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The Soul of the War by Philip Gibbs

Part 3 out of 7

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east, and continued without pause by day and night.

In stations about Paris I saw regiment after regiment entraining--men
from the southern provinces speaking the patois of the south, men
from the eastern departments whom I had seen a month before, at
the beginning of the war, at Chalons, and Epernay and Nancy, and
men from the southwest and centre of France in the garrisons along
the Loire.

They were all in splendid spirits, strangely undaunted by the rapidity
of the German advance. "Fear nothing, my little one," said a dirty
unshaven gentleman with the laughing eyes of d'Artagnan, "we shall
bite their heads off. These brutal 'Boches' are going to put
themselves in a veritable death-trap. We shall have them at last."

The railway carriages were garlanded with flowers of the fields. The
men wore posies in their kepis. In white chalk they had scrawled
legends upon the cattle-trucks in which they travelled. "A mort
Guillaume!" "Vive la Gloire!" "Les Francais ne se rendent jamais!"
Many of them had fought at Longwy and along the heights of the
Vosges. The youngest of them had bristling beards. Their blue coats
with the turned-back flaps were war-worn and flaked with the dust of
long marches. Their red trousers were sloppy and stained.

But they had not forgotten how to laugh, and the gallantry of their
spirits was good to see. A friend of mine was not ashamed to say that
he had tears at least as high as his throat when he stood among
them and clasped some of those brown hands. There was a thrill not
to be recaptured in the emotion of those early days of war. Afterwards
the monotony of it all sat heavily upon one's soul.

They were very proud, those French soldiers, of fighting side by side
with their old foes the British, now after long centuries of strife, from
Edward the Black Prince to Wellington, their brothers-in-arms upon
the battlefields; and because I am English they offered me their
cigarettes and made me one of them.

In modern war it is only masses of men that matter, moved by a
common obedience at the dictation of mysterious far-off powers, and
I thanked Heaven that masses of men were on the move, rapidly, in
vast numbers, and in the right direction--to support the French lines
which had fallen back from Amiens a few hours before I left that town,
whom I had followed in their retirement back and back, with the British
always strengthening their left, but retiring with them almost to the
outskirts of Paris itself.

Only this could save Paris--the rapid strengthening of the Allied front
by enormous reserves strong enough to hold back the arrow-shaped
battering-ram of the enemy's right.

All our British reserves had been rushed up to the front from Havre
and Rouen. There was only one deduction to be drawn from this
great swift movement. The French and British lines had been
supported by every available battalion to save Paris from its menace
of destruction, to meet the weight of the enemy's metal by a force
strong enough to resist its mass.


One of the most dramatic incidents of the war was the transport of the
army of Paris to the fighting line--in taxi-cabs. There were 2000 of
these cabs in Paris, and on this day of September 1 they
disappeared as though the earth had swallowed them, just as the
earth had swallowed one of them not long before when the floods had
sapped the streets. A sudden order from General Gallieni, the Military
Governor of Paris, had been issued to each driver, who immediately
ignored the upraised hands of would-be passengers and the shouts
of people desperate to get to one of the railway stations with
household goods and a hope of escape. At the depots the drivers
knew that upon the strength of their tyres and the power of their
engines depended the safety of Paris and perhaps the life of France.
It was an extraordinary incident in the history of modern war. Five
soldiers were loaded into each cab, four inside and one next to the
driver, with their rifles and kit crammed in between them. In one
journey twenty thousand men were taken on the road to Meaux. It
was a triumph of mobility, and when in future the Parisian is tempted
to curse those red vehicles which dash about the streets to the
danger of all pedestrians who forget that death has to be dodged by
never-failing vigilance, his righteous wrath will be softened, perhaps,
by the remembrance that these were the chariots of General
Manoury's army before the battle of Meaux, which turned the tide of
war and flung back the enemy in retreat..


It will be to the lasting credit of General Joffre and the French Staff
that after six weeks of disorder owing to the unreadiness of their army
and their grievous errors in the disposition of the available troops,
they recovered themselves in a supreme effort and by a brilliant
stroke of strategy took the enemy completely by surprise and dealt
him a staggering blow. The German Headquarters Staff--the brains of
the greatest military machine in Europe--sublimely arrogant in their
belief that they had an exclusive knowledge of the whole science of
war and that the allied armies were poor blunderers without
intelligence and without organization, utterly incapable of resisting the
military genius of the German race, found themselves foiled and out-
manoeuvred at the very moment when the prize of victory seemed to
be within their grasp.

For the first time since the beginning of their advance into French
territory they were confronted with something like equal numbers, and
they were brought to a halt at once. This arrest, shocking to their self-
confidence, was found to be more than a mere check easily
overpowered by bringing up more battalions. General von Kluck
realized that the French had gathered together a formidable mass of
men ready to be flung upon his right flank. Their guns were already
beginning to open fire with frightful effect upon his advanced
columns. The pressure of French regiments marching steadily and
swiftly from the south-east and south-west after weeks of retirement,
was forcing in his outposts, chasing back his cavalry and revealing a
strong and resolute offensive. On September 4 and 5 there was
heavy fighting on the German left and centre, to the south of the
Marne and the west of the Ourcq. While General von Kluck was
endeavouring to resist the thrust of the French and British troops who
were massing their guns with great strength on his right, General von
Bulow's left wing, with the Saxon army and the Prince of
Wurtemberg's army, made desperate attempts to break the French
centre by violent attacks to the north of Sezanne and Vitry-le-
Francois. For two days the Germans tested the full measure of the
strength opposed to them, but failed in smashing through any part of
the French line, so that the Allies, successful in holding their ground
against the full weight of the enemy, gained time for the supports to
reach them and then developed a complete and general attack.

Von Kluck found that his troops were yielding. The French mordant
was too much for Prussians as well as Saxons, who in many villages
of France and in the hollows of the downs were heavily punished by
the Anglo-French artillery, and routed by bayonet charges thrust
home with incredible ferocity. The German Headquarters Staff,
receiving these reports from all parts of the line, must have had many
moral shocks, undermining their pride and racking their nerves.
Perhaps one day we shall read the history of those councils of war
between the German generals, when men who had been confident of
victory began to be haunted by doubt, hiding their fears even from
themselves until they were forced to a gloomy recognition of grave
perils. Some of these men must have wept and others cursed, while
Von Kluck decided to play again for safety, and issued an order for
retreat. Retreat! What would the Emperor say in Berlin where he
waited for the prize of Paris and heard that it had slipped from his
grasp? How could they explain the meaning of that retreat to the
people at home, expecting loot from the Louvre and souvenirs from
Paris shops?

Some of the officers thought these things--I have read their letters--
but General von Kluck must have had only one dominating and
absorbing thought, more important even than an Emperor's anger.
"Gott im Himmel, shall I get this army back to a stronger line or shall I
risk all on a fight in the open, against those French and British guns
and almost equal odds?" The failure of the German centre was the
gravest disaster, and threatened von Kluck with the menace of an
enveloping movement by the Allied troops which might lead to his
destruction, with the flower of the Imperial troops. Away back there on
the Aisne were impregnable positions tempting to hard-pressed men.
Leaving nothing to chance, the Germans had prepared them already
in case of retreat, though it had not been dreamed of then as more
than a fantastic possibility. The fortune of war itself as well as
cautious judgment pointed back to the Aisne for safety. The allied
armies were closing up, increasing in strength of men and guns as
the hours passed. In a day or two it might be too late to reach the
strongholds of the hills.


So the retreat of the German right wing which had cut like a knife
through northern France until its edge was blunted by a wall of steel,
began on September 5 and increased in momentum as the allied
troops followed hard upon the enemy's heels. The great mass of the
German left swung backwards in a steady and orderly way, not losing
many men and not demoralized by this amazing turn in Fortune's
wheel. "It is frightfully disappointing," wrote a German officer whose
letter was found afterwards on his dead body. "We believed that we
should enter Paris in triumph and to turn away from it is a bitter thing
for the men. But I trust our chiefs and I know that it is only a
strategical retirement. Paris will still be ours."

Truly it was a strategical retirement and not a "rout," as it was called
by the English Press Bureau. But all retirements are costly when the
enemy follows close, and the rearguard of Von Kluck's army was in a
terrible plight and suffered heavy losses. The French light artillery
opened fire in a running pursuit, advancing their guns from position to
position with very brief halts, during which the famous soixante-quinze
flung out shells upon bodies of troops at close range--so that they fell
like wheat cut to pieces in a hailstorm. The British gunners were
pushing forward, less impetuously but with a steady persistence, to
the west of the River Ourcq, and after all their hardships; losses, and
fatigues, the men who had been tired of retreating were heartened
now that their turn had come to give chase.

Episodes that seem as incredible as a boy's romance of war took
place in those first days of September when the German right rolled
back in a retreating tide. On one of those days an English regiment
marched along a dusty road for miles with another body of men
tramping at the same pace on a parallel road, in the same white dust
which cloaked their uniforms--not of English khaki, but made in
Germany. Hundreds of German soldiers, exhausted by this forced
march in the heat, without food or water, fell out, took to the cover of
woods, and remained there for weeks, in parties of six or eight,
making their way to lonely farmhouses where they demanded food
with rifles levelled at frightened peasants, taking pot-shots at English
soldiers who had fallen out in the same way, and hiding in thickets
until they were hunted out by battues of soldiers long after the first
great battle of the Marne. It was the time for strange adventures when
even civilians wandering in the wake of battle found themselves
covered by the weapons of men who cared nothing for human life,
whether it was their own or another's, and when small battalions of
French or English, led by daring officers, fought separate battles in
isolated villages, held by small bodies of the enemy, cut off from the
main army but savagely determined to fight to the death.

Out of the experiences of those few days many curious chapters of
history will be written by regimental officers and men. I have heard
scores of stories of that kind, told while the thrill of them still
flushed the cheeks of the narrators, and when the wounds they
had gained in these fields of France were still stabbed with
red-hot needles of pain, so that a man's laughter would be checked
by a quivering sigh and his lips parched by a great thirst.


Because of its vivid interest and its fine candour, I will give one such
story. It was told to me by a young officer of Zouaves who had been
in the thickest of the fighting to the east of Paris. He had come out of
action with a piece of shell in his left arm, and his uniform was
splashed with the blood of his wound. I wish I could write it in his
soldierly French words;--so simple and direct, yet emotional at times
with the eloquence of a man who speaks of the horrors which have
scorched his eyes and of the fear that for a little while robbed him of
all courage and of the great tragedy of this beastly business of war
which puts truth upon the lips of men.

I wish also I could convey to my readers' minds the portrait of that
young man with his candid brown eyes, his little black moustache, his
black stubble of beard, as I saw him in the rags and tatters of his
Zouave dress, concealed a little beneath his long grey-blue cape of a
German Uhlan, whom he had killed with his sword.

When he described his experience he puffed at a long German pipe
which he had found in the pocket of the cape, and laughed now and
then at this trophy, of which he was immensely proud.

"For four days previous to Monday, September 7," he said, "we were
engaged in clearing out the German 'boches' from all the villages on
the left bank of the Ourcq, which they had occupied in order to protect
the flank of their right wing."

