Part 4 out of 7
Typical of many others, this quiet village in a flat country of rich
farming land, with a church, a school, a post-office, and stores where
the farmer could buy a pound of sugar or a spool of thread, employ a
notary, or get a pair of shoes cobbled or a horse shod, without having
to go to the neighbouring town of Bethune, Neuve Chapelle became
famous only after it had ceased to exist--unless a village remains a
village after it has been reduced to its original elements by shell-fire.
It was the scene of one of those actions in the long siege line which
have the dignity of a battle; the losses on either side, about sixteen
thousand, were two-thirds of those at Waterloo or Gettysburg. Here
the British after the long winter's stalemate in the mud, where they
stuck when the exhausted Germans could press no farther, took the
offensive, with the sap of spring rising in their veins.
The guns blazed the way and the infantry charged in the path of the
guns' destruction; and they kept on while the shield of shell-fire held.
When it left an opening for the German machine-guns through its
curtain and the German guns visited on the British what their guns
had been visiting on the Germans, the British stopped. A lesson was
learned; a principle established. A gain was made, if no goal were
The human stone wall had moved. It had broken some barriers and
come to rest before others, again to become a stone wall. But it knew
that the thing could be done with guns and shells enough--and only
with enough. This means a good deal when you have been under
dog for a long time. Months were to pass waiting for enough shells
and guns, with many little actions and their steady drain of life, while
everyone looked back to Neuve Chapelle as a landmark. It was
something definite for a man to say that he had been wounded at
Neuve Chapelle and quite indefinite to say that he had been
wounded in the course of the day's work in the trenches.
No one might see the battle in that sea of mud. He might as well have
looked at the smoke of Vesuvius with an idea of learning what was
going on inside of the crater. I make no further attempt at describing
it. My view came after the battle was over and the cauldron was still
Though in March, 1914, one would hardly have given Neuve
Chapelle, intact and peaceful, a passing glance from a motor-car, in
March, 1915, Neuve Chapelle in ruins was the one town in Europe
which I most wanted to see. Correspondents had not then
established themselves. The staff officer whom I asked if I might
spend a night in the new British line was a cautious man. He bade me
sign a paper freeing the British army from any responsibility. Judging
by the general attitude of the Staff, one could hardly take the request
seriously. One correspondent less ought to please any Staff; but he
said that he had an affection for the regulars and knew that there
were always plenty of recruits to take their places without resorting to
conscription. The real responsibility was with the Germans. He
suggested that I might go out to the German trenches and see if I
could obtain a paper from them. He thought if I were quick about it I
might get at least a yard in front of the British parapet in daylight. His
sense of humour I had recognized when we had met in Bulgaria.
Any traveller is bound to meet men whom he has met before in the
travelled British army. At the brigade headquarters town, which, as
one of the officers said, proved that bricks and mortar can float in
mud, the face of the brigadier seemed familiar to me. I found that I
had met him in Shanghai in the Boxer campaign, when he had come
across a riotous China from India on one of those journeys in remote
Asia which British officers are fond of making. He was "all there,"
whether dealing with a mob of Orientals or with Germans in the
trenches. I made myself at home in the parlour of the private house
occupied by himself and staff, while he went on with his work. No flag
outside the house; no sign that it was headquarters. Motor-cars
stopped only long enough for an officer to enter or alight. Brigade
headquarters is precisely the target that German aeroplanes or spies
like to locate for their guns.
"Are you ready? Have you your rubber boots?" the brigadier asked a
few minutes later, as he put his head in at the parlour door. It would
not do to approach the trenches until after dark. Of course, I had
rubber boots. One might as well try to go to sea without a boat as to
trenches without rubber boots in winter. "I'll take my constitutional," he
added; "the trouble with this kind of war is that you get no exercise."
He was a small man, but how he could walk! I began to understand
why the Boxers could not catch him. He turned back after we had
gone a mile or more and one of his staff went on with me to a point
where, just at dusk, I was turned over to another pilot, an aide from
battalion headquarters, and we set out across sodden fields that had
yielded beetroot in the last harvest, taking care not to step in shell-
holes. Dusk settled into darkness. No human being was in sight
"There's the first line of German trenches before the attack," said my
companion. "Our guns got fairly on them." Dimly I saw what seemed
like a huge, long, irregular furrow of earth which had been torn almost
out of the shape of a trench by British shells. "There was no living in it
when the guns began all together. The only thing to do was to get
Around us was utter silence, where the hell of thunders and
destruction by the artillery had raged during the battle. Then a spent
or ricochet bullet swept overhead, with the whistle of complaint of
spent bullets at having travelled far without hitting any object. It had
gone high over the British trenches; it had carried the full range, and
the chance of its hitting anyone was ridiculously small. But the nearer
you get to the trenches, the more likely these strays are to find a
victim. "Hit by a stray bullet!" is a very common saying at the front.
At last we felt the solidity of a paved road under our feet, and
following this we came to a peasant's cottage. Inside, two soldiers
were sitting beside telephone and telegraph instruments, behind a
window stuffed with sandbags. On our way across the fields we had
stepped on wires laid on the ground; we had stooped to avoid wires
stretched on poles--the wires that form the web of the army's
Of course, no two units of communication are dependent on one wire.
There is always a duplicate. If one is broken it is immediately
repaired. The factories spin out wire to talk over and barbed wire for
entanglements in front of trenches and weave millions of bags to be
filled with sand for breastworks to protect men from bullets. If Sir John
French wished, he could talk with Lord Kitchener in London and this
battalion headquarters at Neuve Chapelle within the same space of
time that a railroad president may speak over the Long Distance from
Chicago to New York and order dinner out in the suburbs.
These two men at the table, their faces tanned by exposure, men in
the thirties, had the British regular of long service stamped all over
them. War was an old story to them; and an old story, too, laying
signal wires under fire.
"We're very comfortable," said one. "No danger from stray bullets or
from shrapnel; but if one of the Jack Johnsons come in, why, there's
no more cottage and no more argument between you and me. We're
dead and maybe buried, or maybe scattered over the landscape,
along with the broken pieces of the roof."
A soldier was on guard with bayonet fixed inside that little room, which
had passageway to the cellar past the table, among straw beds. This
seemed rather peculiar. The reason lay on one of the beds in a
private's khaki. He had come into the battalion's trenches from our
front and said that he belonged to the D------regiment and had been
out on patrol and lost his way.
It was two miles to that regiment and two miles is a long distance to
stray between two lines of trenches so close together, when at any
point in your own line you will find friends. It was possible that this
fellow's real name was Hans Schmidt, who had learned cockney
English in childhood in London, and in a dead British private's uniform
had come into the British trenches to get information to which he was
anything but welcome.
He was to be sent under guard to the D------regiment
for identification; and if he were found to be a Hans and not a
Tommy--well, though he had tried a very stupid dodge he must have
known what to expect when he was found out, if his officers had
properly trained him in German rules of war.
I had a glimpse of him in the candlelight before stooping to feel my
way down three or four narrow steps to the cellar, where the farmer
ordinarily kept potatoes and vegetables. There were straw beds
around the walls here, too. The major commanding the battalion rose
from his seat at a table on which were some cutlery, a jam pot,
tobacco, pipes, a newspaper or two, and army telegraph forms and
If the hosts of mansions could only make their hospitality as simple as
the major's, there would be less affectation in the world. He
introduced me to an officer sitting on the other side of the table and to
one lying in his blankets against the wall, who lifted his head and
blinked and said that he was very glad to see me.
It is a small world, for China cropped up here, as it had at brigade
headquarters. The major had been in garrison at Peking when the
war began. If my shipmate on a long battleship cruise, Lt.-Col. Dion
Williams, U.S.M.C, reads this out in Peking let it tell him that the major
is just as urbane in the cellar of a second-rate farmhouse on the
outskirts of Neuve Chapelle as he would be in a corner of the Peking
"How is it? Painful now?" asked the major of Captain P-----, on the
other side of the table.
"Oh, no! It's quite all right," said the captain.
"Using the sling?"
"Part of the time. Hardly need it, though."
Captain P-----was one of those men whose eyes are always smiling;
who seems, wherever he is, to be glad that he is not in a worse place;
who goes right on smiling at the mud in the trenches and bullets and
shells and death. They are not emotional, the British, perhaps, but
they are given to cheeriness, if not to laughter, and they have a way
of smiling at times when smiles are much needed. The smile is more
often found at the front than back at headquarters; or perhaps it is
more noticeable there.
"You see, he got a bullet through the arm yesterday," the major
explained. "He was reported wounded, but remained on duty in the
trench." I saw that the captain would rather not have publicity given to
such an ordinary incident. He did not see why people should talk
about his arm. "You are to go with him into the trench for the night,"
the major added; and I thought myself very lucky in my companion.
"Aren't you going to have dinner with us?" the major asked him.
"Why, I had something to eat not very long ago," said Captain P-----.
One was not sure whether he had or not.
"There's plenty," said the major.
"In that event, I don't see why I shouldn't eat when I have a chance,"
the captain returned; which I found was a characteristic trench habit,
particularly in winter when exposure to the raw, cold air calls for plenty
of body-furnace heat.
We had a ration soup and ration ham and ration prunes and cheese;
what Tommy Atkins gets. When we were outside the house and
starting for the trench this captain, with his wounded arm, wanted to
carry my knapsack. He seemed to think that refusal was breaking the
Where we turned off the road, broken finger-points of brick walls in
the faint moonlight indicated the site of Neuve Chapelle; other
fragments of walls in front of us were the remains of a house; and
that broken tree-trunk showed what a big shell can do. The trunk, a
good eighteen inches in diameter, had not only been cut in two by
one of the monsters of the new British artillery, but had been carried
on for ten feet and left lying solidly in the bed of splinters of the top
of the stump. All this had been in the field of that battle of a day,
which was as fierce as the fiercest day at Gettysburg, and fought
within about the same space. Every tree, every square rod of ground,
had been paid for by shells, bullets, and human life.
