Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Who was the inspired military genius who held back Nazi mechanized might while the British turned defeat into honor and glory?
MAYBE this story should start in the summer of 1940, on the blood-drenched beach at Dunkirk, where valiant men cursed and dying men moaned to the screaming thunder of bursting shells and death-roaring Stukas.
Or perhaps it might begin over a hundred years ago, when a ghostly gray fishing sloop slipped stealthily through a pea-soup fog enshrouding a tiny desolate island called Saint Helena.
But it might be better for the clarity of the facts I am going to place before you, if I start where it began for me, on a tranquil country road in France, some fifty miles from one of the sections of the Maginot Line, just about a year ago—
Excerpt from International Press Dispatch:
"... this war, so far, has been nothing but a 'war of nerves.' True, there has been some slight skirmishing in the sectors between the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line, but amused Parisians, hearing of such encounters, shrug their shoulders and say that they are merely efforts on the part of French troops to drive away boredom."
The above lines are taken from a dispatch cabled by me to my New York office at the end of April, 1940. I bring them forth merely to indicate the state of mind among all of us in France just before the start of the mechanized Blitzkrieg. It was less than a week after I had cabled this dispatch, that I was returning—with a group of fellow newspapermen—from an inspection of one of the Maginot Line's superb fortresses.
The car in which I was riding was an open one driven by a French infantryman. Somehow or other, the only companion riding in the back with me was an English journalist from the London Times. The other reporters had crowded into the front cars of our motorcade in order to pump the French officers into tipping news items for dispatch to impatient editors on the other side of the Atlantic. The Englishman—his name was Fellows—was commenting on the peaceful serenity of the French farmlands through which we were passing.
I was half-listening, half-dozing, in the comforting warmth and freshness of spring sun and air, when a sudden "pop" snapped me awake. At that same instant, our army car lurched to an abrupt stop and our chauffeur-soldier climbed out, looking red-faced and apologetic. "So sorry, Messieurs," he announced, "but I am afraid ze tire has struck a nail. It is a leak." We were the last car in the motorcade, and the soldier looked undecidedly after the other vehicles disappearing around a turn at the end of the road. "If you wish to change to another car—" he began.
I looked at the Englishman.
"I don't care to, Fellows," I said. "I'm in no hurry. If you'd like to rush on ahead, don't mind me."
Fellows was tall and lanky, with black stringy hair that seemed always to be in his eyes. He smiled.
"Not at all. No hurry either."
I turned to the driver.
"Go ahead, change your tire. We're in no hurry. The rest can go on without us." I had just spied, about a hundred yards down off the road, what looked like a small country inn. I was plenty thirsty.
"How long will you take?" I asked the driver.
The soldier looked from me to the inn, and smiled.
"You will have time, Monsieur," he said.
I glanced at Fellows.
"Care for a nip?"
The Englishman shook his head.
"Go ahead. I'll just sit here and sop up the sunshine." He leaned back against his seat, closing his eyes.
I shrugged, and moved off down the road toward the tavern. I was thinking, among other things, how monotonous this war was getting and how lucky the boys on the police beats back home were. The one thing I didn't think of—and which would have made a corking good feature in the light of what happened to France later—was the fact that the mere changing of a tire would be a fifteen minute task for a member of France's mechanized army.
There were two motorbikes, symbols of the French military police, parked outside the door of the little inn when I stepped up to the door. From the automobile they hadn't been noticeable. I was opening the door when I heard voices from inside, loud and angry.
Inside a typical bar-room, three people wheeled to face my unexpected entrance. Blue uniforms showed me that two of them were the French military police whose bikes I'd seen outside. The third was a small, withered, droop-moustached little Frenchman wearing a white bar-apron over his peasant garb. The faces of all three were flushed, excited. Both policemen had hold of the little proprietor and he struggled futilely in their firm grasps.
"Monsieur," demanded one of the policemen, "who are you and what do you want here?"
Briefly, showing him several cards, I explained myself. After one of them peered out the window and down the road at the disabled army car suspicion left his face.
"Monsieur," he announced with a breathless importance. "Zis son of a pig has just been arrested on suspicion of espionage. I hope you understand it is not a matter for ze Press."
I looked at the withered, droop-moustached little man and tried to picture him as an enemy agent. It didn't register, and I guess I smiled a little at the ludicrous scene.
The policemen noticed my open doubt.
"He has talked against ze Cabinet, against ze Army, against ze Navy. He is pro-German!"
