|THE FIRST OF SEPTEMBER, 1870.---EXPERIENCES AT THE CASERNE.---WOUNDED HORSES.---THE FRENCH RETREAT BECOMES A STAMPEDE.---SOLDIERS DESPAIR.|
FULL of strange forebodings, I retired to the guard-room at the end of the building which overlooked the town, where Père Bayonne, our Dominican chaplain, Hewitt, and myself had our stretchers. Tired out, I slept as soundly as if nothing had happened, or was to happen. But about a quarter to five on the following morning, ---that historic Thursday, the 1st of September---Père Bayonne and I were aroused by the strange and terrible sound of roaring cannon. We heard the shells whizzing continually, and by-and-by the prolonged peals of the mitrailleuse. On looking out, we saw a thick mist lying along the valley, and clinging about the slopes of the hills in front of us. Presently it cleared away; the morning became beautifully fine, and the sun shone forth with genial warmth.
Immediately beneath us lay the town, with its double fortifications, and its trenches filled by the Meuse, which seemed a silver thread winding through a charmingly wooded and delightful country. The whole range of hills which commanded the town was occupied by the Prussians; and we could see their artillery and battalions in dark blue, with their spiked helmets and their bayonets flashing in the sunlight.
Neither had we long to wait before 150 guns were, each in its turn, belching out fire and smoke. For the first couple of hours the heaviest part of the fighting was kept up from the left and further extremity of this range of hills. But as the morning wore on, the guns immediately opposite us opened fire, although the main body of the Prussians had not yet come up the valley into view. The plains and hills to the north and north-east of the town and immediately behind us were covered with French troops, the nearest being a regiment of the Line, a Zouave regiment, and a force of cuirassiers. It was magnificent to see the bright helmets and breastplates of the latter gleaming in the sun, as they swept along from time to time, and took up fresh positions. I watched them suddenly wheel and gallop at a headlong pace for some hundred yards, then stop as they were making a second wheel, and tear up to the edge of a wood on a piece of high ground, where they remained motionless. A regiment of the Line then advanced, and opened fire across them, down into the valley beneath the wood; while for twenty minutes a hot counterfire was kept up by a force of advancing Prussians, the French still moving forward, and leaving plenty of work for us in their rear. As the firing ceased, the cuirassiers, who had been up till then motionless spectators of the scene, suddenly began to move, first at a walk, then breaking into a trot, and, finally, having cleared the corner of the wood, into full gallop. They dashed down the valley of Floing and were quickly lost to our view. This was the beginning, as I afterwards learned, of one of the most brilliant feats of the French arms during that day. It has been graphically described by Dr. Russell, the war correspondent of the Times. Beyond doubt, until noon, when all chance of success vanished, the French fought bravely. I shall here instance one out of many personal feats of valour, which came under our notice.
While I was assisting in dressing a wounded soldier, he told me the following story, which was subsequently corroborated by one of his officers who came to see him. This soldier was St. Aubin, of the Third Chasseurs d'Afrique, concerning whom I shall have more to say by-and-by. He was only twenty-three, and a tall, fair, handsome fellow. He had been in action for seven hours, and had received a bayonet thrust through the cheek. His horse was shot under him during the flight of the French towards Sedan. Still undismayed, he provided himself with one of the chassepots lying about, and falling in with a body of Marines, the best men in the French army, he, in company with this gallant band, faced the enemy again. Numbers of his companions fell ; he himself got a bullet through the right elbow. Promptly tearing his pocket handkerchief into strips with his teeth, he tied up his wounds, and securing his wrist to his belt, seized his sword, determined to fight on. Unfortunately, the fragment of a shell struck him again, shattering the right shoulder. In this plight he mounted a stray horse, and, as he told me, holding his sword in his teeth, put spurs to his steed, and joined his companions at Sedan, where he sank out of the saddle through sheer exhaustion and loss of blood.
Early in the day vigorous fighting was going on outside the town, about Balan and Bazeilles, and between us and the Belgian frontier. As early as ten o'clock, it was evident that the Prussians were extending their line of fire on both sides, with the ultimate object of hemming in the French army, now being slowly forced back upon the town. By eleven o'clock, the plains to the north and east between us and the Belgian frontier were occupied by dense masses of the French; and at noon, the Prussian artillery on the hills in front turned their fire over our heads, on the French troops behind us. From this moment, we found ourselves in the thick of the fight. Around us on every side raged a fierce and bloody conflict. The Prussian guns in front, which had kept up an intermittent fire since early morning, now seemed to act in concert, and the roaring of cannon and whizzing of shells became continuous. It was an appalling medley of sounds; and we could scarcely hear one another speak.
During this murderous fire, we received into our hospital twenty-eight officers of all grades (among them two colonels), and nearly 400 men of all arms. Occasionally, one of the shells which were passing over us in quick succession would fall short, striking, at one time, the roof of our Hospital or the stone battlements in front, at another the earthworks or a tree within the fort. One of these shells burst at the main entrance, close to where I was at work, killing two infirmiers and wounding a third,---the first two were, indeed, reduced to a mass of charred flesh, a sight of unspeakable horror. A second shell burst close to the window of the ward, in which Drs. MacCormac, Nicholl, Tilghman, and May were operating, chipping off a fragment of the corner stone; a third struck the coping wall of the fortification overhanging the town, about twenty feet from our mess-room window; and a fragment entered, and made a hole in the ceiling. The bomb-proof over our heads came in for a shower of French mitrailleuse bullets, which so frightened our cook that he upset a can of savoury horseflesh soup, which he had prepared for us. But, to add to the danger, about half-past two a detachment of artillery, bringing with them three brass nine-pounders, came into our enclosure (for, as I have said, the guns supposed to be guarding our fort were absolute dummies), and opened a hot fire on the enemy, in the vain attempt to enable Ducrot's contingent to join De Wimpffen at Balan. It was a brave and determined effort, but as futile as it was rash, for it brought the Prussian fire down upon us; and in less than half an hour, the French had to abandon their guns, which were soon dismantled, while the trenches about them were filled with dead and wounded. At one time, Dr. May and I counted on the plain a rank of eighty-five dead horses, exclusive of the maimed. The sufferings of these poor brutes, which were as a rule frightfully mutilated, seemed to call for pity almost as much as those of the men themselves. For the men, if wounded very badly, lay still, and their wants were quickly attended to; but the horses, sometimes disembowelled, their limbs shattered, kept wildly struggling and snorting beneath dismounted gun-carriages and upturned ammunition waggons, until either a friendly revolver or death from exhaustion put an end to their torment.