But now we were near the trenches; or, rather, the breastworks. We
are always speaking of the trenches, while not all parts of the line are
held by trenches. A trench is dug in the ground; a breastwork is
raised from the level of the ground. At some points a trench becomes
practically a breastwork, as its wall is raised to get free of the mud
We came into the open and heard the sound of voices and saw a
spotty white wall; for some of the sandbags of the new British
breastworks still retained their original colour. On the reverse side of
this wall lines were leaning in readiness, their fixed bayonets faintly
gleaming in the moonlight. I felt of the edge of one and it was sharp,
quite prepared for business. In the surroundings of damp earth and
mud-bespattered men, this rifle seemed the cleanest thing of all,
meticulously clean, that ready weapon whose well-aimed and telling
fire, in obedient and cool hands, was the object of all the drill of the
new infantry in England; of all the drill of all infantry. Where pickets
watched in the open in the old days before armies met in pitched
battle, an occasional soldier now stands with rifle laid on the parapet,
Across a reach of field faintly were made out the white spots of
another wall of breastworks, the German, at the edge of a stretch of
woods, the Bois du Bies. The British reached these woods in their
advance; but, their aeroplanes being unable to spot the fall of shells
in the mist, they had to fall back for want of artillery support. Along
this line where we stood outside the village they stopped; and to stop
is to set the spades going to begin the defences which, later, had
risen to a man's height, and with rifles and machine-guns had riddled
the German counter-attack.
And the Germans had to go back to the edge of the woods, where
they, too, began digging and building their new line. So the enemies
were fixed again behind their walls of earth, facing each other across
the open, where it was death for any man to expose himself by day.
"Will you have a shot, sir?" one of the sentries asked me.
"Why, at the top of the trench over there, or at anything you see
moving," he said.
But I did not think that it was an invitation for a non-combatant to
accept. If the bullet went over the top of the trench it had still two
thousand yards and more to go, and it might find a target before it
died. So, in view of the law of probabilities, no bullet is quite waste.
"Now, which is my house?" asked Captain P------.
"I really can't find my own home in the dark."
Behind the breastwork were many little houses three or four feet in
height, all of the same pattern, and made of boards and mud. The
mud is put on top to keep out shrapnel bullets.
"Here you are, sir!" said a soldier.
Asking me to wait until he made a light, the captain bent over as if
about to crawl under the top rail of a fence and his head disappeared.
After he had put a match to a candle and stuck it on a stick thrust into
the wall, I could see the interior of his habitation. A rubber sheet
spread on the moist earth served as floor, carpet, mattress, and bed.
At a squeeze there was room for two others besides himself. They
did not need any doormat, for when they lay down their feet would be
at the door.
"Quite cosy, don't you think?" remarked the captain. He seemed to
feel that he had a royal chamber. But, then, he was the kind of man
who might sleep in a muddy field under a wagon and regard the
shelter of the wagon body as a luxury. "Leave your knapsack here,"
he continued, "and we'll see what is doing along the line."
In other words, after you had left your bag in the host's hall, he
suggested a stroll in the village or across the fields. But only to see
war would he have asked you to walk in such mud.
"Not quite so loud!" he warned a soldier who was bringing up boards
from the rear under cover of darkness. "If the Germans hear they
may start firing."
Two other men were piling mud on top of a section of breastwork at
an angle to the main line.
"What is that for?" the captain asked.
"They get an enfilade on us here, sir, and Mr.------ (the lieutenant) told
me to make this higher."
"That's no good. A bullet will go right through," said the captain. "We'll
have to wait until we get more sandbags."
A little farther on we came to an open space, with no protection
between us and the Germans. Half a dozen men were piling earth
against a staked chicken wire to extend the breastworks. Rather, they
were piling mud, and they were besmirched from head to foot. They
looked like reeking Neptunes rising from a slough. In the same
position in daylight, standing full height before German rifles at three
hundred yards, they would have been shot dead before they could
leap to cover.
"How does it go?" asked the captain.
"Very well, sir; though what we need is sandbags."
"We'll have some up to-morrow."
At the moment there was no firing in the vicinity. Faintly I heard the
Germans pounding stakes, at work improving their own breastworks.
A British soldier appeared out of the darkness in front.
"We've found two of our men out there with their heads blown off by
shells," he said. "Have we permission to go out and bury them, sir?"
They would be as safe as the fellows piling mud against the chicken
wire, unless the Germans opened fire. If they did, we could fire on
their working-party, or in the direction of the sound. For that matter,
we knew through our glasses by day the location of any weak places
in their breastworks, and they knew where ours were. A sort of "after-
you-gentlemen-if-you-fire-we-shall" understanding sometimes exists
between the foes up to a certain point. Each side understands
instinctively the limitation of that point. Too much noise in working, a
number of men going out to bury dead or making enough noise to be
heard, and the ball begins. A deep, broad ditch filled with water made
a break in our line. No doubt a German machine-gun was trained on
"A little bridging is required here," said the captain. "We'll have it done
to-morrow night. The break is no disadvantage if they attack; in fact,
we'd rather like to have them try for it. But it makes movement along
the line difficult by day."
When we were across and once more behind the breastworks, he
called my attention to some high ground in the rear.
"One of our officers took a short cut across there in daylight," he said.
"He was quite exposed, and they drew a bead on him from the
German trench and got him through the arm. Not a serious hit. It
wasn't cricket for anyone to go out to bring him in. He realized this,
and called out to leave him to himself, and crawled to cover."
I was getting the commonplaces of trench life. Thus far it had been a
quiet night and was to remain so. Reddish, flickering swaths of light
were thrown across the fields between the trenches by the enemy's
Roman candle flares. One tried to estimate how many flares the
Germans must use every night from Switzerland to the North Sea.
On our side, the only light was from our braziers. Thomas Atkins has
become a patron of braziers made by punching holes in buckets; and
so have the Germans. Punch holes in a bucket, start a fire inside,
and you have cheer and warmth and light through the long night
vigils. Two or three days before we had located a sniper between the
lines by seeing him swing his fire-pot to make a draught against the
If you have ever sat around a camp-fire in the forest or on the plains
you need be told nothing further. One of the old, glamorous features
of war survives in these glowing braziers, spreading their genial rays
among the little houses and lighting the faces of the men who stand
or squat in encircling groups around the coals, which dry wet clothes,
slake the moisture of a section of earth, make the bayonets against
the walls glisten, and reveal the position of a machine-gun with its
tape ready for firing.
Values are relative, and a brazier in the trenches makes the
satisfaction of a steam-heated room in winter very superficial and
artificial. You are at home there with Tommy Atkins, regular of an old
line English regiment, in his heavy khaki overcoat and solid boots and
wool puttees, a sturdy, hardened man of a terrific war. He, the
regular, the shilling-a-day policeman of the empire, was still doing the
fighting at the front. The new army, which embraces all classes, was
not yet in action.
This man and that one were at Mons. This one and that one had
been through the whole campaign without once seeing Mother
England for whom they were fighting. The affection in which Captain
P------was held extended through his regiment, for we had left his own
company behind. At every turn he was asked about his arm.
"You've made a mistake, sir. This isn't a hospital," as one man
expressed it. Oh, but the captain was bored with hearing about that
arm! If he is wounded again I am sure that he will try to keep the fact
These veterans could "grouse," as the British call it. Grousing is one
of Tommy's privileges. When they got to grousing worst on the retreat
from Mons, their officers knew that what they really wanted was to
make another stand. They were tired of falling back; they meant to
take a rest and fight a while. Their language was yours, the language
in which our own laws and schoolbooks are written. They made the
old blood call. For months they had been taking bitter medicine; very
bitter for a British soldier. The way they took it will, perhaps, remain a
greater tribute than any part they play in future victories.
"How do they feel in the States?" I was asked. "Against us?"
"No. By no means."
"I don't see how they could be!" Tommy exclaimed.
Tommy may not be much on argument as it is developed by the
controversial spirit of college professors, but he had said about all
there was to say. How can we be? Hardly, after you come to know T.
Atkins and his officers and talk English with them around their camp-
"The Germans are always sending up flares," I remarked. "You send
up none. How about it?"
"It cheers them. They're downhearted!" said one of the group. "You
wouldn't deny them their fireworks, would you, sir?"
"That shows who is top dog," said another. "They're the ones that are
I had heard of trench exhaustion, trench despair, but there was no
sign of it in a regiment that had been through all the hell and mire that
the British army had known since the war began. To no one had
Neuve Chapelle meant so much as to these common soldiers. It was
their first real victory. They were standing on soil won from the
"We're going to Berlin!" said a big fellow who was standing, palms
downward to the fire. "It's settled. We're going to Berlin."
A smaller man with his back against the sandbags disagreed. There
was a trench argument.
"No, we're going to the Rhine," he said. "The Russians are going to
Berlin." (This was in March, 1915, remember.)
"How can they when they ain't over the Balkans yet?"
"The Carpathians, you mean."
"Well, they're both mountains and the Russians have got to cross
them. And there's a place called Cracow in that region. What's the
matter of a pair of mountain ranges between you and me, Bill? You're
strong on geography, but you fail to follow the campaign."
"The Rhine, I say!"
"It's the Rhine first, but Berlin is what you want to keep your mind on."
Then I asked if they had ever had any doubt that they would reach
"How could we, sir?"
"And how about the Germans. Do you hate them?"
"Hate!" exclaimed the big man. "What good would it do to hate them?
No, we don't hate. We get our blood up when we're fighting and when
they don't play the game. But hate! Don't you think that's kind of
"How do they fight?"
"They take a bit of beating, do the Boches!"
"So you call them Boches!"
"Yes. They don't like that. But sometimes we call them Allemands,
which is Germans in French. Oh, we're getting quite French
"They're good soldiers. Not many tricks they're not up to. But in my
opinion they're overdoing the hate. You can't keep up to your work on
hate, sir. I should think it would be weakening to the mind, too."
"Still, you would like the war over? You'd like to go home?"
They certainly would. Back to the barracks, out of the trenches! They
"And call it a draw?"
"Call it a draw, now! Call it a draw, after all we've been through------"
"Spring is coming. The ground will dry up and it will be warm."
"And the going will be good to Berlin, as it was back from Paris in
August, we tell the Boches."
"Good for the Russians going over the Carpathians, or the Pyrenees,
or whatever those mountains are, too. I read they're all covered with
snow in winter."
