soldiers sitting near a fire in France during World War I

'The most beautiful burial ground in the world': French Lorraine during WWI

A journalist and explorer documents life on the frontlines as war consumes everyday life for French society.

Flanders is a mud-hole and Champagne is all chalk, but Lorraine is an enchanting land, with harmonious hills and noble trees and fern-bordered streams rushing to the Rhine.

Photograph by Harriet Chalmers Adams, Nat Geo Image Collection

This is the story of my journey to Nancy, Lunéville, and Gerbéviller, in Lorraine—that part of France where the first American soldiers have fallen.

I entered the French military zone as a war correspondent, equipped with a magical little yellow book which carried my photograph and the facts about my nationality, place of birth, magazine affiliation, and residence at home and in Paris. It had ushered me safely past innumerable gendarmes and sentinels on the way to Compiègne and Rheims, even to frontline trenches in Champagne; now it brought me to Nancy, in northeastern France, the most beautiful town in the Republic, capital of historic Lorraine.

On this particular trip the passport permitted a traveling companion, so an American girl engaged in Paris war work went with me. This was her first glimpse of that mysterious precinct known to few civilians beyond its guard-girded borders—"The Military Zone."

This zone, extending 500 miles, from Flanders to Switzerland, stretches south nearly to Paris, taking in the towns we passed en route to Nancy—Meaux, Chateau Thierry, Épernay, Chalons, Révigny, Bar-le-Duc—all gateways to the front. This is the road the Americans have followed on their way to the trenches.

It was a momentous ride by rail to Nancy. In the gray mist of early morning the great Paris Gare de l'Est was thronged. There were trench-worn men, coated with mud, just back from the front, relaxed and hungry, their arms around wives and sweethearts. There were grave-eyed men, in clean, faded uniforms, starting out again after their six days' leave. I can never forget the faces of the women with them. No tears, but they looked as Joan of Arc might have looked ten minutes before she was burned at the stake.

Traveling companions on the trip to the front

One soldier led a snappy fox-terrier to wage war on the rats in the dugouts. Another was festooned with loaves of bread. Standing in line with us, awaiting inspection of passports, was a young American ambulance driver on his way to the front. His uniform stood out against the mass of horizon blue—vanguard of our khaki-clad hundreds of thousands who will march the bloody road.

We two were the only women on the train. The soldiers dropped off at every station. We passed the River Marne, tree-bordered, grasses swaying in its tide, and skirted the famous battlefield. From the railroad the peaceful hay-stacked fields, vine-covered walls, and russet-tiled roofs showed no trace of that mighty struggle; but I had covered the country by automobile and had seen modern roofs over shell-torn homes. I had seen the graves among the new-mown hay—white crosses with the tri-color; black crosses with the letter "A" for Allemands. And near by a sign for the farmer to heed: "In agriculture, respect the graves of the dead."

Near the town of Meaux there is an imposing marble monument which marks the site where the guard of Paris fell. There are holes in the cemetery wall through which they thrust their rifles, those heroes who rushed out from the capital in more than 1,000 taxicabs on that fateful September day.

We passed Épernay, the door to Rheims, where a battalion was on the march, and came to Chalons. Here many officers left the train to motor to Verdun—spick and span, with blue cloth puttees to match their uniforms, all carrying canes. The American ambulance driver left with them.

"I don't know where I'm going," he told us, "but I'm on my way. I'm sure to be on the right road if I'm helping the French."

A glimpse of a tented hospital

Near Bar-le-Due hundreds of tired soldiers were resting at farm houses, and there was a solid mile of motor trucks, camouflaged in wavy colors and laden with munitions. At the station ten Missouri pack-mules had their heads out of box-car windows. A group of zouaves sat on the platform winding strips of khaki cloth around their red fezzes. They intended to be on the safe side.

We came to a vast tented ambulance hospital under the spreading branches of trees—trees filled with mistletoe, suggestive of Yuletide joy; and here was pain. We entered a hilly country. Passports were again inspected. We were in French Lorraine.

A famous Frenchman has called Lorraine "the most beautiful burial ground in the world." Flanders is a mud-hole and Champagne is all chalk, but Lorraine is an enchanting land, with harmonious hills and noble trees and fern-bordered streams rushing to the Rhine. The quaint villages which escaped the German onslaught perch on the hillsides like Christmas toys and the humblest vegetable patch is a garden.