Everywhere on this plain, to the north of the town, there was now the most hopeless confusion. The soldiers, utterly demoralised---more than half of them without arms---were hugging the ramparts in dense masses, seeking thus to escape the deadly fire directed on them by the advancing Prussians. It was clear that the fortunes of the day were going against the French; and if we ask the reason, some reply may be found in the testimony of a Colonel, who told us, with sobs and tears, that for six hours he had been under fire, and had received no orders from his General. A little later on, about half past three, an officer, carrying the colours of his regiment, rushed into our Hospital in a state of the wildest excitement, crying out that the French had lost, and entreating Dr. May to hide his flag in one of our beds,---a request with which the latter indignantly refused to comply.
About a quarter to four, although the din of battle was still raging, we could see the white flag flying, and rumours of a truce were current. The space round the Caserne D'Asfeld was at this time crowded with troops; and a knot of them were wrangling for water about our well, which, being worked only by a windlass and bucket, gave but a scanty supply. The events that now followed have been described by the French as an attempt on the part of Ducrot to get his forces through the town, and out by the Balan gate, there to reinforce General Wimpffen, and sustain his final attempt to break through the German lines. But what really happened was this: The French, aware that the battle was lost, had become panic-stricken, and getting completely out of the control of their officers, their retreat on Sedan was, in plain truth, the stampede of a thoroughly disorganised and routed army. It was a strange sight, and by no means easy to picture. A huge and miscellaneous collection of men, horses, and materials were jammed into a comparatively small space, all in the utmost disorder and confusion. Soldiers of every branch---cavalry, infantry, artillery--- flung away their arms, or left them at different places, in stacks four or five feet high. Heedless of command, they made for the town by every available entrance. And I saw French officers shedding tears at a spectacle which no one who was not in arms against them could witness without grief and shame.
A Colonel, who had carried his eagles with honour through the battles of Wörth and Weissenburg, related how he had buried the standard of his regiment, together with his own decorations, and burned his colours, to save them from falling into the hands of the enemy. All these officers had but one cry: "Nous sommes trahis!" openly declaring that the loss of their country, and the dishonour of its arms, were due to the perfidy and incompetence of their statesmen and generals. That some of these allegations of treason were well founded is beyond question: the universal incompetency we saw with our own eyes.
I observed one remarkable incident during this state of general disorder. A regiment of Turcos came into our enclosure with their officers, in perfect order, fully armed and accoutred. These gaunt-looking fellows, fierce, bronzed, and of splendid physique, stood stolid and silent, with their cloaks, hoods, and gaiters still beautifully white. Watching for some minutes, I noticed a movement among them, and they commenced a passionate discussion in their own tongue, evidently on a subject of interest to them all. In another minute the conclusion was manifest.
Approaching the parapet in small parties, and clubbing their rifles, they smashed off the stocks against the stonework, and flung the pieces into the ditch beneath. In like manner they disposed of their heavy pistols and side-arms. Then, having lighted their cigarettes, they relapsed into a state of silent and dreamy inactivity, in which not a word was spoken.
Along the roads leading to the gates of the town, more particularly along the one beneath us, streamed a dense mass of soldiers belonging to various regiments, with numbers of horses ridden chiefly by officers, and some waggons, all bearing headlong down on the gates. As they passed over the narrow bridges, literally in tens of thousands, packed close together, some horses and a few men were pushed over the low parapet into the river, and many of the fugitives were trodden under foot. At length, between four and five P.M., the firing gradually slackened. For some time it was still kept up, but in a desultory manner, towards Balan. At half-past five it ceased altogether; and the sensation of relief was indescribable.
The grounds about the Caserne D'Asfeld had, in the meanwhile, become packed with runaway soldiers, whose first exploit was forcibly to enter our kitchen and store-rooms, and plunder all they could lay hands on. Of course, they were driven to these acts by the exigencies of the situation. The blame for such excesses cannot but attach to that centre of all corruption, the French Commissariat, which broke down that day as it had done at every turn during the whole campaign. We had some wounded men in the theatre, Place de Turenne, down in Sedan; but the streets and squares were so densely crowded that it was with difficulty some of our staff could make their way to them. All were now burning with anxiety to know whether the French would surrender, or hostilities be resumed on the morrow. A continuance of the struggle, as we felt, would mean that some hundred and twenty thousand soldiers, and ourselves along with them, were to be buried in the ruins of Sedan.
Our fears, however, were soon allayed. Before nightfall we heard that the Emperor had opened negotiations with the German King, and that the capitulation was certain.
At last darkness set in. The stillness of the night was unbroken, save for a musical humming sound as if from a mighty hive of bees;---it was the murmur of voices resounding from the hundred thousand men caged within the beleaguered city. As we stood for a moment on the battlements, sniffing the cool air, with which was still intermingled the gruesome odour of the battlefield, how impressive a sight met our gaze Bazeilles was burning; its flames lit up the sky brilliantly, and brought out into clear relief the hills and valleys for miles around; they even threw a red glare over Sedan itself; while above the site of the burning village there seemed to dance one great pillar of fire, from which tongues shot out quivering and rocketing into the atmosphere, as house after house burst into flames.
The number of Frenchmen wounded during those few hours of which I write, is said to have been 12,500. Probably a third of that figure would represent the number of Prussian casualties. As for our own ambulance, during that day it afforded surgical aid to 100 officers and 524 men. The number of those killed will never be known; all I can state is, that in places the French were mown down before our eyes like grass. There is a thicket on a lonely hill side, skirting the Bois de Garenne, within rifleshot of the Caserne D'Asfeld, where six and thirty men fell close together. There they were buried in one common grave; and few besides myself remain to tell the tale.