It was good, regular soldier talk, very "homey" to me. As you will
observe, I have not elided the h's. Indeed, Tommy has a way of
prefixing his h's to the right vowels more frequently than a generation
ago. The Soldiers Three type has passed. Popular education will
have its way and induce better habits. Believing in the old remedy for
exhaustion and exposure to cold, the army served out a tot of rum
every day to the men. But many of them are teetotalers, these hardy
regulars, and not even Mulvaney will think them effeminate when they
have seen fighting which makes anything Mulvaney ever saw child's
play. So they asked for candy and chocolate, instead of rum.
Some people have said that Tommy has no patriotism. He fights
because he is paid and it is his business. That is an insinuation.
Tommy doesn't care for the "hero stuff," or for waving flags and
speechmaking. Possibly he knows how few Germans that sort of
thing kills. His weapons are bullets. To put it cogently, he is fighting
because he doesn't want any Kaiser "in his."
Is not that what all the speeches in Parliament are about and all the
editorials and the recruiting campaign? Is not that what England and
France are fighting for? It seems to me that Tommy's is a very
practical patriotism, free from cant; and the way that he refuses to
hate or to get excited, but sticks to it, must be very irritating to the
"Would you like a Boche helmet for a souvenir, sir?" asked a soldier
who appeared on the outer edge of the group. He was the small,
active type, a British soldier with the elan of the Frenchman. "There
are lots of them out among the German dead "--the unburied German
dead who fell like grass before the mower in a desperate and futile
counter-attack to recover Neuve Chapelle. "I'll have one for you on
your way back."
There was no stopping him; he had gone.
"Matty's a devil!" said the big man. "He'll get it, all right. He's equal
to reaching over the Boches' parapet and picking one off a Boche's
As we proceeded on our way, officers came out of the little houses to
meet Captain P------and the stranger civilian. They had to come out,
as there was no room to take us inside; and sometimes they talked
shop together after I had answered the usual question, "Is America
against us?" There seemed to be an idea that we were, possibly
because of the prodigious advertising tactics of a minority. But any
feeling that we might be did not interfere with their simple courtesy, or
lead them to express any bitterness or break into argument.
"How are things going on over your side?"
"A little this morning. No harm done."
"We cleaned out one bad sniper to-day."
"Ought to have some sandbags up to-night."
"It's a bad place there. They've got a machine-gun trained which has
quite a sweep. I asked if the artillery shouldn't put in a word, but the
general didn't think it worth while."
"You must run across that break. Three or four shots at you every
time. We're gradually getting shipshape, though."
Just then a couple of bullets went singing overhead. The group paid
no attention to them. If you paid attention to bullets over the parapet
you would have no time for anything else. But these bullets have a
way of picking off tall officers who are standing up among their
houses. In the course of their talk they happened to speak of such an
instance, though not with reference to the two bullets I have
"Poor S------did not last long. He had been out only three weeks."
"How is J------? Hit badly?"
"Through the shoulder; not seriously."
"H------is back. Recovered very quickly."
Normal trench talk, this! A crack which signifies that the bullet has hit
--another man down. One grows accustomed to it, and one of this
group of officers might be gone to-morrow.
"I have one, sir," said Matty, exhibiting a helmet when we returned
past his station. "Bullet went right through the head and came out the
It was time that Captain P------ was back to his own command. As we
came to his company's line word was just being passed from sentry
"No firing. Patrols going out."
It was midnight now.
"We'll go in the other direction," said Captain P------ when he had
learned that there was no news.
This brought us to an Irish regiment. The Irish naturally had
something to say.
Nearer The Germans
Here not the Irish Sea lay between the broad a and the brogue, but
the space between two sentries or between two rifles with bayonets
fixed, lying against the wall of the breastworks ready for their owners'
hands when called to arms in case of an alarm. One stepped from
England into Ireland; and my prediction that the Irish would have
something to say was correct.
The first man who made his presence felt was a good six feet in
height, with a heavy moustache and the earpieces of his cap tied
under his chin, though the night was not cold. He placed himself fairly
in front of me in the narrow path back of the breastworks and he
looked a cowled and sinister figure in the faint glow from a brazier. I
certainly did not want any physical argument with a man of his build.
"Who are you?" he demanded, as stiffly as if I had broken in at the
veranda window with a jemmy.
For the nearer you come to the front, the more you feel that you are
in the way. You are a stray extra piece of baggage; a dead human
weight. Everyone is doing something definite as a part of the machine
except yourself; and in your civilian clothes you feel the self-
conscious conspicuousness of appearing on a dancing-floor in a
Captain P------was a little way back in another passage. I was alone
and in a rough tweed suit--a strange figure in that world of khaki and
"A German spy! That's why I am dressed this way, so as not to excite
suspicion," I was going to say, when a call from Captain P------
identified me, and the sentry's attitude changed as suddenly as if the
inspector of police had come along and told a patrolman that I might
pass through the fire lines.
"So it's you, is it, right from America?" he said. "I've a sister living at
Nashua, New Hampshire, U.S.A. with three brothers in the United
Whether he had or not you can judge as well as I by the twinkle in his
eye. He might have had five, and again he might not have one. I was
a tenderfoot seeing the trenches.
"It's mesilf that's going to America when me sarvice in the army is up
in one year and six months," he continued. "That's some time yet. I'm
going if I'm not killed by the Germans. It's a way that they have, or we
wouldn't be killing them."
"What are you going to do in America? Enlist in the army?"
"No. I'm looking for a better job. I'm thinking I'll be one of your
millionaires. Shure, but that would be to me taste."
Not one Irishman was speaking really, but a dozen. They came out of
their little houses and dug-outs to gather around the brazier; and for
every remark I made I received a fusillade in reply. It was an event,
an American appearing in the trench in the small hours of the
A trench-toughened, battle-toughened old sergeant was sitting in the
doorway of his dug-out, frying a strip of bacon over one rim of the
brazier and making tea over the other. The bacon sizzled with an
appetizing aroma and a bullet sizzled harmlessly overhead. Behind
that wall of sandbags all were perfectly safe, unless a shell came. But
who worries about shells? It is like worrying about being struck by
lightning when clouds gather in a summer sky.
"It looks like good bacon," I remarked.
"It is that!" said the sergeant. "And the hungrier ye are the better. It's
your nose that's telling ye so this minute. I can see that ye're hungry
"Then you're pretty well fed?"
"Well fed, is it? It's stuffed we are, like the geese that grow the paty-
what-do-you-call-it? Eating is our pastime. We eat when we've
nothing else to do and when we've got something to do. We get eggs
up here--a fine man is Lord Kitchener--yes, sir, eggs up here in the
When they seemed to think that I was sceptical, he produced some
eggs in evidence.
"And if ye'll not have the bacon, ye'll have a drop of tea. Mind now,
while your tongue is trying to be polite, your stomach is calling your
tongue a liar!"
Wouldn't I have a souvenir? Out came German bullets and buckles
and officers' whistles and helmets and fragments of shells and
"It's easy to get them out there where the Germans fell that thick!" I
was told. "And will ye look at this and take it home to give your pro-
German Irish in America, to show what their friends are shooting at
the Irish? I found them mesilf on a dead German."
He passed me a clip of German bullets with the blunt ends instead of
the pointed ends out. The change is readily made, for the German
bullet is easily pulled out of the cartridge case and the pointed end
thrust against the powder. Thus fired, it goes accurately four or five
hundred yards, which is more than the average distance between
German and British trenches. When it strikes flesh the effect is that of
a dum-dum and worse; for the jacket splits into slivers, which spread
through the pulpy mass caused by the explosion. A leg or an arm
thus hit must almost invariably be amputated. I am not suggesting
that this is a regular practice with German soldiers, but it shows what
wickedness is in the power of the sinister one.
"But ye'll take the tea," said the sergeant, "with a little rum hot in it.
'Twill take the chill out of your bones."
"What if I haven't a chill in my bones?"
"Maybe it's there without speaking to ye and it will be speaking before
an hour longer--or afther ye're home between the sheets with the
rheumatiz, and yell be saying, 'Why didn't I take that glass?' which
I'm holding out to ye this minute, steaming its invitation to be drunk."
It was a memorable drink. Snatches of brogue followed me from the
brazier's glow when I insisted that I must be going.
Now our breastworks took a turn and we were approaching closer to
the German breastworks. Both lines remained where they had "dug
in" after the counter-attacks which followed the battle had ceased.
Ground is too precious in this siege warfare to yield a foot. Soldiers
become misers of soil. Where the flood is checked there you build
your dam against another flood.
"We are within about sixty yards of the Germans," said Captain P------
at length, after we had gone in and out of the traverses and left the
braziers well behind.
Between the spotty, whitish wall of German sandbags, quite distinct in
the moonlight, and our parapet were two mounds of sandbags about
twenty feet apart. Snug behind one was a German and behind the
other an Irishman, both listening. They were within easy bombing
range, but the homicidal advantage of position of either resulted in a
truce. Sixty yards! Pace it off. It is not far. In other places the enemies
have been as close as five yards--only a wall of earth between them.
Where a bombing operation ends in an attack, a German is naturally
on one side of a traverse and a Briton on the other.
The Germans were as busy as beavers dam-building. They had a lot
of work to do before they had their new defences right. We heard
them driving stakes and spading; we heard their voices with snatches
of sentences intelligible, and occasionally the energetic, shouted,
guttural commands of their officers. All through that night I never
heard a British officer speak above a conversational tone. The orders
were definite enough, but given with a certain companionable
kindliness. I have spoken of the genuine affection which his men
showed for Captain P------, and I was beginning to appreciate that it
was not a particular instance.
"What if you should shout at Tommy in the German fashion?" I
"He wouldn't have it; he'd get rebellious," was the reply. "No, you
mustn't yell at Tommy. He's a little temperamental about some things
and he will not be treated as if he were just a human machine."
Yet no one will question the discipline of the British soldier. Discipline
means that the officer knows his men, and British discipline, which
bears a retreat like that from Mons, requires that the man likes to
follow his officers, believes in his officers, loves his officers. Each
army and each people to its own ways.
Sixty yards! And the dead between the trenches and death lurking
ready at a trigger's pull should life show itself! When daylight comes
the British sing out their "Good-morning, Germans!" and the Germans
answer, "Good-morning, British!" without adding, "We hope to kill
some of you to-day!" Ragging banter and jest and worse than jest
and grim defiance are exchanged between the trenches when they
are within such easy hearing distance of each other; but always from
a safe position behind the parapet which the adversaries squint
across through their periscopes. At the gibe business the German is,
perhaps, better than the Briton.
