Part 5 out of 10
But that absurd idea--of Santa Claus in the trenches--came into my
head several times, and I wondered whether the Germans would fire a
whizz-bang at him or give a burst of machine-gun fire if they caught
the glint of his red cloak.
Some of the soldiers had the same idea. In the front-line trench a
small group of Yorkshire lads were chaffing one another.
"Going to hang your boots up outside the dugout?" asked a lad,
grinning down at an enormous pair of waders belonging to a comrade.
"Likely, ain't it?" said the other boy. "Father Christmas would be a
bloody fool to come out here. . . They'd be full of water in the
"You'll get some presents," I said. "They haven't forgotten you at
At that word "home" the boy flushed and something went soft in his
eyes for a moment. In spite of his steel helmet and mud-stained
uniform, he was a girlish-looking fellow--perhaps that was why his
comrades were chaffing him--and I fancy the thought of Christmas made
him yearn back to some village in Yorkshire.
Most of the other men with whom I spoke treated the idea of Christmas
with contemptuous irony.
"A happy Christmas!" said one of them, with a laugh. "Plenty of
crackers about this year! Tom Smith ain't in it."
"And I hope we're going to give the Boches some Christmas presents,"
said another. "They deserve it, I don't think!"
"No truce this year?" I asked.
"A truce? . . . We're not going to allow any monkey--tricks on the
parapets. To hell with Christmas charity and all that tosh. We've got
to get on with the war. That's my motto."
Other men said: "We wouldn't mind a holiday. We're fed up to the neck
with all this muck."
The war did not stop, although it was Christmas Eve, and the only
carol I heard in the trenches was the loud, deep chant of the guns on
both sides, and the shrill soprano of whistling shells, and the rattle
on the keyboards of machine-guns. The enemy was putting more shells
into a bit of trench in revenge for a raid. To the left some shrapnel
shells were bursting, and behind the lines our "heavies" were busily
at work firing at long range.
"On earth peace, good-will toward men."
The message was spoken at many a little service on both sides of that
long line where great armies were entrenched with their death-
machines, and the riddle of life and faith was rung out by the
Christmas bells which came clashing on the rain-swept wind, with the
reverberation of great guns.
Through the night our men in the trenches stood in their waders, and
the dawn of Christmas Day was greeted, not by angelic songs, but by
the splutter of rifle-bullets all along the line.
There was more than half a gale blowing on the eve of the new year,
and the wind came howling with a savage violence across the rain-swept
fields, so that the first day of a fateful year had a stormy birth,
and there was no peace on earth.
Louder than the wind was the greeting of the guns to another year of
war. I heard the New-Year's chorus when I went to see the last of the
year across the battlefields. Our guns did not let it die in silence.
It went into the tomb of the past, with all its tragic memories, to
thunderous salvos, carrying death with them. The "heavies" were
indulging in a special strafe this New--Year's eve. As I went down a
road near the lines by Loos I saw, from concealed positions, the flash
of gun upon gun. The air was swept by an incessant rush of shells, and
the roar of all this artillery stupefied one's sense of sound. All
about me in the village of Annequin, through which I walked, there was
no other sound, no noise of human life. There were no New-Year's eve
rejoicings among those rows of miners' cottages on the edge of the
battlefield. Half those little red-brick houses were blown to pieces,
and when here and there through a cracked window-pane I saw a woman's
white face peering out upon me as I passed I felt as though I had seen
a ghost-face in some black pit of hell.
For it was hellish, this place wrecked by high explosives and always
under the fire of German guns. That any human being should be there
passed all belief. From a shell-hole in a high wall I looked across
the field of battle, where many of our best had died. The Tower Bridge
of Loos stood grim and gaunt above the sterile fields. Through the
rain and the mist loomed the long black ridge of Notre Dame de
Lorette, where many poor bodies lay in the rotting leaves. The ruins
of Haisnes and Hulluch were jagged against the sky-line. And here, on
New--Year's eve, I saw no sign of human life and heard no sound of it,
but stared at the broad desolation and listened to the enormous
clangor of great guns.
* * *
Coming back that day through Bethune I met some very human life. It
was a big party of bluejackets from the Grand Fleet, who had come to
see what "Tommy" was doing in the war. They went into the trenches and
saw a good deal, because the Germans made a bombing raid in that
sector and the naval men did their little bit by the side of the lads
in khaki, who liked this visit. They discovered the bomb store and
opened such a Brock's benefit that the enemy must have been shocked
with surprise. One young marine was bomb-slinging for four hours, and
grinned at the prodigious memory as though he had had the time of his
life. Another confessed to me that he preferred rifle-grenades, which
he fired off all night until the dawn. There was no sleep in the
dugouts, and every hour was a long thrill.
"I don't mind saying," said a petty officer who had fought in several
naval actions during the war and is a man of mark, "that I had a fair
fright when I was doing duty on the fire-step. 'I suppose I've got to
look through a periscope,' I said. 'Not you,' said the sergeant. 'At
night you puts your head over the parapet.' So over the parapet I put
my head, and presently I saw something moving between the lines. My
rifle began to shake. Germans! Moving, sure enough, over the open
ground. I fixed bayonet and prepared for an attack. . . But I'm
blessed if it wasn't a swarm of rats!"
The soldiers were glad to show Jack the way about the trenches, and
some of them played up a little audaciously, as, for instance, when a
young fellow sat on the top of the parapet at dawn.
"Come up and have a look, Jack," he said to one of the bluejackets.
"Not in these trousers, old mate!" said that young man.
"All as cool as cucumbers," said a petty officer, "and take the
discomforts of trench life as cheerily as any men could. It's
marvelous. Good luck to them in the new year!"
* * *
Behind the lines there was banqueting by men who were mostly doomed to
die, and I joined a crowd of them in a hall at Lillers on that New-
They were the heroes of Loos--or some of them--Camerons and Seaforths,
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordons and King's Own Scottish
Borderers, who, with the London men, were first on Hill 70 and away to
the Cite St.-Auguste. They left many comrades there, and their
battalions have been filled up with new drafts--of the same type as
themselves and of the same grit--but that day no ghost of grief, no
dark shadow of gloom, was upon any of the faces upon which I looked
round a festive board in a long, French hall, to which their wounded
came in those days of the September battle.
There were young men there from the Scottish universities and from
Highland farms, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a jolly comradeship
which burst into song between every mouthful of the feast. On the
platform above the banqueting-board a piper was playing, when I came
in, and this hall in France was filled with the wild strains of it.
"And they're grand, the pipes," said one of the Camerons. "When I've
been sae tired on the march I could have laid doon an' dee'd the touch
o' the pipes has fair lifted me up agen."
The piper made way for a Kiltie at the piano, and for Highlanders, who
sang old songs full of melancholy, which seemed to make the hearts of
his comrades grow glad as when they helped him with "The Bonnie,
Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." But the roof nearly flew off the hall to
"The March of the Cameron Men," and the walls were greatly strained
when the regimental marching song broke at every verse into wild
Highland shouts and the war-cry which was heard at Loos of "Camerons,
forward!" "Forward, Camerons!"
"An Englishman is good," said one of the Camerons, leaning over the
table to me, "and an Irishman is good, but a Scot is the best of all."
Then he struck the palm of one hand with the fist of another. "But the
London men," he said, with a fine, joyous laugh at some good memory,
"are as good as any fighting-men in France. My word, ye should have
seen 'em on September 25th. And the London Irish were just lions!"
Out in the rain-slashed street I met the colonel of a battalion of
Argylls and Sutherlands, with several of his officers; a tall, thin
officer with a long stride, who was killed when another year had
passed. He beckoned to me and said: "I'm going the rounds of the
billets to wish the men good luck in the new year. It's a strain on
the constitution, as I have to drink their health each time!"
He bore the strain gallantly, and there was something noble and
chivalrous in the way he spoke to all his men, gathered together in
various rooms in old Flemish houses, round plum-pudding from home or
feasts provided by the army cooks. To each group of men he made the
same kind of speech, thanking them from his heart for all their
"You were thanked by three generals," he said, "after your attack at
Loos, and you upheld the old reputation of the regiment. I'm proud of
you. And afterward, in November, when you had the devil of a time in
the trenches, you stuck it splendidly and came out with high spirits.
I wish you all a happy new year, and whatever the future may bring I
know I can count on you."
In every billet there were three cheers for the colonel, and another
three for the staff captain, and though the colonel protested that he
was afraid of spending a night in the guard-room (there were shouts of
laughter at this), he drank his sip of neat whisky, according to the
custom of the day.
"Toodle-oo, old bird!" said a kilted cockney, halfway up a ladder, on
which he swayed perilously, being very drunk; but the colonel did not
hear this familiar way of address.
In many billets and in many halls the feast of New Year's day was kept
in good comradeship by men who had faced death together, and who in
the year that was coming fought in many battles and fell on many
The Canadians who were in the Ypres salient in January, 1916, and for
a long time afterward, had a grim way of fighting. The enemy never
knew what they might do next. When they were most quiet they were most
dangerous. They used cunning as well as courage, and went out on red-
Indian adventures over No Man's Land for fierce and scientific
I remember one of their early raids in the salient, when a big party
of them--all volunteers--went out one night with intent to get through
the barbed wire outside a strong German position, to do a lot of
killing there. They had trained for the job and thought out every
detail of this hunting expedition. They blacked their faces so that
they would not show white in the enemy's flares. They fastened flash-
lamps to their bayonets so that they might see their victims. They
wore rubber gloves to save their hands from being torn on the barbs of
Stealthily they crawled over No Man's Land, crouching in shell-holes
every time a rocket rose and made a glimmer of light. They took their
time at the wire, muffling the snap of it by bits of cloth. Reliefs
crawled up with more gloves, and even with tins of hot cocoa. Then
through the gap into the German trenches, and there were screams of
German soldiers, terror-shaken by the flash of light in their eyes,
and black faces above them, and bayonets already red with blood. It
was butcher's work, quick and skilful, like red-Indian scalping.