Such is the story of Sedan as I beheld it, and as faithful a record as I can give from my own experience, of that never-to-be-forgotten 1st of September, 1870.
|THE BURNING 0F BAZEILLES.---WORTHLESS FRENCH OFFICERS.---A WALK ABOUT SEDAN.---IN THE VALLEY.|
To our labours in the Hospitals I shall presently return. On the 31st, Drs. Frank and Blewitt had established a branch hospital at Balan, and during that day and 1st September, had rendered assistance, both there and at Bazeilles, to those who were wounded in the street-fighting or injured by the flames. Dr. Blewitt informed me that at one time, the house in which they were treating a large number of wounded had its windows and doors so riddled with bullets, that, in order to escape with their lives, they had to lie down on the floor, and remain there until the leaden shower was over. The French inhabitants also, he said, had fired upon the Bavarians; they had set their bedding and furniture alight, and thrown them out on the heads of the Germans, who were packed close in the streets; and after the first repulse of the invaders, several wounded Prussians had been barbarously butchered, some even (horrible to relate) had had their throats cut with razors. This, it was reported, had been the work of French women. On the other hand, several of the native soldiers had been found propped up against the walls in a sitting posture, with pipes and flowers in their mouths. Upon retaking the village, when the Germans discovered what had been done, they retaliated by shooting down and bayoneting all before them, nor in some instances did the women and children escape this cruel fate. So exasperated, indeed, were the Germans by the events of those two dreadful hours on the 1st, that not a life did they spare, nor a house did they leave intact, in that miserable town.
Such, in brief, was the history of Bazeilles. It is not a subject which one can dwell upon. When, within a day or two later, I had occasion to pass through it, and saw the still burning ruins which bore witness to the awful deeds done on both sides, my heart sank. All that fire and sword could wreak upon any town and its inhabitants was visible here; and it is not too much to affirm that, so long as the name of Bazeilles is remembered, a stain will rest on the memory of French and Germans, both of whom contributed to its ruin.
On the 5th September Dr. Frank took possession of the Château Mouville, which belonged to the Count de Fienne. It is situated between Balan and Bazeilles, and was quickly filled with wounded from both places. But for some time our ambulance was unable to get its waggons through the streets, so impeded were they with the charred remains of the dead and dying.
I have now described what I can vouch for, on the testimony of some of my companions, as having occurred at these two places; and I will leave my own account of what I saw myself in Bazeilles until a later occasion.
To go back to Sedan. As night drew near, the refugees outside the Caserne lighted their fires, and put up their tents. Those who had no tents rolled themselves in their cloaks, and lay down just where they happened to be. All were overcome by fatigue, long marches, and want of food and sleep; they seemed only too glad to rest anywhere, and to enjoy a respite from the sufferings and hardships which during so many days had weighed upon them.
The true story of these unhappy soldiers will never become known in detail; and if it did, the public would hardly believe it. Many of them started, as I heard from their own lips, with only two-thirds of the kit they were booked as having received. In some instances their second pair of boots were wanting; or, if not, the pair supplied had thick brown paper soles covered with leather, and were often a misfit. The men, as we read with perfect accuracy in La Débâcle, were marched and countermarched to no purpose; they received contradictory orders; and I learned from their statements, that neither general officers nor subalterns knew whither they were going; and that one corps was constantly getting foul of the other, simply from not being acquainted with the map of the district in which they found themselves. More than one declared to me that their officers were officiers de salon,---they were canaille, said the men, who when under fire were the first to seek shelter, and from their position of security to cry "En avant, mes braves!" In fact, the common soldiers felt and expressed the heartiest contempt for them. Of this I had abundant evidence. It was enough to see how the rank and file came into the cafés and sat down beside the officers of their own regiment, as I have seen them do, taking hardly any notice of them, or deigning them only the lamest of salutes. On the other hand, when officers came into a café (which they did upon every possible occasion), the men would pretend not to see them. I have observed, not once, but scores of times, captains of the Line, wearing decorations, seated in taverns drinking beer and absinthe with the common soldiers. They were as despicable in their familiarities as in their want of courage; and who can be surprised if their men did not respect them, or wonder that such leaders had no control over the privates when in action?
As I mentioned before, we treated a number of officers of high grade who were wounded on the 1st. They, in their turn, did not hesitate to show how small was the confidence which they reposed in the grades above them, by insisting that they had been sold and betrayed. They had received no orders; and the generals of division had failed to make their different marches in the appointed time, and to bring up their commissariat, because their movements were hampered by the Emperor and his staff, with their infinite baggage and useless attendants. Statements such as these, together with what I witnessed myself, convinced me in a very short time that it was not the soldiers of France who were wanting in courage and endurance, but their officers who were thoroughly incompetent, and their commissariat and whole military organisation, which was rotten to the core.
But to my Hospital. As I walked around the building the sight was picturesque and very human,---the camp fires showing all the ground strewn beneath the great trees with jaded sleepers. Entering by one of the doors, I stumbled against something, which turned out to be a slumbering Turco. The fellow yelled out words quite unintelligible to me, and rolled over, without giving himself any more trouble, out of my way. The medical staff now retired, and attacked what bread, meat, and soup had been saved from the depredators of our larder that morning; after which we resumed work once more. We were kept at it the whole of that night, the following day, and some hours of the night after that, without intermission. During the whole of the next day we were engaged in receiving and conveying wounded men from the cottages and farmsteads scattered over the plains at Illy and Floing, all of which were crammed with disabled combatants. My duty in the Caserne was to dress the lightly wounded, and assist at the operation table until the afternoon, when I was desired by our kind and considerate chief to take four hours off duty, and get some sleep.
Instead, however, of taking this rest, which no doubt one required, I sallied forth with F. Hayden on an expedition into the town, to the Croix d'Or, where I had left something on the 31st, which I thought I might recover. We found it hard to get out of our own enclosure; and even on the steep path leading to the town, men were lying asleep, while others roamed about in search of food. But when we got into Sedan, the streets were thronged with soldiers. At several corners we stopped to see men who were hacking and hewing the carcasses of horses, which they had just killed. Hungry crowds surrounded them, many of whom were munching the lumps of raw meat, which they had secured, without waiting to have it cooked; and in the Place de Turenne lay the bloody skeletons of two horses, from which every particle of flesh had been cut away. Here, as our cook, "nigger Charlie," assured me, was the source of my morning's meal, which I had washed down with brandy, and thoroughly relished. I may be pardoned for turning quickly from the revolting scene.
Finding that it was impossible to proceed, we retraced our steps to the Caserne, and, making our exit this time through one of the sallyports, went over the scene, at least in part, of yesterday's battle.
It was a beautiful autumn evening, and the sun shone bright. Butterflies flitted to and fro, and myriads of insects danced in the light as if for a wager. Just as we were walking along the entrenchments outside, we very nearly met with an inglorious end from a shower, not of bullets, but of pistols, which came over the battlements, and continued falling at intervals. On looking up, I perceived, standing on a projecting angle, a stalwart Turco, who made signs that I should keep in close to the parapet, which I did. This friendly fellow persuaded his comrades to desist for a little, and thus enabled us to retreat.
