Part 3 out of 7
get larger supplies; communities in great need without spokesmen
must be reached; powerful towns found excuses for not forwarding
food to small villages which were without influence. Natural greed got
the better of men used to turning a penny any way they could.
Rascally bakers who sifted the brown flour to get the white to sell to
patisserie shops and the well-to-do while the bread-line got the bran,
required shrewd handling, and it was found that the best punishment
was to let the public know the pariah part they had played. In fact that
soon put a stop to the practice. It meant that the baker's business
was ruined and he had lost his friends.
A certain percentage of Belgians, as would happen in any country,
saw the invasion only as a visitation of disaster, like an earthquake. A
flat country of gardens limits one's horizon. They fell into line with the
sentiment of the mass. But as time wore on into the summer and
autumn of the second year, some of them began to think, What was
the use? German propaganda was active. All that the Allies had
cared for Belgium was to use her to check the German tide to Paris
and the Channel ports! Perfidious England had betrayed Belgium!
German business and banking influences, which had been considerable
in Belgium before the war, and the numerous German residents
who had returned, formed a busy circle of appeal to Belgian business
men, who were told that the British navy stood between them and a
return to prosperity. Germany was only too willing that they should
resume their trade with the rest of the world.
Why should not Belgium come into the German customs union? Why
should not Belgium make the best of her unfortunate situation, as
became a practical and thrifty people? But be it a customs union or
annexation that Germany plans, the steel had entered the hearts of
all Belgians with red corpuscles; and King Albert and his
"schipperkes" were still fighting the Germans at Dixmude. A British
army appearing before Brussels would end casuistry; and pessimism
would pass, and the German residents, too, with the huzzas of all
Belgium as the gallant king once more ascended the steps of his
Worthy of England at her best was her consent to allow the
Commission's food to pass, which she accompanied by generous
giving. She might seem slow in making ready her army--though I do
not think that she was--but give she could and give she did. It was a
grave question if her consent was in keeping with the military policy
which believes that any concession to sentiment in the grim business
of war is unwise. Certainly, the Krieg ist Krieg of Germany would not
have permitted it.
There is the very point of the war that ought to make any neutral take
sides. If the Belgians had not received bread from the outside world,
then Germany would either have had to spare enough to keep them
from starving or faced the desperation of a people who would fight for
food with such weapons as they had. This must have brought a
holocaust of reprisals that would have made the orgy of Louvain
comparatively insignificant. However much the Germans hampered
the Commission with red tape and worse than red tape through the
activities of German residents in Belgium, Germany did not want the
Commission to withdraw. It was helping her to economize her food
supplies. And England answered a human appeal at the cost of hard-
and-fast military policy. She was still true to the ideals which have set
their stamp on half the world.
Winter In Lorraine
Only a winding black streak, that four hundred and fifty miles of
trenches on a flat map. It is difficult to visualize the whole as you see
it in your morning paper, or to realize the labour it represents in its
course through the mire and over mountain slopes, through villages
and thick forests and across open fields.
Every mile of it was located by the struggle of guns and rifles and
men coming to a stalemate of effort, when both dug into the earth
and neither could budge the other. It is a line of countless battles and
broken hopes; of charges as brave as men ever made; a symbol of
skill and dogged patience and eternal vigilance of striving foe against
From the first, the sector from Rheims to Flanders was most familiar
to the public. The world still thinks of the battle of the Marne as an
affair at the door of Paris, though the heaviest fighting was from Vitry-
le-Francois eastward and the fate of Paris was no less decided on the
fields of Lorraine than on the fields of Champagne. The storming of
Rheims Cathedral became the theme of thousands of words of print
to one word for the defence of the Plateau d'Amance or the struggle
around Luneville. Our knowledge of the war is from glimpses through
the curtain of military secrecy which was drawn tight over Lorraine
and the Vosges, shrouded in mountain mists. This is about Lorraine
in winter, when the war was six months old.
But first, on our way, a word about Paris, which I had not seen since
September. At the outset of the war, Parisians who had not gone to
the front were in a trance of suspense; they were magnetized by the
tragic possibilities of the hour. The fear of disaster was in their hearts,
though they might deny it to themselves. They could think of nothing
but France. Now they realized that the best way to help France was
by going on with their work at home. Paris was trying to be normal,
but no Parisian was making the bluff that Paris was normal. The
Gallic lucidity of mind prevented such self-deception.
Is it normal to have your sons, brothers, and husbands up to their
knees in icy water in the trenches, in danger of death every minute?
This attitude seems human; it seems logical. One liked the French for
it. One liked them for boasting so little. In their effort at normality
they had accomplished more than they realized; for one-sixth of
the wealth of France was in German hands. A line of steel made
the rest safe for those not at the front to pursue the routine of peace.
When I had been in Paris in September there was no certainty about
railroad connections anywhere. You went to the station and took your
chances, governed by the movement of troops, not to mention other
conditions. This time I took the regular noon express to Nancy, as I
might have done to Marseilles, or Rome, or Madrid, had I chosen.
The sprinkling of quiet army officers on the train were in the new
uniform of peculiar steely grey, in place of the target blue and red. But
for them and the number of women in mourning and one other
circumstance, the train might have been bound for Berlin, with Nancy
only a stop on the way.
The other circumstance was the presence of a soldier in the vestibule
who said: "Votre laisser-passer, monsieur, s'il vous platt!" If you had a
laisser-passer, he was most polite; but if you lacked one, he would
also have been most polite and so would the guard that took you in
charge at the next station. In other words, monsieur, you must have
something besides a railroad ticket if you are on a train that runs past
the fortress of Toul and your destination is Nancy. You must have a
military pass, which was never given to foreigners if they were
travelling alone in the zone of military operations. The pulse of the
Frenchman beats high, his imagination bounds, when he looks
eastward. To the east are the lost provinces and the frontier drawn by
the war of '70 between French Lorraine and German Lorraine. This
gave our journey interest.
Nancy, capital of French Lorraine, is so near Metz, the great German
fortress town of German Lorraine, that excursion trains used to run to
Nancy in the opera season. "They are not running this winter," say
the wits of Nancy. "For one reason, we have no opera--and there are
An aeroplane from the German lines has only to toss a bomb in the
course of an average reconnaissance on Nancy if it chooses; for
Zeppelins are within easy reach of Nancy. But here was Nancy as
brilliantly lighted at nine in the evening as any city of its size at home.
Our train, too, had run with the windows unshaded. After the
darkness of London, and after English trains with every window-
shade closely drawn, this was a surprise.
It was a threat, an anticipation, that darkened London, while Nancy
knew fulfilment. Bombardment and bomb-dropping were nothing new
to Nancy. The spice of danger gives a fillip to business to the town
whose population heard the din of the most thunderously spectacular
action of the war echoing among the surrounding hills. Nancy saw the
enemy beaten back. Now she was so close to the front that she felt
the throb of the army's life.
"Don't you ever worry about aerial raids?" I asked madame behind
the counter at the hotel.
"Do the men in the trenches worry about them?" she answered. "We
have a much easier time than they. Why shouldn't we share some of
their dangers? And when a Zeppelin appears and our guns begin
firing, we all feel like soldiers under fire."
"Are all the population here as usual?"
"Certainly, monsieur!" she said. "The Germans can never take
Nancy. The French are going to take Metz!"
The meal which that hotel restaurant served was as good as in peace
times. Who deserves a good meal if not the officer who comes in
from the front? And madame sees that he gets it. She is as proud of
her poulet en casserole as any commander of a soixante-quinze
battery of its practice. There was steam heat, too, in the hotel, which
gave an American a homelike feeling.
In a score of places in the Eastern States you see landscapes with
high hills like the spurs of the Vosges around Nancy sprinkled with
snow and under a blue mist. And the air was dry; it had the life of our
air. Old Civil War men who had been in the Tennessee Mountains or
the Shenandoah Valley would feel perfectly at home in such
surroundings; only the foreground of farm land which merges into the
crests covered with trees in the distance is more finished. The people
were tilling it hundreds of years before we began tilling ours. They till
well; they make Lorraine a rich province of France.
With guns pounding in the distance, boys in their capes were skipping
and frolicking on their way to school; housewives were going to
market, and the streets were spotlessly clean. All the men of Nancy
not in the army pursued their regular routine while the army went
about its business of throwing shells at the Germans. On the dead
walls of the buildings were M. Deschanel's speech in the Chamber of
Deputies, breathing endurance till victory, and the call for the class of
recruits of 1915, which you will find on the walls of the towns of all
France beside that of the order of mobilization in August, now
weather-stained. Nancy seemed, if anything, more French than any
interior French town. Though near the border, there is no touch of
German influence. When you walked through the old Place
Stanislaus, so expressive of the architectural taste bred for centuries
in the French, you understand the glow in the hearts of this very
French population which made them unconscious of danger while
their flag was flying over this very French city.
No two Christian peoples we know are quite so different as the
French and the Germans. To each every national thought and habit
incarnates a patriotism which is in defiance of that on the other side of
the frontier. Over in America you may see the good in both sides, but
no Frenchman and no German can on the Lorraine frontier. If he
should, he would no longer be a Frenchman or a German in time of
At our service in front of the hotel were waiting two mortals in goatskin
coats, with scarfs around their ears and French military caps on top of
the scarfs. They were official army chauffeurs. If you have ridden
through the Alleghenies in winter in an open car, why explain that
seeing the Vosges front in a motor-car may be a joy ride to an
Eskimo, but not to your humble servant? But the roads were perfect;
as good wherever we went in this mountain country as from New
York to Poughkeepsie. I need not tell you this if you have been in
France; but you will be interested to know that Lorraine keeps her
roads in perfect repair even in war time.
Crossing the swollen Moselle on a military bridge, twisting in and out
of valleys and speeding through villages, one saw who were guarding
the army's secrets, but little of the army itself and few signs of
transportation on a bleak, snowy day. At the outskirts of every village,
at every bridge, and at intervals along the road, Territorial sentries
stopped the car. Having an officer along was not sufficient to let you
whizz by important posts. He must show his pass. Every sentry was a
reminder of the hopelessness of being a correspondent these days
without official sanction.
The sentries were men in the thirties. In Belgium, their German
counterpart, the Landsturm, were the monitors of a journey that I
made. No troops are more military than the first line Germans; but in
the snap and spirit of his salute the French Territorial has an elan, a
martial fervour, which the phlegmatic German in the thirties lacks.