The little droop moustache spoke for the first time.
"It is not so, Monsieur. I am not pro-German. I am merely speaking ze truth when I say ze Cabinet, ze Army, ze Navy, are all inefficient, blundering, and will be 'opeless in ze face of ze enemy until ze Saviour of France takes over!"
"You see, you see!" The military policemen were excitedly turning me into a one man judge and jury. "He speaks of ze Saviour of France, and zat is what ze enemy leaflets call their own leader! He is pro-German!"
The little man with the droop moustache was glaring wildly, almost fanatically, now.
"You must not take me away!" he screamed. "If you do, France will fall!"
"He is also a little crazy," declared one of the policemen, tapping his head significantly. "Dangerous."
"Come along, Armand," said the other policeman. "Be peaceful or we will not wait to shoot you!" He yanked at little droop- moustached Armand's shoulder. "We take you to 'eadquarters were you will be searched like ze pig spy you are!"
And suddenly, in a frantic burst of strength, the little fellow broke from his captors, springing in my direction. He hadn't taken more than four steps before he ran smack into me, as if he'd been making for the door and I was in the way. While the military gendarmes shouted wildly and made for the two of us, I lay on the floor, pushing off the little fellow's wildly threshing body.
FINALLY they dragged him upright, and I managed to get up. I was out of sympathy with Armand, now, as well as out of breath. The police pair apologized profusely and rapidly, cuffing Armand as if to prove their sentiments. Then, before I'd been able to catch enough breath to utter an indignant syllable, the blue uniformed pair dragged their little captive out the door with typical French abruptness, leaving me alone in the tiny bar- room.
I hadn't time to open the door after them before I heard the roar of their motorbikes and heard them snarl off down the country roadway with their prisoner.
"Well I'll be damned—" I began, and the sentence suddenly choked off as I was smoothing my suit-coat. There was a bulge inside my inner pocket which hadn't been there when I'd entered the tavern!
For a moment time seemed to hang suspended. I felt a sudden unreasonable icy sweat break out on my forehead as my hand carefully patted that bulge. I don't know why, but at that moment I couldn't bring myself to look into my inner pocket. For it was obvious that little droop moustache had placed those papers there—if they were papers—after he had deliberately sprawled into me. And Armand was under arrest on suspicion of being a spy!
For an instant, while my heart hammered double duty, I debated what course of action to take. I could step outside and turn the papers over to our chauffeur-soldier, who would see they reached the police. Or I could keep them until we got back to the city. Once there, I could lock myself up in my hotel room and give the stuff a thorough going-over. If Armand were a spy, there would be dynamite—possibly—in these papers.
I debated only another instant, then stepped out the door. The tire was just about fixed by the time I arrived at the army car, and Fellows had fallen fast asleep.
The bulge in my pocket seemed as big as a knapsack all the way back. But I was very casual and unconcerned. For I was a newspaperman and I wasn't drawing my salary from the French Secret Service.
And maybe I'd have the first scoop of this man's war!
THE blinds were drawn tightly, and I made sure that my room door was double locked. All through the early part of the evening I had been carrying Armand's papers around with me, since I hadn't been able to dodge my newspaper cronies without attracting suspicion. Finally, however, at one of the cafés, I'd pleaded a splitting headache and made my exit.
Every step of the way back to my hotel had been measured by the swift thumping of my heart. And from every darkened niche along the alleys I'd expected a member of the French Secret Service to pop forth. However, in spite of a qualmy stomach, I made it unmolested.
Now, with slightly shaking fingers, I sat down at a table in the corner of my room and spread the thick packet of papers out flat on the table. They were wrapped in a kind of paper walleting, across the front of which was written, in ink that had long ago faded to a faint yellow, "Property And Trust Of Armand DuPois—1821."
The tremble left my hands and I felt a swift flash of annoyance and disappointment. What in the hell was this? Family papers? I recalled that the front of droop-moustached's inn bore a sign lettered "DuPois Inn, Fine Wines," and so I knew instantly that droop-moustached Armand's forebearers, to whom these papers must have originally belonged, had first names identical to his—an old French custom.
I knew now, with a disgusting sheepish feeling, that I had overestimated the little peasant Armand DuPois. My first impression of him had been correct. He wasn't a spy; merely a little crackpot. His frantic efforts to pass off these family heirlooms onto me had been nothing more than an expression of his mental instability.