On getting clear of the ramparts, we found ourselves north of the town, with the Bois de Garenne crowning the heights in front, and the valley of Floing sloping away to our left. But the plateau which yesterday swarmed with a surging mass of soldiers in conflict with the enemy, and upon which we had seen the Cuirassiers and Chasseurs d'Afrique, at the sound of the trumpet, tear headlong in their mad career to death,---was now hushed, and presented a field of such horrors as are not to be described.
The burying parties had been hard at work for hours, but still the dead lay scattered about on every side:---here singly, there in twos and threes,---and again, in groups huddled together, which had been mown down where they stood, by the same missile. Their features in some instances were contorted and dreadful to behold,---some with portions of their skulls and faces blown away, whilst what was left of their features remained unchanged ; others with their chests torn open and bowels protruding; others, again, mangled and dismembered. The larger number lay either on their backs or faces, without any apparent indication of the nature of their death-wound. And some there were who had received the first aid of surgical treatment, and died in the positions in which they had been placed.
Lower down the valley the corpses in red and blue, and the ranks of dead horses, the broken spears and sabres, and the bent scabbards, spoke silently but forcibly of the fury of that historic encounter. When one looked along the plain for about half a mile on each side, one saw that now deserted battlefield strewn as far as the eye could reach with guns, and ammunition, and upturned waggons. There were carriages, and dead horses by the side of them; firearms of every kind, in places stacked several feet high, and knapsacks innumerable ; caps, helmets, belts, plumes, shakos, spurs, and boots, and every description imaginable of military accoutrements. We remarked, besides, all manner of articles---sponges, brushes, letters, pocket-books, soldiers' regimental books, bandmusic, tin boxes various in size, and showing the most diverse contents, others empty and their former contents scattered about; as also nets for hay, saddles, saddle-trappings, whips, bridles, bits, drums, portions of band instruments, and, in fact, as many descriptions of objects great and small as would furnish an immense bazaar.
In one place I found a chassepot inverted together with a bayonet, set at the head of a French soldier's grave, and a cavalry sword which lay unsheathed beside its owner, who, still unburied, gazed vacantly in front of him with a glassy stare, whilst the flies swarmed about his half-opened mouth. The only indication of how he met his death was a small patch of blood-stained earth beside him-not red, but tarry-black. Near at hand, also, lay, covered with blood, a bit and bridle, without anything to betoken how it came there.
The dismal monotony of the scene was relieved only by those little mounds of fresh earth scattered here and there, which marked where the bodies of the slain, varying from one to ten in each place of sepulture, had been consigned. Burials were still going on before our eyes.
Over many of the graves were set up rustic crosses, made with two pieces of wood tied together, or more frequently devices in arms.
Silent as the prospect lay in front of us, its mournful stillness was occasionally broken by the neighing and scampering of bands of horses, still uncaptured, which were wandering in a fruitless search for food and water. As they looked wildly round with their nostrils distended,---some with just sufficient trappings left to indicate the military status of their former masters,---one could almost think that, still unconquered, they sought their comrades and the fray.
In my ramble I passed through several gardens and orchards skirting the Bois de Garenne. It was pitiful to see their condition. The trees were utterly ruined, and their branches all broken; the flower beds were ploughed up by the bursting of shells, and the houses had become mere wrecks. Through some of them these missiles had made a clean breach. Further on to the right, there had been a pretty little cemetery, planted with yew trees, evergreens, and flowers, which had many small monuments in marble and cut stone; but these, for the most part, were broken or disfigured, and the iron railings and the shrubs around them had been torn down.
As I walked through, I paused for a moment to look upon the two graveyards,---the one with a history of centuries, judging from its many ancient tombs,---the other of yesterday's making---its only monuments the little mounds of fresh earth, over which, a few months hence, the green corn of spring would be waving, to obliterate the record of to-day's ghastly scene.
Hastening from this melancholy spot, I passed several burying parties. The ceremonies which they used were rude and scant enough; for all they did was to heave the body into the newly-made grave, and heap the earth over it in silence.
Next we ascended the tree-crested height above the plateau of Floing, where we had seen the cavalry massed on the morning before. We first entered the wood. It was intersected by walks which led to an observatory and a Château in the centre. Here, as everywhere else, disorder reigned. One might easily have conceived that an army had been annihilated in the act of preparing their toilet: for all things belonging to a soldier, from his full-dress uniform to his linen and boots, were scattered about in all directions. Rifles and arms of all sorts were cast away in hundreds. The brushwood in many parts was very thick; but even in the midst of almost impenetrable scrub we found arms and accoutrements in abundance. More than once we came upon the corpses of French soldiers, who lay as if asleep. They had probably dragged themselves from the scene of carnage to this lonely spot, and there expired, unmolested.
At one place in particular the underwood was so thick, that I had to crouch down in order to get through it. My attention was drawn thither by the signs of a path having been forced in that direction. A little further in, I found an open space of a few yards square, which was now occupied by a grave. It had no device upon it, except a cross scratched in the red clay. Lying beside it, I found a piece of shell, a religious picture, a prayer-book, and fragments of a uniform, which I still have by me. I fancy some kind comrade had paid his friend a last tribute, by giving him, as it were, a special burial in a place to himself.
In order to reach the building in the centre of the wood, I had to pass through a little garden, whose only flowers seemed to be rows of dahlias, of every colour and description. Among these the shells had made havoc. In one bed, I remarked a deep hole where a shell had fallen, and some of the plants had been lifted several feet away. In other places, furrows of some yards in length were made by shot and shell, as if a plough had worked intermittently here and there. Some were deep, others just skimmed the surface and ran a zigzag course, as if a gigantic animal had been turning up the ground with his muzzle. The building, into which I made my way, seemed to be an observatory or pavilion, belonging to the Château, which stood some distance behind. Its doors and wood-work were riddled with bullets, and the roof was blown away. There, curiously enough, a large quantity of music was strewn about. Under cover of this wood, the Bois de Garenne, we had seen the French massing their troops; and they had evidently been lying here in ambush when the Prussians detected and shelled them, before the final rout, during which they abandoned their arms and ammunition. Down the slope of the hill, and in the bottom of the valley facing the Meuse, dead men and horses, with groups of hastily-dug graves,---many of them German,---and broken spears, and numbers of unsheathed cavalry swords, told the same tale of a death struggle in which hundreds must have perished.
