clay mud of the spring a single street through which the Verdun route marches almost contemptuously, the same nest of stone and plaster houses, one story high, houses from which the owners had departed to make room for generals and staff officers. This and one thing more, the Mairie, the town hall, as usual the one pretentious edifice of the French hamlet, and before the stairway of this we stopped and got out.

We were at headquarters. From this little building, devoted for perhaps a century to the business of governing the commune of Souilly, with its scant thousand of people, Petain was defending Verdun and the fate of an army of 250,000 men at the least. In the upstairs room, where the town councillors had once debated parochial questions, Joffre and Castelnau and Petain in the terrible days of the opening conflict had consulted, argued, decided decided the fate of France, so the Germans had said, for they had made the fall of Verdun the assurance of French collapse.

Unconsciously, too, you felt the change in the character of the population of this village. There were still the soldiers, the eternal gray-blue uniforms, but there were also men of a different type, men of authority. In the street your guides pointed out to you General Herr, the man who had designed and planned and accomplished the miracle of the motor transport that had saved Verdun with the aid of the brave men fighting somewhere not far beyond the nearest hills. He had commanded at Verdun when the attack came, and without hesitation he had turned over his command to Petain, his junior in service and rank before the war, given up the glory and become the superintendent of transport. Men spoke to you of the fine loyalty of that action with unconcealed admiration.

And then out of the remoteness of Souilly there came a voice familiar to an American. Bunau-Varilla, the man of Panama, wearing the uniform of a commandant and the Croix de Guerre newly bestowed for some wonderful engineering achievement, stepped forward to ask for his friends and yours of the old “Sun paper.” I had seen him last in the Sun office in the days when the war had just broken out and he was about to sail for home; in the days when the Marne was still unfought and he had breathed hope then as he spoke with confidence now.

Presently there arrived the two officers whose duty it was to take me to Verdun, Captain Henri Bourdeaux, a man of letters known to all Frenchmen; Captain Madelin, an historian, already documented in the history of the war making under his own eyes. To these gentlemen and their colleagues who perform this task that can hardly be agreeable, who risk their lives and give over their time with unfailing courtesy and consideration that the American newspaper correspondent may see, may report, it is impossible to return sufficient thanks, and every American newspaper reader who finds on his breakfast table the journal that tells him of the progress of the war owes something to some officer.

“Were we to see Verdun?” This was the first problem. I had been warned two days before that the bombardment was raging and that it was quite possible that it would be unsafe to go farther. But the news was reassuring; Verdun was tranquil. “And Petain?” One could not yet say.

Even as we spoke there was a stirring in the crowd, general saluting, and I caught a glimpse of the commander-in-chief as he went quickly up the staircase. For the rest we must wait. But not for very long; in a few minutes there came the welcome word that General Petain would see us, would see the stray American correspondent.

Since I saw Petain in the little Mairie at Souilly I have seen many photographs of him, but none in any real measure give the true picture of the defender of Verdun. He saw us in his office, the bare upstairs room, two years ago the office of the Mayor of Souilly. Think of the Selectmen’s office in any New England village and the picture will be accurate: a bare room, a desk, one chair, a telephone, nothing on the walls but two maps, one of the military zone, one of the actual front and positions of the Verdun fighting. A bleak room, barely heated by the most primitive of stoves. From the single window one looked down on the cheerless street along which lumbered the caravan of autos. On the pegs against the wall hung the General’s hat and coat, weather-stained, faded, the clothes of a man who worked in all weathers. Of staff officers, of uniforms, of color there was just nothing; of war there was hardly a hint.

At the door the commander-in-chief met us, shook hands, and murmured clearly and slowly, with incisive distinctness, the formal words of French greeting; he spoke no English. Instantly there was the suggestion of Kitchener, not of Kitchener as you see him in flesh, but in photographs, the same coldness, decision. The smile that accompanied the words of welcome vanished and the face was utterly motionless, expressionless. You saw a tall, broad-shouldered man, with every appearance of physical strength, a clear blue eye, looking straight forward and beyond.