Early in the evening a regiment on our right broke into a busy
fusillade at some fancied movement of the enemy. In trench talk that
is getting "jumpy." The Germans in front roared out their contempt in
a chorus of guying laughter. Toward morning, these same Germans
also became "jumpy" and began tearing the air with bullets, firing
against nothing but the blackness of night. Tommy Atkins only made
some characteristic comments; for he is a quiet fellow, except when
he is played on the music-hall stage. Possibly he feels the
inconsistency of laughter when you are killing human beings; for, as
his officers say, he is temperamental and never goes to the trouble of
analysing his emotions. A very real person and a good deal of a
philosopher is Mr. Atkins, Britain's professional fighting man, who was
the only kind of fighting man she had ready for the war.
Any small boy who had never had enough fireworks in his life might
be given a job in the German trenches, with the privilege of firing
flares till he fell asleep from exhaustion. All night they were going, with
the regularity of clockwork. The only ones sent up from our side that
night were shot in order that I might get a better view of the German
You know how water lies in the low places on the ground after a
heavy rain. Well, the patches of dead were like that, and dark in the
spots where they were very thick--dark as with the darkness of
deeper water. There were also irregular tongues of dead and
scattered dead, with arms outstretched or under them as they fell,
and faces white even in the reddish glare of the rockets and turned
toward you in the charge that failed under the withering blasts of
machine-guns, ripping out two or three hundred shots a minute, and
well-aimed rifle-bullets, each bullet getting its man. Threatening that
charge would have seemed to a recruit, but measured and calculated
in certainty of failure in the minds of veteran defenders, who knew
that the wheat could not stand before their mowers. Man's flesh is
soft and a bullet is hard and travels fast.
One bit of satire which Tommy sent across the field covered with its
burden of slaughter to the Germans who are given to song, ought to
have gone home. It was: "Why don't you stop singing and bury your
dead?" But the Germans, having given no armistice in other times
when British dead lay before the trenches, asked for none here. The
dead were nearer to the British than to the Germans. The discomfort
would be in British and not German nostrils. And the dead cannot
fight; they can help no more to win victory for the Fatherland; and the
time is A.D. 1915. Two or three thousand German dead altogether,
perhaps--not many out of the Kaiser's millions. Yet they seemed a
great many to one who saw them lying there.
We stopped to read by the light of a brazier some German soldiers'
diaries that the Irishmen had. They were cheap little books, bought for
a few cents, each one telling the dead man's story and revealing the
monotony of a soldier's existence in Europe to-day. These pawns of
war had been marched here and there, they never knew why. The
last notes were when orders came entraining them. They did not
know that they were to be sent out of those woods yonder to recover
Neuve Chapelle out of those woods in the test of all their drill and
waiting. A Bavarian officer--for these were Bavarians--actually rode in
that charge. He must have worked himself up to a strangely exalted
optimism and contempt of British fire. Or was it that he, too, did not
know what he was going against? that only the German general
knew? Neither he nor his horse lasted long; not more than a dozen
seconds. The thing was so splendidly foolhardy that in some little war
it might have become the saga of a regiment, the subject of ballads
and paintings. In this war it was an incident heralded for a day in one
command and forgotten the next.
"Good-night!" called the Irish.
"Good-night and good luck!"
"Tell them in America that the Irish are still fighting!"
"Good luck, and may your travelling be aisy; but if ye trip, may ye fall
into a gold mine!"
We were back with the British regulars; and here, also, many of the
men remained up around the braziers.
The hours of duty of the few on watch do not take many of the
twenty-four hours. One may sleep when he chooses in the little
houses behind the breastworks. Night melts into day and day into
night in the monotony of mud and sniping rifle-fire. By-and-by it is your
turn to go into reserve; your turn to get out of your clothes--for there
are no pyjamas for officers or men in these "crawls," as they are
sometimes called. Boots off is the only undressing; boots off and
puttees unloosed, which saves the feet. Yes, by-and-by the march
back to the rear, where there are tubs filled with hot water and an
outfit of clean clothes awaiting you, and nothing to do but rest and
"How soon after we leave the trenches may we cheer?" officers have
been asked in the dead of winter, when water stood deep over the
porous mud and morning found a scale of ice around the legs.
You, nicely testing the temperature of your morning tub; you, satisfied
only with faucets of hot and cold water and a mat to stand on--you
know nothing about the joy of bathing. Your bath is a mere part of the
daily routine of existence. Try the trenches and get itchy with vermin;
then you will know that heaven consists of soap and hot water.
No bad odour assails your nostrils wherever you may go in the British
lines. Its cleanliness, if nothing else, would make British army
comradeship enjoyable. My wonder never ceases how Tommy keeps
himself so neat; how he manages to shave every day and get a part,
at least, of the mud off his uniform. This care makes him feel more as
if he were "at home" in barracks.
From the breastworks, Captain P------and I went for a stroll in the
Village, or the site of the village, silent except for the occasional
singing of a bullet. When we returned he lighted the candle on a stick
stuck into the wall of his earth-roofed house and suggested a nap. It
was three o'clock in the morning. Now I could see that my rubber
boots had grown so heavy because I was carrying so much of the soil
of Northern France. It looked as if I had gout in both feet--the over-
bandaged, stage type of gout--which were encased in large mud
poultices. I tried to stamp off the incubus, but it would not go. I tried
scraping one foot on the other, and what I scraped off seemed to
reattach itself as fast as I could remove it.
"Don't try!" said the captain. "Lie down and pull your boots off in the
doorway. Perhaps you will get some sleep before daybreak."
Sleep! Does a debutante go to sleep at her first ball? Sleep in such
good company, the company of this captain who was smiling all the
while with his eyes; smiling at his mud house, at the hardships in the
trenches, and, I hope, at having a guest who had been with armies
It was the first time that I had been in the trenches all night; the first
time, indeed, when I had not been taken into them by an escort in a
kind of promenade. On this account I was in the family. If it is the right
kind of a family, that is the way to get a good impression. There would
be plenty of time to sleep when I returned to London.
So Captain P------ and I lay there talking. I felt the dampness of the
earth under my body and the walls exuded moisture. The average
cellar was dry by comparison. "You will get your death of cold!" any
mother would cry in alarm if her boy were found even sitting on such
cold, wet ground. For it was a clammy night of early spring. Yet,
peculiarly enough, few men get colds from this exposure. One gets
colds from draughts in overheated rooms much oftener. Luckily, it
was not raining; it had been raining most of the winter in the flat
country of Northern France and Flanders.
"It is very horrible, this kind of warfare," said the captain. He was
thinking of the method of it, rather than of the discomforts. "All war is
very horrible, of course." Regular soldiers rarely take any other view.
They know war.
"With your wounded arm you might be back in England on leave," I
"Oh, that arm is all right!" he replied. "This is what I am paid for"--
which I had heard regulars say before. "And it is for England!" he
added, in his quiet way. "Sometimes I think we should fight better if
we officers could hate the Germans," he went on. "The German idea
is that you must hate if you are going to fight well. But we can't hate."
Sound views he had about the war; sounder than I have heard from
the lips of Cabinet ministers. For these regular officers are specialists
"Do you think that we shall starve the Germans out?"
"No. We must win by fighting," he replied. This was in March, 1915.
"You know," he went on, taking another tack, "when one gets back to
England out of this muck he wants good linen and everything very
"Yes. I've found the same after roughing it," I agreed. "One is most
particular that he has every comfort to which civilization entitles him."
We chatted on. Much of our talk was soldier shop talk, which you will
not care to hear. Twice we were interrupted by an outburst of firing,
and the captain hurried out to ascertain the reason. Some false alarm
had started the rifles speaking from both sides. A fusillade for two or
three minutes and the firing died down to silence.
Dawn broke and it was time for me to go; and with daylight, when
danger of a night surprise was over, the captain would have his
sleep. I was leaving him to his mud house and his bed on the wet
ground without a blanket. It was more important to have sandbags up
for the breastworks than to have blankets; and as the men had not
yet received theirs, he had none himself.
"It's not fair to the men," he said. "I don't want anything they don't
No better food and no better house and no warmer garments! He
spoke not in any sense of stated duty, but in the affection of the
comradeship of war; the affection born of that imperturbable courage
of his soldiers who had stood a stone wall of cool resolution against
German charges when it seemed as if they must go. The glamour of
war may have departed, but not the brotherhood of hardship and
What had been a routine night to him had been a great night to me;
one of the most memorable of my life.
"I was glad you could come," he said, as I made my adieu, quite as if
he were saying adieu to a guest at home in England.
Some of the soldiers called their cheery good-byes; and with a
lieutenant to guide me, I set out while the light was still dusky, leaving
the comforting parapet to the rear to go into the open, four hundred
yards from the Germans. A German, though he could not have seen
us distinctly, must have noted something moving. Two of his bullets
came rather close before we passed out of his vision among some
In a few minutes I was again entering the peasant's cottage that was
battalion headquarters; this time by daylight. Its walls were chipped by
bullets that had come over the breastworks. The major was just
getting up from his blankets in the cellar. By this time I had a real
trench appetite. Not until after breakfast did it occur to me, with some
surprise, that I had not washed my face.
"The food was just as good, wasn't it?" remarked the major. "We get
quite used to such breaches of convention. Besides, you had been
up all night, so your breakfast might be called your after-the-theatre
With him I went to see what the ruins of Neuve Chapelle looked like
by daylight. The destruction was not all the result of one
bombardment, for the British had been shelling Neuve Chapelle off
and on all winter. Of course, there is the old earthquake comparison.
All writers have used it. But it is quite too feeble for Neuve Chapelle.
