The epic battle of the Marine Fusiliers in the Great War
The men of the French Fusiliers Marins were always bound to draw public attention because irrespective of their proud military tradition, which often had them fighting alongside the celebrated French Foreign Legion, their distinctive uniform set them apart from the ordinary ‘poilus’ of the French infantry. The ‘naval style’ uniform of the men with their characteristic jaunty red pompomed hats and their officers in naval finery made them a unit guaranteed to draw attention and inspire admiration and romance. The role of this unit should not be confused with that of British Royal Marines. They were not intended to be sea going soldiers but to serve as land based infantry primarily in defence of naval stations and in campaigns where amphibious landings and naval support was essential. In the opening stages of the First World War between the middle of October and the middle of November 1914, these remarkable troops fought at Dixmude in Flanders, against the overwhelming tide of the German Army, in a fierce action that upheld their finest traditions, but all but annihilated them. This book is the account of that battle.
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The night was pursuing its normal course, and as there were no indications of disturbance, Dr. Duguet took the opportunity to go and get a little rest in the house where he was living, which was just across the street opposite his ambulance. The Abbé Le Helloco, chaplain of the 2nd Regiment, had joined him at about 1.30 a.m. The latter admits that he was rather uneasy because of the earlier skirmish, in which as was his habit, he had been unremitting in his ministrations to the wounded. After a few minutes’ talk the two men separated to seek their straw pallets. The Abbé had been asleep for an hour or two, when he was awakened by shots close at hand. He roused himself and went to Dr. Duguet, who was already up. The two did not exchange a word. Simultaneously, without taking the precaution of extinguishing the lights behind them, they hurried to the street. Enframed by the lighted doorway, they at once became a target; a volley brought them down in a moment. Dr. Duguet had been struck by a bullet in the abdomen; the Abbé was hit in the head, the arm, and the right thigh. The two bodies were touching each other. ‘Abbé,’ said Dr. Duguet, ‘we are done for. Give me absolution. I regret ...’ The Abbé found strength to lift his heavy arm and to make the sign of the cross upon his dying comrade. Then he fainted, and this saved him. Neither he nor Dr. Duguet had understood for the moment what was happening. Whence had the band of marauders who had struck them down come, and how had they managed to steal into our lines without being seen? It was a mystery. This fusillade breaking out behind them had caused a certain disorder in the sections nearest to it, who thought they were being taken in the rear, and who would have been, indeed, had the attack been maintained. The band arrived in front of the ambulance station at the moment when the staff (three Belgian doctors, a few naval hospital orderlies, and Quartermaster Bonnet) were attending to Dr. Duguet, who was still breathing. They made the whole lot prisoners and carried them along in their idiotic rush through the streets. Both officers and soldiers must have been drunk. This is the only reasonable explanation of their mad venture. We held all the approaches to Dixmude; the brief panic that took place in certain sections had been at once controlled. The improbability of a night attack inside the defences was so great that Commander Jeanniot, who had been in reserve that night, and who, roused by the firing like Dr. Duguet and Abbé Le Helloco, had gone into the street to call his sector to arms, had not even taken his revolver in his hand. Mistaking the identity and the intentions of the groups he saw advancing, he ran towards them to reassure them and bring them back to the trenches. This little stout, grizzled officer, rough and simple in manner, was adored by the sailors. He was known to be the bravest of the brave, and he himself was conscious of his power over his men. When he recognised his mistake it was too late. The Germans seized him, disarmed him, and carried him off with loud ‘Hochs!’ of satisfaction. The band continued to push on towards the Yser, driving a few fugitives before them, and a part of them succeeded in crossing the river under cover of the general confusion. Happily this did not last long. Captain Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, who was in command of the guard on the bridge, identified the assailants with the help of a searchlight, and at once opened fire upon them.4 The majority of the Germans within range of our machine-guns were mown down; the rest scattered along the streets and ran to cellars and ruins to hide themselves. But the head of the column had got across with its prisoners, whom they drove before them with the butt-ends of their rifles.5 For four hours they wandered about, seeking an issue which would enable them to rejoin their lines.
It was raining the whole time. Weary of wading through the mud, the officers stopped behind a hedge to hold a council. A pale light began to pierce the mist; day was dawning, and they could no longer hope to regain the German lines in a body. Prudence dictated that they should disperse until nightfall. But what was to be done with the prisoners? The majority voted that they should be put to death. The Belgian doctors protested. Commander Jeanniot, who took no part in the debate, was talking calmly to Quartermaster Bonnet. At a sign from their leader the Boches knelt and opened fire upon the prisoners. The Commander fell, and as he was still breathing, they finished him off with their bayonets. The only survivors were the Belgian doctors, who had been spared, and Quartermaster Bonnet, who had only been hit in the shoulder. It was at this moment that the marauders were discovered. One section charged them forthwith; another fell back to cut off their retreat. What happened afterwards? Some accounts declare that the German officers learned what it costs to murder prisoners, and that our men despatched the dogs there and then; but the truth is, that, in spite of the general desire to avenge Commander Jeanniot, the whole band was taken prisoner and brought before the admiral, who had only the three most prominent rascals of the gang executed.