Chemin des Dames (2nd Battle of the Aisne)

April 16th, 1917

Abdoulaye N’Diaye is dying, tucked between the bodies of two other soldiers of the 43rd Battalion. He thinks he recognizes Moustapha on his left. The infantryman is missing the top of his face, his guts spilled in muck. Frozen blood partially hides some tribal scars.
But it is Moustapha’s grin.

In a lull between shells, he hears Germans soldiers approaching. Face down, unmoving, Abdoulaye is terrified, frostbitten fingers clenched around his useless gun.
Through the panic, he concentrates on his chest, where the amulet his mother gave him to keep him safe rests. Freezing rain pelts again as he mercifully loses consciousness and stops shaking. His fear and shock ooze into the mud.

Death creeps in slowly with nightfall. Rats gnawing at his legs, scurry across his body to the blinding throbs in his skull and wake him. The dirty mist is full of ghosts and wandering souls.
Hell jerks him back to life.

Racked with pain, he struggles upright, soon stumbles, faints, and crawls through an endless labyrinth of barbed wires, mangled bodies, and exploded wood.
The stench of the slaughterhouse seeps into his bones. The camp is not far.
Just beyond the collapsed trenches, beyond the sucking mire, the next bomb crater, beyond the rain and soul-sapping cold, beyond the horror.

April 18th, 1917

Amita Diop, widowed less than a week, is still on duty in the infirmary, drunk with fatigue and grief. She tends to the wounded. Each man is her dying husband.
She turns to the noise of the stretcher bearers dropping another wreck in a corner of the tent. One more mad sacrifice to the brutal carnage.
He looks petrified; only the eyes scream his agony.

There are no blankets left, but she finds a torn tarp and ripped uniforms to cover him.
As she cleans blood and filth from his face, she recognizes the Senegalese man.
Back in his village, he had convinced the colonial recruiter to take him instead of his father and uncle.
Deep  gaping gashes on his head, frost bite, and multiple wounds cover his body, but he is whole she thinks, grateful.

Walking through the moans and nightmares of the nearly-dead, she fetches a tin cup of horsemeat broth and rice.
She brings it to his cracked and torn lips.
“Drink Abdoulaye N’Diaye, great warrior of Thiowor. Death tasted you, but you will not die today,” she whispers in their native tongue.

After he sipped all he could, she lets her hand rest on his chest briefly, then moves it to her lap. A victory cry slowly rises from her belly. Eyes closed, barely rocking back and forth on her stool, she turns the cry into a song and hums a soft lullaby.
And fat tears wash her face.


Notes: 135 000 Senegalese Tirailleurs served in WWI. 30,000 died.
Abdoulaye N’Diaye survived his wounds and went on to fight in other wars. He returned to his village where he died in 1998, two days before he was to receive the ‘Légion d’honneur’. He was 104 years old.

Amita Diop represents the women who followed their husbands to war. The French Colonial Army felt that African soldiers had better morale and better health when their families were present.
The women followed the front and stayed wherever they were needed. Information about their contributions and fate is scarce.

About emmylgant

Cloud watcher and dreamer sometimes wise, often foolish, but I am what I am.
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28 Responses to Chemin des Dames (2nd Battle of the Aisne)

  1. ceayr says:

    This is a wonderful piece, beautifully written, scrupulously researched, and utterly tragic.
    I note the centenary, Em, isn’t it such a relief that we, the human race, have progressed so much in these 100 years?
    Oh wait…

    Liked by 2 people

    • emmylgant says:

      War is always a tragedy. But apparently not for those who decide that people are tools at best, cannon fodder at worse. The Tirailleurs senegalais and their families are the shameful pawns iin that war of numbers. I tried to give a macro picture of it, focusing on what it does to the soul. Chemin des dames is still vomiting shell casings and unexploded mines.
      We learned nothing. In spite of reminders of losses in every war memorial erected.
      Thank you for your support, suggestions and help in crafting this post. Not to mention patience 😉


  2. ceayr says:

    Reblogged this on Sound Bite Fiction and commented:
    Some things need to be shared. This is one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. john zande says:

    From a diary? These are precious things, memories. I’m fortunate enough to have the letters my great great uncle sent home from WW1. They start all full of verve and eagerness for adventure. They end in darkness pleading for his mother not to let his younger brother take the long boat ride to Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • emmylgant says:

      Not a diary, but a collection of magazines assembled by my great-grand-father spanning the ‘Great War’. Although the articles are censored some of the time, and are rife with propaganda, the photos do not lie.
      My grandfather was in the Dardanelles; he told me about the beautiful letters his mother sent him, but I never saw them. Wish I did.
      We often hear about the pride of mothers whose children are fighting an uggly war, but how about their anguish? And grief?
      It’s all madness and bloody lies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • john zande says:

        It’s the soldiers letters, not the declarations of war and bold political speeches we should preserve and study. Those are the truth.

        Liked by 1 person

        • emmylgant says:

          I agree. 100%.
          I came across a tiny agenda used like a diary, with only room for three short sentences a day. It was written by a woman who lived in Paris in the days of the Commune in 1870. She wrote in pencil and much of it faded, but it was exhilarating to decipher and deduce who she was by cross references. She lived through the heavy shelling of the Prussians first and then the fear of the Commune, the rebellion of common folks, the people. She came from privilege but was nauseated by the massacre at the end of the rebellion.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. PapaBear says:

    Just absolutely beautiful, Emm. Thank you for bringing this story to light. 🙂


  5. Al says:

    This story of struggle, hope, and survival shows the futility of war. The sickening waste of life for something most have no idea what it was for.

    These brave sharpshooters and other Senegalese, who were never originally involved in the War, gave their lives for something that was not theirs.

    This is a very powerful and tear-inducing piece Emmy. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. arjaybe says:

    European countries using their colonies to fight their wars. Canada was one, too. We mostly talk about Vimy Ridge, but also Passchendaele.

    Liked by 2 people

    • emmylgant says:

      I read recently that Vimy was the beginning of Canada’s Independance. Is that so you think? Vimy, if I remember, was the only ‘victory’ in the Nivelle Offensive.
      It was horrendous. The colonies were a gold mine of canon fodder. Disgusting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • arjaybe says:

        Yes, it’s a kind of Canadian myth that taking Vimy was the beginning of our independent statehood. We’re proud that we did what no one else could. But the losses were a significant fraction of our population, which was still quite small then. Every town has a cenotaph with a lot of names.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Sandra says:

    We regularly drive through France and I see the roadside illustrations for the Chemin des Dames. Thank you for enlightening me in this way. Beautifully done.


  8. Katharine says:

    Ooof. From where cometh this? Bloody heartbreak and survival. Riveting.
    Vignettes, yet so very full, evoking lifetimes.


    • emmylgant says:

      Sometimes a random article spurs curiosity and befor you know it you are researching. And a story emerges.
      I struggled with it, revised ad nauseam, so if it captured your attention, I am grateful. Thank you Kat.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Dale says:

    This was masterfully written, Emmy… Thank you for sharing a piece of history I knew nothing about.
    War is never the answer, is it?


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