Thirty Germans were killed before the Canadians went back, with only
two casualties. . . The Germans were horrified by this sudden
slaughter. They dared not come out on patrol work. Canadian scouts
crawled down to them and insulted them, ingeniously, vilely, but could
get no answer. Later they trained their machine--guns on German
working-parties and swept crossroads on which supplies came up, and
the Canadian sniper, in one shell-hole or another, lay for hours in
sulky patience, and at last got his man. . . They had to pay for all
this, at Maple Copse, in June of '15, as I shall tell. But it was a
vendetta which did not end until the war ended, and the Canadians
fought the Germans with a long, enduring, terrible, skilful patience
which at last brought them to Mons on the day before armistice.
I saw a good deal of the Canadians from first to last, and on many
days of battle saw the tough, hard fighting spirit of these men. Their
generals believed in common sense applied to war, and not in high
mysteries and secret rites which cannot be known outside the circle of
initiation. I was impressed by General Currie, whom I met for the
first time in that winter of 1915-16, and wrote at the time that I saw
in him "a leader of men who in open warfare might win great victories
by doing the common-sense thing rapidly and decisively, to the
surprise of an enemy working by elaborate science. He would, I think,
astound them by the simplicity of his smashing stroke." Those words of
mine were fulfilled--on the day when the Canadians helped to break the
Drocourt-Queant line, and when they captured Cambrai, with English
troops on their right, who shared their success. General Currie, who
became the Canadian Corps Commander, did not spare his men. He led
them forward whatever the cost, but there was something great and
terrible in his simplicity and sureness of judgment, and this real--
estate agent (as he was before he took to soldiering) was undoubtedly
a man of strong ability, free from those trammels of red tape and
tradition which swathed round so many of our own leaders.
He cut clean to the heart of things, ruthlessly, like a surgeon, and
as I watched that man, immense in bulk, with a heavy, thoughtful face
and stern eyes that softened a little when he smiled, I thought of him
as Oliver Cromwell. He was severe as a disciplinarian, and not beloved
by many men. But his staff-officers, who stood in awe of him, knew
that he demanded truth and honesty, and that his brain moved quickly
to sure decisions and saw big problems broadly and with understanding.
He had good men with him--mostly amateurs--but with hard business
heads and the same hatred of red tape and niggling ways which belonged
to their chief. So the Canadian Corps became a powerful engine on our
side when it had learned many lessons in blood and tragedy. They
organized their publicity side in the same masterful way, and were
determined that what Canada did the world should know--and damn all
censorship. They bought up English artists, photographers, and
writing--men to record their exploits. With Lord Beaverbrook in
England they engineered Canadian propaganda with immense energy, and
Canada believed her men made up the British army and did all the
fighting. I do not blame them, and only wish that the English soldier
should have been given his share of the honors that belonged to him--
the lion's share.
The Canadians were not the only men to go out raiding. It became part
of the routine of war, that quick killing in the night, for English
and Scottish and Irish and Welsh troops, and some had luck with it,
and some men liked it, and to others it was a horror which they had to
do, and always it was a fluky, nervy job, when any accident might lead
I remember one such raid by the 12th West Yorks in January of '15,
which was typical of many others, before raids developed into minor
battles, with all the guns at work.
There were four lieutenants who drew up the plan and called for
volunteers, and it was one of these who went out first and alone to
reconnoiter the ground and to find the best way through the German
barbed wire. He just slipped out over the parapet and disappeared into
the darkness. When he came back he had a wound in the wrist--it was
just the bad luck of a chance bullet--but brought in valuable
knowledge. He had found a gap in the enemy's wire which would give an
open door to the party of visitors. He had also tested the wire
farther along, and thought it could be cut without much bother.
"Good enough!" was the verdict, and a detachment started out for No
Man's Land, divided into two parties.
The enemy trenches were about one hundred yards away, which seems a
mile in the darkness and the loneliness of the dead ground. At regular
intervals the German rockets flared up so that the hedges and wire and
parapets along their line were cut out ink-black against the white
illumination, and the two patrols of Yorkshiremen who had been
crawling forward stopped and crouched lower and felt themselves
revealed, and then when darkness hid them again went on.
The party on the left were now close to the German wire and under the
shelter of a hedge. They felt their way along until the two subalterns
who were leading came to the gap which had been reported by the first
explorer. They listened intently and heard the German sentry stamping
his feet and pacing up and down. Presently he began to whistle softly,
utterly unconscious of the men so close to him--so close now that any
stumble, any clatter of arms, any word spoken, would betray them.
The two lieutenants had their revolvers ready and crept forward to the
parapet. The men had to act according to instinct now, for no order
could be given, and one of them found his instinct led him to clamber
right into the German trench a few yards away from the sentry, but on
the other side of the traverse. He had not been there long, holding
his breath and crouching like a wolf, before footsteps came toward him
and he saw the glint of a cigarette.
It was a German officer going his round. The Yorkshire boy sprang on
to the parapet again, and lay across it with his head toward our lines
and his legs dangling in the German trench. The German officer's cloak
brushed his heels, but the boy twisted round a little and stared at
him as he passed. But he passed, and presently the sentry began to
whistle again, some old German tune which cheered him in his
loneliness. He knew nothing of the eyes watching him through the
darkness nor of his nearness to death.
It was the first lieutenant who tried to shoot him. But the revolver
was muddy and would not fire. Perhaps a click disturbed the sentry.
Anyhow, the moment had come for quick work. It was the sergeant who
sprang upon him, down from the parapet with one pounce. A frightful
shriek, with the shrill agony of a boy's voice, wailed through the
silence. The sergeant had his hand about the German boy's throat and
tried to strangle him and to stop another dreadful cry.
The second officer made haste. He thrust his revolver close to the
struggling sentry and shot him dead, through the neck, just as he was
falling limp from a blow on the head given by the butt-end of the
weapon which had failed to fire. The bullet did its work, though it
passed through the sergeant's hand, which had still held the man by
the throat. The alarm had been raised and German soldiers were running
to the rescue.
"Quick!" said one of the officers.
There was a wild scramble over the parapet, a drop into the wet ditch,
and a race for home over No Man's Land, which was white under the
German flares and noisy with the waspish note of bullets.
The other party were longer away and had greater trouble to find a way
through, but they, too, got home, with one officer badly wounded, and
wonderful luck to escape so lightly. The enemy suffered from "the
jumps" for several nights afterward, and threw bombs into their own
barbed wire, as though the English were out there again. And at the
sound of those bombs the West Yorks laughed all along their trenches.
It was always astonishing, though afterward familiar in those
battlefields of Flanders, to find oneself in the midst of so many
nationalities and races and breeds of men belonging to that British
family of ours which sent its sons to sacrifice. In those trenches
there were all the ways of speech, all the sentiment of place and
history, all the creeds and local customs and songs of old tradition
which belong to the mixture of our blood wherever it is found about
The skirl of the Scottish bagpipes was heard through all the years of
war over the Flemish marshlands, and there were Highlanders and
Lowlanders with every dialect over the border. In one line of trenches
the German soldiers listened to part-songs sung in such trained
harmony that it was as if a battalion of opera-singers had come into
the firing-line. The Welshmen spoke their own language. For a time no
officer received his command unless he spoke it as fluently as running
water by Aberystwyth, and even orders were given in this tongue until
a few Saxons, discovered in the ranks, failed to form fours and know
their left hand from their right in Welsh.
The French-Canadians did not need to learn the language of the
peasants in these market towns. Soldiers from Somerset used many old
Saxon words which puzzled their cockney friends, and the Lancashire
men brought the northern bur with them and the grit of the northern
spirit. And Ireland, though she would not have conscription, sent some
of the bravest of her boys out there, and in all the bloodiest battles
since that day at Mons the old fighting qualities of the Irish race
shone brightly again, and the blood of her race has been poured out
upon these tragic fields.
One of the villages behind the lines of Arras was so crowded with
Irish boys at the beginning of '16 that I found it hard not to believe
that a part of old Ireland itself had found its way to Flanders. In
one old outhouse the cattle had not been evicted. Twelve Flemish cows
lay cuddled up together on the ground floor in damp straw, which gave
out a sweet, sickly stench, while the Irish soldiers lived upstairs in
the loft, to which they climbed up a tall ladder with broken rungs.
I went up the ladder after them--it was very shaky in the middle--and,
putting my head through the loft, gave a greeting to a number of dark
figures lying in the same kind of straw that I had smelled downstairs.
One boy was sitting with his back to the beams, playing a penny
whistle very softly to himself, or perhaps to the rats under the
"The craytures are that bold," said a boy from County Cork, "that when
we first came in they sat up smilin' and sang 'God Save Ireland.'
Bedad, and it's the truth I'm after tellin' ye."
The billets were wet and dirty. But it was good to be away from the
shells, even if the rain came through the beams of a broken roof and
soaked through the plaster of wattle walls. The Irish boys were good
at making wood fires in these old barns and pigsties, if there were a
few bricks about to make a hearth, and, sure, a baked potato was no
Protestant with a grudge against the Pope.
There were no such luxuries in the trenches when the Dublins and the
Munsters were up in the firing-line at the Hohenzollern. The shelling
was so violent that it was difficult to get up the supplies, and some
of the boys had to fall back on their iron rations. It was the only
complaint which one of them made when I asked him what he thought of
his first experience under fire.
"It was all right, sorr, and not so bad as I'd been after thinking, if
only my appetite had not been bigger than my belt, at all."
The spirit of these Irishmen was shown by some who had just come out
from the old country to join their comrades in the firing-line. When
the Germans put over a number of shells, smashing the trenches and
wounding men, the temper of the lads broke out, and they wanted to get
over the parapet and make a dash for the enemy. "'Twould taych him a
lesson," they told their officers, who had some trouble in restraining
These newcomers had to take part in the digging which goes on behind
the lines at night--out in the open, without the shelter of a trench.
It was nervous work, especially when the German flares went up,
silhouetting their figures on the sky-line, and when one of the
enemy's machine-guns began to chatter. But the Irish boys found the
heart for a jest, and one of them, resting on his spade a moment,
stared over to the enemy's lines and said, "May the old devil take the
spalpeen who works that typewriter!"
It was a scaring, nerve-racking time for those who had come fresh to
the trenches, some of those boys who had not guessed the realities of
war until then. But they came out proudly--"with their tails up," said
one of their officers--after their baptism of fire.
