‘The wildest fantasy cannot imagine such a horror’

A soldier writes his account of war.

Published: 27 August 1914

The Daily Telegraph has published a letter today written by a wounded French soldier from hospital to a friend in London giving his impressions of the war.

Volley after volley we sent in the direction of the enemy. We fired quickly and well, while the German shells and bullets passed over our heads. For the Germans may be, and are, our superiors in executing parade steps, but they are infernally bad shots, and parade steps are very little use in war time and make no great impression upon the assailants.

In the meantime our heavy guns were preparing for action and our quick-firers began to share in the general conversation. As more troops were ascending the hill to enforce us we made for the plain. A rain of hostile bullets passed over our heads and instinctively we stooped, although when one hears the bullet it has passed already.

It is a queer sensation which comes over us the first time we are met with a hail of bullets. We suddenly feel as if attacked by fear but this feeling very soon leaves us. Alternatively dropping ourselves to fire and jumping to our feet to rush across the open, we more and more approach the enemy, who were assembling in strong forces. But so were our troops.

The earth was shaken by the incessant cannonading and the air torn by the continuous rattling of rifle fire, we rushed forward in order to reach a piece of ground surrounded by low dykes. A comrade on my right stumbled and dropped forward without uttering a sound, killed by a shot in the breast. A man in front of me threw his arms up, fell, struggled to his feet, fell again and ‘that’s it’ were his last words.

We had reached the aforesaid piece of ground – twelve of us. I looked around for a moment. A terrible battle was raging, and so utterly horrible were the scenes around me that up to this moment I cannot believe I have really lived to see it. The wildest fantasy cannot imagine such a horror, in which absolutely nothing human is left, and which could not be equalled by the most blood stirring fancies of a horde of devils. A shell exploded near us, followed by a terrible cry. Five of us were lying dead on the little square. One man had both his legs blown off, and was still alive and conscious, imploring us to kill him. An officer ran past, stopped and after a short look at a man, shot him through the heart. He opened his mouth to utter a command to his men, and at the same moment got a bullet in his mouth. He turned around twice, and fell heavily on the dyke close by me.

At a good distance behind us Red Cross soldiers and two Red Cross friars carrying a Red Cross flag were stooping over the wounded and removing them to ambulance vans. A shell exploded over their heads and only a couple of the Red Cross men were left. More hostile troops have been advancing. They have suffered heavy losses, but on our side also the number of casualties is very large, and our position seems to be critical. We have to retreat; we are in fact, retreating. Fresh French batteries are put into action.

I am just looking at a German battery which is being turned in our direction when it is hit by two shells simultaneously. The German artillery men at the guns are swept away – two guns destroyed. One moment it seems as if the enemy are hesitating and we avail ourselves of the opportunity to dash forward, inflicting great damage on them.

They are undoubtedly persevering, our men are, and they display a remarkable self-control. Notwithstanding the appalling scenes around me, I too, feel perfectly calm now, and terrible though it may seem, I confess that without a moment’s tremble I aim at living targets, shoot and watch the effect of my bullet. So do all of us. The enemy outnumber us, however, so much that we could not offer a longer resistance without exposing ourselves and the main army to an enormous danger.

The retreat is carried out splendidly; I have just reached the crest of a hill when I feel a slight shock in the left shoulder, nothing else. I do not heed it, but some moments afterwards I feel a burning pain in the shoulder, and I perceive that I am wounded and that the weight of my left arm seems to increase. Some time afterwards I find myself neatly installed in a field hospital.

Here is my nurse again with her pleasant smile. She says I have done enough writing now, and that I had better have my dinner. ‘And if you don’t obey at once you naughty boy,’ she adds, ‘I shall have to punish you.’ I wonder what the punishment would be like. Well, fortunately I have ended the ‘report’, so that I can obey her. And my dinner is only too alluring, too.

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.