The White Battalion
by Frances Gilchrist Wood
An orderly ushered two officers of the Foreign Legion,
young men in mud-stained khaki, through the
door of a dugout back of the fighting line in France. As
they entered the hut a French officer in horizon blue,
equally muddy, rose and returned the American’s salute.
“You will be seated?” He pushed camp chairs toward
A guttering candle, stuck in a bottle neck, veiled rather
than revealed the sordid interior. The light flickered
across the young Frenchman’s face, threw gaunt shadows
under his eyes emphasized the look of utter weariness
and—there was something more.
The senior officer of the Legion, Captain Hailes,
looked at him keenly.
“Major Fouquet, we report at headquarters in an hour,
sir. Lieutenant Agor, commanding platoon at extreme
right—contact platoon with your battalion, sir, reports
we lost touch with the French forces between the advance
and the first trench. Thought it might have been his
watch, but the timepiece checks up to a second.”
The captain hesitated uneasily, “We are not presuming
to question, sir, but Lieutenant Agor says he saw—we
felt there might have been some cause, some reason that
did not appear, so we came—”
The Frenchman lifted his head in a stupid way altogether
foreign to his usual manner.
“Merci, Captain Hailes. We were—forty seconds
slow in attacking the first trench, sir.” He went on mechanically
as if delivering a rehearsed report. “Caught
up and reached the second trench on time. Few prisoners
besides the children. Enemy practically wiped out.”
He concluded heavily, a dazed look blotting all
“There was a cause for the forty seconds delay,
Fouquet struggled up out of the curious apathy. He
cleared his throat, made several attempts to speak and
finally blurted out.
“You won’t believe it—I saw it and I cannot! But
there are the children—and a first-line trench full of
dead Huns—without a mark on them! Barres was flying
over us—he saw the Battalion—knew them for old
comrades. The women—all of them saw the faces of
their dead! I don’t believe it, sir,—but how did we do
it? The women never thrust once in the first trench—the
children haven’t a wound—that’s got to prove it!”
He stopped abruptly—looking from one to the other
with a gesture of hopeless protest. The Americans regarded
him with puzzled eyes.
“Was it some new trick of the Huns? God knows
they’ve given them to us in plenty! Can you tell us—it
Fouquet pulled himself forward, his knuckles whitening
with his grip of the table edge.
“You know the history of the section of the Front the
Avengers retook to-day?”
“No, Major Fouquet. We came in later, with the
“It began with the great retreat of 1914, sir, when the
Germans were driving us back toward Paris. They had
crowded our army against the river. Between the slow
crossing and their terrible artillery fire, new to us then,
we faced annihilation!”
There was a rustle at the door of the dugout and a
whispered password. Fouquet did not pause.
“To the —nth Battalion was given the honor of acting
as rear guard. Ah, sir,—” his voice steadied—guttural
with pride and emotion, “our men stood like a
barricade of rock against which the waves of German infantry
dashed themselves, only to break and be withdrawn
for re-formation. Each receding wave showed
where it had bit into the red and blue barrier, for we were
wearing the old uniform then, but the bits slid together,
closing up the gaps to stand against the next flood.
When the eroded wall went down, undermined and over-whelmed
at last, the main army of France was across the
river and safe.
“Only two of us lived to rejoin our army, Lieutenant
Barres and myself. Barres’s leg was shattered, hopelessly
crippling him for the infantry, but when the wounds
healed—France could not spare so brave a man, so they
strapped him to the seat of a plane in the winged section
of the army, where he is still fighting!”
The sharp click, click of crutches tapped across the floor
as Barres of the Aviation Squad came into the fringe of
light. He saluted, then broke in upon Fouquet’s story.
“But you do not tell them, mon camarade, but for you
I would have died with the rest! He does not tell you,
sir, that he put his own chance of escape into peril by
dragging me—a helpless burden—with him!”
He looked at Fouquet with an anxious frown, “I
thought there might be enquiry about to-day. You
A look flashed between them, the love of men who have
faced death together.
“Yes, Barres, I shall need you. It is the history of the
Avengers I am telling—to explain—”
He turned to the Americans.
“In the years of struggle that came after the retreat,
our women of France have taken the places of men behind
the lines, while our soldiers held the Front. But
when Russia freed herself the news filtered through the
provinces that the women of Russia when the revolution
needed them formed themselves into the Battalion of
Death. We also heard that German women were in the
“Then the flame of a common inspiration touched the
widows of the —nth. They sought and found each other
and petitioned as their right that they be entered and
drilled as the —nth Battalion of Avengers.
