Part 1 out of 10
This Etext Prepared by Alan Earls
Now It Can Be Told
by Philip Gibbs
Part One OBSERVERS AND COMMANDERS
Part Two THE SCHOOL OF COURAGE
Part Three THE NATURE OF A BATTLE
Part Four A WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Part Five THE HEART OF A CITY
Part Six PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
Part Seven THE FIELDS OF ARMAGEDDON
Part Eight FOR WHAT MEN DIED
In this book I have written about some aspects of the war which, I
believe, the world must know and remember, not only as a memorial of
men's courage in tragic years, but as a warning of what will happen
again--surely--if a heritage of evil and of folly is not cut out of
the hearts of peoples. Here it is the reality of modern warfare not
only as it appears to British soldiers, of whom I can tell, but to
soldiers on all the fronts where conditions were the same.
What I have written here does not cancel, nor alter, nor deny anything
in my daily narratives of events on the western front as they are now
published in book form. They stand, I may claim sincerely and humbly,
as a truthful, accurate, and tragic record of the battles in France
and Belgium during the years of war, broadly pictured out as far as I
could see and know. My duty, then, was that of a chronicler, not
arguing why things should have happened so nor giving reasons why they
should not happen so, but describing faithfully many of the things I
saw, and narrating the facts as I found them, as far as the censorship
would allow. After early, hostile days it allowed nearly all but
criticism, protest, and of the figures of loss.
The purpose of this book is to get deeper into the truth of this war
and of all war--not by a more detailed narrative of events, but rather
as the truth was revealed to the minds of men, in many aspects, out of
their experience; and by a plain statement of realities, however
painful, to add something to the world's knowledge out of which men of
good-will may try to shape some new system of relationship between one
people and another, some new code of international morality,
preventing or at least postponing another massacre of youth like that
five years' sacrifice of boys of which I was a witness.
When Germany threw down her challenge to Russia and France, and
England knew that her Imperial power would be one of the prizes of
German victory (the common people did not think this, at first, but
saw only the outrage to Belgium, a brutal attack on civilization, and
a glorious adventure), some newspaper correspondents were sent out
from London to report the proceedings, and I was one of them.
We went in civilian clothes without military passports--the War Office
was not giving any--with bags of money which might be necessary for
the hire of motor-cars, hotel life, and the bribery of doorkeepers in
the antechambers of war, as some of us had gone to the Balkan War, and
others. The Old Guard of war correspondents besieged the War Office
for official recognition and were insulted day after day by junior
staff-officers who knew that "K" hated these men and thought the press
ought to be throttled in time of war; or they were beguiled into false
hopes by officials who hoped to go in charge of them and were told to
buy horses and sleeping-bags and be ready to start at a moment's
notice for the front.
The moment's notice was postponed for months . . . .
The younger ones did not wait for it. They took their chance of
"seeing something," without authority, and made wild, desperate
efforts to break through the barrier that had been put up against them
by French and British staffs in the zone of war. Many of them were
arrested, put into prison, let out, caught again in forbidden places,
rearrested, and expelled from France. That was after fantastic
adventures in which they saw what war meant in civilized countries
where vast populations were made fugitives of fear, where millions of
women and children and old people became wanderers along the roads in
a tide of human misery, with the red flame of war behind them and
following them, and where the first battalions of youth, so gay in
their approach to war, so confident of victory, so careless of the
dangers (which they did not know), came back maimed and mangled and
blinded and wrecked, in the backwash of retreat, which presently
became a spate through Belgium and the north of France, swamping over
many cities and thousands of villages and many fields. Those young
writing-men who had set out in a spirit of adventure went back to
Fleet Street with a queer look in their eyes, unable to write the
things they had seen, unable to tell them to people who had not seen
and could not understand. Because there was no code of words which
would convey the picture of that wild agony of peoples, that smashing
of all civilized laws, to men and women who still thought of war in
terms of heroic pageantry.
"Had a good time?" asked a colleague along the corridor, hardly
waiting for an answer.
"A good time!" . . . God! . . . Did people think it was amusing to be
an onlooker of world-tragedy? . . . One of them remembered a lady of
France with a small boy who had fled from Charleville, which was in
flames and smoke. She was weak with hunger, with dirty and bedraggled
skirts on her flight, and she had heard that her husband was in the
battle that was now being fought round their own town. She was brave--
pointed out the line of the German advance on the map--and it was in a
troop-train crowded with French soldiers--and then burst into wild
weeping, clasping the hand of an English writing-man so that her nails
dug into his flesh. I remember her still.
"Courage, maman! Courage, p'tite maman!" said the boy of eight.
Through Amiens at night had come a French army in retreat. There were
dead and wounded on their wagons. Cuirassiers stumbled as they led
their tired horses. Crowds of people with white faces, like ghosts in
the darkness, stared at their men retreating like this through their
city, and knew that the enemy was close behind.
"Nous sommes perdus!" whispered a woman, and gave a wailing cry.
People were fighting their way into railway trucks at every station
for hundreds of miles across northern France. Women were beseeching a
place for the sake of their babes. There was no food for them on
journeys of nineteen hours or more; they fainted with heat and hunger.
An old woman died, and her corpse blocked up the lavatory. At night
they slept on the pavements in cities invaded by fugitives.
At Furnes in Belgium, and at Dunkirk on the coast of France, there
were columns of ambulances bringing in an endless tide of wounded.
They were laid out stretcher by stretcher in station-yards, five
hundred at a time. Some of their faces were masks of clotted blood.
Some of their bodies were horribly torn. They breathed with a hard
snuffle. A foul smell came from them.
At Chartres they were swilling over the station hall with disinfecting
fluid after getting through with one day's wounded. The French doctor
in charge had received a telegram from the director of medical
services: "Make ready for forty thousand wounded." It was during the
first battle of the Marne.
"It is impossible!" said the French doctor. . . .
Four hundred thousand people were in flight from Antwerp, into which
big shells were falling, as English correspondents flattened
themselves against the walls and said, "God in heaven!" Two hundred
and fifty thousand people coming across the Scheldt in rowing-boats,
sailing-craft, rafts, invaded one village in Holland. They had no
food. Children were mad with fright. Young mothers had no milk in
their breasts. It was cold at night and there were only a few canal-
boats and fishermen's cottages, and in them were crowds of fugitives.
The odor of human filth exuded from them, as I smell it now, and
sicken in remembrance . . . .
Then Dixmude was in flames, and Pervyse, and many other towns from the
Belgian coast to Switzerland. In Dixmude young boys of France--
fusiliers marins--lay dead about the Grande Place. In the Town Hall,
falling to bits under shell-fire, a colonel stood dazed and waiting
for death amid the dead bodies of his men--one so young, so handsome,
lying there on his back, with a waxen face, staring steadily at the
sky through the broken roof. . . .
At Nieuport-les-Bains one dead soldier lay at the end of the
esplanade, and a little group of living were huddled under the wall of
a red-brick villa, watching other villas falling like card houses in a
town that had been built for love and pretty women and the lucky
people of the world. British monitors lying close into shore were
answering the German bombardment, firing over Nieuport to the dunes by
Ostend. From one monitor came a group of figures with white masks of
cotton-wool tipped with wet blood. British seamen, and all blind, with
the dead body of an officer tied up in a sack . . . .
"O Jesu! . . . O maman! . . . O ma pauvre p'tite femme! . . . O Jesu!
From thousands of French soldiers lying wounded or parched in the
burning sun before the battle of the Marne these cries went up to the
blue sky of France in August of '14. They were the cries of youth's
agony in war. Afterward I went across the fields where they fought and
saw their bodies and their graves, and the proof of the victory that
saved France and us. The German dead had been gathered into heaps like
autumn leaves. They were soaked in petrol and oily smoke was rising
from them . . . .
That was after the retreat from Mons, and the French retreat along all
their line, and the thrust that drew very close to Paris, when I saw
our little Regular Army, the "Old Contemptibles," on their way back,
with the German hordes following close. Sir John French had his
headquarters for the night in Creil. English, Irish, Scottish
soldiers, stragglers from units still keeping some kind of order, were
coming in, bronzed, dusty, parched with thirst, with light wounds tied
round with rags, with blistered feet. French soldiers, bearded, dirty,
thirsty as dogs, crowded the station platforms. They, too, had been
retreating and retreating. A company of sappers had blown up forty
bridges of France. Under a gas-lamp in a foul-smelling urinal I copied
out the diary of their officer. Some spiritual faith upheld these men.
"Wait," they said. "In a few days we shall give them a hard knock.
They will never get Paris. Jamais de la vie!" . . .
In Beauvais there was hardly a living soul when three English
correspondents went there, after escape from Amiens, now in German
hands. A tall cuirassier stood by some bags of gunpowder, ready to
blow up the bridge. The streets were strewn with barbed wire and
broken bottles . . . In Paris there was a great fear and solitude,
except where grief-stricken crowds stormed the railway stations for
escape and where French and British soldiers--stragglers all--drank
together, and sang above their broken glasses, and cursed the war and
And down all the roads from the front, on every day in every month of
that first six months of war--as afterward--came back the tide of
wounded; wounded everywhere, maimed men at every junction; hospitals
crowded with blind and dying and moaning men . . . .
"Had an interesting time?" asked a man I wanted to kill because of his
smug ignorance, his damnable indifference, his impregnable stupidity
of cheerfulness in this world of agony. I had changed the clothes
which were smeared with blood of French and Belgian soldiers whom I
had helped, in a week of strange adventure, to carry to the surgeons.
As an onlooker of war I hated the people who had not seen, because
they could not understand. All these things I had seen in the first
nine months I put down in a book called The Soul of the War, so that
some might know; but it was only a few who understood. . . .
In 1915 the War Office at last moved in the matter of war
correspondents. Lord Kitchener, prejudiced against them, was being
broken down a little by the pressure of public opinion (mentioned from
time to time by members of the government), which demanded more news
of their men in the field than was given by bald communiqués
from General Headquarters and by an "eye-witness" who, as one paper
had the audacity to say, wrote nothing but "eye-wash." Even the
enormous, impregnable stupidity of our High Command on all matters of
psychology was penetrated by a vague notion that a few "writing
fellows" might be sent out with permission to follow the armies in the
field, under the strictest censorship, in order to silence the popular
clamor for more news. Dimly and nervously they apprehended that in
order to stimulate the recruiting of the New Army now being called to
the colors by vulgar appeals to sentiment and passion, it might be
well to "write up" the glorious side of war as it could be seen at the
base and in the organization of transport, without, of course, any
allusion to dead or dying men, to the ghastly failures of
distinguished generals, or to the filth and horror of the
battlefields. They could not understand, nor did they ever understand
(these soldiers of the old school) that a nation which was sending all
its sons to the field of honor desired with a deep and poignant
craving to know how those boys of theirs were living and how they were
dying, and what suffering was theirs, and what chances they had
against their enemy, and how it was going with the war which was
absorbing all the energy and wealth of the people at home.