The drum-and-fife band of the Munsters was practising in an old barn
on the wayside, and presently, in honor of visitors--who were myself
and another--the pipers were sent for. They were five tall lads, who
came striding down the street of Flemish cottages, with the windbags
under their arms, and then, with the fife men sitting on the straw
around them and the drummers standing with their sticks ready, they
took their breath for "the good old Irish tune" demanded by the
It was a tune which men could not sing very safely in Irish
yesterdays, and it held the passion of many rebellious hearts and the
yearning of them.
Oh, Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that's going round? The
shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground.
She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen; They're
hanging men and women there for wearing of the green.
Then the pipers played the "March of O'Neill," a wild old air as
shrill and fierce as the spirit of the men who came with their Irish
battle-cries against Elizabeth's pikemen and Cromwell's Ironsides.
I thought then that the lads who still stayed back in Ireland, and the
old people there, would have been glad to stand with me outside that
Flemish barn and to hear the old tunes of their race played by the
boys who were out there fighting.
I think they would have wept a little, as I saw tears in the eyes of
an Irish soldier by my side, for it was the spirit of Ireland herself,
with all her poetry, and her valor, and her faith in liberty, which
came crying from those pipes, and I wished that the sound of them
could carry across the sea.
That was a year before I saw the Irish battalions come out of Guichy,
a poor remnant of the strength that had gone in, all tattered and
torn, and caked with the filth of battle, and hardly able to stagger
along. But they pulled themselves up a little, and turned eyes left
when they passed their brigadier, who called out words of praise to
It was more than a year later than that when I saw the last of them,
after a battle in Flanders, when they were massacred, and lay in heaps
round German redoubts, up there in the swamps.
Early in the morning of February 23d there was a clear sky with a
glint of sun in it, and airplanes were aloft as though it would be a
good flying-day. But before midday the sky darkened and snow began to
fall, and then it snowed steadily for hours, so that all the fields of
Flanders were white.
There was a strange, new beauty in the war zone which had changed all
the pictures of war by a white enchantment. The villages where our
soldiers were billeted looked as though they were expecting a visit
from Santa Claus. The snow lay thick on the thatch and in soft, downy
ridges on the red-tiled roofs. It covered, with its purity, the
rubbish heaps in Flemish farmyards and the old oak beams of barns and
sheds where British soldiers made their beds of straw. Away over the
lonely country which led to the trenches, every furrow in the fields
was a thin white ridge, and the trees, which were just showing a
shimmer of green, stood ink-black against the drifting snow-clouds,
with a long white streak down each tall trunk on the side nearest to
the wind. The old windmills of Flanders which looked down upon the
battlefields had been touched by the softly falling flakes, so that
each rib of their sails and each rung of their ladders and each plank
of their ancient timbers was outlined like a frosty cobweb.
Along the roads of war our soldiers tramped through the blizzard with
ermine mantles over their mackintosh capes, and mounted men with their
heads bent to the storm were like white knights riding through a white
wilderness. The long columns of motor-lorries, the gun--limbers drawn
up by their batteries, the field ambulances by the clearing hospitals,
were all cloaked in snow, and the tramp and traffic of an army were
hushed in the great quietude.
In the trenches the snow fell thickly and made white pillows of the
piled sand-bags and snow-men of sentries standing in the shelter of
the traverses. The tarpaulin roofs and timbered doorways of dugouts
were so changed by the snowflakes that they seemed the dwelling-places
of fairy folks or, at least, of Pierrot and Columbine in a Christmas
hiding-place, and not of soldiers stamping their feet and blowing on
their fingers and keeping their rifles dry.
In its first glamour of white the snow gave a beauty even to No Man's
Land, making a lace-work pattern of barbed wire, and lying very softly
over the tumbled ground of mine-fields, so that all the ugliness of
destruction and death was hidden under this canopy. The snowflakes
fluttered upon stark bodies there, and shrouded them tenderly. It was
as though all the doves of peace were flying down to fold their wings
above the obscene things of war.
For a little while the snow brought something like peace. The guns
were quieter, for artillery observation was impossible. There could be
no sniping, for the scurrying flakes put a veil between the trenches.
The airplanes which went up in the morning came down quickly to the
powdered fields and took shelter in their sheds. A great hush was over
the war zone, but there was something grim, suggestive of tragic
drama, in this silent countryside, so white even in the darkness,
where millions of men were waiting to kill one another.
Behind the lines the joke of the snow was seen by soldiers, who were
quick to see a chance of fun. Men who had been hurling bombs in the
Ypres salient bombarded one another with hand-grenades, which burst
noiselessly except for the shouts of laughter that signaled a good
French soldiers were at the same game in one village I passed, where
the snow-fight was fast and furious, and some of our officers led an
attack upon old comrades with the craft of trappers and an expert
knowledge of enfilade fire. The white peace did not last long. The
ermine mantle on the battlefield was stained by scarlet patches as
soon as men could see to fight again.
For some days in that February of 1916 the war correspondents in the
Chateau of Tilques, from which they made their expeditions to the
line, were snowed up like the army round them. Not even the motor-cars
could move through that snow which drifted across the roads. We sat
indoors talking--high treason sometimes--pondering over the problem of
a war from which there seemed no way out, becoming irritable with one
another's company, becoming passionate in argument about the ethics of
war, the purpose of man, the gospel of Christ, the guilt of Germany,
and the dishonesty of British politicians. Futile, foolish arguments,
while men were being killed in great numbers, as daily routine,
Officers of a division billeted nearby came in to dine with us, some
of them generals with elaborate theories on war and a passionate
hatred of Germany, seeing no other evil in the world; some of them
brigadiers with tales of appalling brutality (which caused great
laughter), some of them battalion officers with the point of view of
those who said, "Morituri te saluant!"
There was one whose conversation I remember (having taken notes of it
before I turned in that night). It was a remarkable conversation,
summing up many things of the same kind which I had heard in stray
sentences by other officers, and month by month, years afterward,
heard again, spoken with passion. This officer who had come out to
France in 1914 and had been fighting ever since by a luck which had
spared his life when so many of his comrades had fallen round him, did
not speak with passion. He spoke with a bitter, mocking irony. He said
that G.H.Q. was a close corporation in the hands of the military
clique who had muddled through the South African War, and were now
going to muddle through a worse one. They were, he said, intrenched
behind impregnable barricades of old, moss-eaten traditions, red tape,
and caste privilege. They were, of course, patriots who believed that
the Empire depended upon their system. They had no doubt of their
inherent right to conduct the war, which was "their war," without
interference or criticism or publicity. They spent many hours of the
days and nights in writing letters to one another, and those who wrote
most letters received most decorations, and felt, with a patriotic
fire within their breasts, that they were getting on with the war.
Within their close corporation there were rivalries, intrigues,
perjuries, and treacheries like those of a medieval court. Each
general and staff-officer had his followers and his sycophants, who
jostled for one another's jobs, fawned on the great man, flattered his
vanity, and made him believe in his omniscience. Among the General
Staff there were various grades--G.S.O. I, G.S.O. II, G.S.O. III, and
those in the lower grades fought for a higher grade with every kind of
artfulness, and diplomacy and back-stair influence. They worked late
into the night. That is to say, they went back to their offices after
dining at mess--"so frightfully busy, you know, old man!"--and kept
their lights burning, and smoked more cigarettes, and rang one another
up on the telephone with futile questions, and invented new ways of
preventing something from being down somewhere. The war to them was a
far-off thing essential to their way of life, as miners in the coal-
fields are essential to statesmen in Downing Street, especially in
cold weather. But it did not touch their souls or their bodies. They
did not see its agony, or imagine it, or worry about it. They were
always cheerful, breezy, bright with optimism. They made a little work
go a long way. They were haughty and arrogant with subordinate
officers, or at the best affable and condescending, and to superior
officers they said, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Quite so, sir," to any
statement, however absurd in its ignorance and dogmatism. If a major-
general said, "Wagner was a mountebank in music," G.S.O. III, who had
once studied at Munich, said, "Yes, sir," or, "You think so, sir? Of
course you're right."
If a lieutenant-colonel said, "Browning was not a poet," a staff
captain, who had read Browning at Cambridge with passionate
admiration, said: "I quite agree with you, sir. And who do you think
was a poet, sir?"
It was the army system. The opinion of a superior officer was correct,
always. It did not admit of contradiction. It was not to be
criticized. Its ignorance was wisdom.
G. H. Q. lived, said our guest, in a world of its own, rose-colored,
remote from the ugly things of war. They had heard of the trenches,
yes, but as the West End hears of the East End--a nasty place where
common people lived. Occasionally they visited the trenches as society
folk go slumming, and came back proud of having seen a shell burst,
having braved the lice and the dirt.
"The trenches are the slums," said our guest. "We are the Great
Unwashed. We are the Mud-larks."
There was a trench in the salient called J. 3. It was away out in
advance of our lines. It was not connected with our own trench system.
It had been left derelict by both sides and was a ditch in No Man's
Land. But our men were ordered to hold it--"to save sniping." A
battalion commander protested to the Headquarters Staff. There was no
object in holding J. 3. It was a target for German guns and a
temptation to German miners.
"J. 3," came the staff command, "must be held until further orders."
We lost five hundred men in holding it. The trench and all in it were
thrown up by mines. Among those killed was the Hon. Lyndhurst Bruce,
the husband of Camille Clifford, with other husbands of women unknown.
Our guest told the story of the massacre in Neuve Chapelle. "This is a
death sentence," said the officers who were ordered to attack. But
they attacked, and died, with great gallantry, as usual.
"In the slums," said our guest, "we are expected to die if G. H. Q.
tells us so, or if the corps arranges our funeral. And generally we
That night, when the snow lay on the ground, I listened to the
rumbling of the gunning away in the salient, and seemed to hear the
groans of men at Hooge, at St.-Eloi, in other awful places. The irony
of that guest of ours was frightful. It was bitter beyond justice,
though with truth in the mockery, the truth of a soul shocked by the
waste of life and heroism; . . . when I met him later in the war he
was on the staff.
The world--our side of it--held its breath and felt its own heart-beat
when, in February of that year '15, the armies of the German Crown
Prince launched their offensive against the French at Verdun. It was
the biggest offensive since their first drive down to the Marne; and
as the days passed and they hurled fresh masses of men against the
French and brought up new guns to replace their losses, there was no
doubt that in this battle the Germans were trying by all their weight
to smash their way to victory through the walls which the French had
built against them by living flesh and spirit.
