The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

046 François Faber and the love for mother earth and his baby girl

François Faber

François Faber

Trenches save lives but enslave heroes

It is Sunday 9 May 1915. It is the 46th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Finally the French quite successfully mount a full-on attack at Artois.

A British offensive at Aubers ends catastrophically.

A new attempt of General Douglas Haig at Festubert, made in the nightly hours, also shows a poor result.

The British really got scared when a Turkish destroyer sends battleship Goliath, taking 570 of the 700-strong crew, to the bottom of the Dardanelles within minutes.

Sir John Fisher has lost confidence in the Dardanelles Campaign, so he hands in his resignation as First Sea Lord to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.

The Third Army and Eighth Army of the Russians collapse in Galicia.

Due to the sinking of Lusitania anti-German riots break out in England, but American president Woodrow Wilson explains again that his country is ‘too proud to fight’.

Anti-German sentiments are also stirred up by the publication of the report of the Bryce Committee, which describes the atrocities of the Hun in Belgium.

Louis Botha and his South Africans capture Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa.

The British government decides to intern all foreigners from hostile nations, who are old enough te serve.

And on the western front a sports hero is killed, Luxembourger François Faber.

It is a baby girl! François Faber has a baby girl! Yes, that ’s what it says in the telegram which he opened in his trench. The legendary ’Colombes Giant’ puts his hands up in the air and crazy of joy he jumps up and down, high enough to be hit in the heart by a German bullet. He collapses in the arms of two brothers in arms and dies.

Was this the end of the man who had won the Tour de France in 1909? He had triumphed in five consecutive stages, which was never repeated in the cycling sport. Faber was also the first foreigner to win the Tour. He had a Luxembourg passport with which he was going to serve for the French in the Foreign Legion.

Did he really die of joy over new life? Or did camaraderie drive him towards death? According to a different interpretation Faber climbs out of his trench on 9 May 1915, during an offensive at Garency, to get a seriously wounded friend from no man’s land. On his way back a German bullet is shot through his head.

Death is the big equalizer in the First World War anyway. Even celebrated  sports heroes come to an inglorious end. So many years later we cannot even establish exactly how. Yet François Faber was given a modest little memorial on the immense cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette. In the chapel, on the left past the altar, you will see his memorial plaque. ‘Cycliste, mort pour la France’.

The same words apply to Lucien Petit-Breton, who had won two editions of the Tour de France, in 1907 and 1908. He died as a humble orderly in a car crash behind the front at Troyes on 20 December 1917. But also Faber’s successor as winner of the Tour, Octave Lapize, is one of the fallen pour la patrie. As a pilot he was hit by two German flying men at an altitude of 4,500 metres in July 1917.

François Faber was a very tall man, who also did quite well in the classics of the cycling sport. There were days that his powers knew no bounds. Faber tortured the pedals and braved the elements. Not somebody to be kept calm in a trench.

He was used to keeping his head in the air, chasing the horizon. A front soldier was supposed to bend down and embrace the soil. Erich Maria Remarque, German author of the novel All quiet on the western front, expressed it as follows: ‘To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother.’

Julius Caesar ordered his soldiers to duck away in ditches, but the trench as a military phenomenon is inextricably linked to the horrors of the First World War. The paradoxical truth is that the trenches saved lives. The highest mortality figures from the war could be registered in the first months, when the war above-ground was still in full swing.

It was the Germans who first decided to duck away in the earth, thus presenting the allied generals with a fait accompli. The German Schützengräben would remain the best throughout the war. Especially the French deliberately kept their tranchées as simple as possible. A far too homely and safe atmosphere would undermine the offensive fervour of the troops.

All in all, a trench is a series of manholes, that were formed by a soldier’s natural reflex to take cover against enemy fire. It was a matter of digging or dying. ‘Sweat saves blood’. That motto was not compatible with the urge to attack with which the armies had come up to battle. However, what alternative did you have under a barrage of shells other than collapse to the ground and dig a hole as deep as possible, using the pioneer shovel that was standard equipment of a soldier.

