Last weekend, I noted that it might make sense to know something about the French philosopher-poet Charles Péguy if one were writing for a blog named after him. I continue to work my way through Péguy’s beautiful book-length poem “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope” and hope soon to gather my thoughts about it here. But in the meantime, I want to pass on a report from the front lines, literally.
My pal Frank, who now head-mans the blog I started 16 months ago, “Why I Am Catholic,” is a retired Marine and a full-time archivist in his community. My fingertips were not cold from typing my first post on Péguy before Frank had sent me a fascinating account of the poet’s death in battle on the Marne, September 5, 1914. The Marne was the last line of defense between the advancing German army and Paris, the French capital. Péguy died leading his men forward against German positions.
The full account (how does Frank find these things?!) is here. Maurice Barres describes the action, with help from a letter written by one of Péguy’s men, Victor Boudon, who witnessed his death.
Barres writes: “Charles Peguy was one of the patriotic young writers who, having taken upon himself the task of purifying the French soul, and of arousing it to intense activity, was ever occupied with studying and holding up to admiration the great heroes of our race — Joan of Arc, for example. His entire life was one long advance to the assault of German positions; for every day that he lived Peguy realized more fully that the soil of France had long been cumbered by Germanic ideas — anomalous, sterile, and menacing. All that we have left us of his literary work denounces, attacks, and repels the spiritual invasion of our University by Germany. And he dies, sword in hand, at the head of the Soldiers of Deliverance, marching to the assault of German positions. The poem is made perfect.”
Boudon’s letter vividly describes Péguy in the heat of battle: “We are in a position which the German fire is beginning to render untenable; the shells skim over our heads with a wicked purring sound, and burst a few yards in our rear. Instinctively every head is bent at each premonitory whistle. ‘Don't be afraid,’ says Peguy with a laugh; ‘it makes a noise, but it doesn't kill.’ To cap the climax a German air-plane appears above us; it has pointed out our location, which, a few seconds later, is liberally showered with shells; there is a genuine cloud-burst of them. We have to leave the spot, and, by fours, march swiftly along the road which brings us, fifteen hundred metres farther on, behind Marquivilliers. The officers issue orders with admirable calmness; Lieutenant de la Cornillere, switch in hand, is standing with Lieutenant Peguy amid the shells which plough up the road, roll along the ground in a furrow of green smoke, and burst all about us with a crash of thunder. We have ‘caught the squall,’ and at every fresh arrival of great chunks of steel, we do a rapid ‘flat on your faces,’ and draw our knapsacks over our heads. Our officers alone, with the colonel and major, stand on the road in the roaring storm—Peguy smiling, La Cornillere playing with his switch with an air of marvelous indifference, while Captain Guerin, his monocle in his eye, and leaning on his cane (he was severely wounded in Morocco and has to walk with a cane), superintends our retrograde movement.”
Then comes the decisive day: “On the morning of September 5, the 55th Division of the Army of Paris, of which my regiment, the 276th, formed a part, was on the left of the army, which had at last received orders for a general offensive, ‘to be killed on the spot rather than give ground.’ Before us, on the wooded hills stretching from Dammartin to Meaux, Von Kluck's Boches, who had dogged us step by step in our terrible retreat from Roye, were on the watch, invisible, burrowing in their trenches like cunning beasts.
“In torrid heat the battalion made a brief halt in the pretty little village of Nantouillet. Seated on a stone, white with dust like the rest of us, streaming with sweat, with beard unkempt, his eyes sparkling behind his glasses, once more I see our dear lieutenant, brave Charles Peguy, writer, poet, soldier, whom we all loved as our friend; who, in Lorraine as well as during the retreat, insensible to fatigue, fearless under the rain of shells, went from man to man, encouraging by word and deed; running through the ranks of our company from front to rear; eating, as we ate, only one day in three, without a word of complaint; always young despite his age , familiar with the speech which Parisians, as most of us were, can understand; reviving with a brief phrase, sometimes biting, sometimes sarcastic or jocose, the drooping spirits; always dauntless, preaching by example—once more I see our dear lieutenant, inspiring us, when many were beginning to despair, with his unshaken convictions of final victory, while he read eagerly a letter from his family, a tear of happiness glistening in his eye.”
