Part 9 out of 10
not to take an unfair advantage of the enemy, to launch the assault.
That had always been the English way and that was our way in many
battles of the great war, which were won (unless they were lost) by
the sheer valor of men who at great cost smashed their way through all
The Germans, on the whole, showed more original genius in military
science, varying their methods of attack and defense according to
circumstances, building trenches and dugouts which we never equaled;
inventing the concrete blockhouse or "pill-box" for a forward
defensive zone thinly held in advance of the main battle zone, in
order to lessen their slaughter under the weight of our gun-fire (it
cost us dearly for a time); scattering their men in organized shell-
craters in order to distract our barrage fire; using the "elastic
system of defense" with frightful success against Nivelle's attack in
the Champagne; creating the system of assault of "infiltration" which
broke the Italian lines at Caporetto in 1917 and ours and the French
in 1918. Against all that we may set only our tanks, which in the end
led the way to victory, but the German High Command blundered
atrociously in all the larger calculations of war, so that they
brought about the doom of their empire by a series of acts which would
seem deliberate if we had not known that they were merely blind. With
a folly that still seems incredible, they took the risk of adding the
greatest power in the world--in numbers of men and in potential
energy--to their list of enemies at a time when their own man-power
was on the wane. With deliberate arrogance they flouted the United
States and forced her to declare war. Their temptation, of course, was
great. The British naval blockade was causing severe suffering by food
shortage to the German people and denying them access to raw material
which they needed for the machinery of war.
The submarine campaign, ruthlessly carried out, would and did inflict
immense damage upon British and Allied shipping, and was a deadly
menace to England. But German calculations were utterly wrong, as
Ludendorff in his Memoirs now admits, in estimating the amount of time
needed to break her bonds by submarine warfare before America could
send over great armies to Europe. The German war lords were wrong
again in underestimating the defensive and offensive success of the
British navy and mercantile marine against submarine activities. By
those miscalculations they lost the war in the long run, and by other
errors they made their loss more certain.
One mistake they made was their utter callousness regarding the
psychology and temper of their soldiers and civilian population. They
put a greater strain upon them than human nature could bear, and by
driving their fighting-men into one shambles after another, while they
doped their people with false promises which were never fulfilled,
they sowed the seeds of revolt and despair which finally launched them
into gulfs of ruin. I have read nothing more horrible than the cold-
blooded cruelty of Ludendorff's Memoirs, in which, without any attempt
at self-excuse, he reveals himself as using the lives of millions of
men upon a gambling chance of victory with the hazards weighted
against him, as he admits. Writing of January, 1917, he says: "A
collapse on the part of Russia was by no means to be contemplated and
was, indeed, not reckoned upon by any one. . . Failing the U-boat
campaign we reckoned with the collapse of the Quadruple Alliance
during 1917." Yet with that enormous risk visible ahead, Ludendorff
continued to play the grand jeu, the great game, and did not advise
any surrender of imperial ambitions in order to obtain a peace for his
people, and was furious with the Majority party in the Reichstag for
preparing a peace resolution. The collapse of Russia inspired him with
new hopes of victory in the west, and again he prepared to sacrifice
masses of men in the slaughter-fields. But he blundered again, and
this time fatally. His time-table was out of gear. The U--boat war had
failed. American manhood was pouring into France, and German soldiers
on the Russian front had been infected with ideas most dangerous to
German discipline and the "will to win." At the end, as at the
beginning, the German war lords failed to understand the psychology of
human nature as they had failed to understand the spirit of France, of
Belgium, of Great Britain, and of America. One of the most important
admissions in history is made by Ludendorff when he writes:
"Looking back, I say our decline began clearly with the outbreak of
the revolution in Russia. On the one side the government was dominated
by the fear that the infection would spread, and on the other by the
feeling of their helplessness to instil fresh strength into the masses
of the people and to strengthen their warlike ardor, waning as it was
through a combination of innumerable circumstances."
So the web of fate was spun, and men who thought they were directing
the destiny of the world were merely caught in those woven threads
like puppets tied to strings and made to dance. It was the old Dance
of Death which has happened before in the folly of mankind.
During the German retreat to their Hindenburg line we saw the full
ruthlessness of war as never before on the western front, in the
laying waste of a beautiful countryside, not by rational fighting, but
by carefully organized destruction. Ludendorff claims, quite justly,
that it was in accordance with the laws of war. That is true. It is
only that our laws of war are not justified by any code of humanity
above that of primitive savages. "The decision to retreat," he says,
"was not reached without a painful struggle. It implied a confession
of weakness that was bound to raise the morale of the enemy and to
lower our own. But as it was necessary for military reasons we had no
choice. It had to be carried out. . . The whole movement was a
brilliant performance. . . The retirement proved in a high degree
I saw the brilliant performance in its operation. I went into
beautiful little towns like Peronne, where the houses were being
gutted by smoldering fire, and into hundreds of villages where the
enemy had just gone out of them after touching off explosive charges
which had made all their cottages collapse like card houses, their
roofs spread flat upon their ruins, and their churches, after
centuries of worship in them, fall into chaotic heaps of masonry. I
wandered through the ruins of old French chateaux, once very stately
in their terraced gardens, now a litter of brickwork, broken statuary,
and twisted iron--work above open vaults where not even the dead had
been left to lie in peace. I saw the little old fruit-trees of French
peasants sawn off at the base, and the tall trees along the roadsides
stretched out like dead giants to bar our passage. Enormous craters
had been blown in the roadways, which had to be bridged for our
traffic of men and guns, following hard upon the enemy's retreat.
There was a queer sense of illusion as one traveled through this
desolation. At a short distance many of the villages seemed to stand
as before the war. One expected to find inhabitants there. But upon
close approach one saw that each house was but an empty shell blown
out from cellar to roof, and one wandered through the streets of the
ruins in a silence that was broken only by the sound of one's own
voice or by a few shells crashing into the gutted houses. The enemy
was in the next village, or the next but one, with a few field-guns
and a rear-guard of machine-gunners.
In most villages, in many of his dugouts, and by contraptions with
objects lying amid the litter, he had left "booby traps" to blow our
men to bits if they knocked a wire, or stirred an old boot, or picked
up a fountain-pen, or walked too often over a board where beneath acid
was eating through a metal plate to a high-explosive charge. I little
knew when I walked round the tower of the town hall of Bapaume that in
another week, with the enemy far away, it would go up in dust and
ashes. Only a few of our men were killed or blinded by these monkey-
tricks. Our engineers found most of them before they were touched off,
but one went down dugouts or into ruined houses with a sense of
imminent danger. All through the devastated region one walked with an
uncanny feeling of an evil spirit left behind by masses of men whose
bodies had gone away. It exuded from scraps of old clothing, it was in
the stench of the dugouts and in the ruins they had made.
In some few villages there were living people left behind, some
hundreds in Nesle and Roye, and, all told, some thousands. They had
been driven in from the other villages burning around them, their own
villages, whose devastation they wept to see. I met these people who
had lived under German rule and talked with many of them--old women,
wrinkled like dried-up apples, young women waxen of skin, hollow-eyed,
with sharp cheekbones, old peasant farmers and the gamekeepers of
French chateaux, and young boys and girls pinched by years of hunger
that was not quite starvation. It was from these people that I learned
a good deal about the psychology of German soldiers during the battles
of the Somme. They told me of the terror of these men at the
increasing fury of our gun-fire, of their desertion and revolt to
escape the slaughter, and of their rage against the "Great People" who
used them for gun-fodder. Habitually many of them talked of the war as
the "Great Swindle." These French civilians hated the Germans in the
mass with a cold, deadly hatred. They spoke with shrill passion at the
thought of German discipline, fines, punishments, requisitions, which
they had suffered in these years. The hope of vengeance was like water
to parched throats. Yet I noticed that nearly every one of these
people had something good to say about some German soldier who had
been billeted with them. "He was a good-natured fellow. He chopped
wood for me and gave the children his own bread. He wept when he told
me that the village was to be destroyed." Even some of the German
officers had deplored this destruction. "The world will have a right
to call us barbarians," said one of them in Ham. "But what can we do?
We are under orders. If we do not obey we shall be shot. It is the
cruelty of the High Command. It is the cruelty of war."
On the whole it seemed they had not misused the women. I heard no
tales of actual atrocity, though some of brutal passion. But many
women shrugged their shoulders when I questioned them about this and
said: "They had no need to use violence in their way of love--making.
There were many volunteers."
They rubbed their thumbs and fingers together as though touching money
and said, "You understand?"
I understood when I went to a convent in Amiens and saw a crowd of
young mothers with flaxen-haired babies, just arrived from the
liberated districts. "All those are the children of German fathers,"
said the old Reverend Mother. "That is the worst tragedy of war. How
will God punish all this? Alas! it is the innocent who suffer for the
Eighteen months later, or thereabouts, I went into a house in Cologne,
where a British outpost was on the Hohenzollern bridge. There was a
babies' creche in an upper room, and a German lady was tending thirty
little ones whose chorus of "Guten Tag! Guten Tag!" was like the
quacking of ducks.
"After to-morrow there will be no more milk for them," she said.
"And then?" I asked.
"And then many of them will die."
She wept a little. I thought of those other babies in Amiens, and of
the old Reverend Mother.
"How will God punish all this? Alas! it is the innocent who suffer for
Of those things General Ludendorff does not write in his Memoirs,
which deal with the strategy and machinery of war.
Sir Douglas Haig was not misled into the error of following up the
German retreat, across that devastated country, with masses of men. He
sent forward outposts to keep in touch with the German rear-guards and
prepared to deliver big blows at the Vimy Ridge and the lines round
Arras. This new battle by British troops was dictated by French
strategy rather than by ours. General Nivelle, the new generalissimo,
was organizing a great offensive in the Champagne and desired the
British army to strike first and keep on striking in order to engage
and exhaust German divisions until he was ready to launch his own
legions. The "secret" of his preparations was known by every officer
in the French army and by Hindenburg and his staff, who prepared a new
method of defense to meet it. The French officers with whom I talked
were supremely confident of success. "We shall go through," they said.
"It is certain. Anybody who thinks otherwise is a traitor who betrays
his country by the poison of pessimism. Nivelle will deal the death--
blow." So spoke an officer of the Chasseurs Alpins, and a friend in
the infantry of the line, over a cup of coffee in an estaminet crammed
with other French soldiers who were on their way to the Champagne
Nivelle did not launch his offensive until April 16th, seven days
after the British had captured the heights of Vimy and gone far to the
east of Arras. Hindenburg was ready. He adopted his "elastic system of
defense," which consisted in withdrawing the main body of his troops
beyond the range of the French barrage fire, leaving only a few
outposts to camouflage the withdrawal and be sacrificed for the sake
of the others (those German outposts must have disliked their
martyrdom under orders, and I doubt whether they, poor devils, were
exhilarated by the thought of their heroic service). He also withdrew
the full power of his artillery beyond the range of French counter-
battery work and to such a distance that when it was the German turn
to fire the French infantry would be beyond the effective protection
of their own guns. They were to be allowed an easy walk through to
their death-trap. That is what happened. The French infantry,
advancing with masses of black troops in the Colonial Corps in the
front-line of assault, all exultant and inspired by a belief in
victory, swept through the forward zone of the German defenses,
astonished, and then disconcerted by the scarcity of Germans, until an
annihilating barrage fire dropped upon them and smashed their human
waves. From French officers and nurses I heard appalling tales of this
tragedy. The death--wail of the black troops froze the blood of
Frenchmen with horror. Their own losses were immense in a bloody
shambles. I was told by French officers that their losses on the first
day of battle were 150,000 casualties, and these figures were
generally believed. They were not so bad as that, though terrible.
