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“Eleven Steps”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Nelson McKeeby

I met Michel Rimbaud for the first time through a letter written by his sister.  “Michel,” the letter said, “Do you remember the summer days when we used to run through the fields and play in the woods?”  Later in the letter she says, “I am sure your birthday will see you finding success in your great adventure.  Come home to me soon.”

I imagine Michel as a playful child who loves nature and athletics and adores his younger sister more. I envy his happiness and his boyish face, and feel warm that he is cared for by his sister so much. In a war that had so much death, uncovering a letter of hope made me smile the rest of the day of tedious research.

It was happenstance that I found a list of soldiers called up in the region of Pau, and noticed that Michel Rimbaud was on that list. Like all militaries, long rows of names are followed by marks that indicated things like their assignment of pay, rations, and transportation. In this case Michel was given authorization and rations to travel from Pau to a unit reforming in the front lines. He was to replace men who had fallen many times before in the war to end all wars.

Army records show young Michel left Pau and arrived near the front at a desperate period for the French. There was no time to train him, only enough to get weapons in his hand and send him forward. I share his bewilderment as he is dressed in four kilograms of wool, was handed an empty bread bag, and then given a rifle, bayonet, and paper-wrapped packs of ammunition. I sympathize with the youth who ran in the hills of Pau, a man before he had finished being a boy.

At this point I might have lost track of Michel in the maelstrom of the Great War, but a few years later a second letter came to my attention. It was written by his sergeant to a young woman, perhaps the sister Anne. Through a welter of corrections and redactions the sergeant offers a glowing view of the brave Michel, but also shows the young man’s vulnerability. He tells how Michel did not understand how to load his rifle, so the sergeant loaded it for him. To protect Michel, the sergeant explains, he loaded eight rounds into the weapon’s magazine, then held his thumb on the feed elevator and closed the rifle’s bolt on an empty chamber.  French rifles had no safety, so this was done to protect Michel from trouble with the unfamiliar device.  The theory in the French army at the time, at least in the more traditional units, was that the rifle was a place to stick a sharp knife that just happened to be able to fire bullets. If a soldier could not operate it, c’est la vie, at least you can stop a bullet that would kill a better trained man, and who knows, maybe you can get close enough to use the bayonet. Anyone could poke an enemy with one of those.

The sergeant’s letter was never sent to Anne, but it tells the entire story of Michel’s journey in the last few sentences. His unit was ordered to attack the German line on July 1st, 1917 with Michel, still unable to load his rifle properly, in the first wave.  At 11:43 AM his unit left the trenches, their mission to take the German lines nearly a kilometer away. I struggle with the futility of his journey when I read the last lines. Eleven meters from the trench he was struck and killed by four bullets. His rifle remained unloaded.

After this there seems to be some confusion. Michel was, according to notes in the regimental log that I found, recovered and returned to the main trenches where a surgeon named Malvideo, likely a foreign volunteer, confirmed in a quickly jotted note that Private Rimbaud was indeed dead. No effort was made to dig the bullets out of his body, but his rifle’s serial number began an amazing journey through space and time. It was issued twice more during the Great War and retrieved twice more from dead hands.  In 1922 it was rebuilt to bring it back into service with modern ammunition and was kept in a reserve storage center in Nevers. In 1939 it is again issued, and again taken from dead hands, where upon it is captured by German forces. In 1942 it is reissued to Polish slave-soldiers guarding the Atlantic wall, and it was again taken from the hands of a dead soldier, but this time by an American infantry unit, who turned it over to a storage center which issued it to an Algerian battalion. The last entry on the weapon is its return to St. Etienne where, for all I know, it sits today.

As for Rimbaud, he would never find his way back to Pau and his sister. Although listed on the rolls as Killed in Action, his body was destroyed in a bombardment that obliterated the graves detail unit that was burying him and lost forever in the French countryside. On my last visit to France I paused in an open field as close as I could to where Michel’s last earthly remains existed, and I noted an ancient cairn of stones carefully preserved by the farmer who now owned the land. I imagined his young sister, towing children and grandchildren behind her, taking them to stand in respectful silence by the grave of an uncle they would never know, represented now simply by field rocks that stand sentinel over thousands of unnamed dead.