Occasionally we passed scattered soldiers in the village streets, or a
door opened to show a soldier figure in the doorway. The reason that
we were not seeing anything of the army was the same that keeps
the men and boys who are on the steps of the country grocery in
summer at home around the stove in winter. All these villages were
full of reservists who were indoors. They could be formed in the street
ready for the march to any part of the line where a concentrated
attack was made almost as soon after the alarm as a fire engine
starts to a fire. Now, imagine your view of a cricket match limited to
the bowler: and that is all you see in the low country of Flanders. You
have no grasp of what all the noise and struggle means, for you
cannot see over the shoulders of the crowd. But in Lorraine you have
only to ascend a hill and the moves in the chess game of war are
A panorama unfolds as our car takes a rising grade to the village of
Ste. Genevieve. We alight and walk along a bridge, where the sentry
of a lookout is on watch. He seems quite alone, but at our approach a
dozen of his comrades come out of their "home" dug in the hillside.
Wherever you go about the frozen country of Lorraine it is a case of
flushing soldiers from their shelters. A small, semicircular table is set
up before the lookout, like his compass before a mariner. Here run
blue pencil lines of direction pointing to Pont-a-Mousson, to Chateau-
Salins, and other towns. Before us to the east rose the tree-clad
crests of the famous Grand Couronne of Nancy, and faintly in the
distance we could see Metz.
"Those guns that I hear, are they firing across the frontier?" I asked.
For some French batteries command one of the outer forts of Metz.
"No, they are near Pont-a-Mousson."
To the north the little town of Pont-a-Mousson lay in the lap of the
river bottom, and across the valley, to the west, the famous Bois le
Pretre. More guns were speaking from the forest depths, which
showed great scars where the trees had been cut to give fields of fire.
This was well to the rear of our position, marking the boundaries of
the wedge that the Germans drove into the French lines, with its point
at St. Mihiel, in trying to isolate the forts of Verdun and Toul.
Doubtless you have noticed that wedge on the snake maps and have
wondered about it, as I have. It looks so narrow that the French ought
to be able to shoot across it from both sides. If so, why don't the
Germans widen it?
Well, for one thing, a quarter of an inch on a map is a good many
miles of ground. The Germans cannot spread their wedge because
they would have to climb the walls of an alley. That was a fact as
clear to the eye as the valley of the Hudson from West Point. The
Germans occupy an alley within an alley, as it were. They have their
own natural defences for the edges of their wedge; or, where they do
not, they lie cheek by jowl with the French in such thick woods as the
Bois le Pretre.
At our feet, looking toward Metz, an apron of cultivated land swept
down for a mile or more to a forest edge. This was cut by lines of
trenches, whose barbed-wire protection pricked a blanket of snow.
"Our front is in those woods," explained the colonel who was in
command of the point.
"A major when the war began and an officer of reserves," mon
capitaine, who had brought us out from Paris, explained about the
colonel. We were soon used to hearing that a colonel had been a
major or a major a captain before the Kaiser had tried to get Nancy.
There was quick death and speedy promotion at the great battle of
Lorraine, as there was at Gettysburg and Antietam.
"They charged out of the woods, and we had a battalion of reserves--
here are some of them--mes poilus!"
He turned affectionately to the bearded fellows in scarfs who had
come out of the shelter. They smiled back. Now, as we all chatted
together, officer-and-man distinction disappeared. We were in a
It was all very simple to mes poilus, that first fight. They had been told
to hold. If Ste. Genevieve were lost, the Amance plateau was in
danger, and the loss of the Amance plateau meant the fall of Nancy.
Some military martinets say that the soldiers of France think too
much. In this case thinking may have taught them responsibility. So
they held; they lay tight, these reserves, and kept on firing as the
Germans swarmed out of the woods.
"And the Germans stopped there, monsieur. They hadn't very far to
go, had they? But the last fifty yards, monsieur, are the hardest
travelling when you are trying to take a trench."
They knew, these poilus, these veterans. Every soldier who serves in
Lorraine knows. They themselves have tried to rush out of the edge
of a woods across an open space against intrenched Germans and
found the shoe on the other foot.
Now the fields in the foreground down to the woods' edge were bare
of any living thing. You had to take mon capitaine's word for it that
there were any soldiers in front of us.
"The Boches are a good distance away at this point," he said. "They
are in the next woods."
A broad stretch of snow lay between the two clumps of woods. It was
not worth while for either side to try to get possession of the
intervening space. At the first movement by either French or
Germans the woods opposite would hum with rifle fire and echo with
cannonading. So, like rival parties of Arctic explorers waiting out the
Arctic winter, they watched each other. But if one force or the other
napped and the other caught him at it, then winter would not stay a
brigade commander's ambition. Three days later in this region the
French, by a quick movement, got a good bag of prisoners to make a
welcome item for the daily French official bulletin.
"We wait and the Germans wait on spring for any big movement,"
said the colonel. "Men can't lie out all night in the advance in weather
like this. In that direction------" He indicated a part of the line where
the two armies were facing each other across the old frontier. Back
and forth they had fought, only to arrive where they had begun.
There was something else which the colonel wished us to see before
we left the hill of Ste. Genevieve. It appealed to his Gallic sentiment,
this quadrilateral of stone on the highest point where legend tells that
"Jovin, a Christian and very faithful, vanquished the German
barbarians 366 A.D."
"We have to do as well in our day as Jovin in his," remarked the
The church of Ste. Genevieve was badly smashed by shell. So was
the church in the village on the Plateau d'Amance, as are most
churches in this district of Lorraine. Framed through a great gap in
the wall of the church of Amance was an immense Christ on the
cross without a single abrasion, and a pile of debris at its feet. After
seeing as many ruined churches as I have, one becomes almost
superstitious at how often the figures of Christ escape. But I have
also seen effigies of Christ blown to bits.
Anyone who, from an eminence, has seen one battle fought
visualizes another readily when the positions lie at his feet. Looking
out on the field of Gettysburg from Round Top, I can always get the
same thrill that I had when, seated in a gallery above the Russian and
the Japanese armies, I saw the battle of Liao-yang. In sight of that
Plateau d'Amance, which rises like a great knuckle above the
surrounding country, a battle covering twenty times the extent of
Gettysburg raged, and one could have looked over a battle-line as far
as the eye may see from a steamer's mast.
An icy gale swept across the white crest of the plateau on this
January day, but it was nothing to the gale of shells that descended
on it in late August and early September. Forty thousand shells, it is
estimated, fell there. One kicked up fragments of steel on the field like
peanut-shells after a circus has gone. Here were the emplacements
of a battery of French soixante-quinze within a circle of holes torn by
its adversaries' replies to its fire; a little farther along, concealed by
shrubbery, the position of another battery which the enemy had not
So that was it! The struggle on the immense landscape, where at
least a quarter of a million men were killed and wounded, became as
simple as some Brobdingnagian football match. Before the war
began the French would not move a man within five miles of the
frontier lest it be provocative; but once the issue was joined they
sprang for Alsace and Lorraine, their imagination magnetized by the
thought of the recovery of the lost provinces. Their Alpine chasseurs,
mountain men of the Alpine and the Pyrenees districts, were
concentrated for the purpose.
I recalled a remark I had heard: "What a pitiful little offensive that
was!" It was made by one of those armchair "military experts" who
look at a map and jump at a conclusion. They appear very wise in
their wordiness when real military experts are silent for want of
knowledge. Pitiful, was it? Ask the Germans who faced it what they
think. Pitiful, that sweep over those mountain walls and through the
passes? Pitiful, perhaps, because it failed, though not until it had
taken Chateau-Salins in the north and Mulhouse in the south. Ask the
Germans if they think that it was pitiful! The Confederates also failed
at Antietam and at Gettysburg, but the Union army never thought of
their efforts as pitiful.
The French fell back because all the weight of the German army was
thrown against France, while the Austrians were left to look after the
slowly mobilizing Russians. Two million five hundred thousand men
on their first line the Germans had, as we know now, against the
French twelve hundred thousand and Sir John French's army fighting
one against four. To make sure of saving Paris as the Germans
swung their mighty flanking column through Belgium, Joffre had to
draw in his lines. The Germans came over the hills as splendidly as
the French had gone. They struck in all directions toward Paris. In
Lorraine was their left flank, the Bavarians, meant to play the same
part to the east that von Kluck played to the west. We heard only of
von Kluck; nothing of this terrific struggle in Lorraine.
From the Plateau d'Amance you may see how far the Germans came
and what was their object. Between the fortresses of Epinal and of
Toul lies the Trouee de Mirecourt--the Gap of Mirecourt. It is said that
the French had purposely left it open when they were thinking of
fighting the Germans on their own frontier and not on that of Belgium.
They wanted the Germans to make their trial here--and wisely, for
with all the desperate and courageous efforts of the Bavarian and
Saxon armies they never got near the gap.
If they had forced it, however, with von Kluck swinging on the other
flank, they might have got around the French army. Such was the
dream of German strategy, whose realization was so boldly and
skilfully undertaken. The Germans counted on their immense force of
artillery, built for this war in the last two years and out-ranging the
French, to demoralize the French infantry. But the French infantry
called the big shells marmites (saucepans), and made a joke of them
and the death they spread as they tore up the fields in clouds of
Ah, it took more than artillery to beat back the best troops of France in
a country like this--a country of rolling hills and fenceless fields cut by
many streams and set among thick woods, where infantry on a bank
or at a forest's edge with rifles and rapid-firers and guns kept their
barrels cool until the charge developed in the open. Some of these
forests are only a few acres in extent; others are hundreds of acres.
In the dark depths of one a frozen lake was seen glistening from our
viewpoint on the Plateau d'Amance.
"Indescribable that scene which we witnessed from here," said an
officer who had been on the plateau throughout the fighting. "All the
splendid majesty of war was set on a stage before you. It was
intoxication. We could see the lines of troops in their retreat and
advance, batteries and charges shrouded in shrapnel smoke. What
hosts of guns the Germans had! They seemed to be sowing the
whole face of the earth with shells. The roar of the thing was like that
of chaos itself. It was the exhilaration of the spectacle that kept us
from dropping from fatigue. Two weeks of this business! Two weeks
with every unit of artillery and infantry always ready, if not actually
The general in command was directing not one but many battles,
each with a general of its own; manoeuvring troops across streams
and open places, seeking the cover of forests, with the aeroplanes
unable to learn how many of the enemy were hidden in the forests on
his front, while he tried to keep his men out of angles and make his
movements correspond with those of the divisions on his right and
left. Skill this required; skill equivalent to German skill; the skill
which you cannot command in a month after calling for a million
volunteers, but which grows through years of organization.
Shall I call the general in chief command General X? This is
according to the custom of anonymity. A great modern army like the
French is a machine; any man, high or low, only a unit of the
machine. In this case the real name of X is Castelnau. If it lacks the
fame which seems its due, that may be because he was too busy to
take the Press into his confidence. Fame is not the business of
French generals nowadays. It is war. What counted for France was
that he never let the Germans get near the gap at Mirecourt.
Having failed to reach the gap, the Germans, with that stubbornness
of the offensive which characterizes them, tried to take Nancy. They
got a battery of heavy guns within range of the city. From a high hill it
is said that the Kaiser watched the bombardment. But here is a story.