"Why don't they trust their leaders?" asked the army chiefs. "Why
don't they leave it to us?"
"We do trust you--with some misgivings," thought the people, "and we
do leave it to you--though you seem to be making a mess of things--but
we want to know what we have a right to know, and that is the life and
progress of this war in which our men are engaged. We want to know
more about their heroism, so that it shall be remembered by their
people and known by the world; about their agony, so that we may share
it in our hearts; and about the way of their death, so that our grief
may be softened by the thought of their courage. We will not stand for
this anonymous war; and you are wasting time by keeping it secret,
because the imagination of those who have not joined cannot be fired
by cold lines which say, 'There is nothing to report on the western
In March of 1915 I went out with the first body of accredited war
correspondents, and we saw some of the bad places where our men lived
and died, and the traffic to the lines, and the mechanism of war in
fixed positions as were then established after the battle of the Marne
and the first battle of Ypres. Even then it was only an experimental
visit. It was not until June of that year, after an adventure on the
French front in the Champagne, that I received full credentials as a
war correspondent with the British armies on the western front, and
joined four other men who had been selected for this service, and
began that long innings as an authorized onlooker of war which ended,
after long and dreadful years, with the Army of Occupation beyond the
In the very early days we lived in a small old house, called by
courtesy a chateau, in the village of Tatinghem, near General
Headquarters at St.-Omer. (Afterward we shifted our quarters from time
to time, according to the drift of battle and our convenience.) It was
very peaceful there amid fields of standing corn, where peasant women
worked while their men were fighting, but in the motor-cars supplied
us by the army (with military drivers, all complete) it was a quick
ride over Cassel Hill to the edge of the Ypres salient and the
farthest point where any car could go without being seen by a watchful
enemy and blown to bits at a signal to the guns. Then we walked, up
sinister roads, or along communication trenches, to the fire-step in
the front line, or into places like "Plug Street" wood and Kemmel
village, and the ruins of Vermelles, and the lines by Neuve Chapelle--
the training-schools of British armies--where always birds of death
were on the wing, screaming with high and rising notes before coming
to earth with the cough that killed. . . After hours in those hiding-
places where boys of the New Army were learning the lessons of war in
dugouts and ditches under the range of German guns, back again to the
little white chateau at Tatinghem, with a sweet scent of flowers from
the fields, and nightingales singing in the woods and a bell tinkling
for Benediction in the old church tower beyond our gate.
"To-morrow," said the colonel--our first chief--before driving in for
a late visit to G. H. Q., "we will go to Armentieres and see how the
'Kitchener' boys are shaping in the line up there. It ought to be
The colonel was profoundly interested in the technic of war, in its
organization of supplies and transport, and methods of command. He was
a Regular of the Indian Army, a soldier by blood and caste and
training, and the noblest type of the old school of Imperial officer,
with obedience to command as a religious instinct; of stainless honor,
I think, in small things as well as great, with a deep love of
England, and a belief and pride in her Imperial destiny to govern many
peoples for their own good, and with the narrowness of such belief.
His imagination was limited to the boundaries of his professional
interests, though now and then his humanity made him realize in a
perplexed way greater issues at stake in this war than the challenge
to British Empiry.
One day, when we were walking through the desolation of a battlefield,
with the smell of human corruption about us, and men crouched in
chalky ditches below their breastworks of sand-bags, he turned to a
colleague of mine and said in a startled way:
"This must never happen again! Never!"
It will never happen again for him, as for many others. He was too
tall for the trenches, and one day a German sniper saw the red glint
of his hat-band--he was on the staff of the 11th Corps--and thought,
"a gay bird"! So he fell; and in our mess, when the news came, we were
sad at his going, and one of our orderlies, who had been his body-
servant, wept as he waited on us.
Late at night the colonel--that first chief of ours--used to come home
from G. H. Q., as all men called General Headquarters with a sense of
mystery, power, and inexplicable industry accomplishing--what?--in
those initials. He came back with a cheery shout of, "Fine weather to-
morrow!" or, "A starry night and all's well!" looking fine and
soldierly as the glare of his headlights shone on his tall figure with
red tabs and a colored armlet. But that cheeriness covered secret
worries. Night after night, in those early weeks of our service, he
sat in his little office, talking earnestly with the press officers--
our censors. They seemed to be arguing, debating, protesting, about
secret influences and hostilities surrounding us and them. I could
only guess what it was all about. It all seemed to make no difference
to me when I sat down before pieces of blank paper to get down some
kind of picture, some kind of impression, of a long day in place where
I had been scared awhile because death was on the prowl in a noisy way
and I had seen it pounce on human bodies. I knew that tomorrow I was
going to another little peep-show of war, where I should hear the same
noises. That talk downstairs, that worry about some mystery at G. H.
Q. would make no difference to the life or death of men, nor get rid
of that coldness which came to me when men were being killed nearby.
Why all that argument?
It seemed that G. H. Q.--mysterious people in a mysterious place--were
drawing up rules for war correspondence and censorship; altering rules
made the day before, formulating new rules for to-morrow, establishing
precedents, writing minutes, initialing reports with, "Passed to you,"
or, "I agree," written on the margin. The censors who lived with us
and traveled with us and were our friends, and read what we wrote
before the ink was dry, had to examine our screeds with microscopic
eyes and with infinite remembrance of the thousand and one rules. Was
it safe to mention the weather? Would that give any information to the
enemy? Was it permissible to describe the smell of chloride-of-lime in
the trenches, or would that discourage recruiting? That description of
the traffic on the roads of war, with transport wagons, gun-limbers,
lorries, mules--how did that conflict with Rule No. 17a (or whatever
it was) prohibiting all mention of movements of troops?
One of the censors working late at night, with lines of worry on his
forehead and little puckers about his eyes, turned to me with a queer
laugh, one night in the early days. He was an Indian Civil Servant,
and therefore, by every rule, a gentleman and a charming fellow.
"You don't know what I am risking in passing your despatch! It's too
good to spoil, but G. H. Q. will probably find that it conveys
accurate information to the enemy about the offensive in 1925. I shall
get the sack--and oh, the difference to me!"
It appeared that G. H. Q. was nervous of us. They suggested that our
private letters should be tested for writing in invisible ink between
the lines. They were afraid that, either deliberately for some
journalistic advantage, or in sheer ignorance as "outsiders," we might
hand information to the enemy about important secrets. Belonging to
the old caste of army mind, they believed that war was the special
prerogative of professional soldiers, of which politicians and people
should have no knowledge. Therefore as civilians in khaki we were
hardly better than spies.
The Indian Civil Servant went for a stroll with me in the moonlight,
after a day up the line, where young men were living and dying in
dirty ditches. I could see that he was worried, even angry.
"Those people!" he said.
"G. H. Q."
"Oh, Lord!" I groaned. "Again?" and looked across the fields of corn
to the dark outline of a convent on the hill where young officers were
learning the gentle art of killing by machine-guns before their turn
came to be killed or crippled. I thought of a dead boy I had seen that
day--or yesterday was it?--kneeling on the fire-step of a trench, with
his forehead against the parapet as though in prayer. . . How sweet
was the scent of the clover to-night! And how that star twinkled above
the low flashes of gun-fire away there in the salient.
"They want us to waste your time," said the officer. "Those were the
very words used by the Chief of Intelligence--in writing which I have
kept. 'Waste their time!' . . . I'll be damned if I consider my work
is to waste the time of war correspondents. Don't those good fools see
that this is not a professional adventure, like their other little
wars; that the whole nation is in it, and that the nation demands to
know what its men are doing? They have a right to know."
Just at first--though not for long--there was a touch of hostility
against us among divisional and brigade staffs, of the Regulars, but
not of the New Army. They, too, suspected our motive in going to their
quarters, wondered why we should come "spying around," trying to "see
things." I was faintly conscious of this one day in those very early
times, when with the officer who had been a ruler in India I went to a
brigade headquarters of the 1st Division near Vermelles. It was not
easy nor pleasant to get there, though it was a summer day with fleecy
clouds in a blue sky. There was a long straight road leading to the
village of Vermelles, with a crisscross of communication trenches on
one side, and, on the other, fields where corn and grass grew rankly
in abandoned fields. Some lean sheep were browsing there as though
this were Arcady in days of peace. It was not. The red ruins of
Vermelles, a mile or so away, were sharply defined, as through
stereoscopic lenses, in the quiver of sunlight, and had the sinister
look of a death-haunted place. It was where the French had fought
their way through gardens, walls, and houses in murderous battle,
before leaving it for British troops to hold. Across it now came the
whine of shells, and I saw that shrapnel bullets were kicking up the
dust of a thousand yards down the straight road, following a small
body of brown men whose tramp of feet raised another cloud of dust,
like smoke. They were the only representatives of human life--besides
ourselves--in this loneliness, though many men must have been in
hiding somewhere. Then heavy "crumps" burst in the fields where the
sheep were browsing, across the way we had to go to the brigade
"How about it?" asked the captain with me. "I don't like crossing that
field, in spite of the buttercups and daisies and the little frisky
"I hate the idea of it," I said.
Then we looked down the road at the little body of brown men. They
were nearer now, and I could see the face of the officer leading
them--a boy subaltern, rather pale though the sun was hot. He halted
and saluted my companion.
"The enemy seems to have sighted our dust, sir. His shrapnel is
following up pretty closely. Would you advise me to put my men under
cover, or carry on?"
The captain hesitated. This was rather outside his sphere of
influence. But the boyishness of the other officer asked for help.
"My advice is to put your men into that ditch and keep them there
until the strafe is over." Some shrapnel bullets whipped the sun-baked
road as he spoke.
"Very good, sir."