Semi-official figures state that the operations which lasted from
April 16th to April 25th cost France 28,000 killed on the field of
battle, 5,000 who died of wounds in hospital, 4,000 prisoners, and
80,000 wounded. General Nivelle's offensive was called off, and French
officers who had said, "We shall break through. . . It is certain,"
now said: "We came up against a bec de gaz. As you English would say,
we 'got it in the neck.' It is a great misfortune."
The battle of Arras, in which the British army was engaged, began on
April 9th, an Easter Sunday, when there was a gale of sleet and snow.
From ground near the old city of Arras I saw the preliminary
bombardment when the Vimy Ridge was blasted by a hurricane of fire and
the German lines beyond Arras were tossed up in earth and flame. From
one of old Vauban's earthworks outside the walls I saw lines of our
men going up in assault beyond the suburbs of Blangy and St.-Laurent
to Roclincourt, through a veil of sleet and smoke. Our gun-fire was
immense and devastating, and the first blow that fell upon the enemy
was overpowering. The Vimy Ridge was captured from end to end by the
Canadians on the left and the 51st Division of Highlanders on the
right. By the afternoon the entire living German population, more than
seven thousand in the tunnels of Vimy, were down below in the valley
on our side of the lines, and on the ridge were many of their dead as
I saw them afterward horribly mangled by shell-fire in the upheaved
earth. The Highland Division, commanded by General Harper--"Uncle
Harper," he was called--had done as well as the Canadians, though they
had less honor, and took as many prisoners. H.D. was their divisional
sign as I saw it stenciled on many ruined walls throughout the war.
"Well, General," said a Scottish sergeant, "they don't call us
Harper's Duds any more!" . . . On the right English county troops of
the 12th Division, 3d Division, and others, the 15th (Scottish) and
the 36th (London) had broken through, deeply and widely, capturing
many men and guns after hard fighting round machine-gun redoubts. That
night masses of German prisoners suffered terribly from a blizzard in
the barbed-wire cages at Etrun, by Arras, where Julius Caesar had his
camp for a year in other days of history. They herded together with
their bodies bent to the storm, each man sheltering his fellow and
giving a little human warmth. All night through a German commandant
sat in our Intelligence hut with his head bowed on his breast. Every
now and then he said: "It is cold! It is cold!" And our men lay out in
the captured ground beyond Arras and on the Vimy Ridge, under
harassing fire and machine-gun fire, cold, too, in that wild blizzard,
with British dead and German dead in the mangled earth about them.
Ludendorff admits the severity of that defeat.
"The battle near Arras on April 9th formed a bad beginning to the
capital fighting during this year.
"April 10th and the succeeding days were critical days. A breach
twelve thousand to fifteen thousand yards wide and as much as six
thousand yards and more in depth is not a thing to be mended without
more ado. It takes a good deal to repair the inordinate wastage of men
and guns as well as munitions that results from such a breach. It was
the business of the Supreme Command to provide reserves on a large
scale. But in view of the troops available, and of the war situation,
it was simply not possible to hold a second division in readiness
behind each division that might, perhaps, be about to drop out. A day
like April 9th upset all calculations. It was a matter of days before
a new front could be formed and consolidated. Even after the troops
were ultimately in line the issue of the crisis depended, as always in
such cases, very materially upon whether the enemy followed up his
initial success with a fresh attack and by fresh successes made it
difficult for us to create a firm front. In view of the weakening of
the line that inevitably resulted, such successes were only too easy
"From April 10th onward the English attacked in the breach in great
strength, but after all not in the grand manner; they extended their
attack on both wings, especially to the southward as far as
Bullecourt. On April 11th they gained Monchy, while we during the
night before the 12th evacuated the Vimy heights. April 23d and 28th,
and also May 3d, were again days of heavy, pitched battle. In between
there was some bitter local fighting. The struggle continued, we
delivered minor successful counter-attacks, and on the other hand lost
ground slightly at various points."
I remember many pictures of that fighting round Arras in the days that
followed the first day. I remember the sinister beauty of the city
itself, when there was a surging traffic of men and guns through its
ruined streets in spite of long-range shells which came crashing into
the houses. Our soldiers, in their steel hats and goatskin coats,
looked like medieval men-at-arms. The Highlanders who crowded Arras
had their pipe-bands there and they played in the Petite Place, and
the skirl of the pipes shattered against the gables of old houses.
There were tunnels beneath Arras through which our men advanced to the
German lines, and I went along them when one line of men was going
into battle and another was coming back, wounded, some of them blind,
bloody, vomiting with the fumes of gas in their lungs--their steel
hats clinking as they groped past one another. In vaults each side of
these passages men played cards on barrels, to the light of candles
stuck in bottles, or slept until their turn to fight, with gas-masks
for their pillows. Outside the Citadel of Arras, built by Vauban under
Louis XIV, there were long queues of wounded men taking their turn to
the surgeons who were working in a deep crypt with a high-vaulted
roof. One day there were three thousand of them, silent, patient,
muddy, blood-stained. Blind boys or men with smashed faces swathed in
bloody rags groped forward to the dark passage leading to the vault,
led by comrades. On the grass outside lay men with leg wounds and
stomach wounds. The way past the station to the Arras-Cambrai road was
a death-trap for our transport and I saw the bodies of horses and men
horribly mangled there. Dead horses were thick on each side of an
avenue of trees on the southern side of the city, lying in their blood
and bowels. The traffic policeman on "point duty" on the Arras-Cambrai
road had an impassive face under his steel helmet, as though in
Piccadilly Circus; only turned his head a little at the scream of a
shell which plunged through the gable of a corner house above him.
There was a Pioneer battalion along the road out to Observatory Ridge,
which was a German target. They were mending the road beyond the last
trench, through which our men had smashed their way. They were busy
with bricks and shovels, only stopping to stare at shells plowing
holes in the fields on each side of them. When I came back one morning
a number of them lay covered with blankets, as though asleep. They
were dead, but their comrades worked on grimly, with no joy of labor
in their sweat.
Monchy Hill was the key position, high above the valley of the Scarpe.
I saw it first when there was a white village there, hardly touched by
fire, and afterward when there was no village. I was in the village
below Observatory Ridge on the morning of April 11th when cavalry was
massed on that ground, waiting for orders to go into action. The
headquarters of the cavalry division was in a ditch covered by planks,
and the cavalry generals and their staffs sat huddled together with
maps over their knees. "I am afraid the general is busy for the
moment," said a young staff-officer on top of the ditch. He looked
about the fields and said, "It's very unhealthy here." I agreed with
him. The bodies of many young soldiers lay about. Five-point-nines
(5.9's) were coming over in a haphazard way. It was no ground for
cavalry. But some squadrons of the 10th Hussars, Essex Yeomanry, and
the Blues were ordered to take Monchy, and rode up the hill in a
flurry of snow and were seen by German gunners and slashed by
shrapnel. Most of their horses were killed in the village or outside
it, and the men suffered many casualties, including their general--
Bulkely Johnson--whose body I saw carried back on a stretcher to the
ruin of Thilloy, where crumps were bursting. It is an astonishing
thing that two withered old French women stayed in the village all
through the fighting. When our troops rode in these women came running
forward, frightened and crying "Camarades!" as though in fear of the
enemy. When our men surrounded them they were full of joy and held up
their scraggy old faces to be kissed by these troopers. Afterward
Monchy was filled with a fury of shell-fire and the troopers crawled
out from the ruins, leaving the village on the hill to be attacked and
captured again by our infantry of the 15th and 37th Divisions, who
were also badly hammered.
Heroic folly! The cavalry in reserve below Observatory Hill stood to
their horses, staring up at a German airplane which came overhead,
careless of our "Archies." The eye of the German pilot must have
widened at the sight of that mass of men and horses. He carried back
glad tidings to the guns.
One of the cavalry officers spoke to me.
"You look ill."
"No, I'm all right. Only cold."
The officer himself looked worn and haggard after a night in the open.
"Do you think the Germans will get their range as far as this? I'm
nervous about the men and the horses. We've been here for hours, and
it seems no good."
I did not remind him that the airplane was undoubtedly the herald of
long-range shells. They came within a few minutes. Some men and horses
were killed. I was with a Highland officer and we took cover in a
ditch not more than breast high. Shells were bursting damnably close,
scattering us with dirt.
"Let's strike away from the road," said Major Schiach. "They always
tape it out."
We struck across country, back to Arras, glad to get there . . . other
men had to stay.
The battles to the east of Arras that went before the capture of
Monchy and followed it were hard, nagging actions along the valley of
the Scarpe, which formed a glacis, where our men were terribly exposed
to machine--gun fire, and suffered heavily day after day, week after
week, for no object apparent to our battalion officers and men, who
did not know that they were doing team-work for the French. The
Londoners of the 56th Division made a record advance through Neuville-
Vitasse to Henin and Heninel, and broke a switch-line of the
Hindenburg system across the little Cojeul River by Wancourt. There
was a fatal attack in the dark on May 3d, when East Kents and Surreys
and Londoners saw a gray dawn come, revealing the enemy between them
and our main line, and had to hack their way through if they could,
There were many who could not, and even divisional generals were
embittered by these needless losses and by the hard driving of their
men, saying fierce things about our High Command.
Their language was mild compared with that of some of our young
officers. I remember one I met near Henin. He was one of a group of
three, all gunner officers who were looking about for better gun
positions not so clearly visible to the enemy, who was in two little
woods--the Bois de Sart and Bois Vert--which stared down upon them
like green eyes. Some of their guns had been destroyed, many of their
horses killed; some of their men. A few minutes before our meeting a
shell had crashed into a bath close to their hut, where men were
washing themselves. The explosion filled the bath with blood and bits
of flesh. The younger officer stared at me under the tilt forward of
his steel hat and said, "Hullo, Gibbs!" I had played chess with him at
Groom's Cafe in Fleet Street in days before the war. I went back to
his hut and had tea with him, close to that bath, hoping that we
should not be cut up with the cake. There were noises "off," as they
say in stage directions, which were enormously disconcerting to one's
peace of mind, and not very far off. I had heard before some hard
words about our generalship and staff-work, but never anything so
passionate, so violent, as from that gunner officer. His view of the
business was summed up in the word "murder." He raged against the
impossible orders sent down from headquarters, against the brutality
with which men were left in the line week after week, and against the
monstrous, abominable futility of all our so-called strategy. His
nerves were in rags, as I could see by the way in which his hand shook
when he lighted one cigarette after another. His spirit was in a flame
of revolt against the misery of his sleeplessness, filth, and imminent
peril of death. Every shell that burst near Henin sent a shudder
through him. I stayed an hour in his hut, and then went away toward
Neuville-Vitasse with harassing fire following along the way. I looked
back many times to the valley, and to the ridges where the enemy lived
above it, invisible but deadly. The sun was setting and there was a
tawny glamour in the sky, and a mystical beauty over the landscape
despite the desert that war had made there, leaving only white ruins
and slaughtered trees where once there were good villages with church
spires rising out of sheltering woods. The German gunners were doing
their evening hate. Crumps were bursting heavily again amid our gun
Heninel was not a choice spot. There were other places of extreme
unhealthfulness where our men had fought their way up to the
Hindenburg line, or, as the Germans called it, the Siegfried line.
Croisille and Cherisy were targets of German guns, and I saw them
ravaging among the ruins, and dodged them. But our men, who lived
close to these places, stayed there too long to dodge them always.