"However," I muttered, trying to soothe my injured pride, "I might as well look into 'em. Might be some especially clever form of code."
I turned the wallet-like cover of the sheaf, and saw the same name written on the inside, in the same hand and same faint ink as before. But there was something else.
"Armand DuPois," it read, "Physician To The Emperor."
I blinked. So little droop-moustached's great-great-granddaddy had been a doctor, and a physician to an Emperor at that. No wonder the little guy—even though slightly loony—had such an attitude about these papers. My disappointment was leaving me, for I knew that these documents would probably at least provide an interesting and somewhat historical evening.
GENUINELY interested, now, I turned the page. Turned the page and was about to read on when I suddenly realized: Armand's great-great grandpappy could easily have been—yes, of course—physician to none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!
The date on the front had been 1821. But that was the year, if my history hadn't failed me, that Napoleon died on Saint Helena. I frowned. There were other Emperors running around at that time, or at least comic opera rulers who called themselves Emperors. But DuPois was as French as champagne and the Eifel Tower. Which would indicate that it might be Napoleon to whom the original Armand DuPois administered. He might possibly have been the physician at Napoleon's death-bed.
Hastily now, I turned another page. The entry at the top hit me smack in the face.
February 4th, 1821—Received permission to join my Emperor's staff on Saint Helena. Will arrive there in ten days. My joy knows no bounds. I am certain our plan will succeed.
I gulped. Then I was right. This original Armand DuPois had really been the last medico to attend the Great Bonaparte. I went hurriedly on.
February 16th, 1821—After satisfying my identity with the English governor of Saint Helena, a nasty tempered person named Sir Hudson Lowe, I settled in my quarters. In the afternoon I spoke to the Emperor for the first time in these many months. There were guards present, so we could not discuss the plans, but the Emperor's manner indicates plainly that he knows why I have come.
Two more entries were commonplace, then there was this one:
March 2nd, 1821—I have as his physician, ordered the Emperor to bed. It is quite in line with our plans, and gives me more time to talk them over with him. In the evening I gave him the first of the pills. No suspicion has been aroused as yet. Sir Hudson Lowe, although delighting in petty persecution of the Emperor, is a dull person.
Again there were more commonplace entries. Until this:
April 3rd, 1821—Arrangements have been made, I learned through my special source today. The first pill has given the Emperor all the symptoms I hoped it would, and today I gave him the second. He appears to be sinking fast, which is just as I hoped he would. Even dull-witted Sir Hudson Lowe has let up on his persecution somewhat, seeming to sense that the Emperor is dying. The Emperor's trust in me is implicit. I cannot fail him. I will not.
Other entries, written in the same precise hand, in the same yellowed ink, went on to describe Napoleon Bonaparte's rapid wasting away. I couldn't help but be puzzled over the original Armand DuPois' elation at the swift sinking of Bonaparte. It seemed decidedly strange. Then there were these entries:
May 3rd 1821—Today, as his remaining old friends stood beside his bed, the Emperor passed into unconsciousness with these words: "mon fils... l'armée... Desaix" On seeing the tears of the scant faithful who stood beside him, it was all I could do to keep from reassuring them. But my lips must stay sealed. The moment arrives.
May 4th, 1821—The Emperor has remained in a coma. I have been at his bedside constantly, but for the appointed two hours when I returned to my quarters. The Substitute was there when I arrived. He was cold, wet, and shivering from his dip in the sea. His boat had slipped but close enough to the island rocks to enable him to swim the rest of the distance. He was not observed. I was amazed at the physical similarity between the Substitute and the Emperor. Those on the outside did their work well. I hope I have been as successful. The Substitute was quite calm as I handed him the poison. There was pride, not fear, in his eyes when he drank it. He died almost without pain. I concealed his body carefully in the room. He was a patriot.
May 5th, 1821—The Emperor "died" today. Even the stupid calm of Sir Hudson Lowe was shaken by his "death." It was simple, after the furor resulting in my pronouncement of death, to exchange the body of the Substitute for that of the Emperor. Everything and everyone on this tiny little islet is under great excitement. All vigilance is relaxed, just as we supposed it would be. I have concealed the Emperor in my room. He is still heavily drugged from the pills, and although I am certain that he lives, it is impossible to detect his breathing. Tonight, at nine, the fishing sloop will be lying off the rocks. A heavy fog has already risen, giving us aid when we shall need it most. God is with us.