The men sat in the ditch, with their packs against the bank, and wiped
the sweat off their faces. They looked tired and dispirited, but not
In the fields behind them--our way--the 4.2's (four--point-twos) were
busy plugging holes in the grass and flowers, rather deep holes, from
which white smoke-clouds rose after explosive noises.
"With a little careful strategy we might get through," said the
captain. "There's a general waiting for us, and I have noticed that
generals are impatient fellows. Let's try our luck."
We walked across the wild flowers, past the sheep, who only raised
their heads in meek surprise when shells came with a shrill,
intensifying snarl and burrowed up the earth about them. I noticed how
loudly and sweetly the larks were singing up in the blue. Several
horses lay dead, newly killed, with blood oozing about them, and their
entrails smoking. We made a half-loop around them and then struck
straight for the chateau which was the brigade headquarters. Neither
of us spoke now. We were thoughtful, calculating the chance of getting
to that red-brick house between the shells. It was just dependent on
the coincidence of time and place.
Three men jumped up from a ditch below a brown wall round the chateau
garden and ran hard for the gateway. A shell had pitched quite close
to them. One man laughed as though at a grotesque joke, and fell as he
reached the courtyard. Smoke was rising from the outhouses, and there
was a clatter of tiles and timbers, after an explosive crash.
"It rather looks," said my companion, "as though the Germans knew
there is a party on in that charming house."
It was as good to go on as to go back, and it was never good to go
back before reaching one's objective. That was bad for the discipline
of the courage that is just beyond fear.
Two gunners were killed in the back yard of the chateau, and as we
went in through the gateway a sergeant made a quick jump for a barn as
a shell burst somewhere close. As visitors we hesitated between two
ways into the chateau, and chose the easier; and it was then that I
became dimly aware of hostility against me on the part of a number of
officers in the front hall. The brigade staff was there, grouped under
the banisters. I wondered why, and guessed (rightly, as I found) that
the center of the house might have a better chance of escape than the
rooms on either side, in case of direct hits from those things falling
It was the brigade major who asked our business. He was a tall,
handsome young man of something over thirty, with the arrogance of a
Christ Church blood.
"Oh, he has come out to see something in Vermelles? A pleasant place
for sightseeing! Meanwhile the Hun is ranging on this house, so he may
see more than he wants."
He turned on his heel and rejoined his group. They all stared in my
direction as though at a curious animal. A very young gentleman--the
general's A. D. C.--made a funny remark at my expense and the others
laughed. Then they ignored me, and I was glad, and made a little study
in the psychology of men awaiting a close call of death. I was
perfectly conscious myself that in a moment or two some of us, perhaps
all of us, might be in a pulp of mangled flesh beneath the ruins of a
red-brick villa--the shells were crashing among the outhouses and in
the courtyard, and the enemy was making good shooting--and the idea
did not please me at all. At the back of my brain was Fear, and there
was a cold sweat in the palms of my hands; but I was master of myself,
and I remember having a sense of satisfaction because I had answered
the brigade major in a level voice, with a touch of his own arrogance.
I saw that these officers were afraid; that they, too, had Fear at the
back of the brain, and that their conversation and laughter were the
camouflage of the soul. The face of the young A. D. C. was flushed and
he laughed too much at his own jokes, and his laughter was just a tone
too shrill. An officer came into the hall, carrying two Mills bombs--
new toys in those days--and the others fell back from him, and one
"For Christ's sake don't bring them here--in the middle of a
"Where's the general?" asked the newcomer.
"Down in the cellar with the other brigadier. They don't ask us down
to tea, I notice."
Those last words caused all the officers to laugh--almost excessively.
But their laughter ended sharply, and they listened intently as there
was a heavy crash outside.
Another officer came up the steps and made a rapid entry into the
"I understand there is to be a conference of battalion commanders," he
said, with a queer catch in his breath. "In view of this--er--
bombardment, I had better come in later, perhaps?"
"You had better wait," said the brigade major, rather grimly.
A sergeant-major was pacing up and down the passage by the back door.
He was calm and stolid. I liked the look of him and found something
comforting in his presence, so that I went to have a few words with
"How long is this likely to last, Sergeant-major"
"There's no saying, sir. They may be searching for the chateau to pass
the time, so to speak, or they may go on till they get it. I'm sorry
they caught those gunners. Nice lads, both of them."
He did not seem to be worrying about his own chance.
Then suddenly there was silence. The German guns had switched off. I
heard the larks singing through the open doorway, and all the little
sounds of a summer day. The group of officers in the hall started
chatting more quietly. There was no more need of finding jokes and
laughter. They had been reprieved, and could be serious.
"We'd better get forward to Vermelles," said my companion.
As we walked away from the chateau, the brigade major passed us on his
horse. He leaned over his saddle toward me and said, "Good day to you,
and I hope you'll like Vermelles."
The words were civil, but there was an underlying meaning in them.
"I hope to do so, sir."
We walked down the long straight road toward the ruins of Vermelles
with a young soldier-guide who on the outskirts of the village
remarked in a casual way:
"No one is allowed along this road in daylight, as a rule. It's under
hobservation of the henemy."
"Then why the devil did you come this way?" asked my companion.
"I thought you might prefer the short cut, sir."
We explored the ruins of Vermelles, where many young Frenchmen had
fallen in fighting through the walls and gardens. One could see the
track of their strife, in trampled bushes and broken walls. Bits of
red rag--the red pantaloons of the first French soldiers--were still
fastened to brambles and barbed wire. Broken rifles, cartouches,
water-bottles, torn letters, twisted bayonets, and German stick-bombs
littered the ditches which had been dug as trenches across streets of
A young gunner officer whom we met was very civil, and stopped in
front of the chateau of Vermelles, a big red villa with the outer
walls still standing, and told us the story of its capture.
"It was a wild scrap. I was told all about it by a French sergeant who
was in it. They were under the cover of that wall over there, about a
hundred yards away, and fixing up a charge of high explosives to knock
a breach in the wall. The chateau was a machine-gun fortress, with the
Germans on the top floor, the ground floor, and in the basement,
protected by sand-bags, through which they fired. A German officer
made a bad mistake. He opened the front door and came out with some of
his machine-gunners from the ground floor to hold a trench across the
square in front of the house. Instantly a French lieutenant called to
his men. They climbed over the wall and made a dash for the chateau,
bayoneting the Germans who tried to stop them. Then they swarmed into
the chateau--a platoon of them with the lieutenant. They were in the
drawing-room, quite an elegant place, you know, with the usual gilt
furniture and long mirrors. In one corner was a pedestal, with a
statue of Venus standing on it. Rather charming, I expect. A few
Germans were killed in the room, easily. But upstairs there was a mob
who fired down through the ceiling when they found what had happened.
The French soldiers prodded the ceiling with their bayonets, and all
the plaster broke, falling on them. A German, fat and heavy, fell
half-way through the rafters, and a bayonet was poked into him as he
stuck there. The whole ceiling gave way, and the Germans upstairs came
downstairs, in a heap. They fought like wolves--wild beasts--with fear
and rage. French and Germans clawed at one another's throats, grabbed
hold of noses, rolled over each other. The French sergeant told me he
had his teeth into a German's neck. The man was all over him, pinning
his arms, trying to choke him. It was the French lieutenant who did
most damage. He fired his last shot and smashed a German's face with
his empty revolver. Then he caught hold of the marble Venus by the
legs and swung it above his head, in the old Berserker style, and laid
out Germans like ninepins. . . The fellows in the basement
The chateau of Vermelles, where that had happened, was an empty ruin,
and there was no sign of the gilt furniture, or the long mirrors, or
the marble Venus when I looked through the charred window-frames upon
piles of bricks and timber churned up by shell-fire. The gunner
officer took us to the cemetery, to meet some friends of his who had
their battery nearby. We stumbled over broken walls and pushed through
undergrowth to get to the graveyard, where some broken crosses and
wire frames with immortelles remained as relics of that garden where
the people of Vermelles had laid their dead to rest. New dead had
followed old dead. I stumbled over something soft, like a ball of
clay, and saw that it was the head of a faceless man, in a battered
kepi. From a ditch close by came a sickly stench of half-buried flesh.
"The whole place is a pest-house," said the gunner.
Another voice spoke from some hiding-place.
The earth shook and there was a flash of red flame, and a shock of
noise which hurt one's ear-drums.
"That's my battery," said the gunner officer. "It's the very devil
when one doesn't expect it."
I was introduced to the gentleman who had said "Salvo!" He was the
gunner-major, and a charming fellow, recently from civil life. All the
battery was made up of New Army men learning their job, and learning
it very well, I should say. There was no arrogance about them.
"It's sporting of you to come along to a spot like this," said one of
them. "I wouldn't unless I had to. Of course you'll take tea in our
I was glad to take tea--in a little house at the end of the ruined
high-street of Vermelles which had by some miracle escaped
destruction, though a shell had pierced through the brick wall of the
parlor and had failed to burst. It was there still, firmly wedged,
like a huge nail. The tea was good, in tin mugs. Better still was the
company of the gunner officers. They told me how often they were
"scared stiff." They had been very frightened an hour before I came,
when the German gunners had ranged up and down the street, smashing up
ruined houses into greater ruin.
"They're so methodical!" said one of the officers.
"Wonderful shooting!" said another.
"I will say they're topping gunners," said the major. "But we're
learning; my men are very keen. Put in a good word for the new
artillery. It would buck them up no end."
We went back before sunset, down the long straight road, and past the
chateau which we had visited in the afternoon. It looked very peaceful
there among the trees.
It is curious that I remember the details of that day so vividly, as
though they happened yesterday. On hundreds of other days I had
adventures like that, which I remember more dimly.
"That brigade major was a trifle haughty, don't you think?" said my
companion. "And the others didn't seem very friendly. Not like those
"We called at an awkward time. They were rather fussed."
"One expects good manners. Especially from Regulars who pride
themselves on being different in that way from the New Army."
"It's the difference between the professional and the amateur soldier.
The Regular crowd think the war belongs to them. . . But I liked their
pluck. They're arrogant to Death himself when he comes knocking at the
It was not long before we broke down the prejudice against us among
the fighting units. The new armies were our friends from the first,
and liked us to visit them in their trenches and their dugouts, their
camps and their billets. Every young officer was keen to show us his
particular "peep-show" or to tell us his latest "stunt." We made many
friends among them, and it was our grief that as the war went on so
many of them disappeared from their battalions, and old faces were
replaced by new faces, and those again by others when they had become
familiar. Again and again, after battle, twenty-two officers in a
battalion mess were reduced to two or three, and the gaps were filled
up from the reserve depots. I was afraid to ask, "Where is So-and-so?"
because I knew that the best answer would be, "A Blighty wound," and
the worst was more likely.