An earthquake merely shakes down houses. The shells had done a
good deal more than that. They had crushed the remains of the
houses as under the pestle-head in a mortar; blown walls into dust;
taken bricks from the east side of the house over to the west and
thrown them back with another explosion. Neuve Chapelle had been
literally flailed with the high explosive projectiles of the new British
artillery, which the British had to make after the war began in order to
compete with what the Germans already had; for poor, lone,
wronged, bullied Germany, quite unprepared--Austria with her fifty
millions does not count--was fighting on the defensive against wicked,
aggressive enemies who were fully prepared. This explains why she
invaded France and took possession of towns like Neuve Chapelle to
defend her poor, unready people from the French, who had been
plotting and planning "the day" when they would conquer the
Bits of German equipment were mixed with ruins of clocks and family
pictures and household utensils. I noticed a bicycle which had been
cut in two, its parts separated by twenty feet; one wheel was twisted
into a spool of wire, the other simply smashed.
Where was the man who had kept the shop with a few letters of his
name still visible on a splintered bit of board? Where the children who
had played in the littered square in front of the church, with its
steeples and walls piles of stone that had crushed the worshippers'
benches? Refugees somewhere back of the British lines, working on
the roads if strong enough, helping France in any way they could, not
murmuring, even smiling, and praying for victory, which would let
them return to their homes and daily duties. To their homes!
With The Guns
It is a war of explosions, from bombs thrown by hand within ten yards
of the enemy to shells thrown as far as twenty miles and to mines laid
under the enemy's trenches; a war of guns, from seventeen-inch
down to three-inch and machine-guns; a war of machinery, with man
still the pre-eminent machine.
Guns mark the limit of the danger zone. Their screaming shells laugh
at the sentries at the entrances to towns and at cross-roads who
demand passes of all other travellers. Anyone who tried to keep out
of range of the guns would never get anywhere near the front. It is all
a matter of chance with long odds or short odds, according to the
neighbourhood you are in. If shells come, they come without warning
and without ceremony. Nobody is afraid of shells and everybody is--at
least, I am.
"Gawd! Wat a 'ole!" remarks Mr. Thomas Atkins casually, at sight of
an excavation in the earth made by a thousand-pound projectile.
It is only eighteen years since I saw, at the battle of Domoko in the
Greco-Turkish war, half a dozen Turkish batteries swing out on the
plain of Thessaly, limber up in the open, and discharge salvos with
black powder, in the good, old battle-panorama style. One battery of
modern field guns unseen would wipe out the lot in five minutes. Only
ten years ago, at the battle of Liao-yang, as I watched a cloud of
shrapnel smoke sending down steel showers over the little hill of
Manjanyama, which sent up showers of earth from shells burst by
impact on the ground, a Japanese military attache remarked:
"There you have a prophecy of what a European war will be like!"
He was right. He knew his business as a military attache. But the
Allies might also make guns and go on making them till they have
enough. The voices of the guns along the front seem never silent. In
some direction they are always firing. When one night the reports
from a certain quarter seemed rather heavy, I asked the reason the
"No, not very heavy. No attack," a division staff officer explained.
"The Boches had been building a redoubt, and we turned on some
h.e.s."--meaning high explosive shells.
Night after night, under cover of darkness, the Germans had been
labouring on that redoubt, thinking that they were unobserved. They
had kept extremely quiet, too, slipping their spades into the earth
softly and hammering a nail ever so lightly; and, of course, the
redoubt was placed behind a screen of foliage which hid it from the
view of the British trenches. Such is the hide-and-seek character of
What the German builders did not know was that a British aeroplane
had been watching them day by day, and that the spot was nicely
registered on a British gunner's map. On this map it was a certain
numbered point. Press a button, as it were, and you ring the bell with
a shell at that point. And the gunners waited till the house of cards
was up before knocking it to pieces.
Surprise is the thing with the guns. A town may go for weeks without
getting a single shell. Then it may get a score of shells in ten minutes;
or it may be shelled regularly every day for ensuing weeks. "They are
shelling X again," or, "They have been leaving Z alone for a long
time," is a part of the gossip up and down the line. Towns are proud
of having escaped altogether, and proud of the number and size of
the shells received.
"Did you get any?" I asked the division staff officer who had told me
about the session the six-inch howitzers had enjoyed. A common
question that, at the front, "Did you get any?" (meaning Germans). A
practical question, too. It has nothing to do with the form of play or
any bit of sensational fielding; only with the score, with results, with
"Yes, quite a number," said the officer. "Our observer saw them lying
The guns are watching for the targets at all hours--the ever-hungry,
ever-ready, murderous, cunning, quick, scientifically-calculating,
marvellously-accurate and also the guessing, wondering, blind,
groping, helpless guns, which toss their steel messengers over
streams, woodlands, and towns, searching for unseen prey in a wide
Accurate and murderous they seem when you drop low behind a
trench wall or huddle in a dug-out as you hear an approaching
scream and the earth trembles and the air is wracked by a
concussion, and the cry of a man a few yards away tells of a hit. Very
accurate when still others, sent from muzzles six or seven thousand
yards distant, fall in that same line of trench! Very accurate when,
before an infantry attack, with bursts of shrapnel bullets they cut to
bits the barbed-wire entanglements in front of a trench! The power of
chaos that they seem to possess when the firing-trench and the dug-
outs and all the human warrens which protect the defenders are
beaten as flour is kneaded!
Blind and groping they seem when a dozen shells fall harmlessly in a
field; when they send their missiles toward objects which may not be
worth shooting at; when no one sees where the shells hit and the
amount of damage they have done is all guesswork; and helpless
without the infantry to protect them, the aeroplanes and the observers
to see for them.
One thinks of them as demons with subtle intelligence and long
reach, their gigantic fists striking here and there at will, without a
visible arm behind the blow. An army guards against the blows of an
enemy's demons with every kind of cover, every kind of deception,
with all resources of scientific ingenuity and invention; and an army
guards its own demons in their lairs as preciously as if they were
made of some delicate substance which would go up in smoke at a
glance from the enemy's eye, instead of having barrels of the
strongest steel that can be forged.
Your personal feeling for the demons on your side is in ratio to the
amount of hell sent by the enemy's which you have tasted. After you
have been scared stiff, while pretending that you were not, by sharing
with Mr. Atkins an accurate bombardment of a trench and are
convinced that the next shell is bound to get you, you fall into the
attitude of the army. You want to pat the demon on the back and say,
"Nice old demon!" and watch him toss a shell three or four miles into
the German lines from the end of his fiery tongue. Indeed, nothing so
quickly develops interest in the British guns as having the German
gunners take too much personal interest in you.
You must have someone to show you the way or you would not find
any guns. A man with a dog trained to hunt guns might spend a week
on the gun-position area covering ten miles of the front and not locate
half the guns. He might miss "Grandmother" and "Sister" and "Betsy"
and "Mike" and even "Mister Archibald," who is the only one who
does not altogether try to avoid publicity.
When an attack or an artillery bombardment is on and you go to as
high ground as possible for a bird's-eye view of battle, all that you see
is the explosion of the shells; never anything of the guns which are
firing. In the distance over the German lines and in the foreground
over the British lines is a balloon, shaped like a caterpillar with folded
wings--a chrysalis of a caterpillar.
Tugging at its moorings, it turns this way and that with the breeze.
The speck directly beneath it through the glasses becomes an
ordinary balloon basket and other specks attached to a guy rope play
the part of the tail of a kite, helping to steady the type of balloon which
has taken the place of the old spherical type for observation. Anyone
who has been up in a captive spherical balloon knows how difficult it
is to keep his glasses focussed on any object, because of the jerking
and pitching and trembling due to the envelope's response to air-
movements. The new type partly overcomes this drawback. To
shrapnel their thin envelope is as vulnerable as a paper drum-head to
a knife; but I have seen them remain up defiantly when shells were
bursting within three or four hundred yards, which their commanders
seemed to understand was the limit of the German battery's reach.
Again, I have seen a shrapnel burst alongside within range; and five
minutes later the balloon was down and out of sight. No balloon
observer hopes to see the enemy's guns. He is watching for shell-
bursts, in order to inform the guns of his side whether they are on the
target or not.
Riding along the roads at the front one may know that there is a
battery a stone's throw away only when a blast from a hidden gun-
muzzle warns him of its presence. It is wonderful to me that the
artillery general who took me gun-seeing knew where his own guns
were, let alone the enemy's. I imagine that he could return to a field
and locate a four-leafed clover that he had seen on a previous stroll.
His dogs of war had become foxes of war, burrowing in places which
wise old father foxes knew were safest from detection. Hereafter, I
shall not be surprised to see a muzzle poking its head out of an oven,
or from under grandfather's chair or a farm wagon, or up a tree, or in
a garret. Think of the last place in the world for emplacing a gun and
one may be there; think of the most likely place and one may be
there. You might be walking across the fields and minded to go
through a hedge, and bump into a black ring of steel with a gun's
crew grinning behind it. They would grin because you had given proof
of how well their gun was concealed. But they wouldn't grin as much
as they would if they saw the enemy plunking shells into another
hedge two hundred yards distant, where the German aeroplane
observer thought he had seen a battery and had not.
"I'll show you a big one, first!" said the general.
We left the car at a cottage and walked along a lane. I looked all
about the premises and could see only some artillerymen. An officer
led me up to a gun-breech; at least, I know a gun-breech when it is
one foot from my nose and a soldier has removed its covering. But I
shall not tell how that gun was concealed; the method was so
audacious that it was entirely successful. The Germans would like to
know and we don't want them to know. A little pencil-point on their
map for identification, and they would send a whirlwind of shells at
Would the gun try to fire back? No. Its gunners probably would not
know the location of any of the guns of the German battery which had
concentrated on their treasure. They would desert the gun. If they did
not, they ought to be court-martialled for needlessly risking the
precious lives of trained men. They would make for the "funk-pits," as
they call the dug-outs, just as the gunners of any other Power would.
The chances are that the gun itself would not be hit bodily by a shell.
Fragments might strike it without causing more than an abrasion; for
big guns have pretty thick cuticles. When the storm was over, the
gunners would move their treasure to another hiding-place; which
would mean a good deal of work, on account of its size.
It is the inability of gun to see gun, and even when seen to knock out
gun, which has put an end to the so-called artillery duel of pitched-
battle days, when cannon walloped cannon to keep cannon from
walloping the infantry. Now when there is an action, though guns still
go after guns if they know where they are, most of the firing is done
against trenches and to support trenches and infantry works, or with a
view to demoralizing the infantry. Concentration of artillery fire will
demolish an enemy's trench and let your infantry take possession of
the wreckage remaining; but then the enemy's artillery concentrates
on your infantry and frequently makes their new habitation untenable.