"Unfortunately for us the English heavy artillery, which would have
smashed the beggars to bits, had not yet come up to help us,
although we expected them with some anxiety, as the big business
events began as soon as we drove the outposts back to their main

"However, we were quite equal to the preliminary task, and heartened
by the news of the ammunition convoy which had been turned into a
very pretty firework display by 'Soixante-dix Pau.' My Zouaves--as
you see I belong to the First Division, which has a reputation to keep
up--n'est-ce pas?--were in splendid form."

"They were just like athletes who want to be first off the mark, or
rather perhaps I should say like bloodhounds on the scent."

"Still, just to encourage them a little, don't you know, I pulled out my
revolver, showed it to my little ones, and said very gently that the first
man who hesitated to advance under the fire of the German guns
would be a dead man before he took a step to the rear. (In every
regiment there are one or two men who want encouraging in this
way.) Of course, they all laughed at me. They wanted to get near
those German guns, and nearer still to the gunners. That was before
they knew the exact meaning of shell-fire. Well, they did good things,
those Zouaves of mine. But it wasn't pleasant work. We fought from
village to village, very close fighting, so that sometimes we could look
into our enemy's eyes. The Moroccans were with us, the native
troops, unlike my boys who are Frenchmen, and they were like
demons with their bayonet work."

"Several of the villages were set on fire by the Germans before they
retired from them, and soon great columns of smoke with pillars of
flame and clouds of flying sparks rose up into the blue sky, and made
a picture of hell there. For really it was hell on earth.

"Our gunners were shelling the Germans from pillar to post, as it
were, and strewing the ground with their dead. It was across and
among these dead bodies that we infantry had to charge. They lay
about in heaps, masses of bleeding flesh. It made me sick, even in
the excitement of it all."

"The enemy's quickfirers were marvellous. I am bound to say we did
not get it all our own way. They always manoeuvre them in the same
style, and very clever it is. First of all they mask them with infantry.
Then when the French charge they reveal them and put us to the test
under the most withering fire. It is almost impossible to stand against
it, and in this case we had to retire after each rush for about 250

"Then quick as lightning the Germans got their mitrailleuses across
the ground which we had yielded to them, and waited for us to come
on again; when they repeated the same operation."

"I can tell you it was pretty trying to the nerves, but my Zouaves were
very steady in spite of fairly heavy losses."

"In a village named Penchard there was some very sharp fighting,
and some of our artillery were posted hereabouts. Presently a
German aeroplane came overhead circling round in reconnaissance.
But it was out for more than that. Suddenly it began to drop bombs,
and whether by design or otherwise--they have no manners, these
fellows--they exploded in the middle of a field hospital. One of my
friends, a young doctor, was wounded in the left arm by a bullet from
one of these bombs, though I don't know what other casualties there
were. But the inevitable happened. Shortly after the disappearance of
the aeroplane the German shells searched the position, and found it
with unpleasant accuracy. It is always the same. The German
aeroplanes are really wonderful in the way they search out the
positions of our guns. We always know that within half an hour of a-n
observation by aeroplane the shells will begin to fall above the
gunners unless they have altered their position. It was so in this
fighting round Meaux yesterday.

"For some days this rat-hunting among the villages on the left bank of
the Ourcq went on all the time, and we were not very happy. The truth
was that we had no water for ourselves, and were four days thirsty. It
was really terrible, for the heat was terrific during the day, and some
of us were almost mad with thirst. Our tongues were blistered and
swollen, our eyes had a silly kind of look in them, and at night we had
horrid dreams. It was, I assure you, an intolerable agony."

"But we did our best for the horses. I have said we were four days
without drink. That was because we used our last water for the poor
beasts. A gentleman has to do that--you will agree?--and the French
soldier is not a barbarian. Even then the horses had to go without a
drop of water for two days, and I'm not ashamed to say that I wept
salt tears to see the sufferings of those poor innocent creatures, who
did not understand the meaning of all this bloody business and who
wondered at our cruelty."

"The nights were dreadful. All around us were burning villages, the
dear hamlets of France, and at every faint puff of wind the sparks
floated about them like falling stars. But other fires were burning.
Under the cover of the darkness the Germans had collected their
dead and had piled them into great heaps and had covered them with
straw and paraffin. Then they had set a torch to these funeral pyres."

"Carrion crows were about in the dawn that followed. Not many of
them, but they came flopping about the dead bodies, and the living,
with hungry beaks. One of my own comrades lay very badly
wounded, and when he wakened out of his unconsciousness one of
these beastly birds was sitting on his chest waiting for him to die. That
is war!"

"Yet there are other things in war. Fine and splendid things. It was
magnificent to see your English gunners come up. They were rather
late in the field. They did not appear until midday on September 7,
when the big battle was going on, and when we were doing our best
to push back the German right wing. They came up just as if they
were on the parade ground, marvellously cool, very chic fellows,
superb in their manner of handling their guns. It was heavy artillery,
and we badly wanted it. And nothing could budge your men, though
the German shell-fire was very hot."

"That is the way with your British gunners. They are different from the
French, who are always best when they are moving forward, but do
not like to stay in one position. But when your men have taken up
their ground, nothing can move them. Nothing on earth!"

"And yet the German shells were terrifying. I confess to you that there
were times when my nerves were absolutely gone. I crouched down
with my men--we were in open formation--and ducked my head at the
sound of the bursting 'obus' and trembled in every limb as though I
had a fit of ague. God rebuked me for the bombast with which I had
spoken to my men."

"One hears the zip-zip of the bullets, the boom of the great guns, the
tang of our sharp French artillery, and in all this infernal experience of
noise and stench, the screams of dying horses and men joined with
the fury of the gun-fire, and rose shrill above it. No man may boast of
his courage. Dear God, there were moments when I was a coward
with all of them!"

"But one gets used to it, as to all things. My ague did not last long.
Soon I was cheering and shouting again. We cleared the enemy out
of the village of Bregy, and that was where I fell wounded in the arm
pretty badly, by a bit of shell. I bled like a stuck pig, as you can see,
but when I came to myself again a brother officer told me that things
were going on well, and that we had rolled back the German right.
That was better than a bandage to me. I felt very well again, in spite
of my weakness."

"It is the beginning of the end. The Germans are on the run. They are
exhausted and demoralized. Their pride has been broken. They are
short of ammunition. They know that their plans have failed. Now that
we have them on the move nothing will save them. This war is going
to finish quicker than people thought. I believe that in a few days the
enemy will be broken, and that we shall have nothing more to do than
kill them as they fight back in retreat."

That is the story without any re-touching of my own, of the young
lieutenant of Zouaves whom I met after the battle of Meaux, with the
blood still splashed upon his uniform.

It is a human story, giving the experience of only one individual in a
great battle, but clearly enough there emerges from it the truth of that
great operation which did irreparable damage to the German right
wing in its plan of campaign. The optimism with which this officer
ended his tale makes one smile a little now, though in a pitiful way.
The words in which he prophesied a quick finish to the war were
spoken in September 1914, before the agony of the winter campaign,
the awful monotony of that siege warfare, and the tides of blood that
came in the spring of another year.


The retreat of the Germans to the Marne, when those columns of
men turned their backs on Paris and trudged back along many roads
down which they had come with songs of victory and across stony
fields strewn already with the debris of fighting, on through villages
where they burned arid looted as they passed, left a trail of muck and
blood and ruin. Five weeks before, when I had travelled through part
of the countryside from the eastern frontier of France, the spirit of
beauty dwelt in it. Those fields, without any black blotches on grass
nibbled short by flocks of sheep, were fresh and green in the sunlight.
Wild flowers spangled them with gold and silver. No horrors lurked in
the woods, where birds sang shrill choruses to the humming
undertone of nature's organists. Little French towns stood white on
the hillsides and in villages of whitewashed houses under thatch
roofs, with deep, low barns filled with the first fruits of the harvest,
peasant girls laughed as they filled their jugs from the wells, and boys
and girls played games in the marketplaces; and old men and
women, sitting in the cool gloom of their doorways, watched the old
familiar things of peaceful life and listened to the chimes of the church
clocks, without any terror in their hearts. War had been declared, but
it seemed remote in its actual cruelty. There was only the faint thrill of
unaccustomed drama in the scenes which passed through these
village streets as guns rattled over the cobble-stones, or as a
squadron of light blue cavalry streamed by, with bronzed men who
grinned at the peasant girls, and horses still groomed and glossy. It is
true that in some of these villages mothers of France had clasped
their sons to their bosoms and wept a little over their nestling heads
and wept still more in loneliness when the boys had gone away. The
shadow of the war had crept into all these villages of France, but
outwardly they were still at peace and untroubled by the far-off peril.
Nature was indifferent to the stupid ways of men. Her beauty had the
ripeness of the full-blown summer and the somnolence of golden
days when the woods are very still in the shimmering heat and not a
grass-blade moves except when a cricket stirs it with its chirruping.

Now, along the line of the retreat, nature itself was fouled and the old
dwelling-places of peace were wrecked. Fighting their way back the
enemy had burned many villages, or had defended them against a
withering fire from the pursuing troops, so that their blackened
stumps of timber, and charred, broken walls, with heaps of ashes
which were once farmhouses and barns, remained as witnesses of
the horror that had passed. Along the roadways were the bodies of
dead horses. Swarms of flies were black upon them, browsing on
their putrefying flesh, from which a stench came poisoning the air and
rising above the scent of flowers and the sweet smell of hay in
eddying waves of abominable odour. In villages where there had
been street fighting, like those of Barcy, and Poincy, Neufmoutiers
and Montlyon, Douy-la-Ramee and Chevreville, the whitewashed
cottages and old farmsteads which were used as cover by the
German soldiers before they were driven out by shell-fire or bayonet
charges, were shattered into shapeless ruin. Here and there a house
had escaped. It stood trim and neat amid the wreckage. A cafe
restaurant still displayed its placards advertising Dubonnet and other
aperitifs, peppered by shrapnel bullets, but otherwise intact. Here and
there whole streets stood spared, without a trace of conflict, and in a
street away the cottages had fallen down like card-houses toppled
over by the hand of a petulant child. In other villages it was difficult
to believe that war had passed that way. It was rather as though a
plague had driven their inhabitants to flight. The houses were still
shuttered as when the bourgeoisie and peasant had fled at the first
news of the German advance. It was only by the intense solitude and
silence that one realized the presence of some dreadful visitation,
only that and a faint odour of corruption stealing from a dark mass of
unknown beastliness huddled under a stone wall, and the deep ruts
and holes in the roadway, made by gun-carriages and wagons.

Spent cartridges lay about, and fragments of shell, and here and
there shells which had failed to burst until they buried their nozzles in
the earth.

French peasants prowled about for these trophies, though legally
they had no right to them, as they came under the penalties attached
to loot. In many of the cottages which were used by the German
officers there were signs of a hasty evacuation. Capes and leather
pouches still lay about on chairs and bedsteads. Half finished letters,
written to women in the Fatherland who will never read those words,
had been trampled under heel by hurrying boots.