It was the duration of all the drama of death that seared one's soul
as an onlooker; the frightful sum of sacrifice that we were recording
day by day. There were times when it became intolerable and agonizing,
and when I at least desired peace-at-almost-any-price, peace by
negotiation, by compromise, that the river of blood might cease to
flow. The men looked so splendid as they marched up to the lines,
singing, whistling, with an easy swing. They looked so different when
thousands came down again, to field dressing-stations--the walking
wounded and the stretcher cases, the blind and the gassed--as we saw
them on the mornings of battle, month after month, year after year.
Our work as chroniclers of their acts was not altogether "soft,"
though we did not go "over the top" or live in the dirty ditches with
them. We had to travel prodigiously to cover the ground between one
division and another along a hundred miles of front, with long walks
often at the journey's end and a wet way back. Sometimes we were
soaked to the skin on the journey home. Often we were so cold and
numbed in those long wild drives up desolate roads that our limbs lost
consciousness and the wind cut into us like knives. We were working
against time, always against time, and another tire-burst would mean
that no despatch could be written of a great battle on the British
front, or only a short record written in the wildest haste when there
was so much to tell, so much to describe, such unforgetable pictures
in one's brain of another day's impressions in the fields and on the
There were five English correspondents and, two years later, two
Americans. On mornings of big battle we divided up the line of front
and drew lots for the particular section which each man would cover.
Then before the dawn, or in the murk of winter mornings, or the first
glimmer of a summer day, our cars would pull out and we would go off
separately to the part of the line allotted to us by the number drawn,
to see the preliminary bombardment, to walk over newly captured
ground, to get into the backwash of prisoners and walking wounded,
amid batteries firing a new barrage, guns moving forward on days of
good advance, artillery transport bringing up new stores of
ammunition, troops in support marching to repel a counter-attack or
follow through the new objectives, ambulances threading their way back
through the traffic, with loads of prostrate men, mules, gunhorses,
lorries churning up the mud in Flanders.
So we gained a personal view of all this activity of strife, and from
many men in its whirlpool details of their own adventure and of
general progress or disaster on one sector of the battle-front. Then
in divisional headquarters we saw the reports of the battle as they
came in by telephone, or aircraft, or pigeon-post, from half-hour to
half-hour, or ten minutes by ten minutes. Three divisions widely
separated provided all the work one war correspondent could do on one
day of action, and later news on a broader scale, could be obtained
from corps headquarters farther back. Tired, hungry, nerve-racked,
splashed to the eyes in mud, or covered in a mask of dust, we started
for the journey back to our own quarters, which we shifted from time
to time in order to get as near as we could to the latest battle-front
without getting beyond reach of the telegraph instruments--by relays
of despatch-riders--at "Signals," G. H. Q., which remained immovably
fixed in the rear.
There was a rendezvous in one of our rooms, and each man outlined the
historical narrative of the day upon the front he had covered,
reserving for himself his own adventures, impressions, and emotions.
Time slipped away, and time was short, while the despatch-riders
waited for our unwritten despatches, and censors who had been our
fellow-travelers washed themselves cleaner and kept an eye on the
Time was short while the world waited for our tales of tragedy or
victory . . . and tempers were frayed, and nerves on edge, among five
men who hated one another, sometimes, with a murderous hatred (though,
otherwise, good comrades) and desired one another's death by slow
torture or poison-gas when they fumbled over notes, written in a
jolting car, or on a battlefield walk, and went into past history in
order to explain present happenings, or became tangled in the numbers
of battalions and divisions.
Percival Phillips turned pink-and-white under the hideous strain of
nervous control, with an hour and a half for two columns in The
Morning Post. A little pulse throbbed in his forehead. His lips were
tightly pressed. His oaths and his anguish were in his soul, but
unuttered. Beach Thomas, the most amiable of men, the Peter Pan who
went a bird-nesting on battlefields, a lover of beauty and games and
old poems and Greek and Latin tags, and all joy in life--what had he
to do with war?--looked bored with an infinite boredom, irritable with
a scornful impatience of unnecessary detail, gazed through his gold-
rimmed spectacles with an air of extreme detachment (when Percy
Robinson rebuilt the map with dabs and dashes on a blank sheet of
paper), and said, "I've got more than I can write, and The Daily Mail
goes early to press."
"Thanks very much. . . It's very kind of you."
We gathered up our note-books and were punctiliously polite.
(Afterward we were the best of friends.) Thomas was first out of the
room, with short, quick little steps in spite of his long legs. His
door banged. Phillips was first at his typewriter, working it like a
machine-gun, in short, furious spasms of word-fire. I sat down to my
typewriter--a new instrument of torture to me--and coaxed its evil
genius with conciliatory prayers.
"For dear God's sake," I said, "don't go twisting that blasted ribbon
of yours to-day. I must write this despatch, and I've just an hour
when I want five."
Sometimes that Corona was a mechanism of singular sweetness, and I
blessed it with a benediction. But often there was a devil in it
which mocked at me. After the first sentence or two it twisted the
ribbon; at the end of twenty sentences the ribbon was like an angry
snake, writhing and coiling hideously.
I shouted for Mackenzie, the American, a master of these things.
He came in and saw my blanched face, my sweat of anguish, my crise
de nerfs. I could see by his eyes that he understood my stress and
had pity on me.
"That's all right," he said. "A little patience--"
By a touch or two he exorcised the devil, laughed, and said: "Go easy.
You've just about reached breaking--point."
I wrote, as we all wrote, fast and furiously, to get down something
of enormous history, word-pictures of things seen, heroic anecdotes,
the underlying meaning of this new slaughter. There was never time
to think out a sentence or a phrase, to touch up a clumsy paragraph,
to go back on a false start, to annihilate a vulgar adjective, to
put a touch of style into one's narrative. One wrote instinctively,
blindly, feverishly. . . And downstairs were the censors, sending up
messages by orderlies to say "half-time," or "ten minutes more," and
cutting out sometimes the things one wanted most to say, modifying a
direct statement of fact into a vague surmise, taking away the honor
due to the heroic men who had fought and died to-day. . . Who would
be a war correspondent, or a censor?
So it happened day by day, for five months at a stretch, when big
battles were in progress. It was not an easy life. There were times
when I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I could hardly
rouse myself to a new day's effort. There were times when I was faint
and sick and weak; and my colleagues were like me. But we struggled on
to tell the daily history of the war and the public cursed us because
we did not tell more, or sneered at us because they thought we were
"spoon-fed" by G. H. Q.--who never gave us any news and who were far
from our way of life, except when they thwarted us, by petty
restrictions and foolish rules.
The Commander-in-Chief--Sir John French--received us when we were
first attached to the British armies in the field--a lifetime ago, as
it seems to me now. It was a formal ceremony in the chateau near
St.-Omer, which he used as his own headquarters, with his A. D. C.'s
in attendance, though the main general headquarters were in the town.
Our first colonel gathered us like a shepherd with his flock, counting
us twice over before we passed in. A tall, dark young man, whom I knew
afterward to be Sir Philip Sassoon, received us and chatted pleasantly
in a French salon with folding-doors which shut off an inner room.
There were a few portraits of ladies and gentlemen of France in the
days before the Revolution, like those belonging to that old
aristocracy which still existed, in poverty and pride, in other
chateaus in this French Flanders. There was a bouquet of flowers on
the table, giving a sweet scent to the room, and sunlight streamed
through the shutters. . . I thought for a moment of the men living in
ditches in the salient, under harassing fire by day and night. Their
actions and their encounters with death were being arranged, without
their knowledge, in this sunny little chateau. . . .
The folding-doors opened and Sir John French came in. He wore top-
boots and spurs, and after saying, "Good day, gentlemen," stood with
his legs apart, a stocky, soldierly figure, with a square head and
heavy jaw. I wondered whether there were any light of genius in him--
any inspiration, any force which would break the awful strength of the
enemy against us, any cunning in modern warfare.
He coughed a little, and made us a speech. I forget his words, but
remember the gist of them. He was pleased to welcome us within his
army, and trusted to our honor and loyalty. He made an allusion to the
power of the press, and promised us facilities for seeing and writing,
within the bounds of censorship. I noticed that he pronounced St.-
Omer, St.-Omar, as though Omar Khayyam had been canonized. He said,
"Good day, gentlemen," again, and coughed huskily again to clear his
throat, and then went back through the folding-doors.
I saw him later, during the battle of Loos, after its ghastly failure.
He was riding a white horse in the villages of Heuchin and Houdain,
through which lightly wounded Scots of the 1st and 15th Divisions were
making their way back. He leaned over his saddle, questioning the men
and thanking them for their gallantry. I thought he looked grayer and
older than when he had addressed us.
"Who mun that old geezer be, Jock?" asked a Highlander when he had
"I dinna ken," said the other Scot. "An' I dinna care."
"It's the Commander-in-Chief," I said. "Sir John French."
"Eh?" said the younger man, of the 8th Gordons. He did not seem
thrilled by the knowledge I had given him, but turned his head and
stared after the figure on the white horse. Then he said: "Well, he's
made a mess o' the battle. We could've held Hill 70 against all the
di'els o' hell if there had bin supports behind us."
"Ay," said his comrade, "an' there's few o' the laddies'll come back
fra Cite St.-Auguste."
It was another commander-in-chief who received us some months after
the battle of Loos, in a chateau near Montreuil, to which G. H. Q. had
then removed. Our only knowledge of Sir Douglas Haig before that day
was of a hostile influence against us in the First Army, which he
commanded. He had drawn a line through his area beyond which we might
not pass. He did not desire our presence among his troops nor in his
neighborhood. That line had been broken by the protests of our
commandant, and now as Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig had
realized dimly that he might be helped by our services.
It was in another French salon that we waited for the man who
controlled the British armies in the field--those armies which we now
knew in some intimacy, whom we had seen in the front-line trenches and
rest-camps and billets, hearing their point of view, knowing their
suffering and their patience, and their impatience--and their deadly
hatred of G. H. Q.