But there are tombs in every flower­strewn field, for no region on earth has suffered more from fire and sword. All the races of Europe have coveted Lorraine since the days of the Romans. When the Kaiser waited in the forest with his 10,000 cavalrymen for word from his victorious army that he might cross the frontier and make a triumphant entry into Nancy, he was but following in the footsteps of earlier barbarians who have swept across the Rhine.

Where Jovinus defeated the Teutonic hordes sixteen centuries ago

Near the highway, not far from the German border, is a memorial shaft which reads: "Here, in the year 362, Jovinus defeated the Teutonic hordes." And here the Huns were driven back by the French in September, 1914.

It was late afternoon when we reached Nancy—eight hours from Paris. An official detained us half an hour in his office, while the passport was again scrutinized. Going outside the station to look for a cab, we saw a mass of ruins across the street—all that was left of a once popular hotel. Many other ruins stared at us on the way to the Place Stanislas.

The proprietor of the Grand Hotel on the Place said he could give us rooms and we would find a restaurant across the way. He had no "cave," he explained, and there were bombardments. There had been a cellar, but it had been out of commission since the house next door was hit. We asked the maid who showed us the rooms when the last bombardment had occurred.

"Sunday," she said, "or maybe it was Monday. They come so often I lose count."

"Why do you stay here?" I asked.

"Because I have four brothers in the trenches, and we all must be soldiers," she replied.

We sent a letter of introduction to the Préfet of the Department of Meurthe and Moselle, and an hour later M. Mirman called—a splendid man, bearded and in uniform. All town officials wear uniform in the military zone. At the beginning of the war M. Mirman was Minister of Public Health in Paris. Being past military age, he volunteered for any service, and was sent to Nancy, then in great peril. He was the first to reach the murdered villages in the foothills of the Vosges, where he buried the dead and comforted and sustained the frantic survivors. On his breast is the decoration which France gives to her bravest.

Nancy works on in spite of bombardments

Nancy, he told us, is a little over five miles from the front, and is bombarded by the Boches' most powerful guns, the 380 millimeter, which have a twenty-mile range. The shells come mainly at night, when there can be no warning. In daylight French aëroplanes hover guard over the city to watch for the distant white cloud which heralds the oncoming shell. The toesin sounds the alarm and the 100,000 inhabitants scurry to the cellars. On every house with a cellar a great cross is painted, the double cross of ancient Lorraine.

Few people have left town. Trams are running; shops are open. Nancy has her work to do and keeps at it doggedly. Also, she houses and feeds 3,000 refugees, mostly old women and little children, who have crept over the fields in terror from their cannonaded homes still nearer the German line. The number increases.

"Tomorrow Madame Mirman will take you to see the refugees," the Préfet told us, "and we hope you will dine at the préfecture in the evening."

In pitch darkness we two, strangers to the 380's, groped our way across the Place and felt for the door of the restaurant. We entered a well-lighted room, all warmth and cheer. The windows were heavily curtained that no gleam of tight might be detected by prowling enemy air-craft. Many officers were dining; the food was excellent, the prices reasonable. This condition I found throughout France, the marvel of every American who has been over during the war. A tall, straight man, with iron-gray mustache, rose to leave the room; all the others stood up and saluted.

At midnight I opened my window and peered into inky gloom. The air was heavy with danger; the arc of a searchlight pierced the sky, for an instant illuminating the shrouded scaffolding protecting a statue in the center of the Place, that of Duke Stanislas Leczyski, father­in-law of Louis XV. . . . Not a footstep on the street below. I heard a distant cannon boom.

Next morning we went for a walk. Few cities in Europe are as architecturally beautiful as this ancient capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, the Land of Lothair, named after a grandson of Charlemagne, united with France in 1766. Each of a hundred gates and facades is worthy a pilgrimage to Nancy. In the cathedral many women in black were praying before lighted candles. The stained glass windows were broken and mended with paper. Three houses across the street were in ruins. Yet the park nearby was the picture of peace. Shafts of sunlight slanted through the chestnut trees and a black-robed priest sat on a bench in the shadow telling his beads.

Among the refugees from Hun-destroyed villages

We went to the narrow old chapel where 84 Dukes of Lorraine are buried. It was closed, but we rang a bell and a woman in black let us in. There is a fine Rubens over the altar. The tombs are protected by sandbags. The glass of windows and dome is shattered and any moment the maniacal Hun may send a shell to demolish the whole. On a marble slab near the altar we read:

"Here Marie Therese Charlotte of Austria, September 11, 1628, came to pray.