“Military objections refused them again and again,
but the women stood as firm in their purpose as their
men who had held the post of rear guard. Always they
asked, Why should France be left a nation of sorrowful
women only? Let the widowed women of the —nth take
the place of men in the chance of death—they would
welcome it—and so save men to France.
“At last they were accepted and trained. Each added
to her equipment a small packet of cyanide of potassium
as her Russian sisters had taught her. One further
request they made, that the position assigned to them
might be in the course of the advance to retake the
ground held to the death by their men. To me was given
the great honor to be their commander.”
He drew himself up with pride. “They have justified
their petition for enlistment, sir, they wear the strap of
a battalion commended for bravery. We have been fully
trusted to hold our share of the Front in safety.”
As if at the significance of his own words his head
dropped, then lifted again grimly.
“It was for to-day’s work that this battalion was assembled
and trained to invincibility. We need no one to
interpret the meaning of the Front to us, but to the
women—to retake this strip of ground sodden with the
blood of the rear guard barricade built of their men,
meant being given the denied rite of closing glazed eyes,
the crossing of arms on rigid breasts, the lighting of
candles at head and feet and the last kiss on frozen lips.
They were mad for it—not in revenge but to right a
Fouquet’s voice thrilled, “That is the history, sir, and
the temper of the Battalion of Avengers who held the
trench at your right!
“When the order came for attack to-day, they waited,
taut as arrows in held bowstrings, at the foot of the
ladders for the signal to go over the top. Like shafts released
they sprang up the sides of the ditch. There was
sure death to the Hun in every gripped bayonet as they
bent to follow the barrage of fire across the craters and
snarled wire of No Man’s Land.
“No human sound comes through the hell of battle
artillery and yet we knew the strangling gasp that ran
the length of the line as the protective barrage made its
final jump, lifted and showed us the trench we were to
take. The women stood as motionless as the corpses
of the old —nth!
“Thrust shield-wise above the heads of the Huns,
crowning the ditch as with protective spikes, frightened
and sobbing, cowering before us were hundreds of little
Fouquet’s chair went spinning back as he leaned across
“God! men—they knew! The devil tells them! They
knew this section was held by women! For us to hold
the Front—our share of the Front—these mothers must
bayonet their way through crying, helpless babies!”
His groan found gasping echo.
“They were children of the French villages held by the
Germans—we could tell! Some of them had been shot
by the last of our barrage fire after the Huns had shoved
them over the top. It was hell to see the children’s torn
bodies writhing—we’re used to it with men! The
smallest—babies—were clinging to the older ones—children
of five or six—trying to hide—between the
“If we went on—took the ditch—these mothers must
cut through a barricade of children! If we did not go
on, we betrayed our trust, lost our share of the Front—let
the Huns behind the lines through a gap made by the
failure of the women of the —nth!
“We seemed to stand there for hours, but it was only
a second. The Huns had thrust their guns between the
children, and were holding their fire—the devilish cat
and mouse game!
“Then one of the women captains stumbled forward
and made the sign of the cross. It is the voiceless battle
cry of the Avengers and signs supreme sacrifice for all
the Front means. She lifted her right hand in the sweep
of victory—on her wrist was bound the packet of death
they carry in case of capture by the kultur beasts—and
fell, for the Huns opened fire the instant they saw her
“But the message had gotten over! They could charge—they
must—and the cyanide would erase the intolerable
memory forever! I looked at those nearest and saw
they would go through with it, but men—their faces
were set with the look of the face of Christ on the cross!”
He stopped, breathing heavily, and looked from one
American to the other.
“You won’t believe it—I saw it and I cannot—but the
proof is there! As the women gripped to thrust, leaning
forward as if to force rebellious bodies toward that barricade,
there swept down upon us from the rear or above,
a sudden striding mist—a battalion of marching shadows
in a blur of the old red and blue that outstripped the
Avengers’ advance. There was a flash of charging steel
and the waving colors of the old —nth as they swept
over the untouched children into the trench.
“It’s all a blur, sir, I can’t tell you clearly, but they
turned their faces as they passed and—we knew our dead.
You could see the women cry out and lift their arms, each
to her own man as he halted an instant beside her.