He was very handsome as he sat behind a Louis XIV table, with General
Charteris--his Chief of Intelligence, who was our chief, too--behind
him at one side, for prompting and advice. He received us with fine
courtesy and said:
"Pray be seated, gentlemen."
There had been many troubles over censorship, of which he knew but
vaguely through General Charteris, who looked upon us as his special
"cross." We had fought hard for liberty in mentioning units, to give
the honor to the troops, and for other concessions which would free
The Commander-in-Chief was sympathetic, but his sympathy was expressed
in words which revealed a complete misunderstanding of our purpose and
of our work, and was indeed no less than an insult, unconscious but
"I think I understand fairly well what you gentlemen want," he said.
"You want to get hold of little stories of heroism, and so forth, and
to write them up in a bright way to make good reading for Mary Ann in
the kitchen, and the Man in the Street." The quiet passion with which
those words were resented by us, the quick repudiation of this slur
upon our purpose by a charming man perfectly ignorant at that time of
the new psychology of nations in a war which was no longer a
professional adventure, surprised him. We took occasion to point out
to him that the British Empire, which had sent its men into this war,
yearned to know what they were doing and how they were doing, and that
their patience and loyalty depended upon closer knowledge of what was
happening than was told them in the communiques issued by the
Commander-in-Chief himself. We urged him to let us mention more
frequently the names of the troops engaged--especially English troops-
-for the sake of the soldiers themselves, who were discouraged by this
lack of recognition, and for the sake of the people behind them. . .
It was to the pressure of the war correspondents, very largely, that
the troops owed the mention and world-wide honor which came to them,
more generously, in the later phases of the war.
The Commander-in-Chief made a note of our grievances, turning now and
again to General Charteris, who was extremely nervous at our frankness
of speech, and telling him to relax the rules of censorship as far as
possible. That was done, and in later stages of the war I personally
had no great complaint against the censorship, and wrote all that was
possible to write of the actions day by day, though I had to leave out
something of the underlying horror of them all, in spite of my
continual emphasis, by temperament and by conviction, on the tragedy
of all this sacrifice of youth. The only alternative to what we wrote
would have been a passionate denunciation of all this ghastly
slaughter and violent attacks on British generalship. Even now I do
not think that would have been justified. As Bernard Shaw told me,
"while the war lasts one must put one's own soul under censorship."
After many bloody battles had been fought we were received again by
the Commander-in-Chief, and this time his cordiality was not marred by
any slighting touch.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you have played the game like men!"
When victory came at last--at last!--after the years of slaughter, it
was the little band of war correspondents on the British front, our
foreign comrades included, whom the Field-Marshal addressed on his
first visit to the Rhine. We stood on the Hohenzollern Bridge in
Cologne, watched by groups of Germans peering through the escort of
Lancers. It was a dank and foul day, but to us beautiful, because this
was the end of the long journey--four-and--a-half years long, which
had been filled with slaughter all the way, so that we were tired of
its backwash of agony, which had overwhelmed our souls--mine,
certainly. The Commander-in-Chief read out a speech to us, thanking us
for our services, which, he said, had helped him to victory, because
we had heartened the troops and the people by our work. It was a
recognition by the leader of our armies that, as chroniclers of war,
we had been a spiritual force behind his arms. It was a reward for
many mournful days, for much agony of spirit, for hours of danger--
some of us had walked often in the ways of death--and for exhausting
labors which we did so that the world might know what British soldiers
had been doing and suffering.
I came to know General Headquarters more closely when it removed, for
fresher air, to Montreuil, a fine old walled town, once within sight
of the sea, which ebbed over the low-lying ground below its hill, but
now looking across a wide vista of richly cultivated fields where many
hamlets are scattered among clumps of trees. One came to G. H. Q. from
journeys over the wild desert of the battlefields, where men lived in
ditches and "pill-boxes," muddy, miserable in all things but spirit,
as to a place where the pageantry of war still maintained its old and
dead tradition. It was like one of those pageants which used to be
played in England before the war--picturesque, romantic, utterly
unreal. It was as though men were playing at war here, while others
sixty miles away were fighting and dying, in mud and gas-waves and
An "open sesame," by means of a special pass, was needed to enter this
City of Beautiful Nonsense. Below the gateway, up the steep hillside,
sentries stood at a white post across the road, which lifted up on
pulleys when the pass had been examined by a military policeman in a
red cap. Then the sentries slapped their hands on their rifles to the
occupants of any motor-car, sure that more staff-officers were going
in to perform those duties which no private soldier could attempt to
understand, believing they belonged to such mysteries as those of God.
Through the narrow streets walked elderly generals, middle-aged
colonels and majors, youthful subalterns all wearing red hat-bands,
red tabs, and the blue-and-red armlet of G. H. Q., so that color went
with them on their way.
Often one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride, a
fine figure, nobly mounted, with two A. D. C.'s and an escort of
Lancers. A pretty sight, with fluttering pennons on all their lances,
and horses groomed to the last hair. It was prettier than the real
thing up in the salient or beyond the Somme, where dead bodies lay in
upheaved earth among ruins and slaughtered trees. War at Montreuil was
quite a pleasant occupation for elderly generals who liked their
little stroll after lunch, and for young Regular officers, released
from the painful necessity of dying for their country, who were glad
to get a game of tennis, down below the walls there, after strenuous
office-work in which they had written "Passed to you" on many
"minutes," or had drawn the most comical caricatures of their
immediate chief, and of his immediate chief, on blotting-pads and
It seemed, at a mere glance, that all these military inhabitants of G.
H. Q. were great and glorious soldiers. Some of the youngest of them
had a row of decorations from Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, Rumania, and
other states, as recognition of gallant service in translating German
letters (found in dugouts by the fighting-men), or arranging for
visits of political personages to the back areas of war, or initialing
requisitions for pink, blue, green, and yellow forms, which in due
course would find their way to battalion adjutants for immediate
filling-up in the middle of an action. The oldest of them, those
white-haired, bronze-faced, gray-eyed generals in the administrative
side of war, had started their third row of ribbons well before the
end of the Somme battles, and had flower-borders on their breasts by
the time the massacres had been accomplished in the fields of
Flanders. I know an officer who was awarded the D. S. 0. because he
had hindered the work of war correspondents with the zeal of a hedge-
sparrow in search of worms, and another who was the best-decorated man
in the army because he had presided over a visitors' chateau and
entertained Royalties, Members of Parliament, Mrs. Humphry Ward,
miners, Japanese, Russian revolutionaries, Portuguese ministers, Harry
Lauder, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, clergymen, Montenegrins, and the
Editor of John Bull, at the government's expense--and I am bound to
say he deserved them all, being a man of infinite tact, many
languages, and a devastating sense of humor. There was always a
Charlie Chaplin film between moving pictures of the battles of the
Somme. He brought the actualities of war to the visitors' chateau by
sentry-boxes outside the door, a toy "tank" in the front garden, and a
collection of war trophies in the hall. He spoke to High Personages
with less deference than he showed to miners from Durham and Wales,
and was master of them always, ordering them sternly to bed at ten
o'clock (when he sat down to bridge with his junior officers), and
with strict military discipline insisting upon their inspection of the
bakeries at Boulogne, and boot-mending factories at Calais, as part of
the glory of war which they had come out for to see.
So it was that there were brilliant colors in the streets of
Montreuil, and at every doorway a sentry slapped his hand to his
rifle, with smart and untiring iteration, as the "brains" of the army,
under "brass hats" and red bands, went hither and thither in the town,
looking stern, as soldiers of grave responsibility, answering salutes
absent--mindedly, staring haughtily at young battalion officers who
passed through Montreuil and looked meekly for a chance of a lorry-
ride to Boulogne, on seven days' leave from the lines.
The smart society of G. H. Q. was best seen at the Officers' Club in
Montreuil, at dinner-time. It was as much like musical comedy as any
stage setting of war at the Gaiety. A band played ragtime and light
music while the warriors fed, and all these generals and staff
officers, with their decorations and arm-bands and polished buttons
and crossed swords, were waited upon by little W. A. A. C.'s with the
G. H. Q. colors tied up in bows on their hair, and khaki stockings
under their short skirts and fancy aprons. Such a chatter! Such bursts
of light-hearted laughter! Such whisperings of secrets and intrigues
and scandals in high places! Such careless--hearted courage when
British soldiers were being blown to bits, gassed, blinded, maimed,
and shell-shocked in places that were far--so very far--from G. H. Q.!
There were shrill voices one morning outside the gate of our quarters-
-women's voices, excited, angry, passionate. An orderly came into the
mess--we were at breakfast--and explained the meaning of the clamor,
which by some intuition and a quick ear for French he had gathered
from all this confusion of tongues.
"There's a soldier up the road, drunk or mad. He has been attacking a
girl. The villagers want an officer to arrest him."
The colonel sliced off the top of his egg and then rose. "Tell three
orderlies to follow me."
We went into the roadway, and twenty women crowded round us with a
story of attempted violence against an innocent girl. The man had been
drinking last night at the estaminet up there. Then he had followed
the girl, trying to make love to her. She had barricaded herself in
the room, when he tried to climb through the window.
"If you don't come out I'll get in and kill you," he said, according
to the women.
But she had kept him out, though he prowled round all night. Now he
was hiding in an outhouse. The brute! The pig!
When we went up the road the man was standing in the center of it,
with a sullen look.
"What's the trouble?" he asked. "It looks as if all France were out to
He glanced sideways over the field, as though reckoning his chance of
escape. There was no chance.
The colonel placed him under arrest and he marched back between the
orderlies, with an old soldier of the Contemptibles behind him.
Later in the day he was lined up for identification by the girl, among
a crowd of other men.
The girl looked down the line, and we watched her curiously--a slim
creature with dark hair neatly coiled.
She stretched out her right hand with a pointing finger.
"Le voila! . . . c'est l'homme."
There was no mistake about it, and the man looked sheepishly at her,
not denying. He was sent off under escort to the military prison in
St. Omer for court-martial.
"What's the punishment--if guilty?" I asked.
"Death," said the colonel, resuming his egg.
