A soldier’s view of World War I

11Nov18
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. I hope longtime readers will forgive my republishing this piece, but I can think of no better way to honor the soldiers who died than to keep their memories alive.
I am immensely and forever indebted to Gilles Thomas and Gilles Chauwin for having given me this truly extraordinary opportunity. Merci infiniment.

“Excuse me,” I said in French, “but could you please pull over?” We were about an hour out of Paris and the car seemed to be spinning slowly to the right, even as I kept my eyes on the horizon. I got out and paced along the side of the road, trying to focus on the gravel beneath my feet and the sun-dappled, golden forest around me. Fall had come late this year, but I welcomed the crisp air.

“Tout va bien?” asked Martine, Gilles’ friend and our driver. Gilles’ girlfriend Jeannine shot me a sympathetic look in the back seat. “Oui, merci” I said. “C’est parti.”

About a half hour later we were walking through the old castle gate and into the medieval town of Laon.

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I had commented earlier, when we’d glimpsed the town in the distance, that the original settlers had chosen their spot wisely: Perched atop a hill, they would have seen trouble coming from miles away. But not in their darkest nightmares could they have imagined the violence that would unfold a few hundred years later in the verdant valleys below.

Picardy looks peaceful today, dotted with tracts of woods and farm fields full of potatoes and beets. But during World War I this stretch of land — the “Chemin des Dames” — was literally soaked with blood between 1914 and 1918 as battles raged continually for control of the strategic crossroads.

Laon bears scars from some of those conflicts: Barely upon entering the cathedral, Gilles pointed out several columns full of scrawled messages from both World Wars. “En esperant être reunis et des jours meilleurs,” wrote one person (“In hopes of being reunited and of better days”). I wondered how many people had sought solace in this sanctuary over the centuries.

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Outside, the sun was dazzling at its mid-day peak, and we squinted as we walked around the corner in search of lunch.

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In his characteristic generosity, Gilles pulled several books and DVDs from his backpack and began to distribute them. “T’es un véritable Père Noël,” (“You’re a regular Santa Claus”) I joked, as I accepted his presents and thanked him for lunch. Little did I know that he was about to give me an even greater gift.

 

The gift of discovery

Gilles had told me months ago about the Carrière de Braye (Braye quarry), which lay just a half hour’s drive away. It was a source of limestone as early as the middle ages, but it found new purposes — as a shelter, dormitory, field hospital, and storehouse — during World War I. Since then, however, these man-made caves have sat largely untouched.

I’d seen photos of some of the artifacts and inscriptions the soldiers had left behind, and I was eager to experience the history first-hand. Still, waves of apprehension washed over me as Martine negotiated the winding one-lane road: Would I feel claustrophobic, with only my headlamp to light the way? And what if the vertigo returned?

But soon there was no going back: We’d reached the quarry.

“I present to you Gilles Chauwin,” said my friend Gilles Thomas. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, Mr. Chauwin set off to open the entrance.

The Braye quarry — located near the village of Braye-en-Laon, in the French department of Aisne — is one of several hundred man-made caves in the region. Locally the quarry is known as “la creute des Américains,” or “la creute des Yankees,” but I soon came to think of this one as “Mr. Chauwin’s quarry.” He’s been exploring and researching this quarry for more than 40 years, and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the events that surrounded it and the men who took shelter inside.

In fact, even while we were still on the surface Mr. Chauwin’s devotion was evident: With his own hands, he had created a memorial sculpture at the entrance — as well as a locked, double-gated vestibule to protect the quarry from intruders and vandals.

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“Over there is where the canal came from,” my friend Gilles said, turning in the opposite direction and gesturing down the hillside. He had told me in the car that a river of sorts used to run directly through this quarry, and that for a while the Germans actually had barges that brought in supplies through the partially subterranean canal.

A couple of hunting parties — complete with shotguns and baying beagles — interrupted our history lesson. I watched the men in bright orange vests tromp toward the woods and wondered whether they knew what lay underfoot.

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Now it was my turn to see for myself. I felt a pang of fear as I approached the entrance and saw a ladder descending into the darkness. I was comforted to see that Mr. Chauwin had tied the ladder off at both ends, to prevent it from slipping. But wait! Was that a landing in the middle, with a gaping hole below it? My heart pounded. “You know how to climb a ladder,” I told myself. “You can do this.”