I saw similar scenes in Turkey when the victorious Bulgarians
marched after the retreating Turks. I never dreamed then that such
scenes would happen in France in the wake of a German retreat. It is
a little thing, like one of those unfinished letters from a soldier to his
wife, which overwhelms one with pity for all the tragedy of war.

"Meine liebe Frau." Somewhere in Germany a woman was waiting for
the scrap of paper, wet with dew and half obliterated by mud, which I
picked up in the Forest of Compiegne She would wait week after
week for that letter from the front, and day after day during those
weeks she would be sick at heart because no word came, no word
which would make her say, "Gott sei dank!" as she knelt by the
bedside of a fair-haired boy so wonderfully like the man who had
gone away to that unvermeidliche krieg which had come at last. I
found hundreds of letters like this, but so soppy and trampled down
that I could only read a word or two in German script. They fluttered
about the fields and lay in a litter of beef-tins left behind by British
soldiers on their own retreat over the same fields.

Yet I picked them up and stared at them and seemed to come closer
into touch with the tragedy which, for the most part, up to now, I could
only guess at by the flight of fugitives, by the backwash of wounded,
by the destruction of old houses, and by the silence of abandoned
villages. Not yet had I seen the real work of war, or watched the
effects of shell-fire on living men. I was still groping towards the heart
of the business and wandering in its backyards.

I came closer to the soul of war on a certain Sunday in September.
By that time the enemy's retreat had finished and the German army
under General von Kluck was at last on the other side of the Aisne, in
the strongholds of the hills at which the French and British guns were
vainly battering at the beginning of a long and dreary siege against
entrenched positions.

All day long, on this Sunday in September, I trudged over battlefields
still littered with the horrors of recent fighting, towards the lines,
stretching northwards and eastwards from Vic-sur-Aisne to Noyon
and Soissons, where for six days without an hour's pause one of the
greatest battles in history had continued.

As I walked far beyond the rails from the town of Crepy-en-Valois,
which had suffered the ravages of the German legions and on
through the forest of Villers-Cotterets and over fields of turnips and
stubble, which only a few days ago were trampled by French and
British troops following the enemy upon their line of retreat, to the
north side of the Aisne, the great guns of our heavy artillery shocked
the air with thunderous reverberations.

Never for more than a minute or two did those thunderclaps cease. In
those intervals the silence was intense, as though nature--the spirit of
these woods and hills--listened with strained ears and a frightened
hush for the next report. It came louder as I advanced nearer to the
firing line, with startling crashes, as though the summits of the hills
were falling into the deepest valleys. They were answered by vague,
distant, murmurous echoes, which I knew to be the voice of the
enemy's guns six miles further away, but not so far away that they
could not find the range of our own artillery.

Presently, as I tramped on, splashing through water-pools and along
rutty tracks ploughed up by the wheels of gun carriages, I heard the
deeper, more sonorous booming of different guns, followed by a
percussion of the air as though great winds were rushing into void
spaces. These strange ominous sounds were caused by the heavy
pieces which the enemy had brought up to the heights above the
marshlands of the Aisne--the terrible 11-inch guns which outranged
all pieces in the French or British lines. With that marvellous foresight
which the Germans had shown in all their plans, these had been
embedded in cement two weeks before in high emplacements, while
their advanced columns were threatening down to Paris. The
Germans even then were preparing a safe place of retreat for
themselves in case their grand coup should fail, and our British troops
had to suffer from this organization on the part of an enemy which
was confident of victory but remembered the need of a safe way

I have been for many strange walks in my life with strange
companions, up and down the world, but never have I gone for such
a tramp with such a guide as on this Sunday within sound of the
guns. My comrade of this day was a grave-digger.

His ordinary profession is that of a garde champetre, or village
policeman, but during the past three weeks he had been busy with
the spade, which he carried across his shoulder by my side. With
other peasants enrolled for the same tragic task he had followed the
line of battle for twenty kilometres from his own village, Rouville, near
Levignen, helping to bury the French and British dead, and helping to
burn the German corpses.

His work was not nearly done when I met him, for during the fighting
in the region round the forest of Villers-Cotterets, twice a battlefield,
as the Germans advanced and then retreated, first pursuing and then
pursued by the French and British, 3000 German dead had been left
upon the way, and 1000 of our Allied troops. Dig as hard as he could
my friendly gravedigger had been unable to cover up all those
brothers-in-arms who lay out in the wind and the rain.

I walked among the fields where they lay, and among their roughly
piled graves, and not far from the heaps of the enemy's dead who
were awaiting their funeral pyres.

My guide grasped my arm and pointed to a dip in the ground beyond
the abandoned village of Levignen.

"See there," he said; "they take some time to burn."

He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, like a gardener pointing to a bonfire
of autumn leaves.

But there in line with his forefinger rose a heavy rolling smoke,
sluggish in the rain under a leaden sky, and I knew that those leaves
yonder had fallen from the great tree of human life, and this bonfire
was made from an unnatural harvesting.

The French and British dead were laid in the same graves--"Are they
not brothers?" asked the man with the spade--and as soon as the
peasants had courage to creep back to their villages and their woods
they gathered leaves and strewed them upon those mounds of earth
among which I wandered, as heroes' wreaths. But no such honour
was paid to the enemy, and with a little petrol and straw they were put
to the flames until only their charred ashes, windswept and wet with
heavy rain, marked the place of their death.

It is the justice of men. It makes no difference. But as I stood and
watched these smoky fires, between the beauty of great woods
stretching away to the far hills, and close to a village which seemed a
picture of human peace, with its old church-tower and red-brown
roofs, I was filled with pity at all this misery and needless death which
has flung its horror across the fair fields of France.

What was the sense of it? Why, in God's name, or the devil's, were
men killing each other like this on the fields of France, so that human
life was of no more value than that of vermin slaughtered ruthlessly?
Each one of the German corpses whose flesh was roasting under
those oily clouds of smoke had been a young man with bright hopes,
and a gift of laughter, and some instincts of love in his heart. At least
he had two eyes and a nose, and other features common to the
brotherhood of man. Was there really the mark of the beast upon him
so that he should be killed at sight, without pity? I wondered if in that
roasting mass of human flesh were any of the men who had been
kind to me in Germany--the young poet whose wife had plucked
roses for me in her garden, and touched them with her lips and said,
"Take them to England with my love"; or the big Bavarian professor
who had shared his food with me in the hills above Adrianople; or any
of the Leipzig students who had clinked glasses with me in the beer-

It was Germany's guilt--this war. Well, I could not read all the secrets
of our Foreign Office for twenty years or more to know with what tact
or tactlessness, with what honesty or charity, or with what arrogance
or indifference our statesmen had dealt with Germany's claims or
Germany's aspirations. But at least I knew, as I watched those
smouldering death-fires, that no individual corpse among them could
be brought in guilty of the crime which had caused this war, and that
not a soul hovering above that mass of meat could be made
responsible at the judgment seat of God. They had obeyed orders,
they had marched to the hymn of the Fatherland, they believed, as
we did, in the righteousness of their cause. But like the dead bodies
of the Frenchmen and the Englishmen who lay quite close, they had
been done to death by the villainy of statecraft and statesmen,
playing one race against another as we play with pawns in a game of
chess. The old witchcraft was better than this new witchcraft, and not
so fraudulent in its power of duping the ignorant masses.

My guide had no such sentiment. As he led me through a fringe of
forest land he told me his own adventures, and heaped curses upon
the enemy.

He had killed one of them with his own hand. As he was walking on
the edge of a wood a Solitary Uhlan came riding over the fields,
below the crest of a little hill. He was one of the outposts of the strong
force in Crepy-en-Valois, and had lost his way to that town. He
demanded guidance, and to point his remarks pricked his lance at the
chest of the garde champetre.

But the peasant had been a soldier, and he held a revolver in the side
pocket of his jacket. He answered civilly, but shot through his pocket
and killed the man at the end of the lance. The Uhlan fell from his
horse, and the peasant seized his lance and carbine as souvenirs of
a happy moment.

But the moment was brief. A second later and the peasant was sick
with fear for what he had done. If it should be discovered that he, a
civilian, had killed a German soldier, every living thing in his village
would be put to the sword--and among those living things were his
wife and little ones.

He dragged his trophies into the forest, and lay in hiding there for two
days until the enemy had passed.

Afterwards I saw the lance--it reached from the floor to the ceiling of
his cottage--and for years to come in the village of Rouville it will be
the centre-piece of a thrilling tale.

Other peasants joined my friendly gravedigger, and one of them--the
giant of his village--told me of his own escape from death. He was
acting as the guide of four British officers through a part of the forest.
Presently they stopped to study their maps; and it was only the guide
who saw at the other end of the glade a patrol of German cavalry.
Before he could call out a warning they had unslung their carbines
and fired. The British officers fell dead without a cry, and the peasant
fell like a dead man also, rolling into a ditch, unwounded but
paralysed with fear. They did not bother about him--that little German
patrol. They rode off laughing, as though amused with this jest of

There have been many jests like that--though I see no mirth in them--
and I could fill this chapter with the stories I have heard of this kind
of death coming quite quickly in woods and fields where peasants
raised their heads for a moment to find that the enemy was near. It is
these isolated episodes among the homesteads of France, and in
quiet villages girdled by silent woods, which seemed to reveal the
spirit of war more even than the ceaseless fighting on the battle front
with its long lists of casualties.

On that Sunday I saw the trail of this great spirit of evil down many

I walked not only among the dead, but, what affected me with a more
curious emotion, through villages where a few living people wrung
their hands amidst the ruins of their homes.

Even in Crepy-en-Valois, which had suffered less than other towns
through which the enemy had passed, I saw a wilful, wanton, stupid
destruction of men--no worse I think than other men, but with their
passions let loose and unrestrained. They had entered all the
abandoned houses, and had found some evil pleasure in smashing
chairs and tables and lampshades and babies' perambulators, and
the cheap but precious ornaments of little homes. They had made a
pigsty of many a neat little cottage, and it seemed as though an
earthquake had heaped everything together into a shapeless,
senseless litter. They entered a musical instrument shop, and
diverted themselves, naturally enough, with gramophones and
mouth-organs and trumpets and violins. But, unnaturally, with just a
devilish mirth, they had then smashed all these things into twisted
metal and broken strings. In one cottage an old man and woman,
among the few inhabitants who remained, told me their story.

They are Alsatians, and speak German, and with the craftiness which
accompanies the simplicity of the French peasant, made the most of
this lucky chance. Nine German soldiers were quartered upon them,
and each man demanded and obtained nine eggs for the meal, which
he washed down with the peasant's wine. Afterwards, they stole
everything they could find, and with their comrades swept the shops
clean of shirts, boots, groceries, and everything they could lay their
hands on. They even took the hearses out of an undertaker's yard
and filled them with loot. Before they left Crepy-en-Valois, they fired
deliberately, I was told, upon Red Cross ambulances containing
French wounded.