As the German infantry advanced toward their new objective they
passed a French artillery officer in a tree. He was able to locate that
heavy battery and able to signal its position back to his own side. The
French concentrated sufficient fire to silence it after it had thrown forty
shells into Nancy. The same report tells how the Kaiser folded his
cloak around him and walked in silence from his eminence, where the
sun blazed on his helmet. It was not the Germans' fault that they
failed to take Nancy. It was due to the French.
Some time a tablet will be put up to denote the high-water mark of the
German invasion of Lorraine. It will be between the edge of the forest
of Champenoux and the heights. When the Germans charged from
the cover of the forest to get possession of the road to Nancy, the
French artillery and machine-guns which had held their fire turned
loose. The rest of the story is how the French infantry, impatient at
being held back, swept down in a counter-attack, and the Germans
had to give up their campaign in Lorraine as they gave up their
campaign against Paris in the early part of September. Saddest of all
lost opportunities to the correspondent in this war is this fighting in
Lorraine. One had only to climb a hill in order to see everything!
In half an hour, as the officer outlined the positions, we had lived
through the two weeks' fighting; and, thanks to the fairness of his
story--that of a professional soldier without illusions--we felt that we
had been hearing history while it was very fresh.
"They are very brave and skilful, the Germans," he said. "We still
have a battery of heavy guns on the plateau. Let us go and see it."
We went, picking our way among the snow-covered shell-pits. At one
point we crossed a communication trench, where soldiers could go
and come to the guns and the infantry positions without being
exposed to shell-fire. I noticed that it carried a telephone wire.
"Yes," said the officer; "we had no ditch during the fight with the
Germans, and we were short of telephone wire for a while; so we had
to carry messages back and forth as in the old days. It was a pretty
warm kind of messenger service when the German marmites were
falling their thickest."
At length he stopped before a small mound of earth not in any way
distinctive at a short distance on the uneven surface of the plateau. I
did not even notice that there were three other such mounds. He
pointed to a hole in the ground. I had been used to going through a
manhole in a battleship turret, but not through one into a field-gun
position before aeroplanes played a part in war.
And I stepped down to face the breech of a gun whose muzzle
pointed out of another hole in the timbered roof covered with earth.
"It's very cosy!" I remarked.
"Oh, this is the shop! The living room is below--here!"
I descended a ladder into a cellar ten feet below the gun level, where
some of the gunners were lying on a thick carpet of perfectly dry
"You are not doing much firing these days?" I suggested.
"Oh, we gave the Boches a couple this morning so they shouldn't get
cocky thinking they were safe It's necessary to keep your hand in
even in the winter."
"Don't you get lonesome?"
"No, we shift on and off. We're not here all the while. It is quite warm
in our salon, monsieur, and we have good comrades. It is war. It is for
France. What would you?"
Four other gun-positions and four other cellars like this! Thousands of
gun-positions and thousands of cellars! Man invents new powers of
destruction and man finds a way of escaping them.
As we left the battery we started forward, and suddenly out of the
dusk came a sharp call. A young corporal confronted us. Who were
we and what business had we prowling about on that hill? If there had
been no officer along and I had not had a laisser-passer on my
person, the American Ambassador to France would probably have
had to get another countryman out of trouble.
The incident shows how thoroughly the army is policed and how
surely. Editors who wonder why their correspondents are not in the
front line catching bullets, please take notice.
It was dark when we returned to the little village on the plateau where
we had left the car. The place seemed uninhabited with all the blinds
closed. But through one uncovered window I saw a room full of
chatting soldiers. We went to pay our respects to the colonel in
command, and found him and his staff around a table covered with
oilcloth in the main living-room of a villager's house. He spoke of his
men, of their loyalty and cheerfulness, as the other commanders had,
as if this were his only boast. These French officers have little "side";
none of that toe-the-mark, strutting militarism which the Germans
think necessary to efficiency. They live very simply on campaign,
though if they do get to town for a few hours they enjoy a good meal.
If they did not, madame at the restaurant would feel that she was not
doing her duty to France.
Smiles Among Ruins
Scorched piles of brick and mortar where a home has been ought to
make about the same impression anywhere. When you have gone
from Belgium to French Lorraine, however, you will know quite the
contrary. In Belgium I suffered all the depression which a nightmare
of war's misery can bring; in French Lorraine I found myself sharing
something of the elation of a man who looks at a bruised knuckle with
the consciousness that it broke a burglar's jaw.
A Belgian repairing the wreck of his house was a grim, heartbreaking
picture; a Frenchman of Lorraine repairing the wreck of his house had
the light of hard-won victory, of confidence, of sacrifice made to a
great purpose, of freedom secure for future generations, in his eyes.
The difference was this: The Germans were still in Belgium; they were
out of French Lorraine for good.
"What matters a shell-hole through my walls and my torn roof!" said a
Lorraine farmer. "Work will make my house whole. But nothing could
ever have made my heart and soul whole while the Germans
remained. I saw them go, monsieur; they left us ruins, but France is
I had thought it a pretty good thing to see something of the Eastern
French front; but a better thing was the happiness I found there.
Mon capitaine had come out from the Ministry of War in Paris; but
when we set out from Nancy southward, we had a different local
guide, a major belonging to the command in charge of the region
which we were to visit. He was another example which upsets certain
popular notions of Frenchmen as gesticulating, excitable little men.
Some six feet two in height, he had an eye that looked straight into
yours, a very square chin, and a fine forehead. You had only to look
at him and size him up on points to conclude that he was all there;
that he knew his work.
"Well, we've got good weather for it to-day, monsieur," said a voice
out of a goatskin coat, and I found we had the same chauffeur as
The sun was shining--a warm winter sun like that of a February thaw
in our Northern States--glistening on the snowy fields and slopes
among the forests and tree-clad hills of the mountainous country.
Faces ambushed in whiskers thought it was a good day for trimming
beards and washing clothes. The sentries along the roads had their
scarfs around their necks instead of over their ears. A French soldier
makes ear muffs, chest protector, nightcap, and a blanket out of the
scarf which wife or sister knits for him. If any woman who reads this
knits one to send to France she may be sure that the fellow who
received it will get every stitch's worth out of it.
To-day, then, it was war without mittens. You did not have to sound
the bugle to get soldiers out of their burrows or their houses. Our first
stop was at our own request, in a village where groups of soldiers
were taking a sun bath. More came out of the doors as we alighted.
They were all in the late twenties or early thirties, men of a reserve
regiment. Some had been clerks, some labourers, some farmers,
some employers, when the war began. Then they were piou-pious, in
French slang; then all France prayed godspeed to its beloved piou-
pious. Then you knew the clerk by his pallor; the labourer by his hard
hands; the employer by his manner of command. Now they were
poilus--bearded, hard-eyed veterans; you could not tell the clerk from
the labourer or the employer from the peasant.
Anyone who saw the tenderfoot pilgrimage to the Alaskan goldfield in
'97-8 and the same crowd six months later will understand what had
happened to these men. The puny had put on muscle; the city
dweller had blown his lungs; the fat man had lost some adipose;
social differences of habit had disappeared. The gentleman used to
his bath and linen sheets and the hard-living farmer or labourer--both
had had to eat the same kind of food, do the same work, run the
same risks in battle, and sleep side by side in the houses where they
were lodged and in the dug-outs of the trenches when it was their turn
to occupy them through the winter. Any "snob" had his edges
trimmed by the banter of his comrades. Their beards accentuated the
likeness of type. A cheery lot of faces and intelligent, these, which
greeted us with curious interest.
"Perhaps President Wilson will make peace," one said.
A shrug of the shoulder, a gesture to the East, and the answer was:
"When we have Alsace-Lorraine back."
Under a shed their dejeuner was cooking. This meal at noon is the
meal of the day to the average Frenchman who has only bread and
coffee in the morning. They say that he objects to fighting at luncheon
time. That is the hour when he wants to sit down and forget his work
and laugh and talk and enjoy his eating. The Germans found this out
and tried to take his trenches at the noon hour. Interference with his
gastronomic habits made him so angry that he dropped the knife and
fork for the bayonet and took back any lost ground in a ferocious
counter-attack. He would teach those "Boches" to leave him to eat
his dejeuner in peace.
That appetizing stew in the kettles in the shed once more proved that
Frenchmen know how to cook. I didn't blame them for objecting to
being shot at by the Germans when they were about to eat it. The
average French soldier is better fed than at home; he gets more
meat, for a hungry soldier is usually a poor soldier. It is a very simple
problem with France's fine roads to feed that long line when it is
stationary. It is like feeding a city stretched out over a distance of four
hundred and fifty miles; a stated number of ounces each day for each
man and a known number of men to feed. From the railway head
trucks and motor-buses take the supplies up to the distributing points.
At one place I saw ten Paris motor-buses, their signs painted over in
a steel-grey to hide them from aeroplanes, and not one of them had
broken down through the war. The French take good care of their
equipment and their clothes; they waste no food. As a people is so is
their army, and the French are thrifty by nature.
Father Joffre, as the soldiers call him, is running the next largest
boarding establishment in Europe after the Kaiser and the Tsar. And
he has a happy family. It seemed to me that life ought to have been
utterly dull for this characteristic group of poilus, living crowded
together all winter in a remote village. Civilians sequestered in this
fashion away from home are inclined to get grouchy on one another.
One of the officers in speaking of this said that early in the autumn
the reserves were pretty homesick. They wanted to get back to their
wives and children. Nostalgia, next to hunger, is the worst thing for a
soldier. Commanders were worried. But as winter wore on the spirit
changed. The soldiers began to feel the spell of their democratic
comradeship. The fact that they had fought together and survived
together played its part; and individualism was sunk in the one
thought that they were there for France. The fellowship of a cause
taught them patience, brought them cheer. Another thing was the
increasing sense of team play, of confidence in victory, which holds a
ball team, a business enterprise, or an army together. Every day the
organization of the army was improving; every day that indescribable
and subtle element of satisfaction that the Germans were securely
held was growing.
Every Frenchman saves something of his income; madame sees to it
that he does. He knows that if he dies he will not leave wife and
children penniless. His son, not yet old enough to fight, will come on
to take his place. Men at home of twenty-two or three years and
unmarried, men of twenty-eight or thirty years and not long married,
and men of forty with some money put by, will, in turn, understand
how their own class feels.
In ten minutes you had entered into the hearts of this single company
in a way that made you feel that you had got into the heart of the
whole French army. When you asked them if they would like to go
home they didn't say "No!" all in a chorus, as if that were what the
colonel had told them to say. They obey the colonel, but their
thoughts are their own. Otherwise, these ruddy, healthy men,
representing the people of France and not the cafes of Paris, would
not keep France a republic.
