The Night Sentinel – WW1 Soldier Recalls the Fear and Wonder of Sunrise on Western Front

The American poet Alan Seeger volunteered to fight in the French Army in 1914. His poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” which spoke to the grim fatalism shared by many First World War soldiers, was published posthumously. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The night was a time for patrols hidden in the darkness. The danger was felt most at the petit poste, the most advanced guard against the enemy.”

For nearly the entire First World War, the opposing sides on the Western Front faced each other along a curving line of fortifications from France’s frontier with Switzerland north through Soissons, Albert, Arras and Ypres, Belgium to the North Sea coast near Ostend.

Unable to break the stalemate, the armies essentially dug downward into the ground, creating a trench line that would last until the final summer of the war.

The American poet Alan Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion at the start of the war, and would spend nearly a year on the line at Craonnelle, beneath the Chemin des Dames.

The 26-year-old Harvard graduate believed that conflict was a natural state of man, though he wished to fight like a chivalrous knight and lamented modernity’s war of machines.

Late in 1914, Seeger began to provide occasional reports from the trenches of France to the New York newspaper The Sun. In the spring of 1915, he published an essay in the fledgling progressive magazine The New Republic. His work was seen, in part, as an appeal to America to enter the war on the side of France.

In the following passage from Chris Dickon’s A Rendezvous with Death: Alan Seeger in Poetry, at War the author lets us join his literary protagonist at the ramparts of No Man’s Land at sunrise.

THE WINTER WAS over, but all the fruits of spring could be destroyed – literally and poetically – by the shells of war. In this time of renewal the young soldier had to think of his possible death. Memories of the best of his life were bittersweet, perhaps never to be revisited. The night sentry prayed for the dawn, thus increasing the brevity of his youth, “and the sense of its vanishing opportunities for happiness plagues his heart with a poignancy of regret that at times becomes almost intolerable . . . . [He] has ample time for reflection. Alone under the stars, war in its cosmic rather than its moral aspect reveals itself to him.”

The night was a time for patrols hidden in the darkness. For the sentinel, musings about the cosmos gave way to a sense of “a grave danger, a terrible responsibility.” The danger was felt most at the petit poste, the most advanced guard against the enemy. When the night was favoured with the light of the moon or the stars, the sentry could have at least some small sense of what was out there. Full darkness, however, was a source of hallucinations. Tree trunks could become human forms and dark spots could seem to move. One could merely suspect that he had heard something of danger, and the sound of broken twig could startle the beat of his heart.

In the winter, these nights were 14 hours long, and there was no lasting relief from the cold. The end of the ordeal was “heralded now by the morning star. In the last hours of darkness, amid the summer constellations just beginning to appear, the beautiful planet rises, marvellous, resplendent. Not long after the green glow of dawn mantles over the east. The landscape begins to grow visible, the black spots come out in all their innocuous detail.” The daytime sentries arrive and the nighttime sentry returns to safe harbour for a bit of coffee or a bit of wine with sugar, or a measure of sweet rum to acquire “in its fullness of sensual delight the bliss of falling to sleep.”

In the spring, the violence of the fight rose along his portion of the line. It could be heard at varying distances and degrees of thunder, and it could be seen in the acrobatics of the airplanes in the sky. The men would venture out into a beautiful spring that was replacing a black and white winter. “. . . [The] air sweet with exhalations from the heavy, dew drenched grass. From the forest the sweet call of cuckoos and wood pigeons. May morning, rustle of leaves, sunshine, tranquility . . .”

One could become careless in all of that, until an occasional shell arrived from an unknown point at a distance to kill or maim. It was an unsatisfying proposition for both sides of the transaction. “The gunner has not the satisfaction of knowing that he has hit, nor the wounded at least of hitting back. You cannot understand how after months of this one longs for the day when this miserable trench warfare will cease and when in the élan of open action he can return blow for blow.”

The old ways of warfare, in which the individual acting on his own or in concert was the primary weapon of battle, were giving way to the mechanical war in which the individual was often under the control of external machinery. The way of the knight had been replaced by the way of industry. And the way of industry and materialism was antithetical to the way of the knight. Seeger described the contradiction in a report to The Sun.

This style of warfare is extremely modern and for the artilleryman is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but with none of its enthusiasms or splendid élan, he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.

Alan Seeger was killed in a French sector during the Battle of the Somme. His comrades remember him cheering them on after being mortally wounded by enemy gunfire. He was 28 years old.

Alan Seeger eventually received his wish for open action, blow for blow, in the Second Battle of Champagne, and died in the Battle of the Somme outside of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916. He predicted his own inevitable fate in the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Many consider Seeger a hero of France, both for his sacrifice and what the French perceived as his voice in the ultimate decision of the United States to enter the war in 1917. A centennial observation of his death was celebrated both in Paris and Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 2016. 

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