Further along the valley, beside a lonely thicket, was a large mound with a stake driven into it, and an inscription in German characters made with some material which looked like blacking, "Here lie thirty-six men of the 5th corps"... Who shall reckon the number of French dead in the many graves adjacent?
As my time was up, I now hastened back to my post, feeling like one who had awakened from a terrible nightmare. Yet I was much invigorated by this expedition, so mournful in its circumstances, and went to work with renewed energy.
On the evening of the 3rd, word was brought us that some of the wounded lay in a bad way in a cottage outside Balan. Dr. MacCormac, accompanied by Dr. Hewitt and myself, at once proceeded through the town and along the high road, which we followed only for a short distance. Then we struck out to the left until we arrived at a small wood, where certain of the French troops were still encamped, but as prisoners.
The night was fine, and would have been pitch dark had not the camp fires shone around numerous and bright. When we came to the house in question, Dr. MacCormac performed several amputations, at which Hewitt and I assisted. In a couple of hours we started again for home, but being both hungry and thirsty, turned aside into a little cottage, where we told the poor woman in occupation that we had been attending the wounded, and had had nothing to eat all day. We were willing to pay for anything she could give us. At first she looked at us sternly; but when we told her on which side we had been engaged, she melted, and received us with a welcome, which, if not effusive, was, under the circumstances, cordial.
Out of her larder she offered us bread, and a quantity of what she informed us was beef. We could not be particular; and it was not without enjoyment that we made our doubtful, but much needed supper on her viands. No further incident delayed our return to the Caserne D'Asfeld.
|WORK IN THE HOSPITAL.---THE ISLE OF IGES.---MY ARAB HORSE.---PRISONERS SENT INTO GERMANY.|
I DO not intend entering here into full details of our work during this eventful period. But, to give unprofessional readers some idea of its nature and extent, I may state, that after the battles of August 31st, and 1st September, we had 72 amputations of upper and lower extremities, the great majority of which operations were performed by Dr. MacCormac. Besides these, there were scores of equal magnitude-ligatures of arteries of the neck, arm, and thigh,---and a host of operations, which, in comparison, are usually termed minor, most of which, especially when very serious, were accomplished by the same skilful hand. After the hurry and rush of the first few days, we adopted a general routine of work, and divided the number of wounded equally among the staff of surgeons and assistants. We were eighteen, all told. Dr. Marion Sims was our head, Dr. MacCormac our chief operator, Dr. Webb our comptable, and Mr. Harry Sims our storekeeper. As I stated before, Drs. Frank and Blewitt managed a branch hospital in the Château Mouville, where they rendered to the victims of fire, sword, shot, and shell, of bullet and bayonet, the most signal assistance at the imminent peril of their lives.
Thus for our three hundred and eighty wounded at the Caserne D'Asfeld we had but twelve men, six being surgeons, and six assistants and sous-aides; so that the number of wounded which fell to the share of each surgeon and his assistant was sixty-three. Almost every case occupying a bed in the hospital was of a serious nature, such as to require much time and care in dressing it daily. But, besides, we had to dress the lightly wounded who came to our hospital for inspection, and who were quartered in the town wherever they could find room. The work was simply enormous. We rose at six and breakfasted at half-past seven upon horseflesh soup, or coffee and condensed milk (Mallow brand) with musty bread, for our special supply of provisions was exhausted, and neither bread nor beef could be obtained at any price. The duties to which we then applied ourselves are easily imaginable; they included the setting of fractures, extracting of bullets, ligaturing arteries, resecting bones and joints, and assisting at the operation table. This last was frequently my province. I was under Dr. May, an experienced American surgeon, who, as I have mentioned earlier, had served in the Confederate Army. No one could be more considerate. We worked most agreeably together, and soon were the best of friends.
During the press of the first few days, we juniors had lots of bullets to extract and plenty of minor surgery; for although we were not supposed to perform any operation, yet under the strain of necessity we could not but often neglect this otherwise wholesome arrangement. Every day numberless operations were gone through, at which we assisted in turn; and thus had what we sometimes thought more than enough of practical surgery. I spare the reader details; yet only perhaps by such ghastly touches as are here omitted, can the nature and ravages of war be truly described.
At one o'clock the meal which we took resembled our breakfast, with the addition of a little brandy; then we fell to work again, sometimes not giving over until six, when we had supper, which was a repetition of our other meals,---coffee or horseflesh soup, and sometimes horseflesh with black bread and brandy. Then each took his turn of night duty. It was very important to keep strict watch on the infirmarians, all soldiers under the direction of a sergeant who remained in the guardroom when on duty. We still owed allegiance to the French, and were nominally under the Intendant Militaire, M. Bilotte. This gentleman paid us a daily visit, and laid under requisition all the provisions he could get in the neighbourhood, which was not much, considering that the presence of 200,000 men had involved the consumption of every particle of food in the town and the surrounding villages.
Being junior member of the Ambulance Staff, I came first on night duty and took my position on a stretcher in the guard-room, where it was all I could do to keep myself awake. My eyes would close in spite of resolution, and I sometimes awoke just in time to escape a reprimand when Dr. Marion Sims came round at midnight to make his inspection. As a veteran in the American War he kept the strictest discipline, and occasionally made our blood run cold by a description of the penalties inflicted during that lively time for the smallest dereliction of duty. However, except that a dozen or so of poor sufferers required morphia to tranquillise them, nothing occurred until the small hours of the morning, when it struck me that some of the infirmiers might be, like myself, inclined to doze. Accordingly, I went round and looked them up.
All were stirring, except the infirmarians of wards 2 and 5, who were stretched out, one on a bench, another on the ground, fast asleep. I kicked them up to attention, and left them certainly more frightened than hurt. On my reporting the matter, as I was bound, next morning, the sleepy delinquents were put in the cells for twenty-four hours. Later on, one of them had twice as much punishment for the same offence. Poor fellows, I could not really blame them.