Yes, they did want to go home. They did want to go home. They
wanted their wives and babies; they wanted to sit down to morning
coffee at their own tables. Lumps rose in their throats at the
suggestion. But they were not going until the German peril was over
for ever. Why stop now, only to have another terrible war in thirty or
forty years? A peace that would endure must be won. They had
thought that out for themselves. They would not stick to their
determination if they had not. This is the way of democracies. Thus,
everyone was conscious that he was fighting not merely to win, but
for future generations.
"It happened that this great struggle which we had long feared came
in our day, and to us is the duty," said one. You caught the spirit of
comradeship passing the time with jests at one another's expense.
One of the men who was not a full thirty-third-degree poilu had
compromised with the razor on a moustache as blazing red as his
shock of hair.
"I think that the colonel gave him the tip that he would light the way for
Zeppelins!" said a comrade.
"Envy! Sheer envy!" was the retort. "Look at him!" and he pointed at
some scraggly bunches on chin and cheeks which resembled a
young grass plat that had come up badly.
"I don't believe in air-tight beards," was the response. When I
produced a camera, the effect was the same as it always is with
soldiers at the front. They all wanted to be in the photograph, on the
chance that the folks at home might see how the absent son or father
looked. Would I send them one? And the address was like this:
"Monsieur Benevent, Corporal of Infantry 18th Company, 5th
Battalion, 299th Regiment of Infantry, Postal Sector No. 121." by
which you will know the rural free delivery methods along the French
front. This address is the one rift in the blank wall of anonymity which
hides the individuality of the millions under Joffre. Only the army
knows the sector and the numbers of the regiment in that sector. By
the same kind of a card-index system Joffre might lay his hand on
any one of his millions, each a human being with all a human being's
individual emotions, who, to be a good soldier, must be only one of
the vast multitude of obedient chessmen.
"We are ready to go after them when Father Joffre says the word," all
agreed. Joffre has proved himself to the democracy, which means
the enthusiastic loyalty of a democracy's intelligence.
"If there are any homesick ones we should find them among the lot
here," said mon capitaine.
These were the men who had not been long married. They were not
yet past the honeymoon period; they had young children at home;
perhaps they had become fathers since they went to war. The
younger men of the first line had the irresponsibility and the ardour of
youth which makes comradeship easy.
But the older men, the Territorials as they are called, in the late
thirties and early forties, have settled down in life. Their families are
established; their careers settled; some of them, perhaps, may enjoy
a vacation from the wife; for you know madame, in France, with all
her thrift, can be a little bossy, which is not saying that this is not a
proper tonic for her lord. So the old boys seem the most content in
the fellowship of winter quarters. What they cannot stand are
repeated, long, hard marches; their legs give out under the load of
rifle and pack. But their hearts are in the war, and right there is one
very practical reason why they will fight well--and they have fought
better as they hardened with time and the old French spirit revived in
their blood. "Allons, messieurs!" said the tall major, who wanted us to
see battlefields. It required no escort to tell us where the battlefield
was. We knew it when we came to it, as you know the point reached
by high tide on the sands--this field where many Gettysburgs were
fought in one through that terrible fortnight in late August and early
September, when the future of France and the whole world hung in
the balance--as the Germans sought to reach Paris and win a
decisive victory over the French army. Where destruction ended
there the German invasion reached its limit.
Forests and streams and ditches and railway culverts played their
part in tactical surprises, as they did at Gettysburg; and cemetery
walls, too. In all my battlefield visits in Europe I have not seen a single
cemetery wall that was not loopholed. But the fences, which
throughout the Civil War offered impediment to charges and screen
to the troops which could reach them first, were missing. The fields
lay in bold stretches, because it is the business of young boys and
girls in Lorraine to watch the cows and keep them out of the corn.
We stopped at a cross-roads where charges met and wrestled back
and forth in and out of the ditches. Fragments of shells appeared as
steps scuffed away the thin coating of snow. I picked up an old
French cap, with a slash in the top that told how its owner came to his
end, and near by a German helmet. For there are souvenirs in plenty
lying in the young wheat which was sown after the battle was over.
Millions of little nickel bullets are ploughed in with the blood of those
who died to take the Kaiser to Paris and those who died to keep him
out in this fighting across the fields and through the forests, in a tug-
of-war of give-and-take, of men exhausted after nights and days
under fire, men with bloodshot eyes sunk deep in the sockets, dust-
laden, blood-spattered, with forty years of latent human powder
breaking forth into hell when the war was only a month old and
passion was at a white heat.
Hasty shelter-trenches gridiron the land; such trenches as breathless
men, dropping after a charge, threw up hurriedly with the spades that
they carry on their backs to give them a little cover. And there is the
trench that stopped the Germans--the trench which they charged but
could not take. It lies among shell-holes so thick that you can step
from one to another. In places its crest is torn away, which means
that half a dozen men were killed in a group. But reserves filled their
places. They kept pouring out their stream of lead which German
courage could not endure. Thus far and no farther the invasion came
in that wheat-field which will be ever memorable.
We went up a hill once crowned by one of those clusters of farm-
buildings of stone and mortar, where house and stables and
granaries are close together. All around were bare fields. Those farm-
buildings stood up like a mountain peak. The French had the hill and
lost it and recovered it. Whichever side had it, the other was bound to
bathe it in shells because it commanded the country around. The
value of property meant nothing. All that counted was military
advantage. Because churches are often on hill-tops, because they
are bound to be used for lookouts, is why they get torn to pieces.
When two men are fighting for life they don't bother about upsetting a
table with a vase, or notice any "Keep off the grass" signs; no, not
even if the family Bible be underfoot.
None of the roof, none of the superstructure of these farm-buildings
was left; only the lower walls, which were eighteen inches thick and in
places penetrated by the shells. For when a Frenchman builds a
farmhouse he builds it to last a few hundred years. The farm windmill
was as twisted as a birdcage that has been rolled under a trolley car,
but a large hayrake was unharmed. Such is the luck of war. I made
up my mind that if I ever got under shell-fire I would make for the
hayrake and avoid the windmill.
Our tall major pointed out all the fluctuating positions during the battle.
It was like hearing a chess match explained from memory by an
expert. Words to him were something precious. He made each one
count as he would the shots from his cannon. His narrative had the
lucidity of a terse judge reviewing evidence. The battlefield was
etched on his mind in every important phase of its action.
Not once did he speak in abuse of the enemy. The staff officer who
directs steel ringing on steel is too busy thrusting and keeping guard
to indulge in diatribes. To him the enemy is a powerful impersonal
devil, who must be beaten. When I asked about the conduct of the
Germans in the towns they occupied, his lip tightened and his eyes
"I'm afraid it was pretty bad!" he said; as if he felt, besides the wrong
to his own people, the shame that men who had fought so bravely
should act so ill. I think his attitude toward war was this: "We will die
for France, but calling the Germans names will not help us to win. It
only takes breath."
As our car ran up a gentle hill we noticed two soldiers driving a load of
manure. This seemed a pretty prosaic, even humiliating, business, in
a poetic sense, for the brave poilus, veterans of Lorraine's great
battle. But Father Joffre is a true Frenchman of his time. Why should
not the soldiers help the farmers whose sons are away at the front
and perhaps helping farmers back of some Other point of the line?
Over the crest of the hill we came on long lines of soldiers bearing
timbers and fascines for trench-building, which explained why some
of the villages were empty. A fascine is something usually made of
woven branches which will hold dirt in position. The woven wicker
cases for shells which the German artillery uses and leaves behind
when it has to quit the field in a hurry, make excellent fascines, and a
number that I saw were of this ready-made kind. After carrying shell
for killing Frenchmen they were to protect the lives of Frenchmen.
Near by other soldiers were turning up a strip of fresh earth against
the snow, which looked like a rip in the frosting of a chocolate cake.
"How do you like this kind of war?" we asked. It is the kind that
irrigationists and subway excavators make.
"We've grown to be very fond of it," was the answer. "It is a cultivated
taste, which becomes a passion with experience. After you have
been shot at in the open you want all the earth you can get between
you and the bullets."
Now we alighted from the motor-car and went forward on foot. We
passed some eight lines of trenches before we came to the one
where we were to stop. A practised military eye had gone over all that
ground; a practised military hand had laid out each trench. After the
work was done the civilian's eye could grasp the principle. If one
trench were taken, the men knew exactly how to fall back on the next,
which commanded the ground they had left. The trenches were not
continuous. There were open spaces left purposely. All that front was
literally locked, and double and triple locked, with trenches. Break
through one barred door and there is another and another
confronting you. Considering the millions of burrowing and digging
and watching soldiers, it occurred to one that if a marmite (saucepan)
came along and buried our little party, our loss would not be as much
noticed as if a piece of coping from a high building had fallen and
extinguished us on Broadway, which would be a relatively novel way
of dying. Being killed in war had long ceased to be a novelty on the
continent of Europe.
We seemed in a dead world, except for the leisurely, hoarse, muffled
reports of a French gun in the woods on either side of the open space
where we stood. Through our glasses we could see quite clearly the
line of the German front trench, which was in the outskirts of a village
on higher ground than the French. Not a human being was visible.
Both sides were watching for any move of the other, meanwhile lying
tight under cover. By day they were marooned. All supplies and all
reliefs of men who are to take their turn in front go out by night.
There were no men in the trench where we stood; those who would
man it in case of danger were in the adjoining woods, where they had
only to cut down saplings and make shelters to be as comfortable as
in a winter resort camp in the Adirondacks. Any minute they might
receive a call--which meant death for many. But they were used to
that, and their card games went on none the less merrily.
"No farther?" we asked our major.
"No farther!" he said. "This is risk enough for you. It looks very
peaceful, but the enemy could toss in some marmites if it pleased
him." Perhaps he was exaggerating the risk for the sake of a realistic
effect on the sightseers. No matter! In time one was to have risks
enough in trenches. It was on such an occasion as this, on another
part of the French line, that two correspondents slipped away from
the officers conducting them, though their word of honour was given
not to do so--which adds another reason for military suspicion of the
Press. The officers rang up the nearest telephone which connected
with the front trenches, the batteries, and regimental and brigade
headquarters, to apprehend two men of such-and-such description.
They were taken as easily as a one-eyed, one-eared man, with a
wooden leg and red hair would be in trying to get out of police
headquarters when the doormen had his Bertillon photograph and
measurements to go by.
That battery hidden from aerial observation in the thick forest kept up
its slow firing at intervals. It was "bothering" one of the German
trenches. Fiendish the consistent regularity with which it kept on, and
so easy for the gunners. They had only to slip in a shell, swing a
breech-lock home, and pull a lanyard. The German guns did not
respond because they could not locate the French battery. They may
have known that it was somewhere in the forest, but firing at two or
three hundred acres of wood on the chance of reaching some guns
heavily protected by earth and timbering was about like tossing a pea
from the top of the Washington Monument on the chance of hitting a
four-leafed clover on the lawn below.