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War-time pastimes

Any misgivings faded the instant I stepped off the last rung. Some 30 feet below the earth, the air was cool and moist and quiet. I fiddled with my headlamp as I followed my new friends into a narrow passage.

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I was astounded by the wealth of artifacts that lined the walls and lay in heaps on the ground. Though thoroughly rusted, the old helmets still kept their shape — and judging from the stacks of bottles, drinking was a big pastime.

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So was drawing and carving. “Look at this,” Mr. Chauwin said in French, pointing at the wall. The inscription was in German: “ERRICHTET, 31-7-1917.” The German soldier who made the inscription had likely been there for the Second Battle of the Aisne, in April of 1917.

Chemin Dames 1220363 BLOG

To weaken the German defenses, French general Robert Nivelle had pelted the Germans for six days with some 5,300 artillery guns. But what he didn’t know was that the Germans had holed up in these quarries.

On April 16th the French infantry and some colonial Senegalese troops advanced, only to be stopped by intense fire from the Germans’ new MG08/15 machine guns. The French suffered more than 40,000 casualties on the first day alone — and over 120,000 in the next 12 days.

Just as the numbers are staggering, so were the methods of war: Although poison gas and longer-range weapons were making their debut, many of the conflicts were still fought hand-to-hand — by musketeers, like the one who wrote a lengthy inscription in pencil.

Chemin Dames musketier 1220362 BLOG

“It is crossed out by the person who took the picture to say, ‘I am the last person who took this picture,’ ” said my friend Gilles. It was only the first of many vandalized or missing inscriptions I’d see during our two hours underground. No wonder Mr. Chauwin had installed two gates.

 

A descent into hell

At various points we passed mounds of rusted barbed wire. “That was to keep out the rats,” Mr. Chauwin said. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the soldiers’ need to ward off pestilence as they slept among their injured and dying comrades.

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There was also the risk of cave-ins and collapses. We passed one section where the roof had disintegrated, and another where a cave-in killed a quarry worker and his son in 1838. I felt like I was disturbing a tomb when I crawled through a narrow hole to read their memorial; their bodies still lay next to me, somewhere under the pile of rubble.

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Even today there are unstable areas that need to be reinforced.

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These subterranean dangers — and the terror that reigned above the ground — took their toll on the soldiers. “They were afraid,” Mr. Chauwin said, as he pointed at a skull one soldier had carved into the soft stone.

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The men who took shelter here — whether German, French, British, or American — knew that death might find them at any moment. Some seemed to accept their fate, like the man who wrote the gladiatorial motto, “We who are about to die salute you.”

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Many were obviously proud of their contribution to the war, like the soldiers of the First Platoon Company C Signal Corps, 101st Field Battalion, who created a detailed plaque listing the date of their service and their commanding officers. “They even spelled out ‘Massachusetts!’” I quipped.

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Other soldiers memorialized their units, their friends, and even their horses.

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But the vast majority of the men were keenly aware that they likely were creating their own memorials, and their thoughts turned to what they cherished most.

“Merciful Heart of Jesus have mercy on us,” wrote one.

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Another felt it important to record what looked like baseball game results. But maybe the “Red Sox” and the “Yankees” were code names, and it was a different kind of score?

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Some soldiers pledged allegiance to their Masonic temples, or drew harps and clover leaves to celebrate their Irish heritage. A few dedicated their inscriptions to their women back home — and a handful even listed their complete address, perhaps in hopes that news would reach their loved ones if they didn’t survive.

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Through their beautiful drawings and carvings, I felt a deep personal connection to the humanity of these men.

 

A project of the heart

It was evident that Mr. Chauwin felt a deep personal connection the men who left their traces here, too.

Mr. Chauwin pointed out a carving by Corporal Earle Madeley. “Look at the bottom,” he said. “He was one of the few who wrote his age.”

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Earle William Madeley, of Plainville Connecticut, was 20 years old when he was killed on July 21, 1918. On the ground beneath Earle’s inscription sat a photograph of his grave at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.

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Corp Earle Mackley and Charles Anderson 1220571 BLOG

In trying later to learn more about Corporal Madeley, I stumbled upon the memoirs of Charles Leo Boucher — “Lucky Charlie” — who provided a first-hand account of his time in a nearby quarry:

On the last day of our hike from the Aisne Front … we saw nothing out of the ordinary till a large opening on the side of this hill came into view. This proved to be one of the openings or entrances to the famed “Chalk Mines of Soissons.” As we marched down a slope, which led us into the mines, thousands of lights came into view and routes leading in every direction.