Trenches developed from the channels between the manholes. Their architecture quickly became quite refined. Soldiers could shelter in recesses or hide their ammunition there. On the side of the parapet steps were usually made. The English referred to these as fire steps. Who knelt on a fire step, could easily aim for the enemy over the edge of the trench, hoping of course the enemy would not aim for him.

The soil structure determined the design of a trench. Ground water was just as much a nuisance as the artillery from the other side. Muddy fields had to be covered with ground and wooden planks prevented the soldiers from getting their feet wet. The English called these ‘duckboards’. To reinforce them, corrugated iron and wooden bulkheads were used. The Germans had their own specialty, wire mesh of twigs and branches. Sandbags were also useful. The Flemish had thought of an appropriate name for them: ‘little fatherlanders’. Then again the name of a complex of trenches the Belgian army had dug in the IJzerdijk sounded less familiar: Death Row.

The wider the trench, the bigger the risk a grenade would land there. So they kept the gangway between parados and parapet as narrow as possible. The trenches were constructed in a zigzag pattern for the same reason. If there was an explosion or firing from the flank, at least the comrades around the corner would be relatively  safe. Cross walls between the zigzagging ‘firing recesses’ offered extra protection.

Soon the defence would not be limited to one line of trenches. In its most detailed form a trench complex would be at least four stories deep. At an ample distance from the foremost frontline trench a defence trench was constructed. Behind this line were communication trenches. And at the very back of these the reserves waited in their support trenches for the moment that they could move forward to the front lines, via angled connections. Listeners and snipers were closest to the enemy in their forward posts, where no man’s land started.

The strips of land between the lines were filled with barbed wire or other barricades, such as Spanish riders, crossed wooden poles covered with barbed wire. But here and there also machineguns were placed to surprise the penetrating enemy. Traffic between the lines and work on the trenches mainly took place at night, when enemy planes could not spy. Preferably the excursions into no man’s land also took place in the dead of night. It could be a hell of a job, clipping away with wire cutters, to find a way through the jungle of barbed wire, that was fastened on iron stakes, resembling pigs tails. Troops that had to go ‘over the top’ the following day should have a clear passage.

Barbed wire, like the trench, has become a symbol of the Great War.The patent for  this was obtained in 1874 by the American farmer Joseph Glidden. It had made him a very rich man and it had tamed the Wild West. But in the war Glidden’s invention provided quite a few human tragedies. Those that got stuck in barbed wire would surely perish.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border the trenches swung across the landscape on both sides like a pas de deux of two armies that were not exactly swinging themselves. The Germans usually had the advantage of the terrain which in most cases they had been simply free to choose. Sometimes they had access to complete caves, such as the Caverne du Dragon under the Chemin des Dames. The underground rooms of the German officers could with some justice be called ‘ganz gemütlich’, quite pleasant. Frequently there would be wallpaper. There was electric light and furniture. A painting of the kaiser completed the picture.

The standards of the trench were of course completely different, especially on the side of the allies. Photos show us cavemen, animals rather than people, who were also forced to share their dwellings with rats and lice. In the novel Le Feu, The Fire, this is described by Henri Barbusse as follows: ‘Now you can make out a network of long ditches where the lave of the night still lingers. It is the trench. It is carpeted at bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out it smells of the night’s excretions. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath.’

This was the habitat where also François Faber had to thrive until 9 May 1915. But perhaps he appreciated the chumminess in the trenches more than the envy in the peloton. Perhaps circumstances on the front were nothing to the legionnair compared to the hardships he had to suffer as a cycle racer.

In 1910 he had fought a titanic battle with Octave Lapize, nicknamed ‘curly’. It was the first time the Pyrenees were part of the Tour de France. The racers went up and down narrow goat tracks against a grisly backdrop. High up in the mountains Lapize was more agile than the heavy-set Faber. Yet the ‘Colombes Giant’ managed to leave the cols wearing the yellow jersey.

Then Faber got a flat tire in the leg to Brest, which enabled Lapize to start the final leg to Paris in yellow. Faber hurls his forces and dashes at the French capital like a madman. To no avail. Lapize draws the longest straw in one of the most exciting finales La Grande Boucle has ever known.

This is heroism as you will only find in the world of sports.

Next week: Victor Emmanuel III

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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