And the decisive hour: “At last, word came, and we started forward gladly, deployed as skirmishers, under the energetic command of Captain Guerin, who was by Peguy's side on the right of our line. It is five o'clock; the German artillery, overwhelmed, has ceased to speak; but when we reach the crest of the hill a terrific hail of bullets welcomes us: we dash for the leveled and tangled oatstalks, where many fall; it is difficult ground. One more leap, and we find cover behind the embankment of the Iverny-Chauconin road, gasping and breathless. The bullets hiss close above our heads; we fire at five hundred metres at the Germans, who are well sheltered behind the trees and thickets that line the little stream of La Sorciere, and are almost invisible in their earth-colored uniforms. Through a gap in the trees, we can catch momentary glimpses of German companies swiftly climbing the hill, supported by the infernal fire of the battalions in front of us. They are falling back on Monthyon and Chauconin, which they partly burn for spite. . . .
“Back! They're falling back! In clarion tones Lieutenant Péguy gives the order to fire, indicates the range and the objectives. He stands behind us, leaning against an abandoned roadroller, upright, gallant, and fearless under the downpour of bullets which hiss about us, while the infernal tap-tap of the Prussian machine-guns beats time.
“That wild rush through the oat-field has exhausted our breath; we are bathed in sweat, and our good lieutenant is in the same plight. A brief moment's respite, then, at a signal from the captain, his voice rings out: ‘Forward!’
“Ah! this time it is no laughing matter. Scaling the embankment and skimming over the ground, stumbling among the beet-roots and clods of earth, bent double so as to offer a smaller target for the bullets, we rush to the assault. The harvest continues, frightful to see; the song of death hums about us. Thus we press on for two hundred metres; but to go farther for the moment, with no support in our rear and no possibility of replenishing our cartridge-belts, is sheer madness. It means a general massacre; not ten of us will get through! Captain Guérin and the other lieutenant, M. de La Cornillere, are stark dead.
“‘Lie down,’ roars Peguy, ‘and fire at will!’ But he himself remains on his feet, field-glass in hand, directing our fire—heroic in hell.
“We shoot like madmen, black with powder, and the muskets burning our fingers. Every second there are shrieks and groans and gasps which tell their story: dear friends are killed at my side. How many are dead? how many wounded? They are past counting now.
“Peguy is still standing, despite our cries to him to lie down — a glorious fool with that reckless courage of his.
“Most of us had lost our knapsacks at Ravenel, during the retreat, but a knapsack at this moment would be a priceless shelter. And the lieutenant's voice rings out ceaselessly, ‘Fire! Fire! In God's name!’
“There is some whimpering: ‘We haven't any knapsack, lieutenant; we shall all be done in!’ — ‘No matter!’ shouts Peguy, above the howling tempest. ‘I haven't one either, you see, so fire, fire!’ And he straightens up as if defying the balls, seeming to summon the death which he glorified in his verse.
‘At that same instant a death-bearing bullet strikes the hero's head, crushes that broad and noble forehead. He has fallen on his side, motionless, without a cry; in the retreat of the barbarians he had the last prevision of the impending victory; and when leaping forward like a lunatic, a hundred metres farther on, I cast a terrified glance behind, I see yonder, as one black spot amid a multitude of others, stretched lifeless on the scorched and dusty ground, half-buried in the broad green leaves of the beet-tops, the body of our brave, our dear lieutenant.”
Barres ends on a triumphal note: “Peguy arrived in the other world with a splendid escort of his friends—a whole chivalry ennobled by gaping wounds. Whence, pray, comes this miracle which, at the fated moment, raises up her indispensable sons to serve France? Eternal truths have found their youthful witnesses. This war sets before us, by tens of thousands, examples whereby France shall live, as our ancestors, in days of old, lived, by the example of Roland and the blameless knights of the old ballads, and yesterday, by the example of the heroes of the great epic. Let us try to meditate upon the sublime virtues of the soldiers of 1914-17.”