They were inhabitants, not visitors. The Australians settled down in
front of Bullecourt, captured it after many desperate fights, which
left them with a bitter grudge against tanks which had failed them and
some English troops who were held up on the left while they went
forward and were slaughtered. The 4th Australian Division lost three
thousand men in an experimental attack directed by the Fifth Army.
They made their gun emplacements in the Noreuil Valley, the valley of
death as they called it, and Australian gunners made little slit
trenches and scuttled into them when the Germans ranged on their
batteries, blowing gun spokes and wheels and breech-blocks into the
air. Queant, the bastion of the Hindenburg line, stared straight down
the valley, and it was evil ground, as I knew when I went walking
there with another war correspondent and an Australian officer who at
a great pace led us round about, amid 5.9's, and debouched a little to
see one of our ammunition-dumps exploding like a Brock's Benefit, and
chattered brightly under "woolly bears" which made a rending tumult
above our heads. I think he enjoyed his afternoon out from staff-work
in the headquarters huts. Afterward I was told that he was mad, but I
think he was only brave. I hated those hours, but put on the mask that
royalty wears when it takes an intelligent interest in factory-work.
The streams of wounded poured down into the casualty clearing stations
day by day, week by week, and I saw the crowded Butchers' Shops of
war, where busy surgeons lopped at limbs and plugged men's wounds.
Yet in those days, as before and afterward, as at the beginning and as
at the end, the spirits of British soldiers kept high unless their
bodies were laid low. Between battles they enjoyed their spells of
rest behind the lines. In that early summer of '17 there was laughter
in Arras, lots of fun in spite of high velocities, the music of massed
pipers and brass bands, jolly comradeship in billets with paneled
walls upon which perhaps Robespierre's shadow had fallen in the
candle-light before the Revolution, when he was the good young man of
As a guest of the Gordons, of the 15th Division, I listened to the
pipers who marched round the table and stood behind the colonel's
chair and mine, and played the martial music of Scotland, until
something seemed to break in my soul and my ear-drums. I introduced a
French friend to the mess, and as a guest of honor he sat next to the
colonel, and the eight pipers played behind his chair. He went pale,
deadly white, and presently swooned off his chair . . . and the
Gordons thought it the finest tribute to their pipes!
The officers danced reels in stocking feet with challenging cries,
Gaelic exhortations, with fine grace and passion, though they were
tangled sometimes in the maze . . . many of them fell in the fields
outside or in the bogs of Flanders.
On the western side of Arras there were field sports by London men,
and Surreys, Buffs, Sussex, Norfolks, Suffolks, and Devons. They
played cricket between their turns in the line, lived in the sunshine
of the day, and did not look forward to the morrow. At such times one
found no trace of war's agony in their faces or their eyes nor in the
quality of their laughter.
My dwelling-place at that time, with other war correspondents, was in
an old white chateau between St.-Pol and Hesdin, from which we motored
out to the line, Arras way or Vimy way, for those walks in Queer
Street. The contrast of our retreat with that Armageddon beyond was
profound and bewildering. Behind the old white house were winding
walks through little woods beside the stream which Henry crossed on
his way to Agincourt; tapestried in early spring with bluebells and
daffodils and all the flowers that Ronsard wove into his verse in the
springtime of France. Birds sang their love-songs in the thickets. The
tits twittered fearfully at the laugh of the jay. All that beauty was
like a sharp pain at one's heart after hearing the close tumult of the
guns and trudging over the blasted fields of war, in the routine of
our task, week by week, month by month.
"This makes for madness," said a friend of mine, a musician surprised
to find himself a soldier. "In the morning we see boys with their
heads blown off"--that morning beyond the Point du Jour and Thelus we
had passed a group of headless boys, and another coming up stared at
them with a silly smile and said, "They've copped it all right!" and
went on to the same risk; and we had crouched below mounds of earth
when shells had scattered dirt over us and scared us horribly, so that
we felt a little sick in the stomach--"and in the afternoon we walk
through this garden where the birds are singing. . . There is no
sense in it. It's just midsummer madness!"
But only one of us went really mad and tried to cut his throat, and
died. One of the best, as I knew him at his best.
The battles of the Third Army beyond Arras petered out and on June 7th
there was the battle of Messines and Wytschaete when the Second Army
revealed its mastery of organization and detail. It was the beginning
of a vastly ambitious scheme to capture the whole line of ridges
through Flanders, of which this was the southern hook, and then to
liberate the Belgian coast as far inland as Bruges by a combined sea-
and-land attack with shoregoing tanks, directed by the Fourth Army.
This first blow at the Messines Ridge was completely and wonderfully
successful, due to the explosion of seventeen enormous mines under the
German positions, followed by an attack "in depth," divisions passing
through each other, or "leap-frogging," as it was called, to the final
objectives against an enemy demoralized by the earthquake of the
For two years there had been fierce underground fighting at Hill 60
and elsewhere, when our tunnelers saw the Germans had listened to one
another's workings, racing to strike through first to their enemies'
galleries and touch off their high-explosive charges. Our miners,
aided by the magnificent work of Australian and Canadian tunnelers,
had beaten the enemy into sheer terror of their method of fighting and
they had abandoned it, believing that we had also. But we did not, as
they found to their cost.
I had seen the working of the tunnelers up by Hill 70 and elsewhere. I
had gone into the darkness of the tunnels, crouching low, striking my
steel hat with sharp, spine-jarring knocks against the low beams
overhead, coming into galleries where one could stand upright and walk
at ease in electric light, hearing the vibrant hum of great engines,
the murmur of men's voices in dark crypts, seeing numbers of men
sleeping on bunks in the gloom of caverns close beneath the German
lines, and listening through a queer little instrument called a
microphone, by which I heard the scuffle of German feet in German
galleries a thousand yards away, the dropping of a pick or shovel, the
knocking out of German pipes against charcoal stoves. It was by that
listening instrument, more perfect than the enemy's, that we had
beaten him, and by the grim determination of those underground men of
ours, whose skin was the color of the chalk in which they worked, who
coughed in the dampness of the caves, and who packed high explosives
at the shaft-heads--hundreds of tons of it--for the moment when a
button should be touched far away, and an electric current would pass
down a wire, and the enemy and his works would be blown into dust.
That moment came at Hill 60 and sixteen other places below the
Wytschaete and Messines Ridge at three-thirty on the morning of June
7th, after a quiet night of war, when a few of our batteries had fired
in a desultory way and the enemy had sent over some flocks of gas-
shells, and before the dawn I heard the cocks crow on Kemmel Hill. I
saw the seventeen mines go up, and earth and flame gush out of them as
though the fires of hell had risen. A terrible sight, as the work of
men against their fellow--creatures. . . It was the signal for seven
hundred and fifty of our heavy guns and two thousand of our field--
guns to open fire, and behind a moving wall of bursting shells
English, Irish, and New Zealand soldiers moved forward in dense waves.
It was almost a "walk-over." Only here and there groups of Germans
served their machine-guns to the death. Most of the living were
stupefied amid their dead in the upheaved trenches, slashed woods, and
deepest dugouts. I walked to the edge of the mine-craters and stared
into their great gulfs, wondering how many German bodies had been
engulfed there. The following day I walked through Wytschaete Wood to
the ruins of the Hospice on the ridge. In 1914 some of our cavalry had
passed this way when the Hospice was a big red-brick building with
wings and outhouses and a large community of nuns and children.
Through my glasses I had often seen its ruins from Kemmel Hill and the
Scherpenberg. Now nothing was left but a pile of broken bricks, not
very high. Our losses were comparatively small, though some brave men
had died, including Major Willie Redmond, whose death in Wytschaete
Wood was heard with grief in Ireland.
Ludendorff admits the severity of the blow:
"The moral effect of the explosions was simply staggering. . . The
7th of June cost us dear, and, owing to the success of the enemy
attack, the price we paid was very heavy. Here, too, it was many days
before the front was again secure. The British army did not press its
advantage; apparently it only intended to improve its position for the
launching of the great Flanders offensive. It thereupon resumed
operations between the old Arras battlefield and also between La
Bassee and Lens. The object of the enemy was to wear us down and
distract our attention from Ypres."
That was true. The Canadians made heavy attacks at Lens, some of which
I saw from ground beyond Notre Dame de Lorette and the Vimy Ridge and
the enemy country by Grenay, when those men besieged a long chain of
mining villages which girdled Lens itself, where every house was a
machine-gun fort above deep tunnels. I saw them after desperate
struggles, covered in clay, parched with thirst, gassed, wounded, but
indomitable. Lens was the Troy of the Canadian Corps and the English
troops of the First Army, and it was only owing to other battles they
were called upon to fight in Flanders that they had to leave it at
last uncaptured, for the enemy to escape.
All this was subsidiary to the great offensive in Flanders, with its
ambitious objects. But when the battles of Flanders began the year was
getting past its middle age, and events on other fronts had upset the
strategical plan of Sir Douglas Haig and our High Command. The failure
and abandonment of the Nivelle offensive in the Champagne were
disastrous to us. It liberated many German divisions who could be sent
up to relieve exhausted divisions in Flanders. Instead of attacking
the enemy when he was weakening under assaults elsewhere, we attacked
him when all was quiet on the French front. The collapse of Russia was
now happening and our policy ought to have been to save men for the
tremendous moment of 1918, when we should need all our strength. So it
seems certain now, though it is easy to prophesy after the event.
I went along the coast as far as Coxyde and Nieuport and saw secret
preparations for the coast offensive. We were building enormous gun
emplacements at Malo-les--Bains for long-range naval guns, camouflaged
in sand--dunes. Our men were being trained for fighting in the dunes.
Our artillery positions were mapped out.
"Three shots to one, sir," said Sir Henry Rawlinson to the King,
"that's the stuff to give them!"
But the Germans struck the first blow up there, not of importance to
the strategical position, but ghastly to two battalions of the 1st
Division, cut off on a spit of land at Lombartzyde and almost
annihilated under a fury of fire.
At this time the enemy was developing his use of a new poison-gas--
mustard gas--which raised blisters and burned men's bodies where the
vapor was condensed into a reddish powder and blinded them for a week
or more, if not forever, and turned their lungs to water. I saw
hundreds of these cases in the 3rd Canadian casualty clearing station
on the coast, and there were thousands all along our front. At Oast
Dunkerque, near Nieuport, I had a whiff of it, and was conscious of a
burning sensation about the lips and eyelids, and for a week afterward
vomited at times, and was scared by queer flutterings of the heart
which at night seemed to have but a feeble beat. It was enough to "put
the wind up." Our men dreaded the new danger, so mysterious, so
stealthy in its approach. It was one of the new plagues of war.
The battle of Flanders began round Ypres on July 31st, with a greater
intensity of artillery on our side than had ever been seen before in
this war in spite of the Somme and Messines, when on big days of
battle two thousand guns opened fire on a single corps front. The
enemy was strong also in artillery arranged in great groups, often
shifting to enfilade our lines of attack. The natural strength of his
position along the ridges, which were like a great bony hand
outstretched through Flanders, with streams or "beeks," as they are
called, flowing in the valleys which ran between the fingers of that
clawlike range, were strengthened by chains of little concrete forts
or "pill-boxes," as our soldiers called them, so arranged that they
could defend one another by enfilade machine-gun fire. These were held
by garrisons of machine--gunners of proved resolution, whose duty was
to break up our waves of attack until, even if successful in gaining
ground, only small bodies of survivors would be in a position to
resist the counter-attacks launched by German divisions farther back.
The strength of the pill--boxes made of concrete two inches thick
resisted everything but the direct hit of heavy shells, and they were
not easy targets at long range. The garrisons within them fought often
with the utmost courage, even when surrounded, and again and again
this method of defense proved terribly effective against the desperate
heroic assaults of British infantry.