"Here François II said, 'By blood in heart I belong to Lorraine.'

"Here Marie Antoinette, May 17, 1770, came on her way to Paris to marry Louis XVI and knelt at this altar.''

The shrine of Austrian royalty! Here Elizabeth, wife of the late Emperor Francis Joseph, prayed that she might rest. Even a savage would revere and preserve the ancestral tomb of an allied tribe!

Madame Mirman motored us to the barracks on the outskirts of the city, where the refugees from the Hun-destroyed villages are housed. We found as many as ten in one room—grandmother, mother, and children. With food and stove supplied, this was luxury compared with life in their ruined village, but with the shortage of coal throughout France this winter, there is great suffering, I fear, in those bleak barracks in Nancy.

The old women make sandbags for the trenches. One told me she had made 80 in a day. The children attend school, the boys learning trades, the girls domestic science, that they may look out for themselves later on, as most of them are orphans. An American fund in Paris hopes to send a Christmas present this year to every one of these 2,000 homeless children. I asked them to sing and 50 sad-eyed little ones stood up and piped, "Aux morts pour la Patrie." I could not keep back the tears.

I talked with a young woman who was very ill and learned she had been at work in a munition factory in another part of France. I have seen as many as 6,000 women in one of these vast arsenals, and frail girls carrying weights which only strong men should lift. Yet I glory with them in their sacrifice. The women of France have shown us the way. Untrained women who have never before rolled a bandage face unflinchingly the most grewsome wounds in their hospital service: to release men for the trenches they perform the most menial tasks, such as removing town garbage. Service and Unity. This is the keynote of France.

Scenes in a cellar during a bombardment

We left the children playing in the great open square of the barracks and motored back to town. Our automobile was driven by a soldier-chauffeur. I had just remarked that this was the most perfect weather I had known in France when the tocsin shrilled its warning. The soldier stopped the car, jumped off and helped us out and we all bolted for the nearest house with the big Lorraine cross. An old man opened the door and many other people rushed in with us. We had barely reached the cellar steps when the first crash came.

I have never heard anything as ominous as the sound of those Titanic shells, each crushing out homes and human beings. There were 27 of us in the cellar, our aged host and the soldier the only men. One little boy held a dog in his arms and a girl of ten grasped a cage with a pet canary.

We sat on boxes. There was a light, and over in one corner I saw a keg and a sack, evidently containing water and food; and a pickax. How, I wondered, could we dig our way out with that one pick ax, should the house be struck! There was an agonized expression on the faces of some of the women whose children were not with them. Madame Mirman tried to lighten the strain by telling how her baby girl had wakened, as they carried her down to the cellar the night of the last bombardment, looked about and said, sleepily, "Encore! The bad Boche!"

By my wrist watch the shells fell every seven minutes. The bombardment lasted three-quarters of an hour, and we remained in the cellar for some time after the last crash, which sounded much nearer than the others. We wanted to be sure the French guns had temporarily silenced the foe. In the post-office, later, I had a near view of a shell of the 380—a mammoth affair; a little larger, but not as pointed nor as graceful in outline as the French 370 on exhibition beside it.

When we reached the street, boys were already flying kites, hoping to rival the planes overhead. Lorrainese children have become accustomed to bombardments. Once 90 shells came in one day. And, too, there are sometimes shells dropped by the wicked Taubes, which dodge like hawks among the aircraft of the tri-color.

The every-day story in bleeding Lorraine

We visited the hospital. Few of the injured had survived. In one bed lay a woman, whose moans were heartrending.

"It isn't her physical suffering alone," the Sister of Mercy told us; "it is her mental torture. She saw her four children die in the flames."

By the next bed knelt a man in trench­stained uniform, crepe on his sleeve. His face was buried in the waxen hand of a little golden-haired girl. "He is just back on leave," they told us, "and she will not live the day out." All the others of his family had been killed outright. This is the every-day story in bleeding Lorraine.

It was a brave dinner at the Mirmans. The Colonel of Lorraine was there; on his breast the Military Cross, the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and the "Croix de Guerre," with five palms, which must be about the record in "citations."

"However on earth did he win them all?” I whispered to my fellow-country­woman.

"I think he must break all rules—go over the top and call for his men to follow," she suggested, with an admiring glance.