My French companion, M. Le Roux, spoke with Petain. He had just come from Joffre and he told an interesting circumstance. Petain listened. He said now and then “yes” or “no.” Nothing more. Watching him narrowly you saw that occasionally his eyes twitched a little, the single sign of fatigue that the long strain of weeks of responsibility had brought.

It was hard to believe, looking at this quiet, calm, silent man, that you were in the presence of the soldier who had won the Battle of Champagne, the man whom the war had surprised in the last of his fifties, a Colonel, a teacher of war rather than a soldier, a professor like Foch.

No one of Napoleon’s marshals had commanded as many men as obeyed this Frenchman, who was as lacking in the distinction of military circumstance as our own Grant. Napoleon had won all his famous victories with far fewer troops than were directed from the telephone on the table yonder.

Every impression of modern war that comes to one actually in touch with it is a destruction of illusion: this thing is a thing of mechanism rather than of brilliance; perhaps Petain has led a regiment, a brigade, or a division to the charge. You knew instinctively in seeing the man that you would go or come, as he said, but there was neither dash nor fire, nothing of the suggestion of elan; rather there was the suggestion of the commander of a great ocean liner, the man responsible for the lives, this time of hundreds of thousands, not scores, for the safety of France, not of a ship, but the man of machinery and the master of the wisdom of the tides and the weather, not the Ney, or the Murat, not the Napoleon of Arcola. The impression was of a strong man whose life was a life beaten upon by storms; the man on the bridge, to keep to the rather ridiculously inadequate figure, but not by any chance the man on horseback.

My talk, our talk with Petain was the matter of perhaps five minutes. The time was consumed by the words of M. Le Roux, who spoke very earnestly urging that more American correspondents be permitted to visit Verdun, and Petain heard him patiently, but said just nothing. Once he had greeted us his face settled into that grim expression that never changed until he smiled his word of good wishes as we left. Yet I have since found that apart from one circumstance which I shall mention in a moment I have remembered those minutes most clearly of all of my Verdun experience. Just as the photograph does not reveal the face of the man, the word does not describe the sense of strength, of responsibility, that he gives.

In a childish sort of way, exactly as one thinks of war as a matter of dash and color and motion, one thinks of the French general as the leader of a cavalry charge or of a forlorn hope of infantry. And the French soldier of this war has not been the man of charge or of dash not that he has not charged as well as ever in his history, a little more bravely, perhaps, for machine guns are new and something worse than other wars have had. What the French soldier has done has been to stand, to hold, to die not in the onrush but on the spot.

And Petain in some curious way has fixed in my mind the impression of the new Frenchman, if there be a new one, or perhaps better of the French soldier of to-day, whether he wear the stars of the general or undecorated “horizon” blue of the Poilu. The look that I saw in his eyes, the calm, steady, utterly emotionless looking straight forward, I saw everywhere at the front and at the back of the front. It embodied for me an enduring impression of the spirit and the poise of the French soldier of the latest and most terrible of French struggles. And I confess that, more than all I saw and heard at the front and in Paris, the look of this man convinced me that Verdun would not fall, that France herself would not either weary or weaken.

In Paris, where one may hear anything, there are those that will tell you that Joffre’s work is done and that France waits for the man who will complete the task; that the strain of the terrible months has wearied the general who won the Battle of the Marne and saved France. They will tell you, perhaps, that Petain is the man; they will certainly tell you that they hope that the man has been found in Petain. As to the truth of all this I do not pretend to know. I did not see Joffre, but all that I have read of Joffre suggests that Petain is of his sort, the same quiet, silent man, with a certain coldness of the North, a grimness of manner that is lacking in his chief.

There was a Kitchener legend in Europe, and I do not think it survives save a little perhaps in corners of England. There was a legend of a man of ice and of iron, a man who made victory out of human material as a man makes a wall of mortar and stone, a man to whom his material was only mortar and stone, even though it were human. This legend has perished so far as Kitchener is concerned, gone with so much that England trusted and believed two years ago, but I find myself thinking now of Petain as we all thought of Kitchener in his great day.

