Death of French Soldiers:
The soldiers from Newfoundland arrived at
no-man’s-land in front of the trench called Byng’s Man at ten
o’clock, when a pale sun was finally breaking through the overcast
sky and all the cannons, for a moment, had fallen silent.
It had snowed while they tramped through the
trenches. Their coats were soaked, and they were cold. As he labored
through the snow, each man dragged along with him the frosty cloud
of his breath, and his troubles, and his fears, and the memories of
the loved ones he might never see again. There were ten of them in
all, led by a sergeant who was a good fellow, a trapper in frozen
wastes even more vast and silent than these, in a far-off country
where he battled only bears and wolves.
While three of them climbed down into Bingo, which
had been heavily damaged by shells, three others set off on a
reconnaissance of the German trench. Those who were left explored
no-man’s-land, where they found the scattered bodies of five French
The first man they saw was kneeling in a hole, with
his eyes open, and beneath the light covering of snow clinging to
him, he seemed like a statue at prayer. Another soldier, very young,
the only one who was not wounded in the hand, the only one who still
wore his regimental number and his insignia on his collar, had
fallen over backward, his chest torn apart by a piece of shrapnel,
an expression of deliverance on his face.
The sergeant was outraged by the barbarity of the
enemy soldiers, who had robbed the poor dead men of everything,
taking home souvenirs to show off in
front of their Frauleins. He told those with him that every man who
dies with his shoes on deserves a decent burial, that they couldn’t
bury every soldier who fell on the field of battle, but that they
were going to bury these men here because the one on his knees was
begging them to, and that if they didn’t it would surely bring them
So they went to this trouble, those soldiers from
Newfoundland, on one cold morning among so many others in the war.
Their patrol leader was Richard Bonnaventure, who had explored the
Frozen North and hunted with the Eskimos, like the man he pitied,
although he had no way of knowing this.
They gathered the bodies and laid them down together
in a shell crater, they read the names on their identification tags,
and the sergeant wrote them down, one by one, in his notebook.
And then they found a tarp in the enemy trench, good
solid canvas, and they laid it over the dead men, and they unfolded
the shafts of their shovels, and all together, they filled in the
hole, quickly, for the cannons had come to life again, to the east
and west, like a long drum-roll calling them back to the war.
Before they marched off, Dick Bonnaventure had one
of his men empty the contents of a red tobacco tin into his pocket
and hand over the box. He shoved it three-quarters of the way into
the earth, after enclosing within a message addressed to whoever
should find the grave, a page torn from his notebook on which he had
written in pencil, as best he could, resting the paper on his knee:
Five French soldiers,
Who died with their shoes on,
Chasing the wind,
The name of the place,
Where the roses fade,
And a date,
a long time ago.