What our men had suffered in earlier battles was surpassed by what
they were now called upon to endure. All the agonies of war which I
have attempted to describe were piled up in those fields of Flanders.
There was nothing missing in the list of war's abominations. A few
days after the battle began the rains began, and hardly ceased for
four months. Night after night the skies opened and let down steady
torrents, which turned all that country into one great bog of slime.
Those little rivers or "beeks," which ran between the knobby fingers
of the clawlike range of ridges, were blown out of their channels and
slopped over into broad swamps. The hurricanes of artillery fire which
our gunners poured upon the enemy positions for twenty miles in depth
churned up deep shell-craters which intermingled and made pits which
the rains and floods filled to the brim. The only way of walking was
by "duck-boards," tracks laid down across the bogs under enemy fire,
smashed up day by day, laid down again under cover of darkness. Along
a duckboard walk men must march in single file, and if one of our men,
heavily laden in his fighting-kit, stumbled on those greasy boards (as
all of them stumbled at every few yards) and fell off, he sank up to
his knees, often up to his waist, sometimes up to his neck, in mud and
water. If he were wounded when he fell, and darkness was about him, he
could only cry to God or his pals, for he was helpless otherwise. One
of our divisions of Lancashire men--the 66th--took eleven hours in
making three miles or so out of Ypres across that ground on their way
to attack, and then, in spite of their exhaustion, attacked. Yet week
after week, month after month, our masses of men, almost every
division in the British army at one time or another, struggled on
through that Slough of Despond, capturing ridge after ridge, until the
heights at Passchendaele were stormed and won, though even then the
Germans clung to Staden and Westroosebeeke when all our efforts came
to a dead halt, and that Belgian coast attack was never launched.
Sir Douglas Haig thinks that some of the descriptions of that six
months' horror were "exaggerated." As a man who knows something of the
value of words, and who saw many of those battle scenes in Flanders,
and went out from Ypres many times during those months to the Westhoek
Ridge and the Pilkem Ridge, to the Frezenburg and Inverness Copse and
Glencourse Wood, and beyond to Polygon Wood and Passchendaele, where
his dead lay in the swamps and round the pill-boxes, and where tanks
that had wallowed into the mire were shot into scrap-iron by German
gun-fire (thirty were knocked out by direct hits on the first day of
battle), and where our own guns were being flung up by the harassing
fire of heavy shells, I say now that nothing that has been written is
more than the pale image of the abomination of those battlefields, and
that no pen or brush has yet achieved the picture of that Armageddon
in which so many of our men perished.
They were months of ghastly endurance to gunners when batteries sank
up to their axles as I saw them often while they fired almost
unceasingly for days and nights without sleep, and were living targets
of shells which burst about them. They were months of battle in which
our men advanced through slime into slime, under the slash of machine-
gun bullets, shrapnel, and high explosives, wet to the skin, chilled
to the bone, plastered up to the eyes in mud, with a dreadful way back
for walking wounded, and but little chance sometimes for wounded who
could not walk. The losses in many of these battles amounted almost to
annihilation to many battalions, and whole divisions lost as much as
50 per cent of their strength after a few days in action, before they
were "relieved." Those were dreadful losses. Napoleon said that no
body of men could lose more than 25 per cent of their fighting
strength in an action without being broken in spirit. Our men lost
double that, and more than double, but kept their courage, though in
some cases they lost their hope.
The 55th Division of Lancashire men, in their attacks on a line of
pill-boxes called Plum Farm, Schuler Farm, and Square Farm, below the
Gravenstafel Spur, lost 3,840 men in casualties out of 6,o49. Those
were not uncommon losses. They were usual losses. One day's fighting
in Flanders (on October 4th) cost the British army ten thousand
casualties, and they were considered "light" by the Higher Command in
relation to the objects achieved.
General Harper of the 51st (Highland) Division told me that in his
opinion the official communiques and the war correspondents' articles
gave only one side of the picture of war and were too glowing in their
optimism. (I did not tell him that my articles were accused of being
black in pessimism, pervading gloom.) "We tell the public," he said,
"that an enemy division has been 'shattered.' That is true. But so is
mine. One of my brigades has lost eighty-seven officers and two
thousand men since the spring." He protested that there was not enough
liaison between the fighting-officers and the Higher Command, and
could not blame them for their hatred of "the Staff."
The story of the two Irish divisions--the 36th Ulster; and 16th
(Nationalist)--in their fighting on August 16th is black in tragedy.
They were left in the line for sixteen days before the battle and were
shelled and gassed incessantly as they crouched in wet ditches. Every
day groups of men were blown to bits, until the ditches were bloody
and the living lay by the corpses of their comrades. Every day scores
of wounded crawled back through the bogs, if they had the strength to
crawl. Before the attack on August 16th the Ulster Division had lost
nearly two thousand men. Then they attacked and lost two thousand
more, and over one hundred officers. The 16th Division lost as many
men before the attack and more officers. The 8th Dublins had been
annihilated in holding the line. On the night before the battle
hundreds of men were gassed. Then their comrades attacked and lost
over two thousand more, and one hundred and sixty--two officers. All
the ground below two knolls of earth called Hill 35 and Hill 37, which
were defended by German pill-boxes called Pond Farm and Gallipoli,
Beck House and Borry Farm, became an Irish shambles. In spite of their
dreadful losses the survivors in the Irish battalion went forward to
the assault with desperate valor on the morning of August 16th,
surrounded the pill-boxes, stormed them through blasts of machine-gun
fire, and toward the end of the day small bodies of these men had
gained a footing on the objectives which they had been asked to
capture, but were then too weak to resist German counter-attacks. The
7th and 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers had been almost exterminated in
their efforts to dislodge the enemy from Hill 37. They lost seventeen
officers out of twenty-one, and 64 per cent of their men. One company
of four officers and one hundred men, ordered to capture the concrete
fort known as Borry Farm, at all cost, lost four officers and seventy
men. The 9th Dublins lost fifteen officers out of seventeen, and 66
per cent of their men.
The two Irish divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers
called it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth
Army for having put their men into the attack after those thirteen
days of heavy shelling, and after the battle they complained that they
were cast aside like old shoes, no care being taken for the comfort of
the men who had survived. No motor-lorries were sent to meet them and
bring them down, but they had to tramp back, exhausted and dazed. The
remnants of the 16th Division, the poor, despairing remnants, were
sent, without rest or baths, straight into the line again, down south.
I found a general opinion among officers and men, not only of the
Irish Division, under the command of the Fifth Army, that they had
been the victims of atrocious staff-work, tragic in its consequences.
From what I saw of some of the Fifth Army staff-officers I was of the
same opinion. Some of these young gentlemen, and some of the elderly
officers, were arrogant and supercilious without revealing any
symptoms of intelligence. If they had wisdom it was deeply camouflaged
by an air of inefficiency. If they had knowledge they hid it as a
secret of their own. General Gough, commanding the Fifth Army in
Flanders, and afterward north and south of St.-Quentin, where the
enemy broke through, was extremely courteous, of most amiable
character, with a high sense of duty. But in Flanders, if not
personally responsible for many tragic happenings, he was badly served
by some of his subordinates; and battalion officers and divisional
staffs raged against the whole of the Fifth Army organization, or lack
of organization, with an extreme passion of speech.
"You must be glad to leave Flanders," I said to a group of officers
trekking toward the Cambrai salient.
One of them answered, violently: "God be thanked we are leaving the
Fifth Army area!"
In an earlier chapter of this book I have already paid a tribute to
the Second Army, and especially to Sir John Harington, its chief of
staff. There was a thoroughness of method, a minute attention to
detail, a care for the comfort and spirit of the men throughout the
Second Army staff which did at least inspire the troops with the
belief that whatever they did in the fighting-lines had been prepared,
and would be supported, with every possible help that organization
could provide. That belief was founded not upon fine words spoken on
parade, but by strenuous work, a driving zeal, and the fine
intelligence of a chief of staff whose brain was like a high-power
I remember a historic little scene in the Second Army headquarters at
Cassel, in a room where many of the great battles had been planned,
when Sir John Harington made the dramatic announcement that Sir
Herbert Plumer, and he, as General Plumer's chief of staff, had been
ordered to Italy--in the middle of a battle--to report on the
situation which had become so grave there. He expressed his regret
that he should have to leave Flanders without completing all his
plans, but was glad that Passchendaele had been captured before his
In front of him was the map of the great range from Wytschaete to
Staden, and he laid his hand upon it and smiled and said: "I often
used to think how much of that range we should get this year. Now it
is nearly all ours." He thanked the war correspondents for all their
articles, which had been very helpful to the army, and said how glad
he had been to have our co-operation.
"It was my ambition," he said, speaking with some emotion, "to make
cordial relations between battalion officers and the staff, and to get
rid of that criticism (sometimes just) which has been directed against
the staff. The Second Army has been able to show the fighting soldiers
that the success of a battle depends greatly on efficient staff work,
and has inspired them with confidence in the preparations and
organization behind the lines."
Yet it seemed to me, in my pessimism, and seems to me still, in my
memory of all that ghastly fighting, that the fine mechanism of the
Second Army applied to those battles in Flanders was utterly misspent,
that after the first heavy rains had fallen the offensive ought to
have been abandoned, and that it was a frightful error of judgment to
ask masses of men to attack in conditions where they had not a dog's
chance of victory, except at a cost which made it of Pyrrhic irony.
Nevertheless, it was wearing the enemy out, as well as our own
strength in man-power. He could less afford to lose his one man than
we could our three, now that the United States had entered the war.
Ludendorff has described the German agony, and days of battle which he
calls "terrific," inflicting "enormous loss" upon his armies and
increasing his anxiety at the "reduction of our fighting strength."
"Enormous masses of ammunition, the like of which no mortal mind
before the war had conceived, were hurled against human beings who
lay, eking out but a bare existence, scattered in shell-holes that
were deep in slime. The terror of it surpassed even that of the shell-
pitted field before Verdun. This was not life; it was agony
unspeakable. And out of the universe of slime the attacker wallowed
forward, slowly but continually, and in dense masses. Time and again
the enemy, struck by the hail of our projectiles in the fore field,
collapsed, and our lonely men in the shell-holes breathed again. Then
the mass came on. Rifle and machine-gun were beslimed. The struggle
was man to man, and--only too often--it was the mass that won.
"What the German soldier accomplished, lived through, and suffered
during the Flanders battle will stand in his honor for all time as a
brazen monument that he set himself with his own hands on enemy soil!
"The enemy's losses, too, were heavy. When, in the spring of 1918, we
occupied the battlefield, it presented a horrible spectacle with its
many unburied dead. Their number ran into thousands. Two-thirds of
them were enemy dead; one-third were German soldiers who had met here
a hero's death.
"And yet the truth must be told; individual units no longer surmounted
as before the demoralizing influences of the defensive campaign.
"October 26th and 30th and November 6th and 10th were also days of
pitched battle of the heaviest kind. The enemy stormed like a wild
bull against the iron wall that kept him at a distance from our U-boat
base. He hurled his weight against the Houthulst Wood; he hurled it
against Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Becelaere, Gheluvelt, and
Zandvoorde; at very many points he dented the line. It seemed as if he
would charge down the wall; but, although a slight tremor passed
through its foundation, the wall held. The impressions that I
continued to receive were extremely grave. Tactically everything had
been done; the fore field was good. Our artillery practice had
materially improved. Behind nearly every fighting--division there
stood a second, as rear wave. In the third line, too, there were still
reserves. We knew that the wear and tear of the enemy's forces was
high. But we also knew that the enemy was extraordinarily strong and,
what was equally important, possessed extraordinary will-power."