If I were an officer I should not like to come to the defender of Verdun with the confession of failure. I think I should rather meet the Bavarians in the first line trenches, but I should like to know that when I was obeying orders I was carrying out a minor detail of something Petain had planned; I should expect it to happen, the thing that he had arranged, and I should feel that those clear, steel-blue eyes had foreseen all that could occur, foreseen calmly and utterly, whether it entailed the death of one or a thousand men, of ten thousand men if necessary, and had willed that it should happen.

I do not believe Napoleon’s Old Guard would have followed Petain as they followed Ney. I cannot fancy him in the Imperial uniform, and yet, now that war is a thing of machines, of telephones, of indirect fire and destruction from unseen weapons at remote ranges, now that the whole manner and circumstance of conflict have changed, it is but natural that the General should change, too. Patently Petain is of the new, not the old, but no less patently he was the master of it.

We left the little Mairie, entered our machines and slid out swiftly for the last miles, climbed and curved over the final hill and suddenly looked down on a deep, trenchlike valley marching from east to west and carrying the Paris-Verdun-Metz Railroad, no longer available for traffic. And as we coasted down the hill we heard the guns at last, not steadily, but only from time to time, a distant boom, a faint billowing up of musketry fire. Some three or four miles straight ahead there were the lines of fire beyond the brown hills that flanked the valley.

At the bottom of the valley we turned east, moved on for a mile, and stopped abruptly. The guns were sounding more clearly, and suddenly there was a sense not of soldiers, but of an army. On one side of the road a column was coming toward us, a column of men who were leaving the trenches for a rest, the men who for the recent days had held the first line. Wearily but steadily they streamed by; the mud of the trenches covered their tunics; here and there a man had lost his steel helmet and wore a handkerchief about his head, probably to conceal a slight wound that but for the helmet had killed him.

These men were smiling as they marched; they carried their full equipment and it rattled and tinkled; they carried their guns at all angles, they wore their uniforms in the strangest of disorders; they seemed almost like miners coming from the depths of the earth rather than soldiers returning from a decisive battle, from the hell of modern shell fire.

But it was the line on the other side of the road that held the eye. Here were the troops that were going toward the fire, toward the trenches, that were marching to the sound of the guns, and as one saw them the artillery rumble took on a new distinctness.

Involuntarily I searched the faces of these men as they passed. They were hardly ten feet from me. Platoon after platoon, company after company, whole regiments in columns of fours. And seeing the faces brought an instant shock; they all wore the same calm, steady, slightly weary expression, but there was in the whole line scarcely a young man. Here were men of the thirties, not the twenties; men still in the prime of strength, of health, but the fathers of families, the men of full manhood.

Almost in a flash the fact came home. This was what all the graves along the road had meant. This was what the battlefields and the glories of the twenty months had spelled France had sent her youth and it was spent; she was sending her manhood now.

In the line no man smiled and no man straggled; the ranks were closed up and there were neither commands nor any visible sign of authority. These men who were marching to the sound of the guns had been there before. They knew precisely what it meant. Yet you could not but feel that as they went a little wearily, sadly, they marched willingly. They would not have it otherwise. Their faces were the faces of men who had taken the full measure of their own fate.

You had a sense of the loathing, the horror, above all the sadness that was in their hearts that this thing, this war, this destruction had to be. They had come back here through all the waste of ruined villages and shell-torn hillsides; all the men that you saw would not measure the cost of a single hour of trench fighting if the real attack began. This these men knew, and the message of the artillery fire, which was only one of unknown terrors for you, was intelligible to the utmost to each of them.

And yet with the weariness there was a certain resignation, a certain patience, a certain sense of comprehending sacrifice that more than all else is France to-day, the true France. This, and not the empty forts, not even the busy guns, was the wall that defended France, this line of men. If it broke there would come thundering down again out of the north all the tornado of destruction that had turned Northeastern France into a waste place and wrecked so much of the world’s store of the beautiful and the inspiring.