I READ the last line of that entry, and sat back, fishing nervously for a cigarette. Somehow I felt badly in need of one. The quiet power of these passages had hit me with pile-driver force. This stuff was old, ancient almost; it didn't have a thing to do with me, or where I was, or the war that the world was facing at the moment, but if all this were true, absolutely authentic, what a magnificent story had slipped through the fingers of history!
My respect for little, frantic, droop-moustached Armand DuPois multiplied a million-fold by the mere reading that I had done so far. If he were a descendent of the original Armand DuPois who took part in this staggering adventure—and there was no reason to suppose that he wasn't—he certainly had reason to treasure these papers.
And they seemed real enough. I wasn't an authority on ancient documents, but I could sense something in the very undramatic phrases running along the weathered sheets, that screamed that there was nothing here but tranquil statements of authentic, staggering, unknown history. A newspaperman, if he's any good at all, gets to have a sort of a sixth sense in judging the fraudulent from the genuine. Sometimes it goes back on him. But I was certain, now, that my sixth sense was hitting on all ten cylinders.
Rapidly, almost breathlessly, I flipped the page and looked down on another set of those yellowed notations. Gone now was any realization of where I was or why. I knew nothing but a burning desire to get on with this incredibly fascinating saga. The next entry made my eyes pop out.
May 27, 1821—(France). These past days have been hellish nightmare. Once we had the Emperor aboard the little fishing sloop and were well away from Saint Helena, I was foolish enough to believe that our mission was almost successfully completed. But I had not reckoned with the treachery that was to bring disaster to our plans. I am still uncertain how it came about, or where the leak in our sacred secrecy started, but I am certain that the patrol ship which picked up our trail four days away from Helena had been deliberately sent after us.
We managed to run from them for two days—I don't know how we did it—and on the night of the second day, we met in the cabin below to decide on some way out. It was certain that we would be caught by morning, and that would be sheer tragedy. We dared not put in at our appointed landing place, for undoubtedly those who waited for us there were already jailed.
For our own lives we cared naught. We would gladly give them for our Emperor. We were determined that he should not again fall into the hands of the enemy. (The Emperor, that night, was resting comfortably but had not yet emerged from the sleep produced by my drugs).
All our plans had been based on the certainty we felt that the Emperor would be welcomed triumphantly by his people. But now the alien powers that ruled France had proved too cunning, too strong, for us to hold such hope.
And then it was decided. Two of us—under cover of fog—placed the Emperor in a small boat that night and left the fishing sloop, heading for the coast. Those left aboard the sloop vowed to carry on the flight until we were safe. We knew not what to expect when we landed the Emperor on the coast. But from there we would have to do our best.
Through heavy seas, that night, we guided our small boat and its precious cargo, finally making a small and desolate beach. The pursuing Patrol ship hadn't noticed us leave, thank God.
Living like hunted animals, we succeeded in doing the impossible, finally finding refuge in a country inn three days later. We were successful in passing off the blanket- swathed Emperor as a sick relative.
We seem safe here in this inn, and the proprietor is an old soldier who served with the Emperor in Moscow. As soon as it seems safe, it will be necessary to take him into our confidence. I would rather not do so, but we must.
April 10th 1821—Today I could have cried for joy. The Emperor has awakened from his sleep! I was at his side, and he reached for my hand, saying, "Armand DuPois, you have served France and your Emperor well." Gladly would I have died at that instant, so great was my happiness. Soon we will have him nursed back to normal strength.
I TURNED the next page and cursed.
The yellowed sheet was blurred, as if water had been spilled on it, making it completely illegible. So was the next page, and the next page after that. Then, finally, there was another unblurred entry.
February 3rd, 1882—We have agreed that my plan is best, the old soldier, my comrade Jacques, and the Emperor himself. For several months now we have arranged the necessary precautions. Obviously, things are not ready in France to permit the Emperor's return right now. We don't know when the stage will be set. But when it is, we will be prepared for it. Today, the Emperor is readying himself for the completion of my scheme. He is quite calm, and has infinite faith in me. I shall not fail him, nor will I fail France. Tonight the plan will be completed. The rest lies in the lap of the future.
Feverishly, now, I turned back to the first of the blotted yellow pages. On their smeared surfaces there was probably a complete explanation of this mysterious "plan" spoken of in the final entry. But try as I might, there was apparently no way in which I could bring those blurred, faint words back to legibility.
I wanted desperately to know what that "plan" had been, and what had happened, or been done, to Napoleon Bonaparte on the night of February 3rd, 1822.
Carefully, I picked up one of the blurred pages—after separating it from the rest—and carried it over to the fire, holding it before the blaze. I suppose I had some hazy idea that the heat might make the ink stand out more plainly. But it was no go.
I sat down before those papers again, leafing through them, trying to catch a word, or a phrase, that might indicate what I wanted to know.
It was grotesque, I'll grant you that. The entire phenomenon was warped. Here I was in a hotel room of a little French town, sitting on the crater edge of what might be the most tremendous war in history. And yet I was feverishly mulling over some musty papers which told an incredible yarn that contradicted history. An incredible yarn that was just about as closely connected to my life as the origin of the Egyptian pyramids.
Perhaps it was all due to the terrific strain under which everyone in Europe had been laboring during the past months, a strain to which I had been subjected like everyone else on this hapless continent. Probably, at that moment, a due bill from a tailor or a statement of the financial status of the New York Board of Trade would have served as the same outlet for my steam. At any rate I was excited.
And something told me it was due to more than mere nervous tension. Something—call it the very dramatic aura of those yellowed sheets if you like—made me certain that the papers of Armand DuPois were as alive and vital as a bomb.
I don't know how long I sat there mulling through those papers. I'm not sure what length of time I wasted in speculation over the mystery at which they hinted. But I do know that suddenly, and with startling return to reality, someone was pounding heavily on the door of my room.
There is no explanation for my next movements. Rising quickly from my chair I swept up the wallet-like sheaf of papers and hurried over to a cabinet by my bed. Opening the drawer of the cabinet as noiselessly as I could, I tossed the papers inside. Then I turned, feeling foolishly guilty, and crossed over to the door. The person outside was still hammering on it.
Fellows—the English newspaperman—was standing there in the dingy little hallway when I opened the door. His face was flushed, and the placid calm that had been a part of his personality was gone completely. He was visibly excited and breathless. He wasted no words.
"Hell is loose, man. The Maginot Line has been flanked. German divisions are pouring into France like a tidal wave!"
HEADLINE, Herald- Examiner—
100,000 TROOPS LOCKED IN COMBAT!
BATTLE OF FRANCE AT LAST UNDER WAY.
MAGINOT FORTRESSES REPORTED ENCIRCLED.
TROOPS clogged the road leading to the constantly- changing "front," and refugees by the thousands added to the confusion and hysteria in their frantic retreat. When I had dashed from my tiny hotel room on Fellows' heels, I'd instantly noticed the change that had come over the little town. Even then, although Fellows told me that action had been under way for over three hours, the peasants were evacuating the town in terror.
Now we were in a two-seater, chugging along the crowded roads as rapidly as the traffic snarls permitted. Fellows was at the wheel, and as he piloted us around the pitiful baggagecarts and loaded wagons of the unfortunates in flight, he told me briefly that he'd been asleep in his own rooms when the news had arrived. No one had bothered to wake him, and the other correspondents were headed for the front inside of fifteen minutes. As soon as he'd learned what had happened, he'd gotten hold of a car, and in passing my hotel, saw my light burning and figured I, too, was ignorant of the turn of events.
Fellows narrowly avoided hitting an old Frenchman on a bicycle whose scant belongings were piled high in front of him.
"Decent of you to rout me out," I told Fellows. I was plenty grateful. If I'd missed the boat on this, there'd be another boat inside of a week which I wouldn't miss—one heading back to New York.
Of course by now every last recollection of the papers of Armand DuPois was driven completely from my mind. There was no room for the past when every ticking second of the present was writing graphic history all around me.
I noticed that there wasn't even the flicker of a match along the darkened roadway on which we were crawling. Of course we drove without lights. That was another reason for the snail's pace to which we were forced. We could only see about ten yards ahead, and Fellows was jolting those brakes down pretty constantly.
Overhead there was a sudden drone of planes. Along the crowds jamming the darkened ribbon of roadway one word ran swiftly back to us.
I felt for my tin-helmet at my side, and was heartily glad I'd thought to grab it on rushing from my room. Those planes above, if they were Stukas, would mean business.
"Hope Jerry saves his eggs for the fighting part of France," Fellows remarked tersely. "Hate like hell to see civilians blown to bits. Worse than seeing the same thing happen to soldiers, somehow. Saw a lot of civvie arms and legs flying about in Spain a year or so back."