That was the impression of the cold brain directing the machinery of
war from German headquarters. More human and more tragic is a letter
of an unknown German officer which we found among hundreds of others,
telling the same tale, in the mud of the battlefield:
"If it were not for the men who have been spared me on this fierce day
and are lying around me, and looking timidly at me, I should shed hot
and bitter tears over the terrors that have menaced me during these
hours. On the morning of September 18th my dugout containing seventeen
men was shot to pieces over our heads. I am the only one who withstood
the maddening bombardment of three days and still survives. You cannot
imagine the frightful mental torments I have undergone in those few
hours. After crawling out through the bleeding remnants of my
comrades, and through the smoke and debris, wandering and running in
the midst of the raging gun-fire in search of a refuge, I am now
awaiting death at any moment. You do not know what Flanders means.
Flanders means endless human endurance. Flanders means blood and
scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness
even unto death."
To British and to Germans it meant the same.
During the four and a half months of that fighting the war
correspondents were billeted in the old town of Cassel, where, perched
on a hill which looks over a wide stretch of Flanders, through our
glasses we could see the sand-dunes beyond Dunkirk and with the naked
eyes the whole vista of the battle-line round Ypres and in the wide
curve all the countryside lying between Aire and Hazebrouck and Notre
Dame de Lorette. My billet was in a monastery for old priests, on the
eastern edge of the town, and at night my window was lighted by
distant shell-fire, and I gazed out to a sky of darkness rent by vivid
flashes, bursts of red flame, and rockets rising high. The priests
used to tap at my door when I came back from the battlefields all
muddy, with a slime-plastered face, writing furiously, and an old
padre used to plague me like that, saying:
"What news? It goes well, eh? Not too well, perhaps! Alas! it is a
slaughter on both sides."
"It is all your fault," I said once, chaffingly, to get rid of him.
"You do not pray enough."
He grasped my wrist with his skinny old hand.
"Monsieur," he whispered, "after eighty years I nearly lose my faith
in God. That is terrible, is it not? Why does not God give us victory?
Alas! perhaps we have sinned too much!"
One needed great faith for courage then, and my courage (never much to
boast about) ebbed low those days, when I agonized over our losses and
saw the suffering of our men and those foul swamps where the bodies of
our boys lay in pools of slime, vividly colored by the metallic vapors
of high explosives, beside the gashed tree-stumps; and the mangled
corpses of Germans who had died outside their pill-boxes; and when I
saw dead horses on the roads out of Ypres, and transport drivers dead
beside their broken wagons, and officers of ours with the look of
doomed men, nerve-shaken, soul-stricken, in captured blockhouses,
where I took a nip of whisky with them now and then before they
attacked again; and groups of dazed prisoners coming down the tracks
through their own harrowing fire; and always, always, streams of
wounded by tens of thousands.
There was an old mill-house near Vlamertinghe, beyond Goldfish
Chateau, which was made into a casualty clearing station, and scores
of times when I passed it I saw it crowded with the "walking wounded,"
who had trudged down from the fighting-line, taking eleven hours,
fourteen hours sometimes, to get so far. They were no longer
"cheerful" like the gay lads who came lightly wounded out of earlier
battles, glad of life, excited by their luck. They were silent,
shivering, stricken men; boys in age, but old and weary in the
knowledge of war. The slime of the battlefields had engulfed them.
Their clothes were plastered to their bodies. Their faces and hands
were coated with that whitish clay. Their steel hats and rifles were
caked with it. Their eyes, brooding, were strangely alive in those
corpselike figures of mud who huddled round charcoal stoves or sat
motionless on wooden forms, waiting for ambulances. Yet they were
stark in spirit still.
"Only the mud beat us," they said. Man after man said that.
"We should have gone much farther except for the mud."
Along the Menin road there were wayside dressing stations for wounded,
with surgeons at work, and I saw the same scenes there. They were not
beyond the danger zone. Doctors and orderlies were killed by long-
range shells. Wounded were wounded again or finished off. Some
ambulances were blown to bits. A colonel who had been standing in talk
with a doctor was killed halfway through a sentence.
There was never a day in which Ypres was not shelled by long-range
high velocities which came howling overhead as I heard them scores of
times in passing through those ruins with gas-mask at the alert,
according to orders, and steel hat strapped on, and a deadly sense of
nostalgia because of what was happening in the fields of horror that
lay beyond. Yet to the soldier farther up the Menin road Ypres was
sanctuary and God's heaven.
The little old town of Cassel on the hill--where once a Duke of York
marched up and then marched down again--was beyond shell-range, though
the enemy tried to reach it and dropped twelve-inch shells (which make
holes deep enough to bury a coach and horses) round its base. There is
an inn there--the Hotel du Sauvage--which belongs now to English
history, and Scottish and Irish and Welsh and Australian and Canadian.
It was the last place along the road to Ypres where men who loved life
could get a dinner sitting with their knees below a table-cloth, with
candle-light glinting in glasses, while outside the windows the
flickering fires of death told them how short might be their tarrying
in the good places of the world. This was a good place where the
blinds were pulled down by Madame, who understood. Behind the desk was
Mademoiselle Suzanne, "a dainty rogue in porcelain," with wonderfully
bright eyes and just a little greeting of a smile for any young
officer who looked her way trying to get that greeting, because it was
ever so long since he had seen a pretty face and might be ever so long
again. Sometimes it was a smile met in the mirror against the wall, to
which Suzanne looked to touch her curls and see, like the Lady of
Shalott, the pictures of life that passed. A man would tilt his chair
to get that angle of vision. Outside, on these nights of war, it was
often blusterous, very dark, wet with heavy rain. The door opened, and
other officers came in with waterproofs sagging round their legs and
top-boots muddy to the tags, abashed because they made pools of water
on polished boards.
"Ca ne fait rien, Monsieur."
There was a klip-klop of horses' hoofs in the yard. I thought of
D'Artagnan and the Musketeers who might have ridden into this very
yard, strode into this very room, on their way to Dunkirk or Calais.
Madame played the piano remarkably well, classical music of all kinds,
and any accompaniment to any song. Our young officers sang. Some of
them touched the piano with a loving touch and said, "Ye gods, a piano
again!" and played old melodies or merry ragtime. Before Passchendaele
was taken a Canadian boy brought a fiddle with him, and played last of
all, after other tunes, "The Long, Long Trail," which his comrades
"Come and play to us again," said Madame.
"If I come back," said the boy.
He did not come back along the road through Ypres to Cassel.
From the balcony one could see the nightbirds fly. On every moonlight
night German raiders were about bombing our camps and villages. One
could see just below the hill how the bombs crashed into St.-Marie
Capelle and many hamlets where British soldiers lay, and where
peasants and children were killed with them. For some strange reason
Cassel itself was never bombed.
"We are a nest of spies," said some of the inhabitants, but others had
faith in a miraculous statue, and still others in Sir Herbert Plumer.
Once when a big shell burst very close I looked at Mademoiselle
Suzanne behind the desk. She did not show fear by the flicker of an
eyelid, though officers in the room were startled.
"Vous n'avez pas peur, meme de la mort?" ("You are not afraid, even of
death?") I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Je m'en fiche de la mort!" ("I don't care a damn for death!")
The Hotel du Sauvage was a pleasant rendezvous, but barred for a time
to young gentlemen of the air force, who lingered too long there
sometimes and were noisy. It was barred to all officers for certain
hours of the day without special permits from the A.P.M., who made
trouble in granting them. Three Scottish officers rode down into
Cassel. They had ridden down from hell-fire to sit at a table covered
with a table-cloth, and drink tea in a room again. They were refused
permission, and their language to me about the A.P.M. was unprintable.
They desired his blood and bones. They raised their hands to heaven to
send down wrath upon all skunks dwelling behind the lines in luxury
and denying any kind of comfort to fighting-men. They included the
P.M. in their rage, and all staff-officers from Cassel to Boulogne,
and away back to Whitehall.
To cheer up the war correspondents' mess when we assembled at night
after miserable days, and when in the darkness gusts of wind and rain
clouted the window-panes and distant gun-fire rumbled, or bombs were
falling in near villages, telling of peasant girls killed in their
beds and soldiers mangled in wayside burns, we had the company
sometimes of an officer (a black-eyed fellow) who told merry little
tales of executions and prison happenings at which he assisted in the
course of his duty.
I remember one about a young officer sentenced to death for cowardice
(there were quite a number of lads like that). He was blindfolded by a
gas-mask fixed on the wrong way round, and pinioned, and tied to a
post. The firing--party lost their nerve and their shots were wild.
The boy was only wounded, and screamed in his mask, and the A.P.M. had
to shoot him twice with his revolver before he died.
That was only one of many little anecdotes told by a gentleman who
seemed to like his job and to enjoy these reminiscences.
The battles of Flanders ended with the capture of Passchendaele by the
Canadians, and that year's fighting on the western front cost us
800,000 casualties, and though we had dealt the enemy heavy blows from
which he reeled back, the drain upon our man-power was too great for
what was to happen next year, and our men were too sorely tried. For
the first time the British army lost its spirit of optimism, and there
was a sense of deadly depression among many officers and men with whom
I came in touch. They saw no ending of the war, and nothing except
continuous slaughter, such as that in Flanders.
Our men were not mythical heroes exalted by the gods above the
limitations of nature. They were human beings, with wives and
children, or mothers and sisters, whom they desired to see again. They
hated this war. Death had no allurement for them, except now and then
as an escape from intolerable life under fire. They would have been
superhuman if they had not revolted in spirit, though still faithful
to discipline, against the foul conditions of warfare in the swamps,
where, in spite of all they had, in that four months or so of
fighting, achieved the greatest effort of human courage and endurance
ever done by masses of men in obedience to command.
At the end of those battles happened that surprising, audacious
adventure in the Cambrai salient organized by the Third Army under
General Byng, when on November 20, 1917, squadrons of tanks broke
through the Hindenburg line, and infantry streamed through the breach,
captured hundreds of guns, ten thousand prisoners, many villages and
ridges, and gave a monstrous shock to the German High Command.
The audacity of the adventure lay in the poverty of manpower with
which it was attempted and supported. The divisions engaged had all
been through the grinding mill of Flanders and were tired men. The
artillery was made up largely of those batteries which had been axle--
deep in Flanders mud. It was clearly understood by General Byng and
Gen. Louis Vaughan, his chief of staff, that Sir Douglas Haig could
not afford to give them strong reserves to exploit any success they
might gain by surprise or to defend the captured ground against
certain counter-attacks. It was to be a surprise assault by tanks and
infantry, with the hope that the cavalry corps might find its gap at
last and sweep round Cambrai before the enemy could recover and
reorganize. With other correspondents I saw Gen. Louis Vaughan, who
expounded the scheme before it was launched. That charming man, with
his professional manner, sweetness of speech, gentleness of voice and
gesture, like an Oxford don analyzing the war correspondence of
Xenophon, made no secret of the economy with which the operation would
have to be made.
"We must cut our coat according to our cloth," he said.
The whole idea was to seize only as much ground as the initial success
could gain, and not to press if resistance became strong. It was a
gamble, with a chance of luck. The cavalry might do nothing, or score
a big triumph. All depended on the surprise of the tanks. If they were
discovered before the assault the whole adventure would fail at the
They had been brought up secretly by night, four hundred of them, with
supply-tanks for ammunition and petrol lying hidden in woods by day.
So the artillery and infantry and cavalry had been concentrated also.