A source of disturbance during the night was the droves of loose horses, principally Arabs, that kept neighing and pawing the pavement outside the building, in their endeavour to reach the water which was stored in buckets near the open windows. Every night, as their thirst increased, they became more frantic; and during the daytime they came in dozens, drawn by the scent of water, all the while kicking each other furiously. Some had bridles, some mere fragments of their trappings, and the rest had got quit of all their furniture. It was novel to see these chargers careering about in demi-toilette. In a few days, however, all the wounded animals, now become useless, were shot; the others were brought together---chiefly by the sound of the trumpet, to which they quickly answered---and were picketed in the valley beyond the Meuse and above Donchery.
One morning Hayden and I made an expedition, and secured two of them. Mine was a fine chestnut Arab, which I kept tied to a tree in our enclosure, while one of my infirmiers contrived to get fodder for him outside the ramparts, in addition to what I could procure myself from the ambulance stores. Mounted on our captures, Hayden and I used occasionally to explore the country during our hours off duty. Afterwards, when leaving Sedan, we turned them out again upon the plains, where, doubtless, they enjoyed a short-lived freedom. Some of the unsound horses, which the Prussians did not require, they sold for a trifle to the inhabitants. I saw a remarkably useful pair of horses, apparently sound and in good condition, which were sold by auction in the Place de Turenne for twelve francs, that is to say, ten shillings the pair. But we must bear in mind that, with a little vigilance, and by evading the Prussian pickets, horses might then be had on the plains for the trouble of catching them.
What had become, meanwhile, of the defeated and entrapped army of prisoners? After much trouble, their officers had got together all that remained of the regiments, and had sent in a return of their strength to the Prussians. For three days our enclosure was not clear of them. One afternoon, when the prisoners had been shut up into their Island "Park," the Isle d'Iges, Hayden and I paid them a visit. It was a melancholy sight. That imposing army, which included the best soldiers of France, had been marched ignominiously, though 85,000 strong, out of Sedan, and penned like sheep in this island, formed by a bend in the Meuse. There they were kept in view by Prussian sentinels and mounted pickets. We passed the guard without difficulty, for there was no prohibition against Red Cross medical men entering the camp. In addition to the French rank and file, those officers who refused to take the parole were confined upon the island. We saw them to be in a miserable plight, the mud up to their ankles and their clothing scanty and torn. Many had lost everything and were wholly without kits. The rain, which had succeeded to that brilliant. sunshine of the 1st, had now been coming down in torrents for twelve hours, and was drenching them to the skin; for their tent-accommodation was altogether insufficient, and failed to shelter them. Men and officers alike looked miserable.
This open-air prison, I have said, was formed partly by a bend of the Meuse, and partly by a. broad, deep, and impassable canal. Within such narrow limits we observed the captives, who were walking up and down in batches, trying to get a little warmth. Some endeavoured to light a fire. ---no easy task with wet sticks --- others were making coffee, or busied themselves in cutting timber to throw on their smoking branches. Their food was a scanty supply of bread and coffee, served out every two days; and for this, there was quite a scramble, which ended in many failing to secure more than enough for a single meal. Thus they were condemned to starve until the next supply was served out. We may well ask how such a multitude could exist during those weary days, at the mercy of the weather, and in a sea of filth. But many died, and the sufferings. of the rest were deplorable. These poor fellows told us that hundreds of them were victims of dysentery, and begged us to give them such opiates or astringents as we might have about us. Unfortunately, we could do but little under the circumstances.
Whilst I was speaking with a knot of soldiers, my friend fell into conversation with a captain of the line, M. le Marquis de , of the 4th Chasseurs d'Afrique. He, too, was suffering from the effects of wet and exposure. Hayden, with that generosity for which he was remarkable, promised to come the next day, and to bring all the medicine required. In return, the captain pressed upon him a fine grey Arab, with bridle and saddle, which Hayden accepted, but could not take away then, for the guard would not have passed him out. However, when he came the day after, with a plentiful supply of medicaments and brandy, he rode an old grey garron which he had picked up somewhere, and on his departure went off with the captain's beautiful mount ;---a change of steeds that the Prussian did not trouble to remark.
Every day we saw from our quarters regiment after regiment bundled off (there is no other word for it) into Germany. As we watched the whole French army slouching away to the sound of Prussian music, I confess that some of us had strong language on our lips and still stronger feelings in our hearts at the shameful sight. We anathematised the enemy, who now seemed to be pursuing their advantage so unrelentingly.
Yet, candour compels, me to add, that when I looked at the Prussian sentinels guarding our gates and pacing our ramparts, I could not help admiring their stern, yet frank and honest countenances, and their stalwart physique. A notable contrast, indeed, they presented to the stunted, nervous-looking, and worn-out French soldiers, who, however, it is only fair to add, were suffering from the effects of long exposure and privation, and whom we had seen at their worst. Still, there was a difference in the men themselves which no one with eyes in his head could fail to observe. What was the explanation of it? He that can reply to this question as the truth demands, and he alone, will explain why the French campaigns of 1870 and 1871 were such a dismal series of misfortunes. The break-down of the Commissariat, the peculation in high quarters, the confused plans, and the military disorder must be ascribed to causes which were long in action before the French entered on their struggle with the Fatherland. I am convinced that those causes were moral and intellectual; and that they still exist. The future of France will depend on how the nation deals with them.
|MORE WOUNDED.-SIGHTS AFTER THE BATTLE. --- A COUNTRY RAMBLE.---HEAVY HOSPITAL TASKS.---L'EAU DE ZOUAVE.|
EVERY day Sedan became more and more crowded with the soldiers who were hurt; and on the 12th we found ourselves so much pressed for room that we had to put up thirty-six auxiliary tents, which, for this humane purpose, we had stolen from the French.
The first contingent arrived from the neighbourhood of Bazeilles. When they came in we saw that the poor fellows were in a bad way, many still groaning from the pain of their wounds, which had been much increased by their being jolted about in waggons, with only a scanty supply of straw beneath them. Some had fractured limbs; others had undergone severe surgical treatment, such as amputations; and these latter suffered inexpressible torture.
All were craving for food and water, neither of which had been given to them during many hours. Some, altogether exhausted, died on the night of their arrival. One detachment of the sufferers had been allotted to Dr. May and myself; and I heard from a soldier that he, and a number of his companions, several of whom had lost their legs, were permitted to remain on their backs upon a little straw for whole days, in a deserted farmhouse outside Givonne. Their dressings had neither been removed nor changed; they had had only water to drink, and a small quantity of musty black bread to eat.
Another suffered from a terrible bed-sore, which arose in the same way.