Certainly this keen-eyed, clear-skinned colonel was the most soldierly man I met in France, where all the officers are splendid, in their caps as red as the battlefield and their uniforms as blue as the sky. The Commandant of Verdun was another dinner guest; and a New Yorker, just arrived in Nancy in the interests of the Lafayette Kit Fund, which supplies warm underwear and "smokes" to the poilus.

"One of our guests may be a little late," the hostess said; and he arrived a few moments later—a young lieutenant, in dark blue, with the insignia of the bird on his sleeve. He had flown over from Paris with a message and would fly back after dinner.

It was fascinating to hear of the battle of Nancy from men who had made history. They painted a vivid picture. The Prussian army was ordered to take the city at any cost. The Kaiser himself was waiting to ride, with banners flying, to the Place Stanislas.

The battle of Nancy

If the hills of Amance were taken, the road was clear. On swept the Huns. "Deutchland über Alles," intoned by thousands of voices, blended with the hurricane of artillery fire. Unprepared France threw the shells of her 75's and countless precious lives against the foe. By the grace of God, the French held Amance. This was the worst day the Kaiser ever had. If he had won Nancy, he would have won Paris.

Next morning a messenger arrived, asking, in the Emperor's name, an armistice of 24 hours to bury the dead. It was granted. The French expected another assault, but the Kaiser returned to Berlin. When in his capital, by the way, he is within ten hours by express train of every point on his frontier with the exception of Alsace-Lorraine.

From a plateau beyond Nancy one can see on the far horizon the cathedral spires of Metz, capital of lost Lorraine. In plain view are the German villages near the frontier—the frontier since 1870. "The Boche," said our host, "is only a few minutes away by aëroplane."

In plain view from this plateau are the trenches in the vicinity of the Rhine­Marne Canal, where in the early morning of November 3 the Germans raided a salient held by American soldiers, and our first blood sacrifice was made in the frontline trenches in France.

There are many French towns that we will know better before the war is over. If you have not already made its acquaintance, let me introduce you to Lunéville. It lies southeast of Nancy in the foothills of the Vosges, within sight of those purple peaks which mark the southernmost point of the French trenches.

Desolation where once stood prosperous, historic Lunéville

Lunéville is a gray, industrial town of 20,000 souls, prospering before the war in its manufacture of railway carriages and motor cars, chinaware and chemical salts. A gorgeous chateau is all that remains of its former glory, when the dukes of Lorraine made it their playground. In their day this palace was gayer than Versailles, and its gardens were noted throughout Europe, serving Watteau's pupils as a model when they painted the gorgeous fêtes of the Far East. The château is now occupied by the mayor, M. Keller, who played an important role during the German invasion of the town.

Madame Mirman motored us out to Lunéville. Although she is the wife of the préfet of this whole department and known by sight to every sentinel on the road, the automobile was halted every quarter of an hour for inspection of passports and information as to where we were bound.

In the fields women were mowing hay. I was reminded of a woman I had seen near Rheims. A shell struck a nearby haystack, but she kept on mowing.

We ascended a tortuous road to the summit of the hill of Léomont, where a decisive battle had been fought. There was a most comprehensive view, back over the plain of Nancy, north and east over the French front. In a hollow, at our feet, lay a ruined village which is now being restored through the generosity of a group of wealthy Californians.

From this hill to the one opposite, the battle had raged. We picked up fragments of French and German shells, and the soldier-chauffeur explained "which was which," one being bluer than the other. There were many graves on this hill, and above one I saw a soldier's tattered cap hanging on the little white cross.

"I placed it there over two years ago,'' Madame Mirman said, "when I came out with my husband. He buried the dead. We did not know the boys' names, but we marked each cross with the number of the regiment, wherever we could."

The tricolor blooms above the dead of France

On the graves wild flowers were blooming—red poppies, blue corn-flowers, white daisies. Even in death, Nature in France greets her soldiers with the tri­color.

Lunéville shows the hoof marks of the Hun, those terrible 20 days when the enemy was master of the city. The townhall and the préfecture were destroyed, the industrial section burned, shops pillaged, homes looted, men and women murdered. Cultured people, like the Kellers, tell the story quietly; but their eyes have a dangerous gleam. "I would gladly have given my life," the mayor said, "if I could have spared my fellow-citizens those horrible atrocities."

Unarmed men fired on; an old woman run through with a bayonet; a mother driven insane at seeing her son stabbed and her daughter carried off by drunken soldiers—such stories are so common in the foothill towns of the Vosges that the very air is polluted. The birds in the château garden have almost forgotten how to sing since the Prussians passed that way.