He was a fine-looking fellow, the prisoner. He had answered the call
for king and country without delay. In the estaminet, after coming
down from the salient for a machine-gun course, he had drunk more beer
than was good for him, and the face of a pretty girl had bewitched
him, stirring up desire. He wanted to kiss her lips . . . There were
no women in the Ypres salient. Nothing pretty or soft. It was hell up
there, and this girl was a pretty witch, bringing back thoughts of the
other side--for life, womanhood, love, caresses which were good for
the souls and bodies of men. It was a starved life up there in the
salient . . . Why shouldn't she give him her lips? Wasn't he fighting
for France? Wasn't he a tall and proper lad? Curse the girl for being
so sulky to an English soldier! . . . And now, if those other women,
those old hags, were to swear against him things he had never said,
things he had never done, unless drink had made him forget--by God!
supposing drink had made him forget? He would be shot against a white
wall. Shot dead, disgracefully, shamefully, by his own comrades! O
Christ! and the little mother in a Sussex cottage! . . .
Going up to Kemmel one day I had to wait in battalion headquarters for
the officer I had gone to see. He was attending a court martial.
Presently he came into the wooden hut, with a flushed face.
"Sorry I had to keep you," he said. "Tomorrow there will be one swine
less in the world."
"A death sentence?"
"A damned coward. Said he didn't mind rifle-fire, but couldn't stand
shells. Admitted he left his post. He doesn't mind rifle-fire! . . .
Well, tomorrow morning."
The officer laughed grimly, and then listened for a second.
There were some heavy crumps falling over Kemmel Hill, rather close,
it seemed, to our wooden hut.
"Damn those German gunners" said the officer. "Why can't they give us
a little peace?"
He turned to his papers, but several times while I talked with him he
jerked his head up and listened to a heavy crash.
On the way back I saw a man on foot, walking in front of a mounted
man, past the old hill of the Scherpenberg, toward the village of
Locre. There was something in the way he walked, in his attitude--the
head hunched forward a little, and his arms behind his back--which
made me turn to look at him. He was manacled, and tied by a rope to
the mounted man. I caught one glimpse of his face, and then turned
away, cold and sick. There was doom written on his face, and in his
eyes a captured look. He was walking to his wall.
There were other men who could not stand shell-fire. It filled them
with an animal terror and took all will-power out of them. One young
officer was like that man who "did not mind rifle-fire." He, by some
strange freak of psychology, was brave under machine-gun fire. He had
done several gallant things, and was bright and cheerful in the
trenches until the enemy barraged them with high explosive. Then he
was seen wandering back to the support trenches in a dazed way. It
happened three times, and he was sentenced to death. Before going out
at dawn to face the firing-squad he was calm. There was a lighted
candle on the table, and he sorted out his personal belongings and
made small packages of them as keepsakes for his family and friends.
His hand did not tremble. When his time came he put out the candle,
between thumb and finger, raised his hand, and said, "Right O!"
Another man, shot for cowardice in face of the enemy, was sullen and
silent to one who hoped to comfort him in the last hour. The chaplain
asked him whether he had any message for his relatives. He said, "I
have no relatives." He was asked whether he would like to say any
prayers, and he said, "I don't believe in them." The chaplain talked
to him, but could get no answer--and time was creeping on. There were
two guards in the room, sitting motionless, with loaded rifles between
their knees. Outside it was silent in the courtyard, except for little
noises of the night and the wind. The chaplain suffered, and was torn
with pity for that sullen man whose life was almost at an end. He took
out his hymn--book and said: "I will sing to you. It will pass the
time." He sang a hymn, and once or twice his voice broke a little, but
he steadied it. Then the man said, "I will sing with you." He knew all
the hymns, words and music. It was an unusual, astonishing knowledge,
and he went on singing, hymn after hymn, with the chaplain by his
side. It was the chaplain who tired first. His voice cracked and his
throat became parched. Sweat broke out on his forehead, because of the
nervous strain. But the man who was going to die sang on in a clear,
hard voice. A faint glimmer of coming dawn lightened the cottage
window. There were not many minutes more. The two guards shifted their
feet. "Now," said the man, "we'll sing 'God Save the King.'" The two
guards rose and stood at attention, and the chaplain sang the national
anthem with the man who was to be shot for cowardice. Then the tramp
of the firing-party came across the cobblestones in the courtyard. It
Shell-shock was the worst thing to see. There were generals who said:
"There is no such thing as shell-shock. It is cowardice. I would
court-martial in every case." Doctors said: "It is difficult to draw
the line between shell-shock and blue funk. Both are physical as well
as mental. Often it is the destruction of the nerve tissues by
concussion, or actual physical damage to the brain; sometimes it is a
shock of horror unbalancing the mind, but that is more rare. It is not
generally the slight, nervous men who suffer worst from shell-shock.
It is often the stolid fellow, one of those we describe as being
utterly without nerves, who goes down badly. Something snaps in him.
He has no resilience in his nervous system. He has never trained
himself in nerve-control, being so stolid and self-reliant. Now, the
nervous man, the cockney, for example, is always training himself in
the control of his nerves, on 'buses which lurch round corners, in the
traffic that bears down on him, in a thousand and one situations which
demand self-control in a 'nervy' man. That helps him in war; whereas
the yokel, or the sergeant--major type, is splendid until the shock
comes. Then he may crack. But there is no law. Imagination--
apprehension--are the devil, too, and they go with 'nerves.'"
It was a sergeant-major whom I saw stricken badly with shell-shock in
Aveluy Wood near Thiepval. He was convulsed with a dreadful rigor like
a man in epilepsy, and clawed at his mouth, moaning horribly, with
livid terror in his eyes. He had to be strapped to a stretcher before
he could be carried away. He had been a tall and splendid man, this
poor, terror-stricken lunatic.
Nearer to Thiepval, during the fighting there, other men were brought
down with shell-shock. I remember one of them now, though I saw many
others. He was a Wiltshire lad, very young, with an apple-cheeked face
and blue-gray eyes. He stood outside a dugout, shaking in every limb,
in a palsied way. His steel hat was at the back of his head and his
mouth slobbered, and two comrades could not hold him still.
These badly shell-shocked boys clawed their mouths ceaselessly. It was
a common, dreadful action. Others sat in the field hospitals in a
state of coma, dazed, as though deaf, and actually dumb. I hated to
see them, turned my eyes away from them, and yet wished that they
might be seen by bloody-minded men and women who, far behind the
lines, still spoke of war lightly, as a kind of sport, or heroic game,
which brave boys liked or ought to like, and said, "We'll fight on to
the last man rather than accept anything less than absolute victory,"
and when victory came said: "We stopped too soon. We ought to have
gone on for another three months." It was for fighting-men to say
those things, because they knew the things they suffered and risked.
That word "we" was not to be used by gentlemen in government offices
scared of air raids, nor by women dancing in scanty frocks at war-
bazaars for the "poor dear wounded," nor even by generals at G. H. Q.,
enjoying the thrill of war without its dirt and danger.
Seeing these shell-shock cases month after month, during years of
fighting, I, as an onlooker, hated the people who had not seen, and
were callous of this misery; the laughing girls in the Strand greeting
the boys on seven days' leave; the newspaper editors and leader-
writers whose articles on war were always "cheery"; the bishops and
clergy who praised God as the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies,
and had never said a word before the war to make it less inevitable;
the schoolmasters who gloried in the lengthening "Roll of Honor" and
said, "We're doing very well," when more boys died; the pretty woman-
faces ogling in the picture-papers, as "well--known war-workers"; the
munition-workers who were getting good wages out of the war; the
working-women who were buying gramophones and furs while their men
were in the stinking trenches; the dreadful, callous, cheerful spirit
of England at war.
Often I was unfair, bitter, unbalanced, wrong. The spirit of England,
taking it broad and large--with dreadful exceptions--was wonderful in
its courage and patience, and ached with sympathy for its fighting
sons, and was stricken with the tragedy of all this slaughter. There
were many tears in English homes; many sad and lonely women. But, as
an onlooker, I could not be just or fair, and hated the non-combatants
who did not reveal its wound in their souls, but were placid in their
belief that we should win, and pleased with themselves because of
their easy optimism. So easy for those who did not see!
As war correspondents we were supposed to have honorary rank as
captains, by custom and tradition--but it amounted to nothing, here or
there. We were civilians in khaki, with green bands round our right
arms, and uncertain status. It was better so, because we were in the
peculiar and privileged position of being able to speak to Tommies and
sergeants as human beings, to be on terms of comradeship with junior
subalterns and battalion commanders, and to sit at the right hand of
generals without embarrassment to them or to ourselves.
Physically, many of our generals were curiously alike. They were men
turned fifty, with square jaws, tanned, ruddy faces, searching and
rather stern gray eyes, closely cropped hair growing white, with a
little white mustache, neatly trimmed, on the upper lip.
Mentally they had similar qualities. They had unfailing physical
courage--though courage is not put to the test much in modern
generalship, which, above the rank of brigadier, works far from the
actual line of battle, unless it "slips" in the wrong direction. They
were stern disciplinarians, and tested the quality of troops by their
smartness in saluting and on parade, which did not account for the
fighting merit of the Australians. Most of them were conservative by
political tradition and hereditary instinct, and conservative also in
military ideas and methods. They distrusted the "brilliant" fellow,
and were inclined to think him unsafe; and they were not quick to
allow young men to gain high command at the expense of their gray hair
and experience. They were industrious, able, conscientious men, never
sparing themselves long hours of work for a life of ease, and because
they were willing to sacrifice their own lives, if need be, for their
country's sake, they demanded equal willingness of sacrifice from
every officer and man under their authority, having no mercy whatever
for the slacker or the weakling.
Among them there was not one whose personality had that mysterious but
essential quality of great generalship--inspiring large bodies of men
with exalted enthusiasm, devotion, and faith. It did not matter to the
men whether an army commander, a corps commander, or a divisional
commander stood in the roadside to watch them march past on their way
to battle or on their way back. They saw one of these sturdy men in
his brass hat, with his ruddy face and white mustache, but no thrill
passed down their ranks, no hoarse cheers broke from them because he
was there, as when Wellington sat on his white horse in the Peninsular
War, or as when Napoleon saluted his Old Guard, or even as when Lord
Roberts, "Our Bob," came perched like a little old falcon on his big
Nine men out of ten in the ranks did not even know the name of their
army general or of the corps commander. It meant nothing to them. They
did not face death with more passionate courage to win the approval of
a military idol. That was due partly to the conditions of modern
warfare, which make it difficult for generals of high rank to get into
direct personal touch with their troops, and to the masses of men
engaged. But those difficulties could have been overcome by a general
of impressive personality, able to stir the imaginations of men by
words of fire spoken at the right time, by deep, human sympathy, and
by the luck of victory seized by daring adventure against great odds.