The enemy believed himself secure in his Hindenburg line, which had
been constructed behind broad hedges of barbed wire with such wide
ditches that no tank could cross.
How, then, would tanks cross? Ah, that was a little trick which would
surprise the Germans mightily. Each tank would advance through the
early morning mists with a bridge on its nose. The bridge was really a
big "fascine," or bundle of fagots about a yard and a half in
diameter, and controlled by a lever and chain from the interior of the
tank. Having plowed through the barbed wire and reached the edge of
the Hindenburg trench, the tank would drop the fascine into the center
of the ditch, stretch out its long body, reach the bundle of fagots,
find support on it, and use it as a stepping-stone to the other side.
Very simple in idea and effect!
So it happened, and the mists favored us, as I saw on the morning of
the attack at a little place called Beaumont, near Villers Pluich. The
enemy was completely surprised, caught at breakfast in his dugouts,
rounded up in batches. The tanks went away through the breach they had
made, with the infantry swarming round them, and captured Havrincourt,
Hermies, Ribecourt, Gouzeaucourt, Masnieres, and Marcoing, and a wide
stretch of country forming a cup or amphitheater below a series of low
ridges south of Bourlon Wood, where the ground rose again.
It was a spectacular battle, such as we had never seen before, and
during the following days, when our troops worked up to Bourlon Wood
and through the intervening villages of Anneux, Graincourt, Containg,
and Fontaine Notre Dame, I saw tanks going into action and cruising
about like landships, with cavalry patrols riding over open ground,
airplanes flying low over German territory, and masses of infantry
beyond all trench-lines, and streams of liberated civilians trudging
through the lines from Marcoing. The enemy was demoralized the first
day and made only slight resistance. The chief losses of the tanks
were due to a German major of artillery who served his own guns and
knocked out a baker's dozen of these monsters as they crawled over the
Flesquieres Ridge. I saw them lying there with the blood and bones of
their pilots and crews within their steel walls. It was a Highland
soldier who checked the German major.
"You're a brave man," he said, "but you've got to dee," and ran him
through the stomach with his bayonet. It was this check at the
Flesquieres Ridge, followed by the breaking of a bridge at Masnieres
under the weight of a tank and the holding of a trench-line called the
Rumilly switch by a battalion of Germans who raced to it from Cambrai
before our men could capture it, which thwarted the plans of the
cavalry. Our cavalry generals were in consultation at their
headquarters, too far back to take immediate advantage of the
situation. They waited for the capture of the Rumilly switch, and held
up masses of cavalry whom I saw riding through the village of
Ribecourt, with excitement and exaltation, because they thought that
at last their chance had come. Finally orders were given to cancel all
previous plans to advance. Only one squadron, belonging to the
Canadian Fort Garry Horse in General Seely's division, failed to
receive the order (their colonel rode after them, but his horse
slipped and fell before he caught them up), and it was their day of
heroic folly. They rode fast and made their way through a gap in the
wire cut by the troopers, and came under rifle and machine-gun fire,
which wounded the captain and several men.
The command was carried on by a young lieutenant, who rode with his
men until they reached the camouflaged road southeast of the village
of Rumilly, where they went through in sections under the fire of the
enemy hidden in the banks. Here they came up against a battery of
field-guns, one of which fired point-blank at them. They charged the
battery, putting the guns out of action and killing some of the
gunners. Those who were not destroyed surrendered, and the prisoners
were left to be sent back by the supports. The squadron then dealt
with the German infantry in the neighborhood. Some of them fled, while
some were killed or surrendered. All these operations were done at a
gallop under fire from flanking blockhouses. The squadron then slowed
down to a walk and took up a position in a sunken road one kilometer
east of Rumilly. Darkness crept down upon them, and gradually they
were surrounded by German infantry with machine-guns, so that they
were in great danger of capture or destruction. Only five of their
horses remained unhit, and the lieutenant in command decided that they
must endeavor to cut their way through and get back. The horses were
stampeded in the direction of the enemy in order to draw the machine-
gun fire, and while these riderless horses galloped wildly out of one
end of the sunken road, the officer and his surviving troopers escaped
from the other end. On the way back they encountered four bodies of
the enemy, whom they attacked and routed. On one occasion their escape
was due to the cunning of another young lieutenant, who spoke German
and held conversations with the enemy in the darkness, deceiving them
as to the identity of his force until they were able to take the
German troops by surprise and hack a way through. This lieutenant was
hit in the face by a bullet, and when he arrived back in Masnieres
with his men in advance of the rear-guard he was only able to make his
report before falling in a state of collapse.
Other small bodies of cavalry--among them the 8th Dragoons and 5th
Hussars--had wild, heroic adventures in the Cambrai salient, where
they rode under blasts of machine-gun fire and rounded up prisoners in
the ruined villages of Noyelles and Fontaine Notre Dame. Some of them
went into the Folie Wood nearby and met seven German officers
strolling about the glades, as though no war was on. They took them
prisoners, but had to release some of them later, as they could not be
bothered with them. Later they came across six ammunition--wagons and
destroyed them. In the heart of the wood was one of the German
divisional headquarters, and one of our cavalry officers dismounted
and approached the cottage stealthily, and looked through the windows.
Inside was a party of German officers seated at a table, with beer
mugs in front of them, apparently unconscious of any danger near them.
Our officer fired his revolver through the windows and then, like a
schoolboy who has thrown a stone, ran away as hard as he could and
joined his troop. Youthful folly of gallant hearts!
After the enemy's surprise his resistance stiffened and he held the
village of Fontaine Notre Dame, and Bourlon Wood, on the hill above,
with strong rear-guards. Very quickly, too, he brought new batteries
into action, and things became unpleasant in fields and villages where
our men, as I saw them on those days, hunted around for souvenirs in
German dugouts and found field-glasses, automatic pistols, and other
It seemed to me that the plan as outlined by Gen. Louis Vaughan, not
to exploit success farther than justified by the initial surprise, was
abandoned for a time. A brigade of Guards was put in to attack
Fontaine Notre Dame, and suffered heavily from machine-gun fire before
taking it. The 62d (Yorkshire) Division lost many good men in Bourlon
Village and Bourlon Wood, into which the enemy poured gas-shells and
Then on November 30th the Germans, under the direction of General von
Marwitz, came back upon us with a tiger's pounce, in a surprise attack
which we ought to have anticipated. I happened to be on the way to
Gouzeaucourt early that morning, and, going through the village of
Fins, next to it, I saw men straggling back in some disorder, and gun-
teams wedged in a dense traffic moving in what seemed to me the wrong
"I don't know what to do," said a young gunner officer. "My battery
has been captured and I can't get into touch with the brigade."
"What has happened?" I asked.
He looked at me in surprise.
"Don't you know? The enemy has broken through."
"Broken through where?"
The gunner officer pointed down the road.
"At the present moment he's in Gouzeaucourt."
I went northward, and saw that places like Hermies and Havrincourt,
which had been peaceful spots for a few days, were under heavy fire.
Bourlon Wood beyond was a fiery furnace. Hell had broken out again and
things looked bad. There was a general packing up of dumps and field
hospitals and heavy batteries. In Gouzeaucourt and other places our
divisional and brigade headquarters were caught napping. Officers were
in their pajamas or in their baths when they heard the snap of
machine-gun bullets. I saw the Guards go forward to Gouzeaucourt for a
counter-attack. They came along munching apples and whistling, as
though on peace maneuvers. Next day, after they had gained back
Gouzeaucourt, I saw many of them wounded, lying under tarpaulins, all
dirty and bloody.
The Germans had adopted our own way of attack. They had assembled
masses of troops secretly, moving them forward by night under the
cover of woods, so that our air scouts saw no movement by day. Our
line was weakly held along the front--the 55th Division, thinned out
by losses, was holding a line of thirteen thousand yards, three times
as much as any troops can hold, in safety--and the German storm-
troops, after a short, terrific bombardment, broke through to a
distance of five miles.
Our tired men, who had gained the first victory, fought heroic rear-
guard actions back from Masnieres and Marcoing, and back from Bourlon
Wood on the northern side of the salient. They made the enemy pay a
high price in blood for the success of his counter-attack, but we lost
many thousands of brave fellows, and the joy bells which had rung in
London on November 20th became sad and ironical music in the hearts of
our disappointed people.
So ended 1917, our black year; and in the spring of 1918, after all
the losses of that year, our armies on the western front were
threatened by the greatest menace that had ever drawn near to them,
and the British Empire was in jeopardy.
In the autumn of 1917 the Italian disaster of Caporetto had happened,
and Sir Herbert Plumer, with his chief of staff, Sir John Harington,
and many staff-officers of the Second Army, had, as I have told, been
sent to Italy with some of our best divisions, so weakening Sir
Douglas Haig's command. At that very time, also, after the bloody
losses in Flanders, the French government and General Headquarters
brought severe pressure upon the British War Council to take over a
greater length of line in France, in order to release some of the
older classes of the French army who had been under arms since 1914.
We yielded to that pressure and Sir Douglas Haig extended his lines
north and south of St.-Quentin, where the Fifth Army, under General
Gough, was intrusted with the defense.
I went over all that new ground of ours, out from Noyon to Chaulny and
Barisis and the floods of the Oise by La Fere; out from Ham to Holmon
Forest and Francilly and the Epine de Dullon, and the Fort de Liez by
St.-Quentin; and from Peronne to Hargicourt and Jeancourt and La
Verguier. It was a pleasant country, with living trees and green
fields not annihilated by shell-fire, though with the naked eye I
could see the scarred walls of St.-Quentin cathedral, and the villages
near the frontlines had been damaged in the usual way. It was dead
quiet there for miles, except for short bursts of harassing fire now
and then, and odd shells here and there, and bursts of black shrapnel
in the blue sky of mild days.
"Paradise, after Flanders!" said our men, but I knew that there was a
great movement of troops westward from Russia, and wondered how long
this paradise would last.
I looked about for trench systems, support lines, and did not see
them, and wondered what our defense would be if the enemy attacked
here in great strength. Our army seemed wonderfully thinned out. There
were few men to be seen in our outpost line or in reserve. It was all
strangely quiet. Alarmingly quiet.
Yet, pleasant for the time being. I had a brother commanding a battery
along the railway line south of St.-Quentin. I went to see him, and we
had a picnic meal on a little hill staring straight toward St.-Quentin
cathedral. One of his junior officers set the gramophone going. The
colonel of the artillery brigade came jogging up on his horse and
called out, "Fine morning, and a pretty spot!" The infantry divisions
were cheerful. "Like a rest-cure!" they said. They had sports almost
within sight of the German lines. I saw a boxing-match in an Irish
battalion, and while two fellows hammered each other I glanced away
from them to winding, wavy lines of chalk on the opposite hillsides,
and wondered what was happening behind them in that quietude.
"What do you think about this German offensive?" I asked the general
of a London division (General Gorringe of the 47th) standing on a
wagon and watching a tug-of--war. From that place also we could see
the German positions.
"G.H.Q. has got the wind-up," he said. "It is all bluff."
General Hall, temporarily commanding the Irish Division, was of the
same opinion, and took some pains to explain the folly of thinking the
Germans would attack. Yet day after day, week after week, the
Intelligence reports were full of evidence of immense movements of
troops westward, of intensive training of German divisions in back
areas, of new hospitals, ammunition-dumps, airplanes, battery
positions. There was overwhelming evidence as to the enemy's
intentions. Intelligence officers took me on one side and said:
"England ought to know. The people ought to be prepared. All this is
very serious. We shall be 'up against it.'" G.H.Q. was convinced. On
February 23d the war correspondents published articles summarizing the
evidence, pointing out the gravity of the menace, and they were passed
by the censorship. But England was not scared. Dances were in full
swing in London. Little ladies laughed as usual, light-hearted.