"Will they hold?" was the question which every man among us asked of
his neighbor and of his soul.
On our front there was nothing of war beyond the daily routine of the
trenches and the daily list of deaths and wounds. Winter had closed
down upon us in Flanders, and through its fogs and snows came the news
of that conflict round Verdun to the waiting army, which was ours. The
news was bad, yet not the worst. Poring over maps of the French front,
we in our winter quarters saw with secret terror, some of us with a
bluster of false optimism, some of us with unjustified despair, that
the French were giving ground, giving ground slowly, after heroic
resistance, after dreadful massacre, and steadily. They were falling
back to the inner line of forts, hard pressed. The Germans, in spite
of monstrous losses under the flail of the soixante-quinzes, were
forcing their way from slope to slope, capturing positions which all
but dominated the whole of the Verdun heights.
"If the French break we shall lose the war," said the pessimist.
"The French will never lose Verdun," said the optimist.
"Why not? What are your reasons beyond that cursed optimism which has
been our ruin? Why announce things like that as though divinely
inspired? For God's sake let us stare straight at the facts."
"The Germans are losing the war by this attack on Verdun. They are
just pouring their best soldiers into the furnace--burning the flower
of their army. It is our gain. It will lead in the end to our
"But, my dear good fool, what about the French losses? Don't they get
killed, too? The German artillery is flogging them with shell-fire
from seventeen-inch guns, twelve-inch, nine-inch, every bloody and
monstrous engine. The French are weak in heavy artillery. For that
error, which has haunted them from the beginning, they are now paying
with their life's blood--the life blood of France."
"You are arguing on emotion and fear. Haven't you learned yet that the
attacking side always loses more than the defense?"
"That is a sweeping statement. It depends on relative man-power and
gun-power. Given a superiority of guns and men, and attack is cheap.
Defense is blown off the earth. Otherwise how could we ever hope to
"I agree. But the forces at Verdun are about equal, and the French
have the advantage of position. The Germans are committing suicide."
"Humbug! They know what they are doing. They are the greatest soldiers
"Led by men with bone heads."
"By great scientists."
"By the traditional rules of medievalism. By bald--headed vultures in
spectacles with brains like penny-in--the-slot machines. Put in a
penny and out comes a rule of war. Mad egoists! Colossal blunderers!
Efficient in all things but knowledge of life."
"Then God help our British G.H.Q.!"
A long silence. The silence of men who see monstrous forces at work,
in which human lives are tossed like straws in flame. A silence
reaching back to old ghosts of history, reaching out to supernatural
aid. Then from one speaker or another a kind of curse and a kind of
"Hell! . . . God help us all!"
So it was in our mess where war correspondents and censors sat down
together after futile journeys to dirty places to see a bit of shell-
fire, a few dead bodies, a line of German trenches through a
periscope, a queue of wounded men outside a dressing station, the
survivors of a trench raid, a bombardment before a "minor operation,"
a trench-mortar "stunt," a new part of the line. . . Verdun was the
only thing that mattered in March and April until France had saved
herself and all of us.
The British army took no part in that battle of Verdun, but rendered
great service to France at that time. By February of 1915 we had taken
over a new line of front, extending from our positions round Loos
southward to the country round Lens and Arras. It was to this movement
in February that Marshal Joffre made allusion when, in a message to
our Commander-in-Chief on March 2d, he said that "the French army
remembered that its recent call on the comradeship of the British army
met with an immediate and complete response."
By liberating an immense number of French troops of the Tenth Army and
a mass of artillery from this part of the front, we had the good
fortune to be of great service to France at a time when she needed
many men and guns to repel the assault upon Verdun.
Some of her finest troops--men who had fought in many battles and had
held the trenches with most dogged courage--were here in this sector
of the western front, and many batteries of heavy and light artillery
had been in these positions since the early months of the war. It was,
therefore, giving a new and formidable strength to the defense of
Verdun when British troops replaced them at the time the enemy made
his great attack.
The French went away from this part of their battlefront with regret
and emotion. To them it was sacred ground, this line from the long
ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette, past Arras, the old capital of Artois,
to Hebuterne, where it linked up with the British army already on the
Somme. Every field here was a graveyard of their heroic dead.
I went over all the ground which we now held, and saw the visible
reminders of all that fighting which lay strewn there, and told the
story of all the struggle there by the upheaval of earth, the wreckage
of old trenches, the mine--craters and shell-holes, and the litter of
battle in every part of that countryside.
I went there first--to the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette looking
northward to Lens, and facing the Vimy Ridge, which the enemy held as
a strong barrier against us above the village of Souchez and Ablain
St.-Nazaire and Neuville St.-Vaast, which the French had captured--
when they were still there; and I am glad of that, for I saw in their
places the men who had lived there and fought there as one may read in
the terrible and tragic narrative of war by Henri Barbusse in Le Feu.
I went on such a day as Barbusse describes. (Never once did he admit
any fine weather to alleviate the suffering of his comrades, thereby
exaggerating their misery somewhat.) It was raining, and there was a
white, dank mist through the trees of the Bois de Bouvigny on the way
to the spur of Notre Dame. It clung to the undergrowth, which was torn
by shell-fire, and to every blade of grass growing rankly round the
lips of shell-craters in which were bits of red rag or old bones, the
red pantaloons of the first French armies who had fought through those
woods in the beginning of the war.
I roamed about a graveyard there, where shells had smashed down some
of the crosses, but had not damaged the memorial to the men who had
stormed up the slope of Notre Dame de Lorette and had fallen when
their comrades chased the Germans to the village below.
A few shells came over the hill as I pushed through the undergrowth
with a French captain, and they burst among the trees with shattering
boughs. I remember that little officer in a steel helmet, and I could
see a Norman knight as his ancestor with a falcon as his crest. He
stood so often on the sky-line, in full view of the enemy (I was
thankful for the mist), that I admired but deplored his audacity.
Without any screen to hide us we walked down the hillside, gathering
clots of greasy mud in our boots, stumbling, and once sprawling.
Another French captain joined us and became the guide.
"This road is often 'Marmite,'" he said, "but I have escaped so often
I have a kind of fatalism."
I envied his faith, remembering two eight-inch shells which a few
minutes before had burst in our immediate neighborhood, cutting off
twigs of trees and one branch with a scatter of steel as sharp as
knives and as heavy as sledge-hammers.
Then for the first time I went into Ablain St.-Nazaire, which
afterward I passed through scores of times on the way to Vimy when
that ridge was ours. The ragged ruin of its church was white and
ghostly in the mist. On the right of the winding road which led
through it was Souchez Wood, all blasted and riven, and beyond a
huddle of bricks which once was Souchez village.
"Our men have fallen on every yard of this ground," said the French
officer. "Their bodies lie thick below the soil. Poor France! Poor
He spoke with tragedy in his eyes and voice, seeing the vision of all
that youth of France which even then, in March of '16, had been
offered up in vast sacrifice to the greedy devils of war. Rain was
slashing down now, beating a tattoo on the steel helmets of a body of
French soldiers who stood shivering by the ruined walls while trench-
mortars were making a tumult in the neighborhood. They were the men of
Henri Barbusse--his comrades. There were middle-aged men and boys
mixed together in a confraternity of misery. They were plastered with
wet clay, and their boots were enlarged grotesquely by the clots of
mud on them. Their blue coats were soddened, and the water dripped out
of them and made pools round their feet. They were unshaven, and their
wet faces were smeared with the soil of the trenches.
"How goes it?" said the French captain with me.
"It does not go," said the French sergeant. "'Cre nom de Dieu!--my men
are not gay to-day. They have been wet for three weeks and their bones
are aching. This place is not a Bal Tabourin. If we light even a
little fire we ask for trouble. At the sight of smoke the dirty Boche
starts shelling again. So we do not get dry, and we have no warmth,
and we cannot make even a cup of good hot coffee. That dirty Boche up
there on Vimy looks out of his deep tunnels and laughs up his sleeve
and says those poor devils of Frenchmen are not gay to-day! That is
true, mon Capitaine. Mais, que voulez-vous ? C'est pour la France."
"Oui. C'est pour la France."
The French captain turned away and I could see that he pitied those
comrades of his as we went over cratered earth to the village of
"Poor fellows," he said, presently. "Not even a cup of hot coffee! . .
. That is war! Blood and misery. Glory, yes--afterward! But at what a
So we came to Neuville St.-Vaast, a large village once with a fine
church, old in history, a schoolhouse, a town hall, many little
streets of comfortable houses under the shelter of the friendly old
hill of Vimy, and within easy walk of Arras; then a frightful rubbish
heap mingled with unexploded shells, the twisted iron of babies'
perambulators, bits of dead bodies, and shattered farm-carts.
Two French soldiers carried a stretcher on which a heavy burden lay
under a blood-soaked blanket.
"It is a bad wound?" asked the captain.
The men laid the stretcher down, breathing hard, and uncovered a face,
waxen, the color of death. It was the face of a handsome man with a
pointed beard, breathing snuffily through his nose.
"He may live as far as the dressing station," said one of the
Frenchmen. "It was a trench-mortar which blew a hole in his body just
now, over there."
The man jerked his head toward a barricade of sand--bags at the end of
a street of ruin.
Two other men walked slowly toward us with a queer, hobbling gait.
Both of them were wounded in the legs, and had tied rags round their
wounds tightly. They looked grave, almost sullen, staring at us as
they passed, with brooding eyes.
"The German trench-mortars are very evil," said the captain.
We poked about the ruins, raising our heads cautiously above sand-bags
to look at the German lines cut into the lower slopes of Vimy, and
thrust out by communication trenches to the edge of the village in
which we walked. A boy officer came up out of a hole and saluted the
captain, who stepped back and said, in an emotional way:
"Tiens! C'est toi, Edouard?"
"Oui, mon Capitaine."
The boy had a fine, delicate, Latin face, with dark eyes and long,
"You are a lieutenant, then? How does it go, Edouard?"