Allied troops were coming and going — British, French, and Italian. Guides from the French Army took over and led us into a section that had been assigned to us till we moved on the next day. Our bunks for the night were formed by using four pieces of two by four, two long and two short, and after they were nailed together, heavy screening was attached then the forms were placed on sturdy legs.

Then, I began to explore our new surroundings. Well, it didn’t take long for me to get myself completely lost. I had located a French canteen and as soon as I had made my purchase, I turned to go back to our location. Oh! Brother! There were plenty of routes but I wasn’t sure which was the right one.

In the meantime a French Sergeant saw me and realized that I was lost so, with a little French I had picked up plus a bit of English he understood, he first took me to his outfit where a good sized party was underway. One of the non-commissioned officers had just been promoted and a celebration was in order and I was invited as their guest.

Plenty of food and wine was consumed and then, I was guided back to my outfit. I was told that there were over twenty thousand troops billeted in this particular section of the mine and, without guides, one could travel all night without getting to your destination so once again, I was just “Lucky Charlie.”

Other portions of his memoir painted a much darker vision:

The barrage lasted till dawn began to show and then our first casualty was discovered. He was almost completely covered with earth and the blood was pumping from his mouth, ears, and eyes. Nothing could be done for him so he just choked up and passed on.

Then Corporal Coe got a bullet in the guts and we laid him on the parados. He kept hollering “Charlie! Oh! Charlie! For God’s sake, do something for me.” I gave him some water from my canteen. Then, I ripped open his shirt and there was a hole in his belly. Then a piece of shell hit him in the neck and decapitated him completely so his misery was over.

Charles Boucher himself was twice gravely injured, and almost lost a leg to gangrene — but he survived the war and came home. “Lucky Charlie,” indeed.

 

First-hand accounts

A surprising number of similar first-hand accounts still survive. But perhaps one of the most compelling was the collection of sketches Mr. Chauwin had urged me to look up online.

C. LeRoy Baldridge published “I Was There With the Yanks on the Western Front” in 1919. Now available through The Gutenberg Project, this collection of visual memoirs literally put a face to the names I’d been seeing in the quarry.

image011 image020 image044 image050

But, for all the beautiful simplicity and expressiveness of Private Baldridge’s sketches, I was especially touched by his opening words:

It has been a keen regret to me that my artistic skill has been so unequal to these opportunities. The sketches do not sufficiently show war for the stupid horror I know it to be.

image004

 

The stupid horror of war

As we approached one of the quarry’s dead ends, we reached a small shrine with three black crosses propped against the wall. Above them, in an alcove cut into the stone, hung the British, American, French and German flags. We all fell silent and an air of reverence overtook us as Mr. Chauwin distributed votive candles. One by one, we lit our candles and placed them beneath the flags.

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I stood there for a few moments, in the warm glow of the flickering candles, and thought of the men who had stood on this very spot a century ago … and who had then died, cold and wet in a field somewhere, far from their families and friends, fighting “the war to end all war.”

And I thought of the stupid horror that is war. I thought of the strange amnesia our species has, that even as we mourn the senseless losses of generations past, we continue to slaughter and maim and destroy.

Still … I continue to hope that one day we’ll finally overcome our seemingly innate mandate for self-destruction, and that one day we’ll come to see places like Mr. Chauwin’s quarry as museums of a time we temporarily went mad.

Je vous remercie encore, Gilles et Gilles — de tout mon coeur, et pour toujours.

 



54 Responses to “A soldier’s view of World War I”

  1. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing. The ‘underground war’ during WW1 is one oft forgotten, but it was no less hard-fought and, indeed, considerably more vicious in many respects. I’m from NZ, and one of New Zealand’s little-known contributions was to the tunnelling work in the Arras region. They named their shafts and tunnels after New Zealand places, in geographic order – which meant they could find their way around from names scrawled on the walls, but nobody else could.