Yet it was curious that the old Alsatian husband who told me some of
these things had amusement rather than hatred in his voice when he
described the German visit before their quick retreat from the
advancing British. He cackled with laughter at the remembrance of a
moment of craftiness when he crept out of his back door and wrote a
German sentence on his front door in white chalk. It was to the effect
that the inhabitants of his house were honest folk--gute leute--who
were to be left in peace... He laughed in a high old man's treble at this
wily trick. He laughed again, until the tears came into his eyes, when
he took me to a field where the French and British had blown up 3000
German shells abandoned by the enemy at the time of their retreat.
The field was strewn with great jagged pieces of metal, and to the old
Alsatian it seemed a huge joke that the Germans had had to leave
behind so much "food for the guns." After all it was not a bad joke as
far as we are concerned.

On that Sunday in September I saw many things which helped me to
understand the meaning of war, and yet afterwards became vague
memories of blurred impressions, half obliterated by later pictures. I
remember that I saw the movements of regiments moving up to
support the lines of the Allies, and the carrying up of heavy guns for
the great battle which had now reached its sixth day, and the passing,
passing, of Red Cross trains bringing back the wounded from that
terrible front between Vic and Noyon, where the trenches were being
filled and refilled with dead and wounded, and regiments of tired men
struggled forward with heroic endurance to take their place under the
fire of those shells which had already put their souls to the test of
courage beyond anything that might be demanded, in reason, from
the strongest heart.

And through the mud and the water-pools, through the wet bracken
and undergrowth, in a countryside swept by heavy rainstorms, I went
tramping with the gravedigger, along the way of the German retreat,
seeing almost in its nakedness the black ravage of war and its foul

Here and there the highway was lined with snapped and twisted
telegraph wires. At various places great water-tanks and reservoirs
had been toppled over and smashed as though some diabolical
power had made cockshies of them. I peered down upon the broken
bridge of a railway line, and stumbled across uprooted rails torn from
their sleepers and hurled about the track.

My gravedigger plucked my sleeve and showed me where he had
buried a French cuirassier who had been shot as he kept a lonely
guard at the edge of a wood.

He pointed with his spade again at newly-made graves of French and
British. The graves were everywhere--mile after mile, on the slopes of
the hills and in the fields and the valleys, though still on the
battleground my friend had work to do.

I picked up bullets from shrapnels. They are scattered like peas for
fifteen miles between Betz and Mortefontaine, and thicker still along
the road to Vic. The jagged pieces of shell cut my boots. I carried one
of the German helmets for which the peasants were searching
among cabbages and turnips. And always in my ears was the deep
rumble of the guns, those great booming thunder-blows, speaking
from afar and with awful significance of the great battle, which
seemed to be deciding the destiny of our civilization and the new life
of nations which was to come perhaps out of all this death.

Chapter VI


Before this year has ended England will know something of what war
means. In English country towns there will be many familiar faces
missing, many widows and orphans, and many mourning hearts.
Dimly and in a far-off way, the people who have stayed at home will
understand the misery of war and its brutalities. But in spite of all our
national effort to raise great armies, and our immense national
sacrifice in sending the best of our young manhood to foreign
battlefields, the imagination of the people as a whole will still fail to
realize the full significance of war as it is understood in France and
Belgium. They will not know the meaning of invasion.

It is a great luck to be born in an island. The girdle of sea is a
safeguard which gives a sense of security to the whole psychology of
a race, and for that reason there is a gulf of ignorance about the
terrors of war which, happily, may never be bridged by the collective
imagination of English and Scottish people. A continental nation,
divided by a few hills, a river, or a line on the map, from another race
with other instincts and ideals, is haunted throughout its history by a
sense of peril. Even in times of profound peace, the thought is there,
in the background, with a continual menace. It shapes the character
of a people and enters into all their political and educational progress.
To keep on friendly terms with a powerful next-door neighbour, or to
build defensive works high enough to make hostility a safe game, is
the lifework of its statesmen and its politicians. Great crises and
agitations shake the nation convulsively when cowardice or treachery
or laziness has allowed that boundary wall to crumble or has made a
breach in it. The violence of the Dreyfus affair was not so much due
to a Catholic detestation of the Jewish race, but in its root-instincts to
a fear of the German people over the frontier making use of French
corruption to sap the defensive works which had been raised against

The necessity of conscription is obvious beyond argument to a
continental people still cherishing old traditions of nationality, and the
military training which is compulsory for all young men of average
health, not only shapes the bodies of their lads, but also shapes their
minds, so that their outlook upon life is largely different from that of an
island people protected by the sea. They know that they have been
born of women for one primary object--to fight when the time comes
in, defence of the Fatherland, to make one more human brick in the
great wall of blood and spirit dividing their country and race from
some other country and race. At least that is the lesson taught them
from first to last in the schools and in the national assemblies, and
there are only a few minds which are able to see another way of life
when the walls of division may be removed and when the fear of a
next-door neighbour may be replaced by friendship and common

The difference between the intellectual instincts of an island people
and that of a continental race was the cause of the slow way in which
England groped her way to an understanding of the present war, so
that words of scorn and sarcasm, a thousand mean tricks of
recruiting sergeants in high office, and a thousand taunts had to be
used to whip up the young men of Great Britain, and induce them to
join the Army. Their hearths and homes were not in immediate
danger. They could not see any reasonable prospect of danger upon
English soil. Their women were safe. Their property, bought on the
hire system out of hard-earned wages, was not, they thought, in the
least likely to be smashed into small bits or carried off as loot. They
could not conceive the idea of jerry-built walls which enshrined all the
treasures of their life suddenly falling with a crash like a house of
cards, and burying their babies. The British Expeditionary Force
which they were asked to join was after all only a sporting party going
out to foreign fields for a great adventure.


In France there were no such illusions. As soon as war was imminent
the people thought of their frontiers, and prayed God in divers ways
that the steel hedges there were strong enough to keep back the
hostile armies until the general call to the colours had been
answered. Every able-bodied man in France was ready, whatever the
cowardice in his heart, to fling himself upon the frontier to keep out,
with his own body, the inrushing tide of German troops. The memory
of 1870 had taught them the meaning of Invasion.

I saw the meaning of it during the first months of the war, when I
wandered about France. In the north, nearest to the enemy, and
along the eastern frontier, it was a great fear which spread like a
plague, though more swiftly and terribly, in advance of the enemy's
troops. It made the bravest men grow pale when they thought of their
women and children. It made the most callous man pitiful when he
saw those women with their little ones and old people, whose place
was by the hearthside, trudging along the highroads, faint with hunger
and weariness, or pleading for places in cattle-trucks already
overpacked with fugitives, or wandering about un-lighted towns at
night for any kind of lodging, and then, finding none, sleeping on the
doorsteps of shuttered houses and under the poor shelter of
overhanging gables.

For months, in every part of France there were thousands of
husbands who had lost their wives and children, thousands of
families who had been divided hopelessly in the wild confusion of
retreats from a brutal soldiery. They had disappeared into the
maelstrom of fugitives--wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, and old
grandmother, most of them without money and all of them dependent
for their lives upon the hazard of luck. Every day in the French
newspapers there were long lists of inquiries.

"M. Henri Planchet would be deeply grateful to anyone who can
inform him of the whereabouts of his wife, Suzanne, and of his two
little girls, Berthe and Marthe, refugees from Armentieres."

"Mme. Tardieu would be profoundly grateful for information about her
daughter, Mme. des Rochers, who fled from the destroyed town of
Albert on October 10, with her four children."

Every day I read some of these lists, finding a tragedy in every line,
and wondering whether any of these missing people were among
those whom I had met in the guard vans of troop trains, huddled
among their bundles, or on wayside platforms, or in the long columns
of retreating inhabitants from a little town deep in a wooded valley
below the hills where German guns were vomiting their shrapnel.

Imagine such a case in England. A man leaves his office in London
and takes the train to Guildford, where his wife and children are
waiting supper for him. At Weybridge the train comes to a dead-halt.
The guard runs up to the engine-driver, and comes back to say that
the tunnel has been blown up by the enemy. It is reported that
Guildford and all the villages around have been invaded. Families
flying from Guildford describe the bombardment of the town. A part of
it is in flames. The Guildhall is destroyed. Many inhabitants have been
killed. Most of the others have fled.

The man who was going home to supper wants to set out to find his
wife and children. His friends hold him back in spite of his struggles.
"You are mad!" they shout. "Mad!"... He has no supper at home that
night. His supper and his home have been burnt to cinders. For
weeks he advertises in the papers for the whereabouts of his wife
and babes. Nobody can tell him. He does not know whether they are
dead or alive.

There were thousands of such cases in France. I have seen this
tragedy--a man weeping for his wife and children swallowed up into
the unknown after the destruction of Fives, near Lille. A new-born
babe was expected. On the first day of life it would receive a baptism
of fire. Who could tell this distracted man whether the mother or child
were alive?


There were many villages in France around Lille and Armentieres,
Amiens and Arras, and over a wide stretch of country in Artois and
Picardy, where, in spite of all weariness, women who lay down beside
their sleeping babes could find no sleep for themselves. For who
could say what the night would bring forth? Perhaps a patrol of
Uhlans, who shot peasants like rabbits as they ran across the fields,
and who demanded wine, and more wine, until in the madness of
drink they began to burn and destroy for mere lust of ruin. So it was at
Senlis, at Sermaize, and in many villages in the region through which
I passed.

It was never possible to tell the enemy's next move. His cavalry came
riding swiftly far from the main lines of the hostile troops, and owing to
the reticence of official news, the inhabitants of a town or village
found themselves engulfed in the tide of battle before they guessed
their danger. They were trapped by the sudden tearing-up of railway
lines and blowing-up of bridges, as I was nearly trapped one day
when the Germans cut a line a few hundred yards away from my

Yet the terror was as great when no Germans were seen, and no
shells heard. It was enough that they were coming. They had been
reported--often falsely--across distant hills. So the exodus began and,
with perambulators laden with bread and apples, in any kind of
vehicle--even in a hearse--drawn by poor beasts too bad for army
requisitions, ladies of quality left their chateaux and drove in the
throng with peasant women from whitewashed cottages. Often in a
little while both the chateau and the cottage were buried in the same
heap of ruins.

In a week or two, the enemy was beaten back from some of these
places, and then the most hardy of the townsfolk returned "home." I
saw some of them going home-at Senlis, at Sermaize, and other
places. They came back doubtful of what they would find, but soon
they stood stupefied in front of some charred timbers which were
once their house. They did not weep, but just stared in a dazed way.
They picked over the ashes and found burnt bits of former treasures--
the baby's cot, the old grandfather's chair, the parlour clock. Or they
went into houses still standing neat and perfect, and found that some
insanity of rage had smashed up all their household, as though
baboons had been at play or fighting through the rooms. The chest of
drawers had been looted or its contents tumbled out upon the floor.
Broken glasses, bottles, jugs, were mixed up with a shattered violin,
the medals of a grandfather who fought in '70, the children's broken
toys, clothes, foodstuff, and picture frames. I saw many of such
houses after the coming and going of the German soldiers.

Even for a correspondent in search of a vantage-ground from which
he might see something of this war, with a reasonable chance of
being able to tell the story afterwards, the situation in France during
those early days was somewhat perilous.