"It does not go," answered the boy like that French sergeant in Ablain
St.-Nazaire. "This is a bad place. I lose my men every day. There were
three killed yesterday, and six wounded. To-day already there are two
killed and ten wounded."
Something broke in his voice.
"Ce n'est pas bon du tout, du tout!" ("It is not good at all, at
The captain clapped him on the shoulders, tried to cheer him.
"Courage, mon vieux!"
The rain shot down on us. Our feet slithered in deep, greasy mud.
Sharp stabs of flame vomited out of the slopes of Vimy. There was the
high, long-drawn scream of shells in flight to Notre Dame de Lorette.
Batteries of soixante-quinzes were firing rapidly, and their shells
cut through the air above us like scythes. The caldron in this pit of
war was being stirred up. Another wounded poilu was carried past us,
covered by a bloody blanket like the other one. From slimy sand-bags
and wet ruins came the sickening stench of human corruption. A boot
with some pulp inside protruded from a mud--bank where I stood, and
there was a human head, without eyes or nose, black, and rotting in
the puddle of a shell--hole. Those were relics of a battle on May 9th,
a year before, when swarms of boys, of the '16 class, boys of
eighteen, the flower of French youth, rushed forward from the
crossroads at La Targette, a few hundred yards away, to capture these
ruins of Neuville St.-Vaast. They captured them, and it cost them
seven thousand in killed and wounded--at least three thousand dead.
They fought like young demons through the flaming streets. They fell
in heaps under the German barrage-fire. Machine--guns cut them down as
though they were ripe corn under the sickle. But these French boys
broke the Prussian Guard that day.
Round about, over all this ground below Notre Dame de Lorette and the
fields round Souchez, the French had fought ferociously, burrowing
below earth at the Labyrinth--sapping, mining, gaining a network of
trenches, an isolated house, a huddle of ruins, a German sap-head, by
frequent rushes and the frenzy of those who fight vith their teeth and
hands, flinging themselves on the bodies of their enemy, below ground
in the darkness, or above ground between ditches and sand-bags. So for
something like fifteen months they fought, by Souchez and the
Labyrinth, until in February of '16 they went away after greeting our
khaki men who came into their old places and found the bones and
bodies of Frenchmen there, as I found, white, rat-gnawed bones, in
disused trenches below Notre Dame when the rain washed the earth down
and uncovered them.
It was then, in that February of '15, that the city of Arras passed
for defense into British hands and became from that time on one of our
strongholds on the edge of the battlefields so that it will be haunted
forever by the ghosts of those men of ours whom I saw there on many
days of grim fighting, month after month, in snow and sun and rain, in
steel helmets and stink-coats, in muddy khaki and kilts, in queues of
wounded (three thousand at a time outside the citadel), in billets
where their laughter and music were scornful of high velocities, in
the surging tide of traffic that poured through to victory that cost
as much sometimes as defeat.
When I first went into Arras during its occupation by the French I
remembered a day, fifteen months before, near the town of St.-Pol in
Artois, where I was caught up in one of those tides of fugitives which
in those early days of war used to roll back in a state of terror
before the German invasion. "Where do they come from?" I asked,
watching this long procession of gigs and farmers' carts and tramping
women and children. The answer told me everything. "They are
bombarding Arras, m'sieur."
Since then "They" had never ceased to bombard Arras. From many points
of view, as I had come through the countryside at night, I had seen
the flashes of shells over that city and had thought of the agony
inside. Four days before I went in first it was bombarded with one
hundred and fifty seventeen-inch shells, each one of which would
destroy a cathedral. It was with a sense of being near to death--not a
pleasant feeling, you understand--that I went into Arras for the first
time and saw what had happened to it.
I was very near to the Germans. No more than ten yards away, when I
stood peering through a hole in the wall of the Maison Rouge in the
suburb of Blangy--it was a red-brick villa, torn by shells, with a
piano in the parlor which no man dared to play, behind a shelter of
sand-bags--and no more than two hundred yards away from the enemy's
lines when I paced up and down the great railway station of Arras,
where no trains ever traveled. For more than a year the enemy had been
encamped outside the city, and for all that time had tried to batter a
way into and through it. An endless battle had surged up against its
walls, but in spite of all their desperate attacks no German soldier
had set foot inside the city except as a prisoner of war. Many
thousands of young Frenchmen had given their blood to save it.
The enemy had not been able to prevail over flesh and blood and the
spirit of heroic men, but he had destroyed the city bit by bit. It was
pitiful beyond all expression. It was worse than looking upon a woman
whose beauty had been scarred by bloody usage.
For Arras was a city of beauty--a living expression in stone of all
the idealism in eight hundred years of history, a most sweet and
gracious place. Even then, after a year's bombardment, some spiritual
exhalation of human love and art came to one out of all this ruin.
When I entered the city and wandered a little in its public gardens
before going into its dead heart--the Grande Place--I felt the strange
survival. The trees here were slashed by shrapnel. Enormous shell-
craters had plowed up those pleasure-grounds. The shrubberies were
Almost every house had been hit, every building was scarred and
slashed, but for the most part the city still stood, so that I went
through many long streets and passed long lines of houses, all
deserted, all dreadful in their silence and desolation and ruin.
Then I came to the cathedral of St.-Vaast. It was an enormous building
of the Renaissance, not beautiful, but impressive in its spaciousness
and dignity. Next to it was the bishop's palace, with long corridors
and halls, and a private chapel. Upon these walls and domes the fury
of great shells had spent itself. Pillars as wide in girth as giant
trees had been snapped off to the base. The dome of the cathedral
opened with a yawning chasm. High explosives burst through the walls.
The keystones of arches were blown out, and masses of masonry were
piled into the nave and aisles.
As I stood there, rooks had perched in the broken vaulting and flew
with noisy wings above the ruined altars. Another sound came like a
great beating of wings, with a swifter rush. It was a shell, and the
vibration of it stirred the crumbling masonry, and bits of it fell
with a clatter to the littered floor. On the way to the ruin of the
bishop's chapel I passed a group of stone figures. They were the
famous "Angels of Arras" removed from some other part of the building
to what might have been a safer place.
Now they were fallen angels, mangled as they lay. But in the chapel
beyond, where the light streamed through the broken panes of stained-
glass windows, one figure stood untouched in all this ruin. It was a
tall statue of Christ standing in an attitude of meekness and sorrow,
as though in the presence of those who crucified Him.
Yet something more wonderful than this scene of tragedy lived in the
midst of it. Yet there were still people living in Arras.
They lived an underground life, for the most part, coming up from the
underworld to blink in the sunlight, to mutter a prayer or a curse or
two, to gaze for a moment at any change made by a new day's
bombardment, and then to burrow down again at the shock of a gun.
Through low archways just above the pavement, I looked down into some
of the deep-vaulted cellars where the merchants used to stock their
wine, and saw old women, and sometimes young women there, cooking over
little stoves, pottering about iron bedsteads, busy with domestic
work. Some of them looked up as I passed, and my eyes and theirs
stared into each other. The women's faces were lined and their eyes
sunken. They had the look of people who have lived through many
agonies and have more to suffer.
Not all these citizens of Arras were below ground. There was a
greengrocer's shop still carrying on a little trade. I went into
another shop and bought some picture post-cards of the ruins within a
few yards of it. The woman behind the counter was a comely soul, and
laughed because she had no change. Only two days before a seventeen-
inch shell had burst fifty yards or so away from her shop, which was
close enough for death. I marveled at the risk she took with cheerful
smiles. Was it courage or stupidity?
One of the old women in the street grasped my arm in a friendly way
and called me cher petit ami, and described how she had been nearly
killed a hundred times. When I asked her why she stayed she gave an
old woman's cackling laugh and said, "Que voulez-vous, jeune homme?"
which did not seem a satisfactory answer. As dusk crept into the
streets of Arras I saw small groups of boys and girls. They seemed to
come out of holes in the ground to stare at this Englishman in khaki.
"Are you afraid of the shells?" I asked. They grimaced up at the sky
and giggled. They had got used to the hell of it all, and dodged death
as they would a man with a whip, shouting with laughter beyond the
length of his lash. In one of the vaulted cellars underground, when
English soldiers first went in, there lived a group of girls who gave
them wine to drink, and kisses for a franc or two, and the Circe cup
of pleasure, if they had time to stay. Overhead shells were howling.
Their city was stricken with death. These women lived like witches in
a cave--a strange and dreadful life.
I walked to the suburb of Blangy by way of St.-Nicolas and came to a
sinister place. Along the highroad from Arras to Douai was a great
factory of some kind--probably for beet sugar--and then a street of
small houses with back yards and gardens much like those in our own
suburbs. Holes had been knocked through the walls of the factory and
houses, the gardens had been barricaded with barbed wire and sand-
bags, and the passage from house to house and between the overturned
boilers of the factory formed a communication trench to the advanced
outpost in the last house held by the French, on the other side of
which is the enemy. As we made our way through these ruined houses we
had to walk very quietly and to speak in whispers. In the last house
of all, which was a combination of fort and dugout, absolute silence
was necessary, for there were German soldiers only ten yards away,
with trench-mortars and bombs and rifles always ready to snipe across
the walls. Through a chink no wider than my finger I could see the
red-brick ruins of the houses inhabited by the enemy and the road to
Douai . . . The road to Douai as seen through this chink was a tangle
of broken bricks.
The enemy was so close to Arras when the French held it that there
were many places where one had to step quietly and duck one's head, or
get behind the shelter of a broken wall, to avoid a sniper's bullet or
the rattle of bullets from a machine-gun.
As I left Arras in that November evening, darkness closed in its
ruined streets and shells were crashing over the city from French
guns, answered now and then by enemy batteries. But in a moment of
rare silence I heard the chime of a church clock. It seemed like the
sweet voice of that old-time peace in Arras before the days of its
agony, and I thought of that solitary bell sounding above the ruins in
a ghostly way.
While we hung on the news from Verdun--it seemed as though the fate of
the world were in Fort Douaumont--our own lists of death grew longer.
In the casualty clearing station by Poperinghe more mangled men lay on
their stretchers, hobbled to the ambulance-trains, groped blindly with
one hand clutching at a comrade's arm. More, and more, and more, with
head wounds, and body wounds, with trench-feet, and gas.