    The horrors they faced, including from cave-ins, counter-mining and so forth, were indescribably awful. As, indeed, were the horrors faced by all in that war. I’ve written extensively on the psychological and social side of the New Zealand experience (Western Front particularly), and it was no different from that faced by anybody else. And yet, as you say, despite remembering the horrors of that war, humanity has gone on to fight many more wars, including around the world today. Our stupidity as a species, it seems, knows no bounds.

    The irony, to me, is that this seems to have been known at the time: H.G.Wells’ 1919 claim that the 1914-18 conflict was the ‘war to end all wars’ was promptly met with cynicism from Charles a’Court Repington, who responded by claiming it was merely the ‘first’ World War. He was right. Would that he hadn’t been.

    • 2 Heide

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Matthew — and for teaching me so much as well. I had no idea New Zealand had contributed their engineering skills in Arras, for example, or that the tunnels were named after places in New Zealand.

      It’s sad how right you are about the horrors EVERYONE faced during that war, though, no matter where they were. The more I learn about it the more unimaginable it all seems. And yet it did happen … and continues to happen. If only H.G. Wells had been right.

      Well, thank you again for shining additional light on this topic. You’ve made my world a good deal bigger today with your knowledge.

  2. I used the translator because your text is long
    You have beautifully described your visit and the feeling you had and reading, I had pictures in my eyes.
    What was most moving in my opinion is where … many years later the person came to put the picture of the grave of the soldier who died at the place where he left a trace of his passage.

    • 4 Heide

      I’m sorry my text was so long, Cathérine … I wanted to remember every detail about this place. But I’m honored you took the trouble of translating it and reading it in French. I agree with you also that it’s extremely émouvant that Gilles Chauwin placed a photograph of the grave near the soldier’s inscription. He is a hero in my eyes for his tireless dedication to preserving the memories of these men. Merci infiniment pour ta visite !

  3. Make no apology for reposting this, it is timely, poignant and fascinating. Thank you for such a well-recorded and moving piece. For me there is no quibble about whether we stop or commemorations with this 100th year. ‘We will remember them’ It seems to be taking a very long time for people – leaders – to learn the lessons of history so we had best keep on giving them the lesson.
    I know the words of the First World War poets are often used out of context, I re-read these at the weekend, from Wilfrid Owen, but will not repeat the stark, graphic, horrific words that precede them:
    ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.’
    The old lie. Indeed.
    Thank you, Heide.

    • 6 Heide

      What a beautiful snippet you’ve shared from Wilfrid Owen! The old do indeed lie, sometimes — as do the politicians who send each new generation of young men off to die. The highest honor we could bestow on all of these fallen soldiers would be to abolish war. But until that day, it’s our duty to never forget. Thank you so much for stopping by and joining in this remembrance.

      • I agree, I don’t believe we do any good, rather the reverse, by forgetting. We need to keep in mind – though not glorify – the folly and try and stop our wretched leaders from repeating it.

        • 8 Heide

          What a beautiful way you have with words! Yes, we must remember — but never glorify.

  4. My cousin, Gleason Wood, was killed by a bomb attached to a nice shiny watch. Boys going from one place to another often found “treasure” that tuned deadly.

    • 10 Heide

      I’m so sorry, Beth — what a tragic story. And how tragic too that someone else would devote their creativity and imagination to such a destructive purpose.

      • There are people who disassociate themselves from the reality and think only in terms of destruction.

        • 12 Heide

          There always have been, and always will be. Sadly, destruction is one of the biggest constants in human history.

  5. What an adventure, Heide, into the chamber of horrors of WWI. Well worth reposting annually, IMHO. Perfect for Veterans Day. Thank You

  6. I love this piece, full stop. Thank you for running it again!

  7. Wow. Very informative. Thanks for sharing

  8. Heide, what an amazing story and a most fitting tribute for the WW1 centenary! I am impressed that you managed to conquer your fear of enclosed spaces to explore this underground world and share it with us all so eloquently. I can’t believe that living in France I’ve never heard tale of it! Thanks also for the brilliant share on the Gutenberg Project. These sketches capture the small moments of the ‘stupid horror’ in a way that I find far more moving than the endless stories of lives lost, however tragic. Hard to believe that we have still learned nothing from this terrible history lesson. 😢

    • 21 Heide

      Thank you so much for your kind words, M. (As a big admirer of your writing, I’m always extra-pleased when you enjoy one of my posts.) It’s not surprising that even a <> resident of France would not have heard of this, though, because it’s on private land and not open to the public. But if you do want to see it for yourself I would be very glad to put you in touch with some fellows who can show you around! 🙂 As for those sketches from the Gutenberg Project: I echo your sentiments one-thousand times over that the charcoal snapshots of those small moments make the war more real than the endless retelling of battles and attacks. It’s impossible not to consider the human cost when you look into those faces. Perhaps someday we’ll finally learn from these lessons of history, but today I don’t have much hope.