Noiselessly except for a little click, with chickens clucking in a field
near by, the big breech-block which held the shell fast, sending all the
power of the explosion out of the muzzle, was swung back and one
looked through the shining tube of steel, with its rifling which caught
the driving band and gave the shell its rotation and accuracy in its
long journey, which would close when, descending at the end of its
parabola, its nose struck building, earth, or pavement and it exploded.
Wheels that lift and depress and swing the muzzle, and gadgets with
figures, and other scales which play between the map and the
gadgets, and atmospheric pressure and wind-variation, all worked out
with the same precision under a French hedge as on board a
battleship where the gun-mounting is fast to massive ribs of steel--it
seemed a matter of book-keeping and trigonometry rather than war.
If a shell from this gun were to hit at the corner of Wall Street and
Broadway at the noon hour, it would probably kill and wound a
hundred men. If it went into the dug-out of a support trench it would
get everybody there; but if it went ten yards beyond the trench into
the open field, it would probably get nobody. "Cover!" someone
exclaimed, while we were looking at the gun; and everybody promptly
got under the branches of a tree or a shed. A German aeroplane was
cruising in our direction. If the aviator saw a group of men standing
about he might draw conclusions and pass the wireless word to send
in some shells at whatever number on the German gunners' map
These gunners loved their gun; loved it for the power which it could
put into a blow under their trained hands; loved it for the care and the
labour it had meant for them. It is the way of gunners to love their
gun, or they would not be good gunners. Of all the guns I saw that
day, I think that two big howitzers meant the most to their masters.
These had just arrived. They had been set up only two days. They
had not yet fired against the enemy. For many months the gunners
had drilled in England, and they had tried their "eight-inch hows" out
on the target range and brought them across the Channel and
nursed them along French roads, and finally set them up in their
hidden lair. Now they waited for observers to assist them in
When the general approached there was a call to turn out the guard;
but the general stopped that. At the front there is an end of the
ceremoniousness of the barracks. Military formality disappears.
Discipline, as well as other things, is simpler and more real. The men
went on with their recess playing football in a near-by field.
The officers possibly were a trifle diffident and uncertain; they had not
yet the veteran's manner. It was clear that they had done everything
required by the textbook of theory--the latest, up-to-date textbook of
experience at the front as taught in England. When they showed us
how they had stored their stock of shells to be safe from a shot by the
enemy, one remarked that the method was according to the latest
directions, though there was some difference among military experts
on the subject. When there is a difference, what is the beginner to
do? An old hand, of course, does it his way until an order makes him
do otherwise. The general had a suggestion about the application of
the method. He had little to say, the general, and all was in the spirit
of comradeship and quite to the point. Not much escaped his
It seems fairly true that one who knows his work well in any branch of
human endeavour makes it appear easy. Once a gunner always a
gunner is characteristic of all armies. The general had spent his life
with guns. He was a specialist visiting his plant; one of the staff
specialists responsible to a corps commander for the work of the
guns on a certain section of map, for accuracy and promptness of fire
when it was required in the commander's plans.
If the newcomers put their shells into the target on their first trial they
had qualified; and sometimes newcomers shoot quite as well as
veterans, which is a surprise to both and the best kind of news for the
general who is in charge of an expanding plant. The war will be
decided by gunners and infantry that knew nothing of guns or drill
when the war began.
"Here are some who have been in France from the first," said the
general, when we came to a battery of field guns; of the eighteen-
pounders, the fellows you see behind the galloping horses, the "hell-
for-leather" guns, the guns which bring the gleam of affection into the
eyes of men who think of pursuits and covering retreats and the
pitched-battle conditions before armies settled down in trenches and
growled and hissed at each other day after day and brought up guns
of calibres which we associate with battleships and coast
These are called "light stuff" and "whizz-bangs" now, in army
parlance. They throw only an eighteen-pound shell which carries
three hundred bullets, but so fast that they chase one another
through the air. There has been so much talk about the need of
heavy guns, you might think that eighteen-pounders were too small
for consideration. Were the German line broken, these are the ones
which could gallop on the heels of the infantry.
They are the boys who weave the "curtain of fire" which you read
about in the official bulletins as checking an infantry charge; which
demolish the barbed-wire entanglements to let an infantry charge get
into a trench. If a general wants a shower of bullets over any part of
the German line he has only to call up the eighteen-pounders and it is
sent as promptly as the pressure of a button brings a pitcher of iced-
water to a room in a first-class hotel. A veteran eighteen-pounder
crew in action is a poem in precision and speed of movement. The
gun itself seems to possess intelligence.
There was the finesse of gunners' craft worthy of veterans in the way
that these eighteen-pounders were concealed. The Germans had put
some shells in the neighbourhood, but without fooling the old hands.
They did not change the location of their battery and their judgment
that the shots which came near were chance shots fired at another
object was justified. Particularly I should like to mention the nature of
their "funk-pits," which kept them safe from the heaviest shells. For
the veterans knew how to take care of themselves; they had an eye
to the protection which comes of experience with German high
explosives. Their expert knowledge of all the ins and outs of the
business had been fought into them for over a year.
Another field battery, also, I have in mind, placed in an orchard.
Which orchard of all the thousands of orchards along the British front
the German staff may guess, if they choose. If German guns fired at
all the orchards, one by one, they might locate it--and then again they
might not. Besides, this is a peculiar sort of orchard.
It is a characteristic of gunners to be neat and to have an eye for the
comeliness of things. These men had a lawn and a garden, tables
and chairs. If you are familiar with the tidiness of a retired New
England sailor, who regards his porch as a quarter-deck and sallies
forth to remove each descending autumn leaf from the grass, then
you know how scrupulous they were about litter.
For weeks they had been in the same position, unseen by German
aeroplanes. They had daily baths; they did their weekly laundry,
taking care not to hang it where it would be visible from the sky. Every
day they received the London papers and letters from home. When
they were needed to help in making war, all they had to do was to slip
a shell in the breech and send it with their compliments to the
Germans. They were camping out at His Majesty's expense in the
pleasant land of France in the joyous summer time; and on the roof of
sod over their guns were pots of flowers, undisturbed by blasts from
It was when leaving another battery that out of the tail of my eye I
caught a lurid flash through a hedge, followed by the sharp, ear-
piercing crack that comes from being in line with a gun-muzzle when
a shot is fired. We followed a path which took us to the rear of the
report, where we stepped through undergrowth among the busy
group around the breeches of some guns of one of the larger
An order for some "heavy stuff" at a certain point on the map was
being filled. Sturdy men were moving in a pantomime under the
shade of a willow tree, each doing exactly his part in a process that
seemed as simple as opening a cupboard door, slipping in a package
of concentrated destruction, and closing the door. All that detail of
range-finding and mathematical adjustment of aim at the unseen
target which takes so long to explain was applied as automatically as
an adding-machine adds up a column of figures. Everybody was as
practice-perfect in his part as performers who have made hundreds
of appearances in the same act on the stage.
All ready, the word given, a thunder peal and through the air you saw
a wingless, black object in a faint curve against the soft blue sky,
which it seemed to sweep with a sound something like the escape of
water through a break in the garden hose multiplied by ten, rising to
its zenith and then descending, till it passed out of sight behind a
green bank of foliage on the horizon.
After the scream had been lost to the ear you heard the faint,
thudding boom of an explosion from the burst of that conical piece of
steel which you had seen slipped into the breech. This was the
gunners' part in chessboard war, where the moves are made over
signal wires, while the infantry endure the explosions in their trenches
and fight in their charges in the traverses of trenches at as close
quarters as in the days of the cave-dwellers.
There was no stopping work when the general came, of course. It
would have been the same had Lord Kitchener been present. The
battery commander expressed his regret that he could not show me
his guns without any sense of irony; meaning that he was sorry he
was too busy to tell about his battery. In about the time that it took a
telegraph key to click after each one of those distant bursts, he knew
whether or not the shot was on the target and what variation of
degree to make in the next if it were not; or, if the word came, to shift
the point of aim a little, when you are trying to shake up the enemy
here and there along a certain length of trench.
At another wire-end someone was spotting the bursts. Perhaps he
was in the kind of place where I found one observer, who was sitting
on a cushion looking out through a chink in a wall, with a signal corps
operator near by. It was a small chink, just large enough to allow the
lens of a pair of glasses or a telescope a range of vision; and even
then I was given certain warnings before the cover over the chink
was removed, though there could not have been any German in
uniform nearer than four thousand yards. But there may be spies
within your own lines, looking for such holes.
From this post I could make out the British and the German trenches
in muddy white lines of sandbags running snake-like across the fields,
and the officer identified points on the map to me. Every tree and
hedge and ditch in the panorama were graven on his mind; all had
language for him. His work was engrossing. It had risk, too; there was
no telling when a shell might lift him off the cushion and provide a
hole for the burial of his remains.
If he were shelled, the observer would go to a funk-pit, as the
gunners do, until the storm had passed; and then he would move on
with his cushion and his telegraph instrument and make a hole in
another wall, if he did not find a tree or some other eminence which
suited his purpose better. Meanwhile, he was not the only observer in
that section. There were others nearer the trenches, perhaps actually
in the trenches. The two armies, seeming chained to their trenches,
are set with veiled eyes at the end of wires; veiled eyes trying to
locate the other's eyes, the other's guns and troops and the least
movement which indicates any attempt to gain an advantage.
"Gunnery is navigation, dead reckoning, with the spotting observer
the sun by which you correct your figures," said one of the artillery
Firing enough one had seen--landscape bathed in smoke and dust
and reverberating with explosions; but all as a spectacle from an
orchestra seat, not too close at hand for comfort. This time I was to
see the guns fire and the results of the firing in detail. Both can rarely
be seen at the same time. It was not show firing this that we watched
from an observing station, but part of the day's work for the guns and
the general. First, the map, "Here and there," as an officer's finger
pointed; and then one looked across fields, green and brown and
golden with the summer crops.
Item I. The Germans were fortifying a certain point on a certain farm.