But what was our surprise, when, on the following day, the Germans sent us up from the town 130 French wounded, to make room for their own in Sedan! They had them conveyed on stretchers; and, as it happened to be a pouring wet day, the unhappy men arrived in their new quarters drenched to the skin and shivering with cold, for many of them had nothing but a light shoddy American blanket to cover them or their tarpaulin.
These new comers, the victims of neglect, exposure, and overcrowding, became soon the victims also of fever, secondary hemorrhage, dysentery, pyæmia, and hospital gangrene. It cannot be surprising that they died every day by the dozen. One morning, in particular, I call to mind that there had been fourteen deaths during the night.
Whether it was that the Germans had more wounded of their own than they could conveniently attend to,---which I believe was the case,---and were therefore unable to look after the French wounded, or that they were unwilling to do so, I cannot tell, but I know, from personal observation, that large numbers of French soldiers died from the neglect which they had undergone previous to entering our hospitals.
I am aware that the Germans have been blamed, on more than one occasion, for the fearfully neglected state of the French wounded in the districts occupied by them. But I think the true explanation may be found, first and foremost, in the great desire which the peasants had to convert their houses into ambulances, outside of which they could hang the Red Cross flag. Thereby, they exempted themselves from having the invaders billeted on them. But also, it was owing to the reluctance which these same peasants felt at parting with their wounded, which would have put an end to their own immunity. Furthermore, we must take into our account the undoubted fact that the Prussians were themselves anxious to leave them with the inhabitants, and so get quit of the trouble which it involved to transport and treat them surgically. Besides this, so great was the dread which the French wounded experienced, of being handled by German doctors and taken to German hospitals, that, in many instances, they persuaded their own people to conceal their presence as long as possible. And, all through, we cannot but remember the appalling disorganisation and incompetence of the French voluntary ambulances, which were never to be found when wanted, and which when they did appear, brought with them little or nothing that was necessary to make a battlefield ambulance useful. They possessed no stores; they had few willing hands or cool heads, and discipline was unknown to them.
I think it but right to add, that once the French were transmitted to a German hospital, they invariably (as I can testify from experience) met with the greatest kindness at the hands of the military surgeons, and had all that science and good order could do for them.
During all this time we were virtually prisoners in the hands of the Prussians, and they kept a regular guard upon our quarters, while numerous sentries paced up and down the ramparts beside us, as we went to and fro. Nevertheless, far from interfering in any way they gave us help in every possible manner, and showed us the most marked deference. But the sentries who, after nightfall, were placed every fifty yards in the streets, were, at first, constantly challenging us, until they came to recognise our uniform, and knew who we were.
An incident, which I ought not to pass over, occurred one evening as Hayden and I rode out for an airing. We were going along the road which led through the Prussian artillery camp outside Donchery, and we met a carriage or landau, accompanied by a strong guard of Uhlans, in which was a French officer, evidently wounded, for he lay on his back, propped up on pillows. Another officer of rank sat beside him. We were informed that the wounded prisoner was Marshal MacMahon, and that he was on his way to Germany through Belgium; but I have found since: that this could not have been the case, for Marshal MacMahon was taken away early on the day of Sedan itself. Next we trotted on to the cottage at Frénois, where, a few days previously, the Emperor had met Count Bismarck. We then rode to the Château Bellevue in which Napoleon had had his interview with the King of Prussia and the capitulation was signed. Here I was shown, and sat upon, the chair in which the fallen Emperor had been seated. The pen and ink were shown us, also, with which, as it was alleged, the articles had been written. But I felt by no means sure of this and told my companion so. It was amusing to see his indignation, and the vehement way in which he put down my scepticism, as, detracting from the interest of our pilgrimage.
Our next move was to inspect some of the enemy's positions on the heights of Marfée. Here we could trace no débris of any kind,---a sufficiently striking contrast to what we had observed on the other side, where one might conceive that myriads of the French had come together for a death struggle. Over many of the Prussian graves were erected small improvised crosses, with the numbers of the dead marked in black paint. Of these graves not a few were afterwards opened, and the bodies buried deeper down; for they had been lying so close to the surface that the odour became most offensive. The Prussians wisely got their dead out of sight quickly, and buried them hastily, without caring how imperfectly the work was executed at the time. This they did lest the sight of the dead might have a demoralising effect upon the living. As we took a zigzag course towards home, we passed close by the railway station, and perceived that it was full of wounded men. The Salle d'Attente and all the offices and rolling-stock had been converted into ambulances. In many of the carriages the partitions had been removed, so that they now presented the appearance of a hospital upon wheels.
The sight was interesting to me, for I had been one of the last who had travelled in those carriages and alighted on that platform. As we passed on we skirted the French camp, and scanned the remaining occupiers---now reduced to a handful---of this plague-spot. And before returning, we inspected the pontoon bridge which the Prussians had thrown across the Meuse upon the evening of the 31st. I had never seen a bridge of the kind, and was naturally struck with this wonderful result of an hour's labour. By-and-by, fortune gave me an opportunity of seeing a still more marvellous bridge of boats, constructed and destroyed on the Loire at Orleans.
Next day, when I had finished my work, which consisted, as usual, of dressing wounds of every conceivable description, I was despatched by Dr. Sims to Dr. Frank at Bazeilles, in order to ascertain what additional surgical material was required to carry on his hospital at that place. Passing through the town, I noticed that the streets of Sedan were no longer overflowing with French soldiers. They were filled with Prussians, wearing that grave or stolid expression which marked them out so clearly from their adversaries. All the shutters were up, the doors closed, and not an inhabitant to be seen. One could imagine that the town had been completely deserted before the hostile troops had entered.
Such, however, was by no means the case. The inhabitants had shut themselves up as a silent protest, and that their eyes might be relieved from the spectacle of the invader rejoicing over his victory. For, true it is that with a Frenchman, to be out of sight is to be out of mind. A few days later came a decree from the German Commandant, obliging the citizens to open their doors and shops, and to resume the ordinary traffic.
I left the town by the Balan gate, stepped off the high road, which was blocked with transport and Commissariat waggons, and took my way through the fields. In this short journey of less than a mile, I unwittingly stepped over many a grave, and was sometimes made unpleasantly aware of the proximity of its occupant to the surface. Having arrived at my destination, which was easily found,---for the château was an ancient mansion, standing in the midst of fine woods and gardens, and had an avenue leading from the village through a handsome entrance. I delivered my orders, and then looked round the hospital. It was airy, clean, and commodious, was evidently worked on system, and not overcrowded. In attention to this latter point, lies the secret of success in a field hospital.