It is all very well to advance towards the fighting lines when the
enemy is opposed by allied forces in a known position, but it is a quite
different thing to wander about a countryside with only the vaguest
idea of the direction in which the enemy may appear, and with the
disagreeable thought that he may turn up suddenly round the corner
after cutting off one's line of retreat. That was my experience on more
than one day of adventure when I went wandering with those two
friends of mine, whom I have alluded to as the Strategist and the
Philosopher. Not all the strategy of the one or the philosophy of the
other could save us from unpleasant moments when we blundered
close to the lines of an unexpected enemy.

That was our experience on an early day in October, when we
decided to go to Bethune, which seemed an interesting place in the

It may seem strange in England that railway trains should still be
running in the ordinary way, according to the time-tables of peace, in
these directions, and that civilians should have been allowed to take
their tickets without any hint as to the danger at the journey's end. But
in spite of the horror of invasion, French railway officials showed an
extraordinary sang-froid and maintained their service, even when
they knew that their lines might be cut, and their stations captured,
within an hour or two. Ignorance also helped their courage and, not
knowing the whereabouts of the enemy even as well as I did, they ran
their trains to places already threatened by advancing squadrons.

On this October day, for example, there was no sign of surprise on
the part of the buxom lady behind the guichet of the booking-office
when I asked for a ticket to Bethune, although there had been heavy
fighting in that district only a few hours before, at the end of a great
battle extending over several days.

In the train itself were several commercial gentlemen, on their way to
Lille, by way of the junction at Arques, where they had to change; and
with two or three French soldiers, and a lady entirely calm and self-
possessed, they discussed the possibility of getting into a city round
which the German cavalry were reported to be sweeping in a great
tide. Another man who entered into conversation with me was going
to Bethune. He had a wife and family there and hoped they were
safe. It was only by a sudden thoughtfulness in his eyes that I could
guess that behind that hope was a secret fear, which he did not
express even to himself. We might have been a little party of people
travelling, say, between Surbiton and Weybridge on an autumn
afternoon, when the golf-ball flies across the links. Not one of them
showed the least sign of anxiety, the least consciousness of peril
close at hand.

Looking out of the carriage window I saw that trenches had been dug
in all the adjacent fields, and that new trenches were being made
hastily but efficiently by gangs of soldiers, who had taken off their blue
coats for once, and were toiling cheerily at their task. In all the
villages we passed were battalions of infantry guarding the railway
bridges and level crossings. Patrols of cavalry rode slowly down
the roads. Here and there some of them were dismounted, with
their horses tethered, and from behind the cover of farmhouses
or haystacks, looked across the country, with their carbines slung
across their shoulders, as though waiting for any Uhlans that might
appear that way.

All around us was the noise of guns, firing in great salvoes across the
hills, ten miles or more away. Suddenly, as we approached the
junction at Arques, there was an explosion which sounded very close
to us; and the train came to a dead stop on grinding brakes.

"What's that?" asked a man in the carriage, sharply.

I thrust my head out of the carriage window and saw that all along the
train other faces were staring out. The guard was running down the
platform. The station-master was shouting to the engine-driver. In a
moment or two we began to back, and kept travelling backwards until
we were out of the station... The line had just been blown up beyond
Arques by a party of Uhlans, and we were able to thank our stars that
we had stopped in time. We could get no nearer to Bethune, over
which next day the tide of war had rolled. I wondered what had
happened to the wife and children of the man who was in the carriage
with me.

At Aire-sur-Lys there were groups of women and children who, like so
many others in those days, had abandoned their houses and left all
they had in the world save a few bundles of clothes and baskets of
food. I asked them what they would do when the food was finished.

"There will always be a little charity, m'sieur," said one woman, "and
at least my children are safe."

After the first terror of the invasion those women were calm and
showed astounding courage and resignation.

It was more than pitiful to see the refugees on the roads from
Hazebrouck. There was a constant stream of them in those two
cross-currents, and they came driving slowly along in bakers' carts
and butchers' carts, with covered hoods, in farm carts loaded up with
several families or trudging along with perambulators and
wheelbarrows. The women were weary. Many of them had babies in
their arms. The elder children held on to their mother's skirts or
tramped along together, hand in hand. But there was no trace of
tears. I heard no wailing cry. Some of them seemed utterly indifferent
to this retreat from home. They had gone beyond the need of tears.

From one of these women, a lady named Mme. Duterque, who had
left Arras with a small boy and girl, I heard the story of her
experiences in the bombarded town. There were hundreds of women
who had similar stories, but this one is typical enough of all those
individual experiences of women who quite suddenly, and almost
without warning, found themselves victims of the Invasion.

She was in her dressing-room in one of the old houses of the Grande
Place in Arras, when at half-past nine in the morning the first shell
burst over the town very close to her own dwelling-place. For days
there had been distant firing on the heights round Arras, but now this
shell came with a different, closer, more terrible sound.

"It seemed to annihilate me for a moment," said Mme. Duterque. "It
stunned all my senses with a frightful shock. A few moments later I
recovered myself and thought anxiously of my little girl who had gone
to school as usual a few streets away. I was overjoyed when she
came trotting home, quite unafraid, although by this time the shells
were falling in various parts of the town."

On the previous night Mme. Duterque had already made preparations
in case the town should be bombarded. Her house, like most of the
old houses in Arras, had a great cellar, with a vaulted roof, almost as
strong as a castle dungeon. She had stocked it with a supply of
sardines and bread and other provisions, and as soon as she had
her little daughter safe indoors again she took her children and the
nurse down to this subterranean hiding-place, where there was
greater safety. The cave, as she called it, was dimly lighted with a
paraffin lamp, and was very damp and chilly, but it was good to be
there in this hiding-place, for at regular intervals she could hear the
terrible buzzing noises of a shell, like some gigantic hornet, followed
by its exploding boom; and then, more awful still, the crash of a
neighbouring house falling into ruins.

"Strange to say," said Mme. Duterque, "after my first shock I had no
sense of fear, and listened only with an intense interest to the noise of
these shells, estimating their distance by their sound. I could tell quite
easily when they were close overhead, and when they fell in another
part of the town, and it seemed to me that I could almost tell which of
my friends' houses had been hit. My children, too, were strangely
fearless. They seemed to think it an exciting adventure to be here in
the great cellar, making picnic meals by the light of a dim lamp. My
little boy amused himself by playing canes (hop-scotch), and my
daughter was very cheerful. Still, after a little while we suffered. I had
forgotten to bring down water or wine, and we also craved for
something more comforting than cold sardines. In spite of the noise
of houses falling into ruins--and at any moment mine might fall above
my head--I went upstairs and began to cook some macaroni. I had to
retreat in a hurry, as a shell burst quite close to my house, and for a
moment I thought that I should be buried under my own roof. But I
went up again in one of the intervals of silence, found the macaroni
cooked to a turn and even ventured to peep out of doors. There I saw
a dreadful sight. The whole of the Grande Place was littered with
broken roofs and shattered walls, and several of the houses were
burning furiously. From other parts of the town there came up great
volumes of smoke and the red glare of flames."

For three days Mme. Duterque kept to her cellar. Unknown to herself,
her husband, who had come from Boulogne to rescue her, was
watching the battle from one of the heights outside the town, which he
was forbidden to enter by the soldiers. On a Thursday morning she
resolved to leave the shelter of her underground vault. News had
been brought to her by a daring neighbour that the Germans had
worked round by the railway station and might enter the town.

"I had no fear of German shells," she said, "but I had a great fear of
German officers and soldiers. Imagine my fate if I had been caught by
them, with my little daughter. For the first time I was filled with a
horrible fear, and I decided to fly from Arras at all costs."

With her children and the nurse, she made her way through the
streets, above which the shells were still crashing, and glanced with
horror at all the destruction about her. The Hotel de Ville was
practically destroyed, though at that time the famous belfry still stood
erect above the ruined town, chiming out the hours of this tragedy.

Mme. Duterque told me her story with great simplicity and without any
self-consciousness of her fine courage. She was only one of those
thousands of women in France who, with a spiritual courage beyond
one's understanding, endured the horrors of this war. It was good to
talk with them, and I was left wondering at such a spirit.

It was with many of these fugitives that I made my way back. Away in
the neighbourhood of Hazebrouck the guns were still booming, and
across the fields the outposts of French cavalry were waiting for the


It was better for women and children to be in Arras under continual
shell-fire than in some of those villages along the valleys of the Marne
and the Meuse and in the Department of the Seine, through which
the Germans passed on their first march across the French frontier.
It was a nicer thing to be killed by a clean piece of shell than to suffer
the foulness of men whose passions had been unleashed by drink
and the devil and the madness of the first experience of war, and by
fear which made them cruel as beasts.

I think fear was at the heart of a good deal of those atrocious Bets by
which the German troops stained the honour of their race in the first
phases of the war. Advancing into a hostile country, among a people
whom they knew to be reckless in courage and of a proud spirit, the
generals and high officers were obsessed with the thought of peasant
warfare, rifle-shots from windows, murders of soldiers billeted in
farms, spies everywhere, and the peril of franc-tireurs, goading their
troops on the march. Their text-books had told them that all this was
to be expected from the French people and could only be stamped
out by ruthlessness. The proclamations posted on the walls of
invaded towns reveal fear as well as cruelty. The mayor and
prominent citizens were to surrender themselves as hostages. If any
German soldier were killed, terrible reprisals would be exacted. If
there were any attempt on the part of the citizens to convey
information to the French troops, or to disobey the regulations of the
German commander, their houses would be burned and their
property seized, and their lives would pay the forfeit. These bald-
headed officers in pointed helmets, so scowling behind their
spectacles, had fear in their hearts and concealed it by cruelty.

When such official proclamations were posted up on the walls of
French villages, it is no wonder that the subordinate officers and their
men were nervous of the dangers suggested in those documents,
and found perhaps without any conscious dishonesty clear proof of
civilian plots against them. A shot rang out down a village street. "The
peasants are firing on us!" shouted a German soldier of neurotic
temperament. "Shoot them at sight!" said an officer who had learnt
his lesson of ruthlessness. "Burn these wasps out! Lieber Gott, we
will teach them a pretty lesson!"

They had all the material for teaching the pretty lessons of war--
inflammable tablets which would make a house blaze in less than five
minutes after they had been strewn about the floors and touched by a
lighted match (I have a few specimens of the stuff)--incendiary bombs
which worked even more rapidly, torches for setting fire to old barns
and thatched roofs. In the wonderful equipment of the German army
in the field this material of destruction had not been forgotten and it
was used in many little towns and villages where German soldiers
heard real or imaginary shots, suspected betrayal from any toothless
old peasant, and found themselves in the grip of fear because these
Frenchwomen, these old men of the farm and the workshop, and
even the children, stared at them as they passed with contemptuous
eyes and kept an uncomfortable silence even when spoken to with
cheerful Teuton greetings, and did not hide the loathing of their souls.
All this silence of village people, all these black looks seemed to
German soldiers like an evil spell about them. It got upon their nerves
and made them angry. They had come to enjoy the fruits of victory in
France, or at best the fruits of life before death came. So these
women would not smile, eh? Nor give their kisses nor their love with
amiability? Well, a German soldier would have his kisses even
though he had to hold a shrieking woman to his lips. He would take
his love even though he had to kill the creature who refused it. These
Frenchwomen were not so austere as a rule in times of peace. If they
would not be fondled they should be forced. Herr Gott! they should
know their masters.