We were going to put some "heavy stuff" in there and some "light
stuff," too. The burst of our shells could be located in relation to a
Item II. Our planes thought that the Germans had a wireless station in
a certain building. "Heavy stuff" exclusively for this. No enemy's
wireless station ought to be enjoying serene summer weather without
interruption; and no German working-party ought to be allowed to
build redoubts within range of our guns without a break in the
monotony of their drudgery.
Six lyddites were the order for the wireless station; six high explosives
which burst on contact and make a hole in the earth large enough for
a grave for the Kaiser and all his field marshals. Frequently, not only
the number of shells to be fired, but also the intervals between them
is given by the artillery commander, as part of his plan in his
understanding of the object to be accomplished; and it is quite clear
that the system is the same with the Germans.
One side no sooner develops an idea than the other adopts it. By
effect of the enemy's shells you judge what the effect of yours must
be. Months of experience have done away with all theories and
practice has become much the same by either adversary. For
example, let a German or a British airman be winged by anti-aircraft
gun-fire and the guns instantly loosen up on the point over his own
lines, if he regains them, where he is seen to fall. All the soldiers in
the neighbourhood are expected to run to his assistance; and, at any
rate, you may get a trained aviator, whose life is a valuable asset on
one side of the ledger and whose death an asset on the other. There
is no sentiment left in war, you see. It is all killing and avoiding being
By the scream of a shell the practised ear of the artilleryman can tell
whether it comes from a gun with a low trajectory or from a howitzer,
whose projectile rises higher and falls at a sharper angle which
enables it to enter the trenches; and he can even tell approximately
A scream sweeping past from our rear, and we knew that this was for
the redoubt, as that was to have the first turn. A volume of dust and
smoke breaking from the earth short of the redoubt, and after the
second's delay of hearing the engine whistle after the burst of steam
in the distance on a winter day, came the sound of the burst. The
next was over. With the third the "heavy stuff" ought to be right on.
But don't forget that there was also an order for some "Right stuff,"
identified as shrapnel by its soft, nimbus-like puff which was
scattering bullets as if giving chase to that working-party as it
hastened to cover. There you had the ugly method of this modern
artillery fire: death shot downward from the air and leaping up out of
the earth. Unhappily, the third was not on, nor the fourth--not exactly
on. Exactly on is the way that British gunners like to fill an order
f.o.b., express charges prepaid, for the Germans.
Ten years ago it would have seemed good shooting. It was not very
good in the twelfth month of the war; for war beats the target range in
developing accuracy. At five or six or seven or eight thousand yards'
range the shells were bursting thirty or forty yards away from where
No, not very good; the general murmured as much. He did not need
to say so aloud to the artillery officer responsible for that shooting,
who was in touch with his batteries by wire. The officer knew it. He
was the high-strung, ambitious sort. You had better not become a
gunner unless you are. Any "good-enough" temperament is ruled off
wasting munitions. Red was creeping through the tan from his throat
to the roots of his hair. To have this happen in the presence of that
veteran general, after all his efforts to try to remedy the error in those
But the general was quite human. He was not the "strafing" kind.
"I know those guns have an error!" he said, as he put his hand on the
officer's arm. That was all; and that was a good deal to the officer.
Evidently, the general not only knew guns; he knew men. The officer
had suffered admonition enough from his own injured pride.
Besides, what we did to the supposed wireless station ought to keep
any general from being downhearted. Neither guns, nor the powder
which sent the big shells on their errand, nor the calculations of the
gunners, nor their adjustment of the gadgets, had any error. With the
first one, a great burst of the black smoke of deadly lyddite rose from
the target. "Right on!"
And again and again--right on! The ugly, spreading, low-hanging,
dense cloud was renewed from its heart by successive bursts in the
same place. If the aeroplane's conclusions were right, that wireless
station must be very much wireless, now. The only safe discount for
the life insurance of the operators was one hundred per cent.
"Here, they are firing more than six!" said the general. "It's always
hard to hold these gunners down when they are on the target like
He spoke as if it would have been difficult for him to resist the
temptation himself. The wireless station got two extra shells for full
measure. Perhaps those two were waste; perhaps the first two had
been enough. Conservation of shells has become a first principle of
the artillerists' duty. The number fired by either side in the course of
the routine of an average so-called peaceful day is surprising.
Economy would be easier if it were harder to slip a shell into a gun-
breech. The men in the trenches are always calling for shells. They
want a tree or a house which is the hiding-place of a sniper knocked
down. The men at the guns would be glad to accommodate them, but
the say as to that is with commanders who know the situation.
"The Boches will be coming back at us soon, you will see!" said one
of the officers who was at our observation post. "They always do. The
other day they chose this particular spot for their target"--which was a
good reason why they would not this time, an optimist thought.
Let either side start a bombardment and the other responds. There is
a you-hit-me-and-I'll-hit-you character about siege warfare. Gun-fire
provokes gun-fire. Neither adversary stays quiet under a blow. It was
not long before we heard the whish of German shells passing some
They say sport is out of war. Perhaps, but not its enthralling and
horrible fascination. Knowing what the target is, knowing the object of
the fire, hearing the scream of the projectile on the way and watching
to see if it is to be a hit, when the British are fighting the Germans on
the soil of France, has an intensive thrill which is missing to the
spectator who looks on at the Home Sports Club shooting at clay
pigeons--which is not in justification of war. It does explain, however,
the attraction of gunnery to gunners. One forgets, for the instant, that
men are being killed and mangled. He thinks only of points scored in
a contest which requires all the wit and strength and fortitude of man
and all his cunning in the manufacture and control of material.
You want your side to win; in this case, because it is the side of
humanity and of that kindly general and the things that he and the
army he represents stand for. The blows which the demons from the
British lairs strike are to you the blows of justice; and you are glad
when they go home. They are your blows. You have a better reason
for keeping an army's artillery secrets than for keeping secret the
signals of your Varsity football team, which anyone instinctively
keeps--the reason of a world cause.
Yet another thing to see--an aeroplane assisting a battery by spotting
the fall of its shells, which is engrossing enough, too, and amazingly
simple. Of course this battery was proud of its method of
concealment. Each battery commander will tell you that a British
plane has flown very low, as a test, without being able to locate his
battery. If it is located, there is more work due in "make-up" to
complete the disguise. Competition among batteries is as keen as
among battleships of our North Atlantic fleet.
Situation favoured this battery, which was Canadian. It was as nicely
at home as a first-class Adirondack camp. At any rate, no other
battery had a dug-out for a litter of eight pups, with clean straw for
their bed, right between two gun-emplacements.
"We found the mother wild, out there in the woods," one of the men
explained. "She, too, was a victim of war; a refugee from some home
destroyed by shell-fire. At first she wouldn't let us approach her, and
we tossed her pieces of meat from a safe distance. I think those pups
will bring us luck. We'll take them along to the Rhine. Some mascots,
On our way back to the general's headquarters we must have passed
other batteries hidden from sight only a stone's throw away; and yet in
an illustrated paper recently I saw a drawing of some guns emplaced
on the crest of a bare hill, naked to all the batteries of the enemy, but
engaged in destroying all the enemy's batteries, according to the
account. Twelve months of war have not shaken conventional ideas
about gunnery; which is one reason for writing this chapter.
Also, on our way back we learned the object of the German fire in
answer to our bombardment of the redoubt and the wireless station.
They had shelled a cross-roads and a certain village again. As we
passed through the village we noticed a new hole in the church tower,
and three holes in the churchyard, which had scattered clods of earth
about the pavement. A shopkeeper was engaged in repairing a
window-frame that had been broken by a shell-fragment.
There is no flustering the French population. That very day I heard of
an old peasant who asked a British soldier if he could not get
permission for the old farmer to wear some kind of an armband which
both sides would respect, so that he could cut his field of wheat
between the trenches. Why not? Wasn't it his wheat? Didn't he need
And the Germans fire into villages and towns; for the women and
children there are the women and children of the enemy. But those in
the German lines belong to the ally of England. Besides, they are
women and children. So British gunners avoid towns--which is, in one
sense, a professional handicap.
Archibald The Archer
There is another kind of gun, vagrant and free lance, which deserves
a chapter by itself. It has the same bark as the eighteen-pounder field
piece; the flight of the shell makes the same kind of sound. But its
scream, instead of passing in a long parabola toward the German
lines, goes up in the heavens toward something as large as your
hand against the light blue of the summer sky--a German aeroplane.
At a height of seven or eight thousand feet the target seems almost
stationary, when really it is going somewhere between fifty and ninety
miles an hour. It has all the heavens to itself, and to the British it is a
sinister, prying eye that wants to see if we are building any new
trenches, if we are moving bodies of troops or of transport, and where
our batteries are in hiding. That aviator three miles above the earth
has many waiting guns at his command. A few signals from his
wireless and they would let loose on the target he indicated.
If the planes might fly as low as they pleased, they would know all that
was going on in an enemy's lines. They must keep up so high that
through the aviator's glasses a man on the road is the size of a pin-
head. To descend low is as certain death as to put your head over
the parapet of a trench when the enemy's trench is only a hundred
yards away. There are dead lines in the air, no less than on the earth.
Archibald, the anti-aircraft gun, sets the dead line. He watches over it
as a cat watches a mouse. The trick of sneaking up under cover of a
noonday cloud and all the other man-bird tricks he knows. A couple of
seconds after that crack a tiny puff of smoke breaks about a hundred
yards behind the Taube. A soft thistledown against the blue it seems
at that altitude; but it would not if it were about your ears. Then it
would sound like a bit of dynamite on an anvil struck by a hammer
and you would hear the whizz of scores of bullets and fragments.
The smoking brass shell-case is out of Archibald's steel throat, and
another shell-case with its charge slipped into place and started on its
way before the first puff breaks. The aviator knows what is coming.
He knows that one means many, once he is in range.
Archibald rushes the fighting; it is the business of the Taube to side-
step. The aviator cannot hit back except through his allies, the
German batteries, on the earth. They would take care of Archibald if
they knew where he was. But all that the aviator can see is mottled
landscape. From his side Archibald flies no goal flags. He is one of
ten thousand tiny objects under the aviator's eye.
Archibald's propensities are entirely peripatetic. He is the vagabond
of the army lines. Locate him and he is gone. His home is where night
finds him and the day's duties take him. He is the only gun that keeps
regular hours like a Christian gentleman. All the others, great and
small, raucous-voiced and shrill-voiced, fire at any hour, night or day.