I was privately made aware of an interesting fact, that the pleasant old man who went about dressed in a rustic costume, blue blouse, loose trousers, and rough shoes, and made himself generally useful, was the owner of this pretty place. He had adopted the disguise as a safeguard against the Prussians, and in order to keep an eye on his property. From time to time, he produced out of his secret stores wine of an old vintage and corned meat,---both welcome delicacies during those days of horseflesh soup and black bread.
Having done my errand, I walked through a plantation which communicated by a wicket with the road leading to the village. More than a week had elapsed since our attention was being drawn in the direction of Bazeilles by those continued volleys of musketry, and the fearful conflagration which had been so conspicuous in the darkness. Yet some of the houses were smouldering as I passed through. One of our Ambulance surgeons who had been present at the street-fighting, gave a vivid description of the scenes enacted there under his own observation; but to these I have already alluded, and I shall relate only what I saw. Here it was that the dead lay in such heaps that they had to be cleared away before the cavalry could pass. Now all were decently buried, except such as lay beneath the burning ruins, and of these, people said, there were numbers. As the weather was again very close, the odour was in some places most disagreeably perceptible. Strewn about was débris of every kind ; arms, accoutrements, broken furniture and household effects, portions of bedding, and shreds of women's and children's clothing. I pulled at one piece of a garment which was visible through the débris of a ruined house, and fancied that its wearer was lying only a few inches beneath. It was a child, so far as I could judge from the dress. That thought made me hurry away from the spot with a feeling of sickness. Before its downfall, Bazeilles had been a pretty little town, each house having its own trees and garden; but now, with the exception of a few flowers and shrubs at the Mairie, all had been destroyed. There were statues and vases still standing in their place; but not a single thing which could lead one to suppose that, a few days previously, this heap of ruins had been a thriving village, its streets lined with comfortable houses, and its people flourishing.
The village church, standing in the centre of the Square, was a total wreck. On entering, I perceived that here, too, the shells had done their work effectively; for the altar seemed as if it had been struck and shivered to pieces by a mighty hammer. The stone font set in the wall was broken to bits, the glass hung in cones from the windows. I have kept some of these as memorials to this day. Among the rubbish of the altar and tabernacle, I came upon a piece of shell,---the same, no doubt, that wrecked the sanctuary. This I have also preserved.
For some time I wandered about the deserted streets, taking in the sad sight. So fierce had been the conflagration that the trees were burned down to the bare trunks. On turning a corner, I espied at the top of the street, facing me, a man with a portfolio and easel in front of him, hard at work sketching the ruins. As I approached he gave me a searching look, and resumed his work. Later on he came up to the Hospital, and I found he was an artist on the staff of the Illustrated London News. In that paper I saw afterwards the sketch he was taking; and a very excellent one I judge it to be.
On the way back to my quarters I saw a crowd of children at a convent door, from the steps of which two nuns were distributing bread from a large basket. These children, I was informed, were some of the innocents who had fled with their mothers from the burning village. It made my heart ache to see the eagerness with which these half-famished little creatures snatched at and began to devour the bread. And now as I slowly trudged up the steep path which led to our Hospital, I could not but reflect how terrible a curse is war, and what a very faint idea he will have of it who has not seen the detestable thing face to face.
Our Hospital work, hitherto very heavy indeed, was now increased by our thirty-six tents. All were filled with wounded; and we should soon have overtasked our strength, but for the timely assistance which the English Society lent us. About the 11th September, Drs. A. O. Mackellar, Sherwell, Beck and Warren, and two dressers, accompanied by two English nursing Sisters---Miss Pearson and Miss McLoughlin---arrived, the former from Metz, the latter from London. They brought a supply of Mallow condensed milk and potted beef---a welcome supplement to black coffee and horseflesh soup. Up to this we had quite forgotten the outer world; and we knew little of the great events which had passed, and were passing, outside our own limited experience.
Some days previous to being thus reinforced, several of us were attacked by intestinal disorders, from which I, among the number, suffered severely. In a few days, the origin of this malady was accounted for. The body of a Zouave, in a state of semi-decomposition, was drawn out of the well which alone supplied the Hospital.
His presence there was discovered by the bumping of the bucket against something soft, when a grappling iron was let down and brought up the dead body . . . . This poor fellow had, we supposed, been wounded slightly on the 1st; and, during that night, or the night after, had dragged himself to the edge of the well, and had fallen in, probably owing to his efforts to procure some relief from his thirst. There was no other way of accounting for his presence. Dr. MacCormac christened this well "L'Eau de Zouave ". I resolved never again to complain of the coarse and scanty fare upon which we subsisted ; but my blood curdled at the thought that this unsavoury and deadly beverage, in the shape of a cold infusion of Zouave and brandy, had for some days past been my chief drink. Such is war!
The weather, which had been fine and warm since we left Paris, had now become wet and stormy. In spite of all we could do, the misery and wretchedness of the wounded under canvas was beyond description. For the rain came through the tents and soaked their scanty bedding. I occupied a small tent in the middle of the others; and to give some notion of the weather, I may mention that one night, when I had taken off nearly all my clothes (by no means a usual, or always possible, proceeding) and had got between the blankets, being stretched on a straw mattress, I awoke to find myself in the open air, with the rain and wind beating fiercely upon me. The tent had been swept away by a gust of wind. I started out of bed, and, standing in the dark, up to my ankles in mud, drenched, and not half-dressed, called to the Hospital guard. One of them brought a lantern, and guided me to the main building close by, where I found some dry clothes, and made up a bed with a few benches in the mess-room. With the help of a tumbler of brandy and hot water, and a dose of chlorodyne, I had an excellent night's rest in my new quarters.
But this bad weather, exposure, and overcrowding---all things beyond our control---brought disaster into our camp. Pyæmia and secondary hemorrhage showed themselves everywhere. All our secondary operations died, and I regret to say that their places were immediately filled up by the Germans, who turned all the French wounded that they could out of the principal buildings of the town, and sent them up to us, in order to make room for their own. Though the position of the tents was changed, and disinfectants used as far as possible, numbers of these new invalids had been hardly with us a couple of days when they were seized by the same infection. The Hospital had become a centre of the plague, and threatened to be a death-trap to all who should be sent thither.