But on this road there is an even sadder sight than grave, silent Lunéville. It is the skeleton of Gerbéviller, the Pompeii of France. Pompeii was wrecked by the might of God; this town by human hate. To reach the most spectral ruins I saw in all France, we crossed a bridge which will flame in history, the one held by the 75 chasseurs.

The chasseurs who are training American troops

We have an especial interest in the chasseurs, for they have been training our American boys at the front. No soldiers of France are as picturesque as these sunburnt, fiery-eyed men of the Alpine and Pyreneean heights, who have left the stain of their loyal blood on every frontier they have touched. The Germans call them "the blue devils," and say they can run faster than the chamois, but it is the Boche who runs when they come his way. They are a merry carefree lot. I heard a story of one who fired in a kneeling position instead of lying flat on the ground. When asked by a fellow-soldier why he was so foolhardy, he explained that he had a bottle of wine in his pocket and it had no cork.

During the Battle of Lorraine, 75 chasseurs were posted at the bridge which leads to Gerbéviller. As the German column hove in sight they tore up the pavement, threw breastworks across the bridge, and stationed their machine guns. This was in the early morning. At four that afternoon a lone chasseur fired the last round of ammunition and slipped away to join his companions, 51 of whom had survived. For eight hours 75 Frenchmen had held off 12,000 Germans.

Angered into fury by the machine guns, which had held them so long at bay, the Prussians entered the town, firing and burning every house they passed. Like many French towns, Gerbéviller was built on one long main street, with lanes leading from it. Only stark walls stand. Oil was poured into the cellars to make more of a blaze. If the people remained in the houses, so much the better. . . .

Sister Julie, a heroine among heroes

The refugees have crept back. On a mangled wall I saw the sign: "Café of the Ruins." A girl in black was placing a bunch of wild flowers before the broken image of the Virgin on the wall of what was once a church. Only one building in the town stands—the humble little hospice which shelters Sister Julie, one of the great heroines of France.

We rang the doorbell and a Sister of Mercy ushered us into a narrow hallway, and then into a little sitting-room with oil-cloth on the table, and a few stiff­backed chairs. There was a battered organ and an ancient chest and two pictures of religious subjects on the wall. I can see every detail even now, for this was the setting of the woman who defied the whole German army.

She sat upright in her chair with hands crossed—a short, plump woman past 60, with bright hazel eyes, rosy cheeks, and a firm mouth. Sister Julie, whose name before she was Mother Superior was Madame Amélie Rigard, has a most authoritative air. Beneath the cape of her black habit gleams the cross of the Legion of Honor, pinned there by the President of the Republic, who, with many other dignitaries, made a pilgrimage to this remote village to decorate this little old woman.

Sister Julie speaks rapidly, with an occasional gesture. She told us of the 75 chasseurs—how the first to be wounded were brought to her house. She took off the ammunition belts and sent them back by a nun to the bridge. When the houses across the street were fired, she went out to a German officer and said, "Don't you dare to burn my house. I am caring for the wounded. If you spare my house and the people in it, I will care for your wounded, too." And she kept her word. She mothered the homeless population. The stories she told us made me sick with horror.

At the shrine where America was christened

Back of the ruins are shacks erected by the government to house 800 refugees who have returned to their old haunts. The women had just come in from the hop field. They were poorly clad and in need of new hob-nailed shoes. One poor old soul offered me her only chair. She said she was very grateful to have a home again and was comfortable when it was not cold. "But, O, Madame, if only you could have seen those pewter plates over the fireplace in my house that was burned. They belonged to my great­great-grandmother."

A mecca of mine lay beyond Gerbéviller, in the mountains of the Vosges—the old town of St. Dié, where America was named; but it was under heavy bombardment just then and not at home to visitors. Many of our boys have already seen the places I have described, and some of

The Young American Lafayettes may wander through St. Dié’s narrow streets and, if it has withstood the German shells, even enter the old house where America was put on the map.

America is on the map to stay, and all the Young American Lafayettes are in France to stay until the day of victory. Since my return from the war zone I have been traveling throughout the United States, feeling the pulse of America. I am convinced that, although the awakening is slow with many, we are at last becoming united and will stand the test; that in the struggle to maintain those principles on which our nation rests we will exhibit the same fortitude and spirit of self-sacrifice I met in French Lorraine.

Read This Next

The science behind seasonal depression
These 3,000-year-old relics were torched and buried—but why?
How the Holocaust happened in plain sight

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet