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The EK1

When he learned his death was near, he said quietly, “Mama, mama,” and turning to his father with a smile, he murmured: “It must be accepted, one must submit.”

Hector Fréderic Arthur André Cornet-Auquier was a pastor’s son born on the 2nd of July 1887 in Nauroy. Excelling at school he continued his studies at various universities, at Lyon, Dijon, Liége (Belgium) and Ramsgate (U.K.) before doing his national service. He left the army with the status of reserve officer in the 133eme Regiment d’Infanterie. After his national service he left the continent to teach in Glasgow and was in Wales, at Colwyn Bay, when war broke out.

The following texts are from “Un soldat sans peur et sans reproche”, a book published after his death and containing the texts of many of the letters he wrote home from the front. Translated by Theodore Stanton, M.A. the book was published in English in 1918 under the title “A Soldier Unafraid – Letters from the trenches on the Alsatian Front”. 

The son of a pastor and extremely pious André Cornet’s letters, chosen by his parents, express a religious fervor uncommon and probably alien in the western world in this day and age. I have kept the religious passages to a minimum but hope that there are enough to show that for Cornet, his religious beliefs resulted in a disdain for death which were coupled with an almost fanatical belief that it may be God’s will that he die in battle. While such belief may be a comforting thought for a man who on occasion seems to welcome the thought of dying for his country it may have made the men he was commanding slightly apprehensive if they had read thoughts like “For my part, I only say to him, “Thy will be done”; for he knows so much better than I do what is good for me. And the hope of returning to him is such a consolation”.

“Dearest Parents: The latest news shows we are in for war. I learned this yesterday afternoon. When we heard it in the house where I am staying, everybody grew pale … I was and am still calm. God is there; fear nothing. And you know I have a military soul. Tell the British uncles that I am proud to fight not only for France but also for England, that dear second native land of mine; and if I must die for those two countries, I shall do so happily, provided only that we are victorious. But I am a French soldier all the same. I shall reach Paris tomorrow, during the day.” (3rd August 1914)

“Tell the English uncles that I shall fight like a Frenchman and die like an Englishman. The order will be Nelson’s famous one: “England expects that every man will do his duty!” So let us be of good courage. Hurrah for France and England. (5th August 1914)

“I am writing you a few hundred yards from the enemy’s lines… It is ten days since I had a wash, and I haven’t had my shoes off for a week…. It was the heavy artillery which gave me my first baptism of fire. For three hours we lay flat on the ground while shells fell all around us. One of them burst scarcely more than five or six yards from me, making a great hole in the ground and covering me with earth and debris. But the worst thing about all this is the smell of the dead bodies. The other day my section was detailed to bury some thirty half-putrefied corpses. You cannot imagine what this work is. Oh what horrors I have witnessed, - terrible wounds and ruined villages. What brutes these Germans are to burn the farms. I am quite ready to give my life if I know that you will make the sacrifice of it for France.” (10th September 1914)

“I have been put in command of a company. I of course keep my old rank, but I have all the powers, rights, and also all the responsibilities of a captain. It’s terrible. When I was told this yesterday, it really made me sick, thinking of the lives of all these men in my hands…. I feel so young and inexperienced. You have no idea of the horrors of a battlefield.” (12th September 1914)

Above: the wrist strap belonging to Captaine Andre Cornet. The straps were specially made to hold a dog tag and a piece of paper with personal details

“I am writing you under shell fire, and I eat and sleep in the same conditions. It is terrible the state of mind you get into on a battle field. I would never have believed that I could remain so indifferent in the presence of dead bodies. For us soldiers, human life seems to count for nothing. To think that one can laugh, like a crazy man, in the midst of it all. But as soon as you begin to reflect an extraordinary feeling takes possession of you, an infinite gravity and melancholy. You live from day to day without thinking of the morrow, for you ask yourself, may there be a morrow? You never use the future tense without adding, if we get there. You form no projects for the time to come. Everything for the moment is at a Standstill. What a strange life. You almost think you would prefer to know what is coming.” (22nd September 1914)

“It is very odd the moral and nervous effect which the war produces on me. I have seen decaying bodies, some with their eyes open and looking as if they were gazing at me. I have seen the worst sort of wounds; legs cut off by bursting shells and bathed in a sea of blood. Sometimes I have had to jump over bodies in moving about. But all this no longer has any effect on me. Yet a moving story, patriotic words, a brave act, a sign of pity, all such things make my hair stand on end and bring tears into my eyes.” (23rd October 1914)

“How I would like to feel that you are ready, even before it comes, to make if necessary the sacrifice of my life. How I would like to be able to say to myself: “at least they are ready, and if my death would be painful to them, they are resigned to it, resigned in advance.” I also have moments of impatience, especially when I feel myself so full of youth and strength, when I reflect on all that I have abandoned, of work, hopes, all that the future which was smiling at me, at such moments I wish it were all ended. But this morning I began reflecting on what is the life of an individual in comparison with the general peace of all the nations of Europe, nothing. We all know, those of us on the firing line, that tomorrow or the day after, we too will probably follow the others. Well, so let it be if God wills it…… In fact, as I was just saying to Major Barberot, who left me a moment ago, what are our lives worth when we think of the years of happiness and of peace of those who will follow us and those who may survive us? We labor for tomorrow, in order that there may be no more wars, no more spilling of blood, no more killing, no more wounded, no more mutilated victims; We labor, we whom our mothers will so weep for, in order that other Mamas may never know these bitter tears…. If I must die, I ask but once grace, and that is to die at the head of my company, without my knowing it, from a bullet in my heart. Oh, above all things, may I receive no ball in the abdomen which might cause me to writhe in pain and die little by little.” (1st January 1915)

“You make no mistake when you say that you know I will do my duty. Be tranquil on that score; and it seems to me that if I were a father, I would consider it a great consolation, privilege and honor to be able to say, if I learned of the death of my son, “He died at his post for his country.” Of course, there are moments when one would like to live, have children, bring them up in the paths of honor, make men of them and to profit, in their education, by all the experience which you yourself have acquired. But nobody is necessary or indispensable in this world.” 24th February 1915

“Your son is a Captain! The announcement of this honor will, I am sure, produce a moral and a sentimental joy in the home circle, especially in the case of dear little Mama and Papa. I know it will bring tears to your eyes when the telegram reaches you. And for me it will mean I must ever render myself worthy of this title, which signifies, as you know, “he who is at the head.”” 31st May 1915

“(Letter to his sister in England) I shall probably never know your husband nor your children. All that I ask is that someday you will take them on your knees, and, showing them the portrait of their uncle, as a captain, will tell them that he died for your country and in part for theirs too.” (2nd June 1915

“ (Start of the battle of Metzeral) My dear ones: It was a grand success for our battalion. The charge was full of emotion. We took nearly 300 prisoners and much war material. Our losses were light but some of them very sad. My company led the attack, and in less than a quarter of an hour, we had captured three lines of enemy trenches. When I saw that we had carried the day, I had a nervous fit of crying and exclaimed aloud: “Mama! Mama! Hurrah for France!” and finding nobody else to embrace, threw my arms around the neck of my good little sergeant and kissed him as though he was a dear old friend” 15th June 1915

“All goes well. The victory is complete. Pushed back everywhere, the Boches are retreating and setting everything on fire as they fall back. The General of our division has just shaken hands with me and felicitated me. And what a sensation victory is. The conquered terrain, the pursuit of the enemy who is quite ready to surrender, and then the almost childish joy which one feels at having escaped death…. Tomorrow we are to take part in another operation. But please understand that if the day comes when we are slaughtered, it will be because this is indispensable for the safety of the country; and be it known that the country has simply to call and we will respond. Let your confidence in God always continue. Oh, how fine is this Christian disregard for the things of this world.” 19th June 1915

Above: A whistle recuperated by Cornet's father after his death. The Whistle was a gift from his friend and mentor Commandant Charles Barberot and had been carried by him while campaigning in Madagascar and at the outbreak of the war. Barberot gave it to Cornet on the 5th of January 1915. Barberot was killed in action on the Col du Linge  while commanding the 15h Chasseurs in August 1915. Cornet carried the whistle until his death in 1916. The note was attached by his parents.

“This morning a very touching ceremony took place. Major Barberot presented me, in the presence of the whole company, the war cross with the palm. He made a little speech to the men and read the text of my army citation, and wound up with these words: “This is why I am happy to pin this war cross on the breast of my friend Captain Cornet-Auquier.” His calling me his “friend” pleased me greatly. Then he embraced me on both cheeks and the colonel did the same. So here you have on my capote this bronze medal, a cross in form, the sign of faith and hope, with its pretty dark-green watered ribbon with red stripes.” 21st June 1915

“Am well. Given the Legion of Honor by General Joffre. Affection.” Telegram 13 July 1915

“Dear ones: I have so many things to tell you that I do not know where to begin, and I have lived through such horrible days that I hesitate to go back to them and stir up the memory of them, for each time that I speak of them, sad sensations are awakened, the pictures of bloody spectacles reappear in clearer outline, the nightmare is reborn in all its abomination; it is as though I found myself suddenly transported back into the midst of those scenes of desolation and death.

Yes, it is a brilliant victory, that cannot be denied; but how dearly paid. You must have guessed it, for in the note which I wrote to you in haste, I said that I commanded the battalion, which told the tale of what had become of the other officers. An unheard of thing, miraculous, a divine benediction, not one of my officers, those of the 1st company, received even a scratch! What is there about this company that makes such things possible? And yet to it fell the most dangerous part, for it was taken on the flank by the machine-gun fire of the enemy, our artillery being unable to reach that point.

We started off in a perfect rain of shells. What a shower of bullets, what a hell! While I was engaged in sending forward the sections one after the other, and was on the point of rushing forward with my supporting officers, an immense shell struck where I was standing, blinded me with earth and buried the man at my side. Then it became a race under heavy shell fire and through smoke, a wild race among the bullets, followed by victory, a complete victory, the Boches surrendering in bunches of twenty, thirty, fifty, one hundred, stupefied, imploring with their hands joined and their army raised to heaven and crying: “Gut Kamerad! Gut Kamerad!” I never saw anything so vile, so base, so boot licking as the German who surrenders, whimpering, bending in submission. They’re a bad lot. The officers arrogant, even in defeat; their men, as low down as they make them. By evening, we had taken six hundred prisoners. The same thing went on during the night and the next day. During the night, we also organized the conquered terrain. The next day too, the enemy’s artillery commenced to fire on us in a spirit of revenge, a state of mind very dear to the Teuton. But their cannon were badly aimed, and it was evident the adversary did not know exactly where we were. However, a day later, that is on the 10th of July, the dance began again. At 4:00am a German flying machine discovered just where we were, and soon they were shooting at us, the shells getting nearer and nearer, until the circle of iron and death closed in tightly around us. At 8:00am the inevitable happened, the fatal shell struck us like a waterspout. It was a big “130” and burst at a yard and a half from where we were, killing, wounding and destroying everything and everybody, almost. The death-rattle of the dying and the shrieks of the wounded, in the midst of clouds of smoke and dirt, it was simply horrible. We had five killed, among whom was the commander of the battalion, five wounded and four untouched, I being one of the last. A telephonist was killed so close to me that my cap, which had been knocked off, was filled with the poor fellow’s blood. Two of my subordinate officers were killed, but my cyclist was unhurt. As the shells kept on coming, we took advantage of the cloud which enveloped and his us to stealthily decamp, one after the other, from this veritable hell. Our faces and hair were full of earth and blackened, our temples were running with perspiration, in fact, we no longer looked like human beings. And it means furthermore the Battalion without a head, a very heavy inheritance for me to assume.” 15th July 1915

“Tomorrow will be a year since, in a fearful rainstorm and a tremendous shower of shells, Major Barberot made me the commander of the first company. A whole year! What things have happened since then, what events of every sort, how many dear friends have disappeared never to return, while I am still here.” 19th September 1915

“Yesterday I represented the colonel at the burial of one of our young fellow officers, killed by a bullet that struck him full in the head…. These deaths in the trenches have a peculiar sadness about them; they seem to happen more in cold blood. To be killed during an assault, intoxicated by the thunder of the cannon, the sound of the trumpets, the wild charge, and the whirlwind which accompanies victory; this is a magnificent way of ending one’s military career. But to fall from a commonplace bullet while making a humdrum inspection in the trenches, what more inglorious end than this?” 24th November 1915

“The last day of the year. Tomorrow will be 1916. With what giddy Rapidity have passed the twelve months which are just ending. But it is not astonishing that the time seems short, when every moment is taken up, when events are so crowded into those little compartments which we call days and hours that it seems impossible they can be held in such a limited space. What a strenuous, well filled existence we are leading. We will have run the whole gamut of sweet and tragic emotions, the joyous and the sad. What a strain on men’s nerves, and how well tempered must be those who withstand it. Poor human nerves, poor fragile things. For it is especially by our nerves that we get through this artificial and abnormal course which we are now pursuing. And what wear and tear there is when one reflects a moment about it. What can we expect of the younger generation who have gone through all this? How worn out they’ll be and how early they’ll grow old. And yet, in the midst of this earthly hell, what divine benedictions there are. You stand abashed, so unworthy of these benefits do you feel yourself to be. To have had death pass by and graze you with is black wings, to have seen the Grand Mower strew around you over a bloody soil your chiefs and your own soldiers, almost your children, to have heard, the death Rattle , and the hoarse moaning of those about to die, to have had a man killed in your arms and been bespattered by his warm young blood, to have felt weighing on your shoulders at twenty eight the responsibility of holding, with a diminished and weakened battalion, a position snatched from the enemy at the price of what sacrifices, and then, freed for a few hours from this tempest, to have felt what glory is, to have received from the hands of the Grand Chief the blood red ribbon (Légion d'honneur), to have been embraced by him, to have been feted, made much of, to have seen the old men of these sad regions shake your hands, moved, and to have been smiled upon by the women who exclaim, “Thank you,”.. and all this happening during a few hours, in two or three days. Do you not think that here is enough to break down even the most robust constitution?

There are moments when, living over again in memory these past hours, you feel as though you were crushed and overthrown by all that you have experienced. And when you throw off this nightmare and escape from this atmosphere which smothers you, you still find that you must go on struggling, struggling; never speak of the future, never be able to say “tomorrow”. On the threshold of this new year, you seem to have reached a grand highway where the milestones do not tell the distance still to make; you know how many miles you have come, but not how many you have still to go. And yet Forward is the word of command. The way is still long and hard, bit victory is at the end. As Joan of Arc has said: “The soldiers will battle and God will give the victory.” 31st December 1915

“I am enjoying here a period of half repose, as immediate reserve, a mile or two from the trenches. Though I am very busy, this is the most comfortable resting place I have had since I have been at the front…. My days are employed in visiting different sectors of the front in connection with a plan for counter-attack which the generals of division and brigade have asked me to study. I have been at the work all day to-day and am just back all tired out. I am going to bed without even eating, so weary am I.” 29th February 1916

Above: An early postcard showing St Die under German fire

That night, at 4:00am on the 1st of March 1916 a German artillery shell landed behind the French lines, in the Bivouac are the men of the 1st Company. A piece of shrapnel struck Captain André Cornet-Auquier in the thigh. The splinter continued into his abdomen and ruptured his intestines. Taken to a field hospital he was joined by his sister (a military nurse) and his father who were with him when he died on the 2nd of March 1916. Realizing his life was slipping away he murmured “Mama, mama,” then looked at his father, smiled, and said “It must be accepted, one must submit.”

He was buried 2 days later at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, a large military funeral attended by the Divisional commander. Colonel Baudrand paid him tribute by calling him “A soldier without fear and above reproach” (Un Soldat sans peur et sans reproach).  

An interesting page maintained by a family member of Commandant Barberot can be found here