"O Christ!" said one of them whom I knew. He had been laid on a swing-
bed in the ambulance-train.
"Now you will be comfortable and happy," said the R.A.M.C. orderly.
The boy groaned again. He was suffering intolerable agony, and,
grasping a strap, hauled himself up a little with a wet sweat breaking
out on his forehead.
Another boy came along alone, with one hand in a big bandage. He told
me that it was smashed to bits, and began to cry. Then he smudged the
tears away and said:
"I'm lucky enough. I saw many fellows killed."
So it happened, day by day, but the courage of our men endured.
It seemed impossible to newcomers that life could exist at all under
the shell-fire which the Germans flung over our trenches and which we
flung over theirs. So it seemed to the Irish battalions when they held
the lines round Loos, by that Hohenzollern redoubt which was one of
our little hells.
"Things happened," said one of them, "which in other times would have
been called miracles. We all had hairbreadth escapes from death." For
days they were under heavy fire, with 9.2's flinging up volumes of
sand and earth and stones about them. Then waves of poison-gas. Then
trench-mortars and bombs.
"It seemed like years!" said one of the Irish crowd. "None of us
expected to come out alive."
Yet most of them had the luck to come out alive that time, and over a
midday mess in a Flemish farmhouse they had hearty appetites for bully
beef and fried potatoes, washed down by thin red wine and strong black
Round Ypres, and up by Boesinghe and Hooge--you remember Hooge?--the
14th, 20th, and 6th Divisions took turns in wet ditches and in shell-
holes, with heavy crumps falling fast and roaring before they burst
like devils of hell. On one day there were three hundred casualties in
one battalion The German gun-fire lengthened, and men were killed on
their way out to "rest"--camps to the left of the road between
Poperinghe and Vlamertinghe.
* * *
On March 28th the Royal Fusiliers and the Northumberland Fusiliers--
the old Fighting Fifth--captured six hundred yards of German trenches
near St.-Eloi and asked for trouble, which, sure enough, came to them
who followed them. Their attack was against a German stronghold built
of earth and sand-bags nine feet high, above a nest of trenches in the
fork of two roads from St.-Eloi to Messines. They mined beneath this
place and it blew up with a roaring blast which flung up tons of soil
in a black mass. Then the Fusiliers dashed forward, flinging bombs
through barbed wire and over sand-bags which had escaped the radius of
the mine-burst--in one jumbled mass of human bodies in a hurry to get
on, to kill, and to come back. One German machine-gun got to work on
them. It was knocked out by a bomb flung by an officer who saved his
company. The machine--gunners were bayoneted. Elsewhere there was
chaos out of which living men came, shaking and moaning.
I saw the Royal Fusiliers and Northumberland Fusiliers come back from
this exploit, exhausted, caked from head to foot in wet clay. Their
steel helmets were covered with sand-bagging, their trench-waders,
their rifles, and smoke helmets were all plastered by wet, white
earth, and they looked a ragged regiment of scarecrows gathered from
the fields of France. Some of them had shawls tied about their
helmets, and some of them wore the shiny black helmets of the Jaeger
Regiment and the gray coats of German soldiers. They had had luck.
They had not left many comrades behind, and they had come out with
life to the good world. Tired as they were, they came along as though
to carnival. They had proved their courage through an ugly job. They
had done "damn well," as one of them remarked; and they were out of
the shell-fire which ravaged the ground they had taken, where other
At the beginning of March there was a little affair--costing a lot of
lives--in the neighborhood of St.-Eloi, up in the Ypres salient. It
was a struggle for a dirty hillock called the Bluff, which had been
held for a long time by the 3d Division under General Haldane, whose
men were at last relieved, after weary months in the salient, by the
17th Division commanded by General Pilcher. The Germans took advantage
of the change in defense by a sudden attack after the explosion of a
mine, and the men of the 17th Division, new to this ground, abandoned
a position of some local importance.
General Haldane was annoyed. It was ground of which he knew every
inch. It was ground which men of his had died to hold. It was very
annoying--using a feeble word--to battalion officers and men of the 3d
Division--Suffolks and King's Own Liverpools, Gordons and Royal Scots-
-who had first come out of the salient, out of its mud and snow and
slush and shell-fire, to a pretty village far behind the lines, on the
road to Calais, where they were getting back to a sense of normal life
again. Sleeping in snug billets, warming their feet at wood fires,
listening with enchantment to the silence about them, free from the
noise of artillery. They were hugging themselves with the thought of a
month of this. . . Then because they had been in the salient so long
and had held this line so stubbornly, they were ordered back again to
recapture the position lost by new men.
After a day of field sports they were having a boxing--match in an old
barn, very merry and bright, before that news came to them. General
Haldane had given me a quiet word about it, and I watched the boxing,
and the faces of all those men, crowded round the ring, with pity for
the frightful disappointment that was about to fall on them, like a
sledge-hammer. I knew some of their officers--Colonel Dyson of the
Royal Scots, and Captain Heathcote, who hated the war and all its ways
with a deadly hatred, having seen much slaughter of men and of their
own officers. Colonel Dyson was the seventeenth commanding officer of
his battalion, which had been commanded by every officer down to
second lieutenant, and had only thirty men left of the original crowd.
They had been slain in large numbers in that "holding attack" by Hooge
on September 25th, during the battle of Loos, as I have told. Now they
were "going in" again, and were very sorry for themselves, but hid
their feelings from their men. The men were tough and stalwart lads,
tanned by the wind and rain of a foul winter, thinned down by the
ordeal of those months in the line under daily bouts of fire. In a
wooden gallery of the barn a mass of them lay in deep straw,
exchanging caps, whistling, shouting, in high spirits. Not yet did
they know the call-back to the salient. Then word was passed to them
after the boxing finals. That night they had to march seven miles to
entrain for the railroad nearest to Ypres. I saw them march away,
silently, grimly, bravely, without many curses.
They were to recapture the Bluff, and early on the morning of March
2d, before dawn had risen, I went out to the salient and watched the
bombardment which preceded the attack. There was an incessant tumult
of guns, and the noise rolled in waves across the flat country of the
salient and echoed back from Kemmel Hill and the Wytschaete Ridge.
There was a white frost over the fields, and all the battle-front was
veiled by a mist which clung round the villages and farmsteads behind
the lines and made a dense bank of gray fog below the rising ground.
This curtain was rent with flashes of light and little glinting stars
burst continually over one spot, where the Bluff was hidden beyond
Zillebeke Lake. When daybreak came, with the rim of a red sun over a
clump of trees in the east, the noise of guns increased in spasms of
intensity like a rising storm. Many batteries of heavy artillery were
firing salvos. Field-guns, widely scattered, concentrated their fire
upon one area, where their shells were bursting with a twinkle of
light. Somewhere a machine-gun was at work with sharp, staccato
strokes, like an urgent knocking at the door. High overhead was the
song of an airplane coming nearer, with a high, vibrant humming. It
was an enemy searching through the mist down below him for any
movement of troops or trains.
It was the 76th Brigade of the 3d Division which attacked at four
thirty-two that morning, and they were the Suffolks, Gordons, and
King's Own Liverpools who led the assault, commanded by General Pratt.
They flung themselves into the German lines in the wake of a heavy
barrage fire, smashing through broken belts of wire and stumbling in
and out of shell-craters. The Germans, in their front-lines, had gone
to cover in deep dugouts which they had built with feverish haste on
the Bluff and its neighborhood during the previous ten days and
nights. At first only a few men, not more than a hundred or so, could
be discovered alive. The dead were thick in the maze of trenches, and
our men stumbled across them.
The living were in a worse state than the dead, dazed by the shell-
fire, and cold with terror when our men sprang upon them in the
darkness before dawn. Small parties were collected and passed back as
prisoners--marvelously lucky men if they kept their sanity as well as
their lives after all that hell about them. Hours later, when our
battalions had stormed their way up other trenches into a salient
jutting out of the German line and beyond the boundary of the
objective that had been given to them, other living men were found to
be still hiding in the depths of other dugouts and could not be
induced to come out. Terror kept them in those holes, and they were
like wild beasts at bay, still dangerous because they had their bombs
and rifles. An ultimatum was shouted down to them by men too busy for
persuasive talk. "If you don't come out you'll be blown in." Some of
them came out and others were blown to bits. After that the usual
thing happened, the thing that inevitably happened in all these little
murderous attacks and counter-attacks. The enemy concentrated all its
power of artillery on that position captured by our men, and day after
day hurled over storms of shrapnel and high explosives, under which
our men cowered until many were killed and more wounded. The first
attack on the Bluff and its recapture cost us three thousand
casualties, and that was only the beginning of a daily toll of life
and limbs in that neighborhood of hell. Through driving snowstorms
shells went rushing across that battleground, ceaselessly in those
first weeks of March, but the 3d Division repulsed the enemy's
repeated attacks in bombing fights which were very fierce on both
I went to General Pilcher's headquarters at Reninghelst on March 4th,
and found the staff of the 17th Division frosty in their greeting,
while General Pratt, the brigadier of the 3d Division, was conducting
the attack in their new territory. General Pilcher himself was much
shaken. The old gentleman had been at St.-Eloi when the bombardment
had begun on his men. With Captain Rattnag his A. D. C. he lay for an
hour in a ditch with shells screaming overhead and bursting close.
More than once when I talked with him he raised his head and listened
nervously and said: "Do you hear the guns? . . . They are terrible."
I was sorry for him, this general who had many theories on war and
experimented in light-signals, as when one night I stood by his side
in a dark field, and had a courteous old-fashioned dignity and
gentleness of manner. He was a fine old English gentleman and a
gallant soldier, but modern warfare was too brutal for him. Too brutal
for all those who hated its slaughter.
Those men of the 3d Division--the "Iron Division," as it was called
later in the war--remained in a hideous turmoil of wet earth up by the
Bluff until other men came to relieve them and take over this corner
What remained of the trenches was deep in water and filthy mud, where
the bodies of many dead Germans lay under a litter of broken sand-bags
and in the holes of half-destroyed dugouts. Nothing could be done to
make it less horrible. Then the weather changed and became icily cold,
with snow and rain.