“Madame Arouet was sobbing as if caught by a bullet,
‘Jean—Jean!—to have seen you again! Ah, my God!’
The tall corporal, just beyond, threw herself with high
piercing scream—arms outstretched—toward the smiling
shadow that was passing.
“The bravest man in the old —nth, where all were
brave, dropped behind as he bent over the fallen captain.
There was a quivering smile of recognition just as the
jerking heap settled into quiet; then, as if he waited for
it, a slender blur in horizon blue sprang to his side and
swept forward with the Battalion—though the captain
still lay where she had fallen!”
Fouquet gripped his comrade, arm and crutch together,
with a cry.
“Did you see our brave captain salute as he passed?
Joyously I shouted as I fell into step beside him, but—I
dropped back—I could not keep that pace! Barres—Barres—you
saw them? You must have seen them? It
was the old —nth come back to save their women from
the last hellish trap set by fiends! We know they had the
right. This was their battleground where once before
they had saved an army of France!”
Lieutenant Agor was leaning across the table with
staring eyes: “Then—that was what I—saw, sir?” He
turned to his commander, “I told you it was like the fog
blowing in off Frisco bay, and—”
Captain Hailes half rose, “My lieutenant said he lost
you when a mist obscured the contact platoon. He said
he saw—I—thought it was shell shock—I meant to
send him behind the lines—”
Barres shook his head slowly as he caught Fouquet
about the shoulder.
“Mon ami—I saw—I know! Very low I flew over
the gap to-day when it broke and widened. I felt the
White Battalion first, rushing through the planes—then
I saw them—a mist of the old red and blue with wondrous
swords!” His voice sank low, “From above I
saw one who led them—a shining one who, even as we
have read, smote the camp of the Assyrians”.
“It was the old —nth that followed. I knew them!”
His voice caught. “Did you see the rascals in the third
squad goose-stepping as they closed in on the Hun?”
With a break of unsteady laughter, “It was always their
final joke with the German, sir, before they got him.
No one could break them of it! Fouquet—we know! It
was the old —nth, our White Battalion!”
“A White Battalion!” Agor repeated the words
slowly, still staring.
The aviator shifted his crutch and drew himself erect.
“Mes amis, the Huns fling the taunt that France has
been bled white! To us it means a White Army—a
crowding host killed in battle—the red life of gallant
youth given so gloriously that it cannot die!
“And France bled white!... We know,” the words
halted, “the country for which we went to war is
maimed—scarred—she can never again be the same
France, but—” his lifted face gleamed through the
dim light, “our battle cry has changed! We no longer
fight ‘Pour la Patrie!’ but ‘Pour le Droit!’—the right
that is greater than country!”
With a sharp intake of breath he turned to his comrade.
Fouquet’s protesting look was gone. With the sure touch
of reality he picked up the story.
“It was all over in a breath, sir—like a mist swirling
along the trenches shot through with phantom steel, and
we knew our work was being done. When it lifted—the
ditch lay motionless!
“The women had dropped on their knees with their
arms about the children. We passed the poor little ones
through to the rear in charge of the wounded.
“The first trench was piled with dead—unmarked
dead! The communicating tunnels were cleared or quiet;
that was how we made up the forty seconds and followed
the barrage on time to the second ditch.
“I looked down the line as we made ready for the second
charge. Not a Hun cried ‘Kamarad!’ or tried to
surrender when they saw the faces of the Avengers. The
second ditch was piled with nearly as many dead as the
first—marked dead! The Avengers and the White Battalion
had retaken the ground for which the —nth had
given their lives.
“That is all, sir,” the gaunt figure in mud-stained blue
straightened, “excepting that the fouling Beast is going
in the end—we know! He cannot stand against the unconquerable
dead. And when we march through Berlin,
the White Armies will march at the head of the column—”
he lifted his hand in salute, “Pour le Droit!”
The crippled aviator balanced on crutches as he
brought up his hand.
“Pour le Droit!”
Noiselessly the men of the Foreign Legion pushed back
their chairs and stood at salute. Silently they faced each
other in a long moment of understanding. The major in
blue dropped his arm and with smiling eyes gripped the
hand of the man in khaki.
He flung open the door of the dugout, humming the
Song of France in marching time. The young officers,
French and American, fell into step together.
The lilting voices filled the low room to the accent of
“Allons, enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”