Flanders had made no difference to national optimism, though the
hospitals were crowded with blind and maimed and shell-shocked.
"I am skeptical of the German offensive" said Mr. Bonar Law.
Nobody believed the war correspondents. Nobody ever did believe us,
though some of us wrote the truth from first to last as far as the
facts of war go apart from deeper psychology, and a naked realism of
horrors and losses, and criticism of facts, which did not come within
our liberty of the pen.
They were strange months for me. I felt that I was in possession, as
indeed I was, of a terrible secret which might lead to the ending of
the world--our world, as we knew it--with our liberties and power. For
weeks I had been pledged to say no word about it, to write not a word
about it, and it was like being haunted by a specter all day long. One
laughed, but the specter echoed one's laughter and said, "Wait!" The
mild sunshine of those spring days was pleasant to one's spirit in the
woods above La Fere, and in fields where machine-guns chattered a
little, while overhead our airplanes dodged German "Archies." But the
specter chilled one's blood at the reminder of vast masses of field-
gray men drawing nearer to our lines in overwhelming numbers. I
motored to many parts of the front, and my companion sometimes was a
little Frenchman who had lost a leg in the war--D'Artagnan with a
wooden peg, most valiant, most gay. Along the way he recited the poems
of Ronsard. At the journey's end one day he sang old French chansons,
in an English mess, within gunshot of the German lines. He climbed up
a tree and gazed at the German positions, and made sketches while he
hummed little tunes and said between them, "Ah, les sacres Boches! . .
. If only I could fight again!"
I remember a pleasant dinner in the old town of Noyon, in a little
restaurant where two pretty girls waited. They had come from Paris
with their parents to start this business, now that Noyon was safe.
(Safe, O Lord!) And everything was very dainty and clean. At dinner
that night there was a hostile air raid overhead. Bombs crashed. But
the girls were brave. One of them volunteered to go with an officer
across the square to show him the way to the A.P.M., from where he had
to get a pass to stay for dinner. Shrapnel bullets were whipping the
flagstones of the Grande Place, from anti-aircraft guns. The officer
wore his steel helmet. The girl was going out without any hat above
her braided hair. We did not let her go, and the officer had another
guide. One night I brought my brother to the place from his battery
near St. Quentin. We dined well, slept well.
"Noyon is a good spot," he said. "I shall come here again when you
give me a lift."
A few days later my brother was firing at masses of Germans with open
sights, and the British army was in a full-tide retreat, and the
junior officer who had played his gramophone was dead, with other
officers and men of that battery. When I next passed through Noyon
shells were falling into it, and later I saw it in ruins, with the
glory of the Romanesque cathedral sadly scarred. I have ofttimes
wondered what happened to the little family in the old hotel.
So March 21st came, as we knew it would come, even to the very date,
and Ludendorff played his trump cards and the great game.
Before that date I had an interview with General Gough, commanding the
Fifth Army. He pulled out his maps, showed his method of forward
redoubts beyond the main battle zone, and in a quiet, amiable way
spoke some words which froze my blood.
"We may have to give ground," he said, "if the enemy attacks in
strength. We may have to fall back to our main battle zone. That will
not matter very much. It is possible that we may have to go farther
back. Our real line of defense is the Somme. It will be nothing like a
tragedy if we hold that. If we lose the crossings of the Somme it
will, of course, be serious. But not a tragedy even then. It will only
be tragic if we lose Amiens, and we must not do that."
"The crossings of the Somme . . . Amiens!"
Such a thought had never entered my imagination. General Gough had
suggested terrible possibilities.
All but the worst happened. In my despatches, reprinted in book form
with explanatory prefaces, I have told in full detail the meaning and
measure of the British retreat, when forty-eight of our divisions were
attacked by one hundred and fourteen German divisions and fell back
fighting stubborn rear-guard actions which at last brought the enemy
to a dead halt outside Amiens and along the River Ancre northward from
Albert, where afterward in a northern attack the enemy under Prince
Rupprecht of Bavaria broke through the Portuguese between Givenchy and
Festubert, where our wings held, drove up to Bailleul, which was
burned to the ground, and caused us to abandon all the ridges of
Flanders which had been gained at such great cost, and fall back to
the edge of Ypres. In this book I need not narrate all this history
They were evil days for us. The German offensive was conducted with
masterly skill, according to the new method of "infiltration" which
had been tried against Italy with great success in the autumn of '17
It consisted in a penetration of our lines by wedges of machine-
gunners constantly reinforced and working inward so that our men,
attacked frontally after terrific bombardment, found themselves under
flanking fire on their right and left and in danger of being cut off.
Taking advantage of a dense fog, for which they had waited according
to meteorological forecast, the Germans had easily made their way
between our forward redoubts on the Fifth Army front, where our
garrisons held out for a long time, completely surrounded, and
penetrated our inner battle zone. Through the gaps they made they came
in masses at a great pace with immense machine--gun strength and light
artillery. On the Third Army front where penetrations were made,
notably near Bullecourt between the 6th and 51st Divisions, the whole
of our army machine was upset for a time like a watch with a broken
mainspring and loose wheels. Staffs lost touch with fighting units.
Communications were broken down. Orders were given but not received.
After enormous losses of men and guns, our heavy artillery was choking
the roads of escape, while our rear-guards fought for time rather than
for ground. The crossings of the Somme were lost too easily. In the
confusion and tumult of those days some of our men, being human, were
demoralized and panic-stricken, and gave ground which might have been
longer held. But on the whole, and in the mass, there was no panic,
and a most grim valor of men who fought for days and nights without
sleep; fought when they were almost surrounded or quite surrounded,
and until few of them remained to hold any kind of line. Fortunately
the Germans were unable to drag their heavy guns over the desert they
had made a year before in their own retreat, and at the end of a week
their pace slackened and they halted, in exhaustion.
I went into the swirl of our retreat day after day up by Guiscard and
Hum; then, as the line moved back, by Peronne and Bapaume, and at last
on a dreadful day by the windmill at Pozieres, our old heroic
fighting-ground, where once again after many battles the enemy was in
Courcelette and High Wood and Delville Wood, and, as I saw by going to
the right through Albert, driving hard up to Mametz and Montauban.
That meant the loss of all the old Somme battlefields, and that struck
a chill in one's heart. But what I marveled at always was the absence
of panic, the fatalistic acceptance of the turn of fortune's wheel by
many officers and men, and the refusal of corps and divisional staffs
to give way to despair in those days of tragedy and crisis.
The northern attack was in many ways worse to bear and worse to see.
The menace to the coast was frightful when the enemy struck up to
Bailleul and captured Kemmel Hill from a French regiment which had
come up to relieve some of our exhausted and unsupported men. All
through this country between Estaires and Merville, to Steenwerck,
Metern, and Bailleul, thousands of civilians had been living on the
edge of the battlefields, believing themselves safe behind our lines.
Now the line had slipped and they were caught by German shell-fire and
German guns, and after nearly four years of war had to abandon their
homes like the first fugitives. I saw old women coming down lanes
where 5.9's were bursting and where our gunners were getting into
action. I saw young mothers packing their babies and their bundles
into perambulators while shells came hurtling over the thatched roofs
of their cottages. I stood on the Mont des Chats looking down upon a
wide sweep of battle, and saw many little farmsteads on fire and
Bailleul one torch of flame and smoke.
There was an old monastery on the Mont des Chats which had been in the
midst of a cavalry battle in October of 1914, when Prince Max of
Hesse, the Kaiser's cousin, was mortally wounded by a shot from one of
our troopers. He was carried into the cell of the old prior, who
watched over him in his dying hours when he spoke of his family and
friends. Then his body was borne down the hill at night and buried
secretly by a parish priest; and when the Kaiser wrote to the Pope,
desiring to know the whereabouts of his cousin's grave, the priest to
whom his message was conveyed said, "Tell the Kaiser he shall know
when the German armies have departed from Belgium and when reparation
has been made for all their evil deeds." It was the prior who told me
that story and who described to me how the British cavalry had forged
their way up the hill. He showed me the scars of bullets on the walls
and the windows from which the monks looked out upon the battle.
"All that is a wonderful memory," said the prior. "Thanks to the
English, we are safe and beyond the range of German shells."
I thought of his words that day I climbed the hill to see the sweep of
battle beyond. The monastery was no longer beyond the range of German
shells. An eight--inch shell had just smashed into the prior's parlor.
Others had opened gaps in the high roofs and walls. The monks had fled
by order of the prior, who stayed behind, like the captain of a
sinking ship. His corridors resounded to the tramp of army boots. The
Ulster gunners had made their headquarters in the refectory, but did
not stay there long. A few days later the monastery was a ruin.
From many little villages caught by the oncoming tide of war our
soldiers helped the people to escape in lorries or on gun-wagons. They
did not weep, nor say much, but were wonderfully brave. I remember a
little family in Robecq whom I packed into my car when shells began to
fall among the houses. A pretty girl, with a little invalid brother in
her arms, and a mother by her side, pointed the way to a cottage in a
wood some miles away. She was gay and smiling when she said, "Au
revoir et merci!" A few days later the cottage and the wood were
behind the German lines.
The northern defense, by the 55th Lancashires, 51st Highlanders (who
had been all through the Somme retreat), the 25th Division of
Cheshires, Wiltshires and Lancashire Fusiliers, and the 9th Scottish
Division, and others, who fought "with their backs to the wall," as
Sir Douglas Haig demanded of them, without reliefs, until they were
worn thin, was heroic and tragic in its ordeal, until Foch sent up his
cavalry (I saw them riding in clouds of dust and heard the panting of
their horses), followed by divisions of blue men in hundreds of blue
lorries tearing up the roads, and forming a strong blue line behind
our thin brown line. Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria had twenty-six fresh
divisions in reserve, but had to hold them until other plans were
developed--the Crown Prince's plan against the French, and the attack
The defense of Arras by the 3d and 56th Divisions--the Iron Division
and the London Division on the left, and by the 15th Division and
Guards on the right, saved the center of our line and all our line. We
had a breathing--space while heavy blows fell against the French and
against three British divisions who had been sent to hold "a quiet
sector" on their right. The Germans drove across the Chemin des Dames,
struck right and left, terrific blows, beat the French back, reached
the Marne again, and threatened Paris.
Foch waited to strike. The genius of Foch was that he waited until the
last minute of safety, taking immense risks in order to be certain of
his counter-stroke. For a time he had to dissipate his reserves, but
he gathered them together again. As quick as the blue men had come up
behind our lines they were withdrawn again. Three of our divisions
went with them, the 51st Highlanders and 15th Scottish, and the 48th
English. The flower of the French army, the veterans of many battles,
was massed behind the Marne, and at Chateau Thierry the American
marines and infantry were given their first big job to do. What
happened all the world knows. The Crown Prince's army was attacked on
both flanks and in the center, and was sent reeling back to escape
Ludendorff's great offensive had failed and had turned to ruin. Some
of the twenty-six fresh divisions under Rupprecht of Bavaria were put
into the melting-pot to save the Crown Prince. The British army, with
its gaps filled up by 300,000 new drafts from England, the young
brothers of the elder brothers who had gone before, was ready to
strike again, and on August 8th the Canadians and Australians north
and south of the Somme, led by many tanks, broke the enemy's line
beyond Amiens and slowly but surely rolled it back with enormous
For the first time in the war the cavalry had their chance of pursuit,
and made full use of it, rounding up great batches of prisoners,
capturing batteries of heavy and light guns, and fighting in many
"August 8th," writes Ludendorff, "was the black day of the German army
in the history of this war."