No such man appeared on the western front until Foch obtained the
supreme command. On the British front there was no general with the
gift of speech--a gift too much despised by our British men of action-
-or with a character and prestige which could raise him to the highest
rank in popular imagination. During the retreat from Mona, Sir John
French had a touch of that personal power--his presence meant
something to the men because of his reputation in South Africa; but
afterward, when trench warfare began, and the daily routine of
slaughter under German gun-fire, when our artillery was weak, and when
our infantry was ordered to attack fixed positions of terrible
strength without adequate support, and not a dog's chance of luck
against such odds, the prestige of the Commander-in-Chief faded from
men's minds and he lost place in their admiration. It was washed out
in blood and mud.
Sir Douglas Haig, who followed Sir John French, inherited the
disillusionment of armies who saw now that war on the western front
was to be a long struggle, with enormous slaughter, and no visible
sign of the end beyond a vista of dreadful years. Sir Douglas Haig, in
his general headquarters at St.-Omer, and afterward at Montreuil, near
the coast, had the affection and loyalty of the staff--officers. A man
of remarkably good looks, with fine, delicate features, strengthened
by the firm line of his jaw, and of singular sweetness, courtesy, and
simplicity in his manner toward all who approached him, he had
qualities which might have raised him to the supreme height of
personal influence among his armies but for lack of the magic touch
and the tragic condition of his command.
He was intensely shy and reserved, shrinking from publicity and
holding himself aloof from the human side of war. He was
constitutionally unable to make a dramatic gesture before a multitude,
or to say easy, stirring things to officers and men whom he reviewed.
His shyness and reserve prevented him also from knowing as much as he
ought to have known about the opinions of officers and men, and
getting direct information from them. He held the supreme command of
the British armies on the western front when, in the battlefields of
the Somme and Flanders, of Picardy and Artois, there was not much
chance for daring strategy, but only for hammer-strokes by the flesh
and blood of men against fortress positions--the German trench
systems, twenty-five miles deep in tunneled earthworks and machine-gun
dugouts--when the immensity of casualties among British troops was out
of all proportion to their gains of ground, so that our men's spirits
revolted against these massacres of their youth and they were
embittered against the generalship and staff-work which directed these
This sense of bitterness became intense, to the point of fury, so that
a young staff officer, in his red tabs, with a jaunty manner, was like
a red rag to a bull among battalion officers and men, and they desired
his death exceedingly, exalting his little personality, dressed in a
well-cut tunic and fawn-colored riding-breeches and highly polished
top-boots, into the supreme folly of "the Staff" which made men attack
impossible positions, send down conflicting orders, issued a litter of
documents--called by an ugly name--containing impracticable
instructions, to the torment of the adjutants and to the scorn of the
troops. This hatred of the Staff was stoked high by the fires of
passion and despair. Some of it was unjust, and even the jaunty young
staff-officer--a G. S. O. 3, with red tabs and polished boots--was
often not quite such a fool as he looked, but a fellow who had proved
his pluck in the early days of the war and was now doing his duty--
about equal to the work of a boy clerk--with real industry and an
exaggerated sense of its importance.
Personally I can pay high tribute to some of our staff--officers at
divisional, corps, and army headquarters, because of their industry,
efficiency, and devotion to duty. And during the progress of battle I
have seen them, hundreds of times, working desperately for long hours
without much rest or sleep, so that the fighting-men should get their
food and munitions, so that the artillery should support their
actions, and the troops in reserve move up to their relief at the
proper time and place.
Owing largely to new army brains the administrative side of our war
became efficient in its method and organization, and the armies were
worked like clockwork machines. The transport was good beyond all
words of praise, and there was one thing which seldom failed to reach
poor old Tommy Atkins, unless he was cut off by shell-fire, and that
was his food. The motor-supply columns and ammunition-dumps were
organized to the last item. Our map department was magnificent, and
the admiration of the French. Our Intelligence branch became valuable
(apart from a frequent insanity of optimism) and was sometimes uncanny
in the accuracy of its information about the enemy's disposition and
plans. So that the Staff was not altogether hopeless in its effect, as
the young battalion officers, with sharp tongues and a sense of
injustice in their hearts, made out, with pardonable blasphemy, in
Nevertheless the system was bad and British generalship made many
mistakes, some of them, no doubt, unavoidable, because it is human to
err, and some of them due to sheer, simple, impregnable stupidity.
In the early days the outstanding fault of our generals was their
desire to gain ground which was utterly worthless when gained. They
organized small attacks against strong positions, dreadfully costly to
take, and after the desperate valor of men had seized a few yards of
mangled earth, found that they had made another small salient, jutting
out from their front in a V-shaped wedge, so that it was a death-trap
for the men who had to hold it. This was done again and again, and I
remember one distinguished officer saying, with bitter irony,
remembering how many of his men had died, "Our generals must have
their little V's at any price, to justify themselves at G. H. Q."
In the battles of the Somme they attacked isolated objectives on
narrow fronts, so that the enemy swept our men with fire by artillery
concentrated from all points, instead of having to disperse his fire
during a general attack on a wide front. In the days of trench
warfare, when the enemy artillery was much stronger than ours, and
when his infantry strength was enormously greater, our generals
insisted upon the British troops maintaining an "aggressive" attitude,
with the result that they were shot to pieces, instead of adopting,
like the French, a quiet and waiting attitude until the time came for
a sharp and terrible blow. The battles of Neuve Chapelle, Fertubert,
and Loos, in 1915, cost us thousands of dead and gave us no gain of
any account; and both generalship and staff-work were, in the opinion
of most officers who know anything of those battles, ghastly.
After all, our generals had to learn their lesson, like the private
soldier, and the young battalion officer, in conditions of warfare
which had never been seen before--and it was bad for the private
soldier and the young battalion officer, who died so they might learn.
As time went on staff-work improved, and British generalship was less
rash in optimism and less rigid in ideas.
General Haldane was friendly to the war correspondents--he had been
something of the kind himself in earlier days--and we were welcomed at
his headquarters, both when he commanded the 3d Division and afterward
when he became commander of the 6th Corps. I thought during the war,
and I think now, that he had more intellect and "quality" than many of
our other generals. A tall, strongly built man, with a distinction of
movement and gesture, not "stocky" or rigid, but nervous and restless,
he gave one a sense of power and intensity of purpose. There was a
kind of slow-burning fire in him--a hatred of the enemy which was not
weakened in him by any mercy, and a consuming rage, as it appeared to
me, against inefficiency in high places, injustice of which he may
have felt himself to be the victim, and restrictions upon his liberty
of command. A bitter irony was often in his laughter when discussing
politicians at home, and the wider strategy of war apart from that on
his own front. He was intolerant of stupidity, which he found
widespread, and there was no tenderness or emotion in his attitude
toward life. The officers and men under his command accused him of
ruthlessness. But they admitted that he took more personal risk than
he need have done as a divisional general, and was constantly in the
trenches examining his line. They also acknowledged that he was
generous in his praise of their good service, though merciless if he
found fault with them. He held himself aloof--too much, I am sure--
from his battalion officers, and had an extreme haughtiness of bearing
which was partly due to reserve and that shyness which is in many
Englishmen and a few Scots.
In the old salient warfare he often demanded service in the way of
raids and the holding of death-traps, and the execution of minor
attacks which caused many casualties, and filled men with rage and
horror at what they believed to be unnecessary waste of life--their
life, and their comrades'--that did not make for popularity in the
ranks of the battalion messes. Privately, in his own mess, he was
gracious to visitors, and revealed not only a wide range of knowledge
outside as well as inside his profession, but a curious, unexpected
sympathy for ideas, not belonging as a rule to generals of the old
caste. I liked him, though I was always conscious of that flame and
steel in his nature which made his psychology a world away from mine.
He was hit hard--in what I think was the softest spot in his heart--by
the death of one of his A. D. C.'s--young Congreve, who was the beau
ideal of knighthood, wonderfully handsome, elegant even when covered
from head to foot in wet mud (as I saw him one day), fearless, or at
least scornful of danger, to the verge of recklessness. General
Haldane had marked him out as the most promising young soldier in the
whole army. A bit of shell, a senseless bit of steel, spoiled that
promise--as it spoiled the promise of a million boys--and the general
was saddened more than by the death of other gallant officers.
I have one memory of General Haldane which shows him in a different
light. It was during the great German offensive in the north, when
Arras was hard beset and the enemy had come back over Monchy Hill and
was shelling villages on the western side of Arras, which until then
had been undamaged. It was in one of these villages--near Avesnes-le-
Compte--to which the general had come back with his corps
headquarters, established there for many months in earlier days, so
that the peasants and their children knew him well by sight and had
talked with him, because he liked to speak French with them. When I
went to see him one day during that bad time in April of '18, he was
surrounded by a group of children who were asking anxiously whether
Arras would be taken. He drew a map for them in the dust of the
roadway, and showed them where the enemy was attacking and the general
strategy. He spoke simply and gravely, as though to a group of staff-
officers, and the children followed his diagram in the dust and
understood him perfectly.
"They will not take Arras if I can help it," he said. "You will be all
Gen. Sir Neville Macready was adjutant-general in the days of Sir John
French, and I dined at his mess once or twice, and he came to ours on
return visits. The son of Macready, the actor, he had a subtlety of
mind not common among British generals, to whom "subtlety" in any form
is repulsive. His sense of humor was developed upon lines of irony and
he had a sly twinkle in his eyes before telling one of his innumerable
anecdotes. They were good stories, and I remember one of them, which
had to do with the retreat from Mons. It was not, to tell the truth,
that "orderly" retreat which is described in second-hand accounts.
There were times when it was a wild stampede from the tightening loop
of a German advance, with lorries and motor-cycles and transport
wagons going helter-skelter among civilian refugees and mixed
battalions and stragglers from every unit walking, footsore, in small
groups. Even General Headquarters was flurried at times, far in
advance of this procession backward. One night Sir Neville Macready,
with the judge advocate and an officer named Colonel Childs (a hot-
headed fellow!), took up their quarters in a French chateau somewhere,
I think, in the neighborhood of Creil. The Commander-in-Chief was in
another chateau some distance away. Other branches of G. H. Q. were
billeted in private houses, widely scattered about a straggling
Colonel Childs was writing opposite the adjutant-general, who was
working silently. Presently Childs looked up, listened, and said:
"It's rather quiet, sir, outside."