One dugout which had been taken for battalion headquarters was six
feet long by four wide, and here in this waterlogged hole lived three
officers of the Royal Scots to whom a day or two before I had wished
The servants lived in the shaft alongside which was a place measuring
four feet by four feet. There were no other dugouts where men could
get any shelter from shells or storms, and the enemy's guns were never
But the men held on, as most of our men held on, with a resignation to
fate and a stoic endurance beyond that ordinary human courage which we
seemed to know before the war.
The chaplain of this battalion had spent all the long night behind the
lines, stoking fires and going round the cook-houses and looking at
his wrist-watch to see how the minutes were crawling past. He had tea,
rum, socks, oil, and food all ready for those who were coming back,
and the lighted braziers were glowing red.
At the appointed time the padre went out to meet his friends, pressing
forward through the snow and listening for any sound of footsteps
through the great hush.
But there was no sound except the soft flutter of snowflakes. He
strained his eyes for any moving shadows of men. But there was only
darkness and the falling snow.
Two hours passed, and they seemed endless to that young chaplain whose
brain was full of frightful apprehensions, so that they were hours of
anguish to him.
Then at last the first men appeared. "I've never seen anything so
splendid and so pitiful," said the man who had been waiting for them.
They came along at about a mile an hour, sometimes in groups,
sometimes by twos or threes, holding on to each other, often one by
one. In this order they crept through the ruined villages in the
falling snow, which lay thick upon the masses of fallen masonry. There
was a profound silence about them, and these snow-covered men were
like ghosts walking through cities of death.
No man spoke, for the sound of a human voice would have seemed a
danger in this great white quietude. They were walking like old men,
weak-kneed, and bent under the weight of their packs and rifles.
Yet when the young padre greeted them with a cheery voice that hid the
water in his heart every one had a word and a smile in reply, and made
little jests about their drunken footsteps, for they were like drunken
men with utter weariness.
"What price Charlie Chaplin now, sir?" was one man's joke.
The last of those who came back--and there were many who never came
back--were some hours later than the first company, having found it
hard to crawl along that Via Dolorosa which led to the good place
where the braziers were glowing.
It was a heroic episode, for each one of these men was a hero, though
his name will never be known in the history of that silent and hidden
war. And yet it was an ordinary episode, no degree worse in its
hardship than what happened all along the line when there was an
attack or counter-attack in foul weather.
The marvel of it was that our men, who were very simple men, should
have "stuck it out" with that grandeur of courage which endured all
things without self-interest and without emotion. They were
unconscious of the virtue that was in them.
Going up to the line by Ypres, or Armentieres, or Loos, I noticed in
those early months of 1916 an increasing power of artillery on our
side of the lines and a growing intensity of gun-fire on both sides.
Time was, a year before, when our batteries were scattered thinly
behind the lines and when our gunners had to be thrifty of shells,
saving them up anxiously for hours of great need, when the S O S
rocket shot up a green light from some battered trench upon which the
enemy was concentrating "hate."
Those were ghastly days for gunner officers, who had to answer
telephone messages calling for help from battalions whose billets were
being shelled to pieces by long--range howitzers, or from engineers
whose working-parties were being sniped to death by German field-guns,
or from a brigadier who wanted to know, plaintively, whether the
artillery could not deal with a certain gun which was enfilading a
certain trench and piling up the casualties. It was hard to say:
"Sorry! . . . We've got to go slow with ammunition."
That, now, was ancient history. For some time the fields had grown a
new crop of British batteries. Month after month our weight of metal
increased, and while the field-guns had been multiplying at a great
rate the "heavies" had been coming out, too, and giving a deeper and
more sonorous tone to that swelling chorus which rolled over the
battlefields by day and night.
There was a larger supply of shells for all those pieces, and no
longer the same need for thrift when there was urgent need for
artillery support. Retaliation was the order of the day, and if the
enemy asked for trouble by any special show of "hate" he got it
quickly and with a double dose.
Compared with the infantry, the gunners had a chance of life, except
in places where, as in the salient, the German observers stared down
at them from high ground and saw every gun flash and registered every
battery. Going round the salient one day with General Burstall--and a
very good name, too!--who was then the Canadian gunner-general, I was
horrified at the way in which the enemy had the accurate range of our
guns and gun-pits and knocked them out with deadly shooting.
Here and there our amateur gunners--quick to learn their job--found a
good place, and were able to camouflage their position for a time, and
give praise to the little god of Luck, until one day sooner or later
they were discovered and a quick move was necessary if they were not
caught too soon.
So it was with a battery in the open fields beyond Kemmel village,
where I went to see a boy who had once been a rising hope of Fleet
He was new to his work and liked the adventure of it--that was before
his men were blown to bits around him and he was sent down as a tragic
case of shell-shock--and as we walked through the village of Kemmel he
chatted cheerfully about his work and life and found it topping. His
bright, luminous eyes were undimmed by the scene around him. He walked
in a jaunty, boyish way through that ruined place. It was not a
pleasant place. Kemmel village, even in those days, had been blown to
bits, except where, on the outskirts, the chateau with its racing-
stables remained untouched--"German spies!" said the boy--and where a
little grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes was also unscathed. The church
was battered and broken, and there were enormous shell-pits in the
churchyard and open vaults where old dead had been tumbled out of
their tombs. We walked along a sunken road and then to a barn in open
fields. The roof was pierced by shrapnel bullets, which let in the
rain on wet days and nights, but it was cozy otherwise in the room
above the ladder where the officers had their mess. There were some
home-made chairs up there, and Kirchner prints of naked little ladies
were tacked up to the beams, among the trench maps, and round the
fireplace where logs were burning was a canvas screen to let down at
night. A gramophone played merry music and gave a homelike touch to
this parlor in war.
"A good spot!" I said. "Is it well hidden?"
"As safe as houses," said the captain of the battery. "Touching wood,
There were six of us sitting at a wooden plank on trestles, and at
those words five young men rose with a look of fright on their faces
and embraced the beam supporting the roof of the barn.
"What's happened?" I asked, not having heard the howl of a shell.
"Nothing," said the boy, "except touching wood. The captain spoke too
We went out to the guns which were to do a little shooting, and found
them camouflaged from aerial eyes in the grim desolation of the
battlefield, all white after a morning's snowstorm, except where the
broken walls of distant farmhouses and the windmills on Kemmel Hill
showed black as ink.
The gunners could not see their target, which had been given to them
through the telephone, but they knew it by the figures giving the
angle of fire.
"It's a pumping-party in a waterlogged trench," said a bright-eyed boy
by my side (he was one of the rising hopes of Fleet Street before he
became a gunner officer in Flanders). "With any luck we shall get 'em
in the neck, and I like to hear the Germans squeal. . . And my gun's
ready first, as usual."
The officer commanding shouted through a tin megaphone, and the
battery fired, each gun following its brother at a second interval,
with the staccato shock of a field-piece, which is more painful than
the dull roar of a "heavy."
A word came along the wire from the officer in the observation post a
Another order was called through the tin mouthpiece.
"We've got'em," said the young gentleman by my side, in a cheerful
The officer with the megaphone looked across and smiled.
"We may as well give them a salvo. They won't like it a bit."
A second or two later there was a tremendous crash as the four guns
fired together. "Repeat!" came the high voice through the megaphone.
The still air was rent again. . . In a waterlogged trench, which we
could not see, a German pumping-party had been blown to bits.
The artillery officers took turns in the observation posts, sleeping
for the night in one of the dugouts behind the front trench instead of
in the billet below.
The way to the observation post was sometimes a little vague,
especially in frost-and-thaw weather, when parts of the communication
trenches slithered down under the weight of sand-bags.
The young officer who walked with luminous eyes and eager step found
it necessary to crawl on his stomach before he reached his lookout
station from which he looked straight across the enemy's trenches.
But, once there, it was pretty comfortable and safe, barring a direct
hit from above or a little mining operation underneath.
He made a seat of a well-filled sand-bag (it was rather a shock when
he turned it over one day to get dry side up and found a dead
Frenchman there), and smoked Belgian cigars for the sake of their
aroma, and sat there very solitary and watchful.
The rats worried him a little--they were bold enough to bare their
teeth when they met him down a trench, and there was one big fellow
called Cuthbert, who romped round his dugout and actually bit his ear
one night. But these inconveniences did not seem to give any real
distress to the soul of youth, out there alone and searching for human
targets to kill . . . until one day, as I have said, everything
snapped in him and the boy was broken.
It was on the way back from Kemmel village one day that I met a queer
apparition through a heavy snowstorm. It was a French civilian in
evening dress--boiled shirt, white tie, and all--with a bowler hat
bent to the storm.
Tomlinson, the great Tomlinson, was with me, and shook his head.
"It isn't true," he said. "I don't believe it. . . We're mad, that's
all! . . . The whole world is mad, so why should we be sane?"
We stared after the man who went into the ruin of Kemmel, to the noise
of gun-fire, in evening dress, without an overcoat, through a blizzard
A little farther down the road we passed a signboard on the edge of a
cratered field. New words had been painted on it in good Roman
Tomlinson, the only Tomlinson, regarded it gravely and turned to me
with a world of meaning in his eyes. Then he tapped his forehead and
"Mad!" he said. "We're all mad!"
In that winter of discontent there was one great body of splendid men
whose spirits had sunk to zero, seeing no hope ahead of them in that
warfare of trenches and barbed wire. The cavalry believed they were
"bunkered" forever, and that all their training and tradition were
made futile by the digging in of armies. Now and again, when the
infantry was hard pressed, as in the second battle of Ypres and the
battle of Loos, they were called on to leave their horses behind and
take a turn in the trenches, and then they came back again, less some
of their comrades, into dirty billets remote from the fighting-lines,
to exercise their horses and curse the war.
Before they went into the line in February of '16 I went to see some
of those cavalry officers to wish them good luck, and saw them in the
trenches and afterward when they came out. In the headquarters of a
squadron of "Royals"--the way in was by a ladder through the window--
billeted in a village, which on a day of frost looked as quaint and
pretty as a Christmas card, was a party of officers typical of the
British cavalry as a whole.
A few pictures cut out of La Vie Parisienne were tacked on to the
walls to remind them of the arts and graces of an older mode of life,
and to keep them human by the sight of a pretty face (oh, to see a
pretty girl again!).