AHEAD of us, through the inky blackness of the night, I could hear the rumble of cannons and the occasional detonations of bombs hitting somewhere. I was wondering how things were going up there, and what kind of a yarn I'd find to send my Bureau when we got close enough to the action to sound authentic.
It seemed as though we crawled along in that little two-seater for centuries. Impatience is a hellish thing when there is no remedy for it. And there was no way in the world that we could make any better time than we were. The refugees were thinning out now, however, and we were making increasingly better progress.
"This little wagon will really roar if we can ever get a clear road," Fellows told me. There were less troops on the roads now, and we'd pass a unit about every ten minutes. Those at the front were obviously pretty busy, and there was no time yet for any return. The sounds of battle were growing increasingly louder. The bombs were falling more frequently, too, and through the blackness enshrouding us we were able to catch occasional orange flashes of flames in the distance. I figured them for flares, but I wasn't certain.
It seems curious to me now—although I didn't notice it then—that no one stopped us to demand credentials as we moved along toward the front. The laxity, the lull that brought a false sense of indefinite security, had obviously played a little hell with French military efficiency.
A half hour later, and we were definitely getting close to the thick of it. It was hard to talk to Fellows, now, because of the noise and shattering explosions as cannon thundered closer and closer. Our darkness, too, had lightened, for there were fires in the distance, apparently from blazing barns ignited by incendiary bombs. We were in the farming district, on the same road we'd traveled that very afternoon.
A sudden "chunk" after a terrific explosion about a half mile to our right made Fellows halt the two-seater abruptly.
"Stiff going from now on," he said. "We'd better don these little tin derbies."
I was only too glad that the English correspondent had thought of this, as I grabbed for my tin-hat and planked it on my skull.
"That object which struck our machine," Fellows explained, starting the car again, "was a piece of shrapnel. Nasty stuff." He pointed to a ragged hole in the upper right hand corner of our windshield, which somehow I hadn't noticed. "Luckily that's all it did," he shouted to be heard.
The gulp that came to my throat was quite involuntary. Fellows was sitting less than ten inches from the break in that windshield!
We didn't get more than five hundred yards further in our little vehicle. We were at the top of a wooded hill, rounding a turn, when the explosion came. I don't know how close it was, but I remember that my ears were ringing, and I was crawling painfully from the overturned wreckage of our car. There was smoke trailing from the ruins, and Fellows was bolt upright behind the wheel. It had crushed inward on him. There was a dazed, unbelieving expression on his face. A thin ribbon of blood trickled from his forehead.
As I tried frantically to pull him out of the wreckage, I realized with a sudden numbing sensation of horror that he was dead. Three more shells, bursting in rapid succession and all less than five hundred yards from me, made me realize that my sobbing efforts to remove the corpse of the English journalist from behind the wheel of the twisted machine were suicidal.
I STOOD there in the middle of the road, faintly conscious of the fact that my hand was wet and sticky from blood, while another shell exploded, closer this time. With the unerring instinct of a hunted animal, I dropped to the ground and covered my head with my hands.
Then I was crawling, painfully, laboriously; inching along that road as rapidly as I could, for up ahead there was a building. I wasn't aware of it as anything but a refuge. And recalling it now, I can't for the life of me imagine why I thought a simple wooden building would shield me from the hell that was screaming all around.
I do remember realizing dimly that this barrage of German shelling must have been a paving process for Panzer divisions somewhere in this territory. Finally I gained the edge of the driveway leading to the wooden structure. I lay there on the ground, gasping for breath.
The shock of bursting shells still banging incessantly in my eardrums made everything seem to wheel dizzily. And then there was a scorching blast of orange flame flashing up before me, while somewhere in a foggy mist there came the thunderous detonation of a vast explosion.
It must have been at least ten minutes that I lay there, knocked out cold by the force, the terrible concussion of the shell that had hit so incredibly close to me. Opening my eyes, I could realize that somehow I was still intact, and that miraculously, my body hadn't been ribboned by shrapnel. Then I saw the building—or what had been the building. There was nothing left but a gaping concrete blob amid black and smouldering soil. Everything else had been torn or blown away. I don't believe that even a splinter of wood was left in place.
My hand rested on a board, and looking down I saw the lettering, "DuPois Inn Fine Wi—." I dropped the piece of sign I'd half lifted, and since the shells were still plopping deafeningly on all sides, began to crawl automatically toward the concrete remnants of that building. I was crawling to find refuge. There wasn't a thought in my mind about the legend of Armand DuPois. As a matter of fact I don't believe I fully realized at that moment quite where I was.