      • A big merci right back at you for the kind words! 🤩BTW, I have linked to your post this week as I think it deserves to be viewed by anyone interested in France and its history! 🙏

        • 23 Heide

          Wow! I’m honored — and pleased also that more people will learn about this remarkable memorial. Thank you so much.

  9. Thanks for this well written and informative post, Heide. My grandfather fought in this terrible war as a teenager, I still vividly remember his horrendous stories. It must never happen again!

    • 25 Heide

      What a connection you have to this horrible war, Marcus — that’s remarkable! But of course there are millions like you whose grandparents and great-grandparents fought as well. I’m grateful yours came home, though, and even more grateful he was willing to share his stories. Never again, let us hope.

  10. Wow – an amazing post and I’m so glad you shared it for those of us who didn’t get to see it before! 🙂 Those photos are amazing – what an inside perspective you got – how well everything is preserved after all this time too. Like stepping back in time! And such a perfect tribute to the Armistice Day Centennial.

    • 27 Heide

      I’m so glad you stopped by, M.B. — you were one of the history-lovers I thought about when I considered reposting this piece. It really was one of the most extraordinary connection-to-the-past experiences I’ve ever had.

  11. I had a great-uncle who died in World War I – Passchendale.

    • 33 Heide

      What a sad bit of family history that is, JM. And how heartbreaking to consider the untold millions of families that have a story like yours.

  12. A beautiful post, Heide, and an ongoing reminder sadly needed, that history will and does repeat itself if we don’t learn and make real, lasting changes. Thank you for the history, the lesson, and the honoring tribute.

    • 35 Heide

      And thank YOU so much for reading, dear Lara! We can only hope that this sad anniversary has made leaders around the world think a bit about the real, human cost of war. xx

  13. I love this post so much and it should be re-shared over and over again. I especially love your last paragraph. SO beautiful! Thank for posting this beauty! ❤

    • 39 Heide

      Thank you, dear Kate! It’s a part of our collective history that we MUST keep alive — both to honor the men who died, and to (hopefully) remind us of the real cost of war. I’m really honored and grateful you stopped by for this one. xx

  14. Simply beautiful.

  15. A strong and captivating way of remembering something we don’t want ever to happen again. Thanks for taking us along for this important reminder.

    • 43 Heide

      Thank YOU for stopping by and for reading, Otto. I join you in hoping this never happens again.

  16. Wow! I loved reading this. Really stirred emotion in me. Thank you for sharing, and for you great pictures (again!).

    • 45 Heide

      Thank you so much for stopping by, and especially for reading this long piece. I’m very honored it touched you.

  17. I had never heard of this network of tunnels. How amazing that they have remained nearly untouched.

    WWI has largely receded from memory in America, so thanks for reminding us of the sacrifices made there. That war was a unique kind of awful that combined early technological advances in weaponry with medical knowledge not far improved from the days of the American Civil War fifty years earlier.

    • 47 Heide

      am very honored that this post showed you a new aspect you hadn’t heard of before, JP. And what a perfect (if heartbreakingly accurate) description you’ve written of World War I. You are sadly correct that it has largely faded from our collective American memory, but I hope that a few folks who stumble across this post will be inspired to learn more about the men who fought and died “over there,” and keep their memories alive. As always, thank you for stopping by.

  18. Wow! I loved reading this.

  19. What an extraordinary place. And in such extraordinary inhumane circumstances, ordinary men trying to stay human. This is such a poignant tribute. So interesting and eye-opening. What an incredible, albeit heartbreaking experience for you. Thankyou for bringing these soldiers to our attention and bringing their stories above ground. Stupid stupid war.

    • 51 Heide

      I’m so honored and pleased this piece spoke to you, as the experience did to me. And I can’t agree with your conclusion more. Thank you for reading.

  20. 52 q yy

  21. What a history lesson! Thank you for sharing it with us. And, of course, great photos.


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