He describes from the German point of view what I and others have
described from the British point of view, and the general narrative is
the same--a succession of hammer-blows by the British armies, which
broke not only the German war-machine, but the German spirit. It was a
marvelous feat when the 19th Division and the Welsh waded at dusk
across the foul waters of the River Ancre, under the heights of
Thiepval, assembled under the guns of the enemy up there, and then,
wet to their skins, and in small numbers compared with the strength of
the enemy, stormed the huge ridges from both sides, and hurled the
enemy back from what he thought was an impregnable position, and
followed him day by day, taking thousands of prisoners and smashing
his rear-guard defenses one by one.
The most decisive battle of the British front in the "come-back,"
after our days of retreat, was when with the gallant help of American
troops of the 27th New York Division our men of the English Midlands,
the 46th Division, and others, broke the main Hindenburg line along
the St.-Quentin Canal. That canal was sixty feet wide, with steep
cliffs rising sheer to a wonderful system of German machine-gun
redoubts and tunneled defenses, between the villages of Bellicourt and
Bellinglis. It seemed to me an impossible place to assault and
capture. If the enemy could not hold that line they could hold
nothing. In a dense fog on Sunday morning, September 30th, our men,
with the Americans and Australians in support, went down to the canal-
bank, waded across where the water was shallow, swam across in life-
belts where it was deep, or got across somehow and anyhow, under
blasts of machine-gun fire, by rafts and plank bridges. A few hours
after the beginning of the battle they were far out beyond the German
side of the canal, with masses of prisoners in their hands. The
Americans on the left of the attack, where the canal goes below
ground, showed superb and reckless gallantry (they forgot, however, to
"mop up" behind them, so that the enemy came out of his tunnels and
the Australians had to cut their way through), and that evening I met
their escorts with droves of captured Germans. They had helped to
break the last defensive system of the enemy opposite the British
front, and after that our troops fought through open country on the
way to victory.
I saw many of the scenes which led up to Mons and Le Cateau and
afterward to the Rhine. Something of the horror of war passed when the
enemy drew back slowly in retreat from the lands he had invaded, and
we liberated great cities like Lille and Roubaix and Tourcoing, and
scores of towns and villages where the people had been waiting for us
so long, and now wept with joy to see us. The entry into Lille was
unforgetable, when old men and women and girls and boys and little
children crowded round us and kissed our hands. So it was in other
places. Yet not all the horror had passed. In Courtrai, in St.-Amand
by Valenciennes, in Bohain, and other villages, the enemy's shell-fire
and poison-gas killed and injured many of the people who had been
under the German yoke so long and now thought they were safe.
Hospitals were filled with women gasping for breath, with gas-fumes in
their lungs, and with dying children. In Valenciennes the cellars were
flooded when I walked there on its day of capture, so that when shells
began to fall the people could not go down to shelter. Some of them
did not try to go down. At an open window sat an old veteran of 1870
with his medal on his breast, and with his daughter and granddaughter
on each side of his chair. He called out, "Merci! Merci!" when English
soldiers passed, and when I stopped a moment clasped my hands through
the window and could not speak for the tears which fell down his white
and withered cheeks. A few dead Germans lay about the streets, and in
Maubeuge on the day before the armistice I saw the last dead German of
the war in that part of the line. He lay stretched outside the railway
station into which many shells had crashed. It was as though he had
walked from his own comrades toward our line before a bullet caught
Ludendorff writes of the broken morale of the German troops, and of
how his men surrendered to single troopers of ours, while whole
detachments gave themselves up to tanks. "Retiring troops," he wrote,
"greeted one particular division (the cavalry) that was going up fresh
and gallantly to the attack, with shouts of 'Blacklegs!' and 'War-
prolongers!"' That is true. When the Germans left Bohain they shouted
out to the French girls: "The English are coming. Bravo! The war will
soon be over!" On a day in September, when British troops broke the
Drocourt-Queant line, I saw the Second German Guards coming along in
batches, like companies, and after they had been put in barbed-wire
inclosures they laughed and clapped at the sight of other crowds of
comrades coming down as prisoners. I thought then, "Something has
broken in the German spirit." For the first time the end seemed very
Yet the German rear-guards fought stubbornly in many places,
especially in the last battles round Cambrai, where, on the north, the
Canadian corps had to fight desperately, and suffered heavy and bitter
losses under machine-gun fire, while on the south our naval division
and others were badly cut up.
General Currie, whom I saw during those days, was anxious and
disheartened. He was losing more men in machine-gun actions round
Cambrai than in bigger battles. I watched those actions from Bourlon
Wood, saw the last German railway train steam out of the town, and
went into the city early on the morning of its capture, when there was
a roaring fire in the heart of it and the Canadians were routing out
the last Germans from their hiding-places.
The British army could not have gone on much farther after November
11th, when the armistice brought us to a halt. For three months our
troops had fought incessantly, storming many villages strongly
garrisoned with machine-gunners, crossing many canals under heavy
fire, and losing many comrades all along the way. The pace could not
have been kept up. There is a limit even to the valor of British
troops, and for a time we had reached that limit. There were not many
divisions who could have staggered on to new attacks without rest and
relief. But they had broken the German armies against them by a
succession of hammer-strokes astounding in their rapidity and in their
continuity, which I need not here describe in detail, because in my
despatches, now in book form, I have narrated that history as I was a
witness of it day by day.
Elsewhere the French and Americans had done their part with steady,
driving pressure. The illimitable reserves of Americans, and their
fighting quality, which triumphed over a faulty organization of
transport and supplies, left the German High Command without hope even
for a final gamble.
Before them the German troops were in revolt, at last, against the
bloody, futile sacrifice of their manhood and people. A blinding light
had come to them, revealing the criminality of their war lords in this
"Great Swindle" against their race. It was defeat and agony which
enlightened them, as most people--even ourselves--are enlightened only
by suffering and disillusionment, and never by successes.
After the armistice I went with our troops to the Rhine, and entered
Cologne with them. That was the most fantastic adventure of all in
four and a half years of strange and terrible adventures. To me there
was no wild exultation in the thought of being in Cologne with our
conquering army. The thought of all the losses on the way, and of all
the futility of this strife, smote at one's heart. What fools the
Germans had been, what tragic fools! What a mad villainy there had
been among rival dynasties and powers and politicians and peoples to
lead to this massacre! What had any one gained out of it all? Nothing
except ruin. Nothing except great death and poverty and remorse and
The German people received us humbly. They were eager to show us
courtesy and submission. It was a chance for our young Junkers, for
the Prussian in the hearts of young pups of ours, who could play the
petty tyrant, shout at German waiters, refuse to pay their bills,
bully shopkeepers, insult unoffending citizens. A few young staff-
officers behaved like that, disgustingly. The officers of fighting
battalions and the men were very different. It was a strange study in
psychology to watch them. Here they were among the "Huns." The men
they passed in the streets and sat with in the restaurants had been in
German uniforms a few weeks before, or a few days. They were "the
enemy," the men they had tried to kill, the men who had tried to kill
them. They had actually fought against them in the same places. At the
Domhof Hotel I overheard a conversation between a young waiter and
three of our cavalry officers. They had been in the same fight in the
village of Noyelles, near Cambrai, a tiny place of ruin, where they
had crouched under machine-gun fire. The waiter drew a diagram on the
table-cloth. "I was just there." The three cavalry officers laughed.
"Extraordinary! We were a few yards away." They chatted with the
waiter as though he were an old acquaintance who had played against
them in a famous football-match. They did not try to kill him with a
table-knife. He did not put poison in the soup.
That young waiter had served in a hotel in Manchester, where he had
served a friend of mine, to whom he now expressed his opinion on the
folly of the war, and the criminality of his war lords, and things in
general. Among these last he uttered an epigram which I remember for
its brutal simplicity. It was when a staff-officer of ours, rather the
worse for wine, had been making a scene with the head waiter, bullying
him in a strident voice.
"Some English gentlemen are swine," said the young waiter. "But all
German gentlemen are swine."
Some of our officers and men billeted in houses outside Cologne or
across the Rhine endeavored to stand on distant terms with the "Huns."
But it was impossible to be discourteous when the old lady of the
house brought them an early cup of coffee before breakfast, warmed
their boots before the kitchen fire, said, "God be praised, the war is
over." For English soldiers, anything like hostility was ridiculous in
the presence of German boys and girls who swarmed round their horses
and guns, kissed their hands, brought them little pictures and gifts.
"Kids are kids," said a sergeant-major. "I don't want to cut their
throats! Queer, ain't it?"
Many of the "kids" looked half starved. Our men gave them bread and
biscuit and bully beef. In Cologne the people seemed pleased to see
British soldiers. There was no sense of humiliation. No agony of grief
at this foreign occupation. Was it lack of pride, cringing--or a
profound relief that the river of blood had ceased to flow and even a
sense of protection against the revolutionary mob which had looted
their houses before our entry? Almost every family had lost one son.
Some of them two, three, even five sons, in that orgy of slaughter.
They had paid a dreadful price for pride. Their ambition had been
drowned in blood.
In the restaurants orchestras played gay music. Once I heard them
playing old English melodies, and I sickened a little at that. That
was going too far! I looked round the Cafe Bauer--a strange scene
after four and a half years Hun-hating. English soldiers were chatting
with Germans, clinking beer mugs with them. The Germans lifted their
hats to English "Tommies"; our men, Canadian and English, said
"Cheerio!" to German soldiers in uniforms without shoulder-straps or
buttons. English people still talking of Huns, demanding vengeance,
the maintenance of the blockade, would have become hysterical if they
had come suddenly to this German cafe before the signing of peace.
Long before peace was signed at Versailles it had been made on the
Rhine. Stronger than the hate of war was human nature. Face to face,
British soldiers found that every German had two eyes, a nose, and a
mouth, in spite of being a "Hun." As ecclesiastics would say when not
roused to patriotic fury, they had been made "in the image of God."
There were pleasant-spoken women in the shops and in the farmhouses.
Blue-eyed girls with flaxen pigtails courtesied very prettily to
English officers. They were clean. Their houses were clean, more
spotless even than English homes. When soldiers turned on a tap they
found water came out of it. Wonderful! The sanitary arrangements were
good. Servants were hard--working and dutiful. There was something,
after all, in German Kultur. At night the children said their prayer
to the Christian God. Most of them were Catholics, and very pious.
"They seem good people," said English soldiers.
At night, in the streets of Cologne, were women not so good. Shameless
women, though daintily dressed and comely. British soldiers--English,
Scottish, and Canadian--grinned back at their laughing eyes, entered
into converse with them, found they could all speak English, went down
side-streets with them to narrow-fronted houses. There were squalid
scenes when the A.P.M. raided these houses and broke up an entente
cordiale that was flagrant and scandalous.
Astonishing climax to the drama of war! No general orders could stop
fraternization before peace was signed. Human nature asserted itself
against all artificial restrictions and false passion. Friends of mine
who had been violent in their hatred of all Germans became thoughtful,
and said: "Of course there are exceptions," and, "The innocent must
not suffer for the guilty," and, "We can afford to be a little
But the innocent were made to suffer for the guilty and we were not
generous. We maintained the blockade, and German children starved, and
German mothers weakened, and German girls swooned in the tram-cars,
and German babies died. Ludendorff did not starve or die. Neither did
Hindenburg, nor any German war lord, nor any profiteer. Down the
streets of Cologne came people of the rich middle classes, who gorged
themselves on buns and cakes for afternoon tea. They were cakes of