The thundering of shell fire was already diminishing as I let myself drop over the side of the concrete remains of the cellar. For some unaccountable reason—possibly because man can get used to anything—my head was clearing and I was beginning to feel the power to reason logically again.
The cellar was about twelve feet deep, and as I explored it as best I could, I realized that there had been a floored-in, deeper section to it in one corner. Wanting to burrow just as deeply into the earth as I could at that moment, I made for this.
There was a jagged hole about eight feet in circumference around this broken cement over-layer. Gingerly, I let myself down into this narrow confinement. It was damp and cool inside—and dark.
I found a match in my pocket, and shielding it with my hand, I struck it against the wall. The shattered covering overhead was enough to keep the glow from betraying me to anyone outside. I looked at my narrow haven.
There was a coffin-like, solid-stone crypt in one corner. The stone lid had been shoved off. This was odd enough. But it wasn't what made me gasp in stark astonishment. The reason for the strained, involuntary cry that left my lips was a crest emblazoned on the side of the vacant crypt.
It was the crest of Napoleon Bonaparte
HEADLINE, News Dispatch—
INTERNATIONAL PRESS SERVICE WRITER
FIRST AMERICAN CORRESPONDENT WOUNDED IN ACTION
That headline above was all for me. Four French poilus picked me up out of the ruins of the little country inn exactly one day later. I was unconscious from loss of blood caused by an arm wound. I didn't come around until several days after that. Then I was in a hospital in Paris, with a cable from my Bureau Manager demanding to know when in the hell he was going to get a first-to-be-plugged yarn from me.
He got his yarn, and some of you may have read it. I knew that getting pinked in the arm was not necessarily synonymous with journalistic brilliance, and consequently felt a little embarrassed about it. But I had more on my mind than that. I was remembering, in every last vivid detail, the scene in the ruins of the DuPois Inn. That crest still flashed, neon-like, into my mind every time I thought of that night. And I was doing plenty of thinking.
I was wondering if that coffin had always been empty, and if not, how long it'd been empty when I first saw it. Screwy ideas were dancing along the frayed edges of my nerves. I was liable to imagine anything. But I was certain that I hadn't imagined what I saw there.
My dispatches had a Paris date-line for the next three weeks of the German Blitz, for I was mending the injured wing while aching to get another crack at doing something besides collecting wounds. On the fourth week, my New York Bureau cabled, and I left Paris, glad to be headed for possible action.
I didn't know then how much I'd see. On May 25th I filed a dispatch that began like this:
I.N.P.S. (Special) Dunkirk, 5/25/40.
The first divisions of the British Expeditionary Forces straggled into Dunkirk, today, marking the initial success of the Allied Armies to avoid the huge, swiftly closing German pincer offensive. In what looks to be a gallant last stand against the onsweeping hordes of...
It was only on the following day that I really awoke to the realization of how tough things were going to be. Hordes of German planes swarmed over Dunkirk, loosing bombs right and left on the dock constructions of the little harbor. In much greater numbers, the weary and gallant remainder of the B.E.F. began pouring into the little town.
But on the next day—the 27th— hell broke out for certain. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers lined the docks and beaches, now. Weary, spent, dogged, but determined, they dug in as best they could on the slight knolls and sand dunes, placing machine guns and anti-aircraft equipment in position to pay back the chattering death which endless swarms of swooping Stukas rained down on their numbers.
Dunkirk is situated on a shallow, sandy coast, and that day was bright and hot. The sun made ever more tempting targets of the men on the beaches. I was there with them. And from outside we got reports that the steel ring of the Panzer divisions was closing in more and more tightly. Stragglers of the Senegalese troops, who'd been holding the rear open with the French poilus, began arriving. Resistance was weakening, they said, it didn't look as if it would be humanly possible to beat the enemy off any longer.
Things looked black. This was ghastly history being written.
THE first few French and British destroyers arrived late that afternoon, and the evacuation of the battalions on the docks began. But they were only a few compared to the hordes who prayed and waited on the beaches. And the Stukas were playing up and down the beaches, chattering, chattering, snicking out lives by the hundreds like huge scythes. The German howitzers had gained the range of the beaches, and another hell was added to existence.