At the little town of Rebais in the department of Seine-et-Marne there
was a pretty Frenchwoman who kept a grocer's shop and did not
care for the way in which some German soldiers made free with her
biscuits and sweetmeats. She was a proud and fearless young
woman, and when the soldiers grinned at her and tried to put their
arms about her she struck them and called them unpleasant names
and drew an open knife. So she wanted her lesson? Well, she had a
soft white neck, and if they could not put their arms about it they
would put a rope round it and hang her with her pride. But she was
strong and quick as well as proud. She cut their rope with her knife
and fought like a wild thing. So they slashed at her with their fists and
bruised all her beauty by the time one of their officers came in and
ordered them away. No one would court her after the lesson they had
given her.

At Saint-Denis-en-Rebais, on September 7, an Uhlan who was eager
for a woman's love saw another pretty woman who tried to hide from
him. There was a mother-in-law with her, and a little son, eight years
of age. But in war-time one has to make haste to seize one's victim or
one's loot. Death is waiting round the corner. Under the cover of his
rifle--he had a restless finger on the trigger--the Uhlan bade the
woman strip herself before him. She had not the pride or the courage
of the other woman. She did not want to die, because of that small
boy who stared with horror in his eyes. The mother-in-law clasped the
child close and hid those wide staring eyes in her skirts, and turned
her own face away from a scene of bestial violence, moaning to the
sound of her daughter's cries.


At the town of Coulommiers on September 6 a German soldier came
to the door of a small house where a woman and her husband were
sitting with two children, trying to hide their fear of this invasion
of German troops. It was half-past nine in the evening and almost
dark, except for a glow in the sky. The soldier was like a shadow on
the threshold until he came in, and they saw a queer light in his eyes.
He was very courteous, though rather gruff in his speech. He asked
the husband to go outside in the street to find one of his comrades.
The man, afraid to refuse, left the room on this errand, but before he
had gone far heard piercing cries. It was his wife's voice, screaming in
terror. He rushed back again and saw the German soldier struggling
with his wife. Hearing her husband's shout of rage, the soldier turned,
seized his rifle, and clubbed the man into an adjoining room, where
he stayed with the two little children who had fled there, trying to
soothe them in their fright and listening, with madness in his brain, to
his wife's agony through the open door a yard away. The husband
was a coward, it seems. But supposing he had flung himself upon the
soldier and strangled him, or cut his throat? We know what would
have happened in the Village of Coulommiers.


On September 7 ten German horsemen rode into the farm of
Lamermont, in the commune of Lisle-en-Barrois. They were in good
humour, and having drunk plenty of fresh milk, left the farmhouse in a
friendly way. Shortly after their departure, when Farmer Elly and his
friend, the sieur Javelot, breathed more easily and thanked God
because the danger had passed, some rifle-shots rang out.
Somewhere or other a dreadful thing was happening. A new danger
came to the farm at Lamermont, with thirty men of a different patrol,
who did not ask for milk but blood. They accused the farm people of
having killed a German soldier, and in spite of the protests of the two
men, who had been sitting quietly in the kitchen, they were shot in the


At Triaucourt the Germans were irritated by the behaviour of a young
girl named Mlle. Helene Proces, who was bold enough to lodge a
complaint to one of their officers about a soldier who had tried to
make love to her in the German way. It was a fine thing if German
soldiers were to be punished for a little sport like that in time of war!
"Burn them out!" said one of the men. On a cold autumn night a
bonfire would warm things up a little. ... It was the house of M. Jules
Gaude which started the bonfire. It blazed so quickly after the torch
had touched his thatch that he had to leap through the flames to save
himself, and as he ran the soldiers shot him dead. When the houses
were burning the Germans had a great game shooting at the people
who rushed about the streets. A boy of seventeen, named George
Lecourtier, was killed as he thrust his way through the flames. A
gentleman named Alfred Lallemand--his name ought to have saved
him--was chased by some soldiers when he fled for refuge to the
kitchen of his fellow-citizen Tautelier, and shot there on his
hearthside. His friend had three bullet-wounds in the hand with which
he had tried to protect the hunted man. Mlle. Proces, the young girl
who had made the complaint which led to this trouble, fled into the
garden with her mother and her grandmother and an aunt named
Mile. Mennehard, who was eighty-one years old. The girl was able to
climb over the hedge into the neighbour's garden, where she hid
among the cabbages like a frightened kitten. But the old people could
not go so fast, and as they tried to climb the hedge they were shot
down by flying bullets. The cure of the village crept out into the
darkness to find the bodies of those ladies, who had been his friends.
With both hands he scooped up the scattered brains of Mile.
Mennehard, the poor old dame of eighty-one, and afterwards brought
her body back into her house, where he wept at this death and
destruction which had made a hell of his little village in which peace
had reigned so long.

And while he wept merry music played, and its lively notes rattled out
into the quiet night from an open window quite close to where dead
bodies lay. The German soldiers enjoyed themselves that night in
Triaucourt. Like so many Neros on a smaller scale, they played and
sang while flames leapt up on either side of them. Thirty-five houses
in this village were burnt to cinders after their old timbers had blazed
fiercely with flying sparks which sparkled above the helmets of
drunken soldiery. An old man of seventy named Jean Lecourtier, and
a baby who had been only two months in this strange world of ours
were roasted to death in the furnace of the village. A farmer named
Igier, hearing the stampede of his cattle, tried to save these poor
beasts, but he had to run the gauntlet of soldiers who shot at him as
he stumbled through the smoke, missing him only by a hair's-breadth,
so that he escaped as by a miracle, with five holes in his clothes. The
village priest, Pere Viller, leaving the body of his old friend, went with
the courage of despair to the Duke of Wurtemberg, who had his
lodging near by, and complained to him passionately of all these
outrages. The Duke of Wurtemberg shrugged his shoulders. "Que
voulez-vous?" he said. "We have bad soldiers, like you have!"


At Montmirail a man named Francois Fontaine lived with his widowed
daughter, Mme. Naude, and his little grandchild Juliette. A German
noncommissioned officer demanded lodging at the house, and on the
night of September 5, when all was quiet, he came undressed into
the young widow's room and, seizing her roughly, tried to drag her
into his own chamber. She cried and struggled so that her father
came running to her, trembling with fear and rage. The Unter-qffizier
seems to have given some signal, perhaps by the blowing of a
whistle. It is certain that immediately after the old man had left his
room fifteen or twenty German soldiers burst into the house and
dragged him out into the street, where they shot him dead. At that
moment the child Juliette opened her bedroom window, looking out
into the darkness at this shadow scene. It was not Romeo but Death
who called this little Juliette. A bullet hit her in the stomach, and
twenty-four hours later she died in agony.

I need not add to these stories, nor plunge deeper into the vile
obscenity of all those crimes which in the months of August and
September set hell loose in the beautiful old villages of France along
a front of five hundred miles. The facts are monotonous in the
repetition of their horror, and one's imagination is not helped but
stupefied by long records of outrages upon defenceless women, with
indiscriminate shooting down village streets, with unarmed peasants
killed as they trudged across their fields or burned in their own
homesteads, with false accusations against innocent villagers, so that
hostages were collected and shot in groups as a punishment for
alleged attacks upon German soldiers, with old French chateaux
looted of all their treasures by German officers in search of souvenirs
and trophies of victory for their womenfolk, and with drunken orgies in
which men of decent breeding became mere animals inflamed with


The memory of those things has burnt deep into the brains of the
French people, so deep that in some cases there is the fire of
madness there.

In a small chateau in France an English friend of mine serving with a
volunteer ambulance column with the French troops on the Meuse
was sitting at ease one night with some of his comrades and fellow-
countrymen. The conversation turned to England, because April was
there, and after ten months of war the thoughts of these men yearned
back to their homes. They spoke of their mothers and wives and
children. One man had a pretty daughter, and read a piece of her
latest letter, and laughed at her gay little jests and her descriptions of
the old pony and the dogs and the antics of a black kitten. Other men
gave themselves away and revealed the sentiment which as a rule
Englishmen hide. In the room was a French officer, who sat very still,
listening to these stories. The candles were burning dim on the table
when he spoke at last in a strange, hard voice:

"It is good for you Englishmen when you go back home. Those who
are not killed out here will be very happy to see their women again.
You do not want to die, because of that. ... If I were to go home now,
gentlemen, I should not be happy. I should find my wife and my
daughter both expecting babies whose fathers are German soldiers...
England has not suffered invasion."


The most complete destruction I saw in France was in Champagne,
when I walked through places which had been the villages of
Sermaize, Heiltz-le-Maurupt, Blesmes, and Huiron. Sermaize was
utterly wiped out. As far as I could see, not one house was left
standing. Not one wall was spared. It was laid flat upon the earth, with
only a few charred chimney-stacks sticking out of the piles of bricks
and cinders. Strange, piteous relics of pretty dwelling-places lay about
in the litter, signifying that men and women with some love for the arts
of life had lived here in decent comfort. A notice-board of a hotel
which had given hospitality to many travellers before it became a
blazing furnace lay sideways on a mass of broken bricks with a
legend so frightfully ironical that I laughed among the ruins:
"Chauffage central"--the system of "central heating" invented by
Germans in this war had been too hot for the hotel, and had burnt it to
a wreck of ashes. Half a dozen peasants stood in one of the
"streets"--marked by a line of rubbish-heaps which had once been
their homes. Some of them had waited until the first shells came over
their chimney-pots before they fled. Several of their friends, not so
lucky in timing their escape, had been crushed to death by the falling
houses. But it was not shell-fire which did the work. The Germans
strewed the cottages with their black inflammable tablets, which had
been made for such cases, and set their torches to the window-
curtains before marching away to make other bonfires on their road of
retreat. Sermaize became a street of fire, and from each of its houses
flames shot out like scarlet snakes, biting through the heavy pall of
smoke. Peasants hiding in ditches a mile away stared at the furnace
in which all their household goods were being consumed. Something
of their own life seemed to be burning there, leaving the dust and
ashes of old hopes and happiness.

"That was mine," said one of the peasants, pointing to a few square
yards of wreckage. "I took my woman home across the threshold that
was there. She was a fine girl, with hair like gold, Monsieur. Now her
hair has gone quite white, during these recent weeks. That's what war
does for women. There are many like that hereabouts, white-haired
before their time."