Our little group remained, not standing in the trench but back of it, in
full relief for some time; for the German gunners refused to play for
realism by sending us a marmite. Probably they had seen us through
the telescope at the start and concluded we weren't worth a shot. In
the first months of the war such a target would have received a burst
of shells, for the fun of seeing us scatter, if nothing else. Then
ammunition was plentiful and the sport of shooting had not lost its
zest; but in these winter days orders were not to waste ammunition.
The factories must manufacture a supply ahead for the summer
campaign. There must be fifteen dollars' worth of target in sight, say,
for the smallest shell costs that; and the shorter you are of shells the
more valuable the target must be. Besides, firing a cannon had
become as commonplace a function to both French and German
gunners as getting up to put another stick of wood in the stove or
going to open the door to take a letter from the postman.
We had glimpses of other trenches; but this is not the place in this
book to write of trenches. We shall see trenches till we are weary of
them later. We are going direct to Gerbeviller which was--emphasis
on the past tense--a typical little Lorraine town of fifteen hundred
inhabitants. Look where you would now, as we drove along the road,
and you saw churches without steeples, houses with roofs standing
on sections of walls, houses smashed into bits.
"I saw no such widespread destruction as this in Belgium!" I
"There was no such fighting in Belgium," was the answer.
Of course not, except in the south-western corner, where the armies
still face each other.
"Not all the damage was done by the Germans," the major explained.
"Naturally, when they were pouring in death from the cover of a
house, our guns let drive at that house," he went on. "The owners of
the houses that were hit by our shells are rather proud--proud of our
marksmanship, proud that we gave the unwelcome guest a hot pill to
For ten days the Bavarians had Gerbeviller. They tore it to pieces
before they got it, then burned the remains because they said the
population sniped at them. All the orgy of Louvain was repeated here,
unchronicled to our people at home. The church looks like a Swiss
cheese from shell-holes. Its steeple was bound to be an observation
post, reasoned the Germans; so they poured shells into it. But the
brewery had a tall chimney which was an even better lookout, and the
brewery is the one building unharmed in the town. The Bavarians
knew that they would need that for their commissariat. For a Bavarian
will not fight without his beer. The land was littered with barrels after
they had gone. I saw some in trenches occupied by Bavarian
reserves not far back of where their firing-line had been.
"However, the fact that the brewery is intact and the church in ruins
does not prove that a brewery is better than a church. It only proves
which is the Lord's side in this war," said Sister Julie. But I get ahead
of my story.
In the middle of the main street were half a dozen smoke-blackened
houses which remained standing, an oasis in the sea of destruction,
with doors and windows intact facing gaps where doors and windows
had been. We entered with a sense of awe of the chance which had
spared these buildings.
"Sister Julie!" the major called.
A short, sturdy nun of about sixty years answered cheerily and
appeared in the dark hall. She led us into the sitting-room, where she
spryly placed chairs for our little party. She was smiling; her eyes
were sparkling with a hospitable and kindly interest in us, while I felt,
on my part, that thrill of curiosity that one always has when he meets
some celebrated person for the first time--curiosity no less keen than
if I were to meet Barbara Frietchie.
Through all that battle of ten days, with the cannon never silent day or
night, with shells screaming overhead and crashing into houses;
through ten days of thunder and lightning and earthquake, she and
her four sister associates remained in Gerbeviller. When the town
was fired they moved from one building to another. They nursed both
wounded French and Germans; also wounded townspeople who
could not flee with the others.
"You were not frightened? You did not think of going away?" she was
"Frightened?" she answered. "I had not time to think of that. Go
away? How could I when the Lord's work had come to me?"
President Poincare went in person to give her the Legion of Honour,
the first given to a woman in this war; so rarely given to a woman, and
here bestowed with the love of a nation. Sister Marie was in the
kitchen at the time, cooking the meal for the sick for whom the sisters
are still caring. So Sister Julie took the President of France into the
kitchen to meet Sister Marie, quite as she would take you or me. A
human being is simply a human being to Sister Julie, to be treated
courteously; and great men may not cause a meal for the sick to
burn. After the complexity of French politics, President Poincare was
anything but unfavourably impressed by the incident.
"He was such a little man, I could not believe at first that he could be
President," she said. "I thought that the President of France would be
a big man. But he was very agreeable and, I am sure, very wise.
Then there were other men with him, a Monsieur de-de-Deschanel,
who was president of something or other in Paris, and Monsieur du-
du--yes, that was it, Du Bag. He also is president of something in
Paris. They were very agreeable, too."
"And your Legion of Honour?"
"Oh, my medal that M. le President gave me! I keep that in a drawer.
I do not wear it every day when I am in my working-clothes."
"Have you ever been to Paris?"
"They will make a great ado over you when you go."
"I must stay in Gerbeviller. If I stayed during the fighting and when the
Germans were here, why should I leave now? Gerbeviller is my
home. There is much to do here and there will be more to do when
the people who were driven away return."
These nuns saw their townspeople stood up against a wall and shot;
they saw their townspeople killed by shells. The cornucopia of war's
horrors was emptied at their door. And women of a provincial town,
who had led peaceful, cloistered lives, they did not blench or falter in
the presence of ghastliness which only men are supposed to have
the stoicism to witness.
What feature of the nightmare had held most vividly in Sister Julie's
mind? It is hard to say; but the one which she dwelt on was about the
boy and the cow. The invaders, when they came in, ordered that no
inhabitant leave his house, on pain of death. A boy of ten took his
cow to pasture in the morning as usual. He did not see anything
wrong in that. The cow ought to go to pasture. And he was shot, for
he broke a military regulation. He might have been a spy using the
cow as a blind. War does not bother to discriminate. It kills.
Sister Julie can enjoy a joke, particularly on the Germans, and her
cheerful smile and genuine laugh are a lesson to all people who draw
long faces in time of trouble and weep over spilt milk. A buoyant
temperament and unshaken faith carried her through her ordeal.
Though her hair is white, youth's optimism and confidence in the
future and the joy of victory for France overshadowed the present.
The town and church would be rebuilt; children would play in the
streets again; there was a lot of the Lord's work to do yet.
In every word and thought she is French--French in her liveliness of
spirit and quickness of comprehension; wholly French there on the
borderland of Germany. If we only went to the outskirts of the town,
she reminded us, we could see how the soldiers of her beloved
France fought and why she was happy to have remained in
Gerbeviller to welcome them back.
In sight of that intact brewery and that wreck of a church is a gentle
slope of open field, cut by a road. Along the crest were many mounds
as thick as the graves of a cemetery, and by the side of the road was
a temporary monument above a big mound, surrounded by a sanded
walk and a fence. The dead had been thickest at this point, and here
they had been laid in a vast grave. The surviving comrades had
made that monument; and, in memory of what the dead had fought
for, the living said that they were not yet ready to quit fighting.
Standing on this crest, you were a thousand yards away from the
edge of a woods. German aeroplanes had seen the French massing
for a charge under the cover of that crest; but French aeroplanes
could not see what was in the woods. Rifles and machine-guns
poured a spray of lead across the crest when the French appeared.
But the French, who were righting for Sister Julie's town, would not
stop their rush at first. They kept on, as Pickett's men did when the
Federal guns riddled their ranks with grapeshot. This accounts for
many of the mounds being well beyond the crest. The Germans
made a mistake in firing too soon. They would have made a heavier
killing if they had allowed the charge to go farther. After the French fell
back, for two days and nights their wounded lay out on that field
without water or food, between the two forces, and if their comrades
approached to give succour the machine-guns blazed more death,
because the Germans did not want to let the French dig a trench on
the crest. After two days the French forced the Germans out of the
woods by hitting them from another point.
We went over the field of another charge half a mile away. There a
French regiment put a stream with a single bridge at their back--which
requires some nerve--and charged a German trench on rising
ground. They took it. Then they tried to take the woods beyond.
Before they were checked twenty-two officers out of a total of thirty
fell. But they did not give up the ground they had won. They burrowed
into the earth in a trench of their own, and when help came they put
the Germans out of the woods.
The men of this regiment were not first line, but the older fellows--men
of the type we stopped to chat with in the village--hastening to the
front when the war began. Their officers were mostly reserves, too,
who left civil occupations at the call to arms. One of the eight
survivors of the thirty was with us, a stocky little man, hardly looking
the hero or the soldier. I expressed my admiration, and he answered
quietly: "It was for France!" How often I have heard that as a reason
for courage or sacrifice! The enemies of France have learned to
respect it, though they had a poor opinion of the French army before
the war began.
"That railroad bridge yonder the Germans left intact when they
occupied it because they were certain that they would need it to
supply their troops when they took the Gap of Mirecourt and
surrounded the French army," I was told. "However, they had to go in
such a hurry that they failed to mine it. They must have fired five
hundred shells afterwards to destroy it, in vain."
It was dusk when we entered the city of Luneville for the second time.
Whole blocks lay in ruins; others only showed where shells had
crashed into walls. It is hard to estimate just how much damage shell-
fire has done to a town, for you see the effects only where they have
struck on the street sides and not when they strike in the centre of the
block. But Luneville has certainly suffered as much as Louvain, only
we did not hear about it. Grim, sad Louvain, with its German sentries
among the ruins! Happy, triumphant Luneville, with its poilus instead
of German sentries!
"We are going to meet the mayor," said the major.
First we went to his office. But that was a mistake. We were invited to
his house, which was a fine, old, eighteenth-century building. If you
could transport it to New York some arms-and-ammunition millionaire
would give half a million dollars for it. The hallway was smoke-
blackened and a burnt spot showed where the enemy had tried to set
it on fire before evacuating the town. Ascending a handsome old
staircase, we were in rooms with gilded mirrors and carved mantels,
where we were introduced to His Honour, a lively man of some forty
"I have been in Amerique two months. So much English do I speak.
No more!" said the mayor merrily, and introduced us in turn to his
wife, who spoke not even "so much" English, but French as fast and
as piquantly as none but a Frenchwoman can. Her only son, who was
seventeen, was going up with the 1916 class of recruits very soon.
He was a sturdy youngster; a type of Young France who will make
the France of the future.
"You hate to see him go?" I asked.
"It is for France!" she answered.
We had cakes and tea and a merrier--at least, a more heartfelt--party
than at any mayor's reception in time of peace. Everybody talked. For
the French do know how to talk, when they have not turned grim,
silent soldiers. I heard story on story of the German occupation; and
how the mayor was put in jail and held as a hostage; and what a
German general said to him when he was brought in as a prisoner to
be interrogated in his own house, which the general occupied as
Among the guests was the wife of a French general in her Red Cross
cap. She might see her husband once a week by meeting him on the
road between the city and the front. He could not afford to be any
farther from his post, lest the Germans spring a surprise. The extent
of the information which he gave her was that all went well for France.
Father Joffre plays no favourites in his discipline.
Happy, happy Lorraine in the midst of its ruins! Happy because her
adored tricolour floats over those ruins.