"So much the better," growled General Macready. "Get on with your
A quarter of an hour passed. No rumble of traffic passed by the
windows. No gun-wagons were jolting over French pave.
Colonel Childs looked up again and listened.
"It's damned quiet outside, sir."
"Well, don't go making a noise," said the general, "Can't you see I'm
"I think I'll just take a turn round," said Colonel Childs.
He felt uneasy. Something in the silence of the village scared him. He
went out into the roadway and walked toward Sir John French's
quarters. There was no challenge from a sentry. The British
Expeditionary Force seemed to be sleeping. They needed sleep--poor
beggars!--but the Germans did not let them take much.
Colonel Childs went into the Commander-in-Chief's chateau and found a
soldier in the front hall, licking out a jam-pot.
"Where's the Commander-in-Chief?" asked the officer.
"Gone hours ago, sir," said the soldier. "I was left behind for lack
of transport. From what I hear the Germans ought to be here by now. I
rather fancy I heard some shots pretty close awhile ago."
Colonel Childs walked back to his own quarters quickly. He made no
apology for interrupting the work of the adjutant-general.
"General, the whole box of tricks has gone. We've been left behind.
"The dirty dogs!" said General Macready.
There was not much time for packing up, and only one motor-car, and
only one rifle. The general said he would look after the rifle, but
Colonel Childs said if that were so he would rather stay behind and
take his chance of being captured. It would be safer for him. So the
adjutant-general, the judge advocate, the deputy assistant judge
advocate (Colonel Childs), and an orderly or two packed into the car
and set out to find G.H.Q. Before they found it they had to run the
gantlet of Germans, and were sniped all the way through a wood, and
took flying shots at moving figures. Then, miles away, they found
"And weren't they sorry to see me again!" said General Macready, who
told me the tale. "They thought they had lost me forever."
The day's casualty list was brought into the adjutant--general one
evening when I was dining in his mess. The orderly put it down by the
side of his plate, and he interrupted a funny story to glance down the
columns of names.
"Du Maurier has been killed. . . I'm sorry."
He put down the paper beside his plate again and continued his story,
and we all laughed heartily at the end of the anecdote. It was the
only way, and the soldier's way. There was no hugging of grief when
our best friend fell. A sigh, another ghost in one's life, and then,
Scores of times, hundreds of times, during the battles of the Somme, I
passed the headquarters of Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding the
Fourth Army, and several times I met the army commander there and
elsewhere. One of my first meetings with him was extraordinarily
embarrassing to me for a moment or two. While he was organizing his
army, which was to be called, with unconscious irony, "The Army of
Pursuit"--the battles of the Somme were a siege rather than a pursuit-
-he desired to take over the chateau at Tilques, in which the war
correspondents were then quartered. As we were paying for it and liked
it, we put up an opposition which was most annoying to his A.D.C.'s,
especially to one young gentleman of enormous wealth, haughty manners,
and a boyish intolerance of other people's interests, who had looked
over our rooms without troubling to knock at the doors, and then said,
"This will suit us down to the ground." On my way back from the
salient one evening I walked up the drive in the flickering light of
summer eve, and saw two officers coming in my direction, one of whom I
thought I recognized as an old friend.
"Hullo!" I said, cheerily. "You here again?"
Then I saw that I was face to face with Sir Henry Rawlinson. He must
have been surprised, but dug me in the ribs in a genial way, and said,
"Hullo, young feller!"
He made no further attempt to "pinch" our quarters, but my familiar
method of address could not have produced that result.
His headquarters at Querrieux were in another old chateau on the
Amiens-Albert road, surrounded by pleasant fields through which a
stream wound its way. Everywhere the sign-boards were red, and a
military policeman, authorized to secure obedience to the rules
thereon, slowed down every motor-car on its way through the village,
as though Sir Henry Rawlinson lay sick of a fever, so anxious were his
gestures and his expression of "Hush! do be careful!"
The army commander seemed to me to have a roguish eye. He seemed to be
thinking to himself, "This war is a rare old joke!" He spoke
habitually of the enemy as "the old Hun" or "old Fritz," in an
affectionate, contemptuous way, as a fellow who was trying his best
but getting the worst of it every time. Before the battles of the
Somme I had a talk with him among his maps, and found that I had been
to many places in his line which he did not seem to know. He could not
find there very quickly on his large-sized maps, or pretended not to,
though I concluded that this was "camouflage," in case I might tell
"old Fritz" that such places existed. Like most of our generals, he
had amazing, overweening optimism. He had always got the enemy "nearly
beat," and he arranged attacks during the Somme fighting with the
jovial sense of striking another blow which would lead this time to
stupendous results. In the early days, in command of the 7th Division,
he had done well, and he was a gallant soldier, with initiative and
courage of decision and a quick intelligence in open warfare. His
trouble on the Somme was that the enemy did not permit open warfare,
but made a siege of it, with defensive lines all the way back to
Bapaume, and every hillock a machine-gun fortress and every wood a
death-trap. We were always preparing for a "break-through" for cavalry
pursuit, and the cavalry were always being massed behind the lines and
then turned back again, after futile waiting, encumbering the roads.
"The bloodbath of the Somme," as the Germans called it, was ours as
well as theirs, and scores of times when I saw the dead bodies of our
men lying strewn over those dreadful fields, after desperate and, in
the end, successful attacks through the woods of death--Mametz Wood,
Delville Wood, Trones Wood, Bernafay Wood, High Wood, and over the
Pozieres ridge to Courcellette and Martinpuich--I thought of Rawlinson
in his chateau in Querrieux, scheming out the battles and ordering up
new masses of troops to the great assault over the bodies of their
dead. . . Well, it is not for generals to sit down with their heads in
their hands, bemoaning slaughter, or to shed tears over their maps
when directing battle. It is their job to be cheerful, to harden their
hearts against the casualty lists, to keep out of the danger-zone
unless their presence is strictly necessary. But it is inevitable that
the men who risk death daily, the fighting-men who carry out the plans
of the High Command and see no sense in them, should be savage in
their irony when they pass a peaceful house where their doom is being
planned, and green-eyed when they see an army general taking a stroll
in buttercup fields, with a jaunty young A.D.C. slashing the flowers
with his cane and telling the latest joke from London to his laughing
chief. As onlookers of sacrifice some of us--I, for one--adopted the
point of view of the men who were to die, finding some reason in their
hatred of the staffs, though they were doing their job with a sense of
duty, and with as much intelligence as God had given them. Gen. Sir
Henry Rawlinson was one of our best generals, as may be seen by the
ribbons on his breast, and in the last phase commanded a real "Army of
Pursuit," which had the enemy on the run, and broke through to
Victory. It was in that last phase of open warfare that Rawlinson
showed his qualities of generalship and once again that driving
purpose which was his in the Somme battles, but achieved only by
prodigious cost of life.
Of General Allenby, commanding the Third Army before he was succeeded
by Gen. Sir Julian Byng and went to his triumph in Palestine, I knew
very little except by hearsay. He went by the name of "The Bull,"
because of his burly size and deep voice. The costly fighting that
followed the battle of Arras on April 9th along the glacis of the
Scarpe did not reveal high generalship. There were many young
officers--and some divisional generals who complained bitterly of
attacks ordered without sufficient forethought, and the stream of
casualties which poured back, day by day, with tales of tragic
happenings did not inspire one with a sense of some high purpose
behind it all, or some presiding genius.
General Byng, "Bungo Byng," as he was called by his troops, won the
admiration of the Canadian Corps which he commanded, and afterward, in
the Cambrai advance of November, '17, he showed daring of conception
and gained the first striking surprise in the war by novel methods of
attack--spoiled by the quick come-back of the enemy under Von Marwitz
and our withdrawal from Bourlon Wood, Masnieres, and Marcoing, and
other places, after desperate fighting.
His chief of staff, Gen. Louis Vaughan, was a charming, gentle-
mannered man, with a scientific outlook on the problems of war, and so
kind in his expression and character that it seemed impossible that he
could devise methods of killing Germans in a wholesale way. He was
like an Oxford professor of history discoursing on the Marlborough
wars, though when I saw him many times outside the Third Army
headquarters, in a railway carriage, somewhere near Villers Carbonnel
on the Somme battlefields, he was explaining his preparations and
strategy for actions to be fought next day which would be of bloody
consequence to our men and the enemy.
General Birdwood, commanding the Australian Corps, and afterward the
Fifth Army in succession to General Gough, was always known as
"Birdie" by high and low, and this dapper man, so neat, so bright, so
brisk, had a human touch with him which won him the affection of all
Gen. Hunter Weston, of the 8th Corps, was another man of character in
high command. He spoke of himself in the House of Commons one day as
"a plain, blunt soldier," and the army roared with laughter from end
to end. There was nothing plain or blunt about him. He was a man of
airy imagination and a wide range of knowledge, and theories on life
and war which he put forward with dramatic eloquence.
It was of Gen. Hunter Weston that the story was told about the drunken
soldier put onto a stretcher and covered with a blanket, to get him
out of the way when the army commander made a visit to the lines.
"What's this?" said the general.
"Casualty, sir," said the quaking platoon commander.
"Not bad, I hope?"
"Dead, sir," said the subaltern. He meant dead drunk.
The general drew himself up, and said, in his dramatic way, "The army
commander salutes the honored dead!"
And the drunken private put his head from under the blanket and asked,
"What's the old geezer a-sayin' of?"
That story may have been invented in a battalion mess, but it went
through the army affixed to the name of Hunter Weston, and seemed to
The 8th Corps was on the left in the first attack on the Somme, when
many of our divisions were cut to pieces in the attempt to break the
German line at Gommecourt. It was a ghastly tragedy, which spoiled the
success on the right at Fricourt and Montauban. But Gen. Hunter Weston
was not degomme, as the French would say, and continued to air his
theories on life and warfare until the day of Victory, when once again
we had "muddled through," not by great generalship, but by the courage
of common men.
Among the divisional generals with whom I came in contact--I met most
of them at one time or another--were General Hull of the 56th (London)
Division, General Hickey of the 16th (Irish) Division, General Harper
of the 51st (Highland) Division, General Nugent of the 36th (Ulster)
Division, and General Pinnie of the 35th (Bantams) Division, afterward
of the 33d.