I saw some of those white-haired women in Blesmes and Huiron and
other scrap-heaps of German ruthlessness. They wandered in a
disconsolate way about the ruins, watching rather hopelessly the
building of wooden huts by a number of English "Quakers" who had
come here to put up shelters for these homeless people of France.
They were doing good work--one of the most beautiful works of
charity which had been called out of this war, and giving a new
meaning to their name of the Society of Friends. But though they
were handy in the use of the wood given them by the French
Government for this purpose, not all their industry nor all their
friendliness could bring back the beauty of these old-world villages of
Champagne, built centuries ago by men of art and craft, and chiselled
by Time itself, so that the stones told tales of history to the villagers.
It would be difficult to patch up the grey old tower of Huiron Church,
through which shells had come crashing, or to rebuild its oak roof
whose beams were splintered like the broken ribs of a rotting
carcase. A white-haired priest passed up and down the roadway
before the place in which he had celebrated Mass and praised God
for the blessings of each day. His hands were clenched behind his
bent back, and every now and then he thrust back his broad felt hat
and looked up at the poor, battered thing which had been his church
with immense sadness in his eyes.

There was an old chateau near Huiron in which a noble family of
France had lived through centuries of war and revolution. It had many
pointed gables and quaint turrets and mullioned windows, overlooking
a garden in which there were arbours for love-in-idleness where
ladies had dreamed awhile on many summer days in the great
yesterday of history. When I passed it, after the Germans had gone
that way, the gables and the turrets had fallen down, and instead of
mullioned windows there were gaping holes in blackened walls. The
gardens were a wild chaos of trampled shrubberies among the
cinder-heaps, the twisted iron, and the wreckage of the old mansion.
A flaming torch or two had destroyed all that time had spared, and the
chateau of Huiron was a graveyard in which beauty had been killed,
murderously, by outrageous hands.

In one of these villages of Champagne--I think it was at Blesmes--I
saw one relic which had been spared by chance when the flames of
the incendiaries had licked up all other things around, and somehow,
God knows why, it seemed to me the most touching thing in this
place of desolation.

It was a little stone fountain, out of which a jet of water rose playfully,
falling with a splash of water-drops into the sculptured basin. While
the furnace was raging in the village this fountain played and reflected
the glare of crimson light in its bubbling jet. The children of many
generations had dabbled their hands in its basin. Pretty girls had
peeped into their own bright eyes mirrored there. On summer days
the village folk had sauntered about this symbol of grace and beauty.
Now it was as though I had discovered a white Venus in the dust-
heap of a burying-place.


The great horror of Invasion did not reach only a few villages in
France and blanch the hair of only a few poor women. During the
long months of this stationary war there was a long black line on all
the maps, printed day after day with depressing repetition in all the
newspapers of the world. But I wonder how many people understood
the meaning of that black line marking the length of the German front
through France, and saw in their mind's eye the blackness of all
those burnt and shattered villages, for ten miles in width, on that
border-line of the war trail? I wonder how many people, searching for
news of heroic bayonet charges or for thrilling stories of how Private
John Smith kept an army corps at bay, single-handed, with a smile on
his face, saw even faintly and from afar the flight of all the fugitives
from that stricken zone, the terror of women and children trapped in
its hell-fire, and the hideous obscenity of that long track across the
fields of France, where dead bodies lay rotting in the rain and sun and
the homesteads of a simple people lay in heaps from Artois to

Along the valley of the Aisne and of the Vesle the spirit of destruction
established its kingdom. It was a valley of death. In the official reports
only a few villages were mentioned by name, according to their
strategical importance, but there were hundreds of hamlets,
unrecorded in dispatches, which were struck by death and became
the charnel-houses of bones and ruins.

In the single district of Vie-sur-Aisne, the little communities of
Saconin, Pernant, Ambleny, and Ressons--beautiful spots in old days
of peace, where Nature displayed all her graciousness along the
winding river and where Time itself seemed to slumber--French
soldiers stared upon broken roofs, shattered walls, and trampled
gardens, upon the twisted iron of ploughs and the broken woodwork
of farmers' carts, and all the litter of war's ruthless damage. Week
after week, turn and turn about, German, French, and British shells
crashed over these places, making dust and ashes of them.
Peasants who clung to their cots, hid in their cellars and at last fled,
described all this in a sentence or two when I questioned them. They
had no grievance even against fate--their own misery was swallowed
up in that of their neighbours; each family knew a worse case than its
own, and so, with a shake of the head, they said there were many
who suffered these things.

Shopkeepers and peasants of Celles, of Conde, of Attichy, along the
way to Berry-au-Bac and from Billy to Sermoise, all those who have
now fled from the Valley of the Vesle and the valley of the Aisne had
just the same story to tell--monotonous, yet awful because of its
tragedy. It was their fate to be along the line of death. One old fellow
who came from Vailly had lived for two months in a continual
cannonade. He had seen his little town taken and retaken ten times in
turn by the French and the Germans.

When I heard of this eye-witness I thought: "Here is a man who has a
marvellous story to tell. If all he has seen, all the horrors and heroism
of great engagements were written down, just as he describes them
in his peasant speech, it would make an historic document to be read
by future generations."

But what did he answer to eager questions about his experience? He
was hard of hearing and, with a hand making a cup for his right ear,
stared at me a little dazed. He said at last, "It was difficult to get to

That was all he had to say about it, and many of these peasants were
like him, repeating some trivial detail of their experience, the loss of a
dog or the damage to an old teapot, as though that eclipsed all other
suffering. But little by little, if one had the patience, one could get
wider glimpses of the truth. Another old man from the village of Soupir
told a more vivid tale. His dwelling-place sheltered some of the
Germans when they traversed the district. The inhabitants of Soupir,
he said, were divided into two groups. Able-bodied prisoners were
sent off to Germany, and women and children who were carried off in
the retreat were afterwards allowed to go back, but not until several
poor little creatures had been killed, and pretty girls subjected to
gross indignities by brutal soldiers. Upon entering Soupir the French
troops found in cellars where they had concealed themselves thirty
people who had gone raving mad and who cried and pleaded to
remain so that they could still hear the shells and gibber at death.
"War is so bracing to a nation," says the philosopher. "War purges
peoples of their vanities." If there is a devil--and there must be many
old-time sceptics who believe now not in one but in a hundred
thousand devils--how the old rogue must chuckle at such words!


It was astounding to any student of psychology wandering in the war
zone to see how many of the peasants of France clung to their
houses, in spite of all their terror of German shells and German
soldiers. When in the first month of 1915 the enemy suddenly
swarmed over the ridges of Cuffies and Crouy, to the north of
Soissons, and with overwhelming numbers smashed the French
back across the Aisne at a time, when the rising of the river had
broken many pontoon bridges, so that the way of escape was almost
cut off, they drove out crowds of peasant folk who had remained
along this fifteen miles of front until actually shelled out in that last
attack which put the ruins of their houses into the hands of the
Germans. As long as three months before Crouy itself had been a
target for the enemy's guns, so that hardly a cottage was standing
with solid walls.

Nevertheless, with that homing instinct which is the strongest emotion
in the heart of the French peasant, many of the inhabitants had been
living an underground life in their cellars, obtaining food from French
soldiers and cowering close together as shells came shrieking
overhead, and as the shattered buildings collapsed into greater ruin.

So it was in Rheims and Arras and other towns which were not
spared in spite of the glories of an architecture which can never be
rebuilt in beauty. Only a few days before writing these lines, I stood on
the edge of the greatest battlefield in France and from an observation
post perched like an eyrie in a tree above the valley, looked across to
the cathedral of Rheims, that shrine of history, where the bones of
kings lie, and where every stone speaks of saints and heroes and a
thousand years of worship. The German shells were still falling about
it, and its great walls stood grim and battered in a wrack of smoke.
For nine months the city of Rheims has suffered the wounds of war.
Shrapnel and air-bombs, incendiary shells and monstrous marmites
had fallen within its boundaries week by week; sometimes only one or
two on an idle day, sometimes in a raging storm of fire, but always
killing a few more people, always shattering another house or two,
always spoiling another bit of sculptured beauty. Nevertheless, there
were thousands of citizens, women as well as men, who would not
leave their city. They lived in cellars, into which they had dragged their
beds and stores, and when the shell fire slackened they emerged,
came out into the light of day, looked around at the new damage, and
went about their daily business until cleared underground again by
another storm of death. There were two old ladies with an elderly
daughter who used to sit at table in the salle-a-manger of a hotel in
Paris a week or two ago. I saw them arrive one day, and watched the
placid faces of these stately old dames in black silk with little lace
caps on their white hair. It was hardly possible to believe that for three
months they had lived in a cellar at Rheims, listening through the day
and night to the cannonading of the city, and to the rushing of the
shells above their own house.

Yet I think that even in a cellar those old women of France preserved
their dignity, and in spite of dirty hands (for water was very scarce)
ate their meagre rations with a stately grace.


More miserable and less armed with courage were the people of
France who lived in cities held by the enemy and secure from shell-
fire--in Lille, and St. Quentin, and other towns of the North, where the
Germans paraded in their pointed casques. For the most part in
these great centres of population the enemy behaved well. Order was
maintained among the soldiers with ruthless severity by German
officers in high command. There were none of the wild and obscene
acts which disgraced the German army in its first advance to and its
retreat from the Marne. No torch bearers and tablet scatterers were
let loose in the streets. On the contrary any German soldier
misbehaving himself by looting, raping, or drunken beastliness found
a quick death against a white wall. But to the French citizens it was a
daily agony to see those crowds of hostile troops in their streets and
houses, to listen to their German speech, to obey the orders of
generals who had fought their way through Northern France across
the bodies of French soldiers, smashing, burning, killing along the
bloody track of war. These citizens of the captured soil of France
knew bitterness of invasion more poignantly than those who hid in
cellars under shell-fire. Their bodies were unwounded, but their spirits
bled in agony. By official placards posted on the walls they read of
German victories and French defeats. In the restaurants and cafes,
and in their own houses, they had to serve men who were engaged in
slaughtering their kinsfolk. It was difficult to be patient with those
swaggering young officers who gave the glad eye to girls whose
sweethearts lay dead somewhere between the French and German

From a lady who had been seven months in St. Quentin, I heard the
story of how invasion came suddenly and took possession of the
people. The arrival of the German troops was an utter surprise to the
population, who had had no previous warning. Most of the French
infantry had left the town, and there remained only a few
detachments, and some English and Scottish soldiers who had lost
their way in the great retreat, or who were lying wounded in the
hospitals. The enemy came into the town at 4 P.M. on August 28,
having completely surrounded it, so that they entered from every
direction. The civil population, panic-stricken, remained for the most
part in their houses, staring through their windows at the columns of
dusty, sun-baked men who came down the streets. Some of the
British soldiers, caught in this trap, decided to fight to the death, which
they knew was inevitable. Several English and Scottish soldiers fired
at the Germans as they advanced into the chief square and were
instantly shot. One man, a tall young soldier, stationed himself at the
corner of the Place du Huit Octobre, and with extraordinary coolness
and rapidity fired shot after shot, so that several German soldiers
were killed or wounded. The enemy brought up a machine gun and
used it against this one man who tried to stop an army. He fell riddled
with bullets, and was blown to pieces as he lay.