Somehow you felt that this was in the minds of all these men. They had willed to die that France might live. They were going to a death that sounded ever more clearly as they marched. This death had eaten up all that was young, most of what was young at the least, of France; it might yet consume France, and so these men marched to the sound of the guns, not to martial music, not with any suggestion of dash, of enthusiasm, but quietly, steadily, all with the same look upon their faces the look of men who have seen death and are to see it again. Instinctively I thought of what Kipling had said to me in London:

“Somewhere over there,” he had said, “the thing will suddenly grip your throat and your heart; it will take hold of you as nothing in your life has ever done or ever will.” And I know that I never shall forget those lines of quiet, patient, middle-aged men marching to the sound of the guns, leaving at their backs the countless graves that hold the youth of France, the men who had known the Marne, the Yser, Champagne, who had known death for nearly two years, night and day, almost constantly. Yet during the fifteen minutes I watched there was not one order, not one straggler; there was a sense of the regularity with which the blood flows through the human arteries in this tide, and it was the blood of France.

So many people have asked me, I had asked myself, the question before I went to France: “Are they not weary of it? Will the French not give up from sheer exhaustion of strength?” I do not think so, now that I have seen the faces of these hundreds of men as they marched to the trenches beyond Verdun. France may bleed to death, but I do not think that while there are men there will be an end of the sacrifice. No pen or voice can express the horror that these men, that all Frenchmen, have of this war, of all war, the weariness. They hate it; you cannot mistake this; but France marches to the frontier in the spirit that men manned the walls against the barbarians in the other days; there is no other way; it must be.

Over and over again there has come the invariable answer; it would have come from scores and hundreds of these men who passed so near me I could have touched their faded uniforms if I had asked “It is for France, for civilization; it must be, for there is no other way; we shall die, but with us, with our sacrifice, perhaps this thing will end.” You cannot put it in words quite, I do not think even any Frenchman has quite said it, but you can see it, you can feel it, you can understand it, when you see a regiment, a brigade, a division of these men of thirty, some perhaps of forty, going forward to the war they hate and will never quiet until that which they love is safe or they and all of their race are swallowed up in the storm that now was audibly beating beyond the human walls on the nearby hillsides.

Presently we moved again, we slipped through the column, topped the last incline, shot under the crumbling gate of the Verdun fortress, and as we entered a shell burst just behind us and the roar drowned out all else in its sudden and paralyzing crash. It had fallen, so we learned a little later, just where we had been watching the passing troops; it had fallen among them and killed. But an hour or two later, when we repassed the point where it fell, men were still marching by. Other regiments of men were still marching to the sound of the guns, and those who had passed were already over the hills and beyond the river, filing into the trenches in time, so it turned out, to meet the new attack that came with the later afternoon.

I went to Verdun to see the forts, the city, the hills, and the topography of a great battle; I went in the hope of describing with a little of clarity what the operation meant as a military affair. I say, and I shall hereafter try to describe this. But I shall never be able to describe this thing which was the true Verdun for me these men, their faces, seen as one heard the shell fire and the musketry rolling, not steadily but intermittently, the men who had marched over the roads that are lined with graves, through villages that are destroyed, who had come of their own will and in calm determination and marched unhurryingly and yet unshrinkingly, the men who were no longer young, who had left behind them all that men hold dear in life, home, wives, children, because they knew that there was no other way.

I can only say to all those who have asked me, “What of France?” this simple thing, that I do not believe the French will ever stop. I do not believe, as the Germans have said, that French courage is weakening, that French determination is abating. I do not believe the Kaiser himself would think this if he had seen these men’s faces as they marched toward his guns. I think he would feel as I felt, as one must feel, that these men went willingly, hating war with their whole soul, destitute of passion or anger. I never heard a passionate word in France, because there had entered into their minds, into the mind and heart of a whole race, the belief that what was at stake was the thing that for two thousand years of history had been France.