Aeroplanes rarely go up at night; and when no aeroplanes are up,
Archibald has no interest in the war. But he is alert at the first flush of
dawn, on the look-out for game with the avidity of a pointer dog; for
aviators are also up early.
Why he was named Archibald nobody knows. As his full name is
Archibald the Archer, possibly it comes from some association with
the idea of archery. If there were ten thousand anti-aircraft guns in the
British army, every one would be known as Archibald.
When the British Expeditionary Force went to France it had none. All
the British could do was to bang away at Taubes with thousands of
rounds of rifle-bullets, which might fall in their own lines, and with the
It was pie in those days for the Taubes! Easy to keep out of the range
of both rifles and guns and observe well! If the Germans did not know
the progress of the British retreat from on high it was their own fault.
Now, the business of firing at Taubes is left entirely to Archibald.
When you see how hard it is for Archibald, after all his practice, to get
a Taube, you understand how foolish it was for the field guns to try to
Archibald, who is quite the "swaggerist" of the gun tribe, has his own
private car built especially for him. Such of the cavalry's former part
as the planes do not play he plays. He keeps off the enemy's scouts.
Do you seek team-work, spirit of corps, and smartness in this theatre
of France, where all the old glamour of war is supposed to be
lacking? You will find it in the attendants of Archibald. They have
pride, elan, alertness, pepper, and all the other appetizers and
condiments. They are as neat as a private yacht's crew, and as lively
as an infield of a major league team. The Archibaldians are naturally
bound to think rather well of themselves.
Watch them there, every man knowing his part, as they send their
shells after the Taube! There is not enough waste motion among the
lot to tip over the range-finder, or the telescopes, or the score board,
or any of the other paraphernalia assisting the man who is looking
through the sight in knowing where to aim next, as a screw answers
softly to his touch.
Is the sport of war dead? Not for Archibald! Here you see your target
--which is so rare these days when British infantrymen have stormed
and taken trenches without ever seeing a German--and the target is a
bird, a man-bird. Puffs of smoke with bursting hearts of death are
clustered around the Taube. One follows another in quick succession,
for more than one Archibald is firing, before your entranced eye.
You are staring like the crowd of a county fair at a parachute act. For
the next puff may get him. Who knows this better than the aviator?
He is, likely, an old hand at the game; or, if he is not, he has all the
experience of other veterans to go by. His ruse is the same as that of
the escaped prisoner who runs from the fire of a guard in a zigzag
course, and more than that. If a puff comes near on the right, he turns
to the left; if one comes near on the left, he turns to the right; if one
comes under, he rises; over, he dips. This means that the next shell
fired at the same point will be wide of the target.
Looking through the sight, it seems easy to hit a plane. But here is
the difficulty. It takes two seconds, say, for the shell to travel to the
range of the plane. The gunner must wait for its burst before he can
spot his shot. Ninety miles an hour is a mile and a half a minute.
Divide that by thirty and you have about a hundred yards which the
plane has travelled from the time the shell left the gun-muzzle till it
burst. It becomes a matter of discounting the aviator's speed and
guessing from experience which way he will turn next.
That ought to have got him--the burst was right under. No! He rises.
Surely that one got him! The puff is right in front, partly hiding the
Taube from view. You see the plane tremble as if struck by a violent
gust of wind. Close! Within thirty or forty yards, the telescope says.
But at that range the naked eye is easily deceived about distance.
Probably some of the bullets have cut his plane.
But you must hit the man or the machine in a vital spot in order to
bring down your bird. The explosions must be very close to count. It is
amazing how much shell-fire an aeroplane can stand. Aviators are
accustomed to the whizz of shell-fragments and bullets, and to have
their planes punctured and ripped. Though their engines are put out
of commission, and frequently though the man be wounded, they are
able to volplane back to the cover of their own lines.
To make a proper story we ought to have brought down this particular
bird. But it had the luck, which most planes, British or German have,
to escape antiaircraft gun-fire. It had begun edging away after the first
shot and soon was out of range. Archibald had served the purpose of
his existence. He had sent the prying aerial eye home.
A fight between planes in the air very rarely happens, except in the
imagination. Planes do not go up to fight other planes, but for
observation. Their business is to see and learn and bring home their
Trenches In Summer
It was the same trench in June, still a relatively "quiet corner," which I
had seen in March; but I would never have known it if its location had
not been the same on the map. One was puzzled how a place that
had been so wet could become so dry.
This time the approach was made in daylight through a long
communication ditch, which brought us to a shell-wrecked
farmhouse. We passed through this and stepped down at the back
door into deep traverses cut among the roots of an orchard; then
behind walls of earth high above our heads to battalion headquarters
in a neat little shanty, where I deposited the first of the cakes I had
brought on the table beside some battalion reports. A cake is the right
gift for the trenches, though less so in summer than in winter when
appetites are less keen. The adjutant tried a slice while the colonel
conferred with the general, who had accompanied me this far, and he
glanced up at a sheet of writing with a line opposite hours of the day,
pinned to a post of his dug-out.
"I wanted to see if it were time to make another report," he said. "We
are always making reports. Everybody is, so that whoever is superior
to someone else knows what is happening in his subordinate's
Then in and out in a maze, between walls with straight faces of the
hard, dry earth, testifying to the beneficence of summer weather in
constructing fastnesses from artillery fire, until we were in the firing-
trench, where I was at home among the officers and men of a
company. General Mud was "down and out." He waited on the winter
rains to take command again. But winter would find an army prepared
against his kind of campaign. Life in the trenches in summer was not
so unpleasant but that some preferred it, with the excitement of
sniping, to the boredom of billets.
"What hopes!" was the current phrase I heard among the men in
these trenches. It shared honours with strafe. You have only one life
to live and you may lose that any second--what hopes! Dig, dig, dig,
and set off a mine that sends Germans skyward in a cloud of dust--
what hopes! Bully beef from Chicago and Argentina is no food for
babes, but better than "K.K." bread--what hopes! Mr. Thomas Atkins,
British regular, takes things as they come--and a lot of them come--
shells, bullets, asphyxiating gas, grenades, and bombs.
There is much to be thankful for. The King's Own Particular Fusiliers,
as we shall call this regiment, had only three men hit yesterday. On
every man's cap is a metal badge crowded with battle honours, from
the storming of Quebec to the relief of Ladysmith. Heroic its history;
but no battle honours equal that of the regiment's part in the second
battle of Ypres; and no heroes of the regiment's story, whom you
picture in imagination with haloes of glory in the wish that you might
have met them in the flesh in their scarlet coats, are the equal of
these survivors in plain khaki manning a ditch in A.D. 1915, whom
anyone may meet.
But do not tell them that they are heroes. They will deny it on the
evidence of themselves as eyewitnesses of the action. To remark
that the K.O.P.F. are brave is like remarking that water flows down
hill. It is the business of the K.O.P.F. to be brave. Why talk about it?
One of the three men hit was killed. Well, everybody in the war rather
expects to be killed. The other two "got tickets to England," as they
say. My lady will take the convalescents joy-riding in her car, and
afterwards seat them in easy chairs, arranging the cushions with her
own hands, and feed them slices of cold chicken in place of bully beef
and strawberries and cream in place of ration marmalade. Oh, my!
Mr. Atkins does not mind being a hero for the purposes of such
treatment. Then, with never a twinkle in his eye, he will tell my lady
that he does not want to return to the front; he has had enough of it,
he has. My lady's patriotism will be a trifle shocked, as Mr. Atkins
knows it will be; and she will wonder if the "stick it" quality of the
British soldier is weakening, as Mr. Atkins knows she will. For he has
more kinks in his mental equipment than mere nobility ever guesses,
and he is having the time of his life in more respects than
strawberries and cream. What hopes! Of course, he will return and
hold on in the face of all that the Germans can give, without any
pretence to bravery.
If you go as a stranger into the trenches on a sightseeing tour and
says, "How are you?" and, "Are you going to Berlin?" and, "Are you
comfortable?" etc., Tommy Atkins will say, "Yes, sir," and "Very well,
sir," as becomes all polite regular soldier men; and you get to know
him about as well as you know the members of a club if you are
shown the library and dine at a corner table with a friend.
Spend the night in the trenches and you are taken into the family, into
that very human family of soldier-dom in a quiet corner; and the old,
care-free spirit of war, which some people thought had passed, is
found to be no less alive in siege warfare than on a march of regulars
on the Indian frontier or in the Philippines. Gaiety and laughter and
comradeship and "joshing" are here among men to whom wounds
and death are a part of the game. One may challenge high
explosives with a smile, no less than ancient round shot. Settle down
behind the parapet, and the little incongruities of a trench, paltry
without the intimacy of men and locality, make for humour no less
than in a shop or a factory.
Under the parapet runs the tangle of barbed wire--barbed wire from
Switzerland to Belgium--to welcome visitors from that direction, which,
to say the least, would be an impolitic direction of approach for any
"All sightseers should come into the trenches from the rear," says Mr.
Atkins. "Put it down in the guidebooks."
Beyond the barbed wire in the open field the wheat which some
farmer sowed before positions were established in this area is now in
head, rippling with the breeze, making a golden sea up to the wall of
sandbags which is the enemy's line. It was late June at its loveliest;
no signs of war except the sound of our guns some distance away
and an occasional sniper's bullet. One cracked past as I was looking
through my glasses to see if there were any evidence of life in the
"Your hat, sir!"
Another moved a sandbag slightly, but not until after the hat had
come down and the head under it, most expeditiously. Up to eight
hundred yards a bullet cracks; beyond that range it whistles, sighs,
even wheezes. An elevation gives snipers, who are always trained
shots, an angle of advantage. In winter they had to rely for cover on
buildings, which often came tumbling down with them when hit by a
shell. The foliage of summer is a boon to their craft.
"Does it look to you like an opening in the branches of that tree--the
big one at the right?"
In the mass of leaves a dark spot was visible. It might be natural, or it
might be a space cut away for the swing of a rifle-barrel. Perhaps
sitting up there snugly behind a bullet-proof shield fastened to the
limbs was a German sharpshooter, watching for a shot with the
patience of a hound for a rabbit to come out of its hole.