On the whole the Germans behaved well at St. Quentin. Their rule
was stern but just, and although the civil population had been put on
rations of black bread, they got enough and it was not, after all, so
bad. As one of the most important bases of the German army in
France, the town was continually filled with troops of every regiment,
who stayed a little while and then passed on. Meanwhile the
permanent troops in occupation of the town settled down and made
themselves thoroughly at home. They established many of their own
shops--bakeries, tailoring establishments, and groceries; and in
consequence of the lack of discipline and decency which prevailed in
some of the cafes and restaurants, these places were conducted by
German officers, who acted as censors of morals and professors of

Astounding as it seems, there were Frenchwomen in St. Quentin who
sold themselves for German money and gave their kisses for a price
to men who had ravaged France and killed the sons of France. Such
outrageous scenes took place, that the German order to close some
of the cafes was hailed as a boon by the decent citizens, who saw the
women expelled by order of the German commandant with enormous

It is strange that the Huns, as they are called, should have been so
strict in moral discipline. Many of them were not so austere in the
villages when they let their passions loose and behaved like drunken
demons or satyrs with flaming torches. There is a riddle in the
psychology of all these contrasts between the iron discipline and
perfect organization by which all outrage was repressed in the large
towns occupied for any length of time by German troops, and the
lawlessness and rapine of the same race in villages through which
they passed hurriedly, giving themselves just time enough to wreak a
cruel ferocity upon unoffending people. Riddle as it is, it holds
perhaps the key to the mystery of the German character and to their
ideal of war. Whenever there was time to establish discipline, the men
were well behaved, and did not dare to disobey the orders of their
chiefs. It was only when special orders for "frightfulness" had been
issued, or when officers in subordinate command let their men get out
of hand, or led the way to devilry by their own viciousness of action,
that the rank and file of the enemy's army committed its brutalities.

Even now, after all that I have seen in the ruined villages in France, I
cannot bring myself to believe that the German race is distinguished
from all other peoples in Europe by the mark of the beast, or that
'they are the exclusive possession of the devil. The prisoners I have
spoken to, the blue-eyed Saxons and plump Bavarians with whom I
travelled for awhile after the battle of Neuve Chapelle, seemed to me
uncommonly like the yokels of our own Somersetshire and
Devonshire. Their officers were polite and well-bred men in whom I
saw no sign of fiendish lusts and cruelties. In normal moods they are
a good-natured people, with a little touch of Teuton grossness
perhaps, which makes them swill overmuch beer, and with an
arrogance towards their womenfolk which is not tolerable to
Englishmen, unless they have revolted from the older courtesies of
English life because the Suffragettes have challenged their authority.

It was in abnormal moods that they committed their atrocities, for in
the hot sun of the first September of the war their blood was
overheated, and in the first intoxication of their march through France,
drunk with the thrill of butcher's work as well as with French wine,
brought back suddenly to the primitive lusts of nature by the spirit of
war, which strips men naked of all refinements and decent veils, they
became for a time savages, with no other restraint than that of Red
Indians on the warpath. They belonged to an Army of Invasion,
marching through hostile territory, and the soul of war robbed the
individual of his own separate soul and put a spell of madness on
him, so that his eyes were bloodshot and his senses inflamed with
lust. In the Peninsular War young Englishmen from decent villages in
quiet countrysides, with pious mothers praying for them at home in
grey old churches, and with pretty sisters engaged in hero-worship,
were bewitched by the same spell of wizardry and did foul and
frightful things which afterwards made them dream of nights and
wake in a cold sweat of shame and horror. There are many young
Germans who will wake out of such dreams when they get back to
Dusseldorf and Bingen-am-Rhein, searching back in their hearts to
find a denial of the deeds which have become incredible after their
awakening from the nightmare. For a little while they had been caught
up in the soul of war and their heroism had been spoilt by obscenity,
and their ideals debased by bestial acts. They will have only one
excuse to their recaptured souls: "It was War." It is the excuse which
man has made through all the ages of his history for the bloody thing
which, in all those ages, has made him a liar to his faith and a traitor
to the gentle gods.

Chapter VII
The Last Stand Of The Belgians


During the first two and a half months of the war I was a wanderer in
France, covering many hundreds of miles in zig-zag journeys
between Nancy and the west coast, always on the move, backwards
and forwards, between the lines of the French and British armies, and
watching with a tireless though somewhat haggard interest the drama
of a great people engaged in a life-and-death struggle against the
most formidable army in the world. I had been in the midst of
populations in flight, armies in retreat, and tremendous movements of
troops hurled forward to new points of strategical importance. Now
and again I had come in touch with the British army and had seen
something of the men who had fought their way down from Mons to
Meaux, but for the most part my experience had been with the
French, and it was the spirit of France which I had done my best to
interpret to the English people.

Now I was to see war, more closely and intimately than before, in
another nation; and I stood with homage in my heart before the spirit
of Belgium and that heroic people who, when I came upon them, had
lost all but the last patch of territory, but still fought, almost alone, a
tenacious, bloody and unending battle against the Power which had
laid low their cities, mangled their ancient beauties, and changed their
little land of peaceful industry into a muck-heap of slaughter and

Even in France I had this vision of the ruin of a nation, and saw its
victims scattered. Since that day when I came upon the first trainload
of Belgian soldiers near Calais, weary as lame dogs after their retreat,
I had seen an interminable procession of fugitives from that stricken
country and heard from them the tale of Alost, Louvain, Termonde
and other towns where only horror dwelt above incinerated stones
and scraps of human flesh. The fall of Antwerp resounded into
France, and its surrender after words of false hope that it would never
fall shook the soul of the French people with a great dismay. It was
idle to disguise the importance of this German victory at the time
when France, with every nerve strained and with England by her side,
could hardly stem back the tide of those overflowing armies which
had been thrust across the Marne but now pressed westward
towards Calais with a smashing strength. The capture of Antwerp
would liberate large numbers of the enemy's best troops. Already,
within a day of this disaster to the Allied armies, squadrons of
German cavalry swept across the frontiers into France, forcing their
way rapidly through Lille and Armentieres towards Bethune and La
Bassee, cutting lines which had already been cut and then repaired,
and striking terror into French villages which had so far escaped from
these hussars of death. As a journalist, thwarted at every turn by the
increasing severity of military orders for correspondent catching, the
truth was not to be told at any cost. I had suspected the doom of
Antwerp some days before its fate was sealed, and I struck northward
to get as near as possible to the Belgian frontier. The nearest I could
get was Dunkirk, and I came in time to see amazing scenes in that
port of France. They were scenes which, even now as I write months
afterwards, stir me with pity and bring back to my imagination an
immense tragedy of history.


The town of Dunkirk, from which I went out to many adventures in the
heart of war, so that for me it will always hold a great memory, was on
that day in October a place of wild chaos, filled with the murmur of
enormous crowds, and with the steady tramp of innumerable feet
which beat out a tragic march. Those weary footsteps thumping the
pavements and the cobble-stones, made a noise like the surging of
waves on a pebble beach--a queer, muffled, shuffling sound, with a
rhythm in it which stupefied one's senses if one listened to it long. I
think something of this agony of a people in flight passed into my own
body and brain that day. Some sickness of the soul took possession
of me, so that I felt faint and overcome by black dejection. There was
a physical evil among those vast crowds of Belgians who had come
on foot, or in any kind of vehicle, down the big, straight roads which
led to France, and now struggled down towards the docks, where
thousands were encamped. From their weariness and inevitable
dirtiness, from the sweat of their bodies, and the tears that had dried
upon their cheeks, from the dust and squalor of bedraggled clothes,
there came to one's nostrils a sickening odour. It was the stench of a
nation's agony. Poor people of despair! There was something
obscene and hideous in your miserable condition. Standing
among your women and children, and your old grandfathers and
grandmothers, I was ashamed of looking with watchful and observant
eyes. There were delicate ladies with their hats awry and their hair
dishevelled, and their beautiful clothes bespattered and torn, so that
they were like the drabs of the slums and stews. There were young
girls who had been sheltered in convent schools, now submerged in
the great crowd of fugitives, so utterly without the comforts of life that
the common decencies of civilization could not be regarded, but gave
way to the unconcealed necessities of human nature. Peasant
women, squatting on the dock-sides, fed their babes as they wept
over them and wailed like stricken creatures. Children with scared
eyes, as though they had been left alone in the horror of darkness,
searched piteously for parents who had been separated from them in
the struggle for a train or in the surgings of the crowds. Young fathers
of families shouted hoarsely for women who could not be found. Old
women, with shaking heads and trembling hands, raised shrill voices
in the vain hope that they might hear an answering call from sons or
daughters. Like people who had escaped from an earthquake to
some seashore where by chance a boat might come for them all,
these Belgian families struggled to the port of Dunkirk and waited
desperately for rescue. They were in a worse plight than shipwrecked
people, for no ship of good hope could take them home again.
Behind them the country lay in dust and flames, with hostile armies
encamped among the ruins of their towns.

For a little while I left these crowds and escaped to the quiet
sanctuary of a restaurant in the centre of the town. I remember that
some English officers came in and stared at me from their table with
hard eyes, suspicious of me as a spy, or, worse still, as a journalist.
In those days, having to dodge arrest at every turn, I had a most
unpatriotic hatred of those British officers whose stern eyes gimletted
my soul. They seemed to me so like the Prussian at his worst.
Afterwards, getting behind this mask of harness, by the magic of
official papers, I abandoned my dislike and saw only the virtue of our
men. I remember also that I ate at table opposite a pretty girl, with a
wanton's heart, who prattled to me, because I was an Englishman, as
though no war had come to make a mockery of love-in-idleness. I
stood up from the table, upsetting a glass so that it broke at the stem.
Outside the restaurant was the tramp of another multitude. But the
rhythm of those feet was different from the noise I had heard all day.
It was sharper and more marked. I guessed at once that many
soldiers were passing by, and that upon striding to the door I should
see another tragedy. From the doorway I watched an army in retreat.
It was the army of Antwerp marching into Dunkirk. I took off my hat
and watched with bared head.

They were but broken regiments, marching disorderly for the most
part, yet here and there were little bodies of men keeping step, with
shouldered rifles, in fine, grim pride. The municipal guards came by,
shoulder to shoulder, as on parade, but they were followed by long
convoys of mounted men on stumbling horses, who came with heaps
of disorderly salvage piled on to dusty wagons. Saddles and bridles
and bits, the uniforms of many regiments flung out hurriedly from
barrack cupboards; rifles, swords, and boots were heaped on to beds
of straw, and upon the top of them lay men exhausted to the point of
death, so that their heads flopped and lolled as the carts came jolting
through the streets. Armoured cars with mitrailleuses, motor-cars
slashed and plugged by German bullets, forage carts and
ambulances, struggled by in a tide of traffic between bodies of foot-
soldiers slouching along without any pride, but dazed with weariness.
Their uniforms were powdered with the dust of the roads, their faces
were blanched and haggard for lack of food and sleep. Some of them
had a delirious look and they stared about them with rolling eyes in
which there was a gleam of madness. Many of these men were
wounded, and spattered with their blood. Their bandages were
stained with scarlet splotches, and some of them were so weak that
they left their ranks and sat in doorways, or on the kerb-stones, with
their heads drooping sideways. Many another man, footsore and
lame, trudged along on one boot and a bandaged sock, with the
other boot slung to his rifle barrel.

Riding alone between two patrols of mounted men was a small boy

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