Now they were going to change this cottage for the trenches, this
quiet village with a church-bell chiming every hour, for the tumult in
the battle-front--this absolute safety for the immediate menace of
death. They knew already the beastliness of life in trenches. They had
no illusions about "glory." But they were glad to go, because activity
was better than inactivity, and because the risk would give them back
their pride, and because the cavalry should fight anyhow and somehow,
even if a charge or a pursuit were denied them.
They had a hot time in the trenches. The enemy's artillery was active,
and the list of casualties began to tot up. A good officer and a fine
fellow was killed almost at the outset, and men were horribly wounded.
But all those troopers showed a cool courage.
Things looked bad for a few minutes when a section of trenches was
blown in, isolating one platoon from another. A sergeant-major made
his way back from the damaged section, and a young officer who was
going forward to find out the extent of damage met him on the way.
"Can I get through?" asked the officer.
"I've got through," was the answer, "but it's chancing one's luck."
The officer "chanced his luck," but did not expect to come back alive.
Afterward he tried to analyze his feelings for my benefit.
"I had no sense of fear," he said, "but a sort of subconscious
knowledge that the odds were against me if I went on, and yet a
conscious determination to go on at all costs and find out what had
He came back, covered with blood, but unwounded. In spite of all the
unpleasant sights in a crumpled trench, he had the heart to smile when
in the middle of the night one of the sergeants approached him with an
"Don't you think it would be a good time, sir, to make a slight attack
upon the enemy?"
There was something in those words, "a slight attack," which is
irresistibly comic to any of us who know the conditions of modern
trench war. But they were not spoken in jest.
So the cavalry did its "bit" again, though not as cavalry, and I saw
some of them when they came back, and they were glad to have gone
through that bloody business so that no man might fling a scornful
word as they passed with their horses.
"It is queer," said my friend, "how we go from this place of peace to
the battlefield, and then come back for a spell before going up again.
It is like passing from one life to another."
In that cavalry mess I heard queer conversations. Those officers
belonged to the old families of England, the old caste of aristocracy,
but the foul outrage of the war--the outrage against all ideals of
civilization--had made them think, some of them for the first time,
about the structure of social life and of the human family.
They hated Germany as the direct cause of war, but they looked deeper
than that and saw how the leaders of all great nations in Europe had
maintained the philosophy of forms and had built up hatreds and fears
and alliances over the heads of the peoples whom they inflamed with
passion or duped with lies.
"The politicians are the guilty ones," said one cavalry officer. "I am
all for revolution after this bloody massacre. I would hang all
politicians, diplomats, and so-called statesmen with strict
"I'm for the people," said another. "The poor, bloody people, who are
kept in ignorance and then driven into the shambles when their rulers
desire to grab some new part of the earth's surface or to get their
armies going because they are bored with peace."
"What price Christianity?" asked another, inevitably. "What have the
churches done to stop war or preach the gospel of Christ? The Bishop
of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all those conventional,
patriotic, cannon--blessing, banner-baptizing humbugs. God! They make
Strange words to hear in a cavalry mess! Strange turmoil in the souls
of men! They were the same words I had heard from London boys in
Ypres, spoken just as crudely. But many young gentlemen who spoke
those words have already forgotten them or would deny them.
The winter of 1915-16 passed with its misery, and spring came again to
France and Flanders with its promise of life, fulfilled in the beauty
of wild flowers and the green of leaves where the earth was not made
barren by the fire of war and all trees killed.
For men there was no promise of life, but only new preparations for
death, and continued killing.
The battle of Verdun was still going on, and France had saved herself
from a mortal blow at the heart by a desperate, heroic resistance
which cost her five hundred and fifty thousand in dead and wounded. On
the British front there were still no great battles, but those trench
raids, artillery duels, mine fighting, and small massacres which
filled the casualty clearing stations with the average amount of human
wreckage. The British armies were
being held in leash for a great offensive in the summer. New divisions
were learning the lessons of the old divisions, and here and there
generals were doing a little fancy work to keep things merry and
So it was when some mines were exploded under the German earthworks on
the lower slopes of the Vimy Ridge, where the enemy had already blown
several mines and taken possession of their craters. It was to gain
those craters, and new ones to be made by our mine charges, that the
74th Brigade of the 25th Division, a body of Lancashire men, the 9th
Loyal North Lancashires and the 11th Royal Fusiliers, with a company
of Royal Engineers and some Welsh pioneers, were detailed for the
perilous adventure of driving in the mine shafts, putting tremendous
charges of high explosives in the sapheads, and rushing the German
It was on the evening of May 15th, after two days of wet and cloudy
weather preventing the enemy's observation, that our heavy artillery
fired a short number of rounds to send the Germans into their dugouts.
A few minutes later the right group of mines exploded with a terrific
roar and blew in two of the five old German craters. After the long
rumble of heaving earth had been stilled there was just time enough to
hear the staccato of a German machine-gun. Then there was a second
roar and a wild upheaval of soil when the left group of mines
destroyed two more of the German craters and knocked out the machine-
The moment for the infantry attack had come, and the men were ready.
The first to get away were two lieutenants of the 9th Loyal North
Lancashires, who rushed forward with their assaulting-parties to the
remaining crater on the extreme left, which had not been blown up.
With little opposition from dazed and terror-stricken Germans,
bayoneted as they scrambled out of the chaotic earth, our men flung
themselves into those smoking pits and were followed immediately by
working-parties, who built up bombing posts with earth and sand-bags
on the crater lip and began to dig out communication trenches leading
to them. The assaulting-parties of the Lancashire Fusiliers were away
at the first signal, and were attacking the other groups of craters
under heavy fire.
The Germans were shaken with terror because the explosion of the mines
had killed and wounded a large number of them, and through the
darkness there rang out the cheers of masses of men who were out for
blood. Through the darkness there now glowed a scarlet light, flooding
all that turmoil of earth and men with a vivid, red illumination, as
flare after flare rose high into the sky from several points of the
German line. Later the red lights died down, and then other rockets
were fired, giving a green light to this scene of war.
The German gunners were now at work in answer to those beacons of
distress, and with every caliber of gun from howitzers to minenwerfers
they sheiled our front-lines for two hours and killed for vengeance.
They were too late to stop the advance of the assaulting troops, who
were fighting in the craters against groups of German bombers who
tried to force their way up to the rescue of a position already lost.
One of our officers leading the assault on one of the craters on the
right was killed very quickly, but his men were not checked, and with
individual resolution and initiative, and the grit of the Lancashire
man in a tight place, fought on grimly, and won their purpose.
A young lieutenant fell dead from a bullet wound after he had directed
his men to their posts from the lip of a new mine-crater, as coolly as
though he were a master of ceremonies in a Lancashire ballroom.
Another, a champion bomb-thrower, with a range of forty yards, flung
his hand-grenades at the enemy with untiring skill and with a fierce
contempt of death, until he was killed by an answering shot. The
N.C.O.'s took up the command and the men "carried on" until they held
all the chain of craters, crouching and panting above mangled men.
They were hours of anguish for many Germans, who lay wounded and half
buried, or quite buried, in the chaos, of earth made by those mine-
craters now doubly upheaved. Their screams and moans sounding above
the guns, the frantic cries of men maddened under tons of earth, which
kept them prisoners in deep pits below the crater lips, and awful
inarticulate noises of human pain coming out of that lower darkness
beyond the light of the rockets, made up a chorus of agony more than
our men could endure, even in the heat of battle. They shouted across
to the German grenadiers:
"We will cease fire if you will, and let you get in your wounded. . .
Cease fire for the wounded!"
The shout was repeated, and our bombers held their hands, still
waiting for an answer. But the answer was a new storm of bombs, and
the fighting went on, and the moaning of the men who were helpless and
Working-parties followed up the assault to "consolidate" the position.
They did amazing things, toiling in the darkness under abominable
shell-fire, and by daylight had built communication trenches with
head-cover from the crater lips to our front-line trenches.
But now it was the enemy's turn--the turn of his guns, which poured
explosive fire into those pits, churning up the earth again, mixing it
with new flesh and blood, and carving up his own dead; and it was the
turn of his bombers, who followed this fire in strong assaults upon
the Lancashire lads, who, lying among their killed and wounded, had to
repel those fierce attacks.
On May 17th I went to see General Doran of the 25th Division, an
optimistic old gentleman who took a bright view of things, and Colonel
Crosby, who was acting--brigadier of the 74th Brigade, which had made
the attack. He, too, was enthusiastic about the situation, though his
brigade had suffered eight hundred casualties in a month of routine
In my simple way I asked him a direct question:
"Do you think your men can hold on to the craters, sir?"
Colonel Crosby stared at me sternly.
"Certainly. The position cannot be retaken overground. We hold it
As he spoke an orderly came into his billet (a small farmhouse),
saluted, and handed him a pink slip, which was a telephone message. I
watched him read it, and saw the sudden pallor of his face, and
noticed how the room shook with the constant reverberation of distant
gun-fire. A big bombardment was in progress over Vimy way.
"Excuse me," said the colonel; "things seem to be happening. I must go
He went through the window, leaping the sill, and a look of bad
tidings went with him.
His men had been blown out of the craters.
A staff officer sat in the brigade office, and when the acting-
brigadier had gone raised his head and looked across to me.
"I am a critic of these affairs," he said. "They seem to me too
expensive. But I'm here to do what I am told."
We did not regain the Vimy craters until a year afterward, when the
Canadians and Scottish captured all the Vimy Ridge in a great assault.
The winter of discontent had passed. Summer had come with a wealth of
beauty in the fields of France this side the belt of blasted earth.
The grass was a tapestry of flowers, and tits and warblers and the
golden oriole were making music in the woods. At dusk the nightingale
sang as though no war were near its love, and at broad noonday a
million larks rose above the tall wheat with a great high chorus of
Among the British armies there was hope again, immense faith that
believed once more in an ending to the war. Verdun had been saved. The
enemy had been slaughtered. His reserves were thin and hard to get (so
said Intelligence) and the British, stronger than they had ever been,
in men, and guns, and shells, and aircraft, and all material of war,
were going to be launched in a great offensive. No more trench
warfare. No more dying in ditches. Out into the open, with an Army of
Pursuit (Rawlinson's) and a quick break-through. It was to be "The