A Road Of War I Know
Other armies go to war across the land, but the British go across the
sea. They take the Channel ferry in order to reach the front. Theirs is
the home road of war to me; the road of my affections, where men
speak my mother tongue. It begins on the platform at Victoria Station,
with the khaki of officers and men, returning from leave, relieved by
the warmer colours of women who have come to say good-bye to
those they love. In five hours from the time of starting one may be
across that ribbon of salt water, which means much in isolation and
little in distance, and in the trenches.
That veteran regular--let us separate him from the crowd--is a type I
have often seen, a type that has become as familiar as one's
neighbours in one's own town. We will call him the tenth man. That is,
of every ten men who went to the front a year ago in his battalion,
nine are gone. All of the hardships and all of the terrors of war he has
witnessed: men dropped neatly by a bullet; men mangled by shells.
His khaki is spotless, thanks to his wife, who has dressed in her best
for the occasion. Terrible as war itself, but new, that hat of hers, which
probably represented a good deal of looking into windows and
pricing; and her gown of the cheapest material, drooping from her
round shoulders, is the product of the poor dress-making skill of
hands which show only too well who does all the housework at home.
The children, a boy of four and a girl of seven, are in their best, too,
with faces scrubbed till they shine.
You will see like scenes in stations at home when the father has
found work in a distant city and is going on ahead to get established
before the family follow him. Such incidents are common in civil life;
they became common at Victoria Station. What is common has no
significance, editors say.
When the time came to go through the gate, the veteran picked the
boy up in his arms and pressed him very close and the little girl
looked on wonderingly, while the mother was not going to make it any
harder for the father by tears. "Good-bye, Tom!" she said. So his
name was Tom, this tenth man.
I spoke with him. His battalion was full with recruits. It had been kept
full. But, considering the law of chance, what about the surviving one
out of an original ten?
"Yes, I've had my luck with me," he said. "Probably my turn will come.
Maybe I'll never see the wife and kids again."
The morning roar of London had begun. That station was a small
spot in the city. There were not enough officers and men taking the
train to make up a day's casualty list; for ours was only a small party
returning from leave. The transports, unseen, carried the multitudes.
Wherever one had gone in England he had seen soldiers and
wherever he went in France he was to see still more soldiers.
England had become an armed camp; and England plodded on,
"muddled" on, preparing, ever preparing, to forge in time of war the
thunderbolt for war which was undreamed of in time of peace when
other nations were forging their thunderbolts.
Still the recruiting posters called for more soldiers and the casualty
lists appeared day after day with the regularity of want
advertisements. Imagine eight million men under arms in the United
States and you have the equivalent to what England did by the
volunteer system. The more there were the more pessimistic became
the British Press. Pessimism brought in recruits. Bad news made
England take another deep breath of energizing determination. It was
the last battle which was decisive. She had always won that. She
would win it again.
They talk of war aboard the Pullman, after officers have waved their
hands out of the windows to their wives, quite as if they were going to
Scotland for a weekend instead of back to the firing-line. British
phlegm this is called. No, British habit, I should say, the race-bred,
individualistic quality of never parading emotions in public; the instinct
of keeping things which are one's own to one's self. Personally, I like
this way. In one form or another, as the hedges fly by the train
windows, the subject is always war. War creeps into golf, or shooting,
or investments, or politics. Only one suggestion quite frees the mind
from the omnipresent theme: Will the Channel be smooth? The
Germans have nothing to do with that. It is purely a matter of weather.
Bad sailors are more worried about the crossing than about the shell-
fire they are going to face.
With bad sailors or good sailors, the significant thing which had
become a commonplace was that the Channel was a safely-guarded
British sea lane. In all my crossings I was never delayed. For England
had one thunderbolt ready forged when the war began. The only
submarines, or destroyers, or dirigibles that one saw were hers.
Antennae these of the great fleet waiting with the threat of stored
lightning ready to be flashed from gun-mouths; a threat as efficacious
as action, in nowise mysterious or subtle, but definite as steel and
powder, speaking the will of a people in their chosen field of power,
felt over all the seas of the world, coast of Maine and the Carolinas no
less than Labrador. Thousands of transports had come and gone,
carrying hundreds of thousands of soldiers and food for men and
guns to India; and on the high road to India, to Australia, to San
Francisco, shipping went its way undisturbed by anything that dives
The same white hospital ships lying in that French harbour; the same
line of grey, dusty-looking ambulances parked on the quay!
Everybody in the one-time sleepy, week-end tourist resort seems to
be in uniform; to have something to do with war. All surroundings
become those of war long before you reach the front. That knot of
civilians, waiting their turn for another examination of the same kind
as that on the other side of the Channel, have shown good reasons
for going to Paris to the French Consul in London, or they might not
proceed even this far on the road of war. They seem outcasts--a
humble lot in the variegated costumes of the civil world--outcasts
from the disciplined world in its pattern garb of khaki. Their excuse for
not being in the game is that they are too old or that they are women.
For now the war has sucked into its vortex the great majority of those
who are strong enough to fight or work.
A traveller might be a spy; hence, all this red tape for the many to
catch the one. Even red tape seems now to have become normal.
War is normal. It would seem strange to cross the Channel in time of
peace; the harbour would not look like itself with civilians not having
to show passports, and without the white hospital ships, and the
white-bearded landing-officer at the foot of the gangway, and the
board held up with lists of names of officers who have telegrams
waiting for them.
For the civilians a yellow card of disembarkation and for the military a
white card. The officers and soldiers walk off at once and the queue
of civilians waits. One civilian with a white card, who belongs to no
regiment, who is not even a chaplain or a nurse, puzzles the landing-
officer for a moment. But there is something to go with it--a
correspondent's licence and a letter from a general who looks after
such things. They show that you "belong"; and if you don't belong on
the road of war you will not get far. As well try to walk past the
doorman and take a seat in the United States Senate chamber during
Most precious that magical piece of paper. I happen to be the only
American with one, unless he is in the fighting line--which is one sure
way to get to the front. The price of all the opera boxes at the
Metropolitan will not buy it; and it is the passport to the welcoming
smile from an army chauffeur, whom I almost regard as my own. But
its real value appears at the outskirts of the city. There the dead line
is drawn; there the sheep are finally separated from the goats by a
French sentry guarding the winding passageway between some
carts, which have been in the same place in the road for months.
The car spins over the broad, hard French road, in a land where for
many miles you see no signs of war, until it turns into the grounds of a
small chateau opposite a village church. The proprietor of a drygoods
store in a neighbouring city spends his summers here; but this
summer he is in town, because the Press wanted a place to live and
he was good enough to rent us his country place. So this is home,
where the five British and one American correspondents live and
mess. The expense of our cars costs us treble all the rest of our
expenses. They take us where we want to go. We go where we
please, but we may not write what we please. We see something like
a thousand times more than we can tell. The conditions are such as
to make a news reporter throw up his hands and faint. But if he had
his unbridled way, one day he might feel the responsibility for the loss
of hundreds of British soldiers' lives.
"It may be all right for war correspondents, but it is a devil of a poor
place for a newspaper man," as one editor said. Yet it is the only
place where you can really know anything about the war.
We become part of the machinery of the great organization that
encloses us in its regular processes. No one in his heart envies the
press officer who holds the blue pencil over us. He has to "take it both
going and coming." He labours on our behalf and sometimes we
labour with him. The staff are willing enough to let us watch the army
at work, but they do not care whether or not we write about their war;
he wants us both to see it and to write about it. He tells us some big
piece of news, and then says: "That is for yourselves; you may not
People do not want to read about the correspondents, of course.
They want to read what the correspondents have to tell about the
war; but the conditions of our work are interesting because we are the
link between the army and the reading public. All that it learns from
actual observation of what the army is doing comes through us.
We may not give the names of regiments and brigades until weeks
after a fight, because that will tell the enemy what troops are
engaged; we may not give the names of officers, for that is glorifying
one when possibly another did his duty equally well. It is the
anonymity of the struggle that makes it all seem distant and unreal--till
the telegram comes from the War Office to say that the one among
the millions who is dear to you is dead or wounded. Otherwise, it is a
torment of unidentified elements behind a curtain, which is parted for
an announcement of gain or loss, or to give out a list of the fallen.
The world wants to read that Peter Smith led the King's Own
Particular Fusiliers in a charge. It may not know Peter Smith, but his
name and that of his regiment make the information seem definite.
The statement that a well-known millionaire yesterday gave a million
dollars to charity, or that a man in a checked suit swam from the
Battery to Coney Island, is not convincing; nor is the fact that one
private unnamed held back the Germans with bombs in the traverse
of a trench for hours until help came. We at the front, however, do
know the names; we meet the officers and men. Ours is the intimacy
which we may not interpret except in general terms.
Every article, every dispatch, every letter, passes through the
censor's hand. But we are never told what to write. The liberty of the
Press is too old an institution in England for that. Always we may
learn why an excision is made. The purpose is to keep information
from the enemy. It is not like fighting Boers or Filipinos, this war of
walls of men who can turn the smallest bit of information to
Intelligence officers speak of their work as piecing together the parts
of a jig-saw puzzle. What seems a most innocent fact by itself may
furnish the bit which gives the figure in the picture its face. It does not
follow because you are an officer that you know what may and what
may not be of service to the enemy.
A former British officer who had become a well-known military critic, in
an account of a visit to the front mentioned having seen a battle from
a certain church tower. Publication of the account was followed by a
tornado of shell-fire that killed and wounded many British soldiers.
Only a staff specialist, trained in intelligence work and in constant
touch with the intelligence department, can be a safe censor. At the
same time, he is the best friend of the correspondent. He knows what
is harmless and what may not be allowed. He wants the Press to
have as much as possible. For the more the public knows about its
soldiers, the better the morale of the people, which reflects itself in the
morale of the army.
The published casualty lists giving the names of officers and men and
their battalions is a means of causing casualties. From a prisoner
taken the enemy learns what battalions were present at a given fight;
he adds up the numbers reported killed and wounded and ascertains
what the fight cost the enemy and, in turn, the effect of the fire from
his side. But the British public demanded to see the casualty lists and
the British Press were allowed to gratify the desire. They appeared in
the newspapers, of course, days after the nearest relative of the dead
or wounded man had received official notification from the War Office.
Officers' letters from the front, so freely published earlier in the
war, amazed experienced correspondents by their unconscious
indiscretions. The line officer who had been in a fight told all that he
saw. Twenty officers doing the same along a stretch of front and the
jig-saw experts, plus what information they had from spies, were in
clover. Editors said: "But these men are officers. They ought to know
when they are imparting military secrets."
Alas, they do not know! It is not to be expected that they should. Their
business is to fight; the business of other experts is to safeguard
information. For a long time the British army kept correspondents
from the front on the principle that the business of a correspondent
must be to tell what ought not to be told. Yet they were to learn that
the accredited correspondent, an expert at his profession, working in
harmony with the experts of the staff, let no military secrets pass.
At our mess we get the Berlin dailies promptly. Soon after the
Germans are reading the war correspondence from their own front
we are reading it, and laughing at jokes in their comic papers and at
cartoons which exhibit John Bull as a stricken old ogre and Britannia
who Rules the Waves with the corners of her mouth drawn down to
the bottom of her chin, as she sees the havoc that von Tirpitz is
making with submarines which do not stop us from receiving our
German jokes regularly across the Channel.
Doubtless the German messes get their Punch and the London
illustrated weeklies regularly. In the time that it took the English daily
with the account of the action seen from the church tower to reach
Berlin and the news to be wired to the front, the German guns made
use of the information. Neutral little Holland is the telltale of both
sides; the ally and the enemy of all intelligence corps. Scores of
experts in jig-saw puzzles on both sides seize every scrap of
information and piece them together. Each time that one gets a bit
from a newspaper he is for a sharper Press censorship on his side
and a more liberal one on the other.
We six correspondents have our insignia, as must everyone who is
free to move along the lines. By a glance you may tell everybody's
branch and rank in that complicated and disciplined world, where no
man acts for himself, but always on someone else's orders.
"Don't you know who they are? They are the correspondents," I heard
a soldier say. "D. Chron., that's the Daily Chronicle; M. Post, that's the
Morning Post; D. Mail, that's the Daily Mail. There's one with U.S.A.
What paper is that?"
"It ain't a paper," said another. "It's the States--he's a Yank!"
The War Office put it on the American cousin's arm, and wherever it
goes it seems welcome. It may puzzle the gunners when the
American says, "That was a peach of a shot, right across the pan!" or
the infantry when he says, "It cuts no ice!" and there is no ice visible
in Flanders; he speaks about typhoid to the medical corps which calls
it enteric; and "fly-swatting" is a new word to the sanitarians, who are
none the less busily engaged in that noble art. Lessons for the British
in the "American language" while you wait! In return, the American is
learning what a "stout-hearted thruster" and other phrases mean in
the Simon-pure English.
The correspondents are the spoiled spectators of the army's work;
the itinerants of the road of war. Nobody sees so much as we,
because we have nothing to do but to see. An officer looking at the
towers of Ypres Cathedral a mile away from the trench where he was,
said: "No, I've never been in Ypres. Our regiment has not been
stationed in that part of the line."
We have sampled all the trenches; we have studied the ruins of
Ypres with an archaeologist's eye; we know the names of the
estaminets of the villages, from "The Good Farmer" to "The
Harvester's Rest" and "The Good Cousin," not to mention "The
Omnibus Stop" on the Cassel Hill. Madame who keeps the hotel in
the G.H.Q. town knows me so well that we wave hands to each other
as I pass the door; and the clerks in a certain shop have learned that
the American likes his fruit raw, instead of stewed in the English
fashion, and plenty of it, especially if it comes from the South out of
season, as it does from Florida or California to pampered human
beings at home, who, if they could see as much of this war as I have
seen, would appreciate what a fortunate lot they are to have not a
ribbon of saltwater but a broad sea full of it, and the British navy, too,
between them and the thing on the other side of the zone of death.
G.H.Q. means General Headquarters and B.E.F., which shows the
way for your letters from England, means British Expeditionary Force.
The high leading, the brains of the army, are theoretically at G.H.Q.
That word theoretically is used advisedly in view of opinion at other
points. An officer sent from G.H.Q. to command a brigade had not
been long out before he began to talk about those confounded one-
thing-and-another fellows at G.H.Q. When he was at G.H.Q. he used
to talk about those confounded one-thing-and-another fellows who
commanded corps, divisions, and brigades at the front. The
philosophers of G.H.Q. smiled and the philosophers of the army
smiled--it was the old story of the staff and the line; of the main office
and the branches. But the line did the most smiling to see the new
brigadier getting a taste of his own medicine.
G.H.Q. directs the whole; here every department of all that vast
concern which supplies the hundreds of thousands of men and
prepares for the other hundreds of thousands is focussed. The
symbol of its authority is a red band round the cap, which means that
you are a staff officer. No war at G.H.Q., only the driving force of war.
It seems as far removed from the front as the New York office of a
string of manufacturing plants.
If one follows a red-banded cap into a door he sees other officers and
clerks and typewriters, and a sign which says that a department chief
has his desk in the drawing-room of a private house--where he has
had it for months. Go to one mess and you will hear talk about
garbage pails and how to kill flies; to another, about hospitals and
clearing stations for the wounded; to another, about barbed wire,
sandbags, spades, timber, and galvanized iron--the engineers; to
another, about guns, shells, rifles, bullets, mortars, bombs, bayonets,
and high explosives--the ordnance; to another, about jam, bread,
bacon, uniforms, iron rations, socks, underclothes, tinned goods,
fresh beef, and motor-trucks--the Army Service Corps; to another,
about attacks, counter-attacks, and salients, and about what the
others are doing and will have to do--the operations.
The Chief of Staff drives the eight-horse team. He works sixteen
hours a day. So do most of the others. This is how you prove to the
line that you have a right to be at G.H.Q. When you get to know
G.H.Q. it seems like any other business institution. Many are there
who do not want to be there; but they have been found out. They are
specialists, who know how to do one thing particularly well and are
kept doing it. No use of growling that you would like a "fighting job."
G.H.Q. is the main station on the road of war, which hears the sound
of the guns faintly. Beyond is the region of all the activities that it
commands, up to the trenches, where all roads end and all efforts
consummate. One has seen dreary flat lands of mud and leafless
trees become fair with the spring, the growing harvest reaped, and
the leaves begin to fall. Always the factory of war was in the same
place; the soldiers billeted in the same towns; the puffs of shrapnel
smoke over the same belt of landscape; the ruins of the same
villages being pounded by high explosives. Always the sound of
guns; always the wastage of life, as passing ambulances, the curtains
drawn, speed by, their part swiftly and covertly done. The enormity of
the thing holds the imagination; its sure and orderly processes of an
organized civilization working at destruction win the admiration. There
is a thrill in the courage and sacrifice and the drilled readiness of
response to orders.
The spectator is under varying spells. To-day he seems in a fantastic
world, whose horror makes it impossible of realization. To-morrow, as
his car takes him along a pleasant by-road among wheat-fields where
peasants are working and no soldier is in sight, it is a world of peace
and one thinks that he has mistaken the roar of a train for the distant
roar of gun-fire. Again, it seems the most real of worlds, an exclusive
man's world, where nothing counts but organized material force, and
all those cleanly, well-behaved men in khaki are a part of the
One sees the war as a colossal dynamo, where force is perpetual like
the energy of the sun. The war is going on for ever. The reaper cuts
the harvest, but another harvest comes. War feeds on itself, renews
itself. Live men replace the dead. There seems no end to supplies of
men. The pounding of the guns, like the roar of Niagara, becomes
eternal. Nothing can stop it.
Trenches In Winter
The difference between trench warfare in winter and in summer is
that between sleeping on the lawn in March and in July. It was in the
mud and winds of March that I first saw the British front. The winds
were much like the seasonal winds at home; but the Flanders mud is
like no other mud, in the judgment of the British soldier. It is mixed
with glue. When I returned to the front in June for a longer stay, the
mud had become clouds of dust that trailed behind the motor-car.
In March my eagerness to see a trench was that of one from the
Western prairies to get his first glimpse of the ocean. Once I might go
into a trench as often as I pleased I became "fed up" with trenches,
as the British say. They did not mean much more than an alley or a
railway cutting. One came to think of the average peaceful trench as
a ditch where some men were eating marmalade and bully beef and
looking across a field at some more men who were eating sausage
and "K.K." bread, each party taking care that the other did not see
Writers have served us trenches in every possible literary style that
censorship will permit. Whoever "tours" them is convinced that none
of the descriptions published heretofore has been adequate and
writes one of his own which will be final. All agree that it is not like
what they thought it was. But, despite all the descriptions, the public
still fails to visualize a trench. You do not see a trench with your eyes
so much as with your mind and imagination. That long line where all
the powers of destruction within man's command are in deadlock has
become a symbol for something which cannot be expressed by
words. No one has yet really described a shell-burst, or a flash of
lightning, or Niagara Falls; and no one will ever describe a trench. He
cannot put anyone else there. He can only be there himself.
The first time that I looked over a British parapet was in the edge of a
wood. Board walks ran across the spongy earth here and there; the
doors of little shanties with earth roofs opened on to those streets,
which were called Piccadilly and the Strand. I was reminded of a
pleasant prospector's camp in Alaska. Only, everybody was in
uniform and occasionally something whished through the branches of
the trees. One looked up to see what it was and where it was going,
this stray bullet, without being any wiser.
We passed along one of the walks until we came to a wall of
sandbags--simply white bags about three-quarters of the size of an
ordinary pillowslip, filled with earth and laid one on top of another like
bags of grain. You stood beside a man who had a rifle laid across the
top of the pile. Of course, you did not wear a white hat or wave a
handkerchief. One does not do that when he plays hide-and-seek.
Or, if you preferred, you might look into a chip of glass, with your
head wholly screened by the wall of sandbags, which got a reflection
from another chip of glass above the parapet. This is the trench
periscope; the principle of all of them is the same. They have no more
variety than the fashion in knives, forks and spoons on the dinner
One hundred and fifty yards away across a dead field was another
wall of sandbags. The distance is important. It is always stated in all
descriptions. One hundred and fifty yards is not much. Only when you
get within forty or fifty yards have you something to brag about. Yet
three hundred yards may be more dangerous than fifteen, if an
artillery "hate" is on.
Look for an hour, and all you see is the wall of sandbags. Not even a
rabbit runs across that dead space. The situation gets its power of
suggestion from the fact that there are Germans behind the other
wall--real, live Germans. They are trying to kill the British on our side
and we are trying to kill them; and they are as coyly unaccommodating
about putting up their heads as we are. The emotion of the situation
is in the fact that a sharpshooter might send a shot at your cap; he
might smash a periscope; a shell might come. A rifle cracks--that is
all. Nearly everyone has heard the sound, which is no different at the
front than elsewhere. And the sound is the only information you get.
It is not so interesting as shooting at a deer, for you can tell whether
you hit him or not. The man who fires from a trench is not even certain
whether he saw a German or not. He shot at some shadow or object
along the crest which might have been a German head.
Thus, one must take the word of those present that there is any more
life behind than in front of the sandbags. However, if you are sceptical
you may have conviction by starting to crawl over the top of the
British parapet. After dark the soldiers will slip over and bring back
your body. It is this something you do not see, this something
visualized by the imagination, which convinces you that you ought to
be considerate enough of posterity to write the real description of a
trench. Look for an hour at that wall of sandbags and your
imagination sees more and more, while your eye sees only
sandbags. What does this war mean to you? There it is: only you can
describe what this war means to you.
Many a soldier who has spent months in trenches has not seen a
German. I boast that I have seen real Germans through my glasses.
They were walking along a road back of their trenches. It was most
fascinating. All the Germans I had ever seen in Germany were not
half so interesting. I strained my eyes watching those wonderful
beings as I might strain them at the first visiting party from Mars to
earth. There must have been at least ten out of the Kaiser's millions.
In summer that wood had become a sylvan bower, or a pastoral
paradise, or a leafy nook, as you please. The sun played through the
branches in a patchwork; flowers bloomed on the dirt roofs of the
shanties, and a swallow had a nest--famous swallow!--on one of the
parapets. True, it was not on the front parapet; it was on the reserve.
The swallow knew what he was about. He was taking a reasonable
amount of risk and playing reasonably secure to get a front seat,
according to the ethics of the war correspondent. The two walls of
sandbags were in the same place that they had been six months
previously. A little patching had been done after some shells had hit
the mark, though not many had come.
For this was a quiet corner. Neither side was interested in stirring up
the hornets' nest. If a member of Parliament wished to see what
trench life was like he was brought here, because it was one of the
safest places for a few minutes' look at the sandbags which Mr.
Atkins stared at week in and week out. Some Conservatives,
however, in the case of Radical members, would have chosen a
different kind of trench to show; for example, that one which was
suggested to me by the staff officer with the twinkle in his eye on my
best day at the front.
In want of an army pass to the front in order to write your own
description, then, put up a wall of sandbags in a vacant lot and
another one hundred and fifty yards away and fire a rifle occasionally
from your wall at the head of a man on the opposite side, who will
shoot at yours--and there you are. If you prefer the realistic to the
romantic school and wish to appreciate the nature of trench life in
winter, find a piece of wet, flat country, dig a ditch seven or eight feet
deep, stand in icy water looking across at another ditch, and sleep in
a cellar that you have dug in the wall, and you are near
understanding what Mr. Atkins has been doing for his country. The
ditch should be cut zigzag in and out, like the lines dividing the
squares of a checker-board; that makes more work and localizes the
burst of shells.
Of course, the moist walls will be continually falling in and require
mending in a drenching, freezing rain of the kind that the Lord visits
on all who wage war underground in Flanders. Incidentally, you must
look after the pumps, lest the water rise to your neck. For all the while
you are fighting Flanders mud as well as the Germans.
To carry realism to the limit of the Grand Guignol school, then,
arrange some bags of bullets with dynamite charges on a wire, which
will do for shrapnel; plant some dynamite in the parapet, which will do
for high explosive shells that burst on contact; sink heavier charges of
dynamite under your feet, which will do for mines, and set them off,
while you engage someone to toss grenades and bombs at you.
Though scores of officers' letters had given their account of trench life
with the vividness of personal experience, I must mention my first
trench in Flanders in winter when, with other correspondents, I saw
the real thing under the guidance of the commanding officer of that
particular section, a slight, wiry man who wore the ribbon of the
Victoria Cross won in another war for helping to "save the guns." He
made seeing trenches in the mud seem a pleasure trip. He was the
kind who would walk up to his ball as if he knew how to play golf,
send out a clean, fair, long drive, and then use his iron as if he knew
how to use an iron, without talking about his game on the way around
or when he returned to the club-house. Men could go into danger
behind him without realizing that they were in danger; they could
share hardship without realizing that there were any hardships. Such
as he put faith and backbone into a soldier by their very manner; and
if their professional training equal their talents, when war comes they
We had rubber boots, electric torches, and wore British warms, those
short, thick coats which collect a modicum of mud for you to carry
besides what you are carrying on your boots. We walked along a
hard road in the dark toward an aurora borealis of German flares,
which popped into the sky like Roman candles and burst in circles of
light. They seemed to be saying: "Come on! Try to crawl up on us
and play us a trick and our eyes will find you and our marksmen will
stop you. Come on! We make the night into day, and watching never
ceases from our parapet."
Occasional rifle-shots and a machine-gun's ter-rut were audible from
the direction of the jumping red glare, which stretched right and left as
far as the eye could see. We broke off the road into a morass of mud,
as one might cross fields when he had lost his way, and plunged on
till the commanding officer said, "We go in here!" and we descended
into a black chasm in the earth. The wonder was that any ditch could
be cut in soil which the rains had turned into syrup. Mud oozed from
the sandbags, through the wire netting, and between the wooden
supports which held the walls in place. It was just as bad over in the
German trenches. General Mud laid siege to both armies. The field of
battle where he gathered his gay knights was a slough. His tug of war
was strife against landslides, rheumatism, pneumonia, and frozen
The soldier tries to kill his adversary; he tries to prevent his adversary
from killing him. He is as busy in safeguarding as in taking life. While
he breathes, thinks, fights mud, he blesses as well as curses mud.
Mother Earth is still unconquerable. In her bosom man still finds
security; such security that "dug in" he can defy at a hundred yards'
distance rifles that carry death three thousand yards. She it is that
has made the deadlock in the trenches and plastered their occupants
with her miry hands.
The C.O. lifted a curtain of bagging as you might lift a hanging over
an alcove bookcase, and a young officer, rising from his blankets in
his house in the trench wall to a stooping posture, said that all was
quiet. His uniform seemed fleckless. Was it possible that he wore
some kind of cloth which shed mud spatters? He was another of the
type of Captain Q------, my host at Neuve Chapelle; a type formed on
the type of seniors such as his C.O. Unanalysable this quality, but
there is something distinguished about it and delightfully appealing. A
man who can be the same in a trench in Flanders in mid-winter as in
a drawing-room has my admiration. They never lose their manner,
these English officers. They carry it into the charge and back in the
ambulance with them to England, where they wish nothing so much
as that their friends will "cut out the hero stuff," as our own officers
In other dank cellars soldiers who were off guard were lying or sitting.
The radiance of the flares lighted the profiles of those on guard,
whose faces were half-hidden by coat-collars or ear-flaps--
imperturbable, silent, marooned and marooning, watchful and
fearless. The thing had to be done and they were doing it; and they
were going to keep on doing it.
There was nothing dry in that trench, unless it was the bowl of a
man's pipe. There were not even any braziers. In your nostrils was
the odour of the soil of Flanders cultivated by many generations
through many wars. As night wore on the sky was brightened by cold,
winter stars and their soft light became noticeable between the
disagreeable flashes of the flares.
We walked on and on. It was like walking in a winding ditch; that was
all. The same kind of walls at every turn; the same kind of dim figures
in saturated, heavy army overcoats. Slipping off the board walk into
the ooze, one was thrown against the mud wall as his foot sank. Then
he held fast to his boot-straps lest the boot remain in the mud while
his foot came out. Only the CO. never slipped. He knew how to tour
trenches. Beside him the others were as clumsy as if they were trying
to walk a tight-rope.
"Good-night!" he said to each group of men as he passed, with the
cheer of one who brings a confident spirit to vigils in the mud and with
that note of affection of the commander who has learned to love his
men by the token of ordeals when he saw them hold fast against
"Good-night, sir!" they answered; and in their tone was something
which you liked to hear--a finer tribute to the CO. than medals which
kings can bestow. It was affection and trust. They were ready to
follow him, for they knew that he knew how to lead. I was not
surprised when I heard of his promotion, later. I shall not be surprised
when I hear of it again. For he had brain and heart and the gift of
"Shall we go on or shall we go back?" he asked when we had gone
about a mile. "Have you had enough?"
We had, without a dissenting voice. A ditch in the mud, that was all,
no matter how much farther we went. So we passed out of the trench
into a soapy, slippery mud which had been ploughed ground in the
autumn, now become lathery with the beat of men's steps. Our party
became separated when some foundered and tried to hoist
themselves with both boot-straps at once. The CO. called out in order
to locate us in the darkness, and the voice of an officer in the
trenches cut in, "Keep still! The Germans are only a hundred yards
"Sorry!" whispered the CO. "I ought to have known better."
Then one of the German searchlights that had been swinging its
stream of light across the paths of the flares lay its fierce, comet eye
on us, glistening on the froth-streaked mud and showing each mud-
splashed figure in heavy coat in weird silhouette.
That is the order whenever the searchlights come spying in your
direction. So we stood still in the mud, looking at one another and
wondering. It was the one tense second of the night, which lifted our
thoughts out of the mud with the elation of risk. That searchlight was
the eye of death looking for a target. With the first crack of a bullet we
should have known that we were discovered and that it was no longer
good tactics to stand still. We should have dropped on all fours into
the porridge. The searchlight swept on. Perhaps Hans at the
machine-gun was nodding or perhaps he did not think us worth while.
Either supposition was equally agreeable to us.
We kept moving our mud-poulticed feet forward, with the flares at our
backs, till we came to a road where we saw dimly a silent company of
soldiers drawn up and behind them the supplies for the trench.
Through the mud and under cover of darkness every bit of barbed
wire, every board, every ounce of food, must go up to the moles in
the ditch. The searchlights and the flares and the machine-guns
waited for the relief. They must be fooled. But in this operation most
of the casualties in the average trenches, both British and German,
occurred. Without a chance to strike back, the soldier was shot at by
an assassin in the night.
When the men who had been serving their turn of duty in the
trenches came out, a magnet drew their weary steps--cleanliness.
They thought of nothing except soap and water. For a week they
need not fight mud or Germans or parasites, which, like General Mud,
waged war against both British and Germans. Standing on the slats
of the concrete floor of a factory, they peeled off the filthy, saturated
outer skin of clothing with its hideous, crawling inhabitants and,
naked, leapt into great steaming vats, where they scrubbed and
gurgled and gurgled and scrubbed. When they sprang out to apply
the towels, they were men with the feel of new bodies in another
Waiting for them were clean clothes, which had been boiled and
disinfected; and waiting, too, was the shelter of their billets in the
houses of French towns and villages, and rest and food and food and
rest, and newspapers and tobacco and gossip--but chiefly rest and
the joy of lethargy as tissue was rebuilt after the first long sleep, often
twelve hours at a stretch. They knew all the sensations of physical
man, man battling with nature, in contrasts of exhaustion and danger
and recuperation and security, as the pendulum swung slowly back
from fatigue to the glow of strength.
Those who came out of the trenches quite "done up," Colonel Bate,
Irish and genial, fatherly and not lean, claimed for his own. After the
washing they lay on cots under a glass roof, and they might play
dominoes and read the papers when they were well enough to sit up.
They had the food which Colonel Bate knew was good for them, just
as he knew what was deadly for the inhabitants whom they brought
into that isolated room which every man must pass through before he
was admitted to the full radiance of the colonel's curative smile. When
they were able to return to the trenches, each was written down as
one unit more in the colonel's weekly statistical reports. In summer he
entertained al fresco in an open-air camp.
In Neuve Chapelle