The French and British destroyers loaded up until they could carry no more. Other boats would arrive—if they got past the Nazi air swarms patrolling the sky to prevent just that. And where was the R.A.F.?
They were there by nightfall, bless them, and we had our first partial rest from the Stukas. But the howitzers still pounded the bleak sands relentlessly. More boats would come soon, we learned. But that "soon," we expected, would be too late.
The French, holding off the Germans to permit the evacuation, could not last much longer. It was a certainty that they would crack at almost any instant. They had held gallantly, but there is a limit even to heroism.
The night gave birth to a new hell. More swarms of planes, more bombs. Howitzers getting closer range. Twelve knolls beat off attacks by Panzer divisions. No boats.
A beautifully bright moon and a starlit sky revealed the beaches perfectly to the enemy.
I was in a staff hut with four B.E.F. officers and two other correspondents. Those British officers looked pretty grim. But they were going to do one hell of a grand job of dying if their time came. They didn't think the French could hold much longer.
An orderly brought word. He was stained, bloody, dirty. A man from the Devil's Kingdom. He was barely able to salute.
"The French, Sir. Their resistance has stiffened. They're holding, while mobilizing a mechanized drive to sweep through the German flank and reach us on the beaches."
The orderly pitched forward on his face and I saw he wasn't an orderly. He had a Lieutenant's insignia on his tattered tunic. He was taken to a first aid tent a few yards down. The night crawled on, and with the dawn a mist was coming in from the sea, blotting out the sun. The men on the beaches cheered. It meant a chance.
EARLY that day the destroyers arrived, laying down an inner-coastal barrage which was to effectively halt the German advance. Behind the destroyers was the strangest "armada" in history. There were sub-chasers, aircraft carriers, transports, motor launches, ferries, yachts, fishing boats, tugs, barges—as incredible and numerous an aggregation of seaworthy vessels as I have ever seen!
By now the weather was terribly murky.
The French had not pounded through to join the evacuation as yet. But the big British sea guns were doing their bit. Men were dashing from the beaches, wading up to their ears in the sea, clambering on rafts, into boats. The docks were in bad shape, and evacuation grew more difficult. The beach was too shallow for the destroyers to put in closely. And now came the planes.
Three thousand nine hundred of them—a number I learned later. They might have well been millions! The R.A.F. was performing gallantly against terrible odds. Men on rafts and in open boats mounted machine-guns in their craft to beat off the harrowing attacks of those planes. The water ran with red in the sea that day. And then came the French. They had sliced through!
But the ring was drawing closer.
"One French division holding off at a bottleneck near the beach. If they don't fail we can make it," a British officer told me.
I got a little sick—one division!
But still the Nazi troops were held off. Night was falling fast. I was in the staff hut again, when another message arrived. A runner handed a slip to the English commander. He read:
"We're holding. You can count on us. Good luck."
There was a significant silence. Everyone in the hut was thinking of the same thing. They'd be sliced to pieces for this gallantry. The English commander, having read the contents, glanced hastily, unseeingly, at the bottom. He crumpled it and let it drop.
I picked it up surreptitiously, making sure I wasn't noticed, and stuffed it in my pocket. There was a fine yarn here. Good copy.
"We're holding," a masterpiece of understatement. One division remaining, so the others can escape.
HEADLINE, Daily News—
MIRACLE AT DUNKIRK-
Twelve days after America read that headline, I was back in New York. France fell shortly after this. And with the rest of you I read of a free people's effort to overthrow the yoke of enslavement. You know what I mean by this. I refer to the hints of sabotage by the vanquished against their victors; I mean the reports seeping through rigid censorship to the effect that "underground" armies are being organized; I mean the unexplained ambushings of Nazi patrol divisions along French countrysides. I am thinking of these and thousands of other daily evidences of a free and reborn France rising from defeat.
There are those who say these indications of revolt will soon die, that the heavy boot of the conqueror will stamp out the spark that kindles freedom in the hearths of France. They give their reasons for such conclusions on the premise that France is without a leader, someone who can give the unified strength needed in their hour of peril.
And when they speak this way I think of these things: I recall the legend of a sloop that stealthily left the Island of St. Helena on a foggy, blackened night. I recall a little droop- moustached innkeeper, descendent of a brilliant physician, who kept a strange crypt in his tightly sealed cellar. And I remember a message sent to a British commander on the blood-drenched beach at Dunkirk.
"We're holding," that message said, "you can count on us."
But mostly I remember the signature beneath that message. It was: