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Title: Now It Can Be Told
Author: Gibbs, Philip
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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NOW IT CAN BE TOLD

by Philip Gibbs



CONTENTS


        PREFACE

       Part One  OBSERVERS AND COMMANDERS

       Part Two  THE SCHOOL OF COURAGE

     Part Three  THE NATURE OF A BATTLE

      Part Four  A WINTER OF DISCONTENT

      Part Five  THE HEART OF A CITY

       Part Six  PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME

     Part Seven  THE FIELDS OF ARMAGEDDON

     Part Eight  FOR WHAT MEN DIED



PREFACE


In this book I have written about some aspects of the war which, I
believe, the world must know and remember, not only as a memorial of
men’s courage in tragic years, but as a warning of what will happen
again--surely--if a heritage of evil and of folly is not cut out of the
hearts of peoples. Here it is the reality of modern warfare not only as
it appears to British soldiers, of whom I can tell, but to soldiers on
all the fronts where conditions were the same.

What I have written here does not cancel, nor alter, nor deny anything
in my daily narratives of events on the western front as they are now
published in book form. They stand, I may claim sincerely and humbly,
as a truthful, accurate, and tragic record of the battles in France and
Belgium during the years of war, broadly pictured out as far as I could
see and know. My duty, then, was that of a chronicler, not arguing why
things should have happened so nor giving reasons why they should not
happen so, but describing faithfully many of the things I saw, and
narrating the facts as I found them, as far as the censorship would
allow. After early, hostile days it allowed nearly all but criticism,
protest, and of the figures of loss.

The purpose of this book is to get deeper into the truth of this war and
of all war--not by a more detailed narrative of events, but rather as
the truth was revealed to the minds of men, in many aspects, out
of their experience; and by a plain statement of realities, however
painful, to add something to the world’s knowledge out of which men of
good-will may try to shape some new system of relationship between one
people and another, some new code of international morality, preventing
or at least postponing another massacre of youth like that five years’
sacrifice of boys of which I was a witness.



PART ONE. OBSERVERS AND COMMANDERS



I


When Germany threw down her challenge to Russia and France, and England
knew that her Imperial power would be one of the prizes of German
victory (the common people did not think this, at first, but saw only
the outrage to Belgium, a brutal attack on civilization, and a glorious
adventure), some newspaper correspondents were sent out from London to
report the proceedings, and I was one of them.

We went in civilian clothes without military passports--the War Office
was not giving any--with bags of money which might be necessary for the
hire of motor-cars, hotel life, and the bribery of doorkeepers in the
antechambers of war, as some of us had gone to the Balkan War, and
others. The Old Guard of war correspondents besieged the War Office
for official recognition and were insulted day after day by junior
staff-officers who knew that “K” hated these men and thought the press
ought to be throttled in time of war; or they were beguiled into false
hopes by officials who hoped to go in charge of them and were told to
buy horses and sleeping-bags and be ready to start at a moment’s notice
for the front.

The moment’s notice was postponed for months....

The younger ones did not wait for it. They took their chance of “seeing
something,” without authority, and made wild, desperate efforts to break
through the barrier that had been put up against them by French and
British staffs in the zone of war. Many of them were arrested, put
into prison, let out, caught again in forbidden places, rearrested, and
expelled from France. That was after fantastic adventures in which they
saw what war meant in civilized countries where vast populations were
made fugitives of fear, where millions of women and children and old
people became wanderers along the roads in a tide of human misery, with
the red flame of war behind them and following them, and where the first
battalions of youth, so gay in their approach to war, so confident of
victory, so careless of the dangers (which they did not know), came back
maimed and mangled and blinded and wrecked, in the backwash of retreat,
which presently became a spate through Belgium and the north of France,
swamping over many cities and thousands of villages and many fields.
Those young writing-men who had set out in a spirit of adventure went
back to Fleet Street with a queer look in their eyes, unable to write
the things they had seen, unable to tell them to people who had not seen
and could not understand. Because there was no code of words which would
convey the picture of that wild agony of peoples, that smashing of all
civilized laws, to men and women who still thought of war in terms of
heroic pageantry.

“Had a good time?” asked a colleague along the corridor, hardly waiting
for an answer.

“A good time!”... God!... Did people think it was amusing to be an
onlooker of world-tragedy?... One of them remembered a lady of France
with a small boy who had fled from Charleville, which was in flames and
smoke. She was weak with hunger, with dirty and bedraggled skirts on her
flight, and she had heard that her husband was in the battle that was
now being fought round their own town. She was brave--pointed out the
line of the German advance on the map--and it was in a troop-train
crowded with French soldiers--and then burst into wild weeping, clasping
the hand of an English writing-man so that her nails dug into his flesh.
I remember her still.

“Courage, maman! Courage, p’tite maman!” said the boy of eight.

Through Amiens at night had come a French army in retreat. There were
dead and wounded on their wagons. Cuirassiers stumbled as they led their
tired horses. Crowds of people with white faces, like ghosts in the
darkness, stared at their men retreating like this through their city,
and knew that the enemy was close behind.

“Nous sommes perdus!” whispered a woman, and gave a wailing cry.

People were fighting their way into railway trucks at every station for
hundreds of miles across northern France. Women were beseeching a place
for the sake of their babes. There was no food for them on journeys of
nineteen hours or more; they fainted with heat and hunger. An old woman
died, and her corpse blocked up the lavatory. At night they slept on the
pavements in cities invaded by fugitives.

At Furnes in Belgium, and at Dunkirk on the coast of France, there were
columns of ambulances bringing in an endless tide of wounded. They were
laid out stretcher by stretcher in station-yards, five hundred at a
time. Some of their faces were masks of clotted blood. Some of their
bodies were horribly torn. They breathed with a hard snuffle. A foul
smell came from them.

At Chartres they were swilling over the station hall with disinfecting
fluid after getting through with one day’s wounded. The French doctor
in charge had received a telegram from the director of medical services:
“Make ready for forty thousand wounded.” It was during the first battle
of the Marne.

“It is impossible!” said the French doctor....

Four hundred thousand people were in flight from Antwerp, into which
big shells were falling, as English correspondents flattened themselves
against the walls and said, “God in heaven!” Two hundred and
fifty thousand people coming across the Scheldt in rowing-boats,
sailing-craft, rafts, invaded one village in Holland. They had no
food. Children were mad with fright. Young mothers had no milk in their
breasts. It was cold at night and there were only a few canal-boats and
fishermen’s cottages, and in them were crowds of fugitives. The odor
of human filth exuded from them, as I smell it now, and sicken in
remembrance....

Then Dixmude was in flames, and Pervyse, and many other towns from the
Belgian coast to Switzerland. In Dixmude young boys of France--fusiliers
marins--lay dead about the Grande Place. In the Town Hall, falling to
bits under shell-fire, a colonel stood dazed and waiting for death amid
the dead bodies of his men--one so young, so handsome, lying there on
his back, with a waxen face, staring steadily at the sky through the
broken roof....

At Nieuport-les-Bains one dead soldier lay at the end of the esplanade,
and a little group of living were huddled under the wall of a red-brick
villa, watching other villas falling like card houses in a town that had
been built for love and pretty women and the lucky people of the world.
British monitors lying close into shore were answering the German
bombardment, firing over Nieuport to the dunes by Ostend. From one
monitor came a group of figures with white masks of cotton-wool tipped
with wet blood. British seamen, and all blind, with the dead body of an
officer tied up in a sack....

“O Jesu!... O maman!... O ma pauvre p’tite femme!... O Jesu! O Jesu!”

From thousands of French soldiers lying wounded or parched in the
burning sun before the battle of the Marne these cries went up to the
blue sky of France in August of ‘14. They were the cries of youth’s
agony in war. Afterward I went across the fields where they fought and
saw their bodies and their graves, and the proof of the victory that
saved France and us. The German dead had been gathered into heaps like
autumn leaves. They were soaked in petrol and oily smoke was rising from
them....

That was after the retreat from Mons, and the French retreat along all
their line, and the thrust that drew very close to Paris, when I saw our
little Regular Army, the “Old Contemptibles,” on their way back, with
the German hordes following close. Sir John French had his headquarters
for the night in Creil. English, Irish, Scottish soldiers, stragglers
from units still keeping some kind of order, were coming in, bronzed,
dusty, parched with thirst, with light wounds tied round with rags,
with blistered feet. French soldiers, bearded, dirty, thirsty as dogs,
crowded the station platforms. They, too, had been retreating and
retreating. A company of sappers had blown up forty bridges of France.
Under a gas-lamp in a foul-smelling urinal I copied out the diary of
their officer. Some spiritual faith upheld these men. “Wait,” they said.
“In a few days we shall give them a hard knock. They will never get
Paris. Jamais de la vie!”...

In Beauvais there was hardly a living soul when three English
correspondents went there, after escape from Amiens, now in German
hands. A tall cuirassier stood by some bags of gunpowder, ready to
blow up the bridge. The streets were strewn with barbed wire and broken
bottles... In Paris there was a great fear and solitude, except where
grief-stricken crowds stormed the railway stations for escape and where
French and British soldiers--stragglers all--drank together, and sang
above their broken glasses, and cursed the war and the Germans.

And down all the roads from the front, on every day in every month
of that first six months of war--as afterward--came back the tide of
wounded; wounded everywhere, maimed men at every junction; hospitals
crowded with blind and dying and moaning men....

“Had an interesting time?” asked a man I wanted to kill because of his
smug ignorance, his damnable indifference, his impregnable stupidity
of cheerfulness in this world of agony. I had changed the clothes
which were smeared with blood of French and Belgian soldiers whom I had
helped, in a week of strange adventure, to carry to the surgeons. As an
onlooker of war I hated the people who had not seen, because they could
not understand. All these things I had seen in the first nine months I
put down in a book called The Soul of the War, so that some might know;
but it was only a few who understood....



II


In 1915 the War Office at last moved in the matter of war
correspondents. Lord Kitchener, prejudiced against them, was being
broken down a little by the pressure of public opinion (mentioned from
time to time by members of the government), which demanded more news of
their men in the field than was given by bald communiqués from
General Headquarters and by an “eye-witness” who, as one paper had
the audacity to say, wrote nothing but “eye-wash.” Even the enormous,
impregnable stupidity of our High Command on all matters of psychology
was penetrated by a vague notion that a few “writing fellows” might be
sent out with permission to follow the armies in the field, under the
strictest censorship, in order to silence the popular clamor for more
news. Dimly and nervously they apprehended that in order to stimulate
the recruiting of the New Army now being called to the colors by vulgar
appeals to sentiment and passion, it might be well to “write up”
 the glorious side of war as it could be seen at the base and in the
organization of transport, without, of course, any allusion to dead or
dying men, to the ghastly failures of distinguished generals, or to the
filth and horror of the battlefields. They could not understand, nor did
they ever understand (these soldiers of the old school) that a nation
which was sending all its sons to the field of honor desired with a deep
and poignant craving to know how those boys of theirs were living and
how they were dying, and what suffering was theirs, and what chances
they had against their enemy, and how it was going with the war which
was absorbing all the energy and wealth of the people at home.

“Why don’t they trust their leaders?” asked the army chiefs. “Why don’t
they leave it to us?”

“We do trust you--with some misgivings,” thought the people, “and we do
leave it to you--though you seem to be making a mess of things--but
we want to know what we have a right to know, and that is the life and
progress of this war in which our men are engaged. We want to know more
about their heroism, so that it shall be remembered by their people and
known by the world; about their agony, so that we may share it in our
hearts; and about the way of their death, so that our grief may be
softened by the thought of their courage. We will not stand for this
anonymous war; and you are wasting time by keeping it secret, because
the imagination of those who have not joined cannot be fired by cold
lines which say, ‘There is nothing to report on the western front.’”

In March of 1915 I went out with the first body of accredited war
correspondents, and we saw some of the bad places where our men lived
and died, and the traffic to the lines, and the mechanism of war in
fixed positions as were then established after the battle of the Marne
and the first battle of Ypres. Even then it was only an experimental
visit. It was not until June of that year, after an adventure on the
French front in the Champagne, that I received full credentials as a war
correspondent with the British armies on the western front, and joined
four other men who had been selected for this service, and began that
long innings as an authorized onlooker of war which ended, after long
and dreadful years, with the Army of Occupation beyond the Rhine.



III


In the very early days we lived in a small old house, called by courtesy
a chateau, in the village of Tatinghem, near General Headquarters
at St.-Omer. (Afterward we shifted our quarters from time to time,
according to the drift of battle and our convenience.) It was very
peaceful there amid fields of standing corn, where peasant women worked
while their men were fighting, but in the motor-cars supplied us by
the army (with military drivers, all complete) it was a quick ride over
Cassel Hill to the edge of the Ypres salient and the farthest point
where any car could go without being seen by a watchful enemy and blown
to bits at a signal to the guns. Then we walked, up sinister roads, or
along communication trenches, to the fire-step in the front line, or
into places like “Plug Street” wood and Kemmel village, and the ruins
of Vermelles, and the lines by Neuve Chapelle--the training-schools of
British armies--where always birds of death were on the wing, screaming
with high and rising notes before coming to earth with the cough that
killed... After hours in those hiding-places where boys of the New Army
were learning the lessons of war in dugouts and ditches under the range
of German guns, back again to the little white chateau at Tatinghem,
with a sweet scent of flowers from the fields, and nightingales singing
in the woods and a bell tinkling for Benediction in the old church tower
beyond our gate.

“To-morrow,” said the colonel--our first chief--before driving in for
a late visit to G. H. Q., “we will go to Armentieres and see how the
‘Kitchener’ boys are shaping in the line up there. It ought to be
interesting.”

The colonel was profoundly interested in the technic of war, in its
organization of supplies and transport, and methods of command. He was
a Regular of the Indian Army, a soldier by blood and caste and training,
and the noblest type of the old school of Imperial officer, with
obedience to command as a religious instinct; of stainless honor, I
think, in small things as well as great, with a deep love of England,
and a belief and pride in her Imperial destiny to govern many peoples
for their own good, and with the narrowness of such belief. His
imagination was limited to the boundaries of his professional interests,
though now and then his humanity made him realize in a perplexed way
greater issues at stake in this war than the challenge to British
Empiry.

One day, when we were walking through the desolation of a battlefield,
with the smell of human corruption about us, and men crouched in chalky
ditches below their breastworks of sand-bags, he turned to a colleague
of mine and said in a startled way:

“This must never happen again! Never!”

It will never happen again for him, as for many others. He was too tall
for the trenches, and one day a German sniper saw the red glint of his
hat-band--he was on the staff of the 11th Corps--and thought, “a gay
bird”! So he fell; and in our mess, when the news came, we were sad at
his going, and one of our orderlies, who had been his body-servant, wept
as he waited on us.

Late at night the colonel--that first chief of ours--used to come home
from G. H. Q., as all men called General Headquarters with a sense of
mystery, power, and inexplicable industry accomplishing--what?--in those
initials. He came back with a cheery shout of, “Fine weather to-morrow!”
 or, “A starry night and all’s well!” looking fine and soldierly as the
glare of his headlights shone on his tall figure with red tabs and a
colored armlet. But that cheeriness covered secret worries. Night after
night, in those early weeks of our service, he sat in his little office,
talking earnestly with the press officers--our censors. They seemed
to be arguing, debating, protesting, about secret influences and
hostilities surrounding us and them. I could only guess what it was all
about. It all seemed to make no difference to me when I sat down before
pieces of blank paper to get down some kind of picture, some kind
of impression, of a long day in place where I had been scared awhile
because death was on the prowl in a noisy way and I had seen it pounce
on human bodies. I knew that tomorrow I was going to another little
peep-show of war, where I should hear the same noises. That talk
downstairs, that worry about some mystery at G. H. Q. would make no
difference to the life or death of men, nor get rid of that coldness
which came to me when men were being killed nearby. Why all that
argument?

It seemed that G. H. Q.--mysterious people in a mysterious place--were
drawing up rules for war correspondence and censorship; altering rules
made the day before, formulating new rules for to-morrow, establishing
precedents, writing minutes, initialing reports with, “Passed to you,”
 or, “I agree,” written on the margin. The censors who lived with us and
traveled with us and were our friends, and read what we wrote before the
ink was dry, had to examine our screeds with microscopic eyes and with
infinite remembrance of the thousand and one rules. Was it safe to
mention the weather? Would that give any information to the enemy?
Was it permissible to describe the smell of chloride-of-lime in the
trenches, or would that discourage recruiting? That description of
the traffic on the roads of war, with transport wagons, gun-limbers,
lorries, mules--how did that conflict with Rule No. 17a (or whatever it
was) prohibiting all mention of movements of troops?

One of the censors working late at night, with lines of worry on his
forehead and little puckers about his eyes, turned to me with a queer
laugh, one night in the early days. He was an Indian Civil Servant, and
therefore, by every rule, a gentleman and a charming fellow.

“You don’t know what I am risking in passing your despatch! It’s too
good to spoil, but G. H. Q. will probably find that it conveys accurate
information to the enemy about the offensive in 1925. I shall get the
sack--and oh, the difference to me!”

It appeared that G. H. Q. was nervous of us. They suggested that our
private letters should be tested for writing in invisible ink between
the lines. They were afraid that, either deliberately for some
journalistic advantage, or in sheer ignorance as “outsiders,” we might
hand information to the enemy about important secrets. Belonging to
the old caste of army mind, they believed that war was the special
prerogative of professional soldiers, of which politicians and people
should have no knowledge. Therefore as civilians in khaki we were hardly
better than spies.

The Indian Civil Servant went for a stroll with me in the moonlight,
after a day up the line, where young men were living and dying in dirty
ditches. I could see that he was worried, even angry.

“Those people!” he said.

“What people?”

“G. H. Q.”

“Oh, Lord!” I groaned. “Again?” and looked across the fields of corn
to the dark outline of a convent on the hill where young officers were
learning the gentle art of killing by machine-guns before their turn
came to be killed or crippled. I thought of a dead boy I had seen that
day--or yesterday was it?--kneeling on the fire-step of a trench, with
his forehead against the parapet as though in prayer... How sweet was
the scent of the clover to-night! And how that star twinkled above the
low flashes of gun-fire away there in the salient.

“They want us to waste your time,” said the officer. “Those were the
very words used by the Chief of Intelligence--in writing which I have
kept. ‘Waste their time!’... I’ll be damned if I consider my work is to
waste the time of war correspondents. Don’t those good fools see that
this is not a professional adventure, like their other little wars; that
the whole nation is in it, and that the nation demands to know what its
men are doing? They have a right to know.”



IV


Just at first--though not for long--there was a touch of hostility
against us among divisional and brigade staffs, of the Regulars, but
not of the New Army. They, too, suspected our motive in going to their
quarters, wondered why we should come “spying around,” trying to “see
things.” I was faintly conscious of this one day in those very early
times, when with the officer who had been a ruler in India I went to a
brigade headquarters of the 1st Division near Vermelles. It was not easy
nor pleasant to get there, though it was a summer day with fleecy clouds
in a blue sky. There was a long straight road leading to the village of
Vermelles, with a crisscross of communication trenches on one side,
and, on the other, fields where corn and grass grew rankly in abandoned
fields. Some lean sheep were browsing there as though this were Arcady
in days of peace. It was not. The red ruins of Vermelles, a mile or
so away, were sharply defined, as through stereoscopic lenses, in the
quiver of sunlight, and had the sinister look of a death-haunted place.
It was where the French had fought their way through gardens, walls,
and houses in murderous battle, before leaving it for British troops to
hold. Across it now came the whine of shells, and I saw that shrapnel
bullets were kicking up the dust of a thousand yards down the straight
road, following a small body of brown men whose tramp of feet raised
another cloud of dust, like smoke. They were the only representatives of
human life--besides ourselves--in this loneliness, though many men must
have been in hiding somewhere. Then heavy “crumps” burst in the fields
where the sheep were browsing, across the way we had to go to the
brigade headquarters.

“How about it?” asked the captain with me. “I don’t like crossing that
field, in spite of the buttercups and daisies and the little frisky
lambs.”

“I hate the idea of it,” I said.

Then we looked down the road at the little body of brown men. They were
nearer now, and I could see the face of the officer leading them--a boy
subaltern, rather pale though the sun was hot. He halted and saluted my
companion.

“The enemy seems to have sighted our dust, sir. His shrapnel is
following up pretty closely. Would you advise me to put my men under
cover, or carry on?”

The captain hesitated. This was rather outside his sphere of influence.
But the boyishness of the other officer asked for help.

“My advice is to put your men into that ditch and keep them there until
the strafe is over.” Some shrapnel bullets whipped the sun-baked road as
he spoke.

“Very good, sir.”

The men sat in the ditch, with their packs against the bank, and wiped
the sweat off their faces. They looked tired and dispirited, but not
alarmed.

In the fields behind them--our way--the 4.2’s (four--point-twos) were
busy plugging holes in the grass and flowers, rather deep holes, from
which white smoke-clouds rose after explosive noises.

“With a little careful strategy we might get through,” said the captain.
“There’s a general waiting for us, and I have noticed that generals are
impatient fellows. Let’s try our luck.”

We walked across the wild flowers, past the sheep, who only raised their
heads in meek surprise when shells came with a shrill, intensifying
snarl and burrowed up the earth about them. I noticed how loudly and
sweetly the larks were singing up in the blue. Several horses lay dead,
newly killed, with blood oozing about them, and their entrails smoking.
We made a half-loop around them and then struck straight for the chateau
which was the brigade headquarters. Neither of us spoke now. We were
thoughtful, calculating the chance of getting to that red-brick house
between the shells. It was just dependent on the coincidence of time and
place.

Three men jumped up from a ditch below a brown wall round the chateau
garden and ran hard for the gateway. A shell had pitched quite close
to them. One man laughed as though at a grotesque joke, and fell as he
reached the courtyard. Smoke was rising from the outhouses, and there
was a clatter of tiles and timbers, after an explosive crash.

“It rather looks,” said my companion, “as though the Germans knew there
is a party on in that charming house.”

It was as good to go on as to go back, and it was never good to go back
before reaching one’s objective. That was bad for the discipline of the
courage that is just beyond fear.

Two gunners were killed in the back yard of the chateau, and as we went
in through the gateway a sergeant made a quick jump for a barn as a
shell burst somewhere close. As visitors we hesitated between two ways
into the chateau, and chose the easier; and it was then that I became
dimly aware of hostility against me on the part of a number of officers
in the front hall. The brigade staff was there, grouped under the
banisters. I wondered why, and guessed (rightly, as I found) that the
center of the house might have a better chance of escape than the
rooms on either side, in case of direct hits from those things falling
outside.

It was the brigade major who asked our business. He was a tall, handsome
young man of something over thirty, with the arrogance of a Christ
Church blood.

“Oh, he has come out to see something in Vermelles? A pleasant place for
sightseeing! Meanwhile the Hun is ranging on this house, so he may see
more than he wants.”

He turned on his heel and rejoined his group. They all stared in my
direction as though at a curious animal. A very young gentleman--the
general’s A. D. C.--made a funny remark at my expense and the others
laughed. Then they ignored me, and I was glad, and made a little study
in the psychology of men awaiting a close call of death. I was perfectly
conscious myself that in a moment or two some of us, perhaps all of us,
might be in a pulp of mangled flesh beneath the ruins of a red-brick
villa--the shells were crashing among the outhouses and in the
courtyard, and the enemy was making good shooting--and the idea did not
please me at all. At the back of my brain was Fear, and there was a
cold sweat in the palms of my hands; but I was master of myself, and
I remember having a sense of satisfaction because I had answered the
brigade major in a level voice, with a touch of his own arrogance. I saw
that these officers were afraid; that they, too, had Fear at the back of
the brain, and that their conversation and laughter were the camouflage
of the soul. The face of the young A. D. C. was flushed and he laughed
too much at his own jokes, and his laughter was just a tone too shrill.
An officer came into the hall, carrying two Mills bombs--new toys in
those days--and the others fell back from him, and one said:

“For Christ’s sake don’t bring them here--in the middle of a
bombardment!”

“Where’s the general?” asked the newcomer.

“Down in the cellar with the other brigadier. They don’t ask us down to
tea, I notice.”

Those last words caused all the officers to laugh--almost excessively.
But their laughter ended sharply, and they listened intently as there
was a heavy crash outside.

Another officer came up the steps and made a rapid entry into the hall.

“I understand there is to be a conference of battalion commanders,”
 he said, with a queer catch in his breath. “In view of
this--er--bombardment, I had better come in later, perhaps?”

“You had better wait,” said the brigade major, rather grimly.

“Oh, certainly.”

A sergeant-major was pacing up and down the passage by the back door.
He was calm and stolid. I liked the look of him and found something
comforting in his presence, so that I went to have a few words with him.

“How long is this likely to last, Sergeant-major”

“There’s no saying, sir. They may be searching for the chateau to pass
the time, so to speak, or they may go on till they get it. I’m sorry
they caught those gunners. Nice lads, both of them.”

He did not seem to be worrying about his own chance.

Then suddenly there was silence. The German guns had switched off. I
heard the larks singing through the open doorway, and all the little
sounds of a summer day. The group of officers in the hall started
chatting more quietly. There was no more need of finding jokes and
laughter. They had been reprieved, and could be serious.

“We’d better get forward to Vermelles,” said my companion.

As we walked away from the chateau, the brigade major passed us on his
horse. He leaned over his saddle toward me and said, “Good day to you,
and I hope you’ll like Vermelles.”

The words were civil, but there was an underlying meaning in them.

“I hope to do so, sir.”

We walked down the long straight road toward the ruins of Vermelles with
a young soldier-guide who on the outskirts of the village remarked in a
casual way:

“No one is allowed along this road in daylight, as a rule. It’s under
hobservation of the henemy.”

“Then why the devil did you come this way?” asked my companion.

“I thought you might prefer the short cut, sir.”

We explored the ruins of Vermelles, where many young Frenchmen had
fallen in fighting through the walls and gardens. One could see the
track of their strife, in trampled bushes and broken walls. Bits of
red rag--the red pantaloons of the first French soldiers--were still
fastened to brambles and barbed wire. Broken rifles, cartouches,
water-bottles, torn letters, twisted bayonets, and German stick-bombs
littered the ditches which had been dug as trenches across streets of
burned-out houses.



V


A young gunner officer whom we met was very civil, and stopped in front
of the chateau of Vermelles, a big red villa with the outer walls still
standing, and told us the story of its capture.

“It was a wild scrap. I was told all about it by a French sergeant who
was in it. They were under the cover of that wall over there, about a
hundred yards away, and fixing up a charge of high explosives to knock
a breach in the wall. The chateau was a machine-gun fortress, with
the Germans on the top floor, the ground floor, and in the basement,
protected by sand-bags, through which they fired. A German officer made
a bad mistake. He opened the front door and came out with some of his
machine-gunners from the ground floor to hold a trench across the square
in front of the house. Instantly a French lieutenant called to his men.
They climbed over the wall and made a dash for the chateau, bayoneting
the Germans who tried to stop them. Then they swarmed into the
chateau--a platoon of them with the lieutenant. They were in the
drawing-room, quite an elegant place, you know, with the usual gilt
furniture and long mirrors. In one corner was a pedestal, with a statue
of Venus standing on it. Rather charming, I expect. A few Germans were
killed in the room, easily. But upstairs there was a mob who fired
down through the ceiling when they found what had happened. The French
soldiers prodded the ceiling with their bayonets, and all the plaster
broke, falling on them. A German, fat and heavy, fell half-way through
the rafters, and a bayonet was poked into him as he stuck there. The
whole ceiling gave way, and the Germans upstairs came downstairs, in a
heap. They fought like wolves--wild beasts--with fear and rage. French
and Germans clawed at one another’s throats, grabbed hold of noses,
rolled over each other. The French sergeant told me he had his teeth
into a German’s neck. The man was all over him, pinning his arms, trying
to choke him. It was the French lieutenant who did most damage. He fired
his last shot and smashed a German’s face with his empty revolver. Then
he caught hold of the marble Venus by the legs and swung it above his
head, in the old Berserker style, and laid out Germans like ninepins...
The fellows in the basement surrendered.”



VI


The chateau of Vermelles, where that had happened, was an empty ruin,
and there was no sign of the gilt furniture, or the long mirrors, or the
marble Venus when I looked through the charred window-frames upon piles
of bricks and timber churned up by shell-fire. The gunner officer took
us to the cemetery, to meet some friends of his who had their battery
nearby. We stumbled over broken walls and pushed through undergrowth
to get to the graveyard, where some broken crosses and wire frames
with immortelles remained as relics of that garden where the people of
Vermelles had laid their dead to rest. New dead had followed old dead.
I stumbled over something soft, like a ball of clay, and saw that it was
the head of a faceless man, in a battered kepi. From a ditch close by
came a sickly stench of half-buried flesh.

“The whole place is a pest-house,” said the gunner.

Another voice spoke from some hiding-place.

“Salvo!”

The earth shook and there was a flash of red flame, and a shock of noise
which hurt one’s ear-drums.

“That’s my battery,” said the gunner officer. “It’s the very devil when
one doesn’t expect it.”

I was introduced to the gentleman who had said “Salvo!” He was the
gunner-major, and a charming fellow, recently from civil life. All the
battery was made up of New Army men learning their job, and learning it
very well, I should say. There was no arrogance about them.

“It’s sporting of you to come along to a spot like this,” said one of
them. “I wouldn’t unless I had to. Of course you’ll take tea in our
mess?”

I was glad to take tea--in a little house at the end of the ruined
high-street of Vermelles which had by some miracle escaped destruction,
though a shell had pierced through the brick wall of the parlor and had
failed to burst. It was there still, firmly wedged, like a huge nail.
The tea was good, in tin mugs. Better still was the company of the
gunner officers. They told me how often they were “scared stiff.” They
had been very frightened an hour before I came, when the German gunners
had ranged up and down the street, smashing up ruined houses into
greater ruin.

“They’re so methodical!” said one of the officers.

“Wonderful shooting!” said another.

“I will say they’re topping gunners,” said the major. “But we’re
learning; my men are very keen. Put in a good word for the new
artillery. It would buck them up no end.”

We went back before sunset, down the long straight road, and past the
chateau which we had visited in the afternoon. It looked very peaceful
there among the trees.

It is curious that I remember the details of that day so vividly,
as though they happened yesterday. On hundreds of other days I had
adventures like that, which I remember more dimly.

“That brigade major was a trifle haughty, don’t you think?” said my
companion. “And the others didn’t seem very friendly. Not like those
gunner boys.”

“We called at an awkward time. They were rather fussed.”

“One expects good manners. Especially from Regulars who pride themselves
on being different in that way from the New Army.”

“It’s the difference between the professional and the amateur soldier.
The Regular crowd think the war belongs to them... But I liked their
pluck. They’re arrogant to Death himself when he comes knocking at the
door.”



VII


It was not long before we broke down the prejudice against us among
the fighting units. The new armies were our friends from the first, and
liked us to visit them in their trenches and their dugouts, their
camps and their billets. Every young officer was keen to show us his
particular “peep-show” or to tell us his latest “stunt.” We made many
friends among them, and it was our grief that as the war went on so many
of them disappeared from their battalions, and old faces were replaced
by new faces, and those again by others when they had become familiar.
Again and again, after battle, twenty-two officers in a battalion mess
were reduced to two or three, and the gaps were filled up from the
reserve depots. I was afraid to ask, “Where is So-and-so?” because I
knew that the best answer would be, “A Blighty wound,” and the worst was
more likely.

It was the duration of all the drama of death that seared one’s soul as
an onlooker; the frightful sum of sacrifice that we were recording day
by day. There were times when it became intolerable and agonizing, and
when I at least desired peace-at-almost-any-price, peace by negotiation,
by compromise, that the river of blood might cease to flow. The men
looked so splendid as they marched up to the lines, singing, whistling,
with an easy swing. They looked so different when thousands came down
again, to field dressing-stations--the walking wounded and the stretcher
cases, the blind and the gassed--as we saw them on the mornings of
battle, month after month, year after year.

Our work as chroniclers of their acts was not altogether “soft,” though
we did not go “over the top” or live in the dirty ditches with them. We
had to travel prodigiously to cover the ground between one division and
another along a hundred miles of front, with long walks often at the
journey’s end and a wet way back. Sometimes we were soaked to the skin
on the journey home. Often we were so cold and numbed in those long wild
drives up desolate roads that our limbs lost consciousness and the wind
cut into us like knives. We were working against time, always against
time, and another tire-burst would mean that no despatch could be
written of a great battle on the British front, or only a short record
written in the wildest haste when there was so much to tell, so much
to describe, such unforgetable pictures in one’s brain of another day’s
impressions in the fields and on the roads.

There were five English correspondents and, two years later, two
Americans. On mornings of big battle we divided up the line of front and
drew lots for the particular section which each man would cover. Then
before the dawn, or in the murk of winter mornings, or the first glimmer
of a summer day, our cars would pull out and we would go off separately
to the part of the line allotted to us by the number drawn, to see the
preliminary bombardment, to walk over newly captured ground, to get into
the backwash of prisoners and walking wounded, amid batteries firing
a new barrage, guns moving forward on days of good advance, artillery
transport bringing up new stores of ammunition, troops in support
marching to repel a counter-attack or follow through the new objectives,
ambulances threading their way back through the traffic, with loads
of prostrate men, mules, gunhorses, lorries churning up the mud in
Flanders.

So we gained a personal view of all this activity of strife, and from
many men in its whirlpool details of their own adventure and of
general progress or disaster on one sector of the battle-front. Then in
divisional headquarters we saw the reports of the battle as they came in
by telephone, or aircraft, or pigeon-post, from half-hour to half-hour,
or ten minutes by ten minutes. Three divisions widely separated provided
all the work one war correspondent could do on one day of action, and
later news on a broader scale, could be obtained from corps headquarters
farther back. Tired, hungry, nerve-racked, splashed to the eyes in mud,
or covered in a mask of dust, we started for the journey back to our own
quarters, which we shifted from time to time in order to get as near as
we could to the latest battle-front without getting beyond reach of the
telegraph instruments--by relays of despatch-riders--at “Signals,” G. H.
Q., which remained immovably fixed in the rear.

There was a rendezvous in one of our rooms, and each man outlined the
historical narrative of the day upon the front he had covered, reserving
for himself his own adventures, impressions, and emotions.

Time slipped away, and time was short, while the despatch-riders
waited for our unwritten despatches, and censors who had been our
fellow-travelers washed themselves cleaner and kept an eye on the clock.

Time was short while the world waited for our tales of tragedy or
victory... and tempers were frayed, and nerves on edge, among five
men who hated one another, sometimes, with a murderous hatred (though,
otherwise, good comrades) and desired one another’s death by slow
torture or poison-gas when they fumbled over notes, written in a jolting
car, or on a battlefield walk, and went into past history in order
to explain present happenings, or became tangled in the numbers of
battalions and divisions.

Percival Phillips turned pink-and-white under the hideous strain of
nervous control, with an hour and a half for two columns in The Morning
Post. A little pulse throbbed in his forehead. His lips were tightly
pressed. His oaths and his anguish were in his soul, but unuttered.
Beach Thomas, the most amiable of men, the Peter Pan who went a
bird-nesting on battlefields, a lover of beauty and games and old poems
and Greek and Latin tags, and all joy in life--what had he to do with
war?--looked bored with an infinite boredom, irritable with a scornful
impatience of unnecessary detail, gazed through his gold-rimmed
spectacles with an air of extreme detachment (when Percy Robinson
rebuilt the map with dabs and dashes on a blank sheet of paper), and
said, “I’ve got more than I can write, and The Daily Mail goes early to
press.”

“Thanks very much... It’s very kind of you.”

We gathered up our note-books and were punctiliously polite. (Afterward
we were the best of friends.) Thomas was first out of the room, with
short, quick little steps in spite of his long legs. His door banged.
Phillips was first at his typewriter, working it like a machine-gun, in
short, furious spasms of word-fire. I sat down to my typewriter--a
new instrument of torture to me--and coaxed its evil genius with
conciliatory prayers.

“For dear God’s sake,” I said, “don’t go twisting that blasted ribbon of
yours to-day. I must write this despatch, and I’ve just an hour when I
want five.”

Sometimes that Corona was a mechanism of singular sweetness, and I
blessed it with a benediction. But often there was a devil in it which
mocked at me. After the first sentence or two it twisted the ribbon; at
the end of twenty sentences the ribbon was like an angry snake, writhing
and coiling hideously.

I shouted for Mackenzie, the American, a master of these things.

He came in and saw my blanched face, my sweat of anguish, my crise de
nerfs. I could see by his eyes that he understood my stress and had pity
on me.

“That’s all right,” he said. “A little patience--”

By a touch or two he exorcised the devil, laughed, and said: “Go easy.
You’ve just about reached breaking--point.”

I wrote, as we all wrote, fast and furiously, to get down something of
enormous history, word-pictures of things seen, heroic anecdotes, the
underlying meaning of this new slaughter. There was never time to think
out a sentence or a phrase, to touch up a clumsy paragraph, to go back
on a false start, to annihilate a vulgar adjective, to put a touch
of style into one’s narrative. One wrote instinctively, blindly,
feverishly... And downstairs were the censors, sending up messages by
orderlies to say “half-time,” or “ten minutes more,” and cutting
out sometimes the things one wanted most to say, modifying a direct
statement of fact into a vague surmise, taking away the honor due to
the heroic men who had fought and died to-day... Who would be a war
correspondent, or a censor?

So it happened day by day, for five months at a stretch, when big
battles were in progress. It was not an easy life. There were times when
I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I could hardly rouse
myself to a new day’s effort. There were times when I was faint and sick
and weak; and my colleagues were like me. But we struggled on to tell
the daily history of the war and the public cursed us because we did not
tell more, or sneered at us because they thought we were “spoon-fed” by
G. H. Q.--who never gave us any news and who were far from our way of
life, except when they thwarted us, by petty restrictions and foolish
rules.



VIII


The Commander-in-Chief--Sir John French--received us when we were first
attached to the British armies in the field--a lifetime ago, as it seems
to me now. It was a formal ceremony in the chateau near St.-Omer, which
he used as his own headquarters, with his A. D. C.’s in attendance,
though the main general headquarters were in the town. Our first colonel
gathered us like a shepherd with his flock, counting us twice over
before we passed in. A tall, dark young man, whom I knew afterward to be
Sir Philip Sassoon, received us and chatted pleasantly in a French
salon with folding-doors which shut off an inner room. There were a
few portraits of ladies and gentlemen of France in the days before the
Revolution, like those belonging to that old aristocracy which still
existed, in poverty and pride, in other chateaus in this French
Flanders. There was a bouquet of flowers on the table, giving a sweet
scent to the room, and sunlight streamed through the shutters... I
thought for a moment of the men living in ditches in the salient, under
harassing fire by day and night. Their actions and their encounters with
death were being arranged, without their knowledge, in this sunny little
chateau....

The folding-doors opened and Sir John French came in. He wore top-boots
and spurs, and after saying, “Good day, gentlemen,” stood with his legs
apart, a stocky, soldierly figure, with a square head and heavy jaw. I
wondered whether there were any light of genius in him--any inspiration,
any force which would break the awful strength of the enemy against us,
any cunning in modern warfare.

He coughed a little, and made us a speech. I forget his words, but
remember the gist of them. He was pleased to welcome us within his army,
and trusted to our honor and loyalty. He made an allusion to the power
of the press, and promised us facilities for seeing and writing,
within the bounds of censorship. I noticed that he pronounced St.-Omer,
St.-Omar, as though Omar Khayyam had been canonized. He said, “Good day,
gentlemen,” again, and coughed huskily again to clear his throat, and
then went back through the folding-doors.

I saw him later, during the battle of Loos, after its ghastly failure.
He was riding a white horse in the villages of Heuchin and Houdain,
through which lightly wounded Scots of the 1st and 15th Divisions were
making their way back. He leaned over his saddle, questioning the men
and thanking them for their gallantry. I thought he looked grayer and
older than when he had addressed us.

“Who mun that old geezer be, Jock?” asked a Highlander when he had
passed.

“I dinna ken,” said the other Scot. “An’ I dinna care.”

“It’s the Commander-in-Chief,” I said. “Sir John French.”

“Eh?” said the younger man, of the 8th Gordons. He did not seem thrilled
by the knowledge I had given him, but turned his head and stared after
the figure on the white horse. Then he said: “Well, he’s made a mess o’
the battle. We could’ve held Hill 70 against all the di’els o’ hell if
there had bin supports behind us.”

“Ay,” said his comrade, “an’ there’s few o’ the laddies’ll come back fra
Cite St.-Auguste.”



IX


It was another commander-in-chief who received us some months after the
battle of Loos, in a chateau near Montreuil, to which G. H. Q. had then
removed. Our only knowledge of Sir Douglas Haig before that day was of
a hostile influence against us in the First Army, which he commanded. He
had drawn a line through his area beyond which we might not pass. He did
not desire our presence among his troops nor in his neighborhood. That
line had been broken by the protests of our commandant, and now as
Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig had realized dimly that he might be
helped by our services.

It was in another French salon that we waited for the man who controlled
the British armies in the field--those armies which we now knew in some
intimacy, whom we had seen in the front-line trenches and rest-camps and
billets, hearing their point of view, knowing their suffering and their
patience, and their impatience--and their deadly hatred of G. H. Q.

He was very handsome as he sat behind a Louis XIV table, with General
Charteris--his Chief of Intelligence, who was our chief, too--behind him
at one side, for prompting and advice. He received us with fine courtesy
and said:

“Pray be seated, gentlemen.”

There had been many troubles over censorship, of which he knew but
vaguely through General Charteris, who looked upon us as his special
“cross.” We had fought hard for liberty in mentioning units, to give
the honor to the troops, and for other concessions which would free our
pens.

The Commander-in-Chief was sympathetic, but his sympathy was expressed
in words which revealed a complete misunderstanding of our purpose and
of our work, and was indeed no less than an insult, unconscious but very
hurtful.

“I think I understand fairly well what you gentlemen want,” he said.
“You want to get hold of little stories of heroism, and so forth, and to
write them up in a bright way to make good reading for Mary Ann in the
kitchen, and the Man in the Street.” The quiet passion with which those
words were resented by us, the quick repudiation of this slur upon our
purpose by a charming man perfectly ignorant at that time of the new
psychology of nations in a war which was no longer a professional
adventure, surprised him. We took occasion to point out to him that the
British Empire, which had sent its men into this war, yearned to know
what they were doing and how they were doing, and that their patience
and loyalty depended upon closer knowledge of what was happening than
was told them in the communiques issued by the Commander-in-Chief
himself. We urged him to let us mention more frequently the names of the
troops engaged--especially English troops--for the sake of the soldiers
themselves, who were discouraged by this lack of recognition, and for
the sake of the people behind them... It was to the pressure of the
war correspondents, very largely, that the troops owed the mention
and world-wide honor which came to them, more generously, in the later
phases of the war.

The Commander-in-Chief made a note of our grievances, turning now and
again to General Charteris, who was extremely nervous at our frankness
of speech, and telling him to relax the rules of censorship as far as
possible. That was done, and in later stages of the war I personally
had no great complaint against the censorship, and wrote all that was
possible to write of the actions day by day, though I had to leave out
something of the underlying horror of them all, in spite of my continual
emphasis, by temperament and by conviction, on the tragedy of all this
sacrifice of youth. The only alternative to what we wrote would have
been a passionate denunciation of all this ghastly slaughter and violent
attacks on British generalship. Even now I do not think that would have
been justified. As Bernard Shaw told me, “while the war lasts one must
put one’s own soul under censorship.”

After many bloody battles had been fought we were received again by the
Commander-in-Chief, and this time his cordiality was not marred by any
slighting touch.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “you have played the game like men!”

When victory came at last--at last!--after the years of slaughter, it
was the little band of war correspondents on the British front, our
foreign comrades included, whom the Field-Marshal addressed on his first
visit to the Rhine. We stood on the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne,
watched by groups of Germans peering through the escort of Lancers. It
was a dank and foul day, but to us beautiful, because this was the end
of the long journey--four-and--a-half years long, which had been filled
with slaughter all the way, so that we were tired of its backwash
of agony, which had overwhelmed our souls--mine, certainly. The
Commander-in-Chief read out a speech to us, thanking us for our
services, which, he said, had helped him to victory, because we had
heartened the troops and the people by our work. It was a recognition
by the leader of our armies that, as chroniclers of war, we had been a
spiritual force behind his arms. It was a reward for many mournful days,
for much agony of spirit, for hours of danger--some of us had walked
often in the ways of death--and for exhausting labors which we did
so that the world might know what British soldiers had been doing and
suffering.



X


I came to know General Headquarters more closely when it removed, for
fresher air, to Montreuil, a fine old walled town, once within sight of
the sea, which ebbed over the low-lying ground below its hill, but
now looking across a wide vista of richly cultivated fields where many
hamlets are scattered among clumps of trees. One came to G. H. Q. from
journeys over the wild desert of the battlefields, where men lived in
ditches and “pill-boxes,” muddy, miserable in all things but spirit, as
to a place where the pageantry of war still maintained its old and dead
tradition. It was like one of those pageants which used to be played in
England before the war--picturesque, romantic, utterly unreal. It was as
though men were playing at war here, while others sixty miles away were
fighting and dying, in mud and gas-waves and explosive barrages.

An “open sesame,” by means of a special pass, was needed to enter this
City of Beautiful Nonsense. Below the gateway, up the steep hillside,
sentries stood at a white post across the road, which lifted up on
pulleys when the pass had been examined by a military policeman in a
red cap. Then the sentries slapped their hands on their rifles to the
occupants of any motor-car, sure that more staff-officers were going
in to perform those duties which no private soldier could attempt to
understand, believing they belonged to such mysteries as those of God.
Through the narrow streets walked elderly generals, middle-aged colonels
and majors, youthful subalterns all wearing red hat-bands, red tabs,
and the blue-and-red armlet of G. H. Q., so that color went with them on
their way.

Often one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride,
a fine figure, nobly mounted, with two A. D. C.’s and an escort of
Lancers. A pretty sight, with fluttering pennons on all their lances,
and horses groomed to the last hair. It was prettier than the real thing
up in the salient or beyond the Somme, where dead bodies lay in upheaved
earth among ruins and slaughtered trees. War at Montreuil was quite a
pleasant occupation for elderly generals who liked their little stroll
after lunch, and for young Regular officers, released from the painful
necessity of dying for their country, who were glad to get a game of
tennis, down below the walls there, after strenuous office-work in which
they had written “Passed to you” on many “minutes,” or had drawn the
most comical caricatures of their immediate chief, and of his immediate
chief, on blotting-pads and writing-blocks.

It seemed, at a mere glance, that all these military inhabitants of G.
H. Q. were great and glorious soldiers. Some of the youngest of them had
a row of decorations from Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, Rumania, and other
states, as recognition of gallant service in translating German letters
(found in dugouts by the fighting-men), or arranging for visits
of political personages to the back areas of war, or initialing
requisitions for pink, blue, green, and yellow forms, which in due
course would find their way to battalion adjutants for immediate
filling-up in the middle of an action. The oldest of them, those
white-haired, bronze-faced, gray-eyed generals in the administrative
side of war, had started their third row of ribbons well before the end
of the Somme battles, and had flower-borders on their breasts by the
time the massacres had been accomplished in the fields of Flanders. I
know an officer who was awarded the D. S. O. because he had hindered the
work of war correspondents with the zeal of a hedge-sparrow in search of
worms, and another who was the best-decorated man in the army because he
had presided over a visitors’ chateau and entertained Royalties,
Members of Parliament, Mrs. Humphry Ward, miners, Japanese, Russian
revolutionaries, Portuguese ministers, Harry Lauder, Swedes, Danes,
Norwegians, clergymen, Montenegrins, and the Editor of John Bull, at the
government’s expense--and I am bound to say he deserved them all, being
a man of infinite tact, many languages, and a devastating sense of
humor. There was always a Charlie Chaplin film between moving pictures
of the battles of the Somme. He brought the actualities of war to the
visitors’ chateau by sentry-boxes outside the door, a toy “tank” in the
front garden, and a collection of war trophies in the hall. He spoke to
High Personages with less deference than he showed to miners from Durham
and Wales, and was master of them always, ordering them sternly to bed
at ten o’clock (when he sat down to bridge with his junior officers),
and with strict military discipline insisting upon their inspection of
the bakeries at Boulogne, and boot-mending factories at Calais, as part
of the glory of war which they had come out for to see.

So it was that there were brilliant colors in the streets of Montreuil,
and at every doorway a sentry slapped his hand to his rifle, with smart
and untiring iteration, as the “brains” of the army, under “brass hats”
 and red bands, went hither and thither in the town, looking stern, as
soldiers of grave responsibility, answering salutes absent--mindedly,
staring haughtily at young battalion officers who passed through
Montreuil and looked meekly for a chance of a lorry-ride to Boulogne, on
seven days’ leave from the lines.

The smart society of G. H. Q. was best seen at the Officers’ Club in
Montreuil, at dinner-time. It was as much like musical comedy as any
stage setting of war at the Gaiety. A band played ragtime and light
music while the warriors fed, and all these generals and staff officers,
with their decorations and arm-bands and polished buttons and crossed
swords, were waited upon by little W. A. A. C.’s with the G. H. Q.
colors tied up in bows on their hair, and khaki stockings under
their short skirts and fancy aprons. Such a chatter! Such bursts of
light-hearted laughter! Such whisperings of secrets and intrigues and
scandals in high places! Such careless--hearted courage when British
soldiers were being blown to bits, gassed, blinded, maimed, and
shell-shocked in places that were far--so very far--from G. H. Q.!



XI


There were shrill voices one morning outside the gate of our
quarters--women’s voices, excited, angry, passionate. An orderly came
into the mess--we were at breakfast--and explained the meaning of
the clamor, which by some intuition and a quick ear for French he had
gathered from all this confusion of tongues.

“There’s a soldier up the road, drunk or mad. He has been attacking a
girl. The villagers want an officer to arrest him.”

The colonel sliced off the top of his egg and then rose. “Tell three
orderlies to follow me.”

We went into the roadway, and twenty women crowded round us with a
story of attempted violence against an innocent girl. The man had been
drinking last night at the estaminet up there. Then he had followed
the girl, trying to make love to her. She had barricaded herself in the
room, when he tried to climb through the window.

“If you don’t come out I’ll get in and kill you,” he said, according to
the women.

But she had kept him out, though he prowled round all night. Now he was
hiding in an outhouse. The brute! The pig!

When we went up the road the man was standing in the center of it, with
a sullen look.

“What’s the trouble?” he asked. “It looks as if all France were out to
grab me.”

He glanced sideways over the field, as though reckoning his chance of
escape. There was no chance.

The colonel placed him under arrest and he marched back between the
orderlies, with an old soldier of the Contemptibles behind him.

Later in the day he was lined up for identification by the girl, among a
crowd of other men.

The girl looked down the line, and we watched her curiously--a slim
creature with dark hair neatly coiled.

She stretched out her right hand with a pointing finger.

“Le voila!... c’est l’homme.”

There was no mistake about it, and the man looked sheepishly at her, not
denying. He was sent off under escort to the military prison in St. Omer
for court-martial.

“What’s the punishment--if guilty?” I asked.

“Death,” said the colonel, resuming his egg.

He was a fine-looking fellow, the prisoner. He had answered the call for
king and country without delay. In the estaminet, after coming down from
the salient for a machine-gun course, he had drunk more beer than was
good for him, and the face of a pretty girl had bewitched him, stirring
up desire. He wanted to kiss her lips... There were no women in the
Ypres salient. Nothing pretty or soft. It was hell up there, and this
girl was a pretty witch, bringing back thoughts of the other side--for
life, womanhood, love, caresses which were good for the souls and bodies
of men. It was a starved life up there in the salient... Why shouldn’t
she give him her lips? Wasn’t he fighting for France? Wasn’t he a
tall and proper lad? Curse the girl for being so sulky to an English
soldier!... And now, if those other women, those old hags, were to swear
against him things he had never said, things he had never done, unless
drink had made him forget--by God! supposing drink had made him forget?
He would be shot against a white wall. Shot dead, disgracefully,
shamefully, by his own comrades! O Christ! and the little mother in a
Sussex cottage!...



XII


Going up to Kemmel one day I had to wait in battalion headquarters
for the officer I had gone to see. He was attending a court martial.
Presently he came into the wooden hut, with a flushed face.

“Sorry I had to keep you,” he said. “Tomorrow there will be one swine
less in the world.”

“A death sentence?”

He nodded.

“A damned coward. Said he didn’t mind rifle-fire, but couldn’t stand
shells. Admitted he left his post. He doesn’t mind rifle-fire!... Well,
tomorrow morning.”

The officer laughed grimly, and then listened for a second.

There were some heavy crumps falling over Kemmel Hill, rather close, it
seemed, to our wooden hut.

“Damn those German gunners” said the officer. “Why can’t they give us a
little peace?”

He turned to his papers, but several times while I talked with him he
jerked his head up and listened to a heavy crash.

On the way back I saw a man on foot, walking in front of a mounted man,
past the old hill of the Scherpenberg, toward the village of Locre.
There was something in the way he walked, in his attitude--the head
hunched forward a little, and his arms behind his back--which made me
turn to look at him. He was manacled, and tied by a rope to the mounted
man. I caught one glimpse of his face, and then turned away, cold and
sick. There was doom written on his face, and in his eyes a captured
look. He was walking to his wall.



XIII


There were other men who could not stand shell-fire. It filled them with
an animal terror and took all will-power out of them. One young officer
was like that man who “did not mind rifle-fire.” He, by some strange
freak of psychology, was brave under machine-gun fire. He had done
several gallant things, and was bright and cheerful in the trenches
until the enemy barraged them with high explosive. Then he was seen
wandering back to the support trenches in a dazed way. It happened three
times, and he was sentenced to death. Before going out at dawn to face
the firing-squad he was calm. There was a lighted candle on the table,
and he sorted out his personal belongings and made small packages of
them as keepsakes for his family and friends. His hand did not tremble.
When his time came he put out the candle, between thumb and finger,
raised his hand, and said, “Right O!”

Another man, shot for cowardice in face of the enemy, was sullen and
silent to one who hoped to comfort him in the last hour. The chaplain
asked him whether he had any message for his relatives. He said, “I have
no relatives.” He was asked whether he would like to say any prayers,
and he said, “I don’t believe in them.” The chaplain talked to him, but
could get no answer--and time was creeping on. There were two guards in
the room, sitting motionless, with loaded rifles between their knees.
Outside it was silent in the courtyard, except for little noises of the
night and the wind. The chaplain suffered, and was torn with pity
for that sullen man whose life was almost at an end. He took out his
hymn--book and said: “I will sing to you. It will pass the time.” He
sang a hymn, and once or twice his voice broke a little, but he steadied
it. Then the man said, “I will sing with you.” He knew all the hymns,
words and music. It was an unusual, astonishing knowledge, and he went
on singing, hymn after hymn, with the chaplain by his side. It was
the chaplain who tired first. His voice cracked and his throat became
parched. Sweat broke out on his forehead, because of the nervous strain.
But the man who was going to die sang on in a clear, hard voice. A faint
glimmer of coming dawn lightened the cottage window. There were not many
minutes more. The two guards shifted their feet. “Now,” said the man,
“we’ll sing ‘God Save the King.’” The two guards rose and stood at
attention, and the chaplain sang the national anthem with the man who
was to be shot for cowardice. Then the tramp of the firing-party came
across the cobblestones in the courtyard. It was dawn.



XIV


Shell-shock was the worst thing to see. There were generals who said:
“There is no such thing as shell-shock. It is cowardice. I would
court-martial in every case.” Doctors said: “It is difficult to draw
the line between shell-shock and blue funk. Both are physical as well as
mental. Often it is the destruction of the nerve tissues by concussion,
or actual physical damage to the brain; sometimes it is a shock of
horror unbalancing the mind, but that is more rare. It is not generally
the slight, nervous men who suffer worst from shell-shock. It is often
the stolid fellow, one of those we describe as being utterly without
nerves, who goes down badly. Something snaps in him. He has no
resilience in his nervous system. He has never trained himself in
nerve-control, being so stolid and self-reliant. Now, the nervous man,
the cockney, for example, is always training himself in the control of
his nerves, on ‘buses which lurch round corners, in the traffic that
bears down on him, in a thousand and one situations which demand
self-control in a ‘nervy’ man. That helps him in war; whereas the yokel,
or the sergeant--major type, is splendid until the shock comes. Then
he may crack. But there is no law. Imagination--apprehension--are the
devil, too, and they go with ‘nerves.’”

It was a sergeant-major whom I saw stricken badly with shell-shock in
Aveluy Wood near Thiepval. He was convulsed with a dreadful rigor like
a man in epilepsy, and clawed at his mouth, moaning horribly, with livid
terror in his eyes. He had to be strapped to a stretcher before he
could be carried away. He had been a tall and splendid man, this poor,
terror-stricken lunatic.

Nearer to Thiepval, during the fighting there, other men were brought
down with shell-shock. I remember one of them now, though I saw many
others. He was a Wiltshire lad, very young, with an apple-cheeked face
and blue-gray eyes. He stood outside a dugout, shaking in every limb, in
a palsied way. His steel hat was at the back of his head and his mouth
slobbered, and two comrades could not hold him still.

These badly shell-shocked boys clawed their mouths ceaselessly. It was a
common, dreadful action. Others sat in the field hospitals in a state
of coma, dazed, as though deaf, and actually dumb. I hated to see them,
turned my eyes away from them, and yet wished that they might be seen
by bloody-minded men and women who, far behind the lines, still spoke of
war lightly, as a kind of sport, or heroic game, which brave boys liked
or ought to like, and said, “We’ll fight on to the last man rather than
accept anything less than absolute victory,” and when victory came
said: “We stopped too soon. We ought to have gone on for another three
months.” It was for fighting-men to say those things, because they knew
the things they suffered and risked. That word “we” was not to be used
by gentlemen in government offices scared of air raids, nor by women
dancing in scanty frocks at war-bazaars for the “poor dear wounded,”
 nor even by generals at G. H. Q., enjoying the thrill of war without its
dirt and danger.

Seeing these shell-shock cases month after month, during years of
fighting, I, as an onlooker, hated the people who had not seen, and were
callous of this misery; the laughing girls in the Strand greeting the
boys on seven days’ leave; the newspaper editors and leader-writers
whose articles on war were always “cheery”; the bishops and clergy who
praised God as the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies, and had
never said a word before the war to make it less inevitable; the
schoolmasters who gloried in the lengthening “Roll of Honor” and said,
“We’re doing very well,” when more boys died; the pretty woman-faces
ogling in the picture-papers, as “well--known war-workers”; the
munition-workers who were getting good wages out of the war; the
working-women who were buying gramophones and furs while their men were
in the stinking trenches; the dreadful, callous, cheerful spirit of
England at war.

Often I was unfair, bitter, unbalanced, wrong. The spirit of England,
taking it broad and large--with dreadful exceptions--was wonderful in
its courage and patience, and ached with sympathy for its fighting sons,
and was stricken with the tragedy of all this slaughter. There were many
tears in English homes; many sad and lonely women. But, as an onlooker,
I could not be just or fair, and hated the non-combatants who did not
reveal its wound in their souls, but were placid in their belief that we
should win, and pleased with themselves because of their easy optimism.
So easy for those who did not see!



XV


As war correspondents we were supposed to have honorary rank as
captains, by custom and tradition--but it amounted to nothing, here
or there. We were civilians in khaki, with green bands round our right
arms, and uncertain status. It was better so, because we were in the
peculiar and privileged position of being able to speak to Tommies and
sergeants as human beings, to be on terms of comradeship with junior
subalterns and battalion commanders, and to sit at the right hand of
generals without embarrassment to them or to ourselves.

Physically, many of our generals were curiously alike. They were men
turned fifty, with square jaws, tanned, ruddy faces, searching and
rather stern gray eyes, closely cropped hair growing white, with a
little white mustache, neatly trimmed, on the upper lip.

Mentally they had similar qualities. They had unfailing physical
courage--though courage is not put to the test much in modern
generalship, which, above the rank of brigadier, works far from the
actual line of battle, unless it “slips” in the wrong direction. They
were stern disciplinarians, and tested the quality of troops by their
smartness in saluting and on parade, which did not account for the
fighting merit of the Australians. Most of them were conservative by
political tradition and hereditary instinct, and conservative also in
military ideas and methods. They distrusted the “brilliant” fellow,
and were inclined to think him unsafe; and they were not quick to allow
young men to gain high command at the expense of their gray hair and
experience. They were industrious, able, conscientious men, never
sparing themselves long hours of work for a life of ease, and because
they were willing to sacrifice their own lives, if need be, for their
country’s sake, they demanded equal willingness of sacrifice from every
officer and man under their authority, having no mercy whatever for the
slacker or the weakling.

Among them there was not one whose personality had that mysterious but
essential quality of great generalship--inspiring large bodies of men
with exalted enthusiasm, devotion, and faith. It did not matter to
the men whether an army commander, a corps commander, or a divisional
commander stood in the roadside to watch them march past on their way
to battle or on their way back. They saw one of these sturdy men in his
brass hat, with his ruddy face and white mustache, but no thrill passed
down their ranks, no hoarse cheers broke from them because he was there,
as when Wellington sat on his white horse in the Peninsular War, or as
when Napoleon saluted his Old Guard, or even as when Lord Roberts, “Our
Bob,” came perched like a little old falcon on his big charger.

Nine men out of ten in the ranks did not even know the name of their
army general or of the corps commander. It meant nothing to them. They
did not face death with more passionate courage to win the approval of a
military idol. That was due partly to the conditions of modern warfare,
which make it difficult for generals of high rank to get into direct
personal touch with their troops, and to the masses of men engaged. But
those difficulties could have been overcome by a general of impressive
personality, able to stir the imaginations of men by words of fire
spoken at the right time, by deep, human sympathy, and by the luck of
victory seized by daring adventure against great odds.

No such man appeared on the western front until Foch obtained the
supreme command. On the British front there was no general with the gift
of speech--a gift too much despised by our British men of action--or
with a character and prestige which could raise him to the highest rank
in popular imagination. During the retreat from Mona, Sir John French
had a touch of that personal power--his presence meant something to
the men because of his reputation in South Africa; but afterward, when
trench warfare began, and the daily routine of slaughter under German
gun-fire, when our artillery was weak, and when our infantry was ordered
to attack fixed positions of terrible strength without adequate support,
and not a dog’s chance of luck against such odds, the prestige of the
Commander-in-Chief faded from men’s minds and he lost place in their
admiration. It was washed out in blood and mud.

Sir Douglas Haig, who followed Sir John French, inherited the
disillusionment of armies who saw now that war on the western front was
to be a long struggle, with enormous slaughter, and no visible sign
of the end beyond a vista of dreadful years. Sir Douglas Haig, in his
general headquarters at St.-Omer, and afterward at Montreuil, near the
coast, had the affection and loyalty of the staff--officers. A man of
remarkably good looks, with fine, delicate features, strengthened by
the firm line of his jaw, and of singular sweetness, courtesy, and
simplicity in his manner toward all who approached him, he had qualities
which might have raised him to the supreme height of personal influence
among his armies but for lack of the magic touch and the tragic
condition of his command.

He was intensely shy and reserved, shrinking from publicity and holding
himself aloof from the human side of war. He was constitutionally unable
to make a dramatic gesture before a multitude, or to say easy, stirring
things to officers and men whom he reviewed. His shyness and reserve
prevented him also from knowing as much as he ought to have known about
the opinions of officers and men, and getting direct information from
them. He held the supreme command of the British armies on the western
front when, in the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders, of Picardy
and Artois, there was not much chance for daring strategy, but only
for hammer-strokes by the flesh and blood of men against fortress
positions--the German trench systems, twenty-five miles deep in tunneled
earthworks and machine-gun dugouts--when the immensity of casualties
among British troops was out of all proportion to their gains of ground,
so that our men’s spirits revolted against these massacres of their
youth and they were embittered against the generalship and staff-work
which directed these sacrificial actions.

This sense of bitterness became intense, to the point of fury, so that
a young staff officer, in his red tabs, with a jaunty manner, was like a
red rag to a bull among battalion officers and men, and they desired
his death exceedingly, exalting his little personality, dressed in a
well-cut tunic and fawn-colored riding-breeches and highly polished
top-boots, into the supreme folly of “the Staff” which made men attack
impossible positions, send down conflicting orders, issued a litter
of documents--called by an ugly name--containing impracticable
instructions, to the torment of the adjutants and to the scorn of the
troops. This hatred of the Staff was stoked high by the fires of
passion and despair. Some of it was unjust, and even the jaunty young
staff-officer--a G. S. O. 3, with red tabs and polished boots--was often
not quite such a fool as he looked, but a fellow who had proved his
pluck in the early days of the war and was now doing his duty--about
equal to the work of a boy clerk--with real industry and an exaggerated
sense of its importance.

Personally I can pay high tribute to some of our staff--officers at
divisional, corps, and army headquarters, because of their industry,
efficiency, and devotion to duty. And during the progress of battle I
have seen them, hundreds of times, working desperately for long hours
without much rest or sleep, so that the fighting-men should get their
food and munitions, so that the artillery should support their actions,
and the troops in reserve move up to their relief at the proper time and
place.

Owing largely to new army brains the administrative side of our war
became efficient in its method and organization, and the armies were
worked like clockwork machines. The transport was good beyond all words
of praise, and there was one thing which seldom failed to reach poor
old Tommy Atkins, unless he was cut off by shell-fire, and that was his
food. The motor-supply columns and ammunition-dumps were organized to
the last item. Our map department was magnificent, and the admiration
of the French. Our Intelligence branch became valuable (apart from a
frequent insanity of optimism) and was sometimes uncanny in the accuracy
of its information about the enemy’s disposition and plans. So that the
Staff was not altogether hopeless in its effect, as the young battalion
officers, with sharp tongues and a sense of injustice in their hearts,
made out, with pardonable blasphemy, in their dugouts.

Nevertheless the system was bad and British generalship made many
mistakes, some of them, no doubt, unavoidable, because it is human to
err, and some of them due to sheer, simple, impregnable stupidity.

In the early days the outstanding fault of our generals was their desire
to gain ground which was utterly worthless when gained. They organized
small attacks against strong positions, dreadfully costly to take,
and after the desperate valor of men had seized a few yards of mangled
earth, found that they had made another small salient, jutting out from
their front in a V-shaped wedge, so that it was a death-trap for the men
who had to hold it. This was done again and again, and I remember one
distinguished officer saying, with bitter irony, remembering how many of
his men had died, “Our generals must have their little V’s at any price,
to justify themselves at G. H. Q.”

In the battles of the Somme they attacked isolated objectives on
narrow fronts, so that the enemy swept our men with fire by artillery
concentrated from all points, instead of having to disperse his fire
during a general attack on a wide front. In the days of trench warfare,
when the enemy artillery was much stronger than ours, and when his
infantry strength was enormously greater, our generals insisted upon
the British troops maintaining an “aggressive” attitude, with the result
that they were shot to pieces, instead of adopting, like the French, a
quiet and waiting attitude until the time came for a sharp and terrible
blow. The battles of Neuve Chapelle, Fertubert, and Loos, in 1915,
cost us thousands of dead and gave us no gain of any account; and both
generalship and staff-work were, in the opinion of most officers who
know anything of those battles, ghastly.

After all, our generals had to learn their lesson, like the private
soldier, and the young battalion officer, in conditions of warfare which
had never been seen before--and it was bad for the private soldier and
the young battalion officer, who died so they might learn. As time
went on staff-work improved, and British generalship was less rash in
optimism and less rigid in ideas.



XVI


General Haldane was friendly to the war correspondents--he had been
something of the kind himself in earlier days--and we were welcomed at
his headquarters, both when he commanded the 3d Division and afterward
when he became commander of the 6th Corps. I thought during the war, and
I think now, that he had more intellect and “quality” than many of
our other generals. A tall, strongly built man, with a distinction of
movement and gesture, not “stocky” or rigid, but nervous and restless,
he gave one a sense of power and intensity of purpose. There was a
kind of slow-burning fire in him--a hatred of the enemy which was not
weakened in him by any mercy, and a consuming rage, as it appeared to
me, against inefficiency in high places, injustice of which he may have
felt himself to be the victim, and restrictions upon his liberty of
command. A bitter irony was often in his laughter when discussing
politicians at home, and the wider strategy of war apart from that
on his own front. He was intolerant of stupidity, which he found
widespread, and there was no tenderness or emotion in his attitude
toward life. The officers and men under his command accused him of
ruthlessness. But they admitted that he took more personal risk than
he need have done as a divisional general, and was constantly in the
trenches examining his line. They also acknowledged that he was generous
in his praise of their good service, though merciless if he found
fault with them. He held himself aloof--too much, I am sure--from his
battalion officers, and had an extreme haughtiness of bearing which was
partly due to reserve and that shyness which is in many Englishmen and a
few Scots.

In the old salient warfare he often demanded service in the way of raids
and the holding of death-traps, and the execution of minor attacks which
caused many casualties, and filled men with rage and horror at what
they believed to be unnecessary waste of life--their life, and their
comrades’--that did not make for popularity in the ranks of the
battalion messes. Privately, in his own mess, he was gracious to
visitors, and revealed not only a wide range of knowledge outside as
well as inside his profession, but a curious, unexpected sympathy for
ideas, not belonging as a rule to generals of the old caste. I liked
him, though I was always conscious of that flame and steel in his nature
which made his psychology a world away from mine. He was hit hard--in
what I think was the softest spot in his heart--by the death of one of
his A. D. C.’s--young Congreve, who was the beau ideal of knighthood,
wonderfully handsome, elegant even when covered from head to foot in wet
mud (as I saw him one day), fearless, or at least scornful of danger,
to the verge of recklessness. General Haldane had marked him out as
the most promising young soldier in the whole army. A bit of shell, a
senseless bit of steel, spoiled that promise--as it spoiled the promise
of a million boys--and the general was saddened more than by the death
of other gallant officers.

I have one memory of General Haldane which shows him in a different
light. It was during the great German offensive in the north, when Arras
was hard beset and the enemy had come back over Monchy Hill and was
shelling villages on the western side of Arras, which until then
had been undamaged. It was in one of these villages--near
Avesnes-le-Compte--to which the general had come back with his corps
headquarters, established there for many months in earlier days, so that
the peasants and their children knew him well by sight and had talked
with him, because he liked to speak French with them. When I went to see
him one day during that bad time in April of ‘18, he was surrounded by
a group of children who were asking anxiously whether Arras would be
taken. He drew a map for them in the dust of the roadway, and showed
them where the enemy was attacking and the general strategy. He spoke
simply and gravely, as though to a group of staff-officers, and the
children followed his diagram in the dust and understood him perfectly.

“They will not take Arras if I can help it,” he said. “You will be all
right here.”



XVII


Gen. Sir Neville Macready was adjutant-general in the days of Sir John
French, and I dined at his mess once or twice, and he came to ours on
return visits. The son of Macready, the actor, he had a subtlety of mind
not common among British generals, to whom “subtlety” in any form is
repulsive. His sense of humor was developed upon lines of irony and
he had a sly twinkle in his eyes before telling one of his innumerable
anecdotes. They were good stories, and I remember one of them, which had
to do with the retreat from Mons. It was not, to tell the truth, that
“orderly” retreat which is described in second-hand accounts. There were
times when it was a wild stampede from the tightening loop of a German
advance, with lorries and motor-cycles and transport wagons going
helter-skelter among civilian refugees and mixed battalions and
stragglers from every unit walking, footsore, in small groups. Even
General Headquarters was flurried at times, far in advance of this
procession backward. One night Sir Neville Macready, with the judge
advocate and an officer named Colonel Childs (a hot-headed fellow!),
took up their quarters in a French chateau somewhere, I think, in the
neighborhood of Creil. The Commander-in-Chief was in another chateau
some distance away. Other branches of G. H. Q. were billeted in private
houses, widely scattered about a straggling village.

Colonel Childs was writing opposite the adjutant-general, who was
working silently. Presently Childs looked up, listened, and said:

“It’s rather quiet, sir, outside.”

“So much the better,” growled General Macready. “Get on with your job.”

A quarter of an hour passed. No rumble of traffic passed by the windows.
No gun-wagons were jolting over French pave.

Colonel Childs looked up again and listened.

“It’s damned quiet outside, sir.”

“Well, don’t go making a noise,” said the general, “Can’t you see I’m
busy?”

“I think I’ll just take a turn round,” said Colonel Childs.

He felt uneasy. Something in the silence of the village scared him. He
went out into the roadway and walked toward Sir John French’s quarters.
There was no challenge from a sentry. The British Expeditionary Force
seemed to be sleeping. They needed sleep--poor beggars!--but the Germans
did not let them take much.

Colonel Childs went into the Commander-in-Chief’s chateau and found a
soldier in the front hall, licking out a jam-pot.

“Where’s the Commander-in-Chief?” asked the officer.

“Gone hours ago, sir,” said the soldier. “I was left behind for lack
of transport. From what I hear the Germans ought to be here by now. I
rather fancy I heard some shots pretty close awhile ago.”

Colonel Childs walked back to his own quarters quickly. He made no
apology for interrupting the work of the adjutant-general.

“General, the whole box of tricks has gone. We’ve been left behind.
Forgotten!”

“The dirty dogs!” said General Macready.

There was not much time for packing up, and only one motor-car, and only
one rifle. The general said he would look after the rifle, but Colonel
Childs said if that were so he would rather stay behind and take
his chance of being captured. It would be safer for him. So the
adjutant-general, the judge advocate, the deputy assistant judge
advocate (Colonel Childs), and an orderly or two packed into the car and
set out to find G.H.Q. Before they found it they had to run the gantlet
of Germans, and were sniped all the way through a wood, and took flying
shots at moving figures. Then, miles away, they found G.H.Q.

“And weren’t they sorry to see me again!” said General Macready, who
told me the tale. “They thought they had lost me forever.”

The day’s casualty list was brought into the adjutant--general one
evening when I was dining in his mess. The orderly put it down by the
side of his plate, and he interrupted a funny story to glance down the
columns of names.

“Du Maurier has been killed... I’m sorry.”

He put down the paper beside his plate again and continued his story,
and we all laughed heartily at the end of the anecdote. It was the only
way, and the soldier’s way. There was no hugging of grief when our best
friend fell. A sigh, another ghost in one’s life, and then, “Carry on!”



XVIII


Scores of times, hundreds of times, during the battles of the Somme,
I passed the headquarters of Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding
the Fourth Army, and several times I met the army commander there
and elsewhere. One of my first meetings with him was extraordinarily
embarrassing to me for a moment or two. While he was organizing his
army, which was to be called, with unconscious irony, “The Army
of Pursuit”--the battles of the Somme were a siege rather than a
pursuit--he desired to take over the chateau at Tilques, in which the
war correspondents were then quartered. As we were paying for it
and liked it, we put up an opposition which was most annoying to his
A.D.C.’s, especially to one young gentleman of enormous wealth, haughty
manners, and a boyish intolerance of other people’s interests, who had
looked over our rooms without troubling to knock at the doors, and then
said, “This will suit us down to the ground.” On my way back from the
salient one evening I walked up the drive in the flickering light of
summer eve, and saw two officers coming in my direction, one of whom I
thought I recognized as an old friend.

“Hullo!” I said, cheerily. “You here again?”

Then I saw that I was face to face with Sir Henry Rawlinson. He must
have been surprised, but dug me in the ribs in a genial way, and said,
“Hullo, young feller!”

He made no further attempt to “pinch” our quarters, but my familiar
method of address could not have produced that result.

His headquarters at Querrieux were in another old chateau on the
Amiens-Albert road, surrounded by pleasant fields through which a stream
wound its way. Everywhere the sign-boards were red, and a military
policeman, authorized to secure obedience to the rules thereon, slowed
down every motor-car on its way through the village, as though Sir Henry
Rawlinson lay sick of a fever, so anxious were his gestures and his
expression of “Hush! do be careful!”

The army commander seemed to me to have a roguish eye. He seemed to be
thinking to himself, “This war is a rare old joke!” He spoke habitually
of the enemy as “the old Hun” or “old Fritz,” in an affectionate,
contemptuous way, as a fellow who was trying his best but getting the
worst of it every time. Before the battles of the Somme I had a talk
with him among his maps, and found that I had been to many places in his
line which he did not seem to know. He could not find there very quickly
on his large-sized maps, or pretended not to, though I concluded that
this was “camouflage,” in case I might tell “old Fritz” that such
places existed. Like most of our generals, he had amazing, overweening
optimism. He had always got the enemy “nearly beat,” and he arranged
attacks during the Somme fighting with the jovial sense of striking
another blow which would lead this time to stupendous results. In the
early days, in command of the 7th Division, he had done well, and he was
a gallant soldier, with initiative and courage of decision and a quick
intelligence in open warfare. His trouble on the Somme was that
the enemy did not permit open warfare, but made a siege of it, with
defensive lines all the way back to Bapaume, and every hillock a
machine-gun fortress and every wood a death-trap. We were always
preparing for a “break-through” for cavalry pursuit, and the cavalry
were always being massed behind the lines and then turned back again,
after futile waiting, encumbering the roads. “The bloodbath of the
Somme,” as the Germans called it, was ours as well as theirs, and scores
of times when I saw the dead bodies of our men lying strewn over those
dreadful fields, after desperate and, in the end, successful attacks
through the woods of death--Mametz Wood, Delville Wood, Trones Wood,
Bernafay Wood, High Wood, and over the Pozieres ridge to Courcellette
and Martinpuich--I thought of Rawlinson in his chateau in Querrieux,
scheming out the battles and ordering up new masses of troops to the
great assault over the bodies of their dead... Well, it is not for
generals to sit down with their heads in their hands, bemoaning
slaughter, or to shed tears over their maps when directing battle. It
is their job to be cheerful, to harden their hearts against the casualty
lists, to keep out of the danger-zone unless their presence is strictly
necessary. But it is inevitable that the men who risk death daily, the
fighting-men who carry out the plans of the High Command and see no
sense in them, should be savage in their irony when they pass a peaceful
house where their doom is being planned, and green-eyed when they see
an army general taking a stroll in buttercup fields, with a jaunty young
A.D.C. slashing the flowers with his cane and telling the latest joke
from London to his laughing chief. As onlookers of sacrifice some of
us--I, for one--adopted the point of view of the men who were to die,
finding some reason in their hatred of the staffs, though they were
doing their job with a sense of duty, and with as much intelligence
as God had given them. Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson was one of our best
generals, as may be seen by the ribbons on his breast, and in the last
phase commanded a real “Army of Pursuit,” which had the enemy on the
run, and broke through to Victory. It was in that last phase of open
warfare that Rawlinson showed his qualities of generalship and once
again that driving purpose which was his in the Somme battles, but
achieved only by prodigious cost of life.



XIX


Of General Allenby, commanding the Third Army before he was succeeded by
Gen. Sir Julian Byng and went to his triumph in Palestine, I knew very
little except by hearsay. He went by the name of “The Bull,” because
of his burly size and deep voice. The costly fighting that followed
the battle of Arras on April 9th along the glacis of the Scarpe did
not reveal high generalship. There were many young officers--and some
divisional generals who complained bitterly of attacks ordered without
sufficient forethought, and the stream of casualties which poured back,
day by day, with tales of tragic happenings did not inspire one with a
sense of some high purpose behind it all, or some presiding genius.

General Byng, “Bungo Byng,” as he was called by his troops, won the
admiration of the Canadian Corps which he commanded, and afterward, in
the Cambrai advance of November, ‘17, he showed daring of conception
and gained the first striking surprise in the war by novel methods of
attack--spoiled by the quick come-back of the enemy under Von Marwitz
and our withdrawal from Bourlon Wood, Masnieres, and Marcoing, and other
places, after desperate fighting.

His chief of staff, Gen. Louis Vaughan, was a charming, gentle-mannered
man, with a scientific outlook on the problems of war, and so kind in
his expression and character that it seemed impossible that he could
devise methods of killing Germans in a wholesale way. He was like an
Oxford professor of history discoursing on the Marlborough wars, though
when I saw him many times outside the Third Army headquarters, in
a railway carriage, somewhere near Villers Carbonnel on the Somme
battlefields, he was explaining his preparations and strategy for
actions to be fought next day which would be of bloody consequence to
our men and the enemy.

General Birdwood, commanding the Australian Corps, and afterward the
Fifth Army in succession to General Gough, was always known as “Birdie”
 by high and low, and this dapper man, so neat, so bright, so brisk, had
a human touch with him which won him the affection of all his troops.

Gen. Hunter Weston, of the 8th Corps, was another man of character in
high command. He spoke of himself in the House of Commons one day as
“a plain, blunt soldier,” and the army roared with laughter from end to
end. There was nothing plain or blunt about him. He was a man of airy
imagination and a wide range of knowledge, and theories on life and war
which he put forward with dramatic eloquence.

It was of Gen. Hunter Weston that the story was told about the drunken
soldier put onto a stretcher and covered with a blanket, to get him out
of the way when the army commander made a visit to the lines.

“What’s this?” said the general.

“Casualty, sir,” said the quaking platoon commander.

“Not bad, I hope?”

“Dead, sir,” said the subaltern. He meant dead drunk.

The general drew himself up, and said, in his dramatic way, “The army
commander salutes the honored dead!”

And the drunken private put his head from under the blanket and asked,
“What’s the old geezer a-sayin’ of?”

That story may have been invented in a battalion mess, but it went
through the army affixed to the name of Hunter Weston, and seemed to fit
him.

The 8th Corps was on the left in the first attack on the Somme, when
many of our divisions were cut to pieces in the attempt to break the
German line at Gommecourt. It was a ghastly tragedy, which spoiled the
success on the right at Fricourt and Montauban. But Gen. Hunter Weston
was not degomme, as the French would say, and continued to air his
theories on life and warfare until the day of Victory, when once again
we had “muddled through,” not by great generalship, but by the courage
of common men.

Among the divisional generals with whom I came in contact--I met most
of them at one time or another--were General Hull of the 56th (London)
Division, General Hickey of the 16th (Irish) Division, General Harper
of the 51st (Highland) Division, General Nugent of the 36th (Ulster)
Division, and General Pinnie of the 35th (Bantams) Division, afterward
of the 33d.

General Hull was a handsome, straight-speaking, straight-thinking man,
and I should say an able general. “Ruthless,” his men said, but this was
a war of ruthlessness, because life was cheap. Bitter he was at times,
because he had to order his men to do things which he knew were folly.
I remember sitting on the window-sill of his bedroom, in an old house of
Arras, while he gave me an account of “the battle in the dark,” in which
the Londoners and other English troops lost their direction and found
themselves at dawn with the enemy behind them. General Hull made no
secret of the tragedy or the stupidity... On another day I met him
somewhere on the other side of Peronne, before March 21st, when he was
commanding the 16th (Irish) Division in the absence of General Hickey,
who was ill. He talked a good deal about the belief in a great German
offensive, and gave many reasons for thinking it was all “bluff.” A
few days later the enemy had rolled over his lines... Out of thirteen
generals I met at that time, there were only three who believed that the
enemy would make his great assault in a final effort to gain decisive
victory, though our Intelligence had amassed innumerable proofs and were
utterly convinced of the approaching menace.

“They will never risk it!” said General Gorringe of the 47th (London)
Division. “Our lines are too strong. We should mow them down.”

I was standing with him on a wagon, watching the sports of the London
men. We could see the German lines, south of St.-Quentin, very quiet
over there, without any sign of coming trouble. A few days later the
place where we were standing was under waves of German storm-troops.

I liked the love of General Hickey for his Irish division. An Irishman
himself, with a touch of the old Irish soldier as drawn by Charles
Lever, gay-hearted, proud of his boys, he was always pleased to see me
because he knew I had a warm spot in my heart for the Irish troops. He
had a good story to tell every time, and passed me on to “the boys” to
get at the heart of them. It was long before he lost hope of keeping the
division together, though it was hard to get recruits and losses were
high at Guillemont and Ginchy. For the first time he lost heart and was
very sad when the division was cut to pieces in a Flanders battle.
It lost 2,000 men and 162 officers before the battle began--they were
shelled to death in the trenches--and 2,000 men and 170 officers more
during the progress of the battle. It was murderous and ghastly.

General Harper of the 51st (Highland) Division, afterward commanding the
4th Corps, had the respect of his troops, though they called him “Uncle”
 because of his shock of white hair. The Highland division, under his
command, fought many battles and gained great honor, even from the
enemy, who feared them and called the kilted men “the ladies from hell.”
 It was to them the Germans sent their message in a small balloon
during the retreat from the Somme: “Poor old 51st. Still sticking it!
Cheery-oh!”

“Uncle” Harper invited me to lunch in his mess, and was ironical
with war correspondents, and censors, and the British public, and new
theories of training, and many things in which he saw no sense. There
was a smoldering passion in him which glowed in his dark eyes.

He was against bayonet-training, which took the field against rifle-fire
for a time.

“No man in this war,” he said, with a sweeping assertion, “has ever been
killed by the bayonet unless he had his hands up first.” And, broadly
speaking, I think he was right, in spite of the Director of Training,
who was extremely annoyed with me when I quoted this authority.



XX


I met many other generals who were men of ability, energy, high sense
of duty, and strong personality. I found them intellectually, with few
exceptions, narrowly molded to the same type, strangely limited in their
range of ideas and qualities of character.

“One has to leave many gaps in one’s conversation with generals,” said a
friend of mine, after lunching with an army commander.

That was true. One had to talk to them on the lines of leading articles
in The Morning Post. Their patriotism, their knowledge of human nature,
their idealism, and their imagination were restricted to the traditional
views of English country gentlemen of the Tory school. Anything outside
that range of thought was to them heresy, treason, or wishy-washy
sentiment.

What mainly was wrong with our generalship was the system which put
the High Command into the hands of a group of men belonging to the old
school of war, unable, by reason of their age and traditions, to get
away from rigid methods and to become elastic in face of new conditions.

Our Staff College had been hopelessly inefficient in its system of
training, if I am justified in forming such an opinion from specimens
produced by it, who had the brains of canaries and the manners of
Potsdam. There was also a close corporation among the officers of the
Regular Army, so that they took the lion’s share of staff appointments,
thus keeping out brilliant young men of the new armies, whose
brain-power, to say the least of it, was on a higher level than that of
the Sandhurst standard. Here and there, where the unprofessional soldier
obtained a chance of high command or staff authority, he proved the
value of the business mind applied to war, and this was seen very
clearly--blindingly--in the able generalship of the Australian Corps, in
which most of the commanders, like Generals Hobbs, Monash, and others,
were men in civil life before the war. The same thing was observed in
the Canadian Corps, General Currie, the corps commander, having been
an estate agent, and many of his high officers having had no military
training of any scientific importance before they handled their own men
in France and Flanders.



XXI


As there are exceptions to every rule, so harsh criticism must be
modified in favor of the generalship and organization of the Second
Army-of rare efficiency under the restrictions and authority of the
General Staff. I often used to wonder what qualities belonged to Sir
Herbert Plumer, the army commander. In appearance he was almost
a caricature of an old-time British general, with his ruddy,
pippin-cheeked face, with white hair, and a fierce little white
mustache, and blue, watery eyes, and a little pot-belly and short
legs. He puffed and panted when he walked, and after two minutes in his
company Cyril Maude would have played him to perfection. The staff-work
of his army was as good in detail as any machinery of war may be, and
the tactical direction of the Second Army battles was not slipshod nor
haphazard, as so many others, but prepared with minute attention to
detail and after thoughtful planning of the general scheme. The battle
of Wytschaete and Messines was a model in organization and method, and
worked in its frightful destructiveness like the clockwork of a death
machine. Even the battles of Flanders in the autumn of ‘17, ghastly as
they were in the losses of our men in the state of the ground through
which they had to fight, and in futile results, were well organized by
the Second Army headquarters, compared with the abominable mismanagement
of other troops, the contrast being visible to every battalion officer
and even to the private soldier. How much share of this was due to Sir
Herbert Plumer it is impossible for me to tell, though it is fair to
give him credit for soundness of judgment in general ideas and in the
choice of men.

He had for his chief of staff Sir John Harington, and beyond all doubt
this general was the organizing brain of to Second Army, though with
punctilious chivalry he gave, always, the credit of all his work to
the army commander. A thin, nervous, highly strung man, with extreme
simplicity of manner and clarity of intelligence, he impressed me as a
brain of the highest temper and quality in staff-work. His memory for
detail was like a card-index system, yet his mind was not clogged with
detail, but saw the wood as well as the trees, and the whole broad sweep
of the problem which confronted him. There was something fascinating as
well as terrible in his exposition of a battle that he was planning. For
the first time in his presence and over his maps, I saw that after all
there was such a thing as the science of war, and that it was not always
a fetish of elementary ideas raised to the nth degree of pomposity, as
I had been led to believe by contact with other generals and
staff-officers. Here at least was a man who dealt with it as a
scientific business, according to the methods of science--calculating
the weight and effect of gun-fire, the strength of the enemy’s defenses
and man-power, the psychology of German generalship and of German
units, the pressure which could be put on British troops before the
breaking-point of courage, the relative or cumulative effects of
poison-gas, mines, heavy and light artillery, tanks, the disposition of
German guns and the probability of their movement in this direction or
that, the amount of their wastage under our counter-battery work, the
advantages of attacks in depth--one body of troops “leap-frogging,”
 another in an advance to further objectives--the time-table of
transport, the supply of food and water and ammunition, the comfort of
troops before action, and a thousand other factors of success.

Before every battle fought by the Second Army, and of the eve of it, Sir
John Harington sent for the war correspondents and devoted an hour or
more to a detailed explanation of his plans. He put down all his cards
on the table with perfect candor, hiding nothing, neither minimizing nor
exaggerating the difficulties and dangers of the attack, pointing out
the tactical obstacles which must be overcome before any chance of
success, and exposing the general strategy in the simplest and clearest
speech.

I used to study him at those times, and marveled at him. After intense
and prolonged work at all this detail involving the lives of thousands
of men, he was highly wrought, with every nerve in his body and brain
at full tension, but he was never flurried, never irritable, never
depressed or elated by false pessimism or false optimism. He was a
chemist explaining the factors of a great experiment of which the
result was still uncertain. He could only hope for certain results after
careful analysis and synthesis. Yet he was not dehumanized. He laughed
sometimes at surprises he had caused the enemy, or was likely to cause
them--surprises which would lead to a massacre of their men. He warmed
to the glory of the courage of the troops who were carrying out his
plans.

“It depends on these fellows,” he would say. “I am setting them a
difficult job. If they can do it, as I hope and believe, it will be
a fine achievement. They have been very much tried, poor fellows, but
their spirit is still high, as I know from their commanding officers.”

One of his ambitions was to break down the prejudice between the
fighting units and the Staff. “We want them to know that we are all
working together, for the same purpose and with the same zeal. They
cannot do without us, as we cannot do without them, and I want them to
feel that the work done here is to help them to do theirs more easily,
with lighter losses, in better physical conditions, with organization
behind them at every stage.”

Many times the Second Army would not order an attack or decide the time
of it before consulting the divisional generals and brigadiers, and
obtaining their consensus of opinion. The officers and men in the Second
Army did actually come to acknowledge the value of the staff-work behind
them, and felt a confidence in its devotion to their interests which was
rare on the western front.

At the end of one of his expositions Sir John Harington would rise and
gather up his maps and papers, and say:

“Well, there you are, gentlemen. You know as much as I do about the
plans for to-morrow’s battle. At the end of the day you will be able to
see the result of all our work and tell me things I do not know.”

Those conferences took place in the Second Army headquarters on Cassel
Hill, in a big building which was a casino before the war, with a
far-reaching view across Flanders, so that one could see in the distance
the whole sweep of the Ypres salient, and southward the country below
Notre Dame de Lorette, with Merville and Hazebrouck in the foreground.
Often we assembled in a glass house, furnished with trestle tables on
which maps were spread, and, thinking back to these scenes, I remember
now, as I write, the noise of rain beating on that glass roof, and the
clammy touch of fog on the window-panes stealing through the cracks and
creeping into the room. The meteorologist of the Second Army was often
a gloomy prophet, and his prophecies were right. How it rained on nights
when hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were waiting in their
trenches to attack in a murky dawn!... We said good night to General
Harington, each one of us, I think, excited by the thought of the drama
of human life and death which we had heard in advance in that glass
house on the hill; to be played out by flesh and blood before many
hours had passed. A kind of sickness took possession of my soul when I
stumbled down the rock path from those headquarters in pitch darkness,
over slabs of stones designed by a casino architect to break one’s neck,
with the rain dribbling down one’s collar, and, far away, watery lights
in the sky, of gun-flashes and ammunition-dumps afire, and the noise of
artillery thudding in dull, crumbling shocks. We were starting early
to see the opening of the battle and its backwash. There would be more
streams of bloody, muddy men, more crowds of miserable prisoners, more
dead bodies lying in the muck of captured ground, more shells plunging
into the wet earth and throwing up columns of smoke and mud, more dead
horses, disemboweled, and another victory at fearful cost, over one of
the Flanders ridges.

Curses and prayers surged up in my heart. How long was this to go
on--this massacre of youth, this agony of men? Was there no sanity left
in the world that could settle the argument by other means than this?
When we had taken that ridge to-morrow there would be another to take,
and another. And what then? Had we such endless reserves of men that we
could go on gaining ground at such a price? Was it to be extermination
on both sides? The end of civilization itself? General Harington had
said: “The enemy is still very strong. He has plenty of reserves on hand
and he is fighting hard. It won’t be a walk-over to-morrow.”

As an onlooker I was overwhelmed by the full measure of all this tragic
drama. The vastness and the duration of its horror appalled me. I went
to my billet in an old monastery, and sat there in the darkness, my
window glimmering with the faint glow of distant shell-flashes, and
said, “O God, give us victory to-morrow, if that may help us to the
end.” Then to bed, without undressing. There was an early start before
the dawn. Major Lytton would be with me. He had a gallant look along the
duckboards... Or Montague--white-haired Montague, who liked to gain a
far objective, whatever the risk, and gave one a little courage by
his apparent fearlessness. I had no courage on those early mornings of
battle. All that I had, which was little, oozed out of me when we came
to the first dead horses and the first dead men, and passed the tumult
of our guns firing out of the mud, and heard the scream of shells. I
hated it all with a cold hatred; and I went on hating it for years
that seem a lifetime. I was not alone in that hatred, and other men had
greater cause, though it was for their sake that I suffered most, as
an observer of their drama of death... As observers we saw most of the
grisly game.



PART TWO. THE SCHOOL OF COURAGE

EARLY DAYS WITH THE NEW ARMY



I


By the time stationary warfare had been established on the western front
in trench lines from the sea to Switzerland, the British Regular Army
had withered away. That was after the retreat from Mons, the victory
of the Marne, the early battles round Ypres, and the slaughter at Neuve
Chapelle. The “Old Contemptibles” were an army of ghosts whose dead
clay was under earth in many fields of France, but whose spirit still
“carried on” as an heroic tradition to those who came after them into
those same fields, to the same fate. The only survivors were Regular
officers taken out of the fighting-lines to form the staffs of new
divisions and to train the army of volunteers now being raised at home,
and men who were recovering from wounds or serving behind the lines:
those, and non-commissioned officers who were the best schoolmasters of
the new boys, the best friends and guides of the new officers, stubborn
in their courage, hard and ruthless in their discipline, foul-mouthed
according to their own traditions, until they, too, fell in the
shambles. It was in March of 1915 that a lieutenant-colonel in the
trenches said to me: “I am one out of 150 Regular officers still serving
with their battalions. That is to say, there are 150 of us left in the
fighting-lines out of 1,500.”

That little Regular Army of ours had justified its pride in a long
history of fighting courage. It had helped to save England and France by
its own death. Those boys of ours whom I had seen in the first August
of the war, landing at Boulogne and marching, as though to a festival,
toward the enemy, with French girls kissing them and loading them with
fruit and flowers, had proved the quality of their spirit and training.
As riflemen they had stupefied the enemy, brought to a sudden check by
forces they had despised. They held their fire until the German ranks
were within eight hundred yards of them, and then mowed them down as
though by machine-gun fire--before we had machine-guns, except as rare
specimens, here and there. Our horse artillery was beyond any doubt the
best in the world at that time. Even before peace came German generals
paid ungrudging tributes to the efficiency of our Regular Army, writing
down in their histories of war that this was the model of all armies,
the most perfectly trained... It was spent by the spring of ‘15. Its
memory remains as the last epic of those professional soldiers who,
through centuries of English history, took “the King’s shilling” and
fought when they were told to fight, and left their bones in far places
of the world and in many fields in Europe, and won for the British
soldier universal fame as a terrible warrior. There will never be a
Regular Army like that. Modern warfare has opened the arena to the
multitude. They may no longer sit in the Coliseum watching the paid
gladiators. If there be war they must take their share of its sacrifice.
They must be victims as well as victors. They must pay for the luxury of
conquest, hatred, and revenge by their own bodies, and for their safety
against aggression by national service.

After the first quick phases of the war this need of national soldiers
to replace the professional forces became clear to the military leaders.
The Territorials who had been raised for home defense were sent out to
fill up the gaps, and their elementary training was shown to be good
enough, as a beginning, in the fighting-lines. The courage of those
Territorial divisions who came out first to France was quickly proved,
and soon put to the supreme test, in which they did not fail. From the
beginning to the end these men, who had made a game of soldiering in
days of peace, yet a serious game to which they had devoted much of
their spare time after working-hours, were splendid beyond all words of
praise, and from the beginning to the end the Territorial officers--men
of good standing in their counties, men of brain and business
training--were handicapped by lack of promotion and treated with
contempt by the High Command, who gave preference always to the Regular
officers in every staff appointment.

This was natural and inevitable in armies controlled by the old Regular
school of service and tradition. As a close corporation in command of
the machine, it was not within their nature or philosophy to make way
for the new type. The Staff College was jealous of its own. Sandhurst
and Woolwich were still the only schools of soldiering recognized
as giving the right “tone” to officers and gentlemen fit for high
appointment. The cavalry, above all, held the power of supreme command
in a war of machines and chemistry and national psychology....

I should hate to attack the Regular officer. His caste belonged to the
best of our blood. He was the heir to fine old traditions of courage and
leadership in battle. He was a gentleman whose touch of arrogance was
subject to a rigid code of honor which made him look to the comfort of
his men first, to the health of his horse second, to his own physical
needs last. He had the stern sense of justice of a Roman Centurian, and
his men knew that though he would not spare them punishment if guilty,
he would give them always a fair hearing, with a point in their favor,
if possible. It was in their code to take the greatest risk in time of
danger, to be scornful of death in the face of their men whatever secret
fear they had, and to be proud and jealous of the honor of the regiment.
In action men found them good to follow--better than some of the young
officers of the New Army, who had not the same traditional pride nor
the same instinct for command nor the same consideration for their men,
though more easy-going and human in sympathy.

So I salute in spirit those battalion officers of the Old Army who
fulfilled their heritage until it was overwhelmed by new forces, and
I find extenuating circumstances even in remembrance of the high
stupidities, the narrow imagination, the deep, impregnable, intolerant
ignorance of Staff College men who with their red tape and their general
orders were the inquisitors and torturers of the new armies. Tout
comprendre c’est tout pardonner. They were molded in an old system, and
could not change their cliche.



II


The New Army was called into being by Lord Kitchener and his advisers,
who adopted modern advertising methods to stir the sluggish imagination
of the masses, so that every wall in London and great cities, every
fence in rural places, was placarded with picture-posters.

... “What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?”... “What will your best
girl say if you’re not in khaki?”

Those were vulgar appeals which, no doubt, stirred many simple souls,
and so were good enough. It would have been better to let the people
know more of the truth of what was happening in France and Flanders--the
truth of tragedy, instead of carefully camouflaged communiques, hiding
the losses, ignoring the deeds of famous regiments, veiling all the
drama of that early fighting by a deliberate screen of mystery, though
all was known to the enemy. It was fear of their own people, not of the
enemy, which guided the rules of censorship then and later.

For some little time the British people did not understand what was
happening. How could they know? It appeared that all was going well.
Then why worry? Soon there would be the joy-bells of peace, and the boys
would come marching home again, as in earlier wars. It was only very
slowly--because of the conspiracy of silence--that there crept into the
consciousness of our people the dim realization of a desperate struggle
ahead, in which all their young manhood would be needed to save France
and Belgium, and--dear God!--England herself. It was as that thought
touched one mind and another that the recruiting offices were crowded
with young men. Some of them offered their bodies because of the promise
of a great adventure--and life had been rather dull in office and
factory and on the farm. Something stirred in their blood--an old call
to youth. Some instinct of a primitive, savage kind, for open-air life,
fighting, killing, the comradeship of hunters, violent emotions, the
chance of death, surged up into the brains of quiet boys, clerks,
mechanics, miners, factory hands. It was the call of the wild--the
hark-back of the mind to the old barbarities of the world’s dawn, which
is in the embryo of modern man. The shock of anger at frightful tales
from Belgium--little children with their hands cut off (no evidence for
that one); women foully outraged; civilians shot in cold blood--sent
many men at a quick pace to the recruiting agents. Others were sent
there by the taunt of a girl, or the sneer of a comrade in khaki, or the
straight, steady look in the eyes of a father who said, “What about it,
Dick?... The old country is up against it.” It was that last thought
which worked in the brain of England’s manhood. That was his real call,
which whispered to men at the plow--quiet, ruminating lads, the peasant
type, the yeoman--and excited undergraduates in their rooms at Oxford
and Cambridge, and the masters of public schools, and all manner of
young men, and some, as I know, old in years but young in heart. “The
old country is in danger!” The shadow of a menace was creeping over some
little patch of England--or of Scotland.

“I’s best be going,” said the village boy.

“‘Dulce et decorum est--’” said the undergraduate.

“I hate the idea, but it’s got to be done,” said the city--bred man.

So they disappeared from their familiar haunts--more and more of them
as the months passed. They were put into training-camps, “pigged” it on
dirty straw in dirty barns, were ill-fed and ill-equipped, and trained
by hard--mouthed sergeants--tyrants and bullies in a good cause--until
they became automata at the word of command, lost their souls, as it
seemed, in that grinding-machine of military training, and cursed their
fate. Only comradeship helped them--not always jolly, if they happened
to be a class above their fellows, a moral peg above foul-mouthed
slum-dwellers and men of filthy habits, but splendid if they were in
their own crowd of decent, laughter-loving, companionable lads. Eleven
months’ training! Were they ever going to the front? The war would be
over before they landed in France... Then, at last, they came.



III


It was not until July of 1915 that the Commander-in-Chief announced
that a part of the New Army was in France, and lifted the veil from the
secret which had mystified people at home whose boys had gone from them,
but who could not get a word of their doings in France.

I saw the first of the “Kitchener men,” as we called them then. The
tramp of their feet in a steady scrunch, scrunch, along a gritty road of
France, passed the window of my billet very early in the mornings, and I
poked my head out to get another glimpse of those lads marching forward
to the firing-line. For as long as history lasts the imagination of our
people will strive to conjure up the vision of those boys who, in the
year of 1915, went out to Flanders, not as conscript soldiers, but as
volunteers, for the old country’s sake, to take their risks and “do
their bit” in the world’s bloodiest war. I saw those fellows day by day,
touched hands with them, went into the trenches with them, heard their
first tales, and strolled into their billets when they had shaken down
for a night or two within sound of the guns. History will envy me that,
this living touch with the men who, beyond any doubt, did in their
simple way act and suffer things before the war ended which revealed
new wonders of human courage and endurance. Some people envied me
then--those people at home to whom those boys belonged, and who in
country towns and villages and suburban houses would have given their
hearts to get one look at them there in Flanders and to see the way of
their life... How were they living? How did they like it? How were they
sleeping? What did the Regulars think of the New Army?

“Oh, a very cheerful lot,” said a sergeant-major of the old Regular
type, who was having a quiet pipe over a half-penny paper in a shed
at the back of some farm buildings in the neighborhood of Armentieres,
which had been plugged by two hundred German shells that time the day
before. (One never knew when the fellows on the other side would take it
into their heads to empty their guns that way. They had already killed a
lot of civilians thereabouts, but the others stayed on.)

“Not a bit of trouble with them,” said the sergeant-major, “and all
as keen as when they grinned into a recruiting office and said, `I’m
going.’ They’re glad to be out. Over-trained, some of ‘em. For ten
months we’ve been working ‘em pretty hard. Had to, but they were willing
enough. Now you couldn’t find a better battalion, though some more
famous... Till we get our chance, you know.”

He pointed with the stem of his pipe to the open door of an old barn,
where a party of his men were resting.

“You’ll find plenty of hot heads among them, but no cold feet. I’ll bet
on that.”

The men were lying on a stone floor with haversacks for pillows, or
squatting tailor-wise, writing letters home. From a far corner came a
whistling trio, harmonized in a tune which for some reason made me think
of hayfields in southern England.

They belonged to a Sussex battalion, and I said, “Any one here from
Burpham?”

One of the boys sat up, stared, flushed to the roots of his yellow hair,
and said, “Yes.”

I spoke to him of people I knew there, and he was astonished that I
should know them. Distressed also in a queer way. Those memories of a
Sussex village seemed to break down some of the hardness in which he had
cased himself. I could see a frightful homesickness in his blue eyes.

“P’raps I’ve seed the last o’ Burpham,” he said in a kind of whisper, so
that the other men should not hear.

The other men were from Arundel, Littlehampton, and Sussex villages.
They were of Saxon breed. There was hardly a difference between them
and some German prisoners I saw, yellow-haired as they were, with fair,
freckled, sun-baked skins. They told me they were glad to be out in
France. Anything was better than training at home.

“I like Germans more’n sergeant-majors,” said one young yokel, and the
others shouted with laughter at his jest.

“Perhaps you haven’t met the German sergeants,” I said.

“I’ve met our’n,” said the Sussex boy. “A man’s a fool to be a soldier.
Eh, lads?”

They agreed heartily, though they were all volunteers.

“Not that we’re skeered,” said one of them. “We’ll be glad when the
fighting begins.”

“Speak for yourself, Dick Meekcombe, and don’t forget the shells last
night.”

There was another roar of laughter. Those boys of the South Saxons
were full of spirit. In their yokel way they were disguising their real
thoughts--their fear of being afraid, their hatred of the thought of
death--very close to them now--and their sense of strangeness in this
scene on the edge of Armentieres, a world away from their old life.

The colonel sat in a little room at headquarters, a bronzed man with
a grizzled mustache and light-blue eyes, with a fine tenderness in his
smile.

“These boys of mine are all right,” he said. “They’re dear fellows, and
ready for anything. Of course, it was anxious work at first, but my N.
C. O.’s are a first-class lot, and we’re ready for business.”

He spoke of the recruiting task which had begun the business eleven
months ago. It had not been easy, among all those scattered villages of
the southern county. He had gone hunting among the farms and cottages
for likely young fellows. They were of good class, and he had picked the
lads of intelligence, and weeded out the others. They came from a
good stock--the yeoman breed. One could not ask for better stuff. The
officers were men of old county families, and they knew their men.
That was a great thing. So far they had been very lucky with regard to
casualties, though it was unfortunate that a company commander, a fine
fellow who had been a schoolmaster and a parson, should have been picked
off by a sniper on his first day out.

The New Army had received its baptism of fire, though nothing very
fierce as yet. They were led on in easy stages to the danger-zone. It
was not fair to plunge them straight away into the bad places. But the
test of steadiness was good enough on a dark night behind the reserve
trenches, when the reliefs had gone up, and there was a bit of digging
to do in the open.

“Quiet there, boys,” said the sergeant-major. “And no larks.”

It was not a larky kind of place or time. There was no moon, and a light
drizzle of rain fell. The enemy’s trenches were about a thousand yards
away, and their guns were busy in the night, so that the shells came
overhead, and lads who had heard the owls hoot in English woods now
heard stranger night-birds crying through the air, with the noise of
rushing wings, ending in a thunderclap.

“And my old mother thinks I’m enjoying myself!” said the heir to a
seaside lodging-house.

“Thirsty work, this grave-digging job,” said a lad who used to skate on
rollers between the bath-chairs of Brighton promenade.

“Can’t see much in those shells,” said a young man who once sold ladies’
blouses in an emporium of a south coast village. “How those newspaper
chaps do try to frighten us!”

He put his head on one side with a sudden jerk.

“What’s that? Wasps?”

A number of insects were flying overhead with a queer, sibilant noise.
Somewhere in the darkness there was a steady rattle in the throat of a
beast.

“What’s that, Sergeant?”

“Machine-gums, my child. Keep your head down, or you’ll lose hold of
it... Steady, there. Don’t get jumpy, now!”

The machine-gun was firing too high to do any serious damage. It was
probably a ricochet from a broken tree which made one of the boys
suddenly drop his spade and fall over it in a crumpled way.

“Get up, Charlie,” said the comrade next to him; and then, in a scared
voice, “Oh, Sergeant!”

“That’s all right,” said the sergeant-major. “We’re getting off very
lightly. New remember what I’ve been telling you... Stretcher this way.”

They were very steady through the night, this first company of the New
Army.

“Like old soldiers, sir,” said the sergeant-major, when he stood
chatting with the colonel after breakfast.

It was a bit of bad luck, though not very bad, after all--which made the
Germans shell a hamlet into which I went just as some of the New Army
were marching through to their quarters. These men had already seen
what shellfire could do to knock the beauty out of old houses and quiet
streets. They had gone tramping through one or two villages to which
the enemy’s guns had turned their attention, and had received that
unforgetable sensation of one’s first sight of roofless cottages, and
great gaps in garden walls, and tall houses which have tumbled inside
themselves. But now they saw this destruction in the process, and stood
very still, listening to the infernal clatter as shells burst at the
other end of the street, tumbling down huge masses of masonry and
plugging holes into neat cottages, and tearing great gashes out of
red-brick walls.

“Funny business!” said one of the boys.

“Regular Drury Lane melodrama,” said another.

“Looks as if some of us wouldn’t be home in time for lunch,” was another
comment, greeted by a guffaw along the line.

They tried to see the humor of it, though there was a false note in
some of the jokes. But it was the heroic falsity of boys whose pride
is stronger than their fear, that inevitable fear which chills one when
this beastliness is being done.

“Not a single casualty,” said one of the officers when the storm of
shells ended with a few last concussions and a rumble of falling bricks.
“Anything wrong with our luck?”

Everything was all right with the luck of this battalion of the New Army
in its first experience of war on the first night in the danger-zone.
No damage was done even when two shells came into one of their billets,
where a number of men were sleeping after a hard day and a long march.

“I woke up pretty quick,” said one of them, “and thought the house had
fallen in. I was out of it before the second came. Then I laughed. I’m a
heavy sleeper, you know. [He spoke as if I knew his weakness.] My mother
bought me an alarm-clock last birthday. ‘Perhaps you’ll be down for
breakfast now,’ she said. But a shell is better--as a knocker-up. I
didn’t stop to dress.”

Death had missed him by a foot or two, but he laughed at the fluke of
his escape.

“K.’s men” had not forgotten how to laugh after those eleven months
of hard training, and they found a joke in grisly things which do not
appeal humorously to sensitive men.

“Any room for us there?” asked one of these bronzed fellows as he
marched with his battalion past a cemetery where the fantastic devices
of French graves rose above the churchyard wall.

“Oh, we’ll do all right in the open air, all along of the German
trenches,” was the answer he had from the lad at his side. They grinned
at their own wit.



IV


I did not find any self-conscious patriotism among the rank and file of
the New Army. The word itself meant nothing to them. Unlike the French
soldier, to whom patriotism is a religion and who has the name of
France on his lips at the moment of peril, our men were silent about the
reasons for their coming out and the cause for which they risked their
lives. It was not for imperial power. Any illusion to “The Empire” left
them stone--cold unless they confused it with the Empire Music Hall,
when their hearts warmed to the name. It was not because they hated
Germans, because after a few turns in the trenches many of them had a
fellow-feeling for the poor devils over the way, and to the end of the
war treated any prisoners they took (after the killing in hot blood)
like pet monkeys or tame bears. But for stringent regulations they would
have fraternized with the enemy at the slightest excuse, and did so
in the winter of 1914, to the great scandal of G. H. Q. “What’s
patriotism?” asked a boy of me, in Ypres, and there was hard scorn in
his voice. Yet the love of the old country was deep down in the roots of
their hearts, and, as with a boy who came from the village where I lived
for a time, the name of some such place held all the meaning of life to
many of them. The simple minds of country boys clung fast to that, went
back in waking dreams to dwell in a cottage parlor where their parents
sat, and an old clock ticked, and a dog slept with its head on its paws.
The smell of the fields and the barns, the friendship of familiar trees,
the heritage that was in their blood from old yeoman ancestry, touched
them with the spirit of England, and it was because of that they fought.

The London lad was more self-conscious, had a more glib way of
expressing his convictions, but even he hid his purpose in the war under
a covering of irony and cynical jests. It was the spirit of the old city
and the pride of it which helped him to suffer, and in his daydreams was
the clanging of ‘buses from Charing Cross to the Bank, the lights of the
embankment reflected in the dark river, the back yard where he had kept
his bicycle, or the suburban garden where he had watered his mother’s
plants... London! Good old London!... His heart ached for it sometimes
when, as sentry, he stared across the parapet to the barbed wire in No
Man’s Land.

One night, strolling outside my own billet and wandering down the lane
a way, I heard the sound of singing coming from a big brick barn on
the roadside. I stood close under the blank wall at the back of the
building, and listened. The men were singing “Auld Lang Syne” to the
accompaniment of a concertina and a mouth-organ. They were taking parts,
and the old tune--so strange to hear out in a village of France, in the
war zone--sounded very well, with deep-throated harmonies. Presently the
concertina changed its tune, and the men of the New Army sang “God Save
the King.” I heard it sung a thousand times or more on royal festivals
and tours, but listening to it then from that dark old barn in Flanders,
where a number of “K.’s men” lay on the straw a night or two away from
the ordeal of advanced trenches, in which they had to take their turn, I
heard it with more emotion than ever before. In that anthem, chanted
by these boys in the darkness, was the spirit of England. If I had been
king, like that Harry who wandered round the camp of Agincourt, where
his men lay sleeping, I should have been glad to stand and listen
outside that barn and hear those words:

Send him victorious, Happy and glorious.

As the chief of the British tribes, the fifth George received his
tribute from those warrior boys who had come out to fight for the flag
that meant to them some old village on the Sussex Downs, where a mother
and a sweetheart waited, or some town in the Midlands where the walls
were placarded with posters which made the Germans gibe, or old London,
where the ‘buses went clanging down the Strand.

As I went back up the lane a dark figure loomed out, and I heard the
click of a rifle-bolt. It was one of K.’s men, standing sentry outside
the camp.

“Who goes there?”

It was a cockney voice.

“Friends.”

“Pass, friends. All’s well.”

Yes, all was well then, as far as human courage and the spirit of
a splendid youthfulness counted in that war of high explosives and
destructive chemistry. The fighting in front of these lads of the New
Army decided the fate of the world, and it was the valor of those young
soldiers who, in a little while, were flung into hell-fires and killed
in great numbers, which made all things different in the philosophy of
modern life. That concertina in the barn was playing the music of an
epic which will make those who sang it seem like heroes of mythology to
the future race which will read of this death-struggle in Europe. Yet it
was a cockney, perhaps from Clapham junction or Peckham Rye, who said,
like a voice of Fate, “All’s well.”



V


When the New Army first came out to learn their lessons in the trenches
in the long days before open warfare, the enemy had the best of it in
every way. In gunpowder and in supplies of ammunition he was our master
all along the line, and made use of his mastery by flinging over large
numbers of shells, of all sizes and types, which caused a heavy toll
in casualties to us; while our gunners were strictly limited to a few
rounds a day, and cursed bitterly because they could not “answer back.”
 In March of 1915 I saw the first fifteen-inch howitzer open fire. We
called this monster “grandma,” and there was a little group of generals
on the Scherpenberg, near Kemmel, to see the effect of the first shell.
Its target was on the lower slope of the Wytschaete Ridge, where some
trenches were to be attacked for reasons only known by our generals
and by God. Preliminary to the attack our field-guns opened fire with
shrapnel, which scattered over the German trenches--their formidable
earthworks with deep, shell-proof dugouts--like the glitter of confetti,
and had no more effect than that before the infantry made a rush for the
enemy’s line and were mown down by machine-gun fire--the Germans were
very strong in machine-guns, and we were very weak--in the usual way
of those early days. The first shell fired by our monster howitzer was
heralded by a low reverberation, as of thunder, from the field below
us. Then, several seconds later, there rose from the Wytschaete Ridge a
tall, black column of smoke which stood steady until the breeze clawed
at it and tore it to tatters.

“Some shell!” said an officer. “Now we ought to win the war--I don’t
think!”

Later there arrived the first 9.2 (nine-point-two)--“aunty,” as we
called it.

Well, that was something in the way of heavy artillery, and gradually
our gun-power grew and grew, until we could “answer back,” and give more
than came to us; but meanwhile the New Army had to stand the racket,
as the Old Army had done, being strafed by harassing fire, having their
trenches blown in, and their billets smashed, and their bodies broken,
at all times and in all places within range of German guns.

Everywhere the enemy was on high ground and had observation of our
position. From the Westhook Ridge and the Pilkem Ridge his observers
watched every movement of our men round Ypres, and along the main road
to Hooge, signaling back to their guns if anybody of them were visible.
From the Wytschaete Ridge (White-sheet, as we called it) and Messines
they could see for miles across our territory, not only the trenches,
but the ways up to the trenches, and the villages behind them and the
roads through the villages. They looked straight into Kemmel village
and turned their guns on to it when our men crouched among its ruins
and opened the graves in the cemetery and lay old bones bare. Clear and
vivid to them were the red roofs of Dickebusch village and the gaunt
ribs of its broken houses. (I knew a boy from Fleet Street who was
cobbler there in a room between the ruins.) Those Germans gazed down the
roads to Vierstraat and Vormizeele, and watched for the rising of
white dust which would tell them when men were marching by--more cannon
fodder. Southward they saw Neuve Eglise, with its rag of a tower, and
Plug Street wood. In cheerful mood, on sunny days, German gunners with
shells to spare ranged upon separate farm-houses and isolated barns
until they became bits of oddly standing brick about great holes. They
shelled the roads down which our transport wagons went at night, and the
communication trenches to which our men moved up to the front lines,
and gun-positions revealed by every flash, and dugouts foolishly frail
against their 5.9’s, which in those early days we could only answer by
a few pip-squeaks. They made fixed targets of crossroads and points our
men were bound to pass, so that to our men those places became sinister
with remembered horror and present fear: Dead Horse Corner and Dead
Cow Farm, and the farm beyond Plug Street; Dead Dog Farm and the Moated
Grange on the way to St.-Eloi; Stinking Farm and Suicide Corner and
Shell-trap Barn, out by Ypres.

All the fighting youth of our race took their turn in those places,
searched along those roads, lived in ditches and dugouts there, under
constant fire. In wet holes along the Yser Canal by Ypres, young
officers who had known the decencies of home life tried to camouflage
their beastliness by giving a touch of decoration to the clammy walls.
They bought Kirchner prints of little ladies too lightly clad for the
climate of Flanders, and pinned them up as a reminder of the dainty
feminine side of life which here was banished. They brought broken
chairs and mirrors from the ruins of Ypres, and said, “It’s quite cozy,
after all!”

And they sat there chatting, as in St. James’s Street clubs, in the same
tone of voice, with the same courtesy and sense of humor--while they
listened to noises without, and wondered whether it would be to-day or
to-morrow, or in the middle of the sentence they were speaking, that
bits of steel would smash through that mud above their heads and tear
them to bits and make a mess of things.

There was an officer of the Coldstream Guards who sat in one of these
holes, like many others. A nice, gentle fellow, fond of music, a fine
judge of wine, a connoisseur of old furniture and good food. It was
cruelty to put such a man into a hole in the earth, like the ape-houses
of Hagenbeck’s Zoo. He had been used to comfort, the little luxuries
of court life. There, on the canal-bank, he refused to sink into the
squalor. He put on pajamas at night before sleeping in his bunk--silk
pajamas--and while waiting for his breakfast smoked his own brand of
gold-tipped cigarettes, until one morning a big shell blew out the
back of his dugout and hurled him under a heap of earth and timber. He
crawled out, cursing loudly with a nice choice of language, and then lit
another gold--tipped cigarette, and called to his servant for breakfast.
His batman was a fine lad, brought up in the old traditions of service
to an officer of the Guards, and he provided excellent little meals,
done to a turn, until something else happened, and he was buried alive
within a few yards of his master... Whenever I went to the canal-bank,
and I went there many times (when still and always hungry high
velocities came searching for a chance meal), I thought of my friend
in the Guards, and of other men I knew who had lived there in the worst
days, and some of whom had died there. They hated that canal-bank and
dreaded it, but they jested in their dugouts, and there was the laughter
of men who hid the fear in their hearts and were “game” until some
bit of steel plugged them with a gaping wound or tore their flesh to
tatters.



VI


Because the enemy was on the high ground and our men were in the low
ground, many of our trenches were wet and waterlogged, even in summer,
after heavy rain. In winter they were in bogs and swamps, up by St.-Eloi
and southward this side of Gommecourt, and in many other evil places.
The enemy drained his water into our ditches when he could, with the
cunning and the science of his way of war, and that made our men savage.

I remember going to the line this side of Fricourt on an August day in
‘15. It was the seventeenth of August, as I have it in my diary, and
the episode is vivid in my mind because I saw then the New Army lads
learning one of the lessons of war in one of the foulest places. I also
learned the sense of humor of a British general, and afterward, not
enjoying the joke, the fatalistic valor of officers and men (in civil
life a year before) who lived with the knowledge that the ground beneath
them was mined and charged with high explosives, and might hurl them to
eternity between the whiffs of a cigarette.

We were sitting in the garden of the general’s headquarters, having a
picnic meal before going into the trenches. In spite of the wasps, which
attacked the sandwiches, it was a nice, quiet place in time of war.
No shell same crashing in our neighborhood (though we were well within
range of the enemy’s guns), and the loudest noise was the drop of an
over-ripe apple in the orchard. Later on a shrill whistle signaled a
hostile airplane overhead, but it passed without throwing a bomb.

“You will have a moist time in some of the trenches,” said the general
(whose boots were finely polished). “The rain has made them rather
damp... But you must get down as far as the mine craters. We’re
expecting the Germans to fire one at any moment, and some of our
trenches are only six yards away from the enemy. It’s an interesting
place.”

The interest of it seemed to me too much of a good thing, and I uttered
a pious prayer that the enemy would not explode his beastly mine under
me. It makes such a mess of a man.

A staff captain came out with a report, which he read: “The sound of
picks has been heard close to our sap-head. The enemy will probably
explode their mine in a few hours.”

“That’s the place I was telling you about,” said the general. “It’s well
worth a visit... But you must make up your mind to get your feet wet.”

As long as I could keep my head dry and firmly fixed to my shoulders, I
was ready to brave the perils of wet feet with any man.

It had been raining heavily for a day or two. I remember thinking that
in London--which seemed a long way off--people were going about under
umbrellas and looking glum when their clothes were splashed by passing
omnibuses. The women had their skirts tucked up and showed their pretty
ankles. (Those things used to happen in the far-off days of peace.) But
in the trenches, those that lay low, rain meant something different, and
hideously uncomfortable for men who lived in holes. Our soldiers,
who cursed the rain--as in the old days, “they swore terribly in
Flanders”--did not tuck their clothes up above their ankles. They took
off their trousers.

There was something ludicrous, yet pitiable, in the sight of those hefty
men coming back through the communication trenches with the tails of
their shirts flapping above their bare legs, which were plastered with a
yellowish mud. Shouldering their rifles or their spades, they trudged on
grimly through two feet of water, and the boots which they wore without
socks squelched at every step with a loud, sucking noise--“like a German
drinking soup,” said an officer who preceded me.

“Why grouse?” he said, presently. “It’s better than Brighton!”

It was a queer experience, this paddling through the long communication
trenches, which wound in and out like the Hampton Court maze toward the
front line, and the mine craters which made a salient to our right, by
a place called the “Tambour.” Shells came whining overhead and somewhere
behind us iron doors were slamming in the sky, with metallic bangs, as
though opening and shutting in a tempest. The sharp crack of rifle-shots
showed that the snipers were busy on both sides, and once I stood in a
deep pool, with the water up to my knees, listening to what sounded like
the tap-tap-tap of invisible blacksmiths playing a tattoo on an anvil.

It was one of our machine-guns at work a few yards away from my head,
which I ducked below the trench parapet. Splodge! went the officer
in front of me, with a yell of dismay. The water was well above his
top-boots. Splosh! went another man ahead, recovering from a side-slip
in the oozy mud and clinging desperately to some bunches of yarrow
growing up the side of the trench. Squelch! went a young gentleman whose
puttees and breeches had lost their glory and were but swabs about his
elegant legs.

“Clever fellows!” said the officer, as two of us climbed on to the
fire-stand of the trench in order to avoid a specially deep water-hole,
and with ducked heads and bodies bent double (the Germans were only two
hundred yards on the other side of the parapet) walked on dry earth for
at least ten paces. The officer’s laughter was loud at the corner of
the next traverse, when there was an abrupt descent into a slough of
despond.

“And I hope they can swim!” said an ironical voice from a dugout, as the
officers passed. They were lying in wet mud in those square burrows, the
men who had been working all night under their platoon commanders, and
were now sleeping and resting in their trench dwellings. As I paddled
on I glanced at those men lying on straw which gave out a moist smell,
mixed with the pungent vapors of chloride of lime. They were not
interested in the German guns, which were giving their daily dose of
“hate” to the village of Becourt-Becordel. The noise did not interrupt
their heavy, slumbrous breathing. Some of those who were awake were
reading novelettes, forgetting war in the eternal plot of cheap romance.
Others sat at the entrance of their burrows with their knees tucked up,
staring gloomily to the opposite wall of the trench in day-dreams of
some places betwixt Aberdeen and Hackney Downs. I spoke to one of them,
and said, “How are you getting on?” He answered, “I’m not getting on...
I don’t see the fun of this.”

“Can you keep dry?”

“Dry?... I’m soaked to the skin.”

“What’s it like here?”

“It’s hell... The devils blow up mines to make things worse.”

Another boy spoke.

“Don’t you mind what he says, sir. He’s always a gloomy bastard. Doesn’t
believe in his luck.”

There were mascots for luck, at the doorways of their dugouts--a woman’s
face carved in chalk, the name of a girl written in pebbles, a portrait
of the King in a frame of withered wild flowers.

A company of our New Army boys had respected a memento of French troops
who were once in this section of trenches. It was an altar built
into the side of the trench, where mass was said each morning by a
soldier--priest. It was decorated with vases and candlesticks, and above
the altar-table was a statue, crudely modeled, upon the base of which I
read the words Notre Dame des Tranchees (“Our Lady of the Trenches”). A
tablet fastened in the earth-wall recorded in French the desire of those
who worshiped here:

“This altar, dedicated to Our Lady of the Trenches, was blessed by the
chaplain of the French regiment. The 9th Squadron of the 6th Company
recommends its care and preservation to their successors. Please do not
touch the fragile statue in trench-clay.”

“Our Lady of the Trenches!” It was the first time I had heard of this
new title of the Madonna, whose spirit, if she visited those ditches of
death, must have wept with pity for all those poor children of mankind
whose faith was so unlike the work they had to do.

From a dugout near the altar there came tinkling music. A young soldier
was playing the mandolin to two comrades. “All the latest ragtime,” said
one of them with a grin.

So we paddled on our way, glimpsing every now and then over the parapets
at the German lines a few hundred yards away, and at a village in which
the enemy was intrenched, quiet and sinister there. The water through
which we waded was alive with a multitude of swimming frogs. Red
slugs crawled up the sides of the trenches, and queer beetles with
dangerous-looking horns wriggled along dry ledges and invaded the
dugouts in search of the vermin which infested them.

“Rats are the worst plague,” said a colonel, coming out of the battalion
headquarters, where he had a hole large enough for a bed and table.
“There are thousands of rats in this part of the line, and they’re
audacious devils. In the dugout next door the straw at night writhes
with them... I don’t mind the mice so much. One of them comes to dinner
on my table every evening, a friendly little beggar who is very pally
with me.”

We looked out above the mine-craters, a chaos of tumbled earth, where
our trenches ran so close to the enemy’s that it was forbidden to smoke
or talk, and where our sappers listened with all their souls in their
ears to any little tapping or picking which might signal approaching
upheaval. The coats of some French soldiers, blown up long ago by some
of these mines, looked like the blue of the chicory flower growing in
the churned-up soil... The new mine was not fired that afternoon, up
to the time of my going away. But it was fired next day, and I wondered
whether the gloomy boy had gone up with it. There was a foreknowledge of
death in his eyes.

One of the officers had spoken to me privately.

“I’m afraid of losing my nerve before the men. It haunts me, that
thought. The shelling is bad enough, but it’s the mining business that
wears one’s nerve to shreds. One never knows.”

I hated to leave him there to his agony... The colonel himself was
all nerves, and he loathed the rats as much as the shell-fire and the
mining, those big, lean, hungry rats of the trenches, who invaded the
dugouts and frisked over the bodies of sleeping men. One young subaltern
was in terror of them. He told me how he shot at one, seeing the glint
of its eyes in the darkness. The bullet from his revolver ricocheted
from wall to wall, and he was nearly court-martialed for having fired.

The rats, the lice that lived on the bodies of our men, the water-logged
trenches, the shell-fire which broke down the parapets and buried men in
wet mud, wetter for their blood, the German snipers waiting for English
heads, and then the mines--oh, a cheery little school of courage for
the sons of gentlemen! A gentle academy of war for the devil and General
Squeers!



VII


The city of Ypres was the capital of our battlefields in Flanders from
the beginning to the end of the war, and the ground on which it stands,
whether a new city rises there or its remnants of ruin stay as a
memorial of dreadful things, will be forever haunted by the spirit of
those men of ours who passed through its gates to fight in the fields
beyond or to fall within its ramparts.

I went through Ypres so many times in early days and late days of the
war that I think I could find my way about it blindfold, even now. I saw
it first in March of 1915, before the battle when the Germans first
used poison-gas and bombarded its choking people, and French and British
soldiers, until the city fell into a chaos of masonry. On that first
visit I found it scarred by shell--fire, and its great Cloth Hall was
roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but most of the
buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with customers
in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths served by the
women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish lace and fancy
cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about without a thought of
what might happen here in this city, so close to the enemy’s lines, so
close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop, crowded with young officers,
who were served by two Flemish girls, buxom, smiling, glad of all the
English money they were making.

A few weeks later the devil came to Ypres. The first sign of his work
was when a mass of French soldiers and colored troops, and English,
Irish, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers came staggering through the Lille
and Menin gates with panic in their look, and some foul spell upon them.
They were gasping for breath, vomiting, falling into unconsciousness,
and, as they lay, their lungs were struggling desperately against some
stifling thing. A whitish cloud crept up to the gates of Ypres, with a
sweet smell of violets, and women and girls smelled it and then gasped
and lurched as they ran and fell. It was after that when shells came in
hurricane flights over Ypres, smashing the houses and setting them
on fire, until they toppled and fell inside themselves. Hundreds of
civilians hid in their cellars, and many were buried there. Others
crawled into a big drain-pipe--there were wounded women and children
among them, and a young French interpreter, the Baron de Rosen, who
tried to help them--and they stayed there three days and nights, in
their vomit and excrement and blood, until the bombardment ceased. Ypres
was a city of ruin, with a red fire in its heart where the Cloth Hall
and cathedral smoldered below their broken arches and high ribs of
masonry that had been their buttresses and towers.

When I went there two months later I saw Ypres as it stood through the
years of the war that followed, changing only in the disintegration of
its ruin as broken walls became more broken and fallen houses were raked
into smaller fragments by new bombardments, for there was never a day
for years in which Ypres was not shelled.

The approach to it was sinister after one had left Poperinghe and passed
through the skeleton of Vlamertinghe church, beyond Goldfish Chateau...
For a long time Poperinghe was the last link with a life in which men
and women could move freely without hiding from the pursuit of death;
and even there, from time to time, there were shells from long-range
guns and, later, night-birds dropping high-explosive eggs. Round about
Poperinghe, by Reninghelst and Locre, long convoys of motor-wagons,
taking up a new day’s rations from the rail-heads, raised clouds of dust
which powdered the hedges white. Flemish cart-horses with huge
fringes of knotted string wended their way between motor-lorries and
gun-limbers. Often the sky was blue above the hop-gardens, with fleecy
clouds over distant woodlands and the gray old towers of Flemish
churches and the windmills on Mont Rouge and Mont Neir, whose sails have
turned through centuries of peace and strife. It all comes back to me as
I write--that way to Ypres, and the sounds and the smells of the roads
and fields where the traffic of war went up, month after month, year
after year.

That day when I saw it first, after the gas-attack, was strangely quiet,
I remember. There was “nothing doing,” as our men used to say. The
German gunners seemed asleep in the noonday sun, and it was a charming
day for a stroll and a talk about the raving madness of war under every
old hedge.

“What about lunch in Dickebusch on the way up?” asked one of my
companions. There were three of us.

It seemed a good idea, and we walked toward the village which then--they
were early days!--looked a peaceful spot, with a shimmer of sunshine
above its gray thatch and red-tiled roofs.

Suddenly one of us said, “Good God!”

An iron door had slammed down the corridors of the sky and the hamlet
into which we were just going was blotted out by black smoke, which came
up from its center as though its market-place had opened up and vomited
out infernal vapors.

“A big shell that!” said one man, a tall, lean-limbed officer, who later
in the war was sniper-in-chief of the British army. Something enraged
him at the sight of that shelled village.

“Damn them!” he said. “Damn the war! Damn all dirty dogs who smash up
life!”

Four times the thing happened, and we were glad there had been a minute
or so between us and Dickebusch. (In Dickebusch my young cobbler friend
from Fleet Street was crouching low, expecting death.) The peace of the
day was spoiled. There was seldom a real peace on the way to Ypres. The
German gunners had wakened up again. They always did. They were getting
busy, those house-wreckers. The long rush of shells tore great holes
through the air. Under a hedge, with our feet in the ditch, we ate the
luncheon we had carried in our pockets.

“A silly idea!” said the lanky man, with a fierce, sad look in his eyes.
He was Norman-Irish, and a man of letters, and a crack shot, and all the
boys he knew were being killed.

“What’s silly?” I asked, wondering what particular foolishness he was
thinking of, in a world of folly.

“Silly to die with a broken bit of sandwich in one’s mouth, just because
some German fellow, some fat, stupid man a few miles away, looses off a
bit of steel in search of the bodies of men with whom he has no personal
acquaintance.”

“Damn silly,” I said.

“That’s all there is to it in modern warfare,” said the lanky man. “It’s
not like the old way of fighting, body to body. Your strength against
your enemy’s, your cunning against his. Now it is mechanics and
chemistry. What is the splendor of courage, the glory of youth, when
guns kill at fifteen miles?”

Afterward this man went close to the enemy, devised tricks to make him
show his head, and shot each head that showed.

The guns ceased fire. Their tumult died down, and all was quiet again.
It was horribly quiet on our way into Ypres, across the railway, past
the red-brick asylum, where a calvary hung unscathed on broken walls,
past the gas-tank at the crossroads. This silence was not reassuring, as
our heels clicked over bits of broken brick on our way into Ypres. The
enemy had been shelling heavily for three-quarters of an hour in the
morning. There was no reason why he should not begin again... I
remember now the intense silence of the Grande Place that day after
the gas-attack, when we three men stood there looking up at the charred
ruins of the Cloth Hall. It was a great solitude of ruin. No living
figure stirred among the piles of masonry which were tombstones above
many dead. We three were like travelers who had come to some capital
of an old and buried civilization, staring with awe and uncanny fear at
this burial-place of ancient splendor, with broken traces of peoples who
once had lived here in security. I looked up at the blue sky above those
white ruins, and had an idea that death hovered there like a hawk ready
to pounce. Even as one of us (not I) spoke the thought, the signal came.
It was a humming drone high up in the sky.

“Look out!” said the lanky man. “Germans!”

It was certain that two birds hovering over the Grande Place were
hostile things, because suddenly white puffballs burst all round them,
as the shrapnel of our own guns scattered about them. But they flew
round steadily in a half-circle until they were poised above our heads.

It was time to seek cover, which was not easy to find just there, where
masses of stonework were piled high. At any moment things might drop. I
ducked my head behind a curtain of bricks as I heard a shrill “coo-ee!”
 from a shell. It burst close with a scatter, and a tin cup was flung
against a bit of wall close to where the lanky man sat in a shell-hole.
He picked it up and said, “Queer!” and then smelled it, and said
“Queer!” again. It was not an ordinary bomb. It had held some poisonous
liquid from a German chemist’s shop. Other bombs were dropping round
as the two hostile airmen circled overhead, untouched still by the
following shell-bursts. Then they passed toward their own lines, and my
friend in the shell-hole called to me and said, “Let’s be going.”

It was time to go.

When we reached the edge of the town our guns away back started
shelling, and we knew the Germans would answer. So we sat in a field
nearby to watch the bombardment. The air moved with the rushing waves
which tracked the carry of each shell from our batteries, and over Ypres
came the high singsong of the enemies’ answering voice.

As the dusk fell there was a movement out from Vlamertinghe, a movement
of transport wagons and marching men. They were going up in the darkness
through Ypres--rations and reliefs. They were the New Army men of the
West Riding.

“Carry on there,” said a young officer at the head of his company.
Something in his eyes startled me. Was it fear, or an act of sacrifice?
I wondered if he would be killed that night. Men were killed most nights
on the way through Ypres, sometimes a few and sometimes many. One shell
killed thirty one night, and their bodies lay strewn, headless and
limbless, at the corner of the Grande Place. Transport wagons galloped
their way through, between bursts of shell-fire, hoping to dodge them,
and sometimes not dodging them. I saw the litter of their wheels and
shafts, and the bodies of the drivers, and the raw flesh of the dead
horses that had not dodged them. Many men were buried alive in Ypres,
under masses of masonry when they had been sleeping in cellars, and were
wakened by the avalanche above them. Comrades tried to dig them out,
to pull away great stones, to get down to those vaults below from which
voices were calling; and while they worked other shells came and laid
dead bodies above the stones which had entombed their living comrades.
That happened, not once or twice, but many times in Ypres.

There was a Town Major of Ypres. Men said it was a sentence of death
to any officer appointed to that job. I think one of them I met had had
eleven predecessors. He sat in a cellar of the old prison, with walls of
sandbags on each side of him, but he could not sit there very long at
a stretch, because it was his duty to regulate the traffic according to
the shell-fire. He kept a visitors’ book as a hobby, until it was buried
under piles of prison, and was a hearty, cheerful soul, in spite of the
menace of death always about him.



VIII


My memory goes back to a strange night in Ypres in those early days. It
was Gullett, the Australian eyewitness, afterward in Palestine, who had
the idea.

“It would be a great adventure,” he said, as we stood listening to the
gun-fire over there.

“It would be damn silly,” said a staff officer. “Only a stern sense of
duty would make me do it.”

It was Gullett who was the brave man.

We took a bottle of Cointreau and a sweet cake as a gift to any
battalion mess we might find in the ramparts, and were sorry for
ourselves when we failed to find it, nor, for a long time, any living
soul.

Our own footsteps were the noisiest sounds as we stumbled over the
broken stones. No other footstep paced down any of those streets of
shattered houses through which we wandered with tightened nerves. There
was no movement among all those rubbish heaps of fallen masonry and
twisted iron. We were in the loneliness of a sepulcher which had been
once a fair city.

For a little while my friend and I stood in the Grande Place, not
speaking. In the deepening twilight, beneath the last flame-feathers of
the sinking sun and the first stars that glimmered in a pale sky, the
frightful beauty of the ruins put a spell upon us.

The tower of the cathedral rose high above the framework of broken
arches and single pillars, like a white rock which had been split from
end to end by a thunderbolt. A recent shell had torn out a slice so that
the top of the tower was supported only upon broken buttresses, and the
great pile was hollowed out like a decayed tooth. The Cloth Hall was but
a skeleton in stone, with immense gaunt ribs about the dead carcass of
its former majesty. Beyond, the tower of St. Mark’s was a stark ruin,
which gleamed white through the darkening twilight.

We felt as men who should stand gazing upon the ruins of Westminster
Abbey, while the shadows of night crept into their dark caverns and into
their yawning chasms of chaotic masonry, with a gleam of moon upon their
riven towers and fingers of pale light touching the ribs of isolated
arches. In the spaciousness of the Grande Place at Ypres my friend and I
stood like the last men on earth in a city of buried life.

It was almost dark now as we made our way through other streets of
rubbish heaps. Strangely enough, as I remember, many of the iron
lamp-posts had been left standing, though bent and twisted in a drunken
way, and here and there we caught the sweet whiff of flowers and plants
still growing in gardens which had not been utterly destroyed by the
daily tempest of shells, though the houses about them had been all
wrecked.

The woods below the ramparts were slashed and torn by these storms, and
in the darkness, lightened faintly by the crescent moon, we stumbled
over broken branches and innumerable shell-holes. The silence was broken
now by the roar of a gun, which sounded so loud that I jumped sideways
with the sudden shock of it. It seemed to be the signal for our
batteries, and shell after shell went rushing through the night, with
that long, menacing hiss which ends in a dull blast.

The reports of the guns and the explosions of the shells followed each
other, and mingled in an enormous tumult, echoed back by the ruins of
Ypres in hollow, reverberating thunder-strokes. The enemy was answering
back, not very fiercely yet, and from the center of the town, in or
about the Grande Place, came the noise of falling houses or of huge
blocks of stone splitting into fragments.

We groped along, scared with the sense of death around us. The first
flares of the night were being lighted by both sides above their
trenches on each side of the salient. The balls of light rose into the
velvety darkness and a moment later suffused the sky with a white glare
which faded away tremulously after half a minute.

Against the first vivid brightness of it the lines of trees along the
roads to Hooge were silhouetted as black as ink, and the fields between
Ypres and the trenches were flooded with a milky luminance. The whole
shape of the salient was revealed to us in those flashes. We could
see all those places for which our soldiers fought and died. We stared
across the fields beyond the Menin road toward the Hooge crater, and
those trenches which were battered to pieces but not abandoned in the
first battle of Ypres and the second battle.

That salient was, even then, in 1915, a graveyard of British
soldiers--there were years to follow when many more would lie there--and
as between flash and flash the scene was revealed, I seemed to see a
great army of ghosts, the spirits of all those boys who had died on this
ground. It was the darkness, and the tumult of guns, and our loneliness
here on the ramparts, which put an edge to my nerves and made me see
unnatural things.

No wonder a sentry was startled when he saw our two figures approaching
him through a clump of trees. His words rang out like pistol-shots.

“Halt! Who goes there?”

“Friends!” we shouted, seeing the gleam of light on a shaking bayonet.

“Come close to be recognized!” he said, and his voice was harsh.

We went close, and I for one was afraid. Young sentries sometimes shot
too soon.

“Who are you?” he asked, in a more natural voice, and when we explained
he laughed gruffly. “I never saw two strangers pass this way before!”

He was an old soldier, “back to the army again,” with Kitchener’s men.
He had been in the Chitral campaign and South Africa--“Little wars
compared to this,” as he said. A fine, simple man, and although a
bricklayer’s laborer in private life, with a knowledge of the right
word. I was struck when he said that the German flares were more
“luminous” than ours. I could hardly see his face in the darkness,
except when he struck a match once, but his figure was black against the
illumined sky, and I watched the motion of his arm as he pointed to the
roads up which his comrades had gone to the support of another battalion
at Hooge, who were hard pressed. “They went along under a lot of
shrapnel and had many casualties.”

He told the story of that night in a quiet, thoughtful way, with phrases
of almost biblical beauty in their simple truth, and the soul of the
man, the spirit of the whole army in which he was a private soldier, was
revealed when he flashed out a sentence with his one note of fire, “But
the enemy lost more than we did, sir, that night!”

We wandered away again into the darkness, with the din of the
bombardment all about us. There was not a square yard of ground unplowed
by shells and we did not nourish any false illusions as to finding a
safe spot for a bivouac.

There was no spot within the ramparts of Ypres where a man might say “No
shells will fall here.” But one place we found where there seemed some
reasonable odds of safety. There also, if sleep assailed us, we might
curl up in an abandoned dugout and hope that it would not be “crumped”
 before the dawn. There were several of these shelters there, but,
peering into them by the light of a match, I shuddered at the idea of
lying in one of them. They had been long out of use and there was a foul
look about the damp bedding and rugs which had been left to rot there.
They were inhabited already by half-wild cats--the abandoned cats of
Ypres, which hunted mice through the ruins of their old houses--and
they spat at me and glared with green-eyed fear as I thrust a match into
their lairs.

There were two kitchen chairs, with a deal table on which we put our
cake and Cointreau, and here, through half a night, my friend and I
sat watching and listening to that weird scene upon which the old moon
looked down; and, as two men will at such a time, we talked over all the
problems of life and death and the meaning of man’s heritage.

Another sentry challenged us--all his nerves jangled at our apparition.
He was a young fellow, one of “Kitchener’s crowd,” and told us frankly
that he had the “jimjams” in this solitude of Ypres and “saw Germans”
 every time a rat jumped. He lingered near us--“for company.

It was becoming chilly. The dew made our clothes damp. Cake and sweet
liquor were poor provisions for the night, and the thought of hot
tea was infinitely seductive. Perhaps somewhere one might find a few
soldiers round a kettle in some friendly dugout. We groped our way
along, holding our breath at times as a shell came sweeping overhead or
burst with a sputter of steel against the ramparts. It was profoundly
dark, so that only the glowworms glittered like jewels on black velvet.
The moon had gone down, and inside Ypres the light of the distant flares
only glimmered faintly above the broken walls. In a tunnel of darkness
voices were speaking and some one was whistling softly, and a gleam of
red light made a bar across the grass. We walked toward a group of black
figures, suddenly silent at our approach--obviously startled.

“Who’s there?” said a voice.

We were just in time for tea--a stroke of luck--with a company of boys
(all Kitchener lads from the Civil Service) who were spending the night
here. They had made a fire behind a screen to give them a little comfort
and frighten off the ghosts, and gossiped with a queer sense of humor,
cynical and blasphemous, but even through their jokes there was a
yearning for the end of a business which was too close to death.

I remember the gist of their conversation, which was partly devised for
my benefit. One boy declared that he was sick of the whole business.

“I should like to cancel my contract,” he remarked.

“Yes, send in your resignation, old lad,” said another, with ironical
laughter.

“They’d consider it, wouldn’t they? P’raps offer a rise in wages--I
don’t think!”

Another boy said, “I am a citizen of no mean Empire, but what the hell
is the Empire going to do for me when the next shell blows off both my
bleeding legs?”

This remark was also received by a gust of subdued laughter, silenced
for a moment by a roar and upheaval of masonry somewhere by the ruins of
the Cloth Hall.

“Soldiers are prisoners,” said a boy without any trace of humor. “You’re
lagged, and you can’t escape. A ‘blighty’ is the best luck you can hope
for.”

“I don’t want to kill Germans,” said a fellow with a superior accent.
“I’ve no personal quarrel against them; and, anyhow, I don’t like
butcher’s work.”

“Christian service, that’s what the padre calls it. I wonder if Christ
would have stuck a bayonet into a German stomach--a German with his
hands up. That’s what we’re asked to do.”

“Oh, Christianity is out of business, my child. Why mention it? This is
war, and we’re back to the primitive state--B.C. All the same, I say my
little prayers when I’m in a blue funk.

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child.”

This last remark was the prize joke of the evening, received with much
hilarity, not too loud, for fear of drawing fire--though really no
Germans could have heard any laughter in Ypres.

Nearby, their officer was spending the night. We called on him, and
found him sitting alone in a dugout furnished by odd bits from the
wrecked houses, with waxen flowers in a glass case on the shelf, and
an old cottage clock which ticked out the night, and a velvet armchair
which had been the pride of a Flemish home. He was a Devonshire lad,
with a pale, thoughtful face, and I was sorry for him in his loneliness,
with a roof over his head which would be no proof against a fair-sized
shell.

He expressed no surprise at seeing us. I think he would not have been
surprised if the ghost of Edward the Black Prince had called on him.
He would have greeted him with the same politeness and offered him his
green armchair.

The night passed. The guns slackened down before the dawn. For a little
while there was almost silence, even over the trenches. But as the first
faint glow of dawn crept through the darkness the rifle-fire burst
out again feverishly, and the machine-guns clucked with new spasms of
ferocity. The boys of the New Army, and the Germans facing them, had an
attack of the nerves, as always at that hour.

The flares were still rising, but had the debauched look of belated
fireworks after a night of orgy.

In a distant field a cock crew.

The dawn lightened all the sky, and the shadows crept away from the
ruins of Ypres, and all the ghastly wreckage of the city was revealed
again nakedly. Then the guns ceased for a while, and there was quietude
in the trenches, and out of Ypres, sneaking by side ways, went two tired
figures, padding the hoof with a slouching swiftness to escape the early
morning “hate” which was sure to come as soon as a clock in Vlamertinghe
still working in a ruined tower chimed the hour of six.

I went through Ypres scores of times afterward, and during the battles
of Flanders saw it day by day as columns of men and guns and
pack-mules and transports went up toward the ridge which led at last to
Passchendaele. We had big guns in the ruins of Ypres, and round about,
and they fired with violent concussions which shook loose stones, and
their flashes were red through the Flanders mist. Always this capital of
the battlefields was sinister, with the sense of menace about.

“Steel helmets to be worn. Gas-masks at the alert.”

So said the traffic man at the crossroads.

As one strapped on one’s steel helmet and shortened the strap of one’s
gas-mask, the spirit of Ypres touched one’s soul icily.



IX


The worst school of war for the sons of gentlemen was, in those early
days, and for long afterward, Hooge. That was the devil’s playground
and his chamber of horrors, wherein he devised merry tortures for young
Christian men. It was not far out of Ypres, to the left of the Menin
road, and to the north of Zouave Wood and Sanctuary Wood. For a time
there was a chateau there called the White Chateau, with excellent
stables and good accommodation for one of our brigade staffs, until one
of our generals was killed and others wounded by a shell, which broke up
their conference. Afterward there was no chateau, but only a rubble
of bricks banked up with sandbags and deep mine-craters filled with
stinking water slopping over from the Bellewarde Lake and low-lying
pools. Bodies, and bits of bodies, and clots of blood, and green
metallic-looking slime, made by explosive gases, were floating on the
surface of that water below the crater banks when I first passed that
way, and so it was always. Our men lived there and died there within a
few yards of the enemy, crouched below the sand-bags and burrowed in
the sides of the crater. Lice crawled over them in legions. Human flesh,
rotting and stinking, mere pulp, was pasted into the mud-banks. If they
dug to get deeper cover their shovels went into the softness of dead
bodies who had been their comrades. Scraps of flesh, booted legs,
blackened hands, eyeless heads, came falling over them when the enemy
trench-mortared their position or blew up a new mine-shaft.

I remember one young Irish officer who came down to bur quarters on a
brief respite from commanding the garrison at Hooge. He was a handsome
fellow, like young Philip of Spain by Velasquez, and he had a profound
melancholy in his eyes in spite of a charming smile.

“Do you mind if I have a bath before I join you?” he asked.

He walked about in the open air until the bath was ready. Even there a
strong, fetid smell came from him.

“Hooge,” he said, in a thoughtful way, “is not a health resort.”

He was more cheerful after his bath and did not feel quite such a leper.
He told one or two stories about the things that happened at Hooge,
and I wondered if hell could be so bad. After a short stay he went back
again, and I could see that he expected to be killed. Before saying
good-by he touched some flowers on the mess-table, and for a moment or
two listened to birds twittering in the trees.

“Thanks very much,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed this visit a good deal.. .
Good-by.”

He went back through Ypres on the way to Hooge, and the mine-crater
where his Irish soldiers were lying in slime, in which vermin crawled.

Sometimes it was the enemy who mined under our position, blowing a few
men to bits and scattering the sand-bags. Sometimes it was our men
who upheaved the earth beyond them by mine charges and rushed the new
crater.

It was in July of ‘15 that the devils of Hooge became merry and bright
with increased activity. The Germans had taken possession of one of the
mine-craters which formed the apex of a triangle across the Menin road,
with trenches running down to it on either side, so that it was like the
spear-head of their position. They had fortified it with sand-bags and
crammed it with machine--guns which could sweep the ground on three
sides, so making a direct attack by infantry a suicidal enterprise. Our
trenches immediately faced this stronghold from the other side of a
road at right angles with the Menin road, and our men--the New Army
boys--were shelled day and night, so that many of them were torn to
pieces, and others buried alive, and others sent mad by shell-shock.
(They were learning their lessons in the school of courage.) It was
decided by a conference of generals, not at Hooge, to clear out this
hornets’ nest, and the job was given to the sappers, who mined under
the roadway toward the redoubt, while our heavy artillery shelled the
enemy’s position all around the neighborhood.

On July 22d the mine was exploded, while our men crouched low, horribly
afraid after hours of suspense. The earth was rent asunder by a gust of
flame, and vomited up a tumult of soil and stones and human limbs and
bodies. Our men still crouched while these things fell upon them.

“I thought I had been blown to bits,” one of them told me. “I was a
quaking fear, with my head in the earth. I kept saying, ‘Christ!...
Christ!’”

When the earth and smoke had settled again it was seen that the enemy’s
redoubt had ceased to exist. In its place, where there had been a
crisscross of trenches and sand-bag shelters for their machine-guns and
a network of barbed wire, there was now an enormous crater, hollowed
deep with shelving sides surrounded by tumbled earth heaps which had
blocked up the enemy’s trenches on either side of the position, so that
they could not rush into the cavern and take possession. It was our men
who “rushed” the crater and lay there panting in its smoking soil.

Our generals had asked for trouble when they destroyed that redoubt,
and our men had it. Infuriated by a massacre of their garrison in the
mine-explosion and by the loss of their spear-head, the Germans kept up
a furious bombardment on our trenches in that neighborhood in bursts of
gun-fire which tossed our earthworks about and killed and wounded many
men. Our line at Hooge at that time was held by the King’s Royal
Rifles of the 14th Division, young fellows, not far advanced in
the training-school of war. They held on under the gunning of their
positions, and each man among them wondered whether it was the shell
screeching overhead or the next which would smash him into pulp like
those bodies lying nearby in dugouts and upheaved earthworks.

On the morning of July 30th there was a strange lull of silence after a
heavy bout of shells and mortars. Men of the K. R. R. raised their heads
above broken parapets and crawled out of shell-holes and looked about.
There were many dead bodies lying around, and wounded men were wailing.
The unwounded, startled by the silence, became aware of some moisture
falling on them; thick, oily drops of liquid.

“What in hell’s name--?” said a subaltern.

One man smelled his clothes, which reeked of something like paraffin.

Coming across from the German trenches were men hunched up under some
heavy weights. They were carrying cylinders with nozles like hose-pipes.
Suddenly there was a rushing noise like an escape of air from some
blast-furnace. Long tongues of flame licked across to the broken ground
where the King’s Royal Rifles lay.

Some of them were set on fire, their clothes burning on them, making
them living torches, and in a second or two cinders.

It was a new horror of war--the Flammenwerfer.

Some of the men leaped to their feet, cursing, and fired repeatedly at
the Germans carrying the flaming jets. Here and there the shots were
true. A man hunched under a cylinder exploded like a fat moth caught
in a candle-flame. But that advancing line of fire after the long
bombardment was too much for the rank and file, whose clothes were
smoking and whose bodies were scorched. In something like a panic they
fell back, abandoning the cratered ground in which their dead lay.

The news of this disaster and of the new horror reached the troops in
reserve, who had been resting in the rear after a long spell. They moved
up at once to support their comrades and make a counter-attack. The
ground they had to cover was swept by machine-guns, and many fell, but
the others attacked again and again, regardless of their losses, and won
back part of the lost ground, leaving only a depth of five hundred yards
in the enemy’s hands.

So the position remained until the morning of August 9th, when a new
attack was begun by the Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Midland
troops of the 6th Division, who had been long in the salient and had
proved the quality of northern “grit” in the foul places and the foul
weather of that region.

It was late on the night of August 8th that these battalions took up
their position, ready for the assault. These men, who came mostly from
mines and workshops, were hard and steady and did not show any outward
sign of nervousness, though they knew well enough that before the light
of another day came their numbers would have passed through the lottery
of this game of death. Each man’s life depended on no more than a fluke
of luck by the throw of those dice which explode as they fall. They knew
what their job was. It was to cross five hundred yards of open ground
to capture and to hold a certain part of the German position near the
Chateau of Hooge.

They were at the apex of the triangle which made a German salient after
the ground was lost, on July 30th. On the left side of the triangle was
Zouave Wood, and Sanctuary Wood ran up the right side to a strong fort
held by the enemy and crammed with machine-guns and every kind of bomb.
The base of the upturned triangle was made by the Menin road, to the
north, beyond which lay the crater, the chateau, and the stables.

The way that lay between the regiment and their goal was not an easy one
to pass. It was cut and crosscut by our old trenches, now held by the
enemy, who had made tangles of barbed wire in front of their parapets,
and had placed machine-guns at various points. The ground was littered
with dead bodies belonging to the battle of July 30th, and pock-marked
by deep shell-holes. To cross five hundred yards of such ground in
the storm of the enemy’s fire would be an ordeal greater than that of
rushing from one trench to another. It would have to be done in regular
attack formation, and with the best of luck would be a grim and costly
progress.

The night was pitch dark. The men drawn up could only see one another
as shadows blacker than the night. They were very quiet; each man was
fighting down his fear in his soul, trying to get a grip on nerves
hideously strained by the rack of this suspense. The words, “Steady,
lads.” were spoken down the ranks by young lieutenants and sergeants.
The sounds of men whispering, a cough here and there, a word of command,
the clink of bayonets, the cracking of twigs under heavy boots, the
shuffle of troops getting into line, would not carry with any loudness
to German ears.

The men deployed before dawn broke, waiting for the preliminary
bombardment which would smash a way for them. The officers struck
matches now and then to glance at their wrist-watches, set very
carefully to those of the gunners. Then our artillery burst forth with
an enormous violence of shell-fire, so that the night was shattered with
the tumult of it. Guns of every caliber mingled their explosions,
and the long screech of the shells rushed through the air as though
thousands of engines were chasing one another madly through a vast
junction in that black vault.

The men listened and waited. As soon as the guns lengthened their fuses
the infantry advance would begin. Their nerves were getting jangled. It
was just the torture of human animals. There was an indrawing of breath
when suddenly the enemy began to fire rockets, sending up flares which
made white waves of light. If they were seen! There would be a shambles.

But the smoke of all the bursting shells rolled up in a thick veil,
hiding those mining lads who stared toward the illuminations above the
black vapors and at the flashes which seemed to stab great rents in the
pall of smoke. “It was a jumpy moment,” said the colonel of the Durhams,
and the moment lengthened into minutes.

Then the time came. The watch hands pointed to the second which had been
given for the assault to begin, and instantly, to the tick, the guns
lifted and made a curtain of fire round the Chateau of Hooge, beyond the
Menin road, six hundred yards away.

“Time!”

The company officers blew their whistles, and there was a sudden clatter
from trench-spades slung to rifle-barrels, and from men girdled with
hand-grenades, as the advancing companies deployed and made their first
rush forward. The ground had been churned up by our shells, and the
trenches had been battered into shapelessness, strewn with broken wire
and heaps of loose stones and fragments of steel.

It seemed impossible that any German should be left alive in this
quagmire, but there was still a rattle of machine-guns from holes and
hillocks. Not for long. The bombing-parties searched and found them,
and silenced them. From the heaps of earth which had once been trenches
German soldiers rose and staggered in a dazed, drunken way, stupefied by
the bombardment beneath which they had crouched.

Our men spitted them on their bayonets or hurled hand-grenades, and
swept the ground before them. Some Germans screeched like pigs in a
slaughter-house.

The men went on in short rushes. They were across the Menin road now,
and were first to the crater, though other troops were advancing quickly
from the left. They went down into the crater, shouting hoarsely, and
hurling bombs at Germans, who were caught like rats in a trap, and
scurried up the steep sides beyond, firing before rolling down again,
until at least two hundred bodies lay dead at the bottom of this pit of
hell.

While some of the men dug themselves into the crater or held the dugouts
already made by the enemy, others climbed up to the ridge beyond and
with a final rush, almost winded and spent, reached the extreme limit
of their line of assault and achieved the task which had been set them.
They were mad now, not human in their senses. They saw red through
bloodshot eyes. They were beasts of prey--these decent Yorkshire lads.

Round the stables themselves three hundred Germans were bayoneted, until
not a single enemy lived on this ground, and the light of day on that
9th of August revealed a bloody and terrible scene, not decent for words
to tell. Not decent, but a shambles of human flesh which had been a
panic-stricken crowd of living men crying for mercy, with that dreadful
screech of terror from German boys who saw the white gleam of steel at
their stomachs before they were spitted. Not many of those Durham and
Yorkshire lads remain alive now with that memory. The few who do must
have thrust it out of their vision, unless at night it haunts them.

The assaulting battalion had lost many men during the assault, but their
main ordeal came after the first advance, when the German guns belched
out a large quantity of heavy shells from the direction of Hill 60. They
raked the ground, and tried to make our men yield the position they had
gained. But they would not go back or crawl away from their dead.

All through the day the bombardment continued, answered from our side
by fourteen hours of concentrated fire, which I watched from our battery
positions. In spite of the difficulties of getting up supplies
through the “crumped” trenches, the men held on and consolidated their
positions. One of the most astounding feats was done by the sappers, who
put up barbed wire beyond the line under a devilish cannonade.

A telephone operator had had his apparatus smashed by a shell early
in the action, and worked his way back to get another. He succeeded
in reaching the advanced line again, but another shell knocked out his
second instrument. It was then only possible to keep in touch with
the battalion headquarters by means of messengers, and again and again
officers and men made their way across the zone of fire or died in the
attempt. Messages reached the colonel of the regiment that part of his
front trenches had been blown away.

From other parts of the line reports came in that the enemy was
preparing a counter-attack. For several hours now the colonel of the
Durhams could not get into touch with his companies, isolated and hidden
beneath the smoke of the shell-bursts. Flag-wagging and heliographing
were out of the question. He could not tell even if a single man
remained alive out there beneath all those shells. No word came from
them now to let him know if the enemy were counter-attacking.

Early in the afternoon he decided to go out and make his own
reconnaissance. The bombardment was still relentless, and it was only
possible to go part of the way in an old communication trench. The
ground about was littered with the dead, still being blown about by high
explosives.

The soul of the colonel was heavy then with doubt and with the knowledge
that most of the dead here were his own. When he told me this adventure
his only comment was the soldier’s phrase, “It was not what might be
called a ‘healthy’ place.” He could see no sign of a counter-attack,
but, straining through the smoke-clouds, his eyes could detect no sign
of life where his men had been holding the captured lines. Were they all
dead out there?

On Monday night the colonel was told that his battalion would be
relieved, and managed to send this order to a part of it. It was sent
through by various routes, but some men who carried it came back
with the news that it was still impossible to get into touch with the
companies holding the advanced positions above the Menin road.

In trying to do so they had had astounding escapes. Several of them had
been blown as far as ten yards by the air-pressure of exploding shells
and had been buried in the scatter of earth.

“When at last my men came back--those of them who had received the
order,” said the colonel, “I knew the price of their achievement--its
cost in officers and men.” He spoke as a man resentful of that bloody
sacrifice.

There were other men still alive and still holding on. With some of them
were four young officers, who clung to their ground all through the
next night, before being relieved. They were without a drop of water and
suffered the extreme miseries of the battlefield.

There was no distinction in courage between those four men, but the
greater share of suffering was borne by one. Early in the day he had had
his jaw broken by a piece of shell, but still led his men. Later in the
day he was wounded in the shoulder and leg, but kept his command, and he
was still leading the survivors of his company when he came back on the
morning of Tuesday, August 10th.

Another party of men had even a longer time of trial. They were under
the command of a lance-corporal, who had gained possession of the
stables above the Menin road and now defended their ruins. During
the previous twenty-four hours he had managed to send through several
messages, but they were not to report his exposed position nor to ask
for supports nor to request relief. What he said each time was, “Send
us more bombs.” It was only at seven-thirty in the morning of Tuesday,
after thirty hours under shell-fire, that the survivors came away from
their rubbish heap in the lines of death.

So it was at Hooge on that day of August. I talked with these men,
touched hands with them while the mud and blood of the business still
fouled them. Even now, in remembrance, I wonder how men could go through
such hours without having on their faces more traces of their hell,
though some of them were still shaking with a kind of ague.



X


Here and there on the roadsides behind the lines queer sacks hung from
wooden poles. They had round, red disks painted on them, and looked like
the trunks of human bodies after Red Indians had been doing decorative
work with their enemy’s slain. At Flixecourt, near Amiens, I passed one
on a Sunday when bells were ringing for high mass and a crowd of young
soldiers were trooping into the field with fixed bayonets.

A friend of mine--an ironical fellow--nudged me, and said,
“Sunday-school for young Christians!” and made a hideous face, very
comical.

It was a bayonet-school of instruction, and “O. C. Bayonets”--Col.
Ronald Campbell--was giving a little demonstration. It was a curiously
interesting form of exercise. It was as though the primitive nature
in man, which had been sleeping through the centuries, was suddenly
awakened in the souls of these cockney soldier--boys. They made sudden
jabs at one another fiercely and with savage grimaces, leaped at men
standing with their backs turned, who wheeled round sharply, and crossed
bayonets, and taunted the attackers. Then they lunged at the hanging
sacks, stabbing them where the red circles were painted. These inanimate
things became revoltingly lifelike as they jerked to and fro, and the
bayonet men seemed enraged with them. One fell from the rope, and a boy
sprang at it, dug his bayonet in, put his foot on the prostrate thing
to get a purchase for the bayonet, which he lugged out again, and then
kicked the sack.

“That’s what I like to see,” said an officer. “There’s a fine
fighting-spirit in that lad. He’ll kill plenty of Germans before he’s
done.”

Col. Ronald Campbell was a great lecturer on bayonet exercise. He
curdled the blood of boys with his eloquence on the method of attack
to pierce liver and lights and kidneys of the enemy. He made their eyes
bulge out of their heads, fired them with blood-lust, stoked up hatred
of Germans--all in a quiet, earnest, persuasive voice, and a sense of
latent power and passion in him. He told funny stories--one, famous in
the army, called “Where’s ‘Arry?”

It was the story of an attack on German trenches in which a crowd of
Germans were captured in a dugout. The sergeant had been told to blood
his men, and during the killing he turned round and asked, “Where’s
‘Arry?... ‘Arry ‘asn’t ‘ad a go yet.”

‘Arry was a timid boy, who shrank from butcher’s work, but he was called
up and given his man to kill. And after that ‘Arry was like a man-eating
tiger in his desire for German blood.

He used another illustration in his bayonet lectures. “You may meet a
German who says, ‘Mercy! I have ten children.’... Kill him! He might
have ten more.”

At those training-schools of British youth (when nature was averse to
human slaughter until very scientifically trained) one might see
every form of instruction in every kind of weapon and instrument of
death--machine-guns, trench-mortars, bombs, torpedoes, gas, and, later
on, tanks; and as the months passed, and the years, the youth of the
British Empire graduated in these schools of war, and those who lived
longest were experts in divers branches of technical education.

Col. Ronald Campbell retired from bayonet instruction and devoted his
genius and his heart (which was bigger than the point of a bayonet) to
the physical instruction of the army and the recuperation of battle-worn
men. I liked him better in that job, and saw the real imagination of the
man at work, and his amazing, self-taught knowledge of psychology. When
men came down from the trenches, dazed, sullen, stupid, dismal, broken,
he set to work to build up their vitality again, to get them interested
in life again, and to make them keen and alert. As they had been
dehumanized by war, so he rehumanized them by natural means. He had a
farm, with flowers and vegetables, pigs, poultry, and queer beasts. A
tame bear named Flanagan was the comic character of the camp. Colonel
Campbell found a thousand qualities of character in this animal, and
brought laughter back to gloomy boys by his description of them. He had
names for many of his pets--the game-cocks and the mother-hens; and he
taught the men to know each one, and to rear chicks, and tend flowers,
and grow vegetables. Love, and not hate, was now his gospel. All his
training was done by games, simple games arousing intelligence, leading
up to elaborate games demanding skill of hand and eye. He challenged the
whole army system of discipline imposed by authority by a new system
of self-discipline based upon interest and instinct. His results
were startling, and men who had been dumb, blear-eyed, dejected,
shell-shocked wrecks of life were changed quite quickly into bright,
cheery fellows, with laughter in their eyes.

“It’s a pity,” he said, “they have to go off again and be shot to
pieces. I cure them only to be killed--but that’s not my fault. It’s the
fault of war.”

It was Colonel Campbell who discovered “Willie Woodbine,” the fighting
parson and soldier’s poet, who was the leading member of a traveling
troupe of thick-eared thugs. They gave pugilistic entertainments to
tired men. Each of them had one thick ear. Willie Woodbine had two. They
fought one another with science (as old professionals) and challenged
any man in the crowd. Then one of them played the violin and drew the
soul out of soldiers who seemed mere animals, and after another fight
Willie Woodbine stepped up and talked of God, and war, and the weakness
of men, and the meaning of courage. He held all those fellows in his
hand, put a spell on them, kept them excited by a new revelation, gave
them, poor devils, an extra touch of courage to face the menace that was
ahead of them when they went to the trenches again.



XI


Our men were not always in the trenches. As the New Army grew in numbers
reliefs were more frequent than in the old days, when battalions held
the line for long spells, until their souls as well as their bodies were
sunk in squalor. Now in the summer of 1915 it was not usual for men to
stay in the line for more than three weeks at a stretch, and they came
back to camps and billets, where there was more sense of life, though
still the chance of death from long-range guns. Farther back still, as
far back as the coast, and all the way between the sea and the edge of
war, there were new battalions quartered in French and Flemish villages,
so that every cottage and farmstead, villa, and chateau was inhabited
by men in khaki, who made themselves at home and established friendly
relations with civilians there unless they were too flagrant in their
robbery, or too sour in their temper, or too filthy in their habits.
Generally the British troops were popular in Picardy and Artois, and
when they left women kissed and cried, in spite of laughter, and joked
in a queer jargon of English-French. In the estaminets of France
and Flanders they danced with frowzy peasant girls to the tune of a
penny-in-the-slot piano, or, failing the girls, danced with one another.

For many years to come, perhaps for centuries, those cottages and
barns into which our men crowded will retain signs and memories of that
British occupation in the great war. Boys who afterward went forward to
the fighting-fields and stepped across the line to the world of ghosts
carved their names on wooden beams, and on the whitewashed walls
scribbled legends proclaiming that Private John Johnson was a bastard;
or that a certain battalion was a rabble of ruffians; or that Kaiser
Bill would die on the gallows, illustrating those remarks with portraits
and allegorical devices, sketchily drawn, but vivid and significant.

The soldier in the house learned quite a lot of French, with which
he made his needs understood by the elderly woman who cooked for his
officers’ mess. He could say, with a fine fluency, “Ou est le blooming
couteau?” or “Donnez-moi le bally fourchette, s’il vous plait, madame.”
 It was not beyond his vocabulary to explain that “Les pommes de terre
frites are absolument all right if only madame will tenir ses cheveux
on.” In the courtyards of ancient farmhouses, so old in their timbers
and gables that the Scottish bodyguard of Louis XI may have passed them
on their way to Paris, modern Scots with khaki-covered kilts pumped up
the water from old wells, and whistled “I Know a Lassie” to the girl who
brought the cattle home, and munched their evening rations while Sandy
played a “wee bit” on the pipes to the peasant--folk who gathered at
the gate. Such good relations existed between the cottagers and their
temporary guests that one day, for instance, when a young friend of mine
came back from a long spell in the trenches (his conversation was of
dead men, flies, bombs, lice, and hell), the old lady who had given him
her best bedroom at the beginning of the war flung her arms about him
and greeted him like a long-lost son. To a young Guardsman, with
his undeveloped mustache on his upper lip, her demonstrations were
embarrassing.

It was one of the paradoxes of the war that beauty lived but a mile or
two away from hideous squalor. While men in the lines lived in dugouts
and marched down communicating trenches thigh-high, after rainy
weather, in mud and water, and suffered the beastliness of the primitive
earth-men, those who were out of the trenches, turn and turn about, came
back to leafy villages and drilled in fields all golden with buttercups,
and were not too uncomfortable in spite of overcrowding in dirty barns.



There was more than comfort in some of the headquarters where our
officers were billeted in French chateaux. There was a splendor of
surroundings which gave a graciousness and elegance to the daily life of
that extraordinary war in which men fought as brutally as in prehistoric
times. I knew scores of such places, and went through gilded gates
emblazoned with noble coats of arms belonging to the days of the Sun
King, or farther back to the Valois, and on my visits to generals
and their staffs stood on long flights of steps which led up to old
mansions, with many towers and turrets, surrounded by noble parks and
ornamental waters and deep barns in which five centuries of harvests had
been stored. From one of the archways here one might see in the mind’s
eye Mme. de Pompadour come out with a hawk on her wrist, or even Henri
de Navarre with his gentlemen-at-arms, all their plumes alight in the
sun as they mounted their horses for a morning’s boar-hunt.

It was surprising at first when a young British officer came out and
said, “Toppin’ morning,” or, “Any news from the Dardanelles?” There
was something incongruous about this habitation of French chiteaux by
British officers with their war-kit. The strangeness of it made me laugh
in early days of first impressions, when I went through the rooms of one
of those old historic houses, well within range of the German guns with
a brigade major. It was the Chateau de Henencourt, near Albert.

“This is the general’s bedroom,” said the brigade major, opening a door
which led off a gallery, in which many beautiful women of France and
many great nobles of the old regime looked down from their gilt frames.

The general had a nice bed to sleep in. In such a bed Mme. du Barry
might have stretched her arms and yawned, or the beautiful Duchesse de
Mazarin might have held her morning levee. A British general, with his
bronzed face and bristly mustache, would look a little strange under
that blue-silk canopy, with rosy cherubs dancing overhead on the
flowered ceiling. His top-boots and spurs stood next to a Louis Quinze
toilet-table. His leather belts and field-glasses lay on the polished
boards beneath the tapestry on which Venus wooed Adonis and Diana
went a-hunting. In other rooms no less elegantly rose-tinted or darkly
paneled other officers had made a litter of their bags, haversacks,
rubber baths, trench--boots, and puttees. At night the staff sat down
to dinner in a salon where the portraits of a great family of France, in
silks and satins and Pompadour wigs, looked down upon their khaki.
The owner of the chateau, in whose veins flowed the blood of those old
aristocrats, was away with his regiment, in which he held the rank of
corporal. His wife, the Comtesse de Henencourt, managed the estate, from
which all the men-servants except the veterans had been mobilized. In
her own chateau she kept one room for herself, and every morning came
in from the dairies, where she had been working with her maids, to say,
with her very gracious smile, to the invaders of her house: “Bon jour,
messieurs! Ca va bien?”

She hid any fear she had under the courage of her smile. Poor chateaux
of France! German shells came to knock down their painted turrets, to
smash through the ceilings where the rosy Cupids played, and in one hour
or two to ruin the beauty that had lived through centuries of pride.

Scores of them along the line of battle were but heaps of brick-dust and
twisted iron.

I saw the ruins of the Chateau de Henencourt two years after my first
visit there. The enemy’s line had come closer to it and it was a target
for their guns. Our guns--heavy and light--were firing from the back
yard and neighboring fields, with deafening tumult. Shells had already
broken the roofs and turrets of the chateau and torn away great chunks
of wall. A colonel of artillery had his headquarters in the petit salon.
His hand trembled as he greeted me.

“I’m not fond of this place,” he said. “The whole damn thing will come
down on my head at any time. I think I shall take to the cellars.”

We walked out to the courtyard and he showed me the way down to the
vault. A shell came over the chateau and burst in the outhouses.

“They knocked out a 9.2 a little while ago,” said the colonel. “Made a
mess of some heavy gunners.”

There was a sense of imminent death about us, but it was not so sinister
a place as farther on, where a brother of mine sat in a hole directing
his battery... The Countess of Henencourt had gone. She went away with
her dairymaids, driving her cattle down the roads.



XII


One of the most curious little schools of courage inhabited by British
soldiers in early days was the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, which we took
over from the French, who were our next-door neighbors at the village of
Frise in the summer of ‘15. After the foul conditions of the salient it
seemed unreal and fantastic, with a touch of romance not found in other
places. Strange as it seemed, the village garrisoned by our men was in
advance of our trench lines, with nothing dividing them from the enemy
but a little undergrowth--and the queerest part of it all was the sense
of safety, the ridiculously false security with which one could wander
about the village and up the footpath beyond, with the knowledge that
one’s movements were being watched by German eyes and that the whole
place could be blown off the face of the earth... but for the convenient
fact that the Germans, who were living in the village of Curlu, beyond
the footpath, were under our own observation and at the mercy of our own
guns.

That sounded like a fairy-tale to men who, in other places, could not go
over the parapet of the first-line trenches, or even put their heads up
for a single second, without risking instant death.

I stood on a hill here, with a French interpreter and one of his men. A
battalion of loyal North Lancashires was some distance away, but after
an exchange of compliments in an idyllic glade, where a party of
French soldiers lived in the friendliest juxtaposition with the British
infantry surrounding them--it was a cheery bivouac among the trees, with
the fragrance of a stew-pot mingling with the odor of burning wood--the
lieutenant insisted upon leading the way to the top of the hill.

He made a slight detour to point out a German shell which had fallen
there without exploding, and made laughing comments upon the harmless,
futile character of those poor Germans in front of us. They did their
best to kill us, but oh, so feebly!

Yet when I took a pace toward the shell he called out, sharply, “Ne
touchez pas!” I would rather have touched a sleeping tiger than that
conical piece of metal with its unexploded possibilities, but bent low
to see the inscriptions on it, scratched by French gunners with wore
recklessness of death. Mort aux Boches was scrawled upon it between the
men’s initials.

Then we came to the hill-crest and to the last of our trenches, and,
standing there, looked down upon the villages of Vaux and Curlu,
separated by a piece of marshy water. In the farthest village were the
Germans, and in the nearest, just below us down the steep cliff, our own
men. Between the two there was a narrow causeway across the marsh and a
strip of woods half a rifle-shot in length.

Behind, in a sweeping semicircle round their village and ours, were the
German trenches and the German guns. I looked into the streets of both
villages as clearly as one may see into Clovelly village from the crest
of the hill. In Vaux-sur-Somme a few British soldiers were strolling
about. One was sitting on the window-sill of a cottage, kicking up his
heels.

In the German village of Curlu the roadways were concealed by the
perspective of the houses, with their gables and chimney-stacks, so that
I could not see any passers--by. But at the top of the road, going out
of the village and standing outside the last house on the road, was a
solitary figure--a German sentry.

The French lieutenant pointed to a thin mast away from the village on
the hillside.

“Do you see that? That is their flagstaff. They hoist their flag for
victories. It wagged a good deal during the recent Russian fighting. But
lately they have not had the cheek to put it up.”

This interpreter--the Baron de Rosen--laughed very heartily at that
naked pole on the hill.

Then I left him and joined our own men, and went down a steep hill
into Vaux, well outside our line of trenches, and thrust forward as
an outpost in the marsh. German eyes could see me as I walked. At any
moment those little houses about me might have been smashed into rubbish
heaps. But no shells came to disturb the waterfowl among the reeds
around.

And so it was that the life in this place was utterly abnormal, and
while the guns were silent except for long--range fire, an old-fashioned
mode of war--what the adjutant of this little outpost called a
“gentlemanly warfare,” prevailed. Officers and men slept within a few
hundred yards of the enemy, and the officers wore their pajamas at
night. When a fight took place it was a chivalrous excursion, such as
Sir Walter Manny would have liked, between thirty or forty men on one
side against somewhat the same number on the other.

Our men used to steal out along the causeway which crossed the marsh--a
pathway about four feet wide, broadening out in the middle, so that a
little redoubt or blockhouse was established there, then across a narrow
drawbridge, then along the path again until they came to the thicket
which screened the German village of Curlu.

It sometimes happened that a party of Germans were creeping forward from
the other direction, in just the same way, disguised in party-colored
clothes splashed with greens and reds and browns to make them invisible
between the trees, with brown masks over their faces. Then suddenly
contact was made.

Into the silence of the wood came the sharp crack of rifles, the zip-zip
of bullets, the shouts of men who had given up the game of invisibility.
It was a sharp encounter one night when the Loyal North Lancashires held
the village of Vaux, and our men brought back many German helmets and
other trophies as proofs of victory. Then to bed in the village, and a
good night’s rest, as when English knights fought the French, not
far from these fields, as chronicled in the pages of that early war
correspondent, Sir John Froissart.

All was quiet when I went along the causeway and out into the wood,
where the outposts stood listening for any crack of a twig which might
betray a German footstep. I was startled when I came suddenly upon
two men, almost invisible, against the tree-trunks. There they stood,
motionless, with their rifles ready, peering through the brushwood. If I
had followed the path on which they stood for just a little way I should
have walked into the German village. But, on the other hand, I should
not have walked back again....

When I left the village, and climbed up the hill to our own trenches
again, I laughed aloud at the fantastic visit to that grim little
outpost in the marsh. If all the war had been like this it would have
been more endurable for men who had no need to hide in holes in the
earth, nor crouch for three months below ground, until an hour or two of
massacre below a storm of high explosives. In the village on the marsh
men fought at least against other men, and not against invisible powers
which belched forth death.

It was part of the French system of “keeping quiet” until the turn of
big offensives; a good system, to my mind, if not carried too far.
At Frise, next door to Vaux, in a loop of the Somme, it was carried a
little too far, with relaxed vigilance.

It was a joke of our soldiers to crawl on and through the reeds and
enter the French line and exchange souvenirs with the sentries.

“Souvenir!” said one of them one day. “Bullet--you know--cartouche.
Comprenny?”

A French poilu of Territorials, who had been dozing, sat up with a grin
and said, “Mais oui, mon vieux,” and felt in his pouch for a cartridge,
and then in his pockets, and then in the magazine of the rifle between
his knees.

“Fini!” he said. “Tout fini, mon p’tit camarade.”

The Germans one day made a pounce on Frise, that little village in the
loop of the Somme, and “pinched” every man of the French garrison. There
was the devil to pay, and I heard it being played to the tune of the
French soixante-quinzes, slashing over the trees.

Vaux and Curlu went the way of all French villages in the zone of war,
when the battles of the Somme began, and were blown off the map.



XIII


At a place called the Pont de Nieppe, beyond Armentieres--a most
“unhealthy” place in later years of war--a bathing establishment was
organized by officers who were as proud of their work as though they had
brought a piece of paradise to Flanders. To be fair to them, they had
done that. To any interested visitor, understanding the nobility of
their work, they exhibited a curious relic. It was the Holy Shirt of
Nieppe, which should be treasured as a memorial in our War Museum--an
object-lesson of what the great war meant to clean-living men. It was
not a saint’s shirt, but had been worn by a British officer in the
trenches, and was like tens of thousands of other shirts worn by our
officers and men in the first winters of the war, neither better nor
worse, but a fair average specimen. It had been framed in a glass case,
and revealed, on its linen, the corpses of thousands of lice. That
vermin swarmed upon the bodies of all our boys who went into the
trenches and tortured them. After three days they were lousy from head
to foot. After three weeks they were walking menageries. To English
boys from clean homes, to young officers who had been brought up in the
religion of the morning tub, this was one of the worst horrors of war.
They were disgusted with themselves. Their own bodies were revolting to
them. Scores of times I have seen battalions of men just out of battle
stripping themselves and hunting in their shirts for the foul beast.
They had a technical name for this hunter’s job. They called
it “chatting.” They desired a bath as the hart panteth for the
water--brooks, and baths were but a mirage of the brain to men in
Flanders fields and beyond the Somme, until here and there, as at
Nieppe, officers with human sympathy organized a system by which
battalions of men could wash their bodies.

The place in Nieppe had been a jute-factory, and there were big tubs in
the sheds, and nearby was the water of the Lys. Boilers were set going
to heat the water. A battalion’s shirts were put into an oven and the
lice were baked and killed. It was a splendid thing to see scores of
boys wallowing in those big tubs, six in a tub, with a bit of soap for
each. They gave little grunts and shouts of joyous satisfaction. The
cleansing water, the liquid heat, made their flesh tingle with exquisite
delight, sensuous and spiritual. They were like children. They splashed
one another, with gurgles of laughter. They put their heads under water
and came up puffing and blowing like grampuses. Something broke in one’s
heart to see them, those splendid boys whose bodies might soon be torn
to tatters by chunks of steel. One of them remembered a bit of Latin
he had sung at Stonyhurst: “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor;
lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.” (“Thou shalt sprinkle me with
hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me, and I shall
be made whiter than snow.”)

On the other side of the lines the Germans were suffering in the same
way, lousy also, and they, too, were organizing bath-houses. After their
first retreat I saw a queer name on a wooden shed: Entlausunganstalt. I
puzzled over it a moment, and then understood. It was a new word created
out of the dirt of modern war--“Delousing station.”



XIV


It was harvest-time in the summer of ‘15, and Death was not the only
reaper who went about the fields, although he was busy and did not rest
even when the sun had flamed down below the belt of trees on the far
ridge, and left the world in darkness.

On a night in August two of us stood in a cornfield, silent, under the
great dome, staring up at the startling splendor of it. The red ball
just showed above the far line of single trees which were black as
charcoal on the edge of a long, straight road two miles away, and from
its furnace there were flung a million feathers of flame against the
silk-blue canopy of the evening sky. The burning colors died out in
a few minutes, and the fields darkened, and all the corn-shocks paled
until they became quite white, like rows of tents, under the harvest
moon. Another night had come in this year of war.

Up Ypres way the guns were busy, and at regular intervals the earth
trembled, and the air vibrated with dull, thunderous shocks.

“The moon’s face looks full of irony to-night,” said the man by my side.
“It seems to say, `What fools those creatures are down there, spoiling
their harvest-time with such a mess of blood!’”

The stars were very bright in some of those Flemish nights. I saw the
Milky Way clearly tracked across the dark desert. The Pleiades and
Orion’s belt were like diamonds on black velvet. But among all these
worlds of light other stars, unknown to astronomers, appeared and
disappeared. On the road back from a French town one night I looked
Arras way, and saw what seemed a bursting planet. It fell with a scatter
of burning pieces. Then suddenly the thick cloth of the night was rent
with stabs of light, as though flashing swords were hacking it, and a
moment later a finger of white fire was traced along the black edge of
the far-off woods, so that the whole sky was brightened for a moment
and then was blotted out by a deeper darkness... Arras was being shelled
again, as I saw it many times in those long years of war.

The darkness of all the towns in the war zone was rather horrible. Their
strange, intense quietude, when the guns were not at work, made them
dead, as the very spirit of a town dies on the edge of war. One night,
as on many others, I walked through one of them with a friend. Every
house was shuttered, and hardly a gleam came through any crack. No
footstep, save our own, told of life. The darkness was almost palpable.
It seemed to press against one’s eyeballs like a velvet mask. My nerves
were so on edge with a sense of the uncanny silence and invisibility
that I started violently at the sound of a quiet voice speaking three
inches from my ear.

“Halte! Qui va la?”

It was a French sentry, who stood with his back to the wall of a house
in such a gulf of blackness that not even his bayonet was revealed by a
glint.

Another day of war came. The old beauty of the world was there, close
to the lines of the bronzed cornfields splashed with the scarlet of
poppies, and the pale yellow of the newly cut sheaves, stretching away
and away, without the break of a hedge, to the last slopes which met the
sky.

I stood in some of those harvest-fields, staring across to a slope of
rising ground where there was no ripening wheat, and where the grass
itself came to a sudden halt, as though afraid of something. I knew the
reason of this, and of the long white lines of earth thrown up for miles
each way. Those were the parapets of German trenches, and in the ditches
below them were earth-men, armed with deadly weapons, staring out across
the beauty of France and wondering, perhaps, why they should be there
to mar it, and watching me, a little black dot in their range of vision,
with an idle thought as to whether it were worth their while to let a
bullet loose and end my walk. They could have done so easily, but did
not bother. No shot or shell came to break through the hum of bees or
to crash through the sigh of the wind, which was bending all the ears of
corn to listen to the murmurous insect-life in these fields of France.

Close to me was a group of peasants--a study for a painter like Millet.
One of them shouted out to me, “Voilà les Boches!” waving his arm to
left and right, and then shaking a clenched fist at them.

A sturdy girl with a brown throat showing through an open bodice munched
an apple, like Audrey in “As You Like It,” and between her bites told
me that she had had a brother killed in the war, and that she had been
nearly killed herself, a week ago, by shells that came bursting all
round her as she was tying up her sheaves (she pointed to great holes
in the field), and described the coming of the Germans into her village
over there, when she had lied to some Uhlans about the whereabouts of
French soldiers and had given one of those fat Germans a blow on the
face when he had tried to make love to her in her father’s barn. Her
mother had been raped.

In further fields out of view of the German trenches, but well within
shell-range, the harvesting was being done by French soldiers. One of
them was driving the reaping--machine and looked like a gunner on his
limber, with his kepi thrust to the back of his head. The trousers of
his comrades were as red as the poppies that grew on the edge of the
wheat, and three of these poilus had ceased their work to drink out of a
leather wine-bottle which had been replenished from a hand-cart. It was
a pretty scene if one could forget the grim purpose which had put those
harvesters in uniform.

The same thought was in the mind of a British officer.

“A beautiful country, this,” he said. “It’s a pity to cut it up with
trenches and barbed wire.”

Battalions of New Army men were being reviewed but a furlong or two away
from that Invisible Man who was wielding a scythe which had no mercy
for unripe wheat. Out of those lines of eyes stared the courage of men’s
souls, not shirking the next ordeal.

It was through red ears of corn, in that summer of ‘15, that one found
one’s way to many of the trenches that marked the boundary-lines of the
year’s harvesting, and in Belgium (by Kemmel Hill) the shells of our
batteries, answered by German guns, came with their long-drawn howls of
murder across the heads of peasant women who were gleaning, with bent
backs.

In Plug Street Wood the trees had worn thin under showers of shrapnel,
but the long avenues between the trenches were cool and pleasant in the
heat of the day. It was one of the elementary schools where many of our
soldiers learned the A B C of actual warfare after their training in
camps behind the lines. Here one might sport with Amaryllis in the
shade, but for the fact that country wenches were not allowed in the
dugouts and trenches, where I found our soldiers killing flies in the
intervals between pot-shots at German periscopes.

The enemy was engaged, presumably, in the same pursuit of killing time
and life (with luck), and sniping was hot on both sides, so that the
wood resounded with sharp reports as though hard filbert nuts were being
cracked by giant teeth. Each time I went there one of our men was hit by
a sniper, and his body was carried off for burial as I went toward the
first line of trenches, hoping that my shadow would not fall across
a German periscope. The sight of that dead body passing chilled one a
little. There were many graves in the bosky arbors--eighteen under one
mound--but some of those who had fallen six months before still lay
where the gleaners could not reach them.

I used to peer through the leaves of Plug Street Wood at No Man’s Land
between the lines, where every creature had been killed by the sweeping
flail of machine-guns and shrapnel. Along the harvest-fields there were
many barren territories like that, and up by Hooge, along the edge of
the fatal crater, and behind the stripped trees of Zouave Wood there
was no other gleaning to be had but that of broken shells and shrapnel
bullets and a litter of limbs.



XV


For some time the War Office would not allow military bands at the
front, not understanding that music was like water to parched souls.
By degrees divisional generals realized the utter need of entertainment
among men dulled and dazed by the routine of war, and encouraged
“variety” shows, organized by young officers who had been amateur actors
before the war, who searched around for likely talent. There was
plenty of it in the New Army, including professional “funny men,” trick
cyclists, conjurers, and singers of all kinds. So by the summer of ‘15
most of the divisions had their dramatic entertainments: “The Follies,”
 “The Bow Bells,” “The Jocks,” “The Pip-Squeaks,” “The Whizz-Bangs,” “The
Diamonds,” “The Brass Hats,” “The Verey Lights,” and many others with
fancy names.

I remember going to one of the first of them in the village of Acheux,
a few miles from the German lines. It was held in an old sugar-factory,
and I shall long remember the impressions of the place, with seven or
eight hundred men sitting in the gloom of that big, broken, barn-like
building, where strange bits of machinery looked through the darkness,
and where through gashes in the walls stars twinkled.

There was a smell of clay and moist sugar and tarpaulins and damp khaki,
and chloride of lime, very pungent in one’s nostrils, and when the
curtain went up on a well--fitted stage and “The Follies” began their
performance, the squalor of the place did not matter. What mattered
was the enormous whimsicality of the Bombardier at the piano, and the
outrageous comicality of a tousle-haired soldier with a red nose, who
described how he had run away from Mons “with the rest of you,” and the
light--heartedness of a performance which could have gone straight to a
London music-hall and brought down the house with jokes and songs made
up in dugouts and front--line trenches.

At first the audience sat silent, with glazed eyes. It was difficult to
get a laugh out of them. The mud of the trenches was still on them. They
stank of the trenches, and the stench was in their souls. Presently they
began to brighten up. Life came back into their eyes. They laughed!...
Later, from this audience of soldiers there were yells of laughter,
though the effect of shells arriving at unexpected moments, in untoward
circumstances, was a favorite theme of the jesters. Many of the men were
going into the trenches that night again, and there would be no fun
in the noise of the shells, but they went more gaily and with stronger
hearts, I am sure, because of the laughter which had roared through the
old sugar--factory.

A night or two later I went to another concert and heard the same gaiety
of men who had been through a year of war. It was in an open field,
under a velvety sky studded with innumerable stars. Nearly a thousand
soldiers trooped through the gates and massed before the little canvas
theater. In front a small crowd of Flemish children squatted on the
grass, not understanding a word of the jokes, but laughing in shrill
delight at the antics of soldier-Pierrots. The corner-man was a funny
fellow, and his by-play with a stout Flemish woman round the flap of the
canvas screen, to whom he made amorous advances while his comrades were
singing sentimental ballads, was truly comic. The hit of the evening was
when an Australian behind the stage gave an unexpected imitation of a
laughing-jackass.

There was something indescribably weird and wild and grotesque in that
prolonged cry of cackling, unnatural mirth. An Australian by my side
said: “Well done! Exactly right!” and the Flemish children shrieked
with joy, without understanding the meaning of the noise. Old, old songs
belonging to the early Victorian age were given by the soldiers, who had
great emotion and broke down sometimes in the middle of a verse. There
were funny men dressed in the Widow Twankey style, or in burlesque
uniforms, who were greeted with yells of laughter by their comrades. An
Australian giant played some clever card tricks, and another Australian
recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” with splendid fire. And between every
“turn” the soldiers in the field roared out a chorus:

“Jolly good song, Jolly well sung. If you can think of a better you’re
welcome to try. But don’t forget the singer is dry; Give the poor beggar
some beer!”

A touring company of mouth-organ musicians was having a great success
in the war zone. But, apart from all those organized methods of mirth,
there was a funny man in every billet who played the part of court
jester, and clowned it whatever the state of the weather or the risks
of war. The British soldier would have his game of “house” or “crown and
anchor” even on the edge of the shell-storm, and his little bit of
sport wherever there was room to stretch his legs. It was a jesting army
(though some of its jokes were very grim), and those who saw, as I did,
the daily tragedy of war, never ceasing, always adding to the sum of
human suffering, were not likely to discourage that sense of humor.

A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and
penny whistles was given by the Guards in the front-line trenches near
Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion
and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans
crowded into their front line--not far away--and applauded each number.
Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:

“Play ‘Annie Laurie’ and I will sing it.”

The Guards played “Annie Laurie,” and a German officer stood up on
the parapet--the evening sun was red behind him--and sang the old song
admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.

“Let’s have another concert to-morrow!” shouted the Germans.

But there was a different kind of concert next day, and the music
was played by trench-mortars, Mills bombs, rifle-grenades, and other
instruments of death in possession of the Guards. There were cries of
agony and terror from the German trenches, and young officers of the
Guards told the story as an amusing anecdote, with loud laughter.



XVI


It was astonishing how loudly one laughed at tales of gruesome things,
of war’s brutality-I with the rest of them. I think at the bottom of it
was a sense of the ironical contrast between the normal ways of civilian
life and this hark-back to the caveman code. It made all our old
philosophy of life monstrously ridiculous. It played the “hat trick”
 with the gentility of modern manners. Men who had been brought up to
Christian virtues, who had prattled their little prayers at mothers’
knees, who had grown up to a love of poetry, painting, music, the gentle
arts, over-sensitized to the subtleties of half-tones, delicate scales
of emotion, fastidious in their choice of words, in their sense of
beauty, found themselves compelled to live and act like ape-men; and it
was abominably funny. They laughed at the most frightful episodes, which
revealed this contrast between civilized ethics and the old beast
law. The more revolting it was the more, sometimes, they shouted with
laughter, especially in reminiscence, when the tale was told in the
gilded salon of a French chateau, or at a mess-table.

It was, I think, the laughter of mortals at the trick which had been
played on them by an ironical fate. They had been taught to believe that
the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that
mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct,
cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive, savage law of survival by tooth and
claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached
this gospel and this promise.

Now that ideal had broken like a china vase dashed to hard ground. The
contrast between That and This was devastating. It was, in an enormous
world-shaking way, like a highly dignified man in a silk hat, morning
coat, creased trousers, spats, and patent boots suddenly slipping on a
piece of orange-peel and sitting, all of a heap, with silk hat flying,
in a filthy gutter. The war-time humor of the soul roared with mirth at
the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.

So we laughed merrily, I remember, when a military chaplain (Eton,
Christ Church, and Christian service) described how an English sergeant
stood round the traverse of a German trench, in a night raid, and as
the Germans came his way, thinking to escape, he cleft one skull after
another with a steel-studded bludgeon--a weapon which he had made with
loving craftsmanship on the model of Blunderbore’s club in the pictures
of a fairy-tale.

So we laughed at the adventures of a young barrister (a brilliant fellow
in the Oxford “Union”) whose pleasure it was to creep out o’ nights into
No Man’s Land and lie doggo in a shell-hole close to the enemy’s barbed
wire, until presently, after an hour’s waiting or two, a German soldier
would crawl out to fetch in a corpse. The English barrister lay with his
rifle ready. Where there had been one corpse there were two. Each night
he made a notch on his rifle--three notches one night--to check the
number of his victims. Then he came back to breakfast in his dugout with
a hearty appetite.

In one section of trenches the men made a habit of betting upon
those who would be wounded first. It had all the uncertainty of the
roulette-table... One day, when the German gunners were putting over a
special dose of hate, a sergeant kept coming to one dugout to inquire
about a “new chum,” who had come up with the drafts.

“Is Private Smith all right?” he asked.

“Yes, Sergeant, he’s all right,” answered the men crouching in the dark
hole.

“Private Smith isn’t wounded yet?” asked the, sergeant again, five
minutes later.

“No, Sergeant.”

Private Smith was touched by this interest in his well-being.

“That sergeant seems a very kind man,” said the boy. “Seems to love me
like a father!”

A yell of laughter answered him.

“You poor, bleeding fool!” said one of his comrades. “He’s drawn you in
a lottery! Stood to win if you’d been hit.”

In digging new trenches and new dugouts, bodies and bits of bodies were
unearthed, and put into sand-bags with the soil that was sent back down
a line of men concealing their work from German eyes waiting for any new
activity in our ditches.

“Bit of Bill,” said the leading man, putting in a leg.

“Another bit of Bill,” he said, unearthing a hand.

“Bill’s ugly mug,” he said at a later stage in the operations, when a
head was found.

As told afterward, that little episode in the trenches seemed immensely
comic. Generals chuckled over it. Chaplains treasured it.

How we used to guffaw at the answer of the cockney soldier who met a
German soldier with his hands up, crying: “Kamerad! Kamerad! Mercy!”

“Not so much of your ‘Mercy, Kamerad,’” said the cockney. “‘And us over
your bloody ticker!”

It was the man’s watch he wanted, without sentiment.

One tale was most popular, most mirth-arousing in the early days of the
war.

“Where’s your prisoner?” asked an Intelligence officer waiting to
receive a German sent down from the trenches under escort of an honest
corporal.

“I lost him on the way, sir,” said the corporal.

“Lost him?”

The corporal was embarrassed.

“Very sorry, sir. My feelings overcame me, sir. It was like this, sir.
The man started talking on the way down. Said he was thinking of his
poor wife. I’d been thinking of mine, and I felt sorry for him. Then he
mentioned as how he had two kiddies at home. I ‘ave two kiddies at ‘ome,
sir, and I couldn’t ‘elp feeling sorry for him. Then he said as how his
old mother had died awhile ago and he’d never see her again. When he
started cryin’ I was so sorry for him I couldn’t stand it any longer,
sir. So I killed the poor blighter.”

Our men in the trenches, and out of them, up to the waist in water
sometimes, lying in slimy dugouts, lice--eaten, rat-haunted, on the
edge of mine-craters, under harassing fire, with just the fluke of luck
between life and death, seized upon any kind of joke as an excuse for
laughter, and many a time in ruins and in trenches and in dugouts I have
heard great laughter. It was the protective armor of men’s souls. They
knew that if they did not laugh their courage would go and nothing would
stand between them and fear.

“You know, sir,” said a sergeant-major, one day, when I walked with him
down a communication trench so waterlogged that my top-boots were full
of slime, “it doesn’t do to take this war seriously.”

And, as though in answer to him, a soldier without breeches and with
his shirt tied between his legs looked at me and remarked, in a
philosophical way, with just a glint of comedy in his eyes:

“That there Grand Fleet of ours don’t seem to be very active, sir. It’s
a pity it don’t come down these blinkin’ trenches and do a bit of work!”

“Having a clean-up, my man?” said a brigadier to a soldier trying to
wash in a basin about the size of a kitchen mug.

“Yes, sir,” said the man, “and I wish I was a blasted canary.”

One of the most remarkable battles on the front was fought by a
battalion of Worcesters for the benefit of two English members of
Parliament. It was not a very big battle, but most dramatic while it
lasted. The colonel (who had a sense of humor) arranged it after a
telephone message to his dugout telling him that two politicians were
about to visit his battalion in the line, and asking him to show them
something interesting.

“Interesting?” said the colonel. “Do they think this war is a peep-show
for politicians? Do they want me to arrange a massacre to make a London
holiday?” Then his voice changed and he laughed. “Show them something
interesting? Oh, all right; I dare say I can do that.”

He did. When the two M. P.’s arrived, apparently at the front-line
trenches, they were informed by the colonel that, much to his regret,
for their sake, the enemy was just attacking, and that his men were
defending their position desperately.

“We hope for the best,” he said, “and I think there is just a chance
that you will escape with your lives if you stay here quite quietly.”

“Great God!” said one of the M. P.’s, and the other was silent, but
pale.

Certainly there was all the noise of a big attack. The Worcesters were
standing-to on the fire-step, firing rifle--grenades and throwing
bombs with terrific energy. Every now and then a man fell, and the
stretcher-bearers pounced on him, tied him up in bandages, and carried
him away to the field dressing-station, whistling as they went, “We
won’t go home till morning,” in a most heroic way... The battle lasted
twenty minutes, at the end of which time the colonel announced to his
visitors:

“The attack is repulsed, and you, gentlemen, have nothing more to fear.”

One of the M. P.’s was thrilled with excitement. “The valor of your men
was marvelous,” he said. “What impressed me most was the cheerfulness
of the wounded. They were actually grinning as they came down on the
stretchers.”

The colonel grinned, too. In fact, he stifled a fit of coughing. “Funny
devils!” he said. “They are so glad to be going home.”

The members of Parliament went away enormously impressed, but they had
not enjoyed themselves nearly as well as the Worcesters, who had fought
a sham battle--not in the front-line trenches, but in the support
trenches two miles back! They laughed for a week afterward.



XVII


On the hill at Wizerne, not far from the stately old town of St.-Omer
(visited from time to time by monstrous nightbirds who dropped
high-explosive eggs), was a large convent. There were no nuns there, but
generally some hundreds of young officers and men from many different
battalions, attending a machine-gun course under the direction of
General Baker-Carr, who was the master machine-gunner of the British
army (at a time when we were very weak in those weapons compared with
the enemy’s strength) and a cheery, vital man.

“This war has produced two great dugouts,” said Lord Kitchener on a
visit to the convent. “Me and Baker-Carr.”

It was the boys who interested me more than the machines. (I was never
much interested in the machinery of war.) They came down from the
trenches to this school with a sense of escape from prison, and for the
ten days of their course they were like “freshers” at Oxford and made
the most of their minutes, organizing concerts and other entertainments
in the evenings after their initiation into the mysteries of Vickers
and Lewis. I was invited to dinner there one night, and sat between two
young cavalry officers on long benches crowded with subalterns of many
regiments. It was a merry meal and a good one--to this day I remember a
potato pie, gloriously baked, and afterward, as it was the last night
of the course, all the officers went wild and indulged in a “rag” of the
public-school kind. They straddled across the benches and barged at
each other in single tourneys and jousts, riding their hobby-horses with
violent rearings and plungings and bruising one another without grievous
hurt and with yells of laughter. Glasses broke, crockery crashed upon
the polished boards. One boy danced the Highland fling on the tables,
others were waltzing down the corridors. There was a Rugby scrum in the
refectory, and hunting-men cried the “View halloo!” and shouted “Yoicks!
yoicks!” ... General Baker-Carr was a human soul, and kept to his own
room that night and let discipline go hang....

When the battles of the Somme began it was those young officers who
led their machine-gun sections into the woods of death--Belville Wood,
Mametz Wood, High Wood, and the others. It was they who afterward held
the outpost lines in Flanders. Some of them were still alive on March
21, 1918, when they were surrounded by a sea of Germans and fought until
the last, in isolated redoubts north and south of St.-Quentin. Two of
them are still alive, those between whom I sat at dinner that night,
and who escaped many close calls of death before the armistice. Of
the others who charged one another with wooden benches, their laughter
ringing out, some were blown to bits, and some were buried alive, and
some were blinded and gassed, and some went “missing” for evermore.



XVIII


In those long days of trench warfare and stationary lines it was boredom
that was the worst malady of the mind; a large, overwhelming boredom to
thousands of men who were in exile from the normal interests of life and
from the activities of brain-work; an intolerable, abominable boredom,
sapping the will-power, the moral code, the intellect; a boredom from
which there seemed no escape except by death, no relief except by vice,
no probable or possible change in its dreary routine. It was bad enough
in the trenches, where men looked across the parapet to the same corner
of hell day by day, to the same dead bodies rotting by the edge of the
same mine-crater, to the same old sand-bags in the enemy’s line, to the
blasted tree sliced by shell-fire, the upturned railway--truck of which
only the metal remained, the distant fringe of trees like gallows on the
sky-line, the broken spire of a church which could be seen in the
round O of the telescope when the weather was not too misty. In “quiet”
 sections of the line the only variation to the routine was the number
of casualties day by day, by casual shell-fire or snipers’ bullets, and
that became part of the boredom. “What casualties?” asked the adjutant
in his dugout.

“Two killed, three wounded, sir.”

“Very well... You can go.”

A salute in the doorway of the dugout, a groan from the adjutant
lighting another cigarette, leaning with his elbow on the deal table,
staring at the guttering of the candle by his side, at the pile of forms
in front of him, at the glint of light on the steel helmet hanging
by its strap on a nail near the shelf where he kept his safety-razor,
flash--lamp, love-letters (in an old cigar-box), soap, whisky--bottle
(almost empty now), and an unread novel.

“Hell!... What a life!”

But there was always work to do, and odd incidents, and frights, and
responsibilities.

It was worse--this boredom--for men behind the lines; in lorry columns
which went from rail-head to dump every damned morning, and back again
by the middle of the morning, and then nothing else to do for all the
day, in a cramped little billet with a sulky woman in the kitchen, and
squealing children in the yard, and a stench of manure through the small
window. A dull life for an actor who had toured in England and America
(like one I met dazed and stupefied by years of boredom--paying too much
for safety), or for a barrister who had many briefs before the war and
now found his memory going, though a young man, because of the narrow
limits of his life between one Flemish village and another, which was
the length of his lorry column and of his adventure of war. Nothing ever
happened to break the monotony--not even shell-fire. So it was also in
small towns like Hesdin, St.-Pol, Bruay, Lillers--a hundred others
where officers stayed for years in charge of motor-repair shops,
ordnance-stores, labor battalions, administration offices, claim
commissions, graves’ registration, agriculture for soldiers, all kinds
of jobs connected with that life of war, but not exciting.

Not exciting. So frightful in boredom that men were tempted to take to
drink, to look around for unattached women, to gamble at cards with
any poor devil like themselves. Those were most bored who were
most virtuous. For them, with an ideal in their souls, there was no
possibility of relief (for virtue is not its own reward), unless they
were mystics, as some became, who found God good company and needed no
other help. They had rare luck, those fellows with an astounding faith
which rose above the irony and the brutality of that business being done
in the trenches, but there were few of them.

Even with hours of leisure, men who had been “bookish” could not read.
That was a common phenomenon. I could read hardly at all, for years,
and thousands were like me. The most “exciting” novel was dull stuff up
against that world convulsion. What did the romance of love mean, the
little tortures of one man’s heart, or one woman’s, troubled in their
mating, when thousands of men were being killed and vast populations
were in agony? History--Greek or Roman or medieval--what was the use
of reading that old stuff, now that world history was being made with
a rush? Poetry--poor poets with their love of beauty! What did beauty
matter, now that it lay dead in the soul of the world, under the filth
of battlefields, and the dirt of hate and cruelty, and the law of the
apelike man? No--we could not read; but talked and talked about the
old philosophy of life, and the structure of society, and Democracy and
Liberty and Patriotism and Internationalism, and Brotherhood of Men, and
God, and Christian ethics; and then talked no more, because all words
were futile, and just brooded and brooded, after searching the daily
paper (two days old) for any kind of hope and light, not finding either.



XIX


At first, in the beginning of the war, our officers and men believed
that it would have a quick ending. Our first Expeditionary Force came
out to France with the cheerful shout of “Now we sha’n’t be long!”
 before they fell back from an advancing tide of Germans from Mons to the
Marne, and fell in their youth like autumn leaves. The New Army boys who
followed them were desperate to get out to “the great adventure.” They
cursed the length of their training in English camps. “We sha’n’t get
out till it’s too late!” they said. Too late, O God! Even when they
had had their first spell in the trenches and came up against German
strength they kept a queer faith, for a time, that “something” would
happen to bring peace as quickly as war had come. Peace was always
coming three months ahead. Generals and staff-officers, as well as
sergeants and privates, had that strong optimism, not based on any kind
of reason; but gradually it died out, and in its place came the awful
conviction which settled upon the hearts of the fighting-men, that
this war would go on forever, that it was their doom always to live
in ditches and dugouts, and that their only way of escape was by a
“Blighty” wound or by death.

A chaplain I knew used to try to cheer up despondent boys by pretending
to have special knowledge of inside politics.

“I have it on good authority,” he said, “that peace is near at hand.
There have been negotiations in Paris--”

Or:

“I don’t mind telling you lads that if you get through the next scrap
you will have peace before you know where you are.”

They were not believing, now. He had played that game too often.

“Old stuff, padre!” they said.

That particular crowd did not get through the next scrap. But the
padre’s authority was good. They had peace long before the armistice.

It was worst of all for boys of sensitive minds who were lucky enough
to get a “cushie” wound, and so went on and on, or who were patched up
again quickly after one, two, or three wounds, and came back again.
It was a boy like that who revealed his bitterness to me one day as we
stood together in the salient.

“It’s the length of the war,” he said, “which does one down. At first it
seemed like a big adventure, and the excitement of it, horrible though
it was, kept one going. Even the first time I went over the top wasn’t
so bad as I thought it would be. I was dazed and drunk with all sorts of
emotions, including fear, that were worse before going over. I had what
we call `the needle.’ They all have it. Afterward one didn’t know what
one was doing--even the killing part of the business--until one reached
the objective and lay down and had time to think and to count the dead
about... Now the excitement has gone out of it, and the war looks as
though it would go on forever. At first we all searched the papers for
some hope that the end was near. We don’t do that now. We know that
whenever the war ends, this year or next, this little crowd will be
mostly wiped out. Bound to be. And why are we going to die? That’s what
all of us want to know. What’s it all about? Oh yes, I know the usual
answers: ‘In defense of liberty,’ ‘To save the Empire.’ But we’ve
all lost our liberty. We’re slaves under shell-fire. And as for the
Empire--I don’t give a curse for it. I’m thinking only of my little
home at Streatham Hill. The horrible Hun? I’ve no quarrel with the poor
blighters over there by Hooge. They are in the same bloody mess as we
are. They hate it just as much. We’re all under a spell together, which
some devils have put on us. I wonder if there’s a God anywhere.”

This sense of being under a black spell I found expressed by other men,
and by German prisoners who used the same phrase. I remember one of them
in the battles of the Somme, who said, in good English: “This war was
not made in any sense by mankind. We are under a spell.” This belief was
due, I think, to the impersonal character of modern warfare, in which
gun-fire is at so long a range that shell-fire has the quality of
natural and elemental powers of death--like thunderbolts--and men killed
twenty miles behind the lines while walking over sunny fields or in
busy villages had no thought of a human enemy desiring their individual
death.

God and Christianity raised perplexities in the minds of simple lads
desiring life and not death. They could not reconcile the Christian
precepts of the chaplain with the bayoneting of Germans and the shambles
of the battlefields. All this blood and mangled flesh in the fields of
France and Flanders seemed to them--to many of them, I know--a certain
proof that God did not exist, or if He did exist was not, as they were
told, a God of Love, but a monster glad of the agonies of men. That at
least was the thought expressed to me by some London lads who argued
the matter with me one day, and that was the thought which our army
chaplains had to meet from men who would not be put off by conventional
words. It was not good enough to tell them that the Germans were guilty
of all this crime and that unless the Germans were beaten the world
would lose its liberty and life. “Yes, we know all that,” they said,
“but why did God allow the Germans, or the statesmen who arranged the
world by force, or the clergy who christened British warships? And how
is it that both sides pray to the same God for victory? There must be
something wrong somewhere.”

It was not often men talked like that, except to some chaplain who was
a human, comradely soul, some Catholic “padre” who devoted himself
fearlessly to their bodily and spiritual needs, risking his life with
them, or to some Presbyterian minister who brought them hot cocoa under
shell-fire, with a cheery word or two, as I once heard, of “Keep your
hearts up, my lads, and your heads down.”

Most of the men became fatalists, with odd superstitions in the place of
faith. “It’s no good worrying,” they said.

“If your name is written on a German shell you can’t escape it, and if
it isn’t written, nothing can touch you.”

Officers as well as men had this fatalistic belief and superstitions
which amused them and helped them. “Have the Huns found you out yet?” I
asked some gunner officers in a ruined farmhouse near Kemmel Hill. “Not
yet,” said one of them, and then they all left the table at which we
were at lunch and, making a rush for some oak beams, embraced them
ardently. They were touching wood.

“Take this with you,” said an Irish officer on a night I went to Ypres.
“It will help you as it has helped me. It’s my lucky charm.” He gave
me a little bit of coal which he carried in his tunic, and he was so
earnest about it that I took it without a smile and felt the safer for
it.

Once in a while the men went home on seven days’ leave, or four, and
then came back again, gloomily, with a curious kind of hatred of England
because the people there seemed so callous to their suffering, so
utterly without understanding, so “damned cheerful.” They hated the
smiling women in the streets. They loathed the old men who said, “If
I had six sons I would sacrifice them all in the Sacred Cause.” They
desired that profiteers should die by poison-gas. They prayed God to get
the Germans to send Zeppelins to England--to make the people know what
war meant. Their leave had done them no good at all.

From a week-end at home I stood among a number of soldiers who were
going back to the front, after one of those leaves. The boat warped away
from the pier, the M. T. O. and a small group of officers, detectives,
and Red Cross men disappeared behind an empty train, and the “revenants”
 on deck stared back at the cliffs of England across a widening strip of
sea.

“Back to the bloody old trenches,” said a voice, and the words ended
with a hard laugh. They were spoken by a young officer of the Guards,
whom I had seen on the platform of Victoria saying good-by to a pretty
woman, who had put her hand on his shoulder for a moment, and said, “Do
be careful, Desmond, for my sake!” Afterward he had sat in the corner of
his carriage, staring with a fixed gaze at the rushing countryside, but
seeing nothing of it, perhaps, as his thoughts traveled backward. (A few
days later he was blown to bits by a bomb--an accident of war.)

A little man on deck came up to me and said, in a melancholy way, “You
know who I am, don’t you, sir?”

I hadn’t the least idea who he was--this little ginger--haired
soldier with a wizened and wistful face. But I saw that he wore the
claret-colored ribbon of the V. C. on his khaki tunic. He gave me his
name, and said the papers had “done him proud,” and that they had made
a lot of him at home--presentations, receptions, speeches, Lord Mayor’s
addresses, cheering crowds, and all that. He was one of our Heroes,
though one couldn’t tell it by the look of him.

“Now I’m going back to the trenches,” he said, gloomily. “Same old
business and one of the crowd again.” He was suffering from the reaction
of popular idolatry. He felt hipped because no one made a fuss of him
now or bothered about his claret-colored ribbon. The staff-officers,
chaplains, brigade majors, regimental officers, and army nurses were
more interested in an airship, a silver fish with shining gills and a
humming song in its stomach.

France... and the beginning of what the little V. C. had called “the
same old business.” There was the long fleet of motor-ambulances as a
reminder of the ultimate business of all those young men in khaki whom
I had seen drilling in the Embankment gardens and shouldering their way
down the Strand.

Some stretchers were being carried to the lift which goes down to the
deck of the hospital-ship, on which an officer was ticking off each
wounded body after a glance at the label tied to the man’s tunic.
Several young officers lay under the blankets on those stretchers and
one of them caught my eye and smiled as I looked down upon him. The same
old business and the same old pluck.

I motored down the long, straight roads of France eastward, toward that
network of lines which are the end of all journeys after a few days’
leave, home and back again. The same old sights and sounds and smells
which, as long as memory lasts, to men who had the luck to live through
the war, will haunt them for the rest of life, and speak of Flanders.

The harvest was nearly gathered in, and where, a week or two before,
there had been fields of high, bronzed corn there were now long
stretches of stubbled ground waiting for the plow. The wheat-sheaves had
been piled into stacks or, from many great fields, carted away to
the red-roofed barns below the black old windmills whose sails were
motionless because no breath of air stirred on this September afternoon.
The smell of Flemish villages--a mingled odor of sun-baked thatch and
bakeries and manure heaps and cows and ancient vapors stored up through
the centuries--was overborne by a new and more pungent aroma which crept
over the fields with the evening haze.

It was a sad, melancholy smell, telling of corruption and death. It
was the first breath of autumn, and I shivered a little. Must there
be another winter of war? The old misery of darkness and dampness was
creeping up through the splendor of September sunshine.

Those soldiers did not seem to smell it, or, if their nostrils were
keen, to mind its menace--those soldiers who came marching down the
road, with tanned faces. How fine they looked, and how hard, and how
cheerful, with their lot! Speak to them separately and every man would
“grouse” at the duration of the war and swear that he was “fed up” with
it. Homesickness assailed them at times with a deadly nostalgia. The
hammering of shell-fire, which takes its daily toll, spoiled their
temper and shook their nerves, as far as a British soldier had
any nerves, which I used to sometimes doubt, until I saw again the
shell-shock cases.

But again I heard their laughter and an old song whistled vilely out of
tune, but cheerful to the tramp of their feet. They were going back to
the trenches after a spell in a rest-camp, to the same old business of
whizz-bangs and pip-squeaks, and dugouts, and the smell of wet clay
and chloride of lime, and the life of earth-men who once belonged to
a civilization which had passed. And they went whistling on their way,
because it was the very best thing to do.

One picked up the old landmarks again, and got back into the “feel”
 of the war zone. There were the five old windmills of Cassel that wave
their arms up the hill road, and the estaminets by which one found one’s
way down country lanes--“The Veritable Cuckoo” and “The Lost Corner” and
“The Flower of the Fields”--and the first smashed roofs and broken barns
which led to the area of constant shell-fire. Ugh!

So it was still going on, this bloody murder! There were some more
cottages down in the village, where we had tea a month before. And in
the market-place of a sleepy old town the windows were mostly broken
and some shops had gone into dust and ashes. That was new since we last
passed this way.

London was only seven hours away, but the hours on leave there seemed
a year ago already. The men who had come back, after sleeping in
civilization with a blessed sense of safety, had a few minutes of queer
surprise that, after all, this business of war was something more real
than a fantastic nightmare, and then put on their moral cloaks against
the chill and grim reality, for another long spell of it. Very quickly
the familiarity of it all came back to them and became the normal
instead of the abnormal. They were back again to the settled state of
war, as boys go back to public schools after the wrench from home, and
find that the holiday is only the incident and school the more enduring
experience.

There were no new impressions, only the repetition of old impressions.
So I found when I heard the guns again and watched the shells bursting
about Ypres and over Kemmel Ridge and Messines church tower.

Two German airplanes passed overhead, and the hum of their engines was
loud in my ears as I lay in the grass. Our shrapnel burst about them,
but did not touch their wings. All around there was the slamming
of great guns, and I sat chewing a bit of straw by the side of a
shell-hole, thinking in the same old way of the utter senselessness of
all this noise and hate and sudden death which encircled me for miles.
No amount of meditation would screw a new meaning out of it all. It was
just the commonplace of life out here.

The routine of it went on. The officer who came back from home stepped
into his old place, and after the first greeting of, “Hullo, old man!
Had a good time?” found his old job waiting for him. So there was a new
brigadier-general? Quick promotion, by Jove!

Four men had got knocked out that morning at D4, and it was rotten bad
luck that the sergeant-major should have been among them. A real good
fellow. However, there’s that court martial for this afternoon, and,
by the by, when is that timber coming up? Can’t build the new dugout if
there’s no decent wood to be got by stealing or otherwise. You heard how
the men got strafed in their billets the other day? Dirty work!

The man who had come back went into the trenches and had a word or two
with the N.C.O.’s. Then he went into his own dugout. The mice had been
getting at his papers. Oh yes, that’s where he left his pipe! It was
lying under the trestle-table, just where he dropped it before going on
leave. The clay walls were a bit wet after the rains. He stood with a
chilled feeling in this little hole of his, staring at every familiar
thing in it.

Tacked to the wall was the portrait of a woman. He said good-by to her
at Victoria Station. How long ago? Surely more than seven hours, or
seven years... Outside there were the old noises. The guns were at it
again. That was a trench-mortar. The enemy’s eight-inch howitzers were
plugging away. What a beastly row that machine-gun was making! Playing
on the same old spot. Why couldn’t they leave it alone, the asses?...
Anyhow, there was no doubt about it--he had come back again. Back to the
trenches and the same old business.

There was a mine to be blown up that night and it would make a pretty
mess in the enemy’s lines. The colonel was very cheerful about it, and
explained that a good deal of sapping had been done. “We’ve got the
bulge on ‘em,” he said, referring to the enemy’s failures in this class
of work. In the mess all the officers were carrying on as usual, making
the same old jokes.

The man who had come back got back also the spirit of the thing with
astonishing rapidity. That other life of his, away there in old London,
was shut up in the cupboard of his heart.

So it went on and on until the torture of its boredom was broken by
the crash of big battles, and the New Armies, which had been learning
lessons in the School of Courage, went forward to the great test, and
passed, with honor.



PART THREE. THE NATURE OF A BATTLE



I


In September of 1915 the Commander-in-Chief and his staff were busy with
preparations for a battle, in conjunction with the French, which had
ambitious objects. These have never been stated because they were
not gained (and it was the habit of our High Command to conceal
its objectives and minimize their importance if their hopes were
unfulfilled), but beyond doubt the purpose of the battle was to gain
possession of Lens and its coal-fields, and by striking through Hulluch
and Haisnes to menace the German occupation of Lille. On the British
front the key of the enemy’s position was Hill 70, to the north of Lens,
beyond the village of Loos, and the capture of that village and that
hill was the first essential of success.

The assault on these positions was to be made by two New Army divisions
of the 4th Corps: the 47th (London) Division, and the 15th (Scottish)
Division. They were to be supported by the 11th Corps, consisting of
the Guards and two new and untried divisions, the 21st and the 24th. The
Cavalry Corps (less the 3d Cavalry Division under General Fanshawe) was
in reserve far back at St.-Pol and Pernes; and the Indian Cavalry Corps
under General Remington was at Doullens; “to be in readiness,” wrote Sir
John French, “to co-operate with the French cavalry in exploiting any
success which might be attained by the French and British forces.”...
Oh, wonderful optimism! In that Black Country of France, scattered with
mining villages in which every house was a machine-gun fort, with slag
heaps and pit-heads which were formidable redoubts, with trenches and
barbed wire and brick-stacks, and quarries, organized for defense in
siege-warfare, cavalry might as well have ridden through hell with hope
of “exploiting” success... “Plans for effective co-operation were fully
arranged between the cavalry commanders of both armies,” wrote our
Commander-in-Chief in his despatch. I can imagine those gallant old
gentlemen devising their plans, with grave courtesy, over large maps,
and A. D. C.’s clicking heels in attendance, and an air of immense
wisdom and most cheerful assurance governing the proceedings in the
salon of a French chateau. .. The 3d Cavalry Division, less one brigade,
was assigned to the First Army as a reserve, and moved into the area of
the 4th Corps on the 2lst and 22d of September.



II


The movements of troops and the preparations for big events revealed
to every British soldier in France the “secret” of the coming battle.
Casualty clearing-stations were ordered to make ready for big numbers of
wounded. That was always one of the first signs of approaching massacre.
Vast quantities of shells were being brought up to the rail-heads and
stacked in the “dumps.” They were the first-fruit of the speeding up
of munition-factories at home after the public outcry against shell
shortage and the lack of high explosives. Well, at last the guns would
not be starved. There was enough high-explosive force available to blast
the German trenches off the map. So it seemed to our innocence--though
years afterward we knew that no bombardment would destroy all earthworks
such as Germans made, and that always machine-guns would slash our
infantry advancing over the chaos of mangled ground.

Behind our lines in France, in scores of villages where our men were
quartered, there was a sense of impending fate. Soldiers of the New Army
knew that in a little while the lessons they had learned in the School
of Courage would be put to a more frightful test than that of holding
trenches in stationary warfare. Their boredom, the intolerable monotony
of that routine life, would be broken by more sensational drama,
and some of them were glad of that, and said: “Let’s get on with it.
Anything rather than that deadly stagnation.” And others, who guessed
they were chosen for the coming battle, and had a clear vision of what
kind of things would happen (they knew something about the losses at
Neuve Chapelle and Festubert), became more thoughtful than usual, deeply
introspective, wondering how many days of life they had left to them.

Life was good out of the line in that September of ‘15. The land of
France was full of beauty, with bronzed corn-stooks in the fields, and
scarlet poppies in the grass, and a golden sunlight on old barns and on
little white churches and in orchards heavy with fruit. It was good to
go into the garden of a French chateau and pluck a rose and smell its
sweetness, and think back to England, where other roses were blooming.
England!... And in a few days--who could say?--perhaps eternal sleep
somewhere near Lens.

Some officers of the Guards came into the garden of the little house
where I lived at that time with other onlookers. It was an untidy
garden, with a stretch of grass-plot too rough to be called a lawn, but
with pleasant shade under the trees, and a potager with raspberries
and currants on the bushes, and flower-beds where red and white roses
dropped their petals.

Two officers of the Scots Guards, inseparable friends, came to gossip
with us, and read the papers, and drink a little whisky in the evenings,
and pick the raspberries. They were not professional soldiers. One of
them had been a stock-broker, the other “something in the city.” They
disliked the army system with an undisguised hatred and contempt. They
hated war with a ferocity which was only a little “camouflaged” by the
irony and the brutality of their anecdotes of war’s little comedies.
They took a grim delight in the humor of corpses, lice, bayonet--work,
and the sniping of fair-haired German boys. They laughed, almost
excessively, at these attributes of warfare, and one of them used to
remark, after some such anecdote, “And once I was a little gentleman!”

He was a gentleman still, with a love of nature in his heart--I saw him
touch the petals of living roses with a caress in his finger-tips--and
with a spiritual revolt against the beastliness of this new job of his,
although he was a strong, hard fellow, without weakness of sentiment.
His close comrade was of more delicate fiber, a gentle soul, not made
for soldiering at all, but rather for domestic life, with children about
him, and books. As the evenings passed in this French village, drawing
him closer to Loos by the flight of time, I saw the trouble in his eyes
which he tried to hide by smiling and by courteous conversation. He
was being drawn closer to Loos and farther away from the wife who knew
nothing of what that name meant to her and to him.

Other officers of the Guards came into the garden--Grenadiers. There
were two young brothers of an old family who had always sent their sons
to war. They looked absurdly young when they took off their tunics and
played a game of cricket, with a club for a bat, and a tennis-ball. They
were just schoolboys, but with the gravity of men who knew that life is
short. I watched their young athletic figures, so clean-limbed, so
full of grace, as they threw the ball, and had a vision of them lying
mangled.

An Indian prince came into the garden. It was “Ranjitsinji,” who had
carried his bat to many a pavilion where English men and women had
clapped their hands to him, on glorious days when there was sunlight on
English lawns. He took the club and stood at the wicket and was bowled
third ball by a man who had only played cricket after ye manner of
Stratford-atte-Bow. But then he found himself, handled the club like a
sword, watched the ball with a falcon’s eye, played with it. He was
on the staff of the Indian Cavalry Corps, which was “to co-operate in
exploiting any success.”

“To-morrow we move,” said one of the Scots Guards officers. The colonel
of the battalion came to dinner at our mess, sitting down to a white
tablecloth for the last time in his life. They played a game of cards,
and went away earlier than usual.

Two of them lingered after the colonel had gone. They drank more whisky.

“We must be going,” they said, but did not go.

The delicate-looking man could not hide the trouble in his eyes.

“I sha’n’t be killed this time,” he said to a friend of mine. “I shall
be badly wounded.”

The hard man, who loved flowers, drank his fourth glass of whisky.

“It’s going to be damned uncomfortable,” he said. “I wish the filthy
thing were over. Our generals will probably arrange some glorious little
massacres. I know ‘em!... Well, good night, all.”

They went out into the darkness of the village lane. Battalions were
already on the move, in the night. Their steady tramp of feet beat on
the hard road. Their dark figures looked like an army of ghosts. Sparks
were spluttering out of the funnels of army cookers. A British soldier
in full field kit was kissing a woman in the shadow-world of an
estaminet. I passed close to them, almost touching them before I was
aware of their presence.

“Bonne chance!” said the woman. “Quand to reviens--”

“One more kiss, lassie,” said the man.

“Mans comme to es gourmand, toi!”

He kissed her savagely, hungrily. Then he lurched off the sidewalk and
formed up with other men in the darkness.

The Scots Guards moved next morning. I stood by the side of the colonel,
who was in a gruff mood.

“It looks like rain,” he said, sniffing the air. “It will probably rain
like hell when the battle begins.”

I think he was killed somewhere by Fosse 8. The two comrades in the
Scots Guards were badly wounded. One of the young brothers was killed
and the other maimed. I found their names in the casualty lists which
filled columns of The Times for a long time after Loos.



III


The town of Bethune was the capital of our army in the Black Country of
the French coal-fields. It was not much shelled in those days, though
afterward--years afterward--it was badly damaged by long-range guns, so
that its people fled, at last, after living so long on the edge of war.

Its people were friendly to our men, and did not raise their prices
exorbitantly. There were good shops in the town--“as good as Paris,”
 said soldiers who had never been to Paris, but found these plate-glass
windows dazzling, after trench life, and loved to see the “mamzelles”
 behind the counters and walking out smartly, with little high-heeled
shoes. There were tea-shops, crowded always with officers on their way
to the line or just out of it, and they liked to speak French with the
girls who served them. Those girls saw the hunger in those men’s eyes,
who watched every movement they made, who tried to touch their hands and
their frocks in passing. They knew they were desired, as daughters of
Eve, by boys who were starved of love. They took that as part of their
business, distributing cakes and buns without favor, with laughter
in their eyes, and a merry word or two. Now and then, when they had
leisure, they retired to inner rooms, divided by curtains from the shop,
and sat on the knees of young British officers, while others played
ragtime or sentimental ballads on untuned pianos. There was champagne as
well as tea to be had in these bun--shops, but the A. P. M. was down on
disorder or riotous gaiety, and there were no orgies. “Pas d’orgies,”
 said the young ladies severely when things were getting a little too
lively. They had to think of their business.

Down side-streets here and there were houses where other women lived,
not so severe in their point of view. Their business, indeed, did not
permit of severity, and they catered for the hunger of men exiled year
after year from their own home-life and from decent womanhood. They gave
the base counterfeit of love in return for a few francs, and there were
long lines of men--English, Irish, and Scottish soldiers--who waited
their turn to get that vile imitation of life’s romance from women who
were bought and paid for. Our men paid a higher price than a few francs
for the Circe’s cup of pleasure, which changed them into swine for a
while, until the spell passed, and would have blasted their souls if God
were not understanding of human weakness and of war. They paid in their
bodies, if not in their souls, those boys of ours who loved life and
beauty and gentle things, and lived in filth and shell-fire, and were
trained to kill, and knew that death was hunting for them and had all
the odds of luck. Their children and their children’s children will
pay also for the sins of their fathers, by rickety limbs and
water--on-the-brain, and madness, and tuberculosis, and other evils
which are the wages of sin, which flourished most rankly behind the
fields of war.

The inhabitants of Bethune--the shopkeepers, and brave little families
of France, and bright-eyed girls, and frowzy women, and heroines,
and harlots--came out into the streets before the battle of Loos, and
watched the British army pouring through--battalions of Londoners and
Scots, in full fighting-kit, with hot sweat on their faces, and
grim eyes, and endless columns of field-guns and limbers, drawn by
hard-mouthed mules cursed and thrashed by their drivers, and ambulances,
empty now, and wagons, and motor-lorries, hour after hour, day after
day.

“Bonne chance!” cried the women, waving hands and handkerchiefs.

“Les pauvres enfants!” said the old women, wiping their eyes on dirty
aprons. “We know how it is. They will be shot to pieces. It is always
like that, in this sacred war. Oh, those sacred pigs of Germans! Those
dirty Boches! Those sacred bandits!”

“They are going to give the Boches a hard knock,” said grizzled men, who
remembered in their boyhood another war. “The English army is ready. How
splendid they are, those boys! And ours are on the right of them. This
time--!”

“Mother of God, hark at the guns!”

At night, as dark fell, the people of Bethune gathered in the great
square by the Hotel de Ville, which afterward was smashed, and listened
to the laboring of the guns over there by Vermelles and Noeux-les-Mines,
and Grenay, and beyond Notre Dame de Lorette, where the French guns were
at work. There were loud, earth--shaking rumblings, and now and then
enormous concussions. In the night sky lights rose in long, spreading
bars of ruddy luminance, in single flashes, in sudden torches of scarlet
flame rising to the clouds and touching them with rosy feathers.

“‘Cre nom de Dieu!” said French peasants, on the edge of all that,
in villages like Gouy, Servins, Heuchin, Houdain, Grenay, Bruay, and
Pernes. “The caldron is boiling up... There will be a fine pot-au-feu.”

They wondered if their own sons would be in the broth. Some of them
knew, and crossed themselves by wayside shrines for the sake of their
sons’ souls, or in their estaminets cursed the Germans with the same old
curses for having brought all this woe into the world.



IV


In those villages--Heuchin, Houdain, Lillers, and others--on the edge
of the Black Country the Scottish troops of the 15th Division were in
training for the arena, practising attacks on trenches and villages,
getting a fine edge of efficiency on to bayonet-work and bombing,
and having their morale heightened by addresses from brigadiers and
divisional commanders on the glorious privilege which was about to be
theirs of leading the assault, and on the joys as well as the duty of
killing Germans.

In one battalion of Scots--the 10th Gordons, who were afterward the
8/10th--there were conferences of company commanders and whispered
consultations of subalterns. They were “Kitchener” men, from Edinburgh
and Aberdeen and other towns in the North. I came to know them all after
this battle, and gave them fancy names in my despatches: the Georgian
gentleman, as handsome as Beau Brummell, and a gallant soldier, who was
several times wounded, but came back to command his old battalion, and
then was wounded again nigh unto death, but came back again; and Honest
John, slow of speech, with a twinkle in his eyes, careless of shell
splinters flying around his bullet head, hard and tough and cunning in
war; and little Ginger, with his whimsical face and freckles, and love
of pretty girls and all children, until he was killed in Flanders; and
the Permanent Temporary Lieutenant who fell on the Somme; and the
Giant who had a splinter through his brain beyond Arras; and many other
Highland gentlemen, and one English padre who went with them always to
the trenches, until a shell took his head off at the crossroads.

It was the first big attack of the 15th Division. They were determined
to go fast and go far. Their pride of race was stronger than the strain
on their nerves. Many of them, I am certain, had no sense of fear, no
apprehension of death or wounds. Excitement, the comradeship of courage,
the rivalry of battalions, lifted them above anxiety before the battle
began, though here and there men like Ginger, of more delicate fiber, of
imagination as well as courage, must have stared in great moments at the
grisly specter toward whom they would soon be walking.

In other villages were battalions of the 47th London Division. They,
too, were to be in the first line of attack, on the right of the Scots.
They, too, had to win honor for the New Army and old London. They were a
different crowd from the Scots, not so hard, not so steel--nerved, with
more sensibility to suffering, more imagination, more instinctive revolt
against the butchery that was to come. But they, too, had been “doped”
 for morale, their nervous tension had been tightened up by speeches
addressed to their spirit and tradition. It was to be London’s day out.
They were to fight for the glory of the old town... the old town where
they had lived in little suburban houses with flower-gardens, where they
had gone up by the early morning trains to city offices and government
offices and warehouses and shops, in days before they ever guessed they
would go a-soldiering, and crouch in shell-holes under high explosives,
and thrust sharp steel into German bowels. But they would do their best.
They would go through with it. They would keep their sense of humor and
make cockney jokes at death. They would show the stuff of London pride.

“Domine, dirige nos!”

I knew many of those young Londoners. I had sat in tea-shops with them
when they were playing dominoes, before the war, as though that were the
most important game in life. I had met one of them at a fancy-dress ball
in the Albert Hall, when he was Sir Walter Raleigh and I was Richard
Sheridan. Then we were both onlookers of life--chroniclers of passing
history. I remained the onlooker, even in war, but my friend went into
the arena. He was a Royal Fusilier, and the old way of life became
a dream to him when he walked toward Loos, and afterward sat in
shell-craters in the Somme fields, and knew that death would find him,
as it did, in Flanders. I had played chess with one man whom afterward
I met as a gunner officer at Heninel, near Arras, on an afternoon when
a shell had killed three of his men bathing in a tank, and other shells
made a mess of blood and flesh in his wagon-lines. We both wore steel
hats, and he was the first to recognize a face from the world of peace.
After his greeting he swore frightful oaths, cursing the war and the
Staff. His nerves were all jangled. There was another officer in the
47th London Division whom I had known as a boy. He was only nineteen
when he enlisted, not twenty when he had fought through several battles.
He and hundreds like him had been playing at red Indians in Kensington
Gardens a few years before an August in 1914... The 47th London
Division, going forward to the battle of Loos, was made up of men whose
souls had been shaped by all the influences of environment, habit,
and tradition in which I had been born and bred. Their cradle had been
rocked to the murmurous roar of London traffic. Their first adventures
had been on London Commons. The lights along the Embankment,
the excitement of the streets, the faces of London crowds, royal
pageantry--marriages, crownings, burials--on the way to Westminster,
the little dramas of London life, had been woven into the fiber of their
thoughts, and it was the spirit of London which went with them wherever
they walked in France or Flanders, more sensitive than country men to
the things they saw. Some of them had to fight against their nerves
on the way to Loos. But their spirit was exalted by a nervous stimulus
before that battle, so that they did freakish and fantastic things of
courage.



V


I watched the preliminary bombardment of the Loos battlefields from
a black slag heap beyond Noeux-les-Mines, and afterward went on the
battleground up to the Loos redoubt, when our guns and the enemy’s were
hard at work; and later still, in years that followed, when there was
never a silence of guns in those fields, came to know the ground from
many points of view. It was a hideous territory, this Black Country
between Lens and Hulluch. From the flat country below the distant ridges
of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy there rose a number of high black
cones made by the refuse of the coal-mines, which were called Fosses.
Around those black mounds there was great slaughter, as at Fosse 8 and
Fosse 10 and Puits 14bis, and the Double Crassier near Loos, because
they gave observation and were important to capture or hold. Near them
were the pit-heads, with winding-gear in elevated towers of steel which
were smashed and twisted by gun-fire; and in Loos itself were two of
those towers joined by steel girders and gantries, called the “Tower
Bridge” by men of London. Rows of red cottages where the French miners
had lived were called corons, and where they were grouped into large
units they were called cites, like the Cite St.-Auguste, the Cite
St.-Pierre, and the Cite St.-Laurent, beyond Hill 70, on the outskirts
of Lens. All those places were abandoned now by black-grimed men who had
fled down mine-shafts and galleries with their women and children, and
had come up on our side of the lines at Noeux-les-Mines or Bruay or
Bully-Grenay, where they still lived close to the war. Shells pierced
the roof of the church in that squalid village of Noeux--les-Mines and
smashed some of the cottages and killed some of the people now and then.
Later in the war, when aircraft dropped bombs at night, a new peril
over--shadowed them with terror, and they lived in their cellars after
dusk, and sometimes were buried there. But they would not retreat
farther back--not many of them--and on days of battle I saw groups of
French miners and dirty-bloused girls excited by the passage of our
troops and by the walking wounded who came stumbling back, and by
stretcher cases unloaded from ambulances to the floors of their dirty
cottages. High velocities fell in some of the streets, shrapnel-shells
whined overhead and burst like thunderclaps. Young hooligans of France
slouched around with their hands in their pockets, talking to our men
in a queer lingua franca, grimacing at those noises if they did not come
too near. I saw lightly wounded girls among them, with bandaged heads
and hands, but they did not think that a reason for escape. With
smoothly braided hair they gathered round British soldiers in steel hats
and clasped their arms or leaned against their shoulders. They had known
many of those men before. They were their sweethearts. In those foul
little mining towns the British troops had liked their billets, because
of the girls there. London boys and Scots “kept company” with pretty
slatterns, who stole their badges for keepsakes, and taught them a base
patois of French, and had a smudge of tears on their cheeks when
the boys went away for a spell in the ditches of death. They were
kind-hearted little sluts with astounding courage.

“Aren’t you afraid of this place?” I asked one of them in Bully-Grenay
when it was “unhealthy” there. “You might be killed here any minute.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Je m’en fiche de la mort!” (“I don’t care a damn about death.”)

I had the same answer from other girls in other places.

That was the mise-en-scene of the battle of Loos--those mining towns
behind the lines, then a maze of communication trenches entered from
a place called Philosophe, leading up to the trench-lines beyond
Vermelles, and running northward to Cambrin and Givenchy, opposite
Hulluch, Haisnes, and La Bassee, where the enemy had his trenches and
earthworks among the slag heaps, the pit-heads, the corons and the
cites, all broken by gun-fire, and nowhere a sign of human life
aboveground, in which many men were hidden.

Storms of gun-fire broke loose from our batteries a week before the
battle. It was our first demonstration of those stores of high-explosive
shells which had been made by the speeding up of munition-work in
England, and of a gun-power which had been growing steadily since
the coming out of the New Army. The weather was heavy with mist and a
drizzle of rain. Banks of smoke made a pall over all the arena of war,
and it was stabbed and torn by the incessant flash of bursting shells.
I stood on the slag heap, staring at this curtain of smoke, hour after
hour, dazed by the tumult of noise and by that impenetrable veil
which hid all human drama. There was no movement of men to be seen,
no slaughter, no heroic episode--only through rifts in the smoke the
blurred edges of slag heaps and pit-heads, and smoking ruins. German
trenches were being battered in, German dugouts made into the tombs of
living men, German bodies tossed up with earth and stones--all that was
certain but invisible.

“Very boring,” said an officer by my side. “Not a damn thing to be
seen.”

“Our men ought to have a walk-over,” said an optimist. “Any living
German must be a gibbering idiot with shell-shock.”

“I expect they’re playing cards in their dugouts,” said the officer who
was bored. “Even high explosives don’t go down very deep.”

“It’s stupendous, all the same. By God! hark at that! It seems more than
human. It’s like some convulsion of nature.”

“There’s no adventure in modern war,” said the bored man. “It’s a dirty
scientific business. I’d kill all chemists and explosive experts.”

“Our men will have adventure enough when they go over the top at dawn.
Hell must be a game compared with that.”

The guns went on pounding away, day after day, laboring, pummeling,
hammering, like Thor with his thunderbolts. It was the preparation for
battle. No men were out of the trenches yet, though some were being
killed there and elsewhere, at the crossroads by Philosophe, and outside
the village of Masingarbe, and in the ruins of Vermelles, and away up
at Cambrin and Givenchy. The German guns were answering back
intermittently, but holding most of their fire until human flesh came
out into the open. The battle began at dawn on September 25th.



VI


In order to distract the enemy’s attention and hold his troops away from
the main battle-front, “subsidiary attacks” were made upon the German
lines as far north as Bellewarde Farm, to the east of Ypres, and
southward to La Bassee Canal at Givenchy, by the troops of the Second
and Third Armies. This object, wrote Sir John French, in his despatch,
“was most effectively achieved.” It was achieved by the bloody sacrifice
of many brave battalions in the 3d and 14th Divisions (Yorkshire, Royal
Scots, King’s Royal Rifles, and others), and by the Meerut Division
of the Indian Corps, who set out to attack terrible lines without
sufficient artillery support, and without reserves behind them, and
without any chance of holding the ground they might capture. It was part
of the system of war. They were the pawns of “strategy,” serving a high
purpose in a way that seemed to them without reason. Not for them was
the glory of a victorious assault. Their job was to “demonstrate” by
exposing their bodies to devouring fire, and by attacking earthworks
which they were not expected to hold. Here and there men of ours, after
their rush over No Man’s Land under a deadly sweep of machine-gun fire,
flung themselves into the enemy’s trenches, bayoneting the Germans and
capturing the greater part of their first line. There they lay panting
among wounded and dead, and after that shoveled up earth and burrowed to
get cover from the shelling which was soon to fall on them. Quickly the
enemy discovered their whereabouts and laid down a barrage fire which,
with deadly accuracy, plowed up their old front line and tossed it about
on the pitchforks of bursting shells. Our men’s bodies were mangled
in that earth. High explosives plunged into the midst of little groups
crouching in holes and caverns of the ground, and scattered their limbs.
Living, unwounded men lay under those screaming shells with the panting
hearts of toads under the beat of flails. Wounded men crawled back over
No Man’s Land, and some were blown to bits as they crawled, and others
got back. Before nightfall, in the dark, a general retirement was
ordered to our original line in that northern sector, owing to the
increasing casualties under the relentless work of the German guns. Like
ants on the move, thousands of men rose from the upheaved earth, and
with their stomachs close to it, crouching, came back, dragging their
wounded. The dead were left.

“On the front of the Third Army,” wrote Sir John French, “subsidiary
operations of a similar nature were successfully carried out.”

From the point of view of high generalship those holding attacks had
served their purpose pretty well. From the point of view of mothers’
sons they had been a bloody shambles without any gain. The point of view
depends on the angle of vision.



VII


Let me now tell the story of the main battle of Loos as I was able to
piece it together from the accounts of men in different parts of the
field--no man could see more than his immediate neighborhood--and from
the officers who survived. It is a story full of the psychology of
battle, with many strange incidents which happened to men when their
spirit was uplifted by that mingling of exultation and fear which is
heroism, and with queer episodes almost verging on comedy in the
midst of death and agony, at the end of a day of victory, most ghastly
failure.

The three attacking divisions from left to right on the line opposite
the villages of Hulluch and Loos were the 1st, the 15th (Scottish),
and the 47th (London). Higher up, opposite Hulluch and Haisnes, the
9th (Scottish) Division and the 7th Division were in front of the
Hohenzollern redoubt (chalky earthworks thrust out beyond the German
front-line trenches, on rising ground) and some chalk-quarries.

The men of those divisions were lined up during the night in the
communication trenches, which had been dug by the sappers and laid
with miles of telephone wire. They were silent, except for the chink of
shovels and side arms, the shuffle of men’s feet, their hard breathing,
and occasional words of command. At five-thirty, when the guns in all
our batteries were firing at full blast, with a constant scream of
shells over the heads of the waiting men, and when the first faint light
of day stole into the sky, there was a slight rain falling, and the wind
blew lightly from the southwest.

In the front-line trenches a number of men were busy with some long,
narrow cylinders, which had been carried up a day before. They were
arranging them in the mud of the parapets with their nozles facing the
enemy lines.

“That’s the stuff to give them!”

“What is it?”

“Poison-gas. Worse than they used at Ypres.”

“Christ!... supposing we have to walk through it?”

“We shall walk behind it. The wind will carry it down the throat of the
Fritzes. We shall find ‘em dead.”

So men I met had talked of that new weapon which most of them hated.

It was at five-thirty when the men busy with the cylinders turned on
little taps. There was a faint hissing noise, the escape of gas from
many pipes. A heavy, whitish cloud came out of the cylinders and
traveled aboveground as it was lifted and carried forward by the breeze.

“How’s the gas working?” asked a Scottish officer.

“Going fine!” said an English officer. But he looked anxious, and wetted
a finger and held it up, to get the direction of the wind.

Some of the communication trenches were crowded with the Black Watch of
the 1st Division, hard, bronzed fellows, with the red heckle in their
bonnets. (It was before the time of steel hats.) They were leaning up
against the walls of the trenches, waiting. They were strung round with
spades, bombs, and sacks.

“A queer kind o’ stink!” said one of them, sniffing.

Some of the men began coughing. Others were rubbing their eyes, as
though they smarted.

The poison-gas... The wind had carried it half way across No Man’s Land,
then a swirl changed its course, and flicked it down a gully, and swept
it right round to the Black Watch in the narrow trenches. Some German
shell-fire was coming, too. In one small bunch eight men fell in a mush
of blood and raw flesh. But the gas was worse. There was a movement in
the trenches, the huddling together of frightened men who had been very
brave. They were coughing, spitting, gasping. Some of them fell limp
against their fellows, with pallid cheeks which blackened. Others tied
handkerchiefs about their mouths and noses, but choked inside those
bandages, and dropped to earth with a clatter of shovels. Officers and
men were cursing and groaning. An hour later, when the whistles blew,
there were gaps in the line of the 1st Division which went over the top.
In the trenches lay gassed men. In No Man’s Land others fell, swept by
machine-gun bullets, shrapnel, and high explosives. The 1st Division was
“checked.”...

“We caught it badly,” said some of them I met later in the day,
bandaged and bloody, and plastered in wet chalk, while gassed men lay on
stretchers about them, unconscious, with laboring lungs.



VIII


Farther south the front-lines of the 15th (Scottish) Division climbed
over their parapets at six-thirty, and saw the open ground before them,
and the dusky, paling sky above them, and broken wire in front of the
enemy’s churned-up trenches; and through the smoke, faintly, and far
away, three and a half miles away, the ghostly outline of the “Tower
Bridge” of Loos, which was their goal. For an hour there were steady
tides of men all streaming slowly up those narrow communication ways,
cut through the chalk to get into the light also, where death was in
ambush for many of them somewhere in the shadows of that dawn.

By seven-forty the two assaulting brigades of the 15th Division had left
the trenches and were in the open. Shriller than the scream of shells
above them was the skirl of pipes, going with them. The Pipe Major of
the 8th Gordons was badly wounded, but refused to be touched until the
other men were tended. He was a giant, too big for a stretcher, and had
to be carried back on a tarpaulin. At the dressing-station his leg was
amputated, but he died after two operations, and the Gordons mourned
him.

While the Highlanders went forward with their pipes, two brigades of the
Londoners, on their right, were advancing in the direction of the long,
double slag heap, southwest of Loos, called the Double Crassier. Some of
them were blowing mouth-organs, playing the music-hall song of “Hullo,
hullo, it’s a different girl again!” and the “Robert E. Lee,” until one
after another a musician fell in a crumpled heap. Shrapnel burst over
them, and here and there shells plowed up the earth where they were
trudging. On the right of the Londoners the French still stayed in their
trenches--their own attack was postponed until midday--and they cheered
the London men, as they went forward, with cries of, “Vivent les
Angdais!” “A mort--les Boches!” It was they who saw one man kicking a
football in advance of the others.

“He is mad!” they said. “The poor boy is a lunatic!”

“He is not mad,” said a French officer who had lived in England. “It is
a beau geste. He is a sportsman scornful of death. That is the British
sport.”

It was a London Irishman dribbling a football toward the goal, and he
held it for fourteen hundred yards--the best-kicked goal in history.

Many men fell in the five hundred yards of No Man’s Land. But they were
not missed then by those who went on in waves--rather, like molecules,
separating, collecting, splitting up into smaller groups, bunching
together again, on the way to the first line of German trenches. A glint
of bayonets made a quickset hedge along the line of churned-up earth
which had been the Germans’ front--line trench. Our guns had cut the
wire or torn gaps into it. Through the broken strands went the Londoners
on the right, the Scots on the left, shouting hoarsely now. They saw
red. They were hunters of human flesh. They swarmed down into the first
long ditch, trampling over dead bodies, falling over them, clawing the
earth and scrambling up the parados, all broken and crumbled, then
on again to another ditch. Boys dropped with bullets in their brains,
throats, and bodies. German machine-guns were at work at close range.

“Give’em hell!” said an officer of the Londoners--a boy of nineteen.
There were a lot of living Germans in the second ditch, and in holes
about. Some of them stood still, as though turned to clay, until they
fell with half the length of a bayonet through their stomachs. Others
shrieked and ran a little way before they died. Others sat behind
hillocks of earth, spraying our men with machine-gun bullets until bombs
were hurled on them and they were scattered into lumps of flesh.

Three lines of trench were taken, and the Londoners and the Scots went
forward again in a spate toward Loos. All the way from our old lines men
were streaming up, with shells bursting among them or near them.

On the way to Loos a company of Scots came face to face with a tall
German. He was stone-dead, with a bullet in his brain, his face all
blackened with the grime of battle; but he stood erect in the path,
wedged somehow in a bit of trench. The Scots stared at this figure, and
their line parted and swept each side of him, as though some obscene
specter barred the way. Rank after rank streamed up, and then a big
tide of men poured through the German trench systems and rushed forward.
Three--quarters of a mile more to Loos. Some of them were panting, out
of breath, speechless. Others talked to the men about them in stray
sentences. Most of them were silent, staring ahead of them and licking
their lips with swollen tongues. They were parched with thirst, some
of them told me. Many stopped to drink the last drop out of their
water-bottles. As one man drank he spun round and fell with a thud on
his face. Machine-gun bullets were whipping up the earth. From Loos came
a loud and constant rattle of machine-guns. Machine-guns were firing
out of the broken windows of the houses and from the top of the “Tower
Bridge,” those steel girders which rose three hundred feet high from the
center of the village, and from slit trenches across the narrow streets.
There were one hundred machine-guns in the cemetery to the southwest
of the town, pouring out lead upon the Londoners who had to pass that
place.

Scots and London men were mixed up, and mingled in crowds which
encircled Loos, and forced their way into the village; but roughly
still, and in the mass, they were Scots who assaulted Loos itself,
and London men who went south of it to the chalk-pits and the Double
Crassier.

It was eight o’clock in the morning when the first crowds reached the
village, and for nearly two hours afterward there was street-fighting.

It was the fighting of men in the open, armed with bayonets, rifles,
and bombs, against men invisible and in hiding, with machine-guns. Small
groups of Scots, like packs of wolves, prowled around the houses, where
the lower rooms and cellars were crammed with Germans, trapped and
terrified, but still defending themselves. In some of the houses they
would not surrender, afraid of certain death, anyhow, and kept the Scots
at bay awhile until those kilted men flung themselves in and killed
their enemy to the last man. Outside those red-brick houses lay dead
and wounded Scots. Inside there were the curses and screams of a bloody
vengeance. In other houses the machine-gun garrisons ceased fire and put
white rags through the broken windows, and surrendered like sheep. So
it was in one house entered by a little kilted signaler, who shot down
three men who tried to kill him. Thirty others held their hands up and
said, in a chorus of fear, “Kamerad! Kamerad!”

A company of the 8th Gordons were among the first into Loos, led by
some of those Highland officers I have mentioned on another page. It
was “Honest John” who led one crowd of them, and he claims now, with
a laugh, that he gained his Military Cross for saving the lives of two
hundred Germans. “I ought to have got the Royal Humane Society’s medal,”
 he said. Those Germans--Poles, really, from Silesia--came swarming out
of a house with their hands up. But the Gordons had tasted blood. They
were hungry for it. They were panting and shouting, with red bayonets,
behind their officer.

That young man thought deeply and quickly. If there were “no quarter” it
might be ugly for the Gordons later in the day, and the day was young,
and Loos was still untaken.

He stood facing his own men, ordered them sternly to keep steady. These
men were to be taken prisoners and sent back under escort. He had his
revolver handy, and, anyhow, the men knew him. They obeyed, grumbling
sullenly.

There was the noise of fire in other parts of the village, and the
tap-tap-tap of machine-guns from many cellars. Bombing-parties of Scots
silenced those machine-gunners at last by going to the head of the
stairways and flinging down their hand-grenades. The cellars of Loos
were full of dead.

In one of them, hours after the fighting had ceased among the ruins of
the village, and the line of fire was forward of Hill 70, a living man
still hid and carried on his work. The colonel of one of our forward
battalions came into Loos with his signalers and runners, and
established his headquarters in a house almost untouched by shell-fire.
At the time there was very little shelling, as the artillery officers on
either side were afraid of killing their own men, and the house seemed
fairly safe for the purpose of a temporary signal-station.

But the colonel noticed that shortly after his arrival heavy shells
began to fall very close and the Germans obviously were aiming directly
for this building. He ordered the cellars to be searched, and three
Germans were found. It was only after he had been in the house for forty
minutes that in a deeper cellar, which had not been seen before, the
discovery was made of a German officer who was telephoning to his own
batteries and directing their fire. Suspecting that the colonel and his
companions were important officers directing general operations, he had
caused the shells to fall upon the house knowing that a lucky shot would
mean his own death as well as theirs.

As our searchers came into the cellar, he rose and stood there, waiting,
with a cold dignity, for the fate which he knew would come to him, as it
did. He was a very brave man.

Another German officer remained hiding in the church, which was so
heavily mined that it would have blown half the village into dust and
ashes if he had touched off the charges. He was fumbling at the job when
our men found and killed him.

In the southern outskirts of Loos, and in the cemetery, the Londoners
had a bloody fight among the tombstones, where nests of German
machine-guns had been built into the vaults. New corpses, still
bleeding, lay among old dead torn from their coffins by shell-fire.
Londoners and Siiesian Germans lay together across one another’s bodies.
The London men routed out most of the machine-gunners and bayoneted some
and took prisoners of others. They were not so fierce as the Scots, but
in those hours forgot the flower-gardens in Streatham and Tooting Bec
and the manners of suburban drawing rooms.. . It is strange that
one German machine-gun, served by four men, remained hidden behind a
gravestone all through that day, and Saturday, and Sunday, and sniped
stray men of ours until routed at last by moppers-up of the Guards
brigade.

As the Londoners came down the slope to the southern edge of Loos
village, through a thick haze of smoke from shell-fire and burning
houses, they were astounded to meet a crowd of civilians, mostly women
and children, who came streaming across the open in panic-stricken
groups. Some of them fell under machine-gun fire snapping from the
houses or under shrapnel bursting overhead. The women were haggard
and gaunt, with wild eyes and wild hair, like witches. They held their
children in tight claws until they were near our soldiers, when they all
set up a shrill crying and wailing. The children were dazed with terror.
Other civilians crawled up from their cellars in Loos, spattered
with German blood, and wandered about among soldiers of many British
battalions who crowded amid the scarred and shattered houses, and among
the wounded men who came staggering through the streets, where army
doctors were giving first aid in the roadway, while shells were bursting
overhead and all the roar of the battle filled the air for miles around
with infernal tumult.

Isolated Germans still kept sniping from secret places, and some of them
fired at a dressing-station in the market-place, until a French girl,
afterward decorated for valor--she was called the Lady of Loos by
Londoners and Scots--borrowed a revolver and shot two of them dead in
a neighboring house. Then she came back to the soup she was making for
wounded men.

Some of the German prisoners were impressed as stretcher-bearers, and
one, “Jock,” had compelled four Germans to carry him in, while he
lay talking to them in broadest Scots, grinning despite his blood and
wounds.

A London lieutenant called out to a stretcher-bearer helping to carry
down a German officer, and was astounded to be greeted by the wounded
man.

“Hullo, Leslie!... I knew we should meet one day.”

Looking at the man’s face, the Londoner saw it was his own cousin...
There was all the drama of war in that dirty village of Loos, which
reeked with the smell of death then, and years later, when I went
walking through it on another day of war, after another battle on Hill
70, beyond.



IX


While the village of Loos was crowded with hunters of men, wounded,
dead, batches of panic-stricken prisoners, women, doctors, Highlanders
and Lowlanders “fey” with the intoxication of blood, London soldiers
with tattered uniforms and muddy rifles and stained bayonets, mixed
brigades were moving forward to new objectives. The orders of the
Scottish troops, which I saw, were to go “all out,” and to press on as
far as they could, with the absolute assurance that all the ground they
gained would be held behind them by supporting troops; and having that
promise, they trudged on to Hill 70. The Londoners had been ordered
to make a defensive flank on the right of the Scots by capturing the
chalk-pit south of Loos and digging in. They did this after savage
fighting in the pit, where they bayoneted many Germans, though raked
by machine-gun bullets from a neighboring copse, which was a fringe of
gashed and tattered trees. But some of the London boys were mixed up
with the advancing Scots and went on with them, and a battalion of Scots
Fusiliers who had been in the supporting brigade of the 15th Division,
which was intended to follow the advance, joined the first assault,
either through eagerness or a wrong order, and, unknown to their
brigadier, were among the leaders in the bloody struggle in Loos, and
labored on to Hill 70, where Camerons, Gordons, Black Watch, Seaforths,
Argyll, and Sutherland men and Londoners were now up the slopes,
stabbing stray Germans who were trying to retreat to a redoubt on the
reverse side of the hill.

For a time there was a kind of Bank Holiday crowd on Hill 70. The German
gunners, knowing that the redoubt on the crest was still held by their
men, dared not fire; and many German batteries were on the move, out of
Lens and from their secret lairs in the country thereabouts, in a state
of panic. On our right the French were fighting desperately at Souchez
and Neuville St.-Vaast and up the lower slopes of Vimy, suffering
horrible casualties and failing to gain the heights in spite of the
reckless valor of their men, but alarming the German staffs, who for
a time had lost touch with the situation--their telephones had been
destroyed by gun-fire--and were filled with gloomy apprehensions.
So Hill 70 was quiet, except for spasms of machine-gun fire from the
redoubt on the German side of the slope and the bombing of German
dugouts, or the bayoneting of single men routed out from holes in the
earth.

One of our men came face to face with four Germans, two of whom were
armed with rifles and two with bombs. They were standing in the wreckage
of a trench, pallid, and with the fear of death in their eyes. The
rifles clattered to the earth, the bombs fell at their feet, and their
hands went up when the young Scot appeared before them with his bayonet
down. He was alone, and they could have killed him, but surrendered,
and were glad of the life he granted them. As more men came up the slope
there were greetings between comrades, of:

“Hullo, Jock!”

“Is that you, Alf?”

They were rummaging about for souvenirs in half-destroyed dugouts
where dead bodies lay. They were “swapping” souvenirs--taken from
prisoners--silver watches, tobacco-boxes, revolvers, compasses. Many
of them put on German field-caps, like schoolboys with paper caps from
Christmas crackers, shouting with laughter because of their German
look. They thought the battle was won. After the first wild rush the
shell-fire, the killing, the sight of dead comrades, the smell of blood,
the nightmare of that hour after dawn, they were beginning to get normal
again, to be conscious of themselves, to rejoice in their luck at having
got so far with whole skins. It had been a fine victory. The enemy was
nowhere. He had “mizzled off.”

Some of the Scots, with the hunter’s instinct still strong, decided to
go on still farther to a new objective. They straggled away in batches
to one of the suburbs of Lens--the Cite St.-Auguste. Very few of them
came back with the tale of their comrades’ slaughter by sudden bursts of
machine-gun fire which cut off all chance of retreat....

The quietude of Hill 70 was broken by the beginning of a new bombardment
from German guns.

“Dig in,” said the officers. “We must hold on at all costs until the
supports come up.”

Where were the supporting troops which had been promised? There was no
sign of them coming forward from Loos. The Scots were strangely isolated
on the slopes of Hill 70. At night the sky above them was lit up by the
red glow of fires in Lens, and at twelve-thirty that night, under that
ruddy sky, dark figures moved on the east of the hill and a storm of
machine-gun bullets swept down on the Highlanders and Lowlanders, who
crouched low in the mangled earth. It was a counter-attack by masses of
men crawling up to the crest from the reverse side and trying to get the
Scots out of the slopes below. But the men of the 15th Division answered
by volleys of rifle-fire, machine-gun fire, and bombs. They held on in
spite of dead and wounded men thinning out their fighting strength.
At five-thirty in the morning there was another strong counter-attack,
repulsed also, but at another price of life in those holes and ditches
on the hillside.

Scottish officers stared anxiously back toward their old lines. Where
were the supports? Why did they get no help? Why were they left clinging
like this to an isolated hill? The German artillery had reorganized.
They were barraging the ground about Loos fiercely and continuously.
They were covering a great stretch of country up to Hulluch, and north
of it, with intense harassing fire. Later on that Saturday morning the
15th Division received orders to attack and capture the German earthwork
redoubt on the crest of the hill. A brigade of the 21st Division was
nominally in support of them, but only small groups of that brigade
appeared on the scene, a few white-faced officers, savage with anger,
almost mad with some despair in them, with batches of English lads who
looked famished with hunger, weak after long marching, demoralized by
some tragedy that had happened to them. They were Scots who did most of
the work in trying to capture the redoubt, the same Scots who had
fought through Loos. They tried to reach the crest. Again and again they
crawled forward and up, but the blasts of machine-gun fire mowed them
down, and many young Scots lay motionless on those chalky slopes, with
their kilts riddled with bullets. Others, hit in the head, or arms, or
legs, writhed like snakes back to the cover of broken trenches.

“Where are the supports?” asked the Scottish officers. “In God’s name,
where are the troops who were to follow on? Why did we do all this
bloody fighting to be hung up in the air like this?”

The answer to their question has not been given in any official
despatch. It is answered by the tragedy of the 21st and 24th Divisions,
who will never forget the misery of that day, though not many are now
alive who suffered it. Their part of the battle I will tell later.



X


To onlookers there were some of the signs of victory on that day of
September 25th--of victory and its price. I met great numbers of the
lightly wounded men, mostly “Jocks,” and they were in exalted spirits
because they had done well in this ordeal and had come through it, and
out of it--alive. They came straggling back through the villages behind
the lines to the casualty clearing--stations and ambulance-trains.
Some of them had the sleeves of their tunics cut away and showed brown,
brawny arms tightly bandaged and smeared with blood. Some of them were
wounded in the legs and hobbled with their arms about their comrades’
necks. Their kilts were torn and plastered with chalky mud. Nearly
all of them had some “souvenir” of the fighting--German watches, caps,
cartridges. They carried themselves with a warrior look, so hard, so
lean, so clear-eyed, these young Scots of the Black Watch and Camerons
and Gordons. They told tales of their own adventure in broad Scots, hard
to understand, and laughed grimly at the killing they had done, though
here and there a lad among them had a look of bad remembrance in his
eyes, and older men spoke gravely of the scenes on the battlefield and
called it “hellish.” But their pride was high. They had done what they
had been asked to do. The 15th Division had proved its quality. Their
old battalions, famous in history, had gained new honor.

Thousands of those lightly wounded men swarmed about a long
ambulance-train standing in a field near the village of Choques. They
crowded the carriages, leaned out of the windows with their bandaged
heads and arms, shouting at friends they saw in the other crowds. The
spirit of victory, and of lucky escape, uplifted those lads, drugged
them. And now they were going home for a spell. Home to bonny Scotland,
with a wound that would take some time to heal.

There were other wounded men from whom no laughter came, nor any sound.
They were carried to the train on stretchers, laid down awhile on the
wooden platforms, covered with blankets up to their chins--unless they
uncovered themselves with convulsive movements. I saw one young Londoner
so smashed about the face that only his eyes were uncovered between
layers of bandages, and they were glazed with the first film of death.
Another had his jaw blown clean away, so the doctor told me, and the
upper half of his face was livid and discolored by explosive gases. A
splendid boy of the Black Watch was but a living trunk. Both his arms
and both his legs were shattered. If he lived after butcher’s work of
surgery he would be one of those who go about in boxes on wheels, from
whom men turn their eyes away, sick with a sense of horror. There were
blind boys led to the train by wounded comrades, groping, very quiet,
thinking of a life of darkness ahead of them--forever in the darkness
which shut in their souls. For days and weeks that followed there was
always a procession of ambulances on the way to the dirty little town of
Lillers, and going along the roads I used to look back at them and see
the soles of muddy boots upturned below brown blankets. It was more
human wreckage coming down from the salient of Loos, from the chalkpits
of Hulluch and the tumbled earth of the Hohenzollern redoubt, which had
been partly gained by the battle which did not succeed. Outside a square
brick building, which was the Town Hall of Lillers, and for a time
a casualty clearing-station, the “bad” cases were unloaded; men with
chunks of steel in their lungs and bowels were vomiting great gobs of
blood, men with arms and legs torn from their trunks, men without noses,
and their brains throbbing through opened scalps, men without faces...



XI


To a field behind the railway station near the grimy village of Choques,
on the edge of this Black Country of France, the prisoners were brought;
and I went among them and talked with some of them, on a Sunday morning,
when now the rain had stopped and there was a blue sky overhead and good
visibility for German guns and ours.

There were fourteen hundred German prisoners awaiting entrainment,
a mass of slate-gray men lying on the wet earth in huddled heaps of
misery, while a few of our fresh-faced Tommies stood among them with
fixed bayonets. They were the men who had surrendered from deep dugouts
in the trenches between us and Loos and from the cellars of Loos
itself. They had seen many of their comrades bayoneted. Some of them had
shrieked for mercy. Others had not shrieked, having no power of sound
in their throats, but had shrunk back at the sight of glinting bayonets,
with an animal fear of death. Now, all that was a nightmare memory, and
they were out of it all until the war should end, next year, the year
after, the year after that--who could tell?

They had been soaked to the skin in the night and their gray uniforms
were still soddened. Many of them were sleeping, in huddled, grotesque
postures, like dead men, some lying on their stomachs, face downward.
Others were awake, sitting hunched up, with drooping heads and a beaten,
exhausted look. Others paced up and down, up and down, like caged
animals, as they were, famished and parched, until we could distribute
the rations. Many of them were dying, and a German ambulanceman went
among them, injecting them with morphine to ease the agony which
made them writhe and groan. Two men held their stomachs, moaning and
whimpering with a pain that gnawed their bowels, caused by cold and
damp. They cried out to me, asking for a doctor. A friend of mine
carried a water jar to some of the wounded and held it to their lips.
One of them refused. He was a tall, evil-looking fellow, with a bloody
rag round his head--a typical “Hun,” I thought. But he pointed to a
comrade who lay gasping beside him and said, in German, “He needs it
first.” This man had never heard of Sir Philip Sidney, who at Zutphen,
when thirsty and near death, said, “His need is greater than mine,” but
he had the same chivalry in his soul.

The officer in charge of their escort could not speak German and had no
means of explaining to the prisoners that they were to take their turn
to get rations and water at a dump nearby. It was a war correspondent,
young Valentine Williams, afterward a very gallant officer in the Irish
Guards who gave the orders in fluent and incisive German. He began
with a hoarse shout of “Achtung!” and that old word of command had an
electrical effect on many of the men. Even those who had seemed asleep
staggered to their feet and stood at attention. The habit of discipline
was part of their very life, and men almost dead strove to obey.

The non-commissioned officers formed parties to draw and distribute the
rations, and then those prisoners clutched at hunks of bread and ate
in a famished way, like starved beasts. Some of them had been four days
hungry, cut off from their supplies by our barrage fire, and intense
hunger gave them a kind of vitality when food appeared. The sight of
that mass of men reduced to such depths of human misery was horrible.
One had no hate in one’s heart for them then.

“Poor devils!” said an officer with me. “Poor beasts! Here we see the
`glory’ of war! the `romance’ of war!”

I spoke to some of them in bad German, and understood their answer.

“It is better here than on the battlefield,” said one of them. “We are
glad to be prisoners.”

One of them waved his hand toward the tumult of guns which were firing
ceaselessly.

“I pity our poor people there,” he said.

One of them, who spoke English, described all he had seen of the battle,
which was not much, because no man at such a time sees more than what
happens within a yard or two.

“The English caught us by surprise when the attack came at last,” he
said. “The bombardment had been going on for days, and we could not
guess when the attack would begin. I was in a deep dugout, wondering
how long it would be before a shell came through the roof and blow us
to pieces. The earth shook above our heads. Wounded men crawled into the
dugout, and some of them died down there. We sat looking at their bodies
in the doorway and up the steps. I climbed over them when a lull came.
A friend of mine was there, dead, and I stepped on his stomach to get
upstairs. The first thing I saw was a crowd of your soldiers streaming
past our trenches. We were surrounded on three sides, and our position
was hopeless. Some of our men started firing, but it was only asking for
death. Your men killed them with bayonets. I went back into my dugout
and waited. Presently there was an explosion in the doorway and part of
the dugout fell in. One of the men with me had his head blown off, and
his blood spurted on me. I was dazed, but through the fumes I saw an
English soldier in a petticoat standing at the doorway, making ready to
throw another bomb.

“I shouted to him in English:

“‘Don’t kill us! We surrender!’

“He was silent for a second or two, and I thought he would throw his
bomb. Then he said:

“‘Come out, you swine.’

“So we went out, and saw many soldiers in petticoats, your Highlanders,
with bayonets. They wanted to kill us, but one man argued with them in
words I could not understand-a dialect-and we were told to go along
a trench. Even then we expected death, but came to another group of
prisoners, and joined them on their way back. Gott sei dank!”

He spoke gravely and simply, this dirty, bearded man, who had been a
clerk in a London office. He had the truthfulness of a man who had just
come from great horrors.

Many of the men around him were Silesians-more Polish than German. Some
of them could not speak more than a few words of German, and were true
Slavs in physical type, with flat cheek-bones.

A group of German artillery officers had been captured and they were
behaving with studied arrogance and insolence as they smoked cigarettes
apart from the men, and looked in a jeering way at our officers.

“Did you get any of our gas this morning?” I asked them, and one of them
laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

“I smelled it a little. It was rather nice... The English always imitate
the German war-methods, but without much success.”

They grinned and imitated my way of saying “Guten Tag” when I left them.
It took a year or more to tame the arrogance of the German officer. At
the end of the Somme battles he changed his manner when captured, and
was very polite.

In another place--a prison in St.-Omer--I had a conversation with two
other officers of the German army who were more courteous than the
gunners. They had been taken at Hooge and were both Prussians--one a
stout captain, smiling behind horn spectacles, with a false, jovial
manner, hiding the effect of the ordeal from which he had just escaped,
and his hatred of us; the other a young, slim fellow, with clear-cut
features, who was very nervous, but bowed repeatedly, with his heels
together, as though in a cafe at Ehrenbreitstein, when high officers
came in. A few hours before he had been buried alive. One of our mines
had exploded under him, flinging a heap of earth over him. The fat man
by his side--his captain--had been buried, too, in the dugout. They had
scraped themselves out by clawing at the earth.

They were cautious about answering questions on the war, but the younger
man said they were prepared down to the last gaiter for another
winter campaign and--that seemed to me at the time a fine touch of
audacity--for two more winter campaigns if need be. The winter of ‘16,
after this autumn and winter of ‘15, and then after that the winter of
‘17! The words of that young Prussian seemed to me, the more I thought
of them, idiotic and almost insane. Why, the world itself could not
suffer two more years of war. It would end before then in general
anarchy, the wild revolutions of armies on all fronts. Humanity of every
nation would revolt against such prolonged slaughter... It was I who was
mad, in the foolish faith that the war would end before another year had
passed, because I thought that would be the limit of endurance of such
mutual massacre.

In a room next to those two officers--a week before this battle, the
captain had been rowing with his wife on the lake at Potsdam--was
another prisoner, who wept and wept. He had escaped to our lines before
the battle to save his skin, and now was conscience-stricken and thought
he had lost his soul. What stabbed his conscience most was the thought
that his wife and children would lose their allowances because of his
treachery. He stared at us with wild, red eyes.

“Ach, mein armes Weib! Meine Kinder!... Ach, Gott in Himmel!”

He had no pride, no dignity, no courage.

This tall, bearded man, father of a family, put his hands against the
wall and laid his head on his arm and wept.



XII


During the battle, for several days I went with other men to various
points of view, trying to see something of the human conflict from slag
heaps and rising ground, but could only see the swirl and flurry of
gun-fire and the smoke of shells mixing with wet mist, and the backwash
of wounded and prisoners, and the traffic of guns, and wagons, and
supporting troops. Like an ant on the edge of a volcano I sat among
the slag heaps with gunner observers, who were listening at telephones
dumped down in the fields and connected with artillery brigades and
field batteries.

“The Guards are fighting round Fosse 8,” said one of these observers.

Through the mist I could see Fosse 8, a flat-topped hill of coal-dust.
Little glinting lights were playing about it, like confetti shining
in the sun. That was German shrapnel. Eruptions of red flame and black
earth vomited out of the hill. That was German high explosive. For a
time on Monday, September 27th, it was the storm-center of battle.

“What’s that?” asked an artillery staff-officer, with his ear to the
field telephone. “What’s that?... Hullo!... Are you there?... The Guards
have been kicked off Fosse 8... Oh, hell!”

From all parts of the field of battle such whispers came to listening
men and were passed on to headquarters, where other men listened. This
brigade was doing pretty well. That was hard pressed. The Germans were
counter-attacking heavily. Their barrage was strong and our casualties
heavy. “Oh, hell!” said other men. From behind the mist came the news of
life and death, revealing things which no onlooker could see.

I went closer to see--into the center of the arc of battle, up by the
Loos redoubt, where the German dead and ours still lay in heaps. John
Buchan was my companion on that walk, and together we stood staring
over the edge of a trench to where, grim and gaunt against the gray sky,
loomed the high, steel columns of the “Tower Bridge,” the mining-works
which I had seen before the battle as an inaccessible landmark in the
German lines. Now they were within our lines in the center of Loos, and
no longer “leering” at us, as an officer once told me they used to do
when he led his men into communication trenches under their observation.

Behind us now was the turmoil of war--thousands and scores of thousands
of men moving in steady columns forward and backward in the queer,
tangled way which during a great battle seems to have no purpose or
meaning, except to the directing brains on the Headquarters Staff, and,
sometimes in history, none to them.

Vast convoys of transports choked the roads, with teams of mules
harnessed to wagons and gun-limbers, with trains of motor ambulances
packed with wounded men, with infantry brigades plodding through the
slush and slime, with divisional cavalry halted in the villages, and
great bivouacs in the boggy fields.

The men, Londoners, and Scots, and Guards, and Yorkshires, and
Leinsters, passed and repassed in dense masses, in small battalions, in
scattered groups. One could tell them from those who were filling their
places by the white chalk which covered them from head to foot, and
sometimes by the blood which had splashed them.

Regiments which had lost many of their comrades and had fought in attack
and counter-attack through those days and nights went very silently,
and no man cheered them. Legions of tall lads, who a few months
before marched smart and trim down English lanes, trudged toward the
fighting-lines under the burden of their heavy packs, with all their
smartness befouled by the business of war, but wonderful and pitiful to
see because of the look of courage and the gravity in their eyes as they
went up to dreadful places. Farther away within the zone of the enemy’s
fire the traffic ceased, and I came into the desolate lands of death,
where there is but little movement, and the only noise is that of guns.
I passed by ruined villages and towns.

To the left was Vermelles (two months before death nearly caught me
there), and I stared at those broken houses and roofless farms and
fallen churches which used to make one’s soul shiver even when they
stood clear in the daylight.

To the right, a few hundred yards away, was Masingarbe, from which many
of our troops marched out to begin the great attack. Farther back were
the great slag heaps of Noeux-les-Mines, and all around other black
hills of this mining country which rise out of the flat plain. It was a
long walk through narrow trenches toward that Loos redoubt where at last
I stood. There was the smell of death in those narrow, winding ways.
One boy, whom death had taken almost at the entrance-way, knelt on the
fire-step, with his head bent and his forehead against the wet clay, as
though in prayer. Farther on other bodies of London boys and Scots lay
huddled up.

We were in the center of a wide field of fire, with the enemy’s
batteries on one side and ours on the other in sweeping semicircles.
The shells of all these batteries went crying through the air with high,
whining sighs, which ended in the cough of death. The roar of the guns
was incessant and very close. The enemy was sweeping a road to my right,
and his shells went overhead with a continual rush, passing our shells,
which answered back. The whole sky was filled with these thunderbolts.
Many of them were “Jack Johnsons,” which raised a volume of black smoke
where they fell. I wondered how it would feel to be caught by one of
them, whether one would have any consciousness before being scattered.
Fear, which had walked with me part of the way, left me for a time. I
had a strange sense of exhilaration, an intoxicated interest in this
foul scene and the activity of that shell-fire.

Peering over the parapet, we saw the whole panorama of the battleground.
It was but an ugly, naked plain, rising up to Hulluch and Haisnes on the
north, falling down to Loos on the east, from where we stood, and rising
again to Hill 70 (now in German hands again), still farther east and a
little south.

The villages of Haisnes and Hulluch fretted the skyline, and Fosse 8 was
a black wart between them. The “Tower Bridge,” close by in the town
of Loos, was the one high landmark which broke the monotony of this
desolation.

No men moved about this ground. Yet thousands of men were hidden about
us in the ditches, waiting for another counter-attack behind storms of
fire. The only moving things were the shells which vomited up earth and
smoke and steel as they burst in all directions over the whole zone.
We were shelling Hulluch and Haisnes and Fosse 8 with an intense,
concentrated fire, and the enemy was retaliating by scattering
shells over the town of Loos and our new line between Hill 70 and the
chalk-pit, and the whole length of our line from north to south.

Only two men moved about above the trenches. They were two London boys
carrying a gas-cylinder, and whistling as though it were a health resort
under the autumn sun... It was not a health resort. It stank of death,
from piles of corpses, all mangled and in a mush of flesh and bones
lying around the Loos redoubt and all the ground in this neighborhood,
and for a long distance north.

Through the streets of Bethune streamed a tide of war: the transport
of divisions, gun-teams with their limber ambulance convoys,
ammunition wagons, infantry moving up to the front, despatch riders,
staff-officers, signalers, and a great host of men and mules and
motor-cars. The rain lashed down upon the crowds; waterproofs and
burberries and the tarpaulin covers of forage-carts streamed with water,
and the bronzed faces of the soldiers were dripping wet. Mud splashed
them to the thighs. Fountains of mud spurted up from the wheels
of gun-carriages. The chill of winter made Highlanders as well as
Indians--those poor, brave, wretched Indians who had been flung into
the holding attack on the canal at La Bassee, and mown down in the
inevitable way by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets--shiver in the wind.

Yet, in spite of rain and great death, there was a spirit of exultation
among many fighting-men. At last there was a break in the months of
stationary warfare. We were up and out of the trenches. The first proofs
of victory were visible there in a long line of German guns captured at
Loos, guarded on each side by British soldiers with fixed bayonets. Men
moving up did not know the general failure that had swamped a partial
success. They stared at the guns and said, “By God--we’ve got ‘em going
this time!”

A group of French civilians gathered round them, excited at the sight.
Artillery officers examined their broken breech-blocks and their
inscriptions:

“Pro Gloria et Patria.”

“Ultima ratio regis.”

The irony of the words made some of the onlookers laugh. A French
interpreter spoke to some English officers with a thrill of joy in
his voice. Had they heard the last news from Champagne? The French had
broken through the enemy’s line. The Germans were in full retreat.. .
It was utterly untrue, because after the desperate valor of heroic youth
and horrible casualties, the French attack had broken down. But the
spirit of hope came down the cold wind and went with the men whom I saw
marching to the fields of fate in the slanting rain, as the darkness and
the mist came to end another day of battle.

Outside the headquarters of a British army corps stood another line of
captured field-guns and several machine-guns, of which one had a strange
history of adventure. It was a Russian machine-gun, taken by the Germans
on the eastern front and retaken by us on the western front.

In General Rawlinson’s headquarters I saw a queer piece of booty. It
was a big bronze bell used by the Germans in their trenches to signal a
British gas-attack.

General Rawlinson was taking tea in his chateau when I called on him,
and was having an animated argument with Lord Cavan, commanding the
Guards, as to the disposal of the captured artillery and other trophies.
Lord Cavan claimed some for his own, with some violence of speech. But
General Rawlinson was bright and breezy as usual. Our losses were not
worrying him. As a great general he did not allow losses to worry him.
He ate his tea with a hearty appetite, and chaffed his staff-officers.
They were anticipating the real German counter-attack--a big affair.
Away up the line there would be more dead piled up, more filth and
stench of human slaughter, but the smell of it would not reach back to
headquarters.



XIII


In a despatch by Sir John French, dated October 15, 1915, and issued
by the War Office on November 1st of that year, the Commander-in-Chief
stated that: “In view of the great length of line along which the
British troops were operating it was necessary to keep a strong reserve
in my own hand. The 11th Corps, consisting of the Guards, the 21st and
the 24th Divisions, were detailed for this purpose. This reserve was
the more necessary owing to the fact that the Tenth French Army had to
postpone its attack until one o’clock in the day; and further, that the
corps operating on the French left had to be directed in a more or
less southeasterly direction, involving, in case of our success,
a considerable gap in our line. To insure, however, the speedy and
effective support of the 1st and 4th Corps in the case of their success,
the 21st and 24th Divisions passed the night of the 24th and 25th on
the line Beuvry (to the east of Bethune)-Noeux-les-Mines. The Guards
Division was in the neighborhood of Lillers on the same night.”

By that statement, and by the facts that happened in accordance with it,
the whole scheme of attack in the battle of Loos will stand challenged
in history. Lord French admits in that despatch that he held his
reserves “in his own hand,” and later he states that it was not until
nine-thirty on the morning of battle that “I placed the 21st and 24th
Divisions at the disposal of the General Officer commanding First Army.”
 He still held the Guards. He makes, as a defense of the decision to hold
back the reserves, the extraordinary statement that there “would be a
considerable gap in our line in case of our success.” That is to say,
he was actually envisaging a gap in the line if the attack succeeded
according to his expectations, and risking the most frightful
catastrophe that may befall any army in an assault upon a powerful
enemy, provided with enormous reserves, as the Germans were at that
time, and as our Commander-in-Chief ought to have known.

But apart from that the whole time-table of the battle was, as it now
appears, fatally wrong. To move divisions along narrow roads requires
an immense amount of time, even if the roads are clear, and those roads
toward Loos were crowded with the transport and gun-limbers of the
assaulting troops. To move them in daylight to the trenches meant
inevitable loss of life and almost certain demoralization under the
enemy’s gun-fire.

“Between 11 A.M. and 12 noon the central brigade of these divisions
filed past me at Bethune and Noeux-les-Mines, respectively,” wrote Sir
John French. It was not possible for them to reach our old trenches
until 4 P.M. It was Gen. Sir Frederick Maurice, the Chief of Staff, who
revealed that fact to me afterward in an official explanation, and it
was confirmed by battalion officers of the 24th Division whom I met.

That time-table led to disaster. By eight o’clock in the morning there
were Scots on Hill 70. They had been told to go “all out,” with the
promise that the ground they gained would be consolidated by following
troops. Yet no supports were due to arrive until 4 P.M. at our original
line of attack--still away back from Hill 70--by which time the enemy
had recovered from his first surprise, had reorganized his guns, and was
moving up his own supports. Tragedy befell the Scots on Hill 70 and in
the Cite St.-Auguste, as I have told. Worse tragedy happened to the 21st
and 24th Divisions. They became hopelessly checked and tangled in the
traffic of the roads, and in their heavy kit were exhausted long before
they reached the battlefield. They drank the water out of their bottles,
and then were parched. They ate their iron rations, and then were
hungry. Some of their transport moved too far forward in daylight, was
seen by German observers, ranged on by German guns, and blown to bits on
the road. The cookers were destroyed, and with them that night’s food.
None of the officers had been told that they were expected to attack on
that day. All they anticipated was the duty of holding the old support
trenches. In actual fact they arrived when the enemy was preparing
a heavy counter-attack and flinging over storms of shell-fire. The
officers had no maps and no orders. They were utterly bewildered with
the situation, and had no knowledge as to the where-abouts of the enemy
or their own objectives. Their men met heavy fire for the first time
when their physical and moral condition was weakened by the long march,
the lack of food and water, and the unexpected terror ahead of them.
They crowded into broken trenches, where shells burst over them and into
them. Young officers acting on their own initiative tried to lead their
men forward, and isolated parties went forward, but uncertainly,
not knowing the ground nor their purpose. Shrapnel lashed them, and
high-explosive shells plowed up the earth about them and with them.
Dusk came, and then darkness. Some officers were cursing, and some
wept, fearing dishonor. The men were huddled together like sheep without
shepherds when wolves are about, and saw by the bewilderment of the
officers that they were without leadership. It is that which makes for
demoralization, and these men, who afterward in the battle of the Somme
in the following year fought with magnificent valor, were on that day
at Loos demoralized in a tragic and complete way. Those who had gone
forward came back to the crowded trenches and added to the panic and
the rage and the anguish. Men smashed their rifles in a kind of madness.
Boys were cursing and weeping at the same time. They were too hopelessly
disordered and dismayed by the lack of guidance and by the shock to
their sense of discipline to be of much use in that battle. Some bodies
of them in both these unhappy divisions arrived in front of Hill 70 at
the very time when the enemy launched his first counter-attack, and
were driven back in disorder... Some days later I saw the 21st Division
marching back behind the lines. Rain slashed them. They walked with bent
heads. The young officers were blanched and had a beaten look. The sight
of those dejected men was tragic and pitiful.



XIV


Meanwhile, at 6 P.M. on the evening of the first day of battle, the
Guards arrived at Noeux-les-Mines. As I saw them march up, splendid
in their height and strength and glory of youth, I looked out for the
officers I knew, yet hoped I should not see them--that man who had given
a farewell touch to the flowers in the garden of our billet, that other
one who knew he would be wounded, those two young brothers who had
played cricket on a sunny afternoon. I did not see them, but saw only
columns of men, staring grimly ahead of them, with strange, unspeakable
thoughts behind their masklike faces.

It was not until the morning of the 26th that the Commander-in-Chief
“placed them at the disposal of the General Officer commanding First
Army,” and it was on the afternoon of Monday, the 27th, that they were
ordered to attack.

By that time we had lost Fosse 8, one brigade of the 9th Scottish
Division having been flung back to its own trenches after desperate
fighting, at frightful cost, after the capture of the Hohenzollern
redoubt by the 26th Brigade of that division. To the north of them the
7th Division was also suffering horrible losses after the capture of the
quarries, near Hulluch, and the village of Haisnes, which afterward was
lost. The commanding officers of both divisions, General Capper of the
7th, and General Thesiger of the 9th, were killed as they reconnoitered
the ground, and wounded men were pouring down to the casualty clearing
stations if they had the luck to get so far. Some of them had not
that luck, but lay for nearly two days before they were rescued by the
stretcher-bearers from Quality Street and Philosophe.

It was bad all along the line. The whole plan had gone astray from
the beginning. With an optimism which was splendid in fighting-men and
costly in the High Command, our men had attacked positions of enormous
strength--held by an enemy in the full height of his power--without
sufficient troops in reserve to follow up and support the
initial attack, to consolidate the ground, and resist inevitable
counter-attacks. What reserves the Commander-in-Chief had he held “in
his own hand” too long and too far back.

The Guards went in when the enemy was reorganized to meet them. The 28th
Division, afterward in support, was too late to be a decisive factor.

I do not blame Lord French. I have no right to blame him, as I am not
a soldier nor a military expert. He did his best, with the highest
motives. The blunders he made were due to ignorance of modern battles.
Many other generals made many other blunders, and our men paid with
their lives. Our High Command had to learn by mistakes, by ghastly
mistakes, repeated often, until they became visible to the military mind
and were paid for again by the slaughter of British youth. One does not
blame. A writing-man, who was an observer and recorder, like myself,
does not sit in judgment. He has no right to judge. He merely cries out,
“O God!... O God!” in remembrance of all that agony and that waste of
splendid boys who loved life, and died.

On Sunday, as I have told, the situation was full of danger. The Scots
of the 15th Division, weakened by many losses and exhausted by their
long fatigue, had been forced to abandon the important position of Puits
14--a mine-shaft half a mile north of Hill 70, linked up in defense with
the enemy’s redoubt on the northeast side of Hill 70. The Germans had
been given time to bring up their reserves, to reorganize their broken
lines, and to get their batteries into action again.

There was a consultation of anxious brigadiers in Loos when no man could
find safe shelter owing to the heavy shelling which now ravaged among
the houses. Rations were running short, and rain fell through the
roofless ruins, and officers and men shivered in wet clothes. Dead
bodies blown into bits, headless trunks, pools of blood, made a ghastly
mess in the roadways and the houses. Badly wounded men were dragged down
into the cellars, and lay there in the filth of Friday’s fighting. The
headquarters of one of the London brigades had put up in a roofless
barn, but were shelled out, and settled down on some heaps of brick in
the open. It was as cold as death in the night, and no fire could be
lighted, and iron rations were the only food, until two chaplains, “R.
C.” and Church of England (no difference of dogma then), came up
as volunteers in a perilous adventure, with bottles of hot soup in
mackintoshes. They brought a touch of human warmth to the brigade
staff, made those hours of the night more endurable, but the men farther
forward had no such luck. They were famishing and soaked, in a cold hell
where shells tossed up the earth about them and spattered them with the
blood and flesh of their comrades.

On Monday morning the situation was still more critical, all along the
line, and the Guards were ordered up to attack Hill 70, to which only
a few Scots were clinging on the near slopes. The 6th Cavalry Brigade
dismounted--no more dreams of exploiting success and galloping round
Lens--were sent into Loos with orders to hold the village at all cost,
with the men of the 15th Division, who had been left there.

The Londoners were still holding on to the chalk-pit south of Loos,
under murderous fire.

It was a bad position for the troops sent into action at that stage.
The result of the battle on September 25th had been to create a salient
thrust like a wedge into the German position and enfiladed by their
guns. The sides of the salient ran sharply back--from Hulluch in the
north, past the chalk-quarries to Givenchy, and in the south from the
lower slopes of Hill 70 past the Double Crassier to Grenay. The orders
given to the Guards were to straighten out this salient on the north by
capturing the whole of Hill 70, Puits 14, to the north of it, and the
chalk-pit still farther north.

It was the 2d Brigade of Guards, including Grenadiers, Welsh and Scots
Guards, which was to lead the assault, while the 1st Brigade on the
left maintained a holding position and the 3d Brigade was in support,
immediately behind.

As soon as the Guards started to attack they were met by a heavy storm
of gas-shells. This checked them for a time, as smoke-helmets--the old
fashioned things of flannel which were afterward changed for the masks
with nozzles--had to be served out, and already men were choking and
gasping in the poisonous fumes. Among them was the colonel of the
Grenadiers, whose command was taken over by the major. Soon the men
advanced again, looking like devils, as, in artillery formation (small
separate groups), they groped their way through the poisoned clouds.
Shrapnel and high explosives burst over them and among them, and many
men fell as they came within close range of the enemy’s positions
running from Hill 70 northward to the chalk-pit.

The Irish Guards, supported by the Coldstreamers, advanced down the
valley beyond Loos and gained the lower edge of Bois Hugo, near the
chalk-pit, while the Scots Guards assaulted Puits 14 and the building in
its group of houses known as the Keep. Another body of Guards, including
Grenadiers and Welsh, attacked at the same time the lower slopes of Hill
70.

Puits 14 itself was won by a party of Scots Guards, led by an officer
named Captain Cuthbert, which engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, routing
out the enemy from the houses. Some companies of the Grenadiers came to
the support of their comrades in the Scots Guards, but suffered heavy
losses themselves. A platoon under a young lieutenant named Ayres
Ritchie reached the Puits, and, storming their way into the Keep,
knocked out a machine-gun, mounted on the second floor, by a desperate
bombing attack. The officer held on in a most dauntless way to the
position, until almost every man was either killed or wounded, unable to
receive support, owing to the enfilade fire of the German machine-guns.

Night had now come on, the sky lightened by the bursting of shells and
flares, and terrible in its tumult of battle. Some of the Coldstreamers
had gained possession of the chalk-pit, which they were organizing
into a strong defensive position, and various companies of the Guards
divisions, after heroic assaults upon Hill 70, where they were shattered
by the fire which met them on the crest from the enemy’s redoubt on the
northeast side, had dug themselves into the lower slopes.

There was a strange visitor that day at the headquarters of the Guards
division, where Lord Cavan was directing operations. A young officer
came in and said, quite calmly: “Sir, I have to report that my battalion
has been cut to pieces. We have been utterly destroyed.”

Lord Cavan questioned him, and then sent for another officer. “Look
after that young man,” he said, quietly. “He is mad. It is a case of
shell-shock.”

Reports came through of a mysterious officer going the round of the
batteries, saying that the Germans had broken through and that they had
better retire. Two batteries did actually move away.

Another unknown officer called out, “Retire! Retire!” until he was shot
through the head. “German spies!” said some of our officers and men, but
the Intelligence branch said, “Not spies... madmen... poor devils!”

Before the dawn came the Coldstreamers made another desperate attempt to
attack and hold Puits 14, but the position was too deadly even for their
height of valor, and although some men pushed on into this raging fire,
the survivors had to fall back to the woods, where they strengthened
their defensive works.

On the following day the position was the same, the sufferings of
our men being still further increased by heavy shelling from 8-inch
howitzers. Colonel Egerton of the Coldstream Guards and his adjutant
were killed in the chalk-pit.

It was now seen by the headquarters staff of the Guards Division that
Puits 14 was untenable, owing to its enfilading by heavy artillery, and
the order was given for a retirement to the chalk-pit, which was a place
of sanctuary owing to the wonderful work done throughout the night to
strengthen its natural defensive features by sand--bags and barbed wire,
in spite of machine-guns which raked it from the neighboring woods.

The retirement was done as though the men were on parade, slowly, and
in perfect order, across the field of fire, each man bearing himself, so
their officers told me, as though at the Trooping of the Colors, until
now one and then another fell in a huddled heap. It was an astonishing
tribute to the strength of tradition among troops. To safeguard the
honor of a famous name these men showed such dignity in the presence of
death that even the enemy must have been moved to admiration.

But they had failed, after suffering heavy losses, and the
Commander-in-Chief had to call upon the French for help, realizing that
without strong assistance the salient made by that battle of Loos would
be a death-trap. The French Tenth Army had failed, too, at Vimy, thus
failing to give the British troops protection on their right flank.

“On representing this to General Joffre,” wrote Sir John French, “he was
kind enough to ask the commander of the northern group of French armies
to render us assistance. General Foch met those demands in the same
friendly spirit which he has always displayed throughout the course
of the whole campaign, and expressed his readiness to give me all the
support he could. On the morning of the 28th we discussed the situation,
and the general agreed to send the 9th French Corps to take over
the ground occupied by us, extending from the French left up to and
including that portion of Hill 70 which we were holding, and also
the village of Loos. This relief was commenced on September 30th, and
completed on the two following nights.”

So ended the battle of Loos, except for a violent counter--attack
delivered on October 8th all along the line from Fosse 8 on the north
to the right of the French 9th Corps on the south, with twenty-eight
battalions in the first line of assault. It was preceded by a stupendous
bombardment which inflicted heavy casualties upon our 1st Division
in the neighborhood of the chalk-pit, and upon the Guards holding the
Hohenzollern redoubt near Hulluch. Once again those brigades, which had
been sorely tried, had to crouch under a fury of fire, until the living
were surrounded by dead, half buried or carved up into chunks of flesh
in the chaos of broken trenches. The Germans had their own shambles,
more frightful, we were told, than ours, and thousands of dead lay in
front of our lines when the tide of their attack ebbed back and waves
of living men were broken by the fire of our field-guns, rifles, and
machine-guns. Sir John French’s staff estimated the number of German
dead as from eight to nine thousand. It was impossible to make any
accurate sum in that arithmetic of slaughter, and always the enemy’s
losses were exaggerated because of the dreadful need of balancing
accounts in new-made corpses in that Debit and Credit of war’s
bookkeeping.

What had we gained by great sacrifices of life? Not Lens, nor Lille, nor
even Hill 70 (for our line had to be withdrawn from those bloody slopes
where our men left many of their dead), but another sharp-edged salient
enfiladed by German guns for two years more, and a foothold on one slag
heap of the Double Crassier, where our men lived, if they could, a
few yards from Germans on the other; and that part of the Hohenzollern
redoubt which became another Hooge where English youth was blown up by
mines, buried by trench-mortars, condemned to a living death in lousy
caves dug into the chalk. Another V-shaped salient, narrower than that
of Ypres, more dismal, and as deadly, among the pit-heads and the black
dust hills and the broken mine-shafts of that foul country beyond Loos.

The battle which had been begun with such high hopes ended in ghastly
failure by ourselves and by the French. Men who came back from it spoke
in whispers of its generalship and staff work, and said things which
were dangerous to speak aloud, cursing their fate as fighting-men,
asking of God as well as of mortals why the courage of the soldiers they
led should be thrown away in such a muck of slaughter, laughing with
despairing mirth at the optimism of their leaders, who had been lured
on by a strange, false, terrible belief in German weakness, and looking
ahead at unending vistas of such massacre as this which would lead only
to other salients, after desperate and futile endeavor.



PART FOUR. A WINTER OF DISCONTENT



I


The winter of 1915 was, I think, the worst of all. There was a settled
hopelessness in it which was heavy in the hearts of men--ours and the
enemy’s. In 1914 there was the first battle of Ypres, when the bodies
of British soldiers lay strewn in the fields beyond this city and their
brown lines barred the way to Calais, but the war did not seem likely to
go on forever. Most men believed, even then, that it would end quickly,
and each side had faith in some miracle that might happen. In 1916-17
the winter was foul over the fields of the Somme after battles which had
cut all our divisions to pieces and staggered the soul of the world
by the immense martyrdom of boys--British, French, and German--on the
western front. But the German retreat from the Somme to the shelter of
their Hindenburg line gave some respite to our men, and theirs, from the
long-drawn fury of attack and counter-attack, and from the intensity of
gun-fire. There was at best the mirage of something like victory on
our side, a faint flickering up of the old faith that the Germans had
weakened and were nearly spent.

But for a time in those dark days of 1915 there was no hope ahead. No
mental dope by which our fighting-men could drug themselves into seeing
a vision of the war’s end.

The battle of Loos and its aftermath of minor massacres in the ground
we had gained--the new horror of that new salient--had sapped into the
confidence of those battalion officers and men who had been assured of
German weakness by cheery, optimistic, breezy-minded generals. It was no
good some of those old gentlemen saying, “We’ve got ‘em beat!” when
from Hooge to the Hohenzollern redoubt our men sat in wet trenches under
ceaseless bombardment of heavy guns, and when any small attack they made
by the orders of a High Command which believed in small attacks,
without much plan or purpose, was only “asking for trouble” from German
counterattacks by mines, trench-mortars, bombing sorties, poison-gas,
flame-throwers, and other forms of frightfulness which made a dirty mess
of flesh and blood, without definite result on either side beyond piling
up the lists of death.

“It keeps up the fighting spirit of the men,” said the generals. “We
must maintain an aggressive policy.”

They searched their trench maps for good spots where another “small
operation” might be organized. There was a competition among the
corps and divisional generals as to the highest number of raids, mine
explosions, trench-grabbings undertaken by their men.

“My corps,” one old general told me over a cup of tea in his
headquarters mess, “beats the record for raids.” His casualties also
beat the record, and many of his officers and men called him, just
bluntly and simply, “Our old murderer.” They disliked the necessity of
dying so that he might add one more raid to his heroic competition with
the corps commander of the sector on the left. When they waited for the
explosion of a mine which afterward they had to “rush” in a race with
the German bombing-parties, some of them saw no sense in the proceeding,
but only the likelihood of having legs and arms torn off by German
stick-bombs or shells. “What’s the good of it?” they asked, and could
find no answer except the satisfaction of an old man listening to the
distant roar of the new tumult by which he had “raised hell” again.



II


The autumn of 1915 was wet in Flanders and Artois, where our men settled
down--knee-deep where the trenches were worst--for the winter campaign.
On rainy days, as I remember, a high wind hurtled over the Flemish
fields, but it was moist, and swept gusts of rain into the faces of men
marching through mud to the fighting-lines and of other men doing sentry
on the fire-steps of trenches into which water came trickling down the
slimy parapets.

When the wind dropped at dusk or dawn a whitish fog crept out of
the ground, so that rifles were clammy to the touch and a blanket of
moisture settled on every stick in the dugouts, and nothing could be
seen through the veil of vapor to the enemy’s lines, where he stayed
invisible.

He was not likely to attack on a big scale while the battlefields were
in that quagmire state. An advancing wave of men would have been clogged
in the mud after the first jump over the slimy sand-bags, and to advance
artillery was sheer impossibility. Nothing would be done on either side
but stick-in-the-mud warfare and those trench-raids and minings which
had no object except “to keep up the spirit of the men.” There was
always work to do in the trenches--draining them, strengthening their
parapets, making their walls, tiling or boarding their floorways,
timbering the dugouts, and after it was done another rainstorm or
snowstorm undid most of it, and the parapets slid down, the water poured
in, and spaces were opened for German machine-gun fire, and there was
less head cover against shrapnel bullets which mixed with the raindrops,
and high explosives which smashed through the mud. The working parties
had a bad time and a wet one, in spite of waders and gum boots which
were served out to lucky ones. Some of them wore a new kind of hat, seen
for the first time, and greeted with guffaws--the “tin” hat which later
became the headgear of all fighting-men. It saved many head wounds, but
did not save body wounds, and every day the casualty lists grew longer
in the routine of a warfare in which there was “Nothing to report.”

Our men were never dry. They were wet in their trenches and wet in their
dugouts. They slept in soaking clothes, with boots full of water, and
they drank rain with their tea, and ate mud with their “bully,” and
endured it all with the philosophy of “grin and bear it!” and laughter,
as I heard them laughing in those places between explosive curses.

On the other side of the barbed wire the Germans were more miserable,
not because their plight was worse, but because I think they lacked the
English sense of humor. In some places they had the advantage of our men
in better trenches, with better drains and dugouts--due to an industry
with which ours could never compete. Here and there, as in the ground
to the north of Hooge, they were in a worse state, with such rivers
in their trenches that they went to enormous trouble to drain the
Bellewarde Lake which used to slop over in the rainy season. Those
field-gray men had to wade through a Slough of Despond to get to their
line, and at night by Hooge where the lines were close together--only
a few yards apart--our men could hear their boots squelching in the mud
with sucking, gurgling noises.

“They’re drinking soup again!” said our humorists.

There, at Hooge, Germans and English talked to one another, out of their
common misery.

“How deep is it with you?” shouted a German soldier.

His voice came from behind a pile of sand-bags which divided the enemy
and ourselves in a communication trench between the main lines.

“Up to our blooming knees,” said an English corporal, who was trying to
keep his bombs dry under a tarpaulin.

“So?... You are lucky fellows. We are up to our belts in it.”

It was so bad in parts of the line during November storms that whole
sections of trench collapsed into a chaos of slime and ooze. It was the
frost as well as the rain which caused this ruin, making the earthworks
sink under their weight of sand-bags. German and English soldiers were
exposed to one another like ants upturned from their nests by a minor
landslide. They ignored one another. They pretended that the other
fellows were not there. They had not been properly introduced. In
another place, reckless because of their discomfort, the Germans crawled
upon their slimy parapets and sat on top to dry their legs, and shouted:
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

Our men did not shoot. They, too, sat on the parapets drying their
legs, and grinning at the gray ants yonder, until these incidents were
reported back to G. H. Q.--where good fires were burning under dry
roofs--and stringent orders came against “fraternization.” Every German
who showed himself was to be shot. Of course any Englishman who showed
himself--owing to a parapet falling in--would be shot, too. It was six
of one and half a dozen of the other, as always, in this trench warfare,
but the dignity of G. H. Q. would not be outraged by the thought of such
indecent spectacles as British and Germans refusing to kill each other
on sight. Some of the men obeyed orders, and when a German sat up and
said, “Don’t shoot!” plugged him through the head. Others were extremely
short-sighted... Now and again Germans crawled over to our trenches and
asked meekly to be taken prisoner. I met a few of these men and spoke
with them.

“There is no sense in this war,” said one of them. “It is misery on both
sides. There is no use in it.”

That thought of war’s futility inspired an episode which was narrated
throughout the army in that winter of ‘15, and led to curious
conversations in dugouts and billets. Above a German front-line trench
appeared a plank on which, in big letters, was scrawled these words

“The English are fools.”

“Not such bloody fools as all that!” said a sergeant, and in a few
minutes the plank was smashed to splinters by rifle-fire.

Another plank appeared, with other words:

“The French are fools.”

Loyalty to our allies caused the destruction of that board.

A third plank was put up:

“We’re all fools. Let’s all go home.”

That board was also shot to pieces, but the message caused some
laughter, and men repeating it said: “There’s a deal of truth in those
words. Why should this go on? What’s it all about? Let the old men who
made this war come and fight it out among themselves, at Hooge. The
fighting-men have no real quarrel with one another. We all want to go
home to our wives and our work.”

But neither side was prepared to “go home” first. Each side was in a
trap--a devil’s trap from which there was no escape. Loyalty to their
own side, discipline, with the death penalty behind it, spell words of
old tradition, obedience to the laws of war or to the caste which ruled
them, all the moral and spiritual propaganda handed out by pastors,
newspapers, generals, staff-officers, old men at home, exalted women,
female furies, a deep and simple love for England and Germany, pride
of manhood, fear of cowardice--a thousand complexities of thought and
sentiment prevented men, on both sides, from breaking the net of fate in
which they were entangled, and revolting against that mutual, unceasing
massacre, by a rising from the trenches with a shout of, “We’re all
fools!... Let’s all go home!”

In Russia they did so, but the Germans did not go home, too. As an army
and a nation they went on to the Peace of Brest-Litovsk and their doom.
But many German soldiers were converted to that gospel of “We’re all
fools!” and would not fight again with any spirit, as we found at times,
after August 8th, in the last year of war.



III


The men remained in the trenches, and suffered horribly. I have told
about lice and rats and mine-shafts there. Another misery came to
torture soldiers in the line, and it was called “trench-foot.” Many men
standing in slime for days and nights in field boots or puttees lost all
sense of feeling in their feet. These feet of theirs, so cold and wet,
began to swell, and then to go “dead,” and then suddenly to burn as
though touched by red-hot pokers. When the “reliefs” went up scores
of men could not walk back from the trenches, but had to crawl, or be
carried pick-a-back by their comrades, to the field dressing stations.
So I saw hundreds of them, and, as the winter dragged on, thousands. The
medical officers cut off their boots and their puttees, and the socks
that had become part of their skins, exposing blackened and rotting
feet. They put oil on them, and wrapped them round with cotton-wool,
and tied labels to their tunics with the name of that new
disease--“trench-foot.” Those medical officers looked serious as the
number of cases increased.

“This is getting beyond a joke,” they said. “It is pulling down the
battalion strength worse than wounds.”

Brigadiers and divisional generals were gloomy, and cursed the new
affliction of their men. Some of them said it was due to damned
carelessness, others were inclined to think it due to deliberate
malingering at a time when there were many cases of self-inflicted
wounds by men who shot their fingers away, or their toes, to get out of
the trenches.

There was no look of malingering on the faces of those boys who were
being carried pick-a-back to the ambulance-trains at Remy siding,
near Poperinghe, with both feet crippled and tied up in bundles of
cotton-wool. The pain was martyrizing, like that of men tied to burning
fagots for conscience’ sake. In one battalion of the 49th (West Riding)
Division there were over four hundred cases in that winter of ‘15. Other
battalions in the Ypres salient suffered as much.

It was not until the end of the winter, when oil was taken up to the
trenches and rubbing drill was ordered, two or three times a day, that
the malady of trench-foot was reduced, and at last almost eliminated.

The spirit of the men fought against all that misery, resisted it, and
would not be beaten by it.

A sergeant of the West Riding Division was badly wounded as he stood
thigh-high in water. A bomb or a trench-mortar smashed one of his legs
into a pulp of bloody flesh and splintered bone. Word was passed down to
the field ambulance, and a surgeon came up, splashed to the neck in mud,
with his instruments held high. The operation was done in the water,
red with the blood of the wounded man, who was then brought down, less
a leg, to the field hospital. He was put on one side as a man about to
die... But that evening he chattered cheerfully, joked with the priest
who came to anoint him, and wrote a letter to his wife.

“I hope this will find you in the pink, as it leaves me,” he began. He
mentioned that he had had an “accident” which had taken one of his legs
away. “But the youngsters will like to play with my wooden peg,” he
wrote, and discussed the joke of it. The people round his bed marveled
at him, though day after day they saw great courage; such courage as
that of another man who was brought in mortally wounded and lay next to
a comrade on the operating table.

“Stick it, lad!” he said, “stick it!” and turned his head a little to
look at his friend.

Many of our camps were hardly better than the trenches. Only by
duck-boards could one walk about the morass in which huts were built and
tents were pitched. In the wagon lines gunners tried in vain to groom
their horses, and floundered about in their gum boots, cursing the mud
which clogged bits and chains and bridles, and could find no comfort
anywhere between Dickebusch and Locre.



IV


The Hohenzollern redoubt, near Fosse 8, captured by the 9th Scottish
Division in the battle of Loos, could not be held then under
concentrated gun-fire from German batteries, and the Scots, and the
Guards who followed them, after heavy losses, could only cling on to
part of a communication trench (on the southeast side of the earthworks)
nicknamed “Big Willie,” near another trench called “Little Willie.” Our
enemies forced their way back into some of their old trenches in this
outpost beyond their main lines, and in spite of the chaos produced by
our shell-fire built up new parapets and sand-bag barricades, flung out
barbed wire, and dug themselves into this graveyard where their dead and
ours were strewn.

Perhaps there was some reason why our generals should covet possession
of the Hohenzollern redoubt, some good military reason beyond the spell
of a high-sounding name. I went up there one day when it was partly ours
and stared at its rigid waves of mine-craters and trench parapets and
upheaved chalk, dazzling white under a blue sky, and failed to see any
beauty in the spot, or any value in it--so close to the German lines
that one could not cough for fear of losing one’s head. It seemed to me
a place not to gain and not to hold. If I had been a general (appalling
thought!) I should have said: “Let the enemy have that little hell of
his. Let men live there among half-buried bodies and crawling lice, and
the stench of rotting flesh. There is no good in it for us, and for him
will be an abomination, dreaded by his men.”

But our generals desired it. They hated to think that the enemy should
have crawled back to it after our men had been there. They decided to
“bite it off,” that blunt nose which was thrust forward to our line.
It was an operation that would be good to report in the official
communique. Its capture would, no doubt, increase the morale of our men
after their dead had been buried and their wounded patched up and their
losses forgotten.

It was to the 46th Midland Division that the order of assault was
given on October 13th, and into the trenches went the lace-makers of
Nottingham, and the potters of the Five Towns, and the boot-makers of
Leicester, North Staffordshires, and Robin Hoods and Sherwood Foresters,
on the night of the 12th.

On the following morning our artillery concentrated a tremendous fire
upon the redoubt, followed at 1 P.M. by volumes of smoke and gas. The
chief features on this part of the German line were, on the right, a
group of colliers’ houses known as the Corons de Pekin, and a slag heap
known as the Dump, to the northeast of that bigger dump called Fosse
8, and on the left another group of cottages, and another black hillock
farther to the right of the Fosse. These positions were in advance of
the Hohenzollern redoubt which our troops were to attack.

It was not an easy task. It was hellish. Intense as our artillery
fire had been, it failed to destroy the enemy’s barbed wire and front
trenches sufficiently to clear the way, and the Germans were still
working their machine-guns when the fuses were lengthened, the fire
lifted, and the gas-clouds rolled away.

I saw that bombardment on the morning of Wednesday, October 13th, and
the beginning of the attack from a slag heap close to some of our heavy
guns. It was a fine, clear day, and some of the French miners living
round the pit-heads on our side of the battle line climbed up iron
ladders and coal heaps, roused to a new interest in the spectacle of war
which had become a monotonous and familiar thing in their lives, because
the intensity of our gun-fire and the volumes of smoke-clouds, and a
certain strange, whitish vapor which was wafted from our lines toward
the enemy stirred their imagination, dulled by the daily din of guns, to
a sense of something beyond the usual flight of shells in their part of
the war zone.

“The English are attacking again!” was the message which brought
out these men still living among ruined cottages on the edge of
the slaughter-fields. They stared into the mist, where, beyond the
brightness of the autumn sun, men were about to fight and die. It was
the same scene that I had watched when I went up to the Loos redoubt in
the September battle--a flat, bare, black plain, crisscrossed with
the whitish earth of the trenches rising a little toward Loos and then
falling again so that in the village there only the Tower Bridge was
visible, with its steel girders glinting, high over the horizon line. To
the left the ruins of Hulluch fretted the low-lying clouds of smoke, and
beyond a huddle of broken houses far away was the town of Haisnes. Fosse
8 and the Hohenzollern redoubt were hummocks of earth faintly visible
through drifting clouds of thick, sluggish vapor.

On the edge of this battleground the fields were tawny under the golden
light of the autumn sun, and the broken towers of village churches, red
roofs shattered by shell-fire, trees stripped bare of all leaves before
the wind of autumn touched them, were painted in clear outlines against
the gray-blue of the sky.

Our guns had been invisible. Not one of all those batteries which were
massed over a wide stretch of country could be located before the battle
by a searching glass. But when the bombardment began it seemed as though
our shells came from every field and village for miles back, behind the
lines.

The glitter of those bursting shells stabbed through the smoke of
their explosion with little, twinkling flashes, like the sparkle of
innumerable mirrors heliographing messages of death. There was one
incessant roar rising and falling in waves of prodigious sound.
The whole line of battle was in a grayish murk, which obscured all
landmarks, so that even the Tower Bridge was but faintly visible.

Presently, when our artillery lifted, there were new clouds rising from
the ground and spreading upward in a great dense curtain of a fleecy
texture. They came from our smoke-shells, which were to mask our
infantry attack. Through them and beyond them rolled another wave of
cloud, a thinner, whiter vapor, which clung to the ground and then
curled forward to the enemy’s lines.

“That’s our gas!” said a voice on one of the slag heaps, amid a group of
observers--English and French officers.

“And the wind is dead right for it,” said another voice. “The Germans
will get a taste of it this time!”

Then there was silence, and some of those observers held their breath as
though that gas had caught their own throats and choked them a little.
They tried to pierce through that bar of cloud to see the drama behind
its curtain--men caught in those fumes, the terror-stricken flight
before its advance, the sudden cry of the enemy trapped in their
dugouts. Imagination leaped out, through invisibility, to the
realization of the things that were happening beyond.

From our place of observation there were brief glimpses of the human
element in this scene of impersonal powers and secret forces. Across
a stretch of flat ground beyond some of those zigzag lines of trenches
little black things were scurrying forward. They were not bunched
together in close groups, but scattered. Some of them seemed to
hesitate, and then to fall and lie where they fell, others hurrying on
until they disappeared in the drifting clouds.

It was the foremost line of our infantry attack, led by the bombers.
The Germans were firing tempests of shells. Some of them were curiously
colored, of a pinkish hue, or with orange-shaped puffs of vivid green.
They were poison-shells giving out noxious gases. All the chemistry of
death was poured out on both sides--and through it went the men of the
Midland Division.

The attack on the right was delivered by a brigade of Staffordshire men,
who advanced in four lines toward the Big Willie trench which formed the
southeast side of the Hohenzollern redoubt. The leading companies, who
were first over our own parapets, made a quick rush, half blinded by
the smoke and the gaseous vapors which filled the air, and were at once
received by a deadly fire from many machine-guns. It swept their ranks,
and men fell on all sides. Others ran on in little parties flung out in
extended order.

Young officers behaved with desperate gallantry, and as they fell
cheered their men on, while others ran forward shouting, followed by
numbers which dwindled at every yard, so that only a few reached the Big
Willie trench in the first assault.

A bombing-party of North Staffordshire men cleared thirty yards of the
trench by the rapidity with which they flung their hand-grenades at the
German bombers who endeavored to keep them out, and again and again they
kept at bay a tide of field-gray men, who swarmed up the communication
trenches, by a series of explosions which blew many of them to bits
as bomb after bomb was hurled into their mass. Other Germans followed,
flinging their own stick-bombs.

The Staffordshires did not yield until nearly every man was wounded and
many were killed. Even then they retreated yard by yard, still flinging
grenades almost with the rhythm of a sower who scatters his seed, each
motion of the hand and arm letting go one of those steel pomegranates
which burst with the noise of a high-explosive shell.

The survivors fell back to the other side of a barricade made in the Big
Willie trench by some of their men behind. Behind them again was another
barrier, in case the first should be rushed.

It seemed as if they might be rushed now, for the Germans were swarming
up Big Willie with strong bombing-parties, and would soon blast a way
through unless they were thrust beyond the range of hand-grenades. It
was a young lieutenant named Hawker, with some South Staffordshire men,
who went forward to meet this attack and kept the enemy back until four
o’clock in the afternoon, when only a few living men stood among the
dead and they had to fall back to the second barrier.

Darkness now crept over the battlefield and filled the trenches, and in
the darkness the wounded men were carried back to the rear, while those
who had escaped worked hard to strengthen their defenses by sand-bags
and earthworks, knowing that their only chance of life lay in fierce
industry.

Early next morning an attempt was made by other battalions to come to
the relief of those who held on behind those barriers in Big Willie
trench. They were Nottingham men--Robin Hoods and other Sherwood
lads--and they came across the open ground in two directions, attacking
the west as well as the east ends of the German communication trenches
which formed the face of the Hohenzollern redoubt.

They were supported by rifle grenade-fire, but their advance was met by
intense fire from artillery and machine-guns, so that many were blown
to bits or mangled or maimed, and none could reach their comrades in Big
Willie trench.

While one brigade of the Midland men had been fighting like this on
the right, another brigade had been engaged on the left. It contained
Sherwood, Leicester, and Lincoln men, who, on the afternoon of October
13th, went forward to the assault with very desperate endeavor.
Advancing in four lines, the leading companies were successful in
reaching the Hohenzollern redoubt, smashed through the barbed wire, part
of which was uncut, and reached the Fosse trench which forms the north
base of the salient.

Machine-gun fire cut down the first two lines severely and the two
remaining lines were heavily shelled by German artillery. It was an hour
in which the courage of those men was agonized. They were exposed on
naked ground swept by bullets, the atmosphere was heavy with gas and
smoke; all the abomination of battle--he moaning of the wounded, the
last cries of the dying, the death-crawl of stricken beings holding
their broken limbs and their entrails--was around them, and in front
a hidden enemy with unlimited supplies of ammunition and a better
position.

The Robin Hoods and the men of Lincoln and Leicestershire were sustained
in that shambles by the spirit that had come to them through the old
yeoman stock in which their traditions were rooted, and those who had
not fallen went forward, past their wounded comrades, past these poor,
bloody, moaning men, to the German trenches behind the redoubt.

At 2.15 P.M. some Monmouth men came up in support, and while their
bombers were at work some of the Lincolns pushed up with a machine-gun
to a point within sixty yards from the Fosse trench, where they stayed
till dark, and then were forced to fall back.

At this time parties of bombers were trying to force their way up
the Little Willie trench on the extreme left of the redoubt, and here
ghastly fighting took place. Some of the Leicesters made a dash three
hundred yards up the trench, but were beaten back by overpowering
numbers of German bombers and bayonet-men, and again and again other
Midland lads went up that alleyway of death, flinging their grenades
until they fell or until few comrades were left to support them as they
stood among their dead and dying.

Single men held on, throwing and throwing, until there was no strength
in their arms to hurl another bomb, or until death came to them. Yet
the business went on through the darkness of the afternoon, and into
the deeper darkness of the night, lit luridly at moments by the white
illumination of German flares and by the flash of bursting shells.

Isolated machine-guns in uncaptured parts of the redoubt still beat a
tattoo like the ruffle of war-drums, and from behind the barriers in
the Big Willie trench came the sharp crack of English rifles, and dull
explosions of other bombs flung by other Englishmen very hard pressed
that night.

In the outer trenches, at the nose of the salient, fresh companies of
Sherwood lads were feeling their way along, mixed up confusedly with
comrades from other companies, wounded or spent with fighting, but
determined to hold the ground they had won.

Some of the Robin Hoods up Little Willie trench were holding out
desperately and almost at the last gasp, when they were relieved by
other Sherwoods, and it was here that a young officer named Vickers was
found in the way that won him his V.C.

Charles Geoffrey Vickers stood there for hours against a horde of men
eager for his death, eager to get at the men behind him. But they could
not approach. He and his fellow-bombers kept twenty yards or more clear
before them, and any man who flung himself forward was the target of a
hand-grenade.

From front and from flank German bombs came whizzing, falling short
sometimes, with a blasting roar that tore down lumps of trench, and
sometimes falling very close--close enough to kill.

Vickers saw some of his best men fall, but he kept the barrier still
intact by bombing and bombing.

When many of his comrades were dead or wounded, he wondered how long the
barrier would last, and gave orders for another to be built behind him,
so that when the rush came it would be stopped behind him--and over him.

Men worked at that barricade, piling up sand-bags, and as it was built
that young lieutenant knew that his own retreat was being cut off and
that he was being coffined in that narrow space. Two other men were with
him--I never learned their names--and they were hardly enough to hand up
bombs as quickly as he wished to throw them.

Away there up the trench the Germans were waiting for a pounce. Though
wounded so that he felt faint and giddy, he called out for more bombs.
“More!” he said, “More!” and his hand was like a machine reaching out
and throwing.

Rescue came at last, and the wounded officer was hauled over the
barricade which he had ordered to be built behind him, closing up his
way of escape.

All through October 14th the Midland men of the 46th Division held on to
their ground, and some of the Sherwoods made a new attack, clearing the
enemy out of the east portion of the redoubt.

It was lucky that it coincided with a counter-attack made by the enemy
at a different point, because it relieved the pressure there. Bombing
duels continued hour after hour, and human nature could hardly have
endured so long a struggle without fatigue beyond the strength of men.

So it seems; yet when a brigade of Guards came up on the night of
October 15th the enemy attacked along the whole line of redoubts,
and the Midland men, who were just about to leave the trenches, found
themselves engaged in a new action. They had to fight again before they
could go, and they fought like demons or demigods for their right of way
and home, and bombed the enemy back to his holes in the ground.

So ended the assault on the Hohenzollern by the Midland men of England,
whose division, years later, helped to break the Hindenburg line along
the great canal south of St.-Quentin.

What good came of it mortal men cannot say, unless the generals who
planned it hold the secret. It cost a heavy price in life and agony. It
demonstrated the fighting spirit of many English boys who did the best
they could, with the rage, and fear, and madness of great courage,
before they died or fell, and it left some living men, and others who
relieved them in Big Willie and Little Willie trenches, so close to the
enemy that one could hear them cough, or swear in guttural whispers.

And through the winter of ‘15, and the years that followed, the
Hohenzollern redoubt became another Hooge, as horrible as Hooge, as
deadly, as damnable in its filthy perils, where men of English blood,
and Irish, and Scottish, took their turn, and hated it, and counted
themselves lucky if they escaped from its prison-house, whose walls
stank of new and ancient death.

* * *

Among those who took their turn in the hell of the Hohenzollern were
the men of the 12th Division, New Army men, and all of the old stock and
spirit of England, bred in the shires of Norfolk and Suffolk, Gloucester
and Bedford, and in Surrey, Kent, Sussex, and Middlesex (which meant
London), as the names of their battalions told. In September they
relieved the Guards and cavalry at Loos; in December they moved on to
Givenchy, and in February they began a long spell at the Hohenzollern.
It was there the English battalions learned the worst things of war and
showed the quality of English courage.

A man of Kent, named Corporal Cotter, of the Buffs, was marvelous in
spirit, stronger than the flesh.

On the night of March 6th an attack was made by his company along an
enemy trench, but his own bombing--party was cut off, owing to heavy
casualties in the center of the attack. Things looked serious and Cotter
went back under heavy fire to report and bring up more bombs.

On the return journey his right leg was blown off close below the knee
and he was wounded in both arms. By a kind of miracle--the miracle of
human courage--he did not drop down and die in the mud of the trench,
mud so deep that unwounded men found it hard to walk--but made his way
along fifty yards of trench toward the crater where his comrades were
hard pressed. He came up to Lance-corporal Newman, who was bombing
with his sector to the right of the position. Cotter called to him and
directed him to bomb six feet toward where help was most needed, and
worked his way forward to the crater where the Germans had developed a
violent counter-attack.

Men fell rapidly under the enemy’s bomb-fire, but Cotter, with only
one leg, and bleeding from both arms, steadied his comrades, who were
beginning to have the wind-up, as they say, issued orders, controlled
the fire, and then altered dispositions to meet the attack. It was
repulsed after two hours’ fighting, and only then did Cotter allow
his wounds to be bandaged. From the dug--out where he lay while the
bombardment still continued he called out cheery words to the men, until
he was carried down, fourteen hours later. He received the V. C., but
died of his wounds.

Officers and men vied with one another, yet not for honor or reward,
round these craters of the Hohenzollern, and in the mud, and the fumes
of shells, and rain-swept darkness, and all the black horror of such a
time and place, sometimes in groups and sometimes quite alone, did acts
of supreme valor. When all the men in one of these infernal craters were
dead or wounded Lieut. Lea Smith, of the Buffs, ran forward with a Lewis
gun, helped by Private Bradley, and served it during a fierce attack by
German bombers until it jammed.

Then he left the gun and took to bombing, and that single figure of his,
flinging grenades like an overarm bowler, kept the enemy at bay until
reinforcements reached him.

Another officer of the Buff’s--by name Smeltzer--withdrew his platoon
under heavy fire, and, although he was wounded, fought his way back
slowly to prevent the enemy from following up. The men were proud of
his gallantry, but when he was asked what he had done he could think of
nothing except that “when the Boches began shelling I got into a dugout,
and when they stopped I came out again.”

There were many men like that who did amazing things and, in the English
way, said nothing of them. Of that modesty was Capt. Augrere Dawson, of
the West Kents, who did not bother much about a bullet he met on his way
to a crater, though it traveled through his chest to his shoulder-blade.
He had it dressed, and then went back to lead his men, and remained with
them until the German night attack was repulsed. He was again wounded,
this time in the thigh, but did not trouble the stretcher-men (they
had a lot to do on the night of March 18th and 19th), and trudged back
alone.

It was valor that was paid for by flesh and blood. The honors gained by
the 12th Division in a few months of trench warfare--one V. C.,
sixteen D. S. C.’s, forty-five Military Crosses, thirty-four Military
Medals--were won by the loss in casualties of more than fourteen
thousand men. That is to say, the losses of their division in that time,
made up by new drafts, was 100 per cent.; and the Hohenzollern took the
highest toll of life and limbs.



V


I heard no carols in the trenches on Christmas Eve in 1915, but
afterward, when I sat with a pint of water in each of my top-boots,
among a company of men who were wet to the knees and slathered with
moist mud, a friend of mine raised his hand and said, “Listen!”

Through the open door came the music of a mouth--organ, and it was
playing an old tune:

God rest ye, merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay, For Jesus Christ,
our Saviour, Was born on Christmas Day.

Outside the wind was howling across Flanders with a doleful whine,
rising now and then into a savage violence which rattled the
window-panes, and beyond the booming of its lower notes was the faint,
dull rumble of distant guns.

“Christmas Eve!” said an officer. “Nineteen hundred and fifteen years
ago... and now--this!”

He sighed heavily, and a few moments later told a funny story, which was
followed by loud laughter. And so it was, I think, in every billet in
Flanders and in every dugout that Christmas Eve, where men thought of
the meaning of the day, with its message of peace and goodwill, and
contrasted it with the great, grim horror of the war, and spoke a few
words of perplexity; and then, after that quick sigh (how many comrades
had gone since last Christmas Day!), caught at a jest, and had the
courage of laughter. It was queer to find the spirit of Christmas, the
little tendernesses of the old tradition, the toys and trinkets of its
feast-day, in places where Death had been busy--and where the spirit of
evil lay in ambush!

So it was when I went through Armentieres within easy range of
the enemy’s guns. Already six hundred civilians--mostly women and
children--had been killed there. But, still, other women were chatting
together through broken window-panes, and children were staring into
little shops (only a few yards away from broken roofs and shell-broken
walls) where Christmas toys were on sale.

A wizened boy, in a pair of soldier’s boots--a French Hop o’ My Thumb in
the giant’s boots--was gazing wistfully at some tin soldiers, and inside
the shop a real soldier, not a bit like the tin one, was buying some
Christmas cards worked by a French artist in colored wools for the
benefit of English Tommies, with the aid of a dictionary. Other soldiers
read their legends and laughed at them: “My heart is to you.” “Good
luck.” “To the success!” “Remind France.”

The man who was buying the cards fumbled with French money, and looked
up sheepishly at me, as if shy of the sentiment upon which he was
spending it.

“The people at home will be glad of ‘em,” he said. “I s’pose one can’t
forget Christmas altogether. Though it ain’t the same thing out here.”

Going in search of Christmas, I passed through a flooded countryside and
found only scenes of war behind the lines, with gunners driving their
batteries and limber down a road that had become a river-bed, fountains
of spray rising about their mules and wheels, military motor-cars
lurching in the mud beyond the pave, despatch-riders side-slipping in a
wild way through boggy tracks, supply--columns churning up deep ruts.

And then into the trenches at Neuve Chapelle. If Santa Claus had come
that way, remembering those grown-up boys of ours, the old man with
his white beard must have lifted his red gown high--waist-high--when he
waded up some of the communication trenches to the firing-lines, and
he would have staggered and slithered, now with one top-boot deep in
sludge, now with the other slipping off the trench boards into five feet
of water, as I had to do, grasping with futile hands at slimy sandbags
to save a headlong plunge into icy water.

And this old man of peace, who loved all boys and the laughter of
youth, would have had to duck very low and make sudden bolts across open
spaces, where parapets and earthworks had silted down, in order to avoid
those sniping bullets which came snapping across the dead ground from a
row of slashed trees and a few scarred ruins on the edge of the enemy’s
lines.

But sentiment of that sort was out of place in trenches less than a
hundred yards away from men lying behind rifles and waiting to kill.

There was no spirit of Christmas in the tragic desolation of the scenery
of which I had brief glimpses when I stood here and there nakedly (I
felt) in those ugly places, when the officer who was with me said, “It’s
best to get a move on here,” and, “This road is swept by machine--gun
fire,” and, “I don’t like this corner; it’s quite unhealthy.”

But that absurd idea--of Santa Claus in the trenches--came into my
head several times, and I wondered whether the Germans would fire a
whizz-bang at him or give a burst of machine-gun fire if they caught the
glint of his red cloak.

Some of the soldiers had the same idea. In the front-line trench a small
group of Yorkshire lads were chaffing one another.

“Going to hang your boots up outside the dugout?” asked a lad, grinning
down at an enormous pair of waders belonging to a comrade.

“Likely, ain’t it?” said the other boy. “Father Christmas would be a
bloody fool to come out here... They’d be full of water in the morning.”

“You’ll get some presents,” I said. “They haven’t forgotten you at
home.”

At that word “home” the boy flushed and something went soft in his eyes
for a moment. In spite of his steel helmet and mud-stained uniform, he
was a girlish-looking fellow--perhaps that was why his comrades were
chaffing him--and I fancy the thought of Christmas made him yearn back
to some village in Yorkshire.

Most of the other men with whom I spoke treated the idea of Christmas
with contemptuous irony.

“A happy Christmas!” said one of them, with a laugh. “Plenty of crackers
about this year! Tom Smith ain’t in it.”

“And I hope we’re going to give the Boches some Christmas presents,”
 said another. “They deserve it, I don’t think!”

“No truce this year?” I asked.

“A truce?... We’re not going to allow any monkey--tricks on the
parapets. To hell with Christmas charity and all that tosh. We’ve got to
get on with the war. That’s my motto.”

Other men said: “We wouldn’t mind a holiday. We’re fed up to the neck
with all this muck.”

The war did not stop, although it was Christmas Eve, and the only carol
I heard in the trenches was the loud, deep chant of the guns on both
sides, and the shrill soprano of whistling shells, and the rattle on the
keyboards of machine-guns. The enemy was putting more shells into a bit
of trench in revenge for a raid. To the left some shrapnel shells were
bursting, and behind the lines our “heavies” were busily at work firing
at long range.

“On earth peace, good-will toward men.”

The message was spoken at many a little service on both sides of that
long line where great armies were entrenched with their death-machines,
and the riddle of life and faith was rung out by the Christmas bells
which came clashing on the rain-swept wind, with the reverberation of
great guns.

Through the night our men in the trenches stood in their waders, and
the dawn of Christmas Day was greeted, not by angelic songs, but by the
splutter of rifle-bullets all along the line.



VI


There was more than half a gale blowing on the eve of the new year,
and the wind came howling with a savage violence across the rain-swept
fields, so that the first day of a fateful year had a stormy birth, and
there was no peace on earth.

Louder than the wind was the greeting of the guns to another year of
war. I heard the New-Year’s chorus when I went to see the last of the
year across the battlefields. Our guns did not let it die in silence.
It went into the tomb of the past, with all its tragic memories,
to thunderous salvos, carrying death with them. The “heavies” were
indulging in a special strafe this New--Year’s eve. As I went down a
road near the lines by Loos I saw, from concealed positions, the flash
of gun upon gun. The air was swept by an incessant rush of shells, and
the roar of all this artillery stupefied one’s sense of sound. All about
me in the village of Annequin, through which I walked, there was no
other sound, no noise of human life. There were no New-Year’s eve
rejoicings among those rows of miners’ cottages on the edge of the
battlefield. Half those little red-brick houses were blown to pieces,
and when here and there through a cracked window-pane I saw a woman’s
white face peering out upon me as I passed I felt as though I had seen a
ghost-face in some black pit of hell.

For it was hellish, this place wrecked by high explosives and always
under the fire of German guns. That any human being should be there
passed all belief. From a shell-hole in a high wall I looked across the
field of battle, where many of our best had died. The Tower Bridge of
Loos stood grim and gaunt above the sterile fields. Through the rain
and the mist loomed the long black ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette, where
many poor bodies lay in the rotting leaves. The ruins of Haisnes and
Hulluch were jagged against the sky-line. And here, on New--Year’s eve,
I saw no sign of human life and heard no sound of it, but stared at the
broad desolation and listened to the enormous clangor of great guns.

* * *

Coming back that day through Bethune I met some very human life. It was
a big party of bluejackets from the Grand Fleet, who had come to see
what “Tommy” was doing in the war. They went into the trenches and saw
a good deal, because the Germans made a bombing raid in that sector and
the naval men did their little bit by the side of the lads in khaki,
who liked this visit. They discovered the bomb store and opened such a
Brock’s benefit that the enemy must have been shocked with surprise.
One young marine was bomb-slinging for four hours, and grinned at the
prodigious memory as though he had had the time of his life. Another
confessed to me that he preferred rifle-grenades, which he fired off all
night until the dawn. There was no sleep in the dugouts, and every hour
was a long thrill.

“I don’t mind saying,” said a petty officer who had fought in several
naval actions during the war and is a man of mark, “that I had a fair
fright when I was doing duty on the fire-step. ‘I suppose I’ve got to
look through a periscope,’ I said. ‘Not you,’ said the sergeant. ‘At
night you puts your head over the parapet.’ So over the parapet I put my
head, and presently I saw something moving between the lines. My rifle
began to shake. Germans! Moving, sure enough, over the open ground. I
fixed bayonet and prepared for an attack... But I’m blessed if it wasn’t
a swarm of rats!”

The soldiers were glad to show Jack the way about the trenches, and some
of them played up a little audaciously, as, for instance, when a young
fellow sat on the top of the parapet at dawn.

“Come up and have a look, Jack,” he said to one of the bluejackets.

“Not in these trousers, old mate!” said that young man.

“All as cool as cucumbers,” said a petty officer, “and take the
discomforts of trench life as cheerily as any men could. It’s marvelous.
Good luck to them in the new year!”

* * *

Behind the lines there was banqueting by men who were mostly doomed
to die, and I joined a crowd of them in a hall at Lillers on that
New-Year’s day.

They were the heroes of Loos--or some of them--Camerons and Seaforths,
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordons and King’s Own Scottish
Borderers, who, with the London men, were first on Hill 70 and away
to the Cite St.-Auguste. They left many comrades there, and their
battalions have been filled up with new drafts--of the same type as
themselves and of the same grit--but that day no ghost of grief, no dark
shadow of gloom, was upon any of the faces upon which I looked round
a festive board in a long, French hall, to which their wounded came in
those days of the September battle.

There were young men there from the Scottish universities and from
Highland farms, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a jolly comradeship
which burst into song between every mouthful of the feast. On the
platform above the banqueting-board a piper was playing, when I came in,
and this hall in France was filled with the wild strains of it.

“And they’re grand, the pipes,” said one of the Camerons. “When I’ve
been sae tired on the march I could have laid doon an’ dee’d the touch
o’ the pipes has fair lifted me up agen.”

The piper made way for a Kiltie at the piano, and for Highlanders, who
sang old songs full of melancholy, which seemed to make the hearts of
his comrades grow glad as when they helped him with “The Bonnie, Bonnie
Banks of Loch Lomond.” But the roof nearly flew off the hall to “The
March of the Cameron Men,” and the walls were greatly strained when the
regimental marching song broke at every verse into wild Highland
shouts and the war-cry which was heard at Loos of “Camerons, forward!”
 “Forward, Camerons!”

“An Englishman is good,” said one of the Camerons, leaning over the
table to me, “and an Irishman is good, but a Scot is the best of all.”
 Then he struck the palm of one hand with the fist of another. “But the
London men,” he said, with a fine, joyous laugh at some good memory,
“are as good as any fighting-men in France. My word, ye should have seen
‘em on September 25th. And the London Irish were just lions!”

Out in the rain-slashed street I met the colonel of a battalion of
Argylls and Sutherlands, with several of his officers; a tall, thin
officer with a long stride, who was killed when another year had passed.
He beckoned to me and said: “I’m going the rounds of the billets to wish
the men good luck in the new year. It’s a strain on the constitution, as
I have to drink their health each time!”

He bore the strain gallantly, and there was something noble and
chivalrous in the way he spoke to all his men, gathered together in
various rooms in old Flemish houses, round plum-pudding from home or
feasts provided by the army cooks. To each group of men he made the same
kind of speech, thanking them from his heart for all their courage.

“You were thanked by three generals,” he said, “after your attack at
Loos, and you upheld the old reputation of the regiment. I’m proud of
you. And afterward, in November, when you had the devil of a time in the
trenches, you stuck it splendidly and came out with high spirits. I wish
you all a happy new year, and whatever the future may bring I know I can
count on you.”

In every billet there were three cheers for the colonel, and another
three for the staff captain, and though the colonel protested that he
was afraid of spending a night in the guard-room (there were shouts of
laughter at this), he drank his sip of neat whisky, according to the
custom of the day.

“Toodle-oo, old bird!” said a kilted cockney, halfway up a ladder, on
which he swayed perilously, being very drunk; but the colonel did not
hear this familiar way of address.

In many billets and in many halls the feast of New Year’s day was kept
in good comradeship by men who had faced death together, and who in the
year that was coming fought in many battles and fell on many fields.



VII


The Canadians who were in the Ypres salient in January, 1916, and for
a long time afterward, had a grim way of fighting. The enemy never
knew what they might do next. When they were most quiet they were
most dangerous. They used cunning as well as courage, and went out
on red-Indian adventures over No Man’s Land for fierce and scientific
slaughter.

I remember one of their early raids in the salient, when a big party of
them--all volunteers--went out one night with intent to get through the
barbed wire outside a strong German position, to do a lot of killing
there. They had trained for the job and thought out every detail of this
hunting expedition. They blacked their faces so that they would not show
white in the enemy’s flares. They fastened flash-lamps to their bayonets
so that they might see their victims. They wore rubber gloves to save
their hands from being torn on the barbs of the wire.

Stealthily they crawled over No Man’s Land, crouching in shell-holes
every time a rocket rose and made a glimmer of light. They took their
time at the wire, muffling the snap of it by bits of cloth. Reliefs
crawled up with more gloves, and even with tins of hot cocoa. Then
through the gap into the German trenches, and there were screams of
German soldiers, terror-shaken by the flash of light in their eyes,
and black faces above them, and bayonets already red with blood. It
was butcher’s work, quick and skilful, like red-Indian scalping. Thirty
Germans were killed before the Canadians went back, with only two
casualties... The Germans were horrified by this sudden slaughter. They
dared not come out on patrol work. Canadian scouts crawled down to them
and insulted them, ingeniously, vilely, but could get no answer. Later
they trained their machine--guns on German working-parties and swept
crossroads on which supplies came up, and the Canadian sniper, in one
shell-hole or another, lay for hours in sulky patience, and at last got
his man... They had to pay for all this, at Maple Copse, in June of ‘15,
as I shall tell. But it was a vendetta which did not end until the
war ended, and the Canadians fought the Germans with a long, enduring,
terrible, skilful patience which at last brought them to Mons on the day
before armistice.

I saw a good deal of the Canadians from first to last, and on many
days of battle saw the tough, hard fighting spirit of these men. Their
generals believed in common sense applied to war, and not in high
mysteries and secret rites which cannot be known outside the circle of
initiation. I was impressed by General Currie, whom I met for the first
time in that winter of 1915-16, and wrote at the time that I saw in him
“a leader of men who in open warfare might win great victories by doing
the common-sense thing rapidly and decisively, to the surprise of an
enemy working by elaborate science. He would, I think, astound them
by the simplicity of his smashing stroke.” Those words of mine
were fulfilled--on the day when the Canadians helped to break the
Drocourt-Queant line, and when they captured Cambrai, with English
troops on their right, who shared their success. General Currie, who
became the Canadian Corps Commander, did not spare his men. He led them
forward whatever the cost, but there was something great and terrible in
his simplicity and sureness of judgment, and this real--estate agent
(as he was before he took to soldiering) was undoubtedly a man of
strong ability, free from those trammels of red tape and tradition which
swathed round so many of our own leaders.

He cut clean to the heart of things, ruthlessly, like a surgeon, and as
I watched that man, immense in bulk, with a heavy, thoughtful face and
stern eyes that softened a little when he smiled, I thought of him as
Oliver Cromwell. He was severe as a disciplinarian, and not beloved by
many men. But his staff-officers, who stood in awe of him, knew that
he demanded truth and honesty, and that his brain moved quickly to sure
decisions and saw big problems broadly and with understanding. He had
good men with him--mostly amateurs--but with hard business heads and the
same hatred of red tape and niggling ways which belonged to their chief.
So the Canadian Corps became a powerful engine on our side when it
had learned many lessons in blood and tragedy. They organized their
publicity side in the same masterful way, and were determined that what
Canada did the world should know--and damn all censorship. They bought
up English artists, photographers, and writing--men to record their
exploits. With Lord Beaverbrook in England they engineered Canadian
propaganda with immense energy, and Canada believed her men made up the
British army and did all the fighting. I do not blame them, and only
wish that the English soldier should have been given his share of the
honors that belonged to him--the lion’s share.



VIII


The Canadians were not the only men to go out raiding. It became part
of the routine of war, that quick killing in the night, for English and
Scottish and Irish and Welsh troops, and some had luck with it, and some
men liked it, and to others it was a horror which they had to do,
and always it was a fluky, nervy job, when any accident might lead to
tragedy.

I remember one such raid by the 12th West Yorks in January of ‘15, which
was typical of many others, before raids developed into minor battles,
with all the guns at work.

There were four lieutenants who drew up the plan and called for
volunteers, and it was one of these who went out first and alone to
reconnoiter the ground and to find the best way through the German
barbed wire. He just slipped out over the parapet and disappeared into
the darkness. When he came back he had a wound in the wrist--it was just
the bad luck of a chance bullet--but brought in valuable knowledge. He
had found a gap in the enemy’s wire which would give an open door to
the party of visitors. He had also tested the wire farther along, and
thought it could be cut without much bother.

“Good enough!” was the verdict, and a detachment started out for No
Man’s Land, divided into two parties.

The enemy trenches were about one hundred yards away, which seems a
mile in the darkness and the loneliness of the dead ground. At regular
intervals the German rockets flared up so that the hedges and wire
and parapets along their line were cut out ink-black against the white
illumination, and the two patrols of Yorkshiremen who had been crawling
forward stopped and crouched lower and felt themselves revealed, and
then when darkness hid them again went on.

The party on the left were now close to the German wire and under the
shelter of a hedge. They felt their way along until the two subalterns
who were leading came to the gap which had been reported by the first
explorer. They listened intently and heard the German sentry stamping
his feet and pacing up and down. Presently he began to whistle softly,
utterly unconscious of the men so close to him--so close now that any
stumble, any clatter of arms, any word spoken, would betray them.

The two lieutenants had their revolvers ready and crept forward to the
parapet. The men had to act according to instinct now, for no order
could be given, and one of them found his instinct led him to clamber
right into the German trench a few yards away from the sentry, but on
the other side of the traverse. He had not been there long, holding his
breath and crouching like a wolf, before footsteps came toward him and
he saw the glint of a cigarette.

It was a German officer going his round. The Yorkshire boy sprang on to
the parapet again, and lay across it with his head toward our lines
and his legs dangling in the German trench. The German officer’s cloak
brushed his heels, but the boy twisted round a little and stared at him
as he passed. But he passed, and presently the sentry began to whistle
again, some old German tune which cheered him in his loneliness. He
knew nothing of the eyes watching him through the darkness nor of his
nearness to death.

It was the first lieutenant who tried to shoot him. But the revolver was
muddy and would not fire. Perhaps a click disturbed the sentry. Anyhow,
the moment had come for quick work. It was the sergeant who sprang upon
him, down from the parapet with one pounce. A frightful shriek, with the
shrill agony of a boy’s voice, wailed through the silence. The sergeant
had his hand about the German boy’s throat and tried to strangle him and
to stop another dreadful cry.

The second officer made haste. He thrust his revolver close to the
struggling sentry and shot him dead, through the neck, just as he was
falling limp from a blow on the head given by the butt-end of the weapon
which had failed to fire. The bullet did its work, though it passed
through the sergeant’s hand, which had still held the man by the throat.
The alarm had been raised and German soldiers were running to the
rescue.

“Quick!” said one of the officers.

There was a wild scramble over the parapet, a drop into the wet ditch,
and a race for home over No Man’s Land, which was white under the German
flares and noisy with the waspish note of bullets.

The other party were longer away and had greater trouble to find a way
through, but they, too, got home, with one officer badly wounded, and
wonderful luck to escape so lightly. The enemy suffered from “the jumps”
 for several nights afterward, and threw bombs into their own barbed
wire, as though the English were out there again. And at the sound of
those bombs the West Yorks laughed all along their trenches.



IX


It was always astonishing, though afterward familiar in those
battlefields of Flanders, to find oneself in the midst of so many
nationalities and races and breeds of men belonging to that British
family of ours which sent its sons to sacrifice. In those trenches there
were all the ways of speech, all the sentiment of place and history, all
the creeds and local customs and songs of old tradition which belong to
the mixture of our blood wherever it is found about the world.

The skirl of the Scottish bagpipes was heard through all the years
of war over the Flemish marshlands, and there were Highlanders and
Lowlanders with every dialect over the border. In one line of trenches
the German soldiers listened to part-songs sung in such trained harmony
that it was as if a battalion of opera-singers had come into the
firing-line. The Welshmen spoke their own language. For a time no
officer received his command unless he spoke it as fluently as running
water by Aberystwyth, and even orders were given in this tongue until a
few Saxons, discovered in the ranks, failed to form fours and know their
left hand from their right in Welsh.

The French-Canadians did not need to learn the language of the peasants
in these market towns. Soldiers from Somerset used many old Saxon words
which puzzled their cockney friends, and the Lancashire men brought the
northern bur with them and the grit of the northern spirit. And Ireland,
though she would not have conscription, sent some of the bravest of her
boys out there, and in all the bloodiest battles since that day at Mons
the old fighting qualities of the Irish race shone brightly again, and
the blood of her race has been poured out upon these tragic fields.

One of the villages behind the lines of Arras was so crowded with Irish
boys at the beginning of ‘16 that I found it hard not to believe that
a part of old Ireland itself had found its way to Flanders. In one
old outhouse the cattle had not been evicted. Twelve Flemish cows lay
cuddled up together on the ground floor in damp straw, which gave out
a sweet, sickly stench, while the Irish soldiers lived upstairs in the
loft, to which they climbed up a tall ladder with broken rungs.

I went up the ladder after them--it was very shaky in the middle--and,
putting my head through the loft, gave a greeting to a number of dark
figures lying in the same kind of straw that I had smelled downstairs.
One boy was sitting with his back to the beams, playing a penny whistle
very softly to himself, or perhaps to the rats under the straws.

“The craytures are that bold,” said a boy from County Cork, “that when
we first came in they sat up smilin’ and sang ‘God Save Ireland.’ Bedad,
and it’s the truth I’m after tellin’ ye.”

The billets were wet and dirty. But it was good to be away from the
shells, even if the rain came through the beams of a broken roof and
soaked through the plaster of wattle walls. The Irish boys were good at
making wood fires in these old barns and pigsties, if there were a
few bricks about to make a hearth, and, sure, a baked potato was no
Protestant with a grudge against the Pope.

There were no such luxuries in the trenches when the Dublins and the
Munsters were up in the firing-line at the Hohenzollern. The shelling
was so violent that it was difficult to get up the supplies, and some
of the boys had to fall back on their iron rations. It was the only
complaint which one of them made when I asked him what he thought of his
first experience under fire.

“It was all right, sorr, and not so bad as I’d been after thinking, if
only my appetite had not been bigger than my belt, at all.”

The spirit of these Irishmen was shown by some who had just come out
from the old country to join their comrades in the firing-line. When the
Germans put over a number of shells, smashing the trenches and wounding
men, the temper of the lads broke out, and they wanted to get over the
parapet and make a dash for the enemy. “‘Twould taych him a lesson,”
 they told their officers, who had some trouble in restraining them.

These newcomers had to take part in the digging which goes on behind the
lines at night--out in the open, without the shelter of a trench. It was
nervous work, especially when the German flares went up, silhouetting
their figures on the sky-line, and when one of the enemy’s machine-guns
began to chatter. But the Irish boys found the heart for a jest, and one
of them, resting on his spade a moment, stared over to the enemy’s
lines and said, “May the old devil take the spalpeen who works that
typewriter!”

It was a scaring, nerve-racking time for those who had come fresh to the
trenches, some of those boys who had not guessed the realities of war
until then. But they came out proudly--“with their tails up,” said one
of their officers--after their baptism of fire.

The drum-and-fife band of the Munsters was practising in an old barn on
the wayside, and presently, in honor of visitors--who were myself and
another--the pipers were sent for. They were five tall lads, who came
striding down the street of Flemish cottages, with the windbags under
their arms, and then, with the fife men sitting on the straw around
them and the drummers standing with their sticks ready, they took their
breath for “the good old Irish tune” demanded by the captain.

It was a tune which men could not sing very safely in Irish yesterdays,
and it held the passion of many rebellious hearts and the yearning of
them.

Oh, Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that’s going round? The
shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground.

She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen; They’re
hanging men and women there for wearing of the green.

Then the pipers played the “March of O’Neill,” a wild old air as
shrill and fierce as the spirit of the men who came with their Irish
battle-cries against Elizabeth’s pikemen and Cromwell’s Ironsides.

I thought then that the lads who still stayed back in Ireland, and the
old people there, would have been glad to stand with me outside that
Flemish barn and to hear the old tunes of their race played by the boys
who were out there fighting.

I think they would have wept a little, as I saw tears in the eyes of an
Irish soldier by my side, for it was the spirit of Ireland herself,
with all her poetry, and her valor, and her faith in liberty, which came
crying from those pipes, and I wished that the sound of them could carry
across the sea.

That was a year before I saw the Irish battalions come out of Guichy,
a poor remnant of the strength that had gone in, all tattered and torn,
and caked with the filth of battle, and hardly able to stagger along.
But they pulled themselves up a little, and turned eyes left when they
passed their brigadier, who called out words of praise to them.

It was more than a year later than that when I saw the last of them,
after a battle in Flanders, when they were massacred, and lay in heaps
round German redoubts, up there in the swamps.



X


Early in the morning of February 23d there was a clear sky with a glint
of sun in it, and airplanes were aloft as though it would be a good
flying-day. But before midday the sky darkened and snow began to
fall, and then it snowed steadily for hours, so that all the fields of
Flanders were white.

There was a strange, new beauty in the war zone which had changed all
the pictures of war by a white enchantment. The villages where our
soldiers were billeted looked as though they were expecting a visit from
Santa Claus. The snow lay thick on the thatch and in soft, downy ridges
on the red-tiled roofs. It covered, with its purity, the rubbish heaps
in Flemish farmyards and the old oak beams of barns and sheds where
British soldiers made their beds of straw. Away over the lonely country
which led to the trenches, every furrow in the fields was a thin white
ridge, and the trees, which were just showing a shimmer of green, stood
ink-black against the drifting snow-clouds, with a long white streak
down each tall trunk on the side nearest to the wind. The old windmills
of Flanders which looked down upon the battlefields had been touched by
the softly falling flakes, so that each rib of their sails and each rung
of their ladders and each plank of their ancient timbers was outlined
like a frosty cobweb.

Along the roads of war our soldiers tramped through the blizzard with
ermine mantles over their mackintosh capes, and mounted men with their
heads bent to the storm were like white knights riding through a white
wilderness. The long columns of motor-lorries, the gun--limbers drawn up
by their batteries, the field ambulances by the clearing hospitals, were
all cloaked in snow, and the tramp and traffic of an army were hushed in
the great quietude.

In the trenches the snow fell thickly and made white pillows of the
piled sand-bags and snow-men of sentries standing in the shelter of the
traverses. The tarpaulin roofs and timbered doorways of dugouts were so
changed by the snowflakes that they seemed the dwelling-places of
fairy folks or, at least, of Pierrot and Columbine in a Christmas
hiding-place, and not of soldiers stamping their feet and blowing on
their fingers and keeping their rifles dry.

In its first glamour of white the snow gave a beauty even to No Man’s
Land, making a lace-work pattern of barbed wire, and lying very softly
over the tumbled ground of mine-fields, so that all the ugliness of
destruction and death was hidden under this canopy. The snowflakes
fluttered upon stark bodies there, and shrouded them tenderly. It was as
though all the doves of peace were flying down to fold their wings above
the obscene things of war.

For a little while the snow brought something like peace. The guns were
quieter, for artillery observation was impossible. There could be no
sniping, for the scurrying flakes put a veil between the trenches. The
airplanes which went up in the morning came down quickly to the powdered
fields and took shelter in their sheds. A great hush was over the war
zone, but there was something grim, suggestive of tragic drama, in this
silent countryside, so white even in the darkness, where millions of men
were waiting to kill one another.

Behind the lines the joke of the snow was seen by soldiers, who were
quick to see a chance of fun. Men who had been hurling bombs in the
Ypres salient bombarded one another with hand-grenades, which burst
noiselessly except for the shouts of laughter that signaled a good hit.

French soldiers were at the same game in one village I passed, where the
snow-fight was fast and furious, and some of our officers led an attack
upon old comrades with the craft of trappers and an expert knowledge of
enfilade fire. The white peace did not last long. The ermine mantle on
the battlefield was stained by scarlet patches as soon as men could see
to fight again.



XI


For some days in that February of 1916 the war correspondents in the
Chateau of Tilques, from which they made their expeditions to the line,
were snowed up like the army round them. Not even the motor-cars could
move through that snow which drifted across the roads. We sat indoors
talking--high treason sometimes--pondering over the problem of a
war from which there seemed no way out, becoming irritable with one
another’s company, becoming passionate in argument about the ethics of
war, the purpose of man, the gospel of Christ, the guilt of Germany, and
the dishonesty of British politicians. Futile, foolish arguments,
while men were being killed in great numbers, as daily routine, without
result!

Officers of a division billeted nearby came in to dine with us, some of
them generals with elaborate theories on war and a passionate hatred of
Germany, seeing no other evil in the world; some of them brigadiers with
tales of appalling brutality (which caused great laughter), some of them
battalion officers with the point of view of those who said, “Morituri
te saluant!”

There was one whose conversation I remember (having taken notes of
it before I turned in that night). It was a remarkable conversation,
summing up many things of the same kind which I had heard in stray
sentences by other officers, and month by month, years afterward, heard
again, spoken with passion. This officer who had come out to France in
1914 and had been fighting ever since by a luck which had spared his
life when so many of his comrades had fallen round him, did not speak
with passion. He spoke with a bitter, mocking irony. He said that G.H.Q.
was a close corporation in the hands of the military clique who had
muddled through the South African War, and were now going to muddle
through a worse one. They were, he said, intrenched behind impregnable
barricades of old, moss-eaten traditions, red tape, and caste privilege.
They were, of course, patriots who believed that the Empire depended
upon their system. They had no doubt of their inherent right to conduct
the war, which was “their war,” without interference or criticism or
publicity. They spent many hours of the days and nights in writing
letters to one another, and those who wrote most letters received most
decorations, and felt, with a patriotic fire within their breasts, that
they were getting on with the war.

Within their close corporation there were rivalries, intrigues,
perjuries, and treacheries like those of a medieval court. Each general
and staff-officer had his followers and his sycophants, who jostled for
one another’s jobs, fawned on the great man, flattered his vanity, and
made him believe in his omniscience. Among the General Staff there were
various grades--G.S.O. I, G.S.O. II, G.S.O. III, and those in the lower
grades fought for a higher grade with every kind of artfulness, and
diplomacy and back-stair influence. They worked late into the night.
That is to say, they went back to their offices after dining at
mess--“so frightfully busy, you know, old man!”--and kept their lights
burning, and smoked more cigarettes, and rang one another up on the
telephone with futile questions, and invented new ways of preventing
something from being down somewhere. The war to them was a far-off
thing essential to their way of life, as miners in the coal-fields are
essential to statesmen in Downing Street, especially in cold weather.
But it did not touch their souls or their bodies. They did not see its
agony, or imagine it, or worry about it. They were always cheerful,
breezy, bright with optimism. They made a little work go a long way.
They were haughty and arrogant with subordinate officers, or at the best
affable and condescending, and to superior officers they said, “Yes,
sir,” “No, sir,” “Quite so, sir,” to any statement, however absurd in
its ignorance and dogmatism. If a major-general said, “Wagner was a
mountebank in music,” G.S.O. III, who had once studied at Munich, said,
“Yes, sir,” or, “You think so, sir? Of course you’re right.”

If a lieutenant-colonel said, “Browning was not a poet,” a staff
captain, who had read Browning at Cambridge with passionate admiration,
said: “I quite agree with you, sir. And who do you think was a poet,
sir?”

It was the army system. The opinion of a superior officer was correct,
always. It did not admit of contradiction. It was not to be criticized.
Its ignorance was wisdom.

G. H. Q. lived, said our guest, in a world of its own, rose-colored,
remote from the ugly things of war. They had heard of the trenches, yes,
but as the West End hears of the East End--a nasty place where common
people lived. Occasionally they visited the trenches as society folk
go slumming, and came back proud of having seen a shell burst, having
braved the lice and the dirt.

“The trenches are the slums,” said our guest. “We are the Great
Unwashed. We are the Mud-larks.”

There was a trench in the salient called J. 3. It was away out in
advance of our lines. It was not connected with our own trench system.
It had been left derelict by both sides and was a ditch in No Man’s
Land. But our men were ordered to hold it--“to save sniping.” A
battalion commander protested to the Headquarters Staff. There was no
object in holding J. 3. It was a target for German guns and a temptation
to German miners.

“J. 3,” came the staff command, “must be held until further orders.”

We lost five hundred men in holding it. The trench and all in it were
thrown up by mines. Among those killed was the Hon. Lyndhurst Bruce, the
husband of Camille Clifford, with other husbands of women unknown.

Our guest told the story of the massacre in Neuve Chapelle. “This is a
death sentence,” said the officers who were ordered to attack. But they
attacked, and died, with great gallantry, as usual.

“In the slums,” said our guest, “we are expected to die if G. H. Q.
tells us so, or if the corps arranges our funeral. And generally we do.”

That night, when the snow lay on the ground, I listened to the rumbling
of the gunning away in the salient, and seemed to hear the groans of men
at Hooge, at St.-Eloi, in other awful places. The irony of that guest of
ours was frightful. It was bitter beyond justice, though with truth
in the mockery, the truth of a soul shocked by the waste of life and
heroism;... when I met him later in the war he was on the staff.



XII


The world--our side of it--held its breath and felt its own heart-beat
when, in February of that year ‘15, the armies of the German Crown
Prince launched their offensive against the French at Verdun. It was the
biggest offensive since their first drive down to the Marne; and as the
days passed and they hurled fresh masses of men against the French and
brought up new guns to replace their losses, there was no doubt that in
this battle the Germans were trying by all their weight to smash their
way to victory through the walls which the French had built against them
by living flesh and spirit.

“Will they hold?” was the question which every man among us asked of his
neighbor and of his soul.

On our front there was nothing of war beyond the daily routine of the
trenches and the daily list of deaths and wounds. Winter had closed down
upon us in Flanders, and through its fogs and snows came the news of
that conflict round Verdun to the waiting army, which was ours. The news
was bad, yet not the worst. Poring over maps of the French front, we in
our winter quarters saw with secret terror, some of us with a bluster
of false optimism, some of us with unjustified despair, that the French
were giving ground, giving ground slowly, after heroic resistance, after
dreadful massacre, and steadily. They were falling back to the inner
line of forts, hard pressed. The Germans, in spite of monstrous losses
under the flail of the soixante-quinzes, were forcing their way from
slope to slope, capturing positions which all but dominated the whole of
the Verdun heights.

“If the French break we shall lose the war,” said the pessimist.

“The French will never lose Verdun,” said the optimist.

“Why not? What are your reasons beyond that cursed optimism which
has been our ruin? Why announce things like that as though divinely
inspired? For God’s sake let us stare straight at the facts.”

“The Germans are losing the war by this attack on Verdun. They are just
pouring their best soldiers into the furnace--burning the flower of
their army. It is our gain. It will lead in the end to our victory.”

“But, my dear good fool, what about the French losses? Don’t they get
killed, too? The German artillery is flogging them with shell-fire from
seventeen-inch guns, twelve-inch, nine-inch, every bloody and monstrous
engine. The French are weak in heavy artillery. For that error, which
has haunted them from the beginning, they are now paying with their
life’s blood--the life blood of France.”

“You are arguing on emotion and fear. Haven’t you learned yet that the
attacking side always loses more than the defense?”

“That is a sweeping statement. It depends on relative man-power and
gun-power. Given a superiority of guns and men, and attack is cheap.
Defense is blown off the earth. Otherwise how could we ever hope to
win?”

“I agree. But the forces at Verdun are about equal, and the French have
the advantage of position. The Germans are committing suicide.”

“Humbug! They know what they are doing. They are the greatest soldiers
in Europe.”

“Led by men with bone heads.”

“By great scientists.”

“By the traditional rules of medievalism. By bald--headed vultures in
spectacles with brains like penny-in--the-slot machines. Put in a penny
and out comes a rule of war. Mad egoists! Colossal blunderers! Efficient
in all things but knowledge of life.”

“Then God help our British G.H.Q.!”

A long silence. The silence of men who see monstrous forces at work, in
which human lives are tossed like straws in flame. A silence reaching
back to old ghosts of history, reaching out to supernatural aid. Then
from one speaker or another a kind of curse and a kind of prayer.

“Hell!... God help us all!”

So it was in our mess where war correspondents and censors sat
down together after futile journeys to dirty places to see a bit of
shell-fire, a few dead bodies, a line of German trenches through a
periscope, a queue of wounded men outside a dressing station, the
survivors of a trench raid, a bombardment before a “minor operation,”
 a trench-mortar “stunt,” a new part of the line... Verdun was the only
thing that mattered in March and April until France had saved herself
and all of us.



XIII


The British army took no part in that battle of Verdun, but rendered
great service to France at that time. By February of 1915 we had taken
over a new line of front, extending from our positions round Loos
southward to the country round Lens and Arras. It was to this movement
in February that Marshal Joffre made allusion when, in a message to our
Commander-in-Chief on March 2d, he said that “the French army remembered
that its recent call on the comradeship of the British army met with an
immediate and complete response.”

By liberating an immense number of French troops of the Tenth Army and
a mass of artillery from this part of the front, we had the good fortune
to be of great service to France at a time when she needed many men and
guns to repel the assault upon Verdun.

Some of her finest troops--men who had fought in many battles and had
held the trenches with most dogged courage--were here in this sector of
the western front, and many batteries of heavy and light artillery
had been in these positions since the early months of the war. It was,
therefore, giving a new and formidable strength to the defense of Verdun
when British troops replaced them at the time the enemy made his great
attack.

The French went away from this part of their battlefront with regret and
emotion. To them it was sacred ground, this line from the long ridge
of Notre Dame de Lorette, past Arras, the old capital of Artois, to
Hebuterne, where it linked up with the British army already on the
Somme. Every field here was a graveyard of their heroic dead.

I went over all the ground which we now held, and saw the visible
reminders of all that fighting which lay strewn there, and told the
story of all the struggle there by the upheaval of earth, the wreckage
of old trenches, the mine--craters and shell-holes, and the litter of
battle in every part of that countryside.

I went there first--to the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette looking
northward to Lens, and facing the Vimy Ridge, which the enemy held as
a strong barrier against us above the village of Souchez and Ablain
St.-Nazaire and Neuville St.-Vaast, which the French had captured--when
they were still there; and I am glad of that, for I saw in their places
the men who had lived there and fought there as one may read in the
terrible and tragic narrative of war by Henri Barbusse in Le Feu.

I went on such a day as Barbusse describes. (Never once did he admit
any fine weather to alleviate the suffering of his comrades, thereby
exaggerating their misery somewhat.) It was raining, and there was a
white, dank mist through the trees of the Bois de Bouvigny on the way to
the spur of Notre Dame. It clung to the undergrowth, which was torn by
shell-fire, and to every blade of grass growing rankly round the lips
of shell-craters in which were bits of red rag or old bones, the red
pantaloons of the first French armies who had fought through those woods
in the beginning of the war.

I roamed about a graveyard there, where shells had smashed down some of
the crosses, but had not damaged the memorial to the men who had stormed
up the slope of Notre Dame de Lorette and had fallen when their comrades
chased the Germans to the village below.

A few shells came over the hill as I pushed through the undergrowth with
a French captain, and they burst among the trees with shattering boughs.
I remember that little officer in a steel helmet, and I could see a
Norman knight as his ancestor with a falcon as his crest. He stood so
often on the sky-line, in full view of the enemy (I was thankful for the
mist), that I admired but deplored his audacity. Without any screen to
hide us we walked down the hillside, gathering clots of greasy mud in
our boots, stumbling, and once sprawling. Another French captain joined
us and became the guide.

“This road is often ‘Marmite,’” he said, “but I have escaped so often I
have a kind of fatalism.”

I envied his faith, remembering two eight-inch shells which a few
minutes before had burst in our immediate neighborhood, cutting off
twigs of trees and one branch with a scatter of steel as sharp as knives
and as heavy as sledge-hammers.

Then for the first time I went into Ablain St.-Nazaire, which afterward
I passed through scores of times on the way to Vimy when that ridge was
ours. The ragged ruin of its church was white and ghostly in the mist.
On the right of the winding road which led through it was Souchez Wood,
all blasted and riven, and beyond a huddle of bricks which once was
Souchez village.

“Our men have fallen on every yard of this ground,” said the French
officer. “Their bodies lie thick below the soil. Poor France! Poor
France!”

He spoke with tragedy in his eyes and voice, seeing the vision of all
that youth of France which even then, in March of ‘16, had been offered
up in vast sacrifice to the greedy devils of war. Rain was slashing down
now, beating a tattoo on the steel helmets of a body of French soldiers
who stood shivering by the ruined walls while trench-mortars were making
a tumult in the neighborhood. They were the men of Henri Barbusse--his
comrades. There were middle-aged men and boys mixed together in a
confraternity of misery. They were plastered with wet clay, and their
boots were enlarged grotesquely by the clots of mud on them. Their blue
coats were soddened, and the water dripped out of them and made pools
round their feet. They were unshaven, and their wet faces were smeared
with the soil of the trenches.

“How goes it?” said the French captain with me.

“It does not go,” said the French sergeant. “‘Cre nom de Dieu!--my men
are not gay to-day. They have been wet for three weeks and their bones
are aching. This place is not a Bal Tabourin. If we light even a little
fire we ask for trouble. At the sight of smoke the dirty Boche starts
shelling again. So we do not get dry, and we have no warmth, and we
cannot make even a cup of good hot coffee. That dirty Boche up there
on Vimy looks out of his deep tunnels and laughs up his sleeve and says
those poor devils of Frenchmen are not gay to-day! That is true, mon
Capitaine. Mais, que voulez-vous? C’est pour la France.”

“Oui. C’est pour la France.”

The French captain turned away and I could see that he pitied those
comrades of his as we went over cratered earth to the village of
Neuville St.-Vaast.

“Poor fellows,” he said, presently. “Not even a cup of hot coffee!...
That is war! Blood and misery. Glory, yes--afterward! But at what a
price!”

So we came to Neuville St.-Vaast, a large village once with a fine
church, old in history, a schoolhouse, a town hall, many little streets
of comfortable houses under the shelter of the friendly old hill of
Vimy, and within easy walk of Arras; then a frightful rubbish
heap mingled with unexploded shells, the twisted iron of babies’
perambulators, bits of dead bodies, and shattered farm-carts.

Two French soldiers carried a stretcher on which a heavy burden lay
under a blood-soaked blanket.

“It is a bad wound?” asked the captain.

The men laid the stretcher down, breathing hard, and uncovered a face,
waxen, the color of death. It was the face of a handsome man with a
pointed beard, breathing snuffily through his nose.

“He may live as far as the dressing station,” said one of the Frenchmen.
“It was a trench-mortar which blew a hole in his body just now, over
there.”

The man jerked his head toward a barricade of sand--bags at the end of a
street of ruin.

Two other men walked slowly toward us with a queer, hobbling gait. Both
of them were wounded in the legs, and had tied rags round their wounds
tightly. They looked grave, almost sullen, staring at us as they passed,
with brooding eyes.

“The German trench-mortars are very evil,” said the captain.

We poked about the ruins, raising our heads cautiously above sand-bags
to look at the German lines cut into the lower slopes of Vimy, and
thrust out by communication trenches to the edge of the village in which
we walked. A boy officer came up out of a hole and saluted the captain,
who stepped back and said, in an emotional way:

“Tiens! C’est toi, Edouard?”

“Oui, mon Capitaine.”

The boy had a fine, delicate, Latin face, with dark eyes and long, black
eyelashes.

“You are a lieutenant, then? How does it go, Edouard?”

“It does not go,” answered the boy like that French sergeant in Ablain
St.-Nazaire. “This is a bad place. I lose my men every day. There were
three killed yesterday, and six wounded. To-day already there are two
killed and ten wounded.”

Something broke in his voice.

“Ce n’est pas bon du tout, du tout!” (“It is not good at all, at all!”)

The captain clapped him on the shoulders, tried to cheer him.

“Courage, mon vieux!”

The rain shot down on us. Our feet slithered in deep, greasy mud. Sharp
stabs of flame vomited out of the slopes of Vimy. There was the
high, long-drawn scream of shells in flight to Notre Dame de Lorette.
Batteries of soixante-quinzes were firing rapidly, and their shells cut
through the air above us like scythes. The caldron in this pit of war
was being stirred up. Another wounded poilu was carried past us, covered
by a bloody blanket like the other one. From slimy sand-bags and wet
ruins came the sickening stench of human corruption. A boot with some
pulp inside protruded from a mud--bank where I stood, and there was a
human head, without eyes or nose, black, and rotting in the puddle of
a shell--hole. Those were relics of a battle on May 9th, a year before,
when swarms of boys, of the ‘16 class, boys of eighteen, the flower of
French youth, rushed forward from the crossroads at La Targette, a few
hundred yards away, to capture these ruins of Neuville St.-Vaast. They
captured them, and it cost them seven thousand in killed and wounded--at
least three thousand dead. They fought like young demons through the
flaming streets. They fell in heaps under the German barrage-fire.
Machine--guns cut them down as though they were ripe corn under the
sickle. But these French boys broke the Prussian Guard that day.

Round about, over all this ground below Notre Dame de Lorette and the
fields round Souchez, the French had fought ferociously, burrowing below
earth at the Labyrinth--sapping, mining, gaining a network of trenches,
an isolated house, a huddle of ruins, a German sap-head, by frequent
rushes and the frenzy of those who fight vith their teeth and hands,
flinging themselves on the bodies of their enemy, below ground in
the darkness, or above ground between ditches and sand-bags. So for
something like fifteen months they fought, by Souchez and the Labyrinth,
until in February of ‘16 they went away after greeting our khaki men who
came into their old places and found the bones and bodies of Frenchmen
there, as I found, white, rat-gnawed bones, in disused trenches below
Notre Dame when the rain washed the earth down and uncovered them.



XIV


It was then, in that February of ‘15, that the city of Arras passed
for defense into British hands and became from that time on one of our
strongholds on the edge of the battlefields so that it will be haunted
forever by the ghosts of those men of ours whom I saw there on many days
of grim fighting, month after month, in snow and sun and rain, in steel
helmets and stink-coats, in muddy khaki and kilts, in queues of wounded
(three thousand at a time outside the citadel), in billets where their
laughter and music were scornful of high velocities, in the surging tide
of traffic that poured through to victory that cost as much sometimes as
defeat.

When I first went into Arras during its occupation by the French I
remembered a day, fifteen months before, near the town of St.-Pol in
Artois, where I was caught up in one of those tides of fugitives which
in those early days of war used to roll back in a state of terror before
the German invasion. “Where do they come from?” I asked, watching
this long procession of gigs and farmers’ carts and tramping women and
children. The answer told me everything. “They are bombarding Arras,
m’sieur.”

Since then “They” had never ceased to bombard Arras. From many points
of view, as I had come through the countryside at night, I had seen the
flashes of shells over that city and had thought of the agony inside.
Four days before I went in first it was bombarded with one hundred
and fifty seventeen-inch shells, each one of which would destroy a
cathedral. It was with a sense of being near to death--not a pleasant
feeling, you understand--that I went into Arras for the first time and
saw what had happened to it.

I was very near to the Germans. No more than ten yards away, when I
stood peering through a hole in the wall of the Maison Rouge in the
suburb of Blangy--it was a red-brick villa, torn by shells, with a
piano in the parlor which no man dared to play, behind a shelter of
sand-bags--and no more than two hundred yards away from the enemy’s
lines when I paced up and down the great railway station of Arras,
where no trains ever traveled. For more than a year the enemy had been
encamped outside the city, and for all that time had tried to batter
a way into and through it. An endless battle had surged up against its
walls, but in spite of all their desperate attacks no German soldier had
set foot inside the city except as a prisoner of war. Many thousands of
young Frenchmen had given their blood to save it.

The enemy had not been able to prevail over flesh and blood and the
spirit of heroic men, but he had destroyed the city bit by bit. It was
pitiful beyond all expression. It was worse than looking upon a woman
whose beauty had been scarred by bloody usage.

For Arras was a city of beauty--a living expression in stone of all the
idealism in eight hundred years of history, a most sweet and gracious
place. Even then, after a year’s bombardment, some spiritual exhalation
of human love and art came to one out of all this ruin. When I entered
the city and wandered a little in its public gardens before going into
its dead heart--the Grande Place--I felt the strange survival. The trees
here were slashed by shrapnel. Enormous shell-craters had plowed up
those pleasure-grounds. The shrubberies were beaten down.

Almost every house had been hit, every building was scarred and slashed,
but for the most part the city still stood, so that I went through many
long streets and passed long lines of houses, all deserted, all dreadful
in their silence and desolation and ruin.

Then I came to the cathedral of St.-Vaast. It was an enormous building
of the Renaissance, not beautiful, but impressive in its spaciousness
and dignity. Next to it was the bishop’s palace, with long corridors
and halls, and a private chapel. Upon these walls and domes the fury of
great shells had spent itself. Pillars as wide in girth as giant trees
had been snapped off to the base. The dome of the cathedral opened with
a yawning chasm. High explosives burst through the walls. The keystones
of arches were blown out, and masses of masonry were piled into the nave
and aisles.

As I stood there, rooks had perched in the broken vaulting and flew with
noisy wings above the ruined altars. Another sound came like a great
beating of wings, with a swifter rush. It was a shell, and the vibration
of it stirred the crumbling masonry, and bits of it fell with a clatter
to the littered floor. On the way to the ruin of the bishop’s chapel I
passed a group of stone figures. They were the famous “Angels of Arras”
 removed from some other part of the building to what might have been a
safer place.

Now they were fallen angels, mangled as they lay. But in the
chapel beyond, where the light streamed through the broken panes of
stained-glass windows, one figure stood untouched in all this ruin.
It was a tall statue of Christ standing in an attitude of meekness and
sorrow, as though in the presence of those who crucified Him.

Yet something more wonderful than this scene of tragedy lived in the
midst of it. Yet there were still people living in Arras.

They lived an underground life, for the most part, coming up from the
underworld to blink in the sunlight, to mutter a prayer or a curse or
two, to gaze for a moment at any change made by a new day’s bombardment,
and then to burrow down again at the shock of a gun.

Through low archways just above the pavement, I looked down into some of
the deep-vaulted cellars where the merchants used to stock their wine,
and saw old women, and sometimes young women there, cooking over little
stoves, pottering about iron bedsteads, busy with domestic work. Some
of them looked up as I passed, and my eyes and theirs stared into each
other. The women’s faces were lined and their eyes sunken. They had
the look of people who have lived through many agonies and have more to
suffer.

Not all these citizens of Arras were below ground. There was a
greengrocer’s shop still carrying on a little trade. I went into another
shop and bought some picture post-cards of the ruins within a few yards
of it. The woman behind the counter was a comely soul, and laughed
because she had no change. Only two days before a seventeen-inch shell
had burst fifty yards or so away from her shop, which was close enough
for death. I marveled at the risk she took with cheerful smiles. Was it
courage or stupidity?

One of the old women in the street grasped my arm in a friendly way and
called me cher petit ami, and described how she had been nearly killed
a hundred times. When I asked her why she stayed she gave an old woman’s
cackling laugh and said, “Que voulez-vous, jeune homme?” which did not
seem a satisfactory answer. As dusk crept into the streets of Arras I
saw small groups of boys and girls. They seemed to come out of holes in
the ground to stare at this Englishman in khaki. “Are you afraid of the
shells?” I asked. They grimaced up at the sky and giggled. They had got
used to the hell of it all, and dodged death as they would a man with
a whip, shouting with laughter beyond the length of his lash. In one of
the vaulted cellars underground, when English soldiers first went in,
there lived a group of girls who gave them wine to drink, and kisses for
a franc or two, and the Circe cup of pleasure, if they had time to stay.
Overhead shells were howling. Their city was stricken with death. These
women lived like witches in a cave--a strange and dreadful life.

I walked to the suburb of Blangy by way of St.-Nicolas and came to
a sinister place. Along the highroad from Arras to Douai was a great
factory of some kind--probably for beet sugar--and then a street of
small houses with back yards and gardens much like those in our own
suburbs. Holes had been knocked through the walls of the factory and
houses, the gardens had been barricaded with barbed wire and sand-bags,
and the passage from house to house and between the overturned boilers
of the factory formed a communication trench to the advanced outpost
in the last house held by the French, on the other side of which is the
enemy. As we made our way through these ruined houses we had to walk
very quietly and to speak in whispers. In the last house of all, which
was a combination of fort and dugout, absolute silence was necessary,
for there were German soldiers only ten yards away, with trench-mortars
and bombs and rifles always ready to snipe across the walls. Through
a chink no wider than my finger I could see the red-brick ruins of the
houses inhabited by the enemy and the road to Douai... The road to Douai
as seen through this chink was a tangle of broken bricks.

The enemy was so close to Arras when the French held it that there were
many places where one had to step quietly and duck one’s head, or get
behind the shelter of a broken wall, to avoid a sniper’s bullet or the
rattle of bullets from a machine-gun.

As I left Arras in that November evening, darkness closed in its
ruined streets and shells were crashing over the city from French
guns, answered now and then by enemy batteries. But in a moment of rare
silence I heard the chime of a church clock. It seemed like the sweet
voice of that old-time peace in Arras before the days of its agony, and
I thought of that solitary bell sounding above the ruins in a ghostly
way.



XV


While we hung on the news from Verdun--it seemed as though the fate of
the world were in Fort Douaumont--our own lists of death grew longer.

In the casualty clearing station by Poperinghe more mangled men lay on
their stretchers, hobbled to the ambulance-trains, groped blindly with
one hand clutching at a comrade’s arm. More, and more, and more, with
head wounds, and body wounds, with trench-feet, and gas.

“O Christ!” said one of them whom I knew. He had been laid on a
swing-bed in the ambulance-train.

“Now you will be comfortable and happy,” said the R.A.M.C. orderly.

The boy groaned again. He was suffering intolerable agony, and, grasping
a strap, hauled himself up a little with a wet sweat breaking out on his
forehead.

Another boy came along alone, with one hand in a big bandage. He told me
that it was smashed to bits, and began to cry. Then he smudged the tears
away and said:

“I’m lucky enough. I saw many fellows killed.”

So it happened, day by day, but the courage of our men endured.

It seemed impossible to newcomers that life could exist at all under the
shell-fire which the Germans flung over our trenches and which we flung
over theirs. So it seemed to the Irish battalions when they held the
lines round Loos, by that Hohenzollern redoubt which was one of our
little hells.

“Things happened,” said one of them, “which in other times would have
been called miracles. We all had hairbreadth escapes from death.” For
days they were under heavy fire, with 9.2’s flinging up volumes of
sand and earth and stones about them. Then waves of poison-gas. Then
trench-mortars and bombs.

“It seemed like years!” said one of the Irish crowd. “None of us
expected to come out alive.”

Yet most of them had the luck to come out alive that time, and over a
midday mess in a Flemish farmhouse they had hearty appetites for bully
beef and fried potatoes, washed down by thin red wine and strong black
coffee.

Round Ypres, and up by Boesinghe and Hooge--you remember Hooge?--the
14th, 20th, and 6th Divisions took turns in wet ditches and in
shell-holes, with heavy crumps falling fast and roaring before
they burst like devils of hell. On one day there were three hundred
casualties in one battalion The German gun-fire lengthened, and men were
killed on their way out to “rest”--camps to the left of the road between
Poperinghe and Vlamertinghe.

* * *

On March 28th the Royal Fusiliers and the Northumberland Fusiliers--the
old Fighting Fifth--captured six hundred yards of German trenches near
St.-Eloi and asked for trouble, which, sure enough, came to them who
followed them. Their attack was against a German stronghold built of
earth and sand-bags nine feet high, above a nest of trenches in the fork
of two roads from St.-Eloi to Messines. They mined beneath this place
and it blew up with a roaring blast which flung up tons of soil in a
black mass. Then the Fusiliers dashed forward, flinging bombs through
barbed wire and over sand-bags which had escaped the radius of the
mine-burst--in one jumbled mass of human bodies in a hurry to get on, to
kill, and to come back. One German machine-gun got to work on them. It
was knocked out by a bomb flung by an officer who saved his company. The
machine--gunners were bayoneted. Elsewhere there was chaos out of which
living men came, shaking and moaning.

I saw the Royal Fusiliers and Northumberland Fusiliers come back from
this exploit, exhausted, caked from head to foot in wet clay. Their
steel helmets were covered with sand-bagging, their trench-waders, their
rifles, and smoke helmets were all plastered by wet, white earth, and
they looked a ragged regiment of scarecrows gathered from the fields of
France. Some of them had shawls tied about their helmets, and some of
them wore the shiny black helmets of the Jaeger Regiment and the gray
coats of German soldiers. They had had luck. They had not left many
comrades behind, and they had come out with life to the good world.
Tired as they were, they came along as though to carnival. They had
proved their courage through an ugly job. They had done “damn well,” as
one of them remarked; and they were out of the shell-fire which ravaged
the ground they had taken, where other men lay.



XVI


At the beginning of March there was a little affair--costing a lot of
lives--in the neighborhood of St.-Eloi, up in the Ypres salient. It was
a struggle for a dirty hillock called the Bluff, which had been held for
a long time by the 3d Division under General Haldane, whose men were at
last relieved, after weary months in the salient, by the 17th Division
commanded by General Pilcher. The Germans took advantage of the change
in defense by a sudden attack after the explosion of a mine, and the men
of the 17th Division, new to this ground, abandoned a position of some
local importance.

General Haldane was annoyed. It was ground of which he knew every
inch. It was ground which men of his had died to hold. It was very
annoying--using a feeble word--to battalion officers and men of the
3d Division--Suffolks and King’s Own Liverpools, Gordons and Royal
Scots--who had first come out of the salient, out of its mud and snow
and slush and shell-fire, to a pretty village far behind the lines, on
the road to Calais, where they were getting back to a sense of normal
life again. Sleeping in snug billets, warming their feet at wood fires,
listening with enchantment to the silence about them, free from the
noise of artillery. They were hugging themselves with the thought of a
month of this... Then because they had been in the salient so long
and had held this line so stubbornly, they were ordered back again to
recapture the position lost by new men.

After a day of field sports they were having a boxing--match in an old
barn, very merry and bright, before that news came to them. General
Haldane had given me a quiet word about it, and I watched the boxing,
and the faces of all those men, crowded round the ring, with pity for
the frightful disappointment that was about to fall on them, like a
sledge-hammer. I knew some of their officers--Colonel Dyson of the Royal
Scots, and Captain Heathcote, who hated the war and all its ways with
a deadly hatred, having seen much slaughter of men and of their own
officers. Colonel Dyson was the seventeenth commanding officer of his
battalion, which had been commanded by every officer down to second
lieutenant, and had only thirty men left of the original crowd. They
had been slain in large numbers in that “holding attack” by Hooge on
September 25th, during the battle of Loos, as I have told. Now they
were “going in” again, and were very sorry for themselves, but hid their
feelings from their men. The men were tough and stalwart lads, tanned by
the wind and rain of a foul winter, thinned down by the ordeal of those
months in the line under daily bouts of fire. In a wooden gallery of
the barn a mass of them lay in deep straw, exchanging caps, whistling,
shouting, in high spirits. Not yet did they know the call-back to the
salient. Then word was passed to them after the boxing finals. That
night they had to march seven miles to entrain for the railroad nearest
to Ypres. I saw them march away, silently, grimly, bravely, without many
curses.

They were to recapture the Bluff, and early on the morning of March
2d, before dawn had risen, I went out to the salient and watched the
bombardment which preceded the attack. There was an incessant tumult
of guns, and the noise rolled in waves across the flat country of the
salient and echoed back from Kemmel Hill and the Wytschaete Ridge. There
was a white frost over the fields, and all the battle-front was veiled
by a mist which clung round the villages and farmsteads behind the lines
and made a dense bank of gray fog below the rising ground.

This curtain was rent with flashes of light and little glinting stars
burst continually over one spot, where the Bluff was hidden beyond
Zillebeke Lake. When daybreak came, with the rim of a red sun over a
clump of trees in the east, the noise of guns increased in spasms of
intensity like a rising storm. Many batteries of heavy artillery were
firing salvos. Field-guns, widely scattered, concentrated their fire
upon one area, where their shells were bursting with a twinkle of light.
Somewhere a machine-gun was at work with sharp, staccato strokes,
like an urgent knocking at the door. High overhead was the song of an
airplane coming nearer, with a high, vibrant humming. It was an enemy
searching through the mist down below him for any movement of troops or
trains.

It was the 76th Brigade of the 3d Division which attacked at four
thirty-two that morning, and they were the Suffolks, Gordons, and King’s
Own Liverpools who led the assault, commanded by General Pratt. They
flung themselves into the German lines in the wake of a heavy barrage
fire, smashing through broken belts of wire and stumbling in and out of
shell-craters. The Germans, in their front-lines, had gone to cover in
deep dugouts which they had built with feverish haste on the Bluff and
its neighborhood during the previous ten days and nights. At first only
a few men, not more than a hundred or so, could be discovered alive.
The dead were thick in the maze of trenches, and our men stumbled across
them.

The living were in a worse state than the dead, dazed by the shell-fire,
and cold with terror when our men sprang upon them in the darkness
before dawn. Small parties were collected and passed back as
prisoners--marvelously lucky men if they kept their sanity as well
as their lives after all that hell about them. Hours later, when our
battalions had stormed their way up other trenches into a salient
jutting out of the German line and beyond the boundary of the objective
that had been given to them, other living men were found to be still
hiding in the depths of other dugouts and could not be induced to come
out. Terror kept them in those holes, and they were like wild beasts
at bay, still dangerous because they had their bombs and rifles. An
ultimatum was shouted down to them by men too busy for persuasive talk.
“If you don’t come out you’ll be blown in.” Some of them came out and
others were blown to bits. After that the usual thing happened, the
thing that inevitably happened in all these little murderous attacks and
counter-attacks. The enemy concentrated all its power of artillery on
that position captured by our men, and day after day hurled over storms
of shrapnel and high explosives, under which our men cowered until many
were killed and more wounded. The first attack on the Bluff and its
recapture cost us three thousand casualties, and that was only the
beginning of a daily toll of life and limbs in that neighborhood
of hell. Through driving snowstorms shells went rushing across that
battleground, ceaselessly in those first weeks of March, but the 3d
Division repulsed the enemy’s repeated attacks in bombing fights which
were very fierce on both sides.

I went to General Pilcher’s headquarters at Reninghelst on March 4th,
and found the staff of the 17th Division frosty in their greeting, while
General Pratt, the brigadier of the 3d Division, was conducting the
attack in their new territory. General Pilcher himself was much shaken.
The old gentleman had been at St.-Eloi when the bombardment had begun on
his men. With Captain Rattnag his A. D. C. he lay for an hour in a ditch
with shells screaming overhead and bursting close. More than once when I
talked with him he raised his head and listened nervously and said: “Do
you hear the guns?... They are terrible.”

I was sorry for him, this general who had many theories on war and
experimented in light-signals, as when one night I stood by his side in
a dark field, and had a courteous old-fashioned dignity and gentleness
of manner. He was a fine old English gentleman and a gallant soldier,
but modern warfare was too brutal for him. Too brutal for all those who
hated its slaughter.

Those men of the 3d Division--the “Iron Division,” as it was called
later in the war--remained in a hideous turmoil of wet earth up by the
Bluff until other men came to relieve them and take over this corner of
hell.

What remained of the trenches was deep in water and filthy mud, where
the bodies of many dead Germans lay under a litter of broken sand-bags
and in the holes of half-destroyed dugouts. Nothing could be done to
make it less horrible. Then the weather changed and became icily cold,
with snow and rain.

One dugout which had been taken for battalion headquarters was six
feet long by four wide, and here in this waterlogged hole lived three
officers of the Royal Scots to whom a day or two before I had wished
“good luck.”

The servants lived in the shaft alongside which was a place measuring
four feet by four feet. There were no other dugouts where men could
get any shelter from shells or storms, and the enemy’s guns were never
silent.

But the men held on, as most of our men held on, with a resignation to
fate and a stoic endurance beyond that ordinary human courage which we
seemed to know before the war.

The chaplain of this battalion had spent all the long night behind the
lines, stoking fires and going round the cook-houses and looking at his
wrist-watch to see how the minutes were crawling past. He had tea, rum,
socks, oil, and food all ready for those who were coming back, and the
lighted braziers were glowing red.

At the appointed time the padre went out to meet his friends, pressing
forward through the snow and listening for any sound of footsteps
through the great hush.

But there was no sound except the soft flutter of snowflakes. He
strained his eyes for any moving shadows of men. But there was only
darkness and the falling snow.

Two hours passed, and they seemed endless to that young chaplain whose
brain was full of frightful apprehensions, so that they were hours of
anguish to him.

Then at last the first men appeared. “I’ve never seen anything so
splendid and so pitiful,” said the man who had been waiting for them.

They came along at about a mile an hour, sometimes in groups, sometimes
by twos or threes, holding on to each other, often one by one. In this
order they crept through the ruined villages in the falling snow,
which lay thick upon the masses of fallen masonry. There was a profound
silence about them, and these snow-covered men were like ghosts walking
through cities of death.

No man spoke, for the sound of a human voice would have seemed a
danger in this great white quietude. They were walking like old men,
weak-kneed, and bent under the weight of their packs and rifles.

Yet when the young padre greeted them with a cheery voice that hid the
water in his heart every one had a word and a smile in reply, and made
little jests about their drunken footsteps, for they were like drunken
men with utter weariness.

“What price Charlie Chaplin now, sir?” was one man’s joke.

The last of those who came back--and there were many who never came
back--were some hours later than the first company, having found it hard
to crawl along that Via Dolorosa which led to the good place where the
braziers were glowing.

It was a heroic episode, for each one of these men was a hero, though
his name will never be known in the history of that silent and hidden
war. And yet it was an ordinary episode, no degree worse in its hardship
than what happened all along the line when there was an attack or
counter-attack in foul weather.

The marvel of it was that our men, who were very simple men, should have
“stuck it out” with that grandeur of courage which endured all things
without self-interest and without emotion. They were unconscious of the
virtue that was in them.



XVII


Going up to the line by Ypres, or Armentieres, or Loos, I noticed in
those early months of 1916 an increasing power of artillery on our side
of the lines and a growing intensity of gun-fire on both sides.

Time was, a year before, when our batteries were scattered thinly behind
the lines and when our gunners had to be thrifty of shells, saving them
up anxiously for hours of great need, when the S O S rocket shot up
a green light from some battered trench upon which the enemy was
concentrating “hate.”

Those were ghastly days for gunner officers, who had to answer telephone
messages calling for help from battalions whose billets were being
shelled to pieces by long--range howitzers, or from engineers whose
working-parties were being sniped to death by German field-guns, or from
a brigadier who wanted to know, plaintively, whether the artillery could
not deal with a certain gun which was enfilading a certain trench and
piling up the casualties. It was hard to say: “Sorry!... We’ve got to go
slow with ammunition.”

That, now, was ancient history. For some time the fields had grown a
new crop of British batteries. Month after month our weight of metal
increased, and while the field-guns had been multiplying at a great rate
the “heavies” had been coming out, too, and giving a deeper and more
sonorous tone to that swelling chorus which rolled over the battlefields
by day and night.

There was a larger supply of shells for all those pieces, and no longer
the same need for thrift when there was urgent need for artillery
support. Retaliation was the order of the day, and if the enemy asked
for trouble by any special show of “hate” he got it quickly and with a
double dose.

Compared with the infantry, the gunners had a chance of life, except
in places where, as in the salient, the German observers stared down
at them from high ground and saw every gun flash and registered every
battery. Going round the salient one day with General Burstall--and a
very good name, too!--who was then the Canadian gunner-general, I was
horrified at the way in which the enemy had the accurate range of our
guns and gun-pits and knocked them out with deadly shooting.

Here and there our amateur gunners--quick to learn their job--found a
good place, and were able to camouflage their position for a time, and
give praise to the little god of Luck, until one day sooner or later
they were discovered and a quick move was necessary if they were not
caught too soon.

So it was with a battery in the open fields beyond Kemmel village, where
I went to see a boy who had once been a rising hope of Fleet Street.

He was new to his work and liked the adventure of it--that was before
his men were blown to bits around him and he was sent down as a tragic
case of shell-shock--and as we walked through the village of Kemmel he
chatted cheerfully about his work and life and found it topping. His
bright, luminous eyes were undimmed by the scene around him. He walked
in a jaunty, boyish way through that ruined place. It was not a pleasant
place. Kemmel village, even in those days, had been blown to bits,
except where, on the outskirts, the chateau with its racing-stables
remained untouched--“German spies!” said the boy--and where a little
grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes was also unscathed. The church was
battered and broken, and there were enormous shell-pits in the
churchyard and open vaults where old dead had been tumbled out of their
tombs. We walked along a sunken road and then to a barn in open fields.
The roof was pierced by shrapnel bullets, which let in the rain on wet
days and nights, but it was cozy otherwise in the room above the ladder
where the officers had their mess. There were some home-made chairs up
there, and Kirchner prints of naked little ladies were tacked up to the
beams, among the trench maps, and round the fireplace where logs were
burning was a canvas screen to let down at night. A gramophone played
merry music and gave a homelike touch to this parlor in war.

“A good spot!” I said. “Is it well hidden?”

“As safe as houses,” said the captain of the battery. “Touching wood, I
mean.”

There were six of us sitting at a wooden plank on trestles, and at
those words five young men rose with a look of fright on their faces and
embraced the beam supporting the roof of the barn.

“What’s happened?” I asked, not having heard the howl of a shell.

“Nothing,” said the boy, “except touching wood. The captain spoke too
loudly.”

We went out to the guns which were to do a little shooting, and
found them camouflaged from aerial eyes in the grim desolation of the
battlefield, all white after a morning’s snowstorm, except where the
broken walls of distant farmhouses and the windmills on Kemmel Hill
showed black as ink.

The gunners could not see their target, which had been given to them
through the telephone, but they knew it by the figures giving the angle
of fire.

“It’s a pumping-party in a waterlogged trench,” said a bright-eyed boy
by my side (he was one of the rising hopes of Fleet Street before he
became a gunner officer in Flanders). “With any luck we shall get ‘em
in the neck, and I like to hear the Germans squeal... And my gun’s ready
first, as usual.”

The officer commanding shouted through a tin megaphone, and the battery
fired, each gun following its brother at a second interval, with the
staccato shock of a field-piece, which is more painful than the dull
roar of a “heavy.”

A word came along the wire from the officer in the observation post a
mile away.

Another order was called through the tin mouthpiece.

“Repeat!”

“We’ve got’em,” said the young gentleman by my side, in a cheerful way.

The officer with the megaphone looked across and smiled.

“We may as well give them a salvo. They won’t like it a bit.”

A second or two later there was a tremendous crash as the four guns
fired together. “Repeat!” came the high voice through the megaphone.

The still air was rent again... In a waterlogged trench, which we could
not see, a German pumping-party had been blown to bits.

The artillery officers took turns in the observation posts, sleeping for
the night in one of the dugouts behind the front trench instead of in
the billet below.

The way to the observation post was sometimes a little vague, especially
in frost-and-thaw weather, when parts of the communication trenches
slithered down under the weight of sand-bags.

The young officer who walked with luminous eyes and eager step found it
necessary to crawl on his stomach before he reached his lookout station
from which he looked straight across the enemy’s trenches. But, once
there, it was pretty comfortable and safe, barring a direct hit from
above or a little mining operation underneath.

He made a seat of a well-filled sand-bag (it was rather a shock when
he turned it over one day to get dry side up and found a dead Frenchman
there), and smoked Belgian cigars for the sake of their aroma, and sat
there very solitary and watchful.

The rats worried him a little--they were bold enough to bare their teeth
when they met him down a trench, and there was one big fellow called
Cuthbert, who romped round his dugout and actually bit his ear one
night. But these inconveniences did not seem to give any real distress
to the soul of youth, out there alone and searching for human targets to
kill... until one day, as I have said, everything snapped in him and the
boy was broken.

It was on the way back from Kemmel village one day that I met a queer
apparition through a heavy snowstorm. It was a French civilian in
evening dress--boiled shirt, white tie, and all--with a bowler hat bent
to the storm.

Tomlinson, the great Tomlinson, was with me, and shook his head.

“It isn’t true,” he said. “I don’t believe it... We’re mad, that’s
all!... The whole world is mad, so why should we be sane?”

We stared after the man who went into the ruin of Kemmel, to the noise
of gun-fire, in evening dress, without an overcoat, through a blizzard
of snow.

A little farther down the road we passed a signboard on the edge of a
cratered field. New words had been painted on it in good Roman letters.

Cimetiere reserve

Tomlinson, the only Tomlinson, regarded it gravely and turned to me with
a world of meaning in his eyes. Then he tapped his forehead and laughed.

“Mad!” he said. “We’re all mad!”



XVIII


In that winter of discontent there was one great body of splendid men
whose spirits had sunk to zero, seeing no hope ahead of them in that
warfare of trenches and barbed wire. The cavalry believed they were
“bunkered” forever, and that all their training and tradition were made
futile by the digging in of armies. Now and again, when the infantry was
hard pressed, as in the second battle of Ypres and the battle of Loos,
they were called on to leave their horses behind and take a turn in the
trenches, and then they came back again, less some of their comrades,
into dirty billets remote from the fighting-lines, to exercise their
horses and curse the war.

Before they went into the line in February of ‘16 I went to see some
of those cavalry officers to wish them good luck, and saw them in the
trenches and afterward when they came out. In the headquarters of
a squadron of “Royals”--the way in was by a ladder through the
window--billeted in a village, which on a day of frost looked as quaint
and pretty as a Christmas card, was a party of officers typical of the
British cavalry as a whole.

A few pictures cut out of La Vie Parisienne were tacked on to the walls
to remind them of the arts and graces of an older mode of life, and to
keep them human by the sight of a pretty face (oh, to see a pretty girl
again!).

Now they were going to change this cottage for the trenches, this quiet
village with a church-bell chiming every hour, for the tumult in the
battle-front--this absolute safety for the immediate menace of death.
They knew already the beastliness of life in trenches. They had no
illusions about “glory.” But they were glad to go, because activity was
better than inactivity, and because the risk would give them back their
pride, and because the cavalry should fight anyhow and somehow, even if
a charge or a pursuit were denied them.

They had a hot time in the trenches. The enemy’s artillery was active,
and the list of casualties began to tot up. A good officer and a fine
fellow was killed almost at the outset, and men were horribly wounded.
But all those troopers showed a cool courage.

Things looked bad for a few minutes when a section of trenches was blown
in, isolating one platoon from another. A sergeant-major made his way
back from the damaged section, and a young officer who was going forward
to find out the extent of damage met him on the way.

“Can I get through?” asked the officer.

“I’ve got through,” was the answer, “but it’s chancing one’s luck.”

The officer “chanced his luck,” but did not expect to come back alive.
Afterward he tried to analyze his feelings for my benefit.

“I had no sense of fear,” he said, “but a sort of subconscious knowledge
that the odds were against me if I went on, and yet a conscious
determination to go on at all costs and find out what had happened.”

He came back, covered with blood, but unwounded. In spite of all the
unpleasant sights in a crumpled trench, he had the heart to smile when
in the middle of the night one of the sergeants approached him with an
amiable suggestion.

“Don’t you think it would be a good time, sir, to make a slight attack
upon the enemy?”

There was something in those words, “a slight attack,” which is
irresistibly comic to any of us who know the conditions of modern trench
war. But they were not spoken in jest.

So the cavalry did its “bit” again, though not as cavalry, and I saw
some of them when they came back, and they were glad to have gone
through that bloody business so that no man might fling a scornful word
as they passed with their horses.

“It is queer,” said my friend, “how we go from this place of peace to
the battlefield, and then come back for a spell before going up again.
It is like passing from one life to another.”

In that cavalry mess I heard queer conversations. Those officers
belonged to the old families of England, the old caste of aristocracy,
but the foul outrage of the war--the outrage against all ideals of
civilization--had made them think, some of them for the first time,
about the structure of social life and of the human family.

They hated Germany as the direct cause of war, but they looked deeper
than that and saw how the leaders of all great nations in Europe had
maintained the philosophy of forms and had built up hatreds and fears
and alliances over the heads of the peoples whom they inflamed with
passion or duped with lies.

“The politicians are the guilty ones,” said one cavalry officer. “I
am all for revolution after this bloody massacre. I would hang
all politicians, diplomats, and so-called statesmen with strict
impartiality.”

“I’m for the people,” said another. “The poor, bloody people, who are
kept in ignorance and then driven into the shambles when their rulers
desire to grab some new part of the earth’s surface or to get their
armies going because they are bored with peace.”

“What price Christianity?” asked another, inevitably. “What have the
churches done to stop war or preach the gospel of Christ? The Bishop of
London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all those conventional, patriotic,
cannon--blessing, banner-baptizing humbugs. God! They make me tired!”

Strange words to hear in a cavalry mess! Strange turmoil in the souls
of men! They were the same words I had heard from London boys in Ypres,
spoken just as crudely. But many young gentlemen who spoke those words
have already forgotten them or would deny them.



XIX


The winter of 1915-16 passed with its misery, and spring came again to
France and Flanders with its promise of life, fulfilled in the beauty of
wild flowers and the green of leaves where the earth was not made barren
by the fire of war and all trees killed.

For men there was no promise of life, but only new preparations for
death, and continued killing.

The battle of Verdun was still going on, and France had saved herself
from a mortal blow at the heart by a desperate, heroic resistance which
cost her five hundred and fifty thousand in dead and wounded. On the
British front there were still no great battles, but those trench raids,
artillery duels, mine fighting, and small massacres which filled the
casualty clearing stations with the average amount of human wreckage.
The British armies were being held in leash for a great offensive in the
summer. New divisions were learning the lessons of the old divisions,
and here and there generals were doing a little fancy work to keep
things merry and bright.

So it was when some mines were exploded under the German earthworks on
the lower slopes of the Vimy Ridge, where the enemy had already blown
several mines and taken possession of their craters. It was to gain
those craters, and new ones to be made by our mine charges, that the
74th Brigade of the 25th Division, a body of Lancashire men, the 9th
Loyal North Lancashires and the 11th Royal Fusiliers, with a company of
Royal Engineers and some Welsh pioneers, were detailed for the perilous
adventure of driving in the mine shafts, putting tremendous charges of
high explosives in the sapheads, and rushing the German positions.

It was on the evening of May 15th, after two days of wet and cloudy
weather preventing the enemy’s observation, that our heavy artillery
fired a short number of rounds to send the Germans into their dugouts. A
few minutes later the right group of mines exploded with a terrific roar
and blew in two of the five old German craters. After the long rumble
of heaving earth had been stilled there was just time enough to hear
the staccato of a German machine-gun. Then there was a second roar and a
wild upheaval of soil when the left group of mines destroyed two more of
the German craters and knocked out the machine-gun.

The moment for the infantry attack had come, and the men were ready.
The first to get away were two lieutenants of the 9th Loyal North
Lancashires, who rushed forward with their assaulting-parties to the
remaining crater on the extreme left, which had not been blown up.

With little opposition from dazed and terror-stricken Germans, bayoneted
as they scrambled out of the chaotic earth, our men flung
themselves into those smoking pits and were followed immediately by
working-parties, who built up bombing posts with earth and sand-bags on
the crater lip and began to dig out communication trenches leading to
them. The assaulting-parties of the Lancashire Fusiliers were away at
the first signal, and were attacking the other groups of craters under
heavy fire.

The Germans were shaken with terror because the explosion of the mines
had killed and wounded a large number of them, and through the darkness
there rang out the cheers of masses of men who were out for blood.
Through the darkness there now glowed a scarlet light, flooding all that
turmoil of earth and men with a vivid, red illumination, as flare after
flare rose high into the sky from several points of the German line.
Later the red lights died down, and then other rockets were fired,
giving a green light to this scene of war.

The German gunners were now at work in answer to those beacons of
distress, and with every caliber of gun from howitzers to minenwerfers
they shelled our front-lines for two hours and killed for vengeance.
They were too late to stop the advance of the assaulting troops, who
were fighting in the craters against groups of German bombers who tried
to force their way up to the rescue of a position already lost. One of
our officers leading the assault on one of the craters on the right was
killed very quickly, but his men were not checked, and with individual
resolution and initiative, and the grit of the Lancashire man in a tight
place, fought on grimly, and won their purpose.

A young lieutenant fell dead from a bullet wound after he had directed
his men to their posts from the lip of a new mine-crater, as coolly as
though he were a master of ceremonies in a Lancashire ballroom.
Another, a champion bomb-thrower, with a range of forty yards, flung
his hand-grenades at the enemy with untiring skill and with a fierce
contempt of death, until he was killed by an answering shot. The
N.C.O.’s took up the command and the men “carried on” until they held
all the chain of craters, crouching and panting above mangled men.

They were hours of anguish for many Germans, who lay wounded and
half buried, or quite buried, in the chaos, of earth made by those
mine-craters now doubly upheaved. Their screams and moans sounding above
the guns, the frantic cries of men maddened under tons of earth, which
kept them prisoners in deep pits below the crater lips, and awful
inarticulate noises of human pain coming out of that lower darkness
beyond the light of the rockets, made up a chorus of agony more than our
men could endure, even in the heat of battle. They shouted across to the
German grenadiers:

“We will cease fire if you will, and let you get in your wounded...
Cease fire for the wounded!”

The shout was repeated, and our bombers held their hands, still waiting
for an answer. But the answer was a new storm of bombs, and the fighting
went on, and the moaning of the men who were helpless and unhelped.

Working-parties followed up the assault to “consolidate” the position.
They did amazing things, toiling in the darkness under abominable
shell-fire, and by daylight had built communication trenches with
head-cover from the crater lips to our front-line trenches.

But now it was the enemy’s turn--the turn of his guns, which poured
explosive fire into those pits, churning up the earth again, mixing it
with new flesh and blood, and carving up his own dead; and it was the
turn of his bombers, who followed this fire in strong assaults upon the
Lancashire lads, who, lying among their killed and wounded, had to repel
those fierce attacks.

On May 17th I went to see General Doran of the 25th Division, an
optimistic old gentleman who took a bright view of things, and Colonel
Crosby, who was acting--brigadier of the 74th Brigade, which had made
the attack. He, too, was enthusiastic about the situation, though his
brigade had suffered eight hundred casualties in a month of routine
warfare.

In my simple way I asked him a direct question:

“Do you think your men can hold on to the craters, sir?”

Colonel Crosby stared at me sternly.

“Certainly. The position cannot be retaken overground. We hold it
strongly.”

As he spoke an orderly came into his billet (a small farmhouse),
saluted, and handed him a pink slip, which was a telephone message. I
watched him read it, and saw the sudden pallor of his face, and noticed
how the room shook with the constant reverberation of distant gun-fire.
A big bombardment was in progress over Vimy way.

“Excuse me,” said the colonel; “things seem to be happening. I must go
at once.”

He went through the window, leaping the sill, and a look of bad tidings
went with him.

His men had been blown out of the craters.

A staff officer sat in the brigade office, and when the acting-brigadier
had gone raised his head and looked across to me.

“I am a critic of these affairs,” he said. “They seem to me too
expensive. But I’m here to do what I am told.”

We did not regain the Vimy craters until a year afterward, when the
Canadians and Scottish captured all the Vimy Ridge in a great assault.



XX


The winter of discontent had passed. Summer had come with a wealth of
beauty in the fields of France this side the belt of blasted earth. The
grass was a tapestry of flowers, and tits and warblers and the golden
oriole were making music in the woods. At dusk the nightingale sang as
though no war were near its love, and at broad noonday a million larks
rose above the tall wheat with a great high chorus of glad notes.

Among the British armies there was hope again, immense faith that
believed once more in an ending to the war. Verdun had been saved. The
enemy had been slaughtered. His reserves were thin and hard to get (so
said Intelligence) and the British, stronger than they had ever been, in
men, and guns, and shells, and aircraft, and all material of war, were
going to be launched in a great offensive. No more trench warfare.
No more dying in ditches. Out into the open, with an Army of Pursuit
(Rawlinson’s) and a quick break-through. It was to be “The Great Push.”
 The last battles were to be fought before the year died again, though
many men would die before that time.

Up in the salient something happened to make men question the weakness
of the enemy, but the news did not spread very far and there was a lot
to do elsewhere, on the Somme, where the salient seemed a long way off.
It was the Canadians to whom it happened, and it was an ugly thing.

On June 2d a flame of fire from many batteries opened upon their lines
in Sanctuary Wood and Maple Copse, beyond the lines of Ypres, and
tragedy befell them. I went to see those who lived through it and stood
in the presence of men who had escaped from the very pits of that hell
which had been invented by human beings out of the earth’s chemistry,
and yet had kept their reason.

The enemy’s bombardment began suddenly, with one great crash of guns, at
half past eight on Friday morning. Generals Mercer and Williams had gone
up to inspect the trenches at six o’clock in the morning.

It had been almost silent along the lines when the enemy’s batteries
opened fire with one enormous thunderstroke, which was followed by
continuous salvos. The shells came from nearly every point of the
compass--north, east, and south. The evil spell of the salient was over
our men again.

In the trenches just south of Hooge were the Princess Patricia’s Light
Infantry, with some battalions of the Royal Canadian Regiment south of
them, and some of the Canadian Mounted Rifles (who had long been
dismounted), and units from another Canadian division at the extreme end
of their line of front. It was those men who had to suffer the tempest
of the enemy’s shells.

Earth below them opened up into great craters as high-explosive shells
burst continually, flinging up masses of soil, flattening out
breastworks and scattering sand-bags into dust.

Canadians in the front trenches held on in the midst of this uproar.
“They took it all,” said one of the officers, and in that phrase, spoken
simply by a man who was there, too, lies the spirit of pride and
sacrifice. “They took it all” and did not budge, though the sky seemed
to be opening above them and the earth below them.

The bombardment continued without a pause for five hours, by which time
most of our front trenches had been annihilated. At about a quarter past
one the enemy’s guns lifted a little, and through the dense smoke-clouds
which made a solid bar across No Man’s Land appeared a mass of German
infantry. They wore their packs and full field-kit, as though they had
come to stay.

Perhaps they expected that no one lived in the British trenches, and it
was a reasonable idea, but wrong. There were brave men remaining there,
alive and determined to fight. Although the order for retirement had
been given, single figures here and there were seen to get over the
broken parapets and go forward to meet the enemy halfway. They died to a
man, fighting. It seemed to me one of the most pitiful and heroic things
of this war, that little crowd of men, many of them wounded, some of
them dazed and deaf, stumbling forward to their certain death to oppose
the enemy’s advance.

From the network of trenches behind, not altogether smashed, there was
time for men to retire to a second line of defense, if they were still
unwounded and had strength to go. An officer--Captain Crossman--in command
of one of these support companies, brought several men out of a trench,
but did not follow on. He turned again, facing the enemy, and was last
seen--“a big, husky man,” says one of his comrades--as he fired his
revolver and then flung it into a German’s face.

Colonel Shaw of the 1st Battalion, C.M.R., rallied eighty men out of the
Cumberland dugouts, and died fighting. The Germans were kept at bay for
some time, but they flung their bombs into the square of men, so that
very few remained alive. When only eight were still fighting among the
bodies of their comrades these tattered and blood-splashed men, standing
there fiercely contemptuous of the enemy and death, were ordered to
retire by Major Palmer, the last officer among them.

Meanwhile the battalions in support were holding firm in spite of the
shell-fire, which raged above them also, and it was against this second
line of Canadians that the German infantry came up--and broke.

In the center the German thrust was hard toward Zillebeke Lake. Here
some of the Canadian Rifles were in support, and as soon as the infantry
attack began they were ordered forward to meet and check the enemy. An
officer in command of one of their battalions afterward told me that he
led his men across country to Maple Copse under such a fire as he had
never seen. Because of the comrades in front, in dire need of help, no
notice was taken as the wounded fell, but the others pressed on as fast
as they could go.

Maple Copse was reached, and here the men halted and awaited the enemy
with another battalion who were already holding this wood of six or
seven acres. When the German troops arrived they may have expected to
meet no great resistance. They met a withering fire, which caused them
bloody losses. The Canadians had assembled at various points, which
became strongholds of defense with machine-guns and bomb stores, and the
men held their fire until the enemy was within close range, so that
they worked havoc among them. But the German guns never ceased and many
Canadians fell. Col. E. H. Baker, a member of the Canadian Parliament,
fell with a piece of shell in his lung.

Hour after hour our gunners fed their breeches and poured out shells.
The edge of the salient was swept with fire, and, though the Canadian
losses were frightful, the Germans suffered also, so that the
battlefield was one great shambles. Our own wounded, who were brought
back, owe their lives to the stretcher-bearers, who were supreme in
devotion. They worked in and out across that shell-swept ground hour
after hour through the day and night, rescuing many stricken men at a
great cost in life to themselves. Out of one party of twenty only five
remained alive. “No one can say,” said one of their officers, “that the
Canadians do not know how to die.”

No one would deny that.

Out of three thousand men in the Canadian 8th Brigade their casualties
were twenty-two hundred.

There were 151 survivors from the 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles,
130 from the 4th Battalion, 350 from the 5th, 520 from the 2nd. Those
are the figures of massacre.

Eleven days later the Canadians took their revenge. Their own guns were
but a small part of the huge orchestra of “heavies” and field batteries
which played the devil’s tattoo upon the German positions in our old
trenches. It was annihilating, and the German soldiers had to endure the
same experience as their guns had given to Canadian troops on the same
ground. Trenches already battered were smashed again. The earth, which
was plowed with shells in their own attack, was flung up again by our
shells. It was hell again for poor human wretches.

The Canadian troops charged at two o’clock in the morning. Their attack
was directed to the part of the line from the southern end of Sanctuary
Wood to Mount Gorst, about a mile, which included Armagh Wood,
Observatory Hill, and Mount Gorst itself.

The attack went quickly and the men expected greater trouble. The
enemy’s shell-fire was heavy, but the Canadians got through under
cover of their own guns, which had lengthened their fuses a little and
continued an intense bombardment behind the enemy’s first line. The men
advanced in open order and worked downward and southward into their old
positions.

In one place of attack about forty Germans, who fought desperately, were
killed almost to a man, just as Colonel Shaw had died on June 2d with
his party of eighty men who had rallied round him. It was one shambles
for another, and the Germans were not less brave, it seems.

One officer and one hundred and thirteen men surrendered. The officer
was glad to escape from the death to which he had resigned himself when
our bombardment began.

“I knew how it would be,” he said. “We had orders to take this ground,
and took it; but we knew you would come back again. You had to do so. So
here I am.”

Parts of the line were deserted, except by the dead. In one place the
stores which had been buried by the Canadians before they left were
still there, untouched by the enemy. Our bombardment had made it
impossible for his troops to consolidate their position and to hold the
line steady.

They had just taken cover in the old bits of trench, in shell-holes and
craters, and behind scattered sand-bags, and had been pounded there. The
Canadians were back again.



PART FIVE. THE HEART OF A CITY

AMIENS IN TIME OF WAR



I


During the battles of the Somme in 1916, and afterward in periods of
progress and retreat over the abominable fields, the city of Amiens was
the capital of the British army. When the battles began in July of that
year it was only a short distance away from the fighting-lines; near
enough to hear the incessant roar of gun-fire on the French front and
ours, and near enough to get, by motor-car or lorry, in less than thirty
minutes, to places where men were being killed or maimed or blinded
in the routine of the day’s work. One went out past Amiens station and
across a little stone bridge which afterward, in the enemy’s advance
of 1918, became the mark for German high velocities along the road to
Querrieux, where Rawlinson had his headquarters of the Fourth Army in
an old chateau with pleasant meadows round it and a stream meandering
through fields of buttercups in summer-time. Beyond the dusty village
of Querrieux with its white cottages, from which the plaster fell off
in blotches as the war went on, we went along the straight highroad to
Albert, through the long and straggling village of Lahoussoye, where
Scottish soldiers in reserve lounged about among frowsy peasant women
and played solemn games with “the bairns”; and so, past camps and
hutments on each side of the road, to the ugly red-brick town where the
Golden Virgin hung head downward from the broken tower of the church
with her Babe outstretched above the fields of death as though as a
peace-offering to this world at war.

One could be killed any day in Albert. I saw men blown to bits there
the clay after the battles of the Somme began. It was in the road
that turned to the right, past the square to go to Meaulte and on to
Fricourt. There was a tide of gun transport swirling down the road,
bringing up new ammunition for the guns that were firing without a pause
over Fricourt and Mametz. The high scream of a shell came through a blue
sky and ended on its downward note with a sharp crash. For a few minutes
the transport column was held up while a mass of raw flesh which a
second before had been two living men and their horses was cleared out
of the way. Then the gun wagons went at a harder pace down the road,
raising a cloud of white dust out of which I heard the curses of the
drivers, swearing in a foul way to disguise their fear.

I went through Albert many scores of times to the battlefields beyond,
and watched its process of disintegration through those years, until it
was nothing but a wild scrap heap of read brick and twisted iron, and,
in the last phase, even the Golden Virgin and her Babe, which had seemed
to escape all shell-fire by miraculous powers, lay buried beneath a mass
of masonry. Beyond were the battlefields of the Somme where every yard
of ground is part of the great graveyard of our youth.

So Amiens, as I have said, was not far away from the red heart of war,
and was clear enough to the lines to be crowded always with officers and
men who came out between one battle and another, and by “lorry-jumping”
 could reach this city for a few hours of civilized life, according to
their views of civilization. To these men--boys, mostly--who had been
living in lousy ditches under hell fire, Amiens was Paradise, with
little hells for those who liked them. There were hotels in which they
could go get a bath, if they waited long enough or had the luck to be
early on the list. There were streets of shops with plate-glass windows
unbroken, shining, beautiful. There were well-dressed women walking
about, with kind eyes, and children as dainty, some of them, as in High
Street, Kensington, or Prince’s Street, Edinburgh. Young officers, who
had plenty of money to spend--because there was no chance of spending
money between a row of blasted trees and a ditch in which bits of dead
men were plastered into the parapet--invaded the shops and bought fancy
soaps, razors, hair-oil, stationery, pocketbooks, knives, flash-lamps,
top-boots (at a fabulous price), khaki shirts and collars, gramophone
records, and the latest set of Kirchner prints. It was the delight of
spending, rather than the joy of possessing, which made them go from
one shop to another in search of things they could carry hack to
the line--that and the lure of girls behind the counters, laughing,
bright-eyed girls who understood their execrable French, even English
spoken with a Glasgow accent, and were pleased to flirt for five minutes
with any group of young fighting-men--who broke into roars of laughter
at the gallantry of some Don Juan among them with the gift of audacity,
and paid outrageous prices for the privilege of stammering out some
foolish sentiment in broken French, blushing to the roots of their hair
(though captains and heroes) at their own temerity with a girl who, in
another five minutes, would play the same part in the same scene with a
different group of boys.

I used to marvel at the patience of these girls. How bored they must
have been with all this flirtation, which led to nothing except,
perhaps, the purchase of a bit of soap at twice its proper price! They
knew that these boys would leave to go back to the trenches in a few
hours and that some of them would certainly be dead in a few days. There
could be no romantic episode, save of a transient kind, between them
and these good-looking lads in whose eyes there were desire and hunger,
because to them the plainest girl was Womanhood, the sweet, gentle,
and feminine side of life, as opposed to the cruelty, brutality, and
ugliness of war and death. The shopgirls of Amiens had no illusions.
They had lived too long in war not to know the realities. They knew the
risks of transient love and they were not taking them--unless conditions
were very favorable. They attended strictly to business and hoped
to make a lot of money in the shop, and were, I think, mostly good
girls--as virtuous as life in war-time may let girls be--wise beyond
their years, and with pity behind their laughter for these soldiers who
tried to touch their hands over the counters, knowing that many of
them were doomed to die for France and England. They had their
own lovers--boys in blue somewhere between Vaux-sur-Somme and
Hartmanns--weilerkopf--and apart from occasional intimacies with English
officers quartered in Amiens for long spells, left the traffic of
passion to other women who walked the streets.



II


The Street of the Three Pebbles--la rue des Trois Cailloux--which
goes up from the station through the heart of Amiens, was the crowded
highway. Here were the best shops--the hairdresser, at the left-hand
side, where all day long officers down from the line came in to have
elaborate luxury in the way of close crops with friction d’eau de
quinine, shampooing, singeing, oiling, not because of vanity, but
because of the joyous sense of cleanliness and perfume after the filth
and stench of life in the desolate fields; then the booksellers’ (Madame
Carpentier et fille) on the right-hand side, which was not only the
rendezvous of the miscellaneous crowd buying stationery and La Vie
Parisienne, but of the intellectuals who spoke good French and bought
good books and liked ten minutes’ chat with the mother and daughter.
(Madame was an Alsatian lady with vivid memories of 1870, when, as a
child, she had first learned to hate Germans.) She hated them now with
a fresh, vital hatred, and would have seen her own son dead a hundred
times--he was a soldier in Saloniki--rather than that France should make
a compromise peace with the enemy. She had been in Amiens, as I was, on
a dreadful night of August of 1914, when the French army passed through
in retreat from Bapaume, and she and the people of her city knew for the
first time that the Germans were close upon them. She stood in the crowd
as I did--in the darkness, watching that French column pass with their
transport, and their wounded lying on the baggage wagons, men of many
regiments mixed up, the light of the street lamps shining on the casques
of cuirassiers with their long horsehair tails, leading their stumbling
horses, and foot soldiers, hunched under their packs, marching silently
with dragging steps. Once in a while one of the soldiers left the ranks
and came on to the sidewalk, whispering to a group of dark shadows.
The crowds watched silently, in a curious, dreadful silence, as though
stunned. A woman near me spoke in a low voice, and said, “Nous sommes
perdus!” Those were the only words I heard or remembered.

That night in the station of Amiens the boys of a new class were being
hurried away in truck trains, and while their army was in retreat sang
“La Marseillaise,” as though victory were in their hearts. Next day
the German army under von Kluck entered Amiens, and ten days afterward
passed through it on the way to Paris. Madame Carpentier told me of the
first terror of the people when the field-gray men came down the Street
of the Three Pebbles and entered their shops. A boy selling oranges
fainted when a German stretched out his hand to buy some. Women hid
behind their counters when German boots stamped into their shops.
But Madame Carpentier was not afraid. She knew the Germans and their
language. She spoke frank words to German officers, who saluted her
respectfully enough. “You will never get to Paris... France and England
will be too strong for you... Germany will be destroyed before this war
ends.” They laughed at her and said: “We shall be in Paris in a week
from now. Have you a little diary, Madame?” Madame Carpentier was
haughty with them. Some women of Amiens--poor drabs--did not show any
haughtiness, nor any pride, with the enemy who crowded into the city on
their way toward Paris. A girl told me that she was looking through the
window of a house that faced the Place de la Gare, and saw a number of
German soldiers dancing round a piano-organ which was playing to
them. They were dancing with women of the town, who were laughing
and screeching in the embrace of big, blond Germans. The girl who was
watching was only a schoolgirl then. She knew very little of the evil
of life, but enough to know that there was something in this scene
degrading to womanhood and to France. She turned from the window and
flung herself on her bed and wept bitterly...

I used to call in at the bookshop for a chat now and then with Madame
and Mademoiselle Carpentier, while a crowd of officers came in and out.
Madame was always merry and bright in spite of her denunciations of
the “Sale Boches--les brigands, les bandits!” and Mademoiselle put
my knowledge of French to a severe but pleasant test. She spoke with
alarming rapidity, her words tumbling over one another in a cascade of
volubility delightful to hear but difficult to follow. She had a strong
mind--masterly in her methods of business--so that she could serve
six customers at once and make each one think that her attention was
entirely devoted to his needs--and a very shrewd and critical idea
of military strategy and organization. She had but a poor opinion of
British generals and generalship, although a wholehearted admiration
for the gallantry of British officers and men; and she had an intimate
knowledge of our preparations, plans, failures, and losses. French
liaison-officers confided to her the secrets of the British army; and
English officers trusted her with many revelations of things “in the
wind.” But Mademoiselle Carpentier had discretion and loyalty and did
not repeat these things to people who had no right to know. She would
have been far more efficient as a staff officer than many of the young
gentlemen with red tabs on their tunics who came into the shop, flipping
beautiful top-boots with riding-crops, sitting on the counter, and
turning over the pages of La Vie for the latest convention in ladies’
legs.

Mademoiselle was a serious musician, so her mother told me, but her
musical studies were seriously interrupted by business and air raids,
which one day ceased in Amiens altogether after a night of horror, when
hundreds of houses were smashed to dust and many people killed, and the
Germans brought their guns close to the city--close enough to scatter
high velocities about its streets--and the population came up out of
their cellars, shaken by the terror of the night, and fled. I passed the
bookshop where Mademoiselle was locking up the door of this house which
had escaped by greater luck than its neighbors. She turned as I passed
and raised her hand with a grave gesture of resignation and courage.
“Ils ne passeront pas!” she said. It was the spirit of the courage of
French womanhood which spoke in those words.



III


That was in the last phase of the war, but the Street of the Three
Pebbles had been tramped up and down for two years before then by the
British armies on the Somme, with the French on their right. I was never
tired of watching those crowds and getting into the midst of them, and
studying their types. All the types of young English manhood came down
this street, and some of their faces showed the strain and agony of war,
especially toward the end of the Somme battles, after four months or
more of slaughter. I saw boys with a kind of hunted look in their eyes;
and Death was the hunter. They stared into the shop windows in a dazed
way, or strode along with packs on their backs, looking neither to the
right nor to the left, and white, haggard faces, as expressionless as
masks. Tomorrow or the next day, perhaps, the Hunter would track them
down. Other English officers showed no sign at all of apprehension or
lack of nerve-control, although the psychologist would have detected
disorder of soul in the rather deliberate note of hilarity with which
they greeted their friends, in gusts of laughter, for no apparent cause,
at “Charlie’s bar,” where they would drink three cocktails apiece on an
empty stomach, and in their tendency to tell tales of horror as things
that were very funny. They dined and wined in Amiens at the “Rhin,” the
“Godebert,” or the “Cathedrale,” with a kind of spiritual exaltation in
good food and drink, as though subconsciously they believed that this
might be their last dinner in life, with good pals about them. They
wanted to make the best of it--and damn the price. In that spirit many
of them went after other pleasures--down the byways of the city, and
damned the price again, which was a hellish one. Who blames them? It was
war that was to blame, and those who made war possible.

Down the rue des Trois Cailloux, up and down, up and down, went English,
and Scottish, and Irish, and Welsh, and Canadian, and Australian, and
New Zealand fighting--men. In the winter they wore their trench-coats
all splashed and caked up to the shoulders with the white, chalky mud of
the Somme battlefields, and their top--boots and puttees were plastered
with this mud, and their faces were smeared with it after a lorry drive
or a tramp down from the line. The rain beat with a metallic tattoo on
their steel hats. Their packs were all sodden.

French poilus, detrained at Amiens station for a night on their way to
some other part of the front, jostled among British soldiers, and their
packs were a wonder to see. They were like traveling tinkers, with pots
and pans and boots slung about their faded blue coats, and packs bulging
with all the primitive needs of life in the desert of the battlefields
beyond civilization. They were unshaven, and wore their steel casques
low over their foreheads, without gaiety, without the means of buying
a little false hilarity, but grim and sullen--looking and resentful of
English soldiers walking or talking with French cocottes.



IV


I saw a scene with a French poilu one day in the Street of the Three
Pebbles, during those battles of the Somme, when the French troops were
fighting on our right from Maricourt southward toward Roye. It was like
a scene from “Gaspard.” The poilu was a middle-aged man, and very drunk
on some foul spirit which he had bought in a low cafe down by the river.
In the High Street he was noisy, and cursed God for having allowed the
war to happen, and the French government for having sentenced him and
all poor sacre poilus to rot to death in the trenches, away from
their wives and children, without a thought for them; and nothing but
treachery in Paris:

“Nous sommes trahis!” said the man, raising his arms. “For the hundredth
time France is betrayed.”

A crowd gathered round him, listening to his drunken denunciations. No
one laughed. They stared at him with a kind of pitying wonderment. An
agent de police pushed his way between the people and caught hold of the
soldier by the wrist and tried to drag him away. The crowd murmured a
protest, and then suddenly the poilu, finding himself in the hands
of the police, on this one day out of the trenches--after five
months--flung himself on the pavement in a passion of tears and
supplication.

“Je suis pere de famille!... Je suis un soldat de France!... Dans les
tranchees pour cinq mois!... Qu’est-ce que mes camarades vont dire, ‘cre
nom de Dieu? et mon capitaine? C’est emmordant apres toute ma service
comme brave soldat. Mais, quoi donc, mon vieux!”

“Viens donc, saligaud,” growled the agent de police.

The crowd was against the policeman. Their murmurs rose to violent
protest on behalf of the poilu.

“C’est un heros, tout de meme. Cinq mois dans les tranches! C’est
affreux! Mais oui, il est soul, mais pour--quoi pas! Apres cinq mois sur
le front qu’est-ce que cela signifie? Ca n’a aucune importance!”

A dandy French officer of Chasseurs Alpins stepped into the center of
the scene and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.

“Leave him alone. Don’t you see he is a soldier? Sacred name of God,
don’t you know that a man like this has helped to save France, while you
pigs stand at street corners watching petticoats?”

He stooped to the fallen man and helped him to stand straight.

“Be off with you, mon brave, or there will be trouble for you.”

He beckoned to two of his own Chasseurs and said:

“Look after that poor comrade yonder. He is un peu etoile.”

The crowd applauded. Their sympathy was all for the drunken soldier of
France.



V


Into a small estaminet at the end of the rue des Trois Cailloux, beyond
the Hotel de Ville, came one day during the battles of the Somme two
poilus, grizzled, heavy men, deeply bronzed, with white dust in their
wrinkles, and the earth of the battlefields ingrained in the skin of
their big, coarse hands. They ordered two “little glasses” and drank
them at one gulp. Then two more.

“See what I have got, my little cabbage,” said one of them, stooping to
the heavy pack which he had shifted from his shoulders to the other seat
beside him. “It is something to make you laugh.”

“And what is that, my old one?” said a woman sitting on the other side
of the marble-topped table, with another woman of her own class, from
the market nearby.

The man did not answer the question, but fumbled into his pack, laughing
a little in a self-satisfied way.

“I killed a German to get it,” he said. “He was a pig of an officer, a
dirty Boche. Very chic, too, and young like a schoolboy.”

One of the women patted him on the shoulder. Her eyes glistened.

“Did you slit his throat, the dirty dog? Eh, I’d like to get my fingers
round the neck of a dirty Boche!”

“I finished him with a grenade,” said the poilu. “It was good enough. It
knocked a hole in him as large as a cemetery. See then, my cabbage. It
will make you smile. It is a funny kind of mascot, eh?”

He put on the table a small leather pouch stained with a blotch of
reddish brown. His big, clumsy fingers could hardly undo the little
clasp.

“He wore this next his heart,” said the man. “Perhaps he thought it
would bring him luck. But I killed him all the same! ‘Cre nom de Dieu!”

He undid the clasp, and his big fingers poked inside the flap of the
pouch.

“It was from his woman, his German grue. Perhaps even now she doesn’t
know he’s dead. She thinks of him wearing this next to his heart. ‘Cre
nom de Dieu! It was I that killed him a week ago!”

He held up something in his hand, and the light through the estaminet
window gleamed on it. It was a woman’s lock of hair, like fine-spun
gold.

The two women gave a shrill cry of surprise, and then screamed with
laughter. One of them tried to grab the hair, but the poilu held it
high, beyond her reach, with a gruff command of, “Hands off!” Other
soldiers and women in the estaminet gathered round staring at the yellow
tress, laughing, making ribald conjectures as to the character of the
woman from whose head it had come. They agreed that she was fat and
ugly, like all German women, and a foul slut.

“She’ll never kiss that fellow again,” said one man. “Our old one has
cut the throat of that pig of a Boche!”

“I’d like to cut off all her hair and tear the clothes off her back,”
 said one of the women. “The dirty drab with yellow hair! They ought to
be killed, every one of them, so that the human race should by rid of
them!”

“Her lover is a bit of clay, anyhow,” said the other woman. “A bit of
dirt, as our poilus will do for all of them.”

The soldier with the woman’s hair in his hand stroked it across his
forefinger.

“All the same it is pretty. Like gold, eh? I think of the woman,
sometimes. With blue eyes, like a German girl I kissed in Paris-a
dancing-girl!”

There was a howl of laughter from the two women.

“The old one is drunk. He is amorous with the German cow!”

“I will keep it as a mascot,” said the poilu, scrunching it up and
thrusting it into his pouch. “It’ll keep me in mind of that saligaud of
a German officer I killed. He was a chic fellow, tout de meme. A boy.”



VI


Australians slouched up the Street of the Three Pebbles with a grim look
under their wide-brimmed hats, having come down from Pozieres, where it
was always hell in the days of the Somme fighting. I liked the look
of them, dusty up to the eyes in summer, muddy up to their eyes in
winter--these gipsy fellows, scornful of discipline for discipline’s
sake, but desperate fighters, as simple as children in their ways of
thought and speech (except for frightful oaths), and looking at life,
this life of war and this life in Amiens, with frank, curious eyes, and
a kind of humorous contempt for death, and disease, and English Tommies,
and French girls, and “the whole damned show,” as they called it. They
were lawless except for the laws to which their souls gave allegiance.
They behaved as the equals of all men, giving no respect to generals or
staff-officers or the devils of hell. There was a primitive spirit of
manhood in them, and they took what they wanted, and were ready to
pay for it in coin or in disease or in wounds. They had no conceit of
themselves in a little, vain way, but they reckoned themselves the only
fighting-men, simply, and without boasting. They were hard as steel, and
finely tempered. Some of them were ruffians, but most of them were, I
imagine, like those English yeomen who came into France with the Black
Prince, men who lived “rough,” close to nature, of sturdy independence,
good-humored, though fierce in a fight, and ruthless. That is how they
seemed to me, in a general way, though among them were boys of a more
delicate fiber, and sensitive, if one might judge by their clear-cut
features and wistful eyes. They had money to spend beyond the dreams of
our poor Tommy. Six shillings and sixpence a day and remittances from
home. So they pushed open the doors of any restaurant in Amiens and
sat down to table next to English officers, not abashed, and ordered
anything that pleased their taste, and wine in plenty.

In that High Street of Amiens one day I saw a crowd gathered round an
Australian, so tall that he towered over all other heads. It was at the
corner of the rue de Corps Nu sans Teste, the Street of the Naked Body
without a Head, and I suspected trouble. As I pressed on the edge of the
crowd I heard the Australian ask, in a loud, slow drawl, whether there
was any officer about who could speak French. He asked the question
gravely, but without anxiety. I pushed through the crowd and said:

“I speak French. What’s the trouble?”

I saw then that, like the French poilu I have described, this tall
Australian was in the grasp of a French agent de police, a small man of
whom he took no more notice than if a fly had settled on his wrist. The
Australian was not drunk. I could see that he had just drunk enough
to make his brain very clear and solemn. He explained the matter
deliberately, with a slow choice of words, as though giving evidence
of high matters before a court. It appeared that he had gone into the
estaminet opposite with four friends. They had ordered five glasses of
porto, for which they had paid twenty centimes each, and drank them.
They then ordered five more glasses of porto and paid the same price,
and drank them. After this they took a stroll up and down the street,
and were bored, and went into the estaminet again, and ordered five
more glasses of porto. It was then the trouble began. But it was not
the Australian who began it. It was the woman behind the bar. She served
five glasses more of porto and asked for thirty centimes each.

“Twenty centimes,” said the Australian. “Vingt, Madame.”

“Mais non! Trente centimes, chaque verre! Thirty, my old one. Six sous,
comprenez?”

“No comprennye,” said the Australian. “Vingt centimes, or go to hell.”

The woman demanded the thirty centimes; kept on demanding with a voice
more shrill.

“It was her voice that vexed me,” said the Australian. “That and the
bloody injustice.”

The five Australians drank the five glasses of porto, and the tall
Australian paid the thirty centimes each without further argument. Life
is too short for argument. Then, without words, he took each of the five
glasses, broke it at the stem, and dropped it over the counter.

“You will see, sir,” he said, gravely, “the justice of the matter on my
side.”

But when they left the estaminet the woman came shrieking into the
street after them. Hence the agent de police and the grasp on the
Australian’s wrist.

“I should be glad if you would explain the case to this little
Frenchman,” said the soldier. “If he does not take his hand off my wrist
I shall have to kill him.”

“Perhaps a little explanation might serve,” I said.

I spoke to the agent de police at some length, describing the incident
in the cafe. I took the view that the lady was wrong in increasing the
price so rapidly. The agent agreed gravely. I then pointed out that the
Australian was a very large-sized man, and that in spite of his quietude
he was a man in the habit of killing Germans. He also had a curious
dislike of policemen.

“It appears to me,” I said, politely, “that for the sake of your health
the other end of the street is better than this.”

The agent de police released his grip from the Australian’s wrist and
saluted me.

“Vous avez raison, monsieur. Je vous remercie. Ces Australiens sont
vraiment formidables, n’est-ce pas?”

He disappeared through the crowd, who were smiling with a keen sense of
understanding. Only the lady of the estaminet was unappeased.

“They are bandits, these Australians!” she said to the world about her.

The tall Australian shook hands with me in a comradely way.

“Thanks for your trouble,” he said. “It was the injustice I couldn’t
stick. I always pay the right price. I come from Australia.”

I watched him go slouching down the rue des Trois Cailloux, head above
all the passers-by. He would be at Pozieres again next day.



VII


I was billeted for a time with other war correspondents in an old house
in the rue Amiral Courbet, on the way to the river Somme from the Street
of the Three Pebbles, and with a view of the spire of the cathedral, a
wonderful thing of delicate lines and tracery, graven with love in every
line, by Muirhead Bone, and from my dormer window. It was the house of
Mme. de la Rochefoucauld, who lived farther out of the town, but drove
in now and then to look at this little mansion of hers at the end of a
courtyard behind wrought-iron gates. It was built in the days before
the Revolution, when it was dangerous to be a fine lady with the name
of Rochefoucauld. The furniture was rather scanty, and was of the Louis
Quinze and Empire periods. Some portraits of old gentlemen and ladies of
France, with one young fellow in a scarlet coat, who might have been
in the King’s Company of the Guard about the time when Wolfe scaled the
Heights of Abraham, summoned up the ghosts of the house, and I liked to
think of them in these rooms and going in their sedan-chairs across the
little courtyard to high mass at the cathedral or to a game of bezique
in some other mansion, still standing in the quiet streets of Amiens,
unless in a day in March of 1918 they were destroyed with many hundreds
of houses by bombs and gun-fire. My little room was on the floor below
the garret, and here at night, after a long day in the fields up by
Pozieres or Martinpuich or beyond, by Ligny-Tilloy, on the way to
Bapaume, in the long struggle and slaughter over every inch of ground, I
used to write my day’s despatch, to be taken next day (it was before we
were allowed to use the military wires) by King’s Messenger to England.

Those articles, written at high speed, with an impressionism born out
of many new memories of tragic and heroic scenes, were interrupted
sometimes by air-bombardments. Hostile airmen came often to Amiens
during the Somme fighting, to unload their bombs as near to the station
as they could guess, which was not often very near. Generally they
killed a few women and children and knocked a few poor houses and a shop
or two into a wild rubbish heap of bricks and timber. While I wrote,
listening to the crashing of glass and the anti-aircraft fire of French
guns from the citadel, I used to wonder subconsciously whether I should
suddenly be hurled into chaos at the end of an unfinished sentence,
and now and again in spite of my desperate conflict with time to get my
message done (the censors were waiting for it downstairs) I had to get
up and walk into the passage to listen to the infernal noise in the
dark city of Amiens. But I went back again and bent over my paper,
concentrating on the picture of war which I was trying to set down so
that the world might see and understand, until once again, ten minutes
later or so, my will-power would weaken and the little devil of fear
would creep up to my heart and I would go uneasily to the door again to
listen. Then once more to my writing... Nothing touched the house in the
rue Amiral Courbet while we were there. But it was into my bedroom that
a shell went crashing after that night in March when Amiens was badly
wrecked, and we listened to the noise of destruction all around us from
a room in the Hotel du Rhin on the other side of the way. I should have
been sleeping still if I had slept that night in my little old bedroom
when the shell paid a visit.

There were no lights allowed at night in Amiens, and when I think of
darkness I think of that city in time of war, when all the streets
were black tunnels and one fumbled one’s way timidly, if one had no
flash-lamp, between the old houses with their pointed gables, coming
into sharp collision sometimes with other wayfarers. But up to midnight
there were little lights flashing for a second and then going out, along
the Street of the Three Pebbles and in the dark corners of side-streets.
They were carried by girls seeking to entice English officers on their
way to their billets, and they clustered like glowworms about the side
door of the Hotel du Rhin after nine o’clock, and outside the railings
of the public gardens. As one passed, the bright bull’s-eye from a
pocket torch flashed in one’s eyes, and in the radiance of it one saw
a girl’s face, laughing, coming very close, while her fingers felt for
one’s badge.

“How dark it is to-night, little captain! Are you not afraid of
darkness? I am full of fear. It is so sad, this war, so dismal! It is
comradeship that helps one now!... A little love... a little laughter,
and then--who knows?”

A little love... a little laughter--alluring words to boys out of one
battle, expecting another, hating it all, lonely in their souls because
of the thought of death, in exile from their own folk, in exile from
all womanhood and tender, feminine things, up there in the ditches
and shellcraters of the desert fields, or in the huts of headquarters
staffs, or in reserve camps behind the fighting-line. A little love, a
little laughter, and then--who knows? The sirens had whispered their own
thoughts. They had translated into pretty French the temptation of all
the little devils in their souls.

“Un peu d’amour-”

One flash-lamp was enough for two down a narrow street toward the
riverside, and then up a little dark stairway to a lamp-lit room...
Presently this poor boy would be stricken with disease and wish himself
dead.



VIII


In the Street of the Three Pebbles there was a small estaminet into
which I went one morning for a cup of coffee, while I read an Amiens
news-sheet made up mostly of extracts translated from the leading
articles of English papers. (There was never any news of French fighting
beyond the official communique and imaginary articles of a romantic kind
written by French journalists in Paris about episodes of war.) In one
corner of the estaminet was a group of bourgeois gentlemen talking
business for a time, and then listening to a monologue from the woman
behind the counter. I could not catch many words of the conversation,
owing to the general chatter, but when the man went out the woman and I
were left alone together, and she came over to me and put a photograph
down on the table before me, and, as though carrying on her previous
train of thought, said, in French, of course:

“Yes, that is what the war has done to me.”

I could not guess her meaning. Looking at the photograph, I saw it was
of a young girl in evening dress with her hair coiled in an artistic way
and a little curl on each cheek. Madame’s daughter, I thought, looking
up at the woman standing in front of me in a grubby bodice and tousled
hair. She looked a woman of about forty, with a wan face and beaten
eyes.

“A charming young lady,” I said, glancing again at the portrait.

The woman repeated her last sentence, word for word.

“Yes... that is what the war has done to me.”

I looked up at her again and saw that she had the face of the young girl
in the photograph, but coarsened, aged, raddled, by the passing years
and perhaps by tragedy.

“It is you?” I asked.

“Yes, in 1913, before the war. I have changed since then--n’est-ce pas,
Monsieur?”

“There is a change,” I said. I tried not to express my thought of how
much change.

“You have suffered in the war--more than most people?”

“Ah, I have suffered!”

She told me her story, and word for word, if I could have written it
down then, it would have read like a little novel by Guy de Maupassant.
She was the daughter of people in Lille, well-to-do merchants, and
before the war married a young man of the same town, the son of other
manufacturers. They had two children and were very happy. Then the war
came. The enemy drove down through Belgium, and one day drew near and
threatened Lille. The parents of the young couple said: “We will stay.
We are too old to leave our home, and it is better to keep watch over
the factory. You must go, with the little ones, and there is no time to
lose.”

There was no time to lose. The trains were crowded with fugitives and
soldiers--mostly soldiers. It was necessary to walk. Weeping, the young
husband and wife said farewell to their parents and set out on the long
trail, with the two babies in a perambulator, under a load of bread and
wine, and a little maid carrying some clothes in a bundle. For days they
tramped the roads until they were all dusty and bedraggled and footsore,
but glad to be getting farther away from that tide of field-gray men
which had now swamped over Lille. The young husband comforted his wife.
“Courage!” he said. “I have money enough to carry us through the war.
We will set up a little shop somewhere.” The maid wept bitterly now and
then, but the young husband said: “We will take care of you, Margot.
There is nothing to fear. We are lucky in our escape.” He was a delicate
fellow, rejected for military service, but brave. They came to Amiens,
and hired the estaminet and set up business. There was a heavy debt to
work off for capital and expenses before they would make money, but they
were doing well. The mother was happy with her children, and the little
maid had dried her tears. Then one day the young husband went away with
the little maid and all the money, leaving his wife in the estaminet
with a big debt to pay and a broken heart.

“That is what the war has done to me,” she said again, picking up the
photograph of the girl in the evening frock with a little curl on each
cheek.

“C’est triste, Madame!”

“Oui, c’est triste, Monsieur!”

But it was not war that had caused her tragedy, except that it had
unloosened the roots of her family life. Guy de Maupassant would have
given just such an ending to his story.



IX


Some of our officers stationed in Amiens, and billeted in private
houses, became very friendly with the families who received them.
Young girls of good middle class, the daughters of shopkeepers and
schoolmasters, and merchants in a good way of business, found it
delightful to wait on handsome young Englishmen, to teach them French,
to take walks with them, and to arrange musical evenings with other
girl friends who brought their young officers and sang little old French
songs with them or English songs in the prettiest French accent. These
young officers of ours found the home life very charming. It broke the
monotony of exile and made them forget the evil side of war. They paid
little gallantries to the girls, bought them boxes of chocolate until
fancy chocolate was forbidden in France, and presented flowers to
decorate the table, and wrote amusing verses in their autograph albums
or drew sketches for them. As this went on they gained to the privilege
of brotherhood, and there were kisses before saying “good night” outside
bedroom doors, while the parents downstairs were not too watchful,
knowing the ways of young people, and lenient because of their
happiness. Then a day came in each one of these households when the
officer billeted there was ordered away to some other place. What tears!
What lamentations! And what promises never to forget little Jeanne with
her dark tresses, or Suzanne with the merry eyes! Were they not engaged?
Not formally, perhaps, but in honor and in love. For a time letters
arrived, eagerly waited for by girls with aching hearts. Then picture
post-cards with a line or two of affectionate greeting. Then nothing.
Nothing at all, month after month, in spite of all the letters addressed
with all the queer initials for military units. So it happened again
and again, until bitterness crept into girls’ hearts, and hardness and
contempt.

“In my own little circle of friends,” said a lady of Amiens, “I know
eighteen girls who were engaged to English officers and have been
forsaken. It is not fair. It is not good. Your English young men seem
so serious, far more serious than our French boys. They have a look of
shyness which we find delightful. They are timid, at first, and blush
when one pays a pretty compliment. They are a long time before they
take liberties. So we trust them, and take them seriously, and allow
intimacies which we should refuse to French boys unless formally
engaged. But it is all camouflage. At heart your English young men are
just flirts. They play with us, make fools of us, steal our hearts, and
then go away, and often do not send so much as a post-card. Not even one
little post-card to the girls who weep their hearts out for them! You
English are all hypocrites. You boast that you ‘play the game.’ I know
your phrase. It is untrue.

“You play with good girls as though they were grues, and that no
Frenchman would dare to do. He knows the difference between good girls
and bad girls, and behaves, with reverence to those who are good.
When the English army goes away from France it will leave many bitter
memories because of that.”



X


It was my habit to go out at night for a walk through Amiens before
going to bed, and generally turned river-ward, for even on moonless
nights there was always a luminance over the water and one could see to
walk along the quayside. Northward and eastward the sky was quivering
with flashes of white light, like summer lightning, and now and then
there was a long, vivid glare of red touching the high clouds with rosy
feathers; one of our dumps, or one of the enemy’s, had been blown up
by that gun-fire, sullen and menacing, which never ceased for years. In
that quiet half-hour, alone, or with some comrade, like Frederic Palmer
or Beach Thomas, as tired and as thoughtful as oneself after a long
day’s journeying in the swirl of war, one’s brain roved over the scenes
of battle, visualizing anew, and in imagination, the agony up there, the
death which was being done by those guns, and the stupendous sum of all
this conflict. We saw, after all, only one patch of the battlefields of
the world, and yet were staggered by the immensity of its massacre,
by the endless streams of wounded, and by the growth of those little
forests of white crosses behind the fighting-lines. We knew, and could
see at any moment in the mind’s eye--even in the darkness of an Amiens
night--the vastness of the human energy which was in motion along
all the roads to Paris and from Boulogne and Dieppe and Havre to the
fighting-lines, and in every village on the way the long columns of
motor-lorries bringing up food and ammunition, the trains on their
way to the army rail-heads with material of war and more food and more
shells, the Red Cross trains crowded with maimed and injured boys, the
ambulances clearing the casualty stations, the troops marching forward
from back roads to the front, from which many would never come marching
back, the guns and limbers and military transports and spare horses,
along hundreds of miles of roads--all the machinery of slaughter on
the move. It was staggering in its enormity, in its detail, and in its
activity. Yet beyond our sphere in the British section of the western
front there was the French front, larger than ours, stretching right
through France, and all their roads were crowded with the same traffic,
and all their towns and villages were stirred by the same activity and
for the same purpose of death, and all their hospitals were crammed with
the wreckage of youth. On the other side of the lines the Germans were
busy in the same way, as busy as soldier ants, and the roads behind
their front were cumbered by endless columns of transport and marching
men, and guns and ambulances laden with bashed, blinded, and bleeding
boys. So it was in Italy, in Austria, in Saloniki, and Bulgaria, Serbia,
Mesopotamia, Egypt... In the silence of Amiens by night, under the
stars, with a cool breath of the night air on our foreheads, with a
glamour of light over the waters of the Somme, our spirit was stricken
by the thought of this world-tragedy, and cried out in anguish against
this bloody crime in which all humanity was involved. The senselessness
of it! The futility! The waste! The mockery of men’s faith in God!...

Often Palmer and I--dear, grave old Palmer, with sphinx-like face and
honest soul--used to trudge along silently, with just a sigh now and
then, or a groan, or a sudden cry of “O God!... O Christ!” It was I,
generally, who spoke those words, and Palmer would say: “Yes... and it’s
going to last a long time yet. A long time... It’s a question who will
hold out twenty-four hours longer than the other side. France is tired,
more tired than any of us. Will she break first? Somehow I think not.
They are wonderful! Their women have a gallant spirit... How good it is,
the smell of the trees to-night!”

Sometimes we would cross the river and look back at the cathedral, high
and beautiful above the huddle of old, old houses on the quayside,
with a faint light on its pinnacle and buttresses and immense blackness
beyond them.

“Those builders of France loved their work,” said Palmer. “There was
always war about the walls of this cathedral, but they went on with it,
stone by stone, without hurry.”

We stood there in a long silence, not on one night only, but many times,
and out of those little dark streets below the cathedral of Amiens
came the spirit of history to teach our spirit with wonderment at the
nobility and the brutality of men, and their incurable folly, and their
patience with tyranny.

“When is it all going to end, Palmer, old man?”

“The war, or the folly of men?”

“The war. This cursed war. This bloody war.”

“Something will break one day, on our side or the other. Those who hold
out longest and have the best reserves of man-power.”

We were starting early next day--before dawn--to see the beginning of
another battle. We walked slowly over the little iron bridge again,
through the vegetable market, where old men and women were unloading
cabbages from a big wagon, then into the dark tunnel of the rue des
Augustins, and so to the little old mansion of Mme. de la Rochefoucauld
in the rue Amiral Courbet. There was a light burning in the window of
the censor’s room. In there the colonel was reading The Times in the
Louis Quinze salon, with a grave pucker on his high, thin forehead. He
could not get any grasp of the world’s events. There was an attack on
the censor by Northcliffe. Now what did he mean by that? It was really
very unkind of him, after so much civility to him. Charteris would be
furious. He would bang the telephone--but--dear, dear, why should
people be so violent? War correspondents were violent on the slightest
provocation. The world itself was very violent. And it was all so
dangerous. Don’t you think so, Russell?

The cars were ordered for five o’clock. Time for bed.



XI


The night in Amiens was dark and sinister when rain fell heavily out of
a moonless sky. Hardly a torch-lamp flashed out except where a solitary
woman scurried down the wet streets to lonely rooms. There were no
British officers strolling about. They had turned in early, to hot baths
and unaccustomed beds, except for one or two, with their burberries
buttoned tight at the throat, and sopping field-caps pulled down about
the ears, and top--boots which went splash, splash through deep puddles
as they staggered a little uncertainly and peered up at dark corners to
find their whereabouts, by a dim sense of locality and the shapes of the
houses. The rain pattered sharply on the pavements and beat a tattoo on
leaden gutters and slate roofs. Every window was shuttered and no light
gleamed through.

On such a night I went out with Beach Thomas, as often before, wet or
fine, after hard writing.

“A foul night,” said Thomas, setting off in his quick, jerky step. “I
like to feel the rain on my face.”

We turned down as usual to the river. It was very dark--the rain was
heavy on the quayside, where there was a group of people bareheaded in
the rain and chattering in French, with gusts of laughter.

“Une bouteille de champagne!” The words were spoken in a clear boy’s
voice, with an elaborate caricature of French accent, in musical
cadence, but unmistakably English.

“A drunken officer,” said Thomas.

“Poor devil!”

We drew near among the people and saw a young officer arm in arm with
a French peasant--one of the market porters--telling a tale in broken
French to the audience about him, with comic gesticulations and
extraordinary volubility.

A woman put her hand on my shoulder and spoke in French.

“He has drunk too much bad wine. His legs walk away from him. He will
be in trouble, Monsieur. And a child--no older than my own boy who is
fighting in the Argonne.”

“Apportez-moi une bouteille de champagne, vite!...” said the young
officer. Then he waved his arm and said: “J’ai perdu mon cheval” (“A
kingdom for a bloody horse!”), “as Shakespeare said. Y a-t’il quelqu’un
qui a vu mon sacre cheval? In other words, if I don’t find that
four-legged beast which led to my damnation I shall be shot at dawn.
Fusille, comprenez? On va me fusiller par un mur blanc--or is it une
mure blanche? quand l’aurore se leve avec les couleurs d’une rose et
l’odeur d’une jeune fille lavee et parfumee. Pretty good that, eh,
what? But the fact remains that unless I find my steed, my charger,
my war-horse, which in reality does not belong to me at all, because I
pinched it from the colonel, I shall be shot as sure as fate, and, alas!
I do not want to die. I am too young to die, and meanwhile I desire
encore une bouteille de champagne!”

The little crowd of citizens found a grim humor in this speech,
one-third of which they understood. They laughed coarsely, and a man
said:

“Quel drole de type! Quel numero!”

But the woman who had touched me on the sleeve spoke to me again.

“He says he has lost his horse and will be shot as a deserter. Those
things happen. My boy in the Argonne tells me that a comrade of his was
shot for hiding five days with his young woman. It would be sad if this
poor child should be condemned to death.”

I pushed my way through the crowd and went up to the officer.

“Can I help at all?”

He greeted me warmly, as though he had known me for years.

“My dear old pal, you can indeed! First of all I want a bottle of
champagne-une bouteille de champagne-” it was wonderful how much music
he put into those words--“and after that I want my runaway horse, as I
have explained to these good people who do not understand a bloody word,
in spite of my excellent French accent. I stole the colonel’s horse to
come for a joy-ride to Amiens. The colonel is one of the best of men,
but very touchy, very touchy indeed. You would be surprised. He also has
the worst horse in the world, or did, until it ran away half an hour
ago into the blackness of this hell which men call Amiens. It is quite
certain that if I go back without that horse most unpleasant things will
happen to a gallant young British officer, meaning myself, who with most
innocent intentions of cleansing his soul from the filth of battle, from
the horror of battle, from the disgusting fear of battle--oh yes, I’ve
been afraid all right, and so have you unless you’re a damned hero or
a damned liar--desired to get as far as this beautiful city (so fair
without, so foul within!) in order to drink a bottle, or even two or
three, of rich, sparkling wine, to see the loveliness of women as they
trip about these pestilential streets, to say a little prayer in la
cathedrale, and then to ride back, refreshed, virtuous, knightly, all
through the quiet night, to deliver up the horse whence I had pinched
it, and nobody any the wiser in the dewy morn. You see, it was a good
scheme.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It happened thuswise,” he answered, breaking out into fresh eloquence,
with fantastic similes and expressions of which I can give only the
spirit. “Leaving a Pozieres, which, as you doubtless know, unless you
are a bloody staff-officer, is a place where the devil goes about like
a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, where he leaves his victims’
entrails hanging on to barbed wire, and where the bodies of your friends
and mine lie decomposing in muddy holes--you know the place?--I put my
legs across the colonel’s horse, which was in the wagonlines, and set
forth for Amiens. That horse knew that I had pinched him--forgive my
slang. I should have said it in the French language, vole--and resented
me. Thrice was I nearly thrown from his back. Twice did he entangle
himself in barbed wire deliberately. Once did I have to coerce him with
many stripes to pass a tank. Then the heavens opened upon us and it
rained. It rained until I was wet to the skin, in spite of sheltering
beneath a tree, one branch of which, owing to the stubborn temper of my
steed, struck me a stinging blow across the face. So in no joyful spirit
I came at last to Amiens, this whited sepulcher, this Circe’s capital,
this den of thieves, this home of vampires. There I dined, not
wisely, but too well. I drank of the flowing cup--une bouteille de
champagne--and I met a maiden as ugly as sin, but beautiful in my
eyes after Pozieres--you understand--and accompanied her to her poor
lodging--in a most verminous place, sir--where we discoursed upon the
problems of life and love. O youth! O war! O hell!... My horse, that
brute who resented me, was in charge of an ‘ostler, whom I believe
verily is a limb of Satan, in the yard without. It was late when I left
that lair of Circe, where young British officers, even as myself, are
turned into swine. It was late and dark, and I was drunk. Even now I am
very drunk. I may say that I am becoming drunker and drunker.”

It was true. The fumes of bad champagne were working in the boy’s brain,
and he leaned heavily against me.

“It was then that that happened which will undoubtedly lead to my
undoing, and blast my career as I have blasted my soul. The horse was
there in the yard, but without saddle or bridle.

“‘Where is my saddle and where is my bridle, oh, naughty ‘ostler?’ I
shouted, in dismay.

“The ‘ostler, who, as I informed you, is one of Satan’s imps, answered
in incomprehensible French, led the horse forth from the yard, and,
giving it a mighty blow on the rump, sent it clattering forth into the
outer darkness. In my fear of losing it--for I must be at Pozieres at
dawn--I ran after it, but it ran too fast in the darkness, and I stopped
and tried to grope my way back to the stableyard to kill that ‘ostler,
thereby serving God, and other British officers, for he was the devil’s
agent. But I could not find the yard again. It had disappeared! It was
swallowed up in Cimmerian gloom. So I was without revenge and without
horse, and, as you will perceive, sir--unless you are a bloody
staff-officer who doesn’t perceive anything--I am utterly undone. I am
also horribly drunk, and I must apologize for leaning so heavily on your
arm. It’s awfully good of you, anyway, old man.”

The crowd was mostly moving, driven indoors by the rain. The woman
who had spoken to me said, “I heard a horse’s hoofs upon the bridge,
la-bas.”

Then she went away with her apron over her head.

Thomas and I walked each side of the officer, giving him an arm. He
could not walk straight, and his legs played freakish tricks with him.
All the while he talked in a strain of high comedy interlarded with grim
little phrases, revealing an underlying sense of tragedy and despair,
until his speech thickened and he became less fluent. We spent a
fantastic hour searching for his horse. It was like a nightmare in
the darkness and rain. Every now and then we heard, distinctly, the
klip-klop of a horse’s hoofs, and went off in that direction, only to be
baffled by dead silence, with no sign of the animal. Then again, as we
stood listening, we heard the beat of hoofs on hard pavements, in the
opposite direction, and walked that way, dragging the boy, who was
getting more and more incapable of walking upright. At last we gave up
hope of finding the horse, though the young officer kept assuring us
that he must find it at all costs. “It’s a point of honor,” he
said, thickly. “Not my horse, you know Doctor’s horse. Devil to pay
to-morrow.”

He laughed foolishly and said:

“Always devil to pay in morning.”

We were soaked to the skin.

“Come home with me,” I said. “We can give you a shake-down.”

“Frightfully good, old man. Awfully sorry, you know, and all that. Are
you a blooming general, or something? But I must find horse.”

By some means we succeeded in persuading him that the chase was useless
and that it would be better for him to get into our billet and start out
next morning, early. We dragged him up the rue des Augustins, to the rue
Amiral Courbet. Outside the iron gates I spoke to him warningly:

“You’ve got to be quiet. There are staff-officers inside...”

“What?... Staff officers?... Oh, my God!”

The boy was dismayed. The thought of facing staff-officers almost
sobered him; did, indeed, sober his brain for a moment, though not his
legs.

“It’s all right,” I said. “Go quietly, and I will get you upstairs
safely.”

It was astonishing how quietly he went, hanging on to me. The little
colonel was reading The Times in the salon. We passed the open door, and
saw over the paper his high forehead puckered with perplexity as to the
ways of the world. But he did not raise his head or drop The Times at
the sound of our entry. I took the boy upstairs to my room and guided
him inside. He said, “Thanks awfully,” and then lay down on the floor
and fell into so deep a sleep that I was scared and thought for a moment
he might be dead. I went downstairs to chat with the little colonel and
form an alibi in case of trouble. An hour later, when I went into my
room, I found the boy still lying as I had left him, without having
stirred a limb. He was a handsome fellow, with his head hanging
limply across his right arm and a lock of damp hair falling across his
forehead. I thought of a son of mine, who in a few years would be as
old as he, and I prayed God mine might be spared this boy’s tragedy...
Through the night he slept in a drugged way, but just at dawn he woke
up and stretched himself, with a queer little moan. Then he sat up and
said:

“Where am I?”

“In a billet at Amiens. You lost your horse last night and I brought you
here.”

Remembrance came into his eyes and his face was swept with a sudden
flush of shame and agony.

“Yes... I made a fool of myself. The worst possible. How can I get back
to Pozieres?”

“You could jump a lorry with luck.”

“I must. It’s serious if I don’t get back in time. In any case, the loss
of that horse--”

He thought deeply for a moment, and I could see that his head was aching
to the beat of sledge-hammers.

“Can I wash anywhere?”

I pointed to a jug and basin, and he said, “Thanks, enormously.”

He washed hurriedly, and then stared down with a shamed look at his
muddy uniform, all creased and bedraggled. After that he asked if he
could get out downstairs, and I told him the door was unlocked.

He hesitated for a moment before leaving my room.

“I am sorry to have given you all this trouble. It was very decent of
you. Many thanks.”

The boy was a gentleman when sober. I wonder if he died at Pozieres,
or farther on by the Butte de Warlencourt... A week later I saw an
advertisement in an Amiens paper: “Horse found. Brown, with white sock
on right foreleg. Apply--”

I have a fancy it was the horse for which we had searched in the rain.



XII


The quickest way to the cathedral is down a turning on the right-hand
side of the Street of the Three Pebbles. Charlie’s bar was on the
left-hand side of the street, always crowded after six o’clock by
officers of every regiment, drinking egg-nogs, Martinis, Bronxes, sherry
cobblers, and other liquids, which helped men marvelously to forget the
beastliness of war, and gave them the gift of laughter, and made
them careless of the battles which would have to be fought. Young
staff-officers were there, explaining carefully how hard worked they
were and how often they went under shell-fire. The fighting officers,
English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, jeered at them, laughed hugely at the
latest story of mirthful horror, arranged rendezvous at the Godebert
restaurant, where they would see the beautiful Marguerite (until she
transferred to la cathedrale in the same street) and our checks which
Charlie cashed at a discount, with a noble faith in British honesty,
not often, as he told me, being hurt by a “stumor.” Charlie’s bar was
wrecked by shell-fire afterward, and he went to Abbeville and set up a
more important establishment, which was wrecked, too, in a fierce air
raid, before the paint was dry on the walls.

The cathedral was a shrine to which many men and women went all through
the war, called into its white halls by the spirit of beauty which dwelt
there, and by its silence and peace. The great west door was screened
from bomb-splinters by sand-bags piled high, and inside there were other
walls of sand-bags closing in the sanctuary and some of the windows.
But these signs of war did not spoil the majesty of the tall columns
and high roof, nor the loveliness of the sculptured flowers below the
clerestory arches, nor the spiritual mystery of those great, dim aisles,
where light flickered and shadows lurked, and the ghosts of history came
out of their tombs to pace these stones again where five, six, seven
centuries before they had walked to worship God, in joy or in despair,
or to show their beauty of young womanhood--peasant girl or princess--to
lovers gazing by the pillars, or to plight their troth as royal brides,
or get a crown for their heads, or mercy for their dead bodies in
velvet-draped coffins.

Our soldiers went in there, as many centuries before other English
soldiers, who came out with Edward the Black Prince, by way of Crecy,
or with Harry the King, through Agincourt. Five hundred years hence,
if Amiens cathedral still stands, undamaged by some new and monstrous
conflict in a world of incurable folly, the generation of that time will
think now and then, perhaps, of the English lads in khaki who tramped
up the highway of this nave with their field-caps under their arms, each
footstep leaving the imprint of a wet boot on the old flagstones, awed
by the silence and the spaciousness, with a sudden heartache for a
closer knowledge, or some knowledge, of the God worshiped there--the
God of Love--while, not far away, men were killing one another by
high explosives, shells, hand-grenades, mines, machine-guns, bayonets,
poison-gas, trench-mortars, tanks, and, in close fighting, with short
daggers like butchers’ knives, or clubs with steel knobs. I watched the
faces of the men who entered here. Some of them, like the Australians
and New-Zealanders, unfamiliar with cathedrals, and not religious by
instinct or training, wandered round in a wondering way, with a touch
of scorn, even of hostility, now and then, for these mysteries--the
chanting of the Office, the tinkling of the bells at the high
mass--which were beyond their understanding, and which they could not
link up with any logic of life, as they knew it now, away up by Bapaume
or Bullecourt, where God had nothing to do, seemingly, with a night raid
into Boche lines, when they blew a party of Germans to bits by dropping
Stoke bombs down their dugout, or with the shrieks of German boys, mad
with fear, when the Australians jumped on them in the darkness and made
haste with their killing. All the same, this great church was wonderful,
and the Australians, scrunching their slouch-hats, stared up at the tall
columns to the clerestory arches, and peered through the screen to the
golden sun upon the high-altar, and touched old tombs with their muddy
hands, reading the dates on them--1250, 1155, 1415--with astonishment
at their antiquity. Their clean-cut hatchet faces, sun--baked, tanned
by rain and wind, their simple blue-gray eyes, the fine, strong grace of
their bodies, as they stood at ease in this place of history, struck me
as being wonderfully like all that one imagines of those English knights
and squires--Norman-English--who rode through France with the Black
Prince. It is as though Australia had bred back to the old strain. Our
own English soldiers were less arresting to the eye, more dapper and
neat, not such evident children of nature. Gravely they walked up the
aisles, standing in groups where a service was in progress, watching
the movements of the priests, listening to the choir and organ with
reverent, dreamy eyes. Some of them--country lads--thought back, I
fancy, to some village church in England where they had sung hymns with
mother and sisters in the days before the war. England and that little
church were a long way off now, perhaps all eternity away. I saw one boy
standing quite motionless, with wet eyes, without self-consciousness.
This music, this place of thoughtfulness, had made something break in
his heart... Some of our young officers, but not many, knelt on the cane
chairs and prayed, face in hands. French officers crossed themselves
and their medals tinkled as they walked up the aisles. Always there were
women in black weeds kneeling before the side--altars, praying to the
Virgin for husbands and sons, dead or alive, lighting candles below holy
pictures and statues. Our men tiptoed past them, holding steel hats or
field--caps, and putting their packs against the pillars. On the steps
of the cathedral I heard two officers talking one day.

“How can one reconcile all this with the war?”

“Why not?... I suppose we’re fighting for justice and all that. That’s
what The Daily Mail tells us.”

“Seriously, old man. Where does Christ come in?”

“He wasn’t against righteous force. He chased the money-changers out of
the Temple.”

“Yes, but His whole teaching was love and forgiveness. ‘Thou shalt not
kill.’ ‘Little children, love one another!’ ‘Turn the other cheek.’. ..
Is it all sheer tosh? If so, why go on pretending?... Take chaplains in
khaki--these lieutenant-colonels with black crosses. They make me sick.
It’s either one thing or the other. Brute force or Christianity. I am
harking back to the brute--force theory. But I’m not going to say ‘God
is love’ one day and then prod a man in the stomach the next. Let’s be
consistent.”

“The other fellows asked for it. They attacked first.”

“Yes, but we are all involved. Our diplomacy, our secret treaties, our
philosophical dope over the masses, our imperial egotism, our trade
rivalries--all that was a direct challenge of Might against Right. The
Germans are more efficient and more logical--that’s all. They prepared
for the inevitable and struck first. We knew the inevitable was coming,
but didn’t prepare, being too damned inefficient... I have a leaning
toward religion. Instinctively I’m for Christ. But it doesn’t work in
with efficiency and machine-guns.”

“It belongs to another department, that’s all. We’re spiritual and
animal at the same time. In one part of my brain I’m a gentleman. In
another, a beast. It’s conflict. We can’t eliminate the beast, but we
can control it now and then when it gets too obstreperous, and that’s
where religion helps. It’s the high ideal--otherworldliness.”

“The Germans pray to the same God. Praise Christ and ask for victory.”

“Let them. It may do them a bit of good. It seems to me God is above
all the squabbles of humanity--doesn’t care a damn about them!--but
the human soul can get into touch with the infinite and the ideal, even
while he is doing butcher’s work, and beastliness. That doesn’t matter
very much. It’s part of the routine of life.”

“But it does matter. It makes agony and damnation in the world. It
creates cruelty and tyranny, and all bloody things. Surely if we believe
in God--anyhow in Christian ethics--this war is a monstrous crime in
which all humanity is involved.”

“The Hun started it... Let’s go and give the glad eye to Marguerite.”


At night, in moonlight, Amiens cathedral was touched with a new
spirituality, a white magic beyond all words of beauty. On many nights
of war I walked round the cathedral square, looking up at that grand
mass of masonry with all its pinnacles and buttresses gleaming like
silver and its sculptured tracery like lacework, and a flood of milky
light glamorous on walls in which every stone was clear-cut beyond a
vast shadow-world. How old it was! How many human eyes through many
centuries had come in the white light of the moon to look at this dream
in stone enshrining the faith of men! The Revolution had surged round
these walls, and the screams of wild women, and their shrill laughter,
and their cries for the blood of aristocrats, had risen from this
square. Pageants of kingship and royal death had passed across these
pavements through the great doors there. Peasant women, in the darkness,
had wept against these walls, praying for God’s pity for their hearts.
Now the English officers were lighting cigarettes in the shelter of
a wall, the outline of their features--knightly faces--touched by the
moonlight. There were flashes of gun-fire in the sky beyond the river.

“A good night for a German air raid,” said one of the officers.

“Yes, a lovely night for killing women in their sleep,” said the other
man.

The people of Amiens were sleeping, and no light gleamed through their
shutters.



XIII


Coming away from the cathedral through a side-street going into the rue
des Trois Cailloux, I used to pass the Palais de Justice--a big, grim
building, with a long flight of steps leading up to its doorways, and
above the portico the figure of Justice, blind, holding her scales.
There was no justice there during the war, but rooms full of French
soldiers with smashed faces, blind, many of them, like that woman in
stone. They used to sit, on fine days, on the flight of steps, a tragic
exhibition of war for passers-by to see. Many of them revealed no faces,
but were white masks of cotton-wool, bandaged round their heads. Others
showed only the upper parts of their faces, and the places where their
jaws had been were tied up with white rags. There were men without
noses, and men with half their scalps torn away. French children used
to stare through the railings at them, gravely, with childish curiosity,
without pity. English soldiers gave them a passing glance, and went on
to places where they might be made like this, without faces, or jaws,
or noses, or eyes. By their uniforms I saw that there were Chasseurs
Alpins, and Chasseurs d’Afrique, and young infantrymen of the line, and
gunners. They sat, without restlessness, watching the passers-by if
they had eyes to see, or, if blind, feeling the breeze about them, and
listening to the sound of passing feet.



XIV


The prettiest view of Amiens was from the banks of the Somme outside
the city, on the east side, and there was a charming walk along the
tow-path, past market-gardens going down to the river on the opposite
bank, and past the gardens of little chalets built for love-in-idleness
in days of peace. They were of fantastic architecture--these Cottages
where well-to-do citizens of Amiens used to come for week-ends of
boating and fishing--and their garden gates at the end of wooden bridges
over back-waters were of iron twisted into the shapes of swans or
flowers, and there were snails of terra-cotta on the chimney-pots,
and painted woodwork on the walls, in the worst taste, yet amusing and
pleasing to the eye in their green bowers. I remember one called Mon
Idee, and wondered that any man should be proud of such a freakish
conception of a country house. They were abandoned during the war,
except one or two used for casual rendezvous between French officers and
their light o’ loves, and the tow-path was used only by stray couples
who came out for loneliness, and British soldiers walking out with
French girls. The market-gardeners punted down the river in long,
shallow boats, like gondolas, laden high with cabbages, cauliflowers,
and asparagus, and farther up-stream there was a boat-house where
orderlies from the New Zealand hospital in Amiens used to get skiffs for
an hour’s rowing, leaning on their oars to look at the picture of the
cathedral rising like a mirage beyond the willows and the encircling
water, with fleecy clouds above its glittering roof, or lurid
storm-clouds with the red glow of sunset beneath their wings. In
the dusk or the darkness there was silence along the banks but for a
ceaseless throbbing of distant gun-fire, rising sometimes to a fury of
drumming when the French soixante-quinze was at work, outside Roye and
the lines beyond Suzanne. It was what the French call la rafale des
tambours de la mort--the ruffle of the drums of death. The winding
waters of the Somme flowed in higher reaches through the hell of war by
Biaches and St.-Christ, this side of Peronne, where dead bodies floated
in slime and blood, and there was a litter of broken bridges and barges,
and dead trees, and ammunition-boxes. The river itself was a highway
into hell, and there came back upon its tide in slow-moving barges the
wreckage of human life, fresh from the torturers. These barges used to
unload their cargoes of maimed men at a carpenter’s yard just below the
bridge, outside the city, and often as I passed I saw human bodies being
lifted out and carried on stretchers into the wooden sheds. They were
the bad cases--French boys wounded in the abdomen or lungs, or with
their limbs torn off, or hopelessly shattered. It was an agony for them
to be moved, even on the stretchers. Some of them cried out in fearful
anguish, or moaned like wounded animals, again and again. Those sounds
spoiled the music of the lapping water and the whispering of the willows
and the song of birds. The sight of these tortured boys, made useless
in life, took the color out of the flowers and the beauty out of that
vision of the great cathedral, splendid above the river. Women watched
them from the bridge, straining their eyes as the bodies were carried
to the bank. I think some of them looked for their own men. One of them
spoke to me one day.

“That is what the Germans do to our sons. Bandits! Assassins!”

“Yes. That is war, Madame.”

She put a skinny hand on my arm.

“Will it go on forever, this war? Until all the men are killed?”

“Not so long as that, Madame. Some men will be left alive. The very old
and the very young, and the lucky ones, and those behind the lines.”

“The Germans are losing many men, Monsieur?”

“Heaps, Madame. I have seen their bodies strewn about the fields.”

“Ah, that is good! I hope all German women will lose their sons, as I
have lost mine.”

“Where was that, Madame?”

“Over there.”

She pointed up the Somme.

“He was a good son. A fine boy. It seems only yesterday he lay at my
breast. My man weeps for him. They were good comrades.”

“It is sad, Madame.”

“Ah, but yes. It is sad! Au revoir, Monsieur.”

“Au revoir, Madame.”



XV


There was a big hospital in Amiens, close to the railway station,
organized by New Zealand doctors and nurses. I went there one day in the
autumn of 1914, when the army of von Kluck had passed through the city
and gone beyond. The German doctors had left behind the instruments
abandoned by an English unit sharing the retreat. The French doctor who
took me round told me the enemy had behaved well in Amiens. At least he
had refrained from atrocities. As I went through the long wards I did
not guess that one day I should be a patient there. That was two years
later, at the end of the Somme battles. I was worn out and bloodless
after five months of hard strain and nervous wear and tear. Some bug had
bitten me up in the fields where lay the unburied dead.

“Trench fever,” said the doctor.

“You look in need of a rest,” said the matron. “My word, how white you
are! Had a hard time, eh, like the rest of them?”

I lay in bed at the end of the officers’ ward, with only one other bed
between me and the wall. That was occupied by the gunner-general of the
New Zealand Division. Opposite was another row of beds in which officers
lay sleeping, or reading, or lying still with wistful eyes.

“That’s all right. You’re going to die!” said a rosy--cheeked young
orderly, after taking my temperature and feeling my pulse. It was his
way of cheering a patient up. He told me how he had been torpedoed
in the Dardanelles while he was ill with dysentery. He indulged in
reminiscences with the New Zealand general who had a grim gift of
silence, but glinting eyes. In the bed on my left was a handsome boy
with a fine, delicate face, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, with a
pile of books at his elbow--all by Anatole France. It was the first time
I had ever laid in hospital, and I felt amazingly weak and helpless, but
interested in my surroundings. The day nurse, a tall, buxom New Zealand
girl whom the general chaffed with sarcastic humor, and who gave back
more than she got, went off duty with a cheery, “Good night, all!” and
the night nurse took her place, and made a first visit to each bed. She
was a dainty little woman with the complexion of a delicate rose and
large, luminous eyes. She had a nunlike look, utterly pure, but with a
spiritual fire in those shining eyes of hers for all these men, who were
like children in her hands. They seemed glad at her coming.

“Good evening, sister!” said one man after another, even one who had
laid with his eyes closed for an hour or more, with a look of death on
his face.

She knelt down beside each one, saying, “How are you to-night?” and
chatting in a low voice, inaudible to the bed beyond. From one bed I
heard a boy’s voice say: “Oh, don’t go yet, sister! You have only given
me two minutes, and I want ten, at least. I am passionately in love with
you, you know, and I have been waiting all day for your beauty!”

There was a gust of laughter in the ward.

“The child is at it again!” said one of the officers.

“When are you going to write me another sonnet?” asked the nurse. “The
last one was much admired.”

“The last one was rotten,” said the boy. “I have written a real corker
this time. Read it to yourself, and don’t drop its pearls before these
swine.”

“Well, you must be good, or I won’t read it at all.”

An officer of the British army, who was also a poet, hurled the
bedclothes off and sat on the edge of his bed in his pajamas.

“I’m fed up with everything! I hate war! I don’t want to be a hero! I
don’t want to die! I want to be loved!... I’m a glutton for love!”

In his pajamas the boy looked a child, no older than a schoolboy who was
mine and who still liked to be tucked up in bed by his mother. With his
tousled hair and his petulant grimace, this lieutenant might have been
Peter Pan, from Kensington. The night nurse pretended to chide him.
It was a very gentle chiding, but as abruptly as he had thrown off his
clothes he snuggled under them again and said: “All right, I’ll be good.
Only I want a kiss before I go to sleep.”

I became good friends with that boy, who was a promising young poet, and
a joyous creature no more fit for war than a child of ten, hating the
muck and horror of it, not ashamed to confess his fear, with a boyish
wistfulness of hope that he might not be killed, because he loved life.
But he was killed... I had a letter from his stricken mother months
afterward. The child was “Missing” then, and her heart cried out for
him.

Opposite my bed was a middle-aged man from Lancashire--I suppose he
had been in a cotton-mill or a factory--a hard-headed, simple-hearted
fellow, as good as gold, and always speaking of “the wife.” But his
nerves had gone to pieces and he was afraid to sleep because of the
dreams that came to him.

“Sister,” he said, “don’t let me go to sleep. Wake me up if you see me
dozing. I see terrible things in my dreams. Frightful things. I can’t
bear it.”

“You will sleep better to-night,” she said. “I am putting something in
your milk. Something to stop the dreaming.”

But he dreamed. I lay awake, feverish and restless, and heard the man
opposite muttering and moaning, in his sleep. Sometimes he would give a
long, quivering sigh, and sometimes start violently, and then wake up in
a dazed way, saying:

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” trembling with fear, so that the bed was
shaken. The night nurse was always by his side in a moment when he
called out, hushing him down, whispering to him.

“I see pools of blood and bits of dead bodies in my sleep,” he told me.
“It’s what I saw up at Bazentin. There was a fellow with his face blown
off, walking about. I see him every night. Queer, isn’t it? Nerves, you
know. I didn’t think I had a nerve in my body before this war.”

The little night nurse came to my bedside.

“Can’t you sleep?”

“I’m afraid not. My heart is thumping in a queer way. May I smoke?”

She put a cigarette between my lips and lighted a match.

“Take a few whiffs and then try to sleep. You need lots of sleep.”

In the ward there was only the glimmer of night lights in red
glasses, and now and then all through the night matches were lighted,
illuminating the room for a second, followed by the glowing end of a
cigarette shining like a star in the darkness.

The sleeping men breathed heavily, tossed about violently, gave strange
jerks and starts. Sometimes they spoke aloud in their sleep.

“That isn’t a dud, you fool! It will blow us to hell.”

“Now then, get on with it, can’t you?”

“Look out! They’re coming! Can’t you see them moving by the wire?”

The spirit of war was in that ward and hunted them even in their sleep;
lurking terrors surged up again in their subconsciousness. Sights which
they had tried to forget stared at them through their closed eyelids.
The daylight came and the night nurse slipped away, and the day
nurse shook one’s shoulders and said: “Time to wash and shave. No
malingering!”

It was the discipline of the hospital. Men as weak as rats had to sit up
in bed, or crawl out of it, and shave themselves.

“You’re merciless!” I said, laughing painfully when the day nurse dabbed
my back with cold iodine at six o’clock on a winter morning, with the
windows wide open.

“Oh, there’s no mercy in this place!” said the strong-minded girl. “It’s
kill or cure here, and no time to worry.”

“You’re all devils,” said the New Zealand general. “You don’t care a
damn about the patients so long as you have all the beds tidy by the
time the doctor comes around. I’m a general, I am, and you can’t order
ME about, and if you think I’m going to shave at this time in the
morning you are jolly well mistaken. I am down with dysentery, and don’t
you forget it. I didn’t get through the Dardanelles to be murdered at
Amiens.”

“That’s where you may be mistaken, general,” said the imperturbable
girl. “I have to carry out orders, and if they lead to your death it’s
not my responsibility. I’m paid a poor wage for this job, but I do my
duty, rough or smooth, kill or cure.”

“You’re a vampire. That’s what you are.”

“I’m a nurse.”

“If ever I hear you’re going to marry a New Zealand boy I’ll warn him
against you.”

“He’ll be too much of a fool to listen to you.”

“I’ve a good mind to marry you myself and beat you every morning.”

“Modern wives have strong muscles. Look at my arm!”

* * *

Three nights in one week there were air raids, and as the German mark
was the railway station we were in the center of the danger-zone. There
was a frightful noise of splintering glass and smashing timber
between each crash of high explosives. The whine of shrapnel from the
anti--aircraft guns had a sinister note, abominable in the ears of those
officers who had come down from the fighting--lines nerve-racked and
fever-stricken. They lay very quiet. The night nurse moved about from
bed to bed, with her flash-lamp. Her face was pale, but she showed no
other sign of fear and was braver than her patients at that time, though
they had done the hero’s job all right.

It was in another hospital a year later, when I lay sick again, that an
officer, a very gallant gentleman, said, “If there is another air raid
I shall go mad.” He had been stationed near the blast-furnace of Les
Izelquins, near Bethune, and had been in many air raids, when over
sixty-three shells had blown his hut to bits and killed his men, until
he could bear it no more. In the Amiens hospital some of the patients
had their heads under the bedclothes like little children.



XVI


The life of Amiens ended for a while, and the city was deserted by all
its people, after the night of March 30, 1918, which will be remembered
forever to the age-long history of Amiens as its night of greatest
tragedy. For a week the enemy had been advancing across the old
battlefields after the first onslaught in the morning of March 21st,
when our lines were stormed and broken by his men’s odds against our
defending troops. We war correspondents had suffered mental agonies like
all who knew what had happened better than the troops themselves.
Every day after the first break-through we pushed out in different
directions--Hamilton Fyfe and I went together sometimes until we came up
with the backwash of the great retreat, ebbing back and back, day after
day, with increasing speed, until it drew very close to Amiens. It was
a kind of ordered chaos, terrible to see. It was a chaos like that of
upturned ant-heaps, but with each ant trying to rescue its eggs and
sticks in a persistent, orderly way, directed by some controlling
or communal intelligence, only instead of eggs and sticks these
soldier-ants of ours, in the whole world behind our front-lines, were
trying to rescue heavy guns, motor-lorries, tanks, ambulances, hospital
stores, ordnance stores, steam-rollers, agricultural implements,
transport wagons, railway engines, Y.M.C.A. tents, gun-horse and mule
columns, while rear-guard actions were being fought within gunfire of
them and walking wounded were hobbling back along the roads in this
uproar of traffic, and word came that a further retreat was happening
and that the enemy had broken through again...

Amiens seemed threatened on the morning when, to the north, Albert was
held by a mixed crowd of Scottish and English troops, too thin, as I
could see when I passed through them, to fight any big action, with an
enemy advancing rapidly from Courcellette and outflanking our line by
Montauban and Fricourt. I saw our men marching hastily in retreat to
escape that tightening net, and while the southern side of Amiens was
held by a crowd of stragglers with cyclist battalions, clerks
from headquarters staffs, and dismounted cavalry, commanded by
Brigadier-General Carey, sent down hurriedly to link them together and
stop a widening gap until the French could get to our relief on the
right and until the Australians had come down from Flanders. There was
nothing on that day to prevent the Germans breaking through to Amiens
except the courage of exhausted boys thinly strung out, and the lagging
footsteps of the Germans themselves, who had suffered heavy losses
all the way and were spent for a while by their progress over the wild
ground of the old fighting-fields. Their heavy guns were far behind,
unable to keep pace with the storm troops, and the enemy was relying
entirely on machine-guns and a few field-guns, but most of our guns were
also out of action, captured or falling back to new lines, and upon the
speed with which the enemy could mass his men for a new assault depended
the safety of Amiens and the road to Abbeville and the coast. If he
could hurl fresh divisions of men against our line on that last night of
March, or bring up strong forces of cavalry, or armored cars, our line
would break and Amiens would be lost, and all our work would be in
jeopardy. That was certain. It was visible. It could not be concealed by
any camouflage of hope or courage.

It was after a day on the Somme battlefields, passing through our
retiring troops, that I sat down, with other war correspondents and
several officers, to a dinner in the old Hotel du Rhin in Amiens. It
was a dismal meal, in a room where there had been much laughter and,
throughout the battles of the Somme, in 1916, a coming and going of
generals and staffs and officers of all grades, cheery and high-spirited
at these little tables where there were good wine and not bad food, and
putting away from their minds for the time being the thought of tragic
losses or forlorn battles in which they might fall. In the quietude of
the hotel garden, a little square plot of grass bordered by flower-beds,
I had had strange conversations with boys who had revealed their souls a
little, after dinner in the darkness, their faces bared now and then by
the light of cigarettes or the flare of a match.

“Death is nothing,” said one young officer just down from the Somme
fields for a week’s rest-cure for jangled nerves. “I don’t care a
damn for death; but it’s the waiting for it, the devilishness of its
uncertainty, the sight of one’s pals blown to bits about one, and the
animal fear under shell-fire, that break one’s pluck... My nerves are
like fiddle-strings.”

In that garden, other men, with a queer laugh now and then between their
stories, had told me their experiences in shell-craters and ditches
under frightful fire which had “wiped out” their platoons or companies.
A bedraggled stork, the inseparable companion of a waddling gull, used
to listen to the conferences, with one leg tucked under his wing, and
its head on one side, with one watchful, beady eye fixed on the figures
in khaki--until suddenly it would clap its long bill rapidly in a
wonderful imitation of machine-gun fire--“Curse the bloody bird!” said
officers startled by this evil and reminiscent noise--and caper with
ridiculous postures round the imperturbable gull... Beyond the lines,
from the dining-room, would come the babble of many tongues and the
laughter of officers telling stories against one another over their
bottles of wine, served by Gaston the head-waiter, between our
discussions on strategy--he was a strategist by virtue of service in the
trenches and several wounds--or by “Von Tirpitz,” an older, whiskered
man, or by Joseph, who had a high, cackling laugh and strong views
against the fair sex, and the inevitable cry, “C’est la guerre!” when
officers complained of the service... There had been merry parties in
this room, crowded with the ghosts of many heroic fellows, but it was a
gloomy gathering on that evening at the end of March when we sat there
for the last time. There were there officers who had lost their towns,
and “Dadoses” (Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Supplies) whose
stores had gone up in smoke and flame, and a few cavalry officers back
from special leave and appalled by what had happened in their absence,
and a group of Y.M.C.A. officials who had escaped by the skin of their
teeth from huts now far behind the German lines, and censors who
knew that no blue pencil could hide the truth of the retreat, and war
correspondents who had to write the truth and hated it.

Gaston whispered gloomily behind my chair: “Mon petit caporal”--he
called me that because of a fancied likeness to the young
Napoleon--“dites donc. Vous croyex quils vont passer par Amiens? Non,
ce n’est pas possible, ca! Pour la deuxieme fois? Non. Je refuse a le
croire. Mais c’est mauvais, c’est affreux, apres tant de sacrifice!”

Madame, of the cash-desk, sat in the dining-room, for company’s sake,
fixing up accounts as though the last day of reckoning had come...as it
had. Her hair, with its little curls, was still in perfect order. She
had two dabs of color on her cheeks, as usual, but underneath a waxen
pallor. She was working out accounts with a young officer, who smoked
innumerable cigarettes to steady his nerves. “Von Tirpitz” was going
round in an absent-minded way, pulling at his long whiskers.

The war correspondents talked together. We spoke gloomily, in low
voices, so that the waiters should not hear.

“If they break through to Abbeville we shall lose the coast.”

“Will that be a win for the Germans, even then?”

“It will make it hell in the Channel.”

“We shall transfer our base to St.-Nazaire.”

“France won’t give in now, whatever happens. And England never gives
in.”

“We’re exhausted, all the same. It’s a question of man-power.”

“They’re bound to take Albert to-night or to-morrow.”

“I don’t see that at all. There’s still a line...”

“A line! A handful of tired men.”

“It will be the devil if they get into Villers-Bretonneux to-night. It
commands Amiens. They could blow the place off the map.”

“They won’t.”

“We keep on saying, ‘They won’t.’ We said, ‘They won’t get the Somme
crossings!’ but they did. Let’s face it squarely, without any damned
false optimism. That has been our curse all through.”

“Better than your damned pessimism.”

“It’s quite possible that they will be in this city tonight. What is to
keep them back? There’s nothing up the road.”

“It would look silly if we were all captured to-night. How they would
laugh!”

“We shouldn’t laugh, though. I think we ought to keep an eye on things.”

“How are we to know? We are utterly without means of communication.
Anything may happen in the night.”

Something happened then. It was half past seven in the evening. There
were two enormous crashes outside the windows of the Hotel du Rhin. All
the windows shook and the whole house seemed to rock. There was a noise
of rending wood, many falls of bricks, and a cascade of falling glass.
Instinctively and instantly a number of officers threw themselves on the
floor to escape flying bits of steel and glass splinters blown sideways.
Then some one laughed.

“Not this time!”

The officers rose from the floor and took their places at the table, and
lit cigarettes again. But they were listening. We listened to the loud
hum of airplanes, the well known “zooz-zooz” of the Gothas’ double
fuselage. More bombs were dropped farther into the town, with the same
sound of explosives and falling masonry. The anti--aircraft guns got to
work and there was the shrill chorus of shrapnel shells winging over the
roofs.

“Bang!... Crash!”

That was nearer again.

Some of the officers strolled out of the dining room.

“They’re making a mess outside. Perhaps we’d better get away before it
gets too hot.”

Madame from the cash-desk turned to her accounts again. I noticed the
increasing pallor of her skin beneath the two dabs of red. But she
controlled her nerves pluckily; even smiled, too, at the young officer
who was settling up for a group of others.

The moon had risen over the houses of Amiens. It was astoundingly bright
and beautiful in a clear sky and still air, and the streets were flooded
with white light, and the roofs glittered like silver above intense
black shadows under the gables, where the rays were barred by projecting
walls.

“Curse the moon!” said one officer. “How I hate its damned light”

But the moon, cold and smiling, looked down upon the world at war and
into this old city of Amiens, in which bombs were bursting. Women were
running close to the walls. Groups of soldiers made a dash from one
doorway to another. Horses galloped with heavy wagons up the Street of
the Three Pebbles, while shrapnel flickered in the sky above them and
paving-stones were hurled up in bursts of red fire and explosions.
Many horses were killed by flying chunks of steel. They lay bleeding
monstrously so that there were large pools of blood around them.

An officer came into the side door of the Hotel du Rhin. He was white
under his steel hat, which he pushed back while he wiped his forehead.

“A fellow was killed just by my side.” he said. “We were standing in a
doorway together and something caught him in the face. He fell like a
log, without a sound, as dead as a door-nail.”

There was a flight of midges in the sky, droning with that double note
which vibrated like ‘cello strings, very loudly, and with that sinister
noise I could see them quite clearly now and then as they passed across
the face of the moon, black, flitting things, with a glitter of shrapnel
below them. From time to time they went away until they were specks of
silver and black; but always they came back again, or others came, with
new stores of bombs which they unloaded over Amiens. So it went on all
through the night.

I went up to a bedroom and lay on a bed, trying to sleep. But it was
impossible. My will-power was not strong enough to disregard those
crashes in the streets outside, when houses collapsed with frightful
falling noises after bomb explosions. My inner vision foresaw the
ceiling above me pierced by one of those bombs, and the room in which I
lay engulfed in the chaos of this wing of the Hotel du Rhin. Many times
I said, “To hell with it all... I’m going to sleep,” and then sat up in
the darkness at the renewal of that tumult and switched on the electric
light. No, impossible to sleep! Outside in the corridor there was a
stampede of heavy boots. Officers were running to get into the cellars
before the next crash, which might fling them into the dismal gulfs. The
thought of that cellar pulled me down like the law of gravity. I walked
along the corridor, now deserted, and saw a stairway littered with
broken glass, which my feet scrunched. There were no lights in the
basement of the hotel, but I had a flash-lamp, going dim, and by its
pale eye fumbled my way to a stone passage leading to the cellar. That
flight of stone steps was littered also with broken glass. In the cellar
itself was a mixed company of men who had been dining earlier in the
evening, joined by others who had come in from the streets for shelter.
Some of them had dragged down mattresses from the bedrooms and were
lying there in their trench-coats, with their steel hats beside them.
Others were sitting on wooden cases, wearing their steel hats, while
there were others on their knees, and their faces in their hands, trying
to sleep. There were some of the town majors who had lost their towns,
and some Canadian cavalry officers, and two or three private soldiers,
and some motor-drivers and orderlies, and two young cooks of the hotel
lying together on dirty straw. By one of the stone pillars of the
vaulted room two American war correspondents--Sims and Mackenzie--were
sitting on a packing-case playing cards on a board between them. They
had stuck candles in empty wine-bottles, and the flickering light played
on their faces and cast deep shadows under their eyes. I stood watching
these men in that cellar and thought what a good subject it would be for
the pencil of Muirhead Bone. I wanted to get a comfortable place. There
was only one place on the bare stones, and when I lay down there my
bones ached abominably, and it was very cold. Through an aperture in the
window came a keen draft and I could see in a square of moonlit sky a
glinting star. It was not much of a cellar. A direct hit on the Hotel
du Rhin would make a nasty mess in this vaulted room and end a game of
cards. After fifteen minutes I became restless, and decided that the
room upstairs, after all, was infinitely preferable to this damp cellar
and these hard stones. I returned to it and lay down on the bed again
and switched off the light. But the noises outside, the loneliness of
the room, the sense of sudden death fluking overhead, made me sit up
again and listen intently. The Gothas were droning over Amiens again.
Many houses round about were being torn and shattered. What a wreckage
was being made of the dear old city! I paced up and down the room,
smoking cigarettes, one after another, until a mighty explosion, very
close, made all my nerves quiver. No, decidedly, that cellar was the
best place. If one had to die it was better to be in the company of
friends. Down I went again, meeting an officer whom I knew well. He,
too, was a wanderer between the cellar and the abandoned bedrooms.

“I am getting bored with this,” he said. “It’s absurd to think that this
filthy cellar is any safer than upstairs. But the dugout sense calls one
down. Anyhow, I can’t sleep.”

We stood looking into the cellar. There was something comical as well as
sinister in the sight of the company there sprawled on the mattresses,
vainly trying to extract comfort out of packing-cases for pillows, or
gas-bags on steel hats. One friend of ours, a cavalry officer of the
old school, looked a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ol’ Bill, with a
fierce frown above his black mustache. Sims and Mackenzie still played
their game of cards, silently, between the guttering candles.

I think I went from the cellar to the bedroom, and from the bedroom to
the cellar, six times that night. There was never ten minutes’ relief
from the drone of Gothas, who were making a complete job of Amiens.
It was at four in the morning that I met the same officer who saw me
wandering before.

“Let us go for a walk,” he said. “The birds will be away by dawn.”

It was nothing like dawn when we went out of the side door of the Hotel
du Rhin and strolled into the Street of the Three Pebbles. There was
still the same white moonlight, intense and glittering, but with a paler
sky. It shone down upon dark pools of blood and the carcasses of horses
and fragments of flesh, from which a sickly smell rose. The roadway
was littered with bits of timber and heaps of masonry. Many houses had
collapsed into wild chaos, and others, though still standing, had been
stripped of their wooden frontages and their walls were scarred by
bomb-splinters. Every part of the old city, as we explored it later, had
been badly mauled, and hundreds of houses were utterly destroyed. The
air raid ceased at 4.30 A.M., when the first light of dawn came into the
sky....

That day Amiens was evacuated, by command of the French military
authorities, and the inhabitants trailed out of the city, leaving
everything behind them. I saw the women locking up their shops--where
there were any doors to shut or their shop still standing. Many
people must have been killed and buried in the night beneath their own
houses--I never knew how many. The fugitives escaped the next phase of
the tragedy in Amiens when, within a few hours, the enemy sent over the
first high velocities, and for many weeks afterward scattered them about
the city, destroying many other houses. A fire started by these shells
formed a great gap between the rue des Jacobins and the rue des Trois
Cailloux, where there had been an arcade and many good shops and houses.
I saw the fires smoldering about charred beams and twisted ironwork when
I went through the city after the day of exodus.



XVII


It was a pitiful adventure to go through Amiens in the days of
its desolation, and we who had known its people so well hated its
loneliness. All abandoned towns have a tragic aspect--I often think
of Douai, which was left with all its people under compulsion of the
enemy--but Amiens was strangely sinister with heaps of ruins in its
narrow streets, and the abominable noise of high-velocity shells in
flight above its roofs, and crashing now in one direction and now in
another.

One of our sentries came out of a little house near the Place and said:

“Keep as much as possible to the west side of the town, sir. They’ve
been falling pretty thick on the east side. Made no end of a mess!”

On the way back from Villers-Bretonneux and the Australian headquarters,
on the left bank of the Somme, we ate sandwiches in the public
gardens outside the Hotel du Rhin. There were big shell-holes in the
flower-beds, and trees had been torn down and flung across the pathway,
and there was a broken statue lying on the grass. Some French and
English soldiers tramped past. Then there was no living soul about in
the place which had been so crowded with life, with pretty women and
children, and young officers doing their shopping, and the business of a
city at work.

“It makes one understand what Rome was like after the barbarians had
sacked and left it,” said a friend of mine.

“There is something ghastly about it,” said another.

We stood round the Hotel du Rhin, shut up and abandoned. The house next
door had been wrecked, and it was scarred and wounded, but still stood
after that night of terror.

One day during its desolation I went to a banquet in Amiens, in the
cellars of the Hotel de Ville. It was to celebrate the Fourth of July,
and an invitation had been sent to me by the French commandant de place
and the English A. P. M.

It was a beau geste, gallant and romantic in those days of trouble, when
Amiens was still closely beleaguered, but safer now that Australians and
British troops were holding the lines strongly outside, with French on
their right southward from Boves and Hangest Wood. The French commandant
had procured a collection of flags and his men had decorated the
battered city with the Tricolor. It even fluttered above some of the
ruins, as though for the passing of a pageant. But only a few cars
entered the city and drew up to the Town Hall, and then took cover
behind the walls.

Down below, in the cellars, the damp walls were garlanded with flowers
from the market-gardens of the Somme, now deserted by their gardeners,
and roses were heaped on the banqueting-table. General Monash,
commanding the Australian corps, was there, with the general of the
French division on his right. A young American officer sat very grave
and silent, not, perhaps, understanding much of the conversation about
him, because most of the guests were French officers, with Senators and
Deputies of Amiens and its Department. There was good wine to drink from
the cold vaults of the Hotel de Ville, and with the scent of rose and
hope for victory in spite of all disasters--the German offensive had
been checked and the Americans were now coming over in a tide--it was a
cheerful luncheon-party. The old general, black-visaged, bullet-headed,
with a bristly mustache like a French bull--terrier, sat utterly silent,
eating steadily and fiercely. But the French commandant de place, as
handsome as Athos, as gay as D’Artagnan, raised his glass to England
and France, to the gallant Allies, and to all fair women. He became
reminiscent of his days as a sous-lieutenant. He remembered a girl
called Marguerite--she was exquisite; and another called Yvonne--he had
adored her. O life! O youth!... He had been a careless young devil, with
laughter in his heart....



XVIII


I suppose it was three months later when I saw the first crowds coming
back to their homes in Amiens. The tide had turned and the enemy was
in hard retreat. Amiens was safe again! They had never had any doubt
of this homecoming after that day nearly three months before, when,
in spite of the enemy’s being so close, Foch said, in his calm way, “I
guarantee Amiens.” They believed what Marshal Foch said. He always knew.
So now they were coming back again with their little bundles and their
babies and small children holding their hands or skirts, according as
they had received permits from the French authorities. They were the
lucky ones whose houses still existed. They were conscious of their own
good fortune and came chattering very cheerfully from the station up the
Street of the Three Pebbles, on their way to their streets. But every
now and then they gave a cry of surprise and dismay at the damage done
to other people’s houses.

“O la la! Regardez ca! c’est affreux!”

There was the butcher’s shop, destroyed; and the house of poor little
Madeleine; and old Christopher’s workshop; and the milliner’s place,
where they used to buy their Sunday hats; and that frightful gap where
the Arcade had been. Truly, poor Amiens had suffered martyrdom; though,
thank God, the cathedral still stood in glory, hardly touched, with only
one little shellhole through the roof.

Terrible was the damage up the rue de Beauvais and the streets that went
out of it. To one rubbish heap which had been a corner house two girls
came back. Perhaps the French authorities had not had that one on their
list. The girls came tripping home, with light in their eyes, staring
about them, ejaculating pity for neighbors whose houses had been
destroyed. Then suddenly they stood outside their own house and saw that
the direct hit of a shell had knocked it to bits. The light went out
of their eyes. They stood there staring, with their mouths open... Some
Australian soldiers stood about and watched the girls, understanding the
drama.

“Bit of a mess, missy!” said one of them. “Not much left of the old
home, eh?”

The girls were amazingly brave. They did not weep. They climbed up a
hillock of bricks and pulled out bits of old, familiar things. They
recovered the whole of a child’s perambulator, with its wheels crushed.
With an air of triumph and shrill laughter they turned round to the
Australians.

“Pour les bebes!” they cried.

“While there’s life there’s hope,” said one of the Australians, with
sardonic humor.

So the martyrdom of Amiens was at an end, and life came back to the city
that had been dead, and the soul of the city had survived. I have not
seen it since then, but one day I hope I shall go back and shake hands
with Gaston the waiter and say, “Comment ca va, mon vieux?” (“How goes
it, my old one?”) and stroll into the bookshop and say, “Bon jour,
mademoiselle!” and walk round the cathedral and see its beauty in
moonlight again when no one will look up and say, “Curse the moon!”

There will be many ghosts in the city at night--the ghosts of British
officers and men who thronged those streets in the great war and have
now passed on.



PART SIX. PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME



I


All that had gone before was but a preparation for what now was to come.
Until July 1 of 1916 the British armies were only getting ready for the
big battles which were being planned for them by something greater than
generalship--by the fate which decides the doom of men.

The first battles by the Old Contemptibles, down from Mons and up by
Ypres, were defensive actions of rear--guards holding the enemy back
by a thin wall of living flesh, while behind the New Armies of our race
were being raised.

The battles of Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, and all minor attacks
which led to little salients, were but experimental adventures in the
science of slaughter, badly bungled in our laboratories. They had no
meaning apart from providing those mistakes by which men learn; ghastly
mistakes, burning more than the fingers of life’s children. They were
only diversions of impatience in the monotonous routine of trench
warfare by which our men strengthened the mud walls of their School
of Courage, so that the new boys already coming out might learn their
lessons without more grievous interruption than came from the daily
visits of that Intruder to whom the fees were paid. In those two years
it was France which fought the greatest battles, flinging her sons
against the enemy’s ramparts in desperate, vain attempts to breach them.
At Verdun, in the months that followed the first month of ‘16, it was
France which sustained the full weight of the German offensive on the
western front and broke its human waves, until they were spent in a sea
of blood, above which the French poilus, the “hairy ones,” stood panting
and haggard, on their death-strewn rocks. The Germans had failed to
deal a fatal blow at the heart of France. France held her head up
still, bleeding from many wounds, but defiant still; and the German
High Command, aghast at their own losses--six hundred thousand
casualties--already conscious, icily, of a dwindling man-power which one
day would be cut off at its source, rearranged their order of battle and
shifted the balance of their weight eastward, to smash Russia. Somehow
or other they must smash a way out by sledge-hammer blows, left and
right, west and east, from that ring of nations which girdled them. On
the west they would stand now on the defensive, fairly sure of their
strength, but well aware that it would be tried to the utmost by that
enemy which, at the back of their brains (at the back of the narrow
brains of those bald-headed vultures on the German General Staff), they
most feared as their future peril--England. They had been fools to let
the British armies grow up and wax so strong. It was the folly of the
madness by which they had flung the gauntlet down to the souls of proud
peoples arrayed against them.

Our armies were now strong and trained and ready. We had about six
hundred thousand bayonet-men in France and Flanders and in England,
immense reserves to fill up the gaps that would be made in their ranks
before the summer foliage turned to russet tints.

Our power in artillery had grown amazingly since the beginning of the
year. Every month I had seen many new batteries arrive, with clean
harness and yellow straps, and young gunners who were quick to get
their targets. We were strong in “heavies,” twelve-inchers, 9.2’s,
eight-inchers, 4.2’s, mostly howitzers, with the long-muzzled
sixty-pounders terrible in their long range and destructiveness. Our
aircraft had grown fast, squadron upon squadron, and our aviators had
been trained in the school of General Trenchard, who sent them out over
the German lines to learn how to fight, and how to scout, and how to die
like little gentlemen.

For a time our flying-men had gone out on old-fashioned
“buses”--primitive machines which were an easy prey to the fast-flying
Fokkers who waited for them behind a screen of cloud and then “stooped”
 on them like hawks sure of their prey. But to the airdrome near St.-Omer
came later models, out of date a few weeks after their delivery,
replaced by still more powerful types more perfectly equipped for
fighting. Our knights-errant of the air were challenging the German
champions on equal terms, and beating them back from the lines unless
they flew in clusters. There were times when our flying-men gained an
absolute supremacy by greater daring--there was nothing they did not
dare--and by equal skill. As a caution, not wasting their strength in
unequal contests. It was a sound policy, and enabled them to come back
again in force and hold the field for a time by powerful concentrations.
But in the battles of the Somme our airmen, at a heavy cost of life,
kept the enemy down a while and blinded his eyes.

The planting of new airdromes between Albert and Amiens, the long
trail down the roads of lorries packed with wings and the furniture of
aircraft factories, gave the hint, to those who had eyes to see, that in
this direction a merry hell was being prepared.

There were plain signs of massacre at hand all the way from the coast to
the lines. At Etaples and other places near Boulogne hospital huts and
tents were growing like mushrooms in the night. From casualty clearing
stations near the front the wounded--the human wreckage of routine
warfare--were being evacuated “in a hurry” to the base, and from the
base to England. They were to be cleared out of the way so that all the
wards might be empty for a new population of broken men, in enormous
numbers. I went down to see this clearance, this tidying up. There was a
sinister suggestion in the solitude that was being made for a multitude
that was coming.

“We shall be very busy,” said the doctors.

“We must get all the rest we can now,” said the nurses.

“In a little while every bed will be filled,” said the matrons.

Outside one hut, with the sun on their faces, were four wounded Germans,
Wurtemburgers and Bavarians, too ill to move just then. Each of them had
lost a leg under the surgeon’s knife. They were eating strawberries, and
seemed at peace. I spoke to one of them.

“Wie befinden sie sich?”

“Ganz wohl; wir sind zufrieden mit unsere behandlung.”

I passed through the shell-shock wards and a yard where the
“shell-shocks” sat about, dumb, or making queer, foolish noises, or
staring with a look of animal fear in their eyes. From a padded room
came a sound of singing. Some idiot of war was singing between bursts of
laughter. It all seemed so funny to him, that war, so mad!

“We are clearing them out,” said the medical officer. “There will be
many more soon.”

How soon? That was a question nobody could answer. It was the only
secret, and even that was known in London, where little ladies in
society were naming the date, “in confidence,” to men who were directly
concerned with it--having, as they knew, only a few more weeks, or days,
of certain life. But I believe there were not many officers who would
have surrendered deliberately all share in “The Great Push.” In spite
of all the horror which these young officers knew it would involve,
they had to be “in it” and could not endure the thought that all their
friends and all their men should be there while they were “out of it.”
 A decent excuse for the safer side of it--yes. A staff job, the
Intelligence branch, any post behind the actual shambles--and thank God
for the luck. But not an absolute shirk.

Tents were being pitched in many camps of the Somme, rows and rows of
bell tents and pavilions stained to a reddish brown. Small cities
of them were growing up on the right of the road between Amiens and
Albert--at Dernancourt and Daours and Vaux-sous-Corbie. I thought they
might be for troops in reserve until I saw large flags hoisted to tall
staffs and men of the R.A.M.C. busy painting signs on large sheets
stretched out on the grass. It was always the same sign--the Sign of the
Cross that was Red.

There was a vast traffic of lorries on the roads, and trains were
traveling on light railways day and night to railroads just beyond
shell-range. What was all the weight they carried? No need to ask.
The “dumps” were being filled, piled up, with row upon row of shells,
covered by tarpaulin or brushwood when they were all stacked. Enormous
shells, some of them, like gigantic pigs without legs. Those were for
the fifteen-inchers, or the 9.2’s. There was enough high-explosive force
littered along those roads above the Somme to blow cities off the map.

“It does one good to see,” said a cheery fellow. “The people at home
have been putting their backs into it. Thousands of girls have been
packing those things. Well done, Munitions!”

I could take no joy in the sight, only a grim kind of satisfaction that
at least when our men attacked they would have a power of artillery
behind them. It might help them to smash through to a finish, if that
were the only way to end this long-drawn suicide of nations.

My friend was shocked when I said:

“Curse all munitions!”



II


The British armies as a whole were not gloomy at the approach of that
new phase of war which they called “The Great Push,” as though it were
to be a glorified football-match. It is difficult, perhaps impossible,
to know the thoughts of vast masses of men moved by some sensational
adventure. But a man would be a liar if he pretended that British troops
went forward to the great attack with hangdog looks or any visible sign
of fear in their souls. I think most of them were uplifted by the belief
that the old days of trench warfare were over forever and that they
would break the enemy’s lines by means of that enormous gun-power behind
them, and get him “on the run.” There would be movement, excitement,
triumphant victories--and then the end of the war. In spite of all risks
it would be enormously better than the routine of the trenches. They
would be getting on with the job instead of standing still and being
shot at by invisible earth-men.

“If we once get the Germans in the open we shall go straight through
them.”

That was the opinion of many young officers at that time, and for once
they agreed with their generals.

It seemed to be a question of getting them in the open, and I confess
that when I studied the trench maps and saw the enemy’s defensive
earthworks thirty miles deep in one vast maze of trenches and redoubts
and barbed wire and tunnels I was appalled at the task which lay before
our men. They did not know what they were being asked to do.

They had not seen, then, those awful maps.

We were at the height and glory of our strength. Out of England had come
the flower of our youth, and out of Scotland and Wales and Canada and
Australia and New Zealand. Even out of Ireland, with the 16th Division
of the south and west, and the 36th of Ulster. The New Armies were made
up of all the volunteers who had answered the call to the colors, not
waiting for the conscription by class, which followed later. They were
the ardent ones, the young men from office, factory, shop, and field,
university and public school. The best of our intelligence were there,
the noblest of our manhood, the strength of our heart, the beauty of
our soul, in those battalions which soon were to be flung into explosive
fires.



III


In the month of May a new type of manhood was filling the old roads
behind the front.

I saw them first in the little old town of St.-Pol, where always there
was a coming and going of French and English soldiers. It was market-day
and the Grande Place (not very grand) was crowded with booths and old
ladies in black, and young girls with checkered aprons over their black
frocks, and pigs and clucking fowls. Suddenly the people scattered,
and there was a rumble and rattle of wheels as a long line of transport
wagons came through the square.

“By Jove!... Australians!”

There was no mistaking them. Their slouch-hats told one at a glance, but
without them I should have known. They had a distinctive type of their
own, which marked them out from all other soldiers of ours along those
roads of war.

They were hatchet-faced fellows who came riding through the little
old market town; British unmistakably, yet not English, not Irish, nor
Scottish, nor Canadian. They looked hard, with the hardness of a boyhood
and a breeding away from cities or, at least, away from the softer
training of our way of life. They had merry eyes (especially for the
girls round the stalls), but resolute, clean-cut mouths, and they rode
their horses with an easy grace in the saddle, as though born to riding,
and drove their wagons with a recklessness among the little booths that
was justified by half an inch between an iron axle and an old woman’s
table of colored ribbons.

Those clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered men, who had come out of
the hell of the Dardanelles and the burning drought of Egyptian sands,
looked wonderfully fresh in France. Youth, keen as steel, with a flash
in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding
down the street.

They were glad to be there. Everything was new and good to them (though
so old and stale to many of us), and after their adventures in the East
they found it splendid to be in a civilized country, with water in the
sky and in the fields, with green trees about them, and flowers in the
grass, and white people who were friendly.

When they came up in the train from Marseilles they were all at the
windows, drinking in the look of the French landscape, and one of their
officers told me that again and again he heard the same words spoken by
those lads of his.

“It’s a good country to fight for... It’s like being home again.”

At first they felt chilly in France, for the weather had been bad for
them during the first weeks in April, when the wind had blown cold and
rain-clouds had broken into sharp squalls.

Talking to the men, I saw them shiver a little and heard their teeth
chatter, but they said they liked a moist climate with a bite in the
wind, after all the blaze and glare of the Egyptian sun.

One of their pleasures in being there was the opportunity of buying
sweets! “They can’t have too much of them,” said one of the officers,
and the idea that those hard fellows, whose Homeric fighting qualities
had been proved, should be enthusiastic for lollipops seemed to me an
amusing touch of character. For tough as they were, and keen as they
were, those Australian soldiers were but grown-up children with a
wonderful simplicity of youth and the gift of laughter.

I saw them laughing when, for the first time, they tried on the
gas-masks which none of us ever left behind when we went near the
fighting-line. That horror of war on the western front was new to them.

Poison-gas was not one of the weapons used by the Turks, and the
gas-masks seemed a joke to the groups of Australians trying on the
headgear in the fields, and changing themselves into obscene specters
... But one man watching them gave a shudder and said, “It’s a pity such
splendid boys should have to risk this foul way of death.” They did not
hear his words, and we heard their laughter again.

On that first day of their arrival I stood in a courtyard with a young
officer whose gray eyes had a fine, clear light, which showed the spirit
of the man, and as we talked he pointed out some of the boys who
passed in and out of an old barn. One of them had done fine work on the
Peninsula, contemptuous of all risks. Another had gone out under heavy
fire to bring in a wounded friend... “Oh, they are great lads!” said
the captain of the company. “But now they want to get at the Germans and
finish the job quickly. Give them a fair chance and they’ll go far.”

They went far, from that time to the end, and fought with a simple,
terrible courage.

They had none of the discipline imposed upon our men by Regular
traditions. They were gipsy fellows, with none but the gipsy law in
their hearts, intolerant of restraint, with no respect for rank or
caste unless it carried strength with it, difficult to handle behind the
lines, quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, primitive men, but lovable, human,
generous souls when their bayonets were not red with blood. Their
discipline in battle was the best. They wanted to get to a place ahead.
They would fight the devils of hell to get there.

The New-Zealanders followed them, with rosy cheeks like English boys
of Kent, and more gentle manners than the other “Anzacs,” and the same
courage. They went far, too, and set the pace awhile in the last lap.
But that, in the summer of ‘16, was far away.

In those last days of June, before the big battles began, the
countryside of the Somme valley was filled with splendor. The mustard
seed had spread a yellow carpet in many meadows so that they were Fields
of the Cloth of Gold, and clumps of red clover grew like flowers
of blood. The hedges about the villages of Picardy were white with
elderflower and drenched with scent. It was haymaking time and French
women and children were tossing the hay on wooden pitchforks during hot
days which came between heavy rains. Our men were marching through that
beauty, and were conscious of it, I think, and glad of life.



IV


Boulogne was a port through which all our youth passed between
England and the long, straight road which led to No Man’s Land. The
seven-day-leave men were coming back by every tide, and all other leave
was canceled.

New “drafts” were pouring through the port by tens of thousands--all
manner of men of all our breed marching in long columns from the
quayside, where they had orders yelled at them through megaphones by
A.P.M.’s, R.T.O.’s, A.M.L.O.’s, and other blue tabbed officers who dealt
with them as cattle for the slaughterhouses. I watched them landing from
the transports which came in so densely crowded with the human freight
that the men were wedged together on the decks like herrings in barrels.
They crossed from one boat to another to reach the gangways, and one by
one, interminably as it seemed, with rifle gripped and pack hunched,
and steel hat clattering like a tinker’s kettle, came down the inclined
plank and lurched ashore. They were English lads from every country;
Scots, Irish, Welsh, of every regiment; Australians, New-Zealanders,
South Africans, Canadians, West Indian negroes of the Garrison
Artillery; Sikhs, Pathans, and Dogras of the Indian Cavalry. Some of
them had been sick and there was a greenish pallor on their faces. Most
of them were deeply tanned. Many of them stepped on the quayside of
France for the first time after months of training, and I could tell
those, sometimes, by the furtive look they gave at the crowded scene
about them, and by a sudden glint in their eyes, a faint reflection of
the emotion that was in them, because this was another stage on their
adventure of war, and the drawbridge was down at last between them and
the enemy. That was all, just that look, and lips tightened now grimly,
and the pack hunched higher. Then they fell in by number and marched
away, with Redcaps to guard them, across the bridge, into the town
of Boulogne and beyond to the great camp near Etaples (and near the
hospital, so that German aircraft had a good argument for smashing Red
Cross huts), where some of them would wait until somebody said, “You’re
wanted.” They were wanted in droves as soon as the fighting began on the
first day of July.

The bun shops in Boulogne were filled with nurses, V.A.D.’s, all kinds
of girls in uniforms which glinted with shoulder-straps and buttons.
They ate large quantities of buns at odd hours of mornings and
afternoons. Flying-men and officers of all kinds waiting for trains
crowded the Folkestone Hotel and restaurants, where they spent two hours
over luncheon and three hours over dinner, drinking red wine, talking
“shop”--the shop of trench-mortar units, machine-gun sections, cavalry
squadrons, air-fighting, gas schools, and anti-gas schools. Regular
inhabitants of Boulogne, officers at the base, passed to inner rooms
with French ladies of dangerous appearance, and the transients envied
them and said: “Those fellows have all the luck! What’s their secret?
How do they arrange these cushie jobs?” From open windows came the music
of gramophones. Through half-drawn curtains there were glimpses of khaki
tunics and Sam Brown belts in juxtaposition with silk blouses and
coiled hair and white arms. Opposite the Folkestone there was a park of
ambulances driven by “Scottish women,” who were always on the move
from one part of the town to the other. Motor-cars came hooting with
staff-officers, all aglow in red tabs and armbands, thirsty for little
cocktails after a dusty drive. Everywhere in the streets and on the
esplanade there was incessant saluting. The arms of men were never
still. It was like the St. Vitus disease. Tommies and Jocks saluted
every subaltern with an automatic gesture of convulsive energy. Every
subaltern acknowledged these movements and in turn saluted a multitude
of majors, colonels, and generals. The thing became farcical, a
monstrous absurdity of human relationship, yet pleasing to the vanity of
men lifted up above the lowest caste. It seemed to me an intensification
of the snob instinct in the soul of man. Only the Australians stood out
against it, and went by all officers except their own with a careless
slouch and a look of “To hell with all that handwagging.”

Seated on high stools in the Folkestone, our young officers clinked
their cocktails, and then whispered together.

“When’s it coming?”

“In a few days... I’m for the Gommecourt sector.”

“Do you think we shall get through?”

“Not a doubt of it. The cavalry are massing for a great drive. As soon
as we make the gap they’ll ride into the blue.”

“By God!... There’ll be some slaughter”

“I think the old Boche will crack this time.”

“Well, cheerio!”

There was a sense of enormous drama at hand, and the excitement of it in
boys’ hearts drugged all doubt and fears. It was only the older men, and
the introspective, who suffered from the torture of apprehension. Even
timid fellows in the ranks were, I imagine, strengthened and exalted by
the communal courage of their company or battalion, for courage as
well as fear is infectious, and the psychology of the crowd uplifts
the individual to immense heights of daring when alone he would
be terror--stricken. The public-school spirit of pride in name and
tradition was in each battalion of the New Army, extended later to the
division, which became the unit of esprit de corps. They must not “let
the battalion down.” They would do their damnedest to get farther than
any other crowd, to bag more prisoners, to gain more “kudos.” There was
rivalry even among the platoons and the companies. “A” Company would
show “B” Company the way to go! Their sergeant-major was a great fellow!
Their platoon commanders were fine kids! With anything like a chance--

In that spirit, as far as I, an outsider could see and hear, did
our battalions of boys march forward to “The Great Push,” whistling,
singing, jesting, until their lips were dry and their throats parched
in the dust, and even the merriest jesters of all were silent under the
weight of their packs and rifles. So they moved up day by day, through
the beauty of that June in France, thousands of men, hundreds of
thousands to the edge of the battlefields of the Somme, where the enemy
was intrenched in fortress positions and where already, before the last
days of June, gunfire was flaming over a vast sweep of country.



V


On the 1st of July, 1916, began those prodigious battles which only
lulled down at times during two and a half years more, when our British
armies fought with desperate sacrificial valor beyond all previous
reckoning; when the flower of our youth was cast into that furnace month
after month, recklessly, with prodigal, spendthrift haste; when
those boys were mown down in swaths by machine-guns, blown to bits
by shell-fire, gassed in thousands, until all that country became
a graveyard; when they went forward to new assaults or fell back in
rearguard actions with a certain knowledge that they had in their first
attack no more than one chance in five of escape, next time one chance
in four, then one chance in three, one chance in two, and after that
no chance at all, on the line of averages, as worked out by their
experience of luck. More boys came out to take their places, and more,
and more, conscripts following volunteers, younger brothers following
elder brothers. Never did they revolt from the orders that came to them.
Never a battalion broke into mutiny against inevitable martyrdom. They
were obedient to the command above them. Their discipline did not break.
However profound was the despair of the individual, and it was, I know,
deep as the wells of human tragedy in many hearts, the mass moved as it
was directed, backward or forward, this way and that, from one shambles
to another, in mud and in blood, with the same massed valor as that
which uplifted them before that first day of July with an intensified
pride in the fame of their divisions, with a more eager desire for
public knowledge of their deeds, with a loathing of war’s misery, with
a sense of its supreme folly, yet with a refusal in their souls to
acknowledge defeat or to stop this side of victory. In each battle there
were officers and men who risked death deliberately, and in a kind of
ecstasy did acts of superhuman courage; and because of the number of
these feats the record of them is monotonous, dull, familiar. The mass
followed their lead, and even poor coward-hearts, of whom there were
many, as in all armies, had courage enough, as a rule, to get as far as
the center of the fury before their knees gave way or they dropped dead.

Each wave of boyhood that came out from England brought a new mass of
physical and spiritual valor as great as that which was spent, and in
the end it was an irresistible tide which broke down the last barriers
and swept through in a rush to victory, which we gained at the cost
of nearly a million dead, and a high sum of living agony, and all our
wealth, and a spiritual bankruptcy worse than material loss, so that
now England is for a time sick to death and drained of her old pride and
power.



VI


I remember, as though it were yesterday in vividness and a hundred years
ago in time, the bombardment which preceded the battles of the Somme.
With a group of officers I stood on the high ground above Albert,
looking over to Gommecourt and Thiepval and La Boisselle, on the left
side of the German salient, and then, by crossing the road, to Fricourt,
Mametz, and Montauban on the southern side. From Albert westward past
Thiepval Wood ran the little river of the Ancre, and on the German side
the ground rose steeply to Usna Hill by La Boisselle, and to Thiepval
Chateau above the wood. It was a formidable defensive position, one
fortress girdled by line after line of trenches, and earthwork redoubts,
and deep tunnels, and dugouts in which the German troops could live
below ground until the moment of attack. The length of our front of
assault was about twenty miles round the side of the salient to the
village of Bray, on the Somme, where the French joined us and continued
the battle.

From where we stood we could see a wide panorama of the German
positions, and beyond, now and then, when the smoke of shellfire
drifted, I caught glimpses of green fields and flower patches beyond the
trench lines, and church spires beyond the range of guns rising above
clumps of trees in summer foliage. Immediately below, in the foreground,
was the village of Albert, not much ruined then, with its red-brick
church and tower from which there hung, head downward, the Golden Virgin
with her Babe outstretched as though as a peace-offering over all this
strife. That leaning statue, which I had often passed on the way to the
trenches, was now revealed brightly with a golden glamour, as sheets of
flame burst through a heavy veil of smoke over the valley. In a field
close by some troops were being ticketed with yellow labels fastened
to their backs. It was to distinguish them so that artillery observers
might know them from the enemy when their turn came to go into the
battleground. Something in the sight of those yellow tickets made me
feel sick. Away behind, a French farmer was cutting his grass with a
long scythe, in steady, sweeping strokes. Only now and then did he stand
to look over at the most frightful picture of battle ever seen until
then by human eyes. I wondered, and wonder still, what thoughts were
passing through that old brain to keep him at his work, quietly,
steadily, on the edge of hell. For there, quite close and clear, was
hell, of man’s making, produced by chemists and scientists, after
centuries in search of knowledge. There were the fires of hate, produced
out of the passion of humanity after a thousand years of Christendom and
of progress in the arts of beauty. There was the devil-worship of our
poor, damned human race, where the most civilized nations of the world
were on each side of the bonfires. It was worth watching by a human ant.

I remember the noise of our guns as all our batteries took their parts
in a vast orchestra of drumfire. The tumult of the fieldguns merged into
thunderous waves. Behind me a fifteen-inch “Grandmother” fired single
strokes, and each one was an enormous shock. Shells were rushing through
the air like droves of giant birds with beating wings and with strange
wailings. The German lines were in eruption. Their earthworks were being
tossed up, and fountains of earth sprang up between columns of smoke,
black columns and white, which stood rigid for a few seconds and then
sank into the banks of fog. Flames gushed up red and angry, rending
those banks of mist with strokes of lightning. In their light I saw
trees falling, branches tossed like twigs, black things hurtling through
space. In the night before the battle, when that bombardment had lasted
several days and nights, the fury was intensified. Red flames darted
hither and thither like little red devils as our trench mortars got to
work. Above the slogging of the guns there were louder, earth-shaking
noises, and volcanoes of earth and fire spouted as high as the clouds.
One convulsion of this kind happened above Usna Hill, with a long,
terrifying roar and a monstrous gush of flame.

“What is that?” asked some one.

“It must be the mine we charged at La Boisselle. The biggest that has
ever been.”

It was a good guess. When, later in the battle, I stood by the crater of
that mine and looked into its gulf I wondered how many Germans had been
hurled into eternity when the earth had opened. The grave was big enough
for a battalion of men with horses and wagons, below the chalk of the
crater’s lips. Often on the way to Bapaume I stepped off the road to
look into that white gulf, remembering the moment when I saw the gust of
flame that rent the earth about it.



VII


There was the illusion of victory on that first day of the Somme
battles, on the right of the line by Fricourt, and it was not until a
day or two later that certain awful rumors I had heard from wounded men
and officers who had attacked on the left up by Gommecourt, Thiepval,
and Serre were confirmed by certain knowledge of tragic disaster on that
side of the battle-line.

The illusion of victory, with all the price and pain of it, came to me
when I saw the German rockets rising beyond the villages of Mametz and
Montauban and our barrage fire lifting to a range beyond the first lines
of German trenches, and our support troops moving forward in masses to
captured ground. We had broken through! By the heroic assault of our
English and Scottish troops. West Yorks, Yorks and Lancs, Lincolns,
Durhams, Northumberland Fusiliers, Norfolks and Berkshires, Liverpools,
Manchesters, Gordons, and Royal Scots, all those splendid men I had
seen marching to their lines. We had smashed through the ramparts of the
German fortress, through that maze of earthworks and tunnels which had
appalled me when I saw them on the maps, and over which I had gazed
from time to time from our front-line trenches when those places seemed
impregnable. I saw crowds of prisoners coming back under escort, fifteen
hundred had been counted in the first day, and they had the look of a
defeated army. Our lightly wounded men, thousands of them, were shouting
and laughing as they came down behind the lines, wearing German caps and
helmets. From Amiens civilians straggled out along the roads as far as
they were allowed by military police, and waved hands and cheered those
boys of ours. “Vive l’Angleterre!” cried old men, raising their hats.
Old women wept at the sight of those gay wounded, the lightly touched,
glad of escape, rejoicing in their luck and in the glory of life which
was theirs still and cried out to them with shrill words of praise and
exultation.

“Nous les aurons les sales Boches! Ah, ils sont foutus, ces bandits!
C’est la victoire, grace a vous, petits soldats anglais!”

Victory! The spirit of victory in the hearts of fighting men, and of
women excited by the sight of those bandaged heads, those bare, brawny
arms splashed with blood, those laughing heroes.

It looked like victory, in those days, as war correspondents, we were
not so expert in balancing the profit and loss as afterward we became.
When I went into Fricourt on the third day of battle, after the last
Germans, who had clung on to its ruins, had been cleared out by the
Yorkshires and Lincolns of the 21st Division, that division which had
been so humiliated at Loos and now was wonderful in courage, and when
the Manchesters and Gordons of the 30th Division had captured Montauban
and repulsed fierce counter-attacks.

It looked like victory, because of the German dead that lay there in
their battered trenches and the filth and stench of death over all that
mangled ground, and the enormous destruction wrought by our guns, and
the fury of fire which we were still pouring over the enemy’s lines from
batteries which had moved forward.

I went down flights of steps into German dugouts, astonished by their
depth and strength. Our men did not build like this. This German
industry was a rebuke to us, yet we had captured their work and the
dead bodies of their laborers lay in those dark caverns, killed by our
bombers, who had flung down handgrenades. I drew back from those fat
corpses. They looked monstrous, lying there crumpled up, amid a foul
litter of clothes, stickbombs, old boots, and bottles. Groups of dead
lay in ditches which had once been trenches, flung into chaos by that
bombardment I had seen. They had been bayoneted. I remember one man, an
elderly fellow sitting up with his back to a bit of earth with his hands
half raised. He was smiling a little, though he had been stabbed through
the belly and was stone dead. Victory! some of the German dead were
young boys, too young to be killed for old men’s crimes, and others
might have been old or young. One could not tell, because they had no
faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags and uniforms. Legs and
arms lay separate, without any bodies thereabouts.

Outside Montauban there was a heap of our own dead. Young Gordons and
Manchesters of the 30th Division, they had been caught by blasts of
machinegun fire, but our dead seemed scarce in the places where I
walked.

Victory? Well, we had gained some ground, and many prisoners, and here
and there some guns. But as I stood by Montauban I saw that our line
was a sharp salient looped round Mametz village and then dipping sharply
southward to Fricourt. O God! had we only made another salient after all
that monstrous effort? To the left there was fury at La Boisselle, where
a few broken trees stood black on the skyline on a chalky ridge. Storms
of German shrapnel were bursting there, and machineguns were firing in
spasms. In Contalmaison, round a chateau which stood high above ruined
houses, shells were bursting with thunderclaps, our shells. German
gunners in invisible batteries were sweeping our lines with barrage
fire, it roamed up and down this side of Montauban Wood, just ahead
of me, and now and then shells smashed among the houses and barns of
Fricourt, and over Mametz there was suddenly a hurricane of “hate.” Our
men were working like ants in those muck heaps, a battalion moved up
toward Boisselle. From a ridge above Fricourt, where once I had seen a
tall crucifix between two trees, which our men called the “Poodles,” a
body of men came down and shrapnel burst among them and they fell
and disappeared in tall grass. Stretcher bearers came slowly through
Fricourt village with living burdens. Some of them were German soldiers
carrying our wounded and their own. Walking wounded hobbled slowly with
their arms round each other’s shoulders, Germans and English together.
A boy in a steel hat stopped me and held up a bloody hand. “A bit of
luck!” he said. “I’m off, after eighteen months of it.”

German prisoners came down with a few English soldiers as their escort.
I saw distant groups of them, and a shell smashed into one group and
scattered it. The living ran, leaving their dead. Ambulances driven by
daring fellows drove to the far edge of Fricourt, not a healthy place,
and loaded up with wounded from a dressing station in a tunnel there.

It was a wonderful picture of war in all its filth and shambles. But was
it Victory? I knew then that it was only a breach in the German bastion,
and that on the left, Gommecourt way, there had been black tragedy.



VIII


On the left, where the 8th and 10th Corps were directing operations, the
assault had been delivered by the 4th, 29th, 36th, 49th, 32nd, 8th, and
56th Divisions.

The positions in front of them were Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel on the
left side of the River Ancre, and Thiepval Wood on the right side of the
Ancre leading up to Thiepval Chateau on the crest of the cliff. These
were the hardest positions to attack, because of the rising ground and
the immense strength of the enemy’s earthworks and tunneled defenses.
But our generals were confident that the gun power at their disposal
was sufficient to smash down that defensive system and make an easy way
through for the infantry. They were wrong. In spite of that tornado
of shell-fire which I had seen tearing up the earth, many tunnels were
still unbroken, and out of them came masses of German machine-gunners
and riflemen, when our infantry rose from their own trenches on that
morning of July 1st.

Our guns had shifted their barrage forward at that moment, farther ahead
of the infantry than was afterward allowed, the men being trained to
follow close to the lines of bursting shells, trained to expect a number
of casualties from their own guns--it needs some training--in order to
secure the general safety gained by keeping the enemy below ground until
our bayonets were round his dugouts.

The Germans had been trained, too, to an act of amazing courage. Their
discipline, that immense power of discipline which dominates men in the
mass, was strong enough to make them obey the order to rush through that
barrage of ours, that advancing wall of explosion and, if they lived
through it, to face our men in the open with massed machine-gun fire. So
they did; and as English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh battalions of our
assaulting divisions trudged forward over what had been No Man’s Land,
machine-gun bullets sprayed upon them, and they fell like grass to the
scythe. Line after line of men followed them, and each line crumpled,
and only small groups and single figures, seeking comradeship, hurried
forward. German machine-gunners were bayoneted as their thumbs were
still pressed to their triggers. In German front-line trenches at the
bottom of Thiepval Wood, outside Beaumont Hamel and on the edge of
Gommecourt Park, the field-gray men who came out of their dugouts fought
fiercely with stick-bombs and rifles, and our officers and men, in
places where they had strength enough, clubbed them to death, stuck them
with bayonets, and blew their brains out with revolvers at short range.
Then those English and Irish and Scottish troops, grievously weak
because of all the dead and wounded behind them, struggled through to
the second German line, from which there came a still fiercer rattle of
machine-gun and rifle-fire. Some of them broke through that line, too,
and went ahead in isolated parties across the wild crater land, over
chasms and ditches and fallen trees, toward the highest ground, which
had been their goal. Nothing was seen of them. They disappeared into
clouds of smoke and flame. Gunner observers saw rockets go up in far
places--our rockets--showing that outposts had penetrated into the
German lines. Runners came back--survivors of many predecessors who had
fallen on the way--with scribbled messages from company officers. One
came from the Essex and King’s Own of the 4th Division, at a place
called Pendant Copse, southeast of Serre. “For God’s sake send us
bombs.” It was impossible to send them bombs. No men could get to them
through the deep barrage of shell-fire which was between them and our
supporting troops. Many tried and died.

The Ulster men went forward toward Beaumont Hamel with a grim valor
which was reckless of their losses. Beaumont Hamel was a German
fortress. Machine-gun fire raked every yard of the Ulster way. Hundreds
of the Irish fell. I met hundreds of them wounded--tall, strong,
powerful men, from Queen’s Island and Belfast factories, and Tyneside
Irish and Tyneside Scots.

“They gave us no chance,” said one of them--a sergeant-major. “They just
murdered us.”

But bunches of them went right into the heart of the German positions,
and then found behind them crowds of Germans who had come up out of
their tunnels and flung bombs at them. Only a few came back alive in the
darkness.

Into Thiepval Wood men of ours smashed their way through the German
trenches, not counting those who fell, and killing any German who stood
in their way. Inside that wood of dead trees and charred branches they
reformed, astonished at the fewness of their numbers. Germans coming up
from holes in the earth attacked them, and they held firm and took two
hundred prisoners. Other Germans came closing in like wolves, in packs,
and to a German officer who said, “Surrender!” our men shouted, “No
surrender!” and fought in Thiepval Wood until most were dead and only a
few wounded crawled out to tell that tale.

The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the
worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break
through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the
London Rifle Brigade. The Rangers and the Queen Victoria Rifles--the
old “Vics “--formed their center. Their right was made up by the London
Scottish, and behind came the Queen’s Westminsters and the Kensingtons,
who were to advance through their comrades to a farther objective.
Across a wide No Man’s Land they suffered from the bursting of heavy
crumps, and many fell. But they escaped annihilation by machine-gun fire
and stormed through the upheaved earth into Gommecourt Park, killing
many Germans and sending back batches of prisoners. They had done what
they had been asked to do, and started building up barricades of earth
and sand-bags, and then found they were in a death-trap. There were no
troops on their right or left. They had thrust out into a salient, which
presently the enemy saw. The German gunners, with deadly skill, boxed it
round with shell-fire, so that the Londoners were inclosed by explosive
walls, and then very slowly and carefully drew a line of bursting shells
up and down, up and down that captured ground, ravaging its earth anew
and smashing the life that crouched there--London life.

I have written elsewhere (in The Battles of the Somme) how young
officers and small bodies of these London men held the barricades
against German attacks while others tried to break a way back through
that murderous shell-fire, and how groups of lads who set out on that
adventure to their old lines were shattered so that only a few from each
group crawled back alive, wounded or unwounded.

At the end of the day the Germans acted with chivalry, which I was not
allowed to tell at the time. The general of the London Division (Philip
Howell) told me that the enemy sent over a message by a low-flying
airplane, proposing a truce while the stretcher-bearers worked, and
offering the service of their own men in that work of mercy. This offer
was accepted without reference to G.H.Q., and German stretcher-bearers
helped to carry our wounded to a point where they could be reached.

Many, in spite of that, remained lying out in No Man’s Land, some for
three or four days and nights. I met one man who lay out there wounded,
with a group of comrades more badly hurt than he was, until July 6th.
At night he crawled over to the bodies of the dead and took their
water-bottles and “iron” rations, and so brought drink and food to his
stricken friends. Then at last he made his way through roving shells
to our lines and even then asked to lead the stretcher-bearers who
volunteered on a search-party for his “pals.”

“Physical courage was very common in the war,” said a friend of mine who
saw nothing of war. “It is proved that physical courage is the commonest
quality of mankind, as moral courage is the rarest.” But that soldier’s
courage was spiritual, and there were many like him in the battles of
the Somme and in other later battles as tragic as those.



IX


I have told how, before “The Big Push,” as we called the beginning of
these battles, little towns of tents were built under the sign of the
Red Cross. For a time they were inhabited only by medical officers,
nurses, and orderlies, busily getting ready for a sudden invasion,
and spending their surplus energy, which seemed inexhaustible, on the
decoration of their camps by chalk-lined paths, red crosses painted on
canvas or built up in red and white chalk on leveled earth, and flowers
planted outside the tents--all very pretty and picturesque in the
sunshine and the breezes over the valley of the Somme.

On the morning of battle the doctors, nurses, and orderlies waited for
their patients and said, “Now we shan’t be long!” They were merry and
bright with that wonderful cheerfulness which enabled them to face
the tragedy of mangled manhood without horror, and almost, it seemed,
without pity, because it was their work, and they were there to heal
what might be healed. It was with a rush that their first cases came,
and the M.O.’s whistled and said, “Ye gods! how many more?” Many more.
The tide did not slacken. It became a spate brought down by waves of
ambulances. Three thousand wounded came to Daours on the Somme, three
thousand to Corbie, thousands to Dernancourt, Heilly, Puchevillers,
Toutencourt, and many other “clearing stations.”

At Daours the tents were filled to overflowing, until there was no more
room. The wounded were laid down on the grass to wait their turn for
the surgeon’s knife. Some of them crawled over to haycocks and covered
themselves with hay and went to sleep, as I saw them sleeping there,
like dead men. Here and there shell-shocked boys sat weeping or moaning,
and shaking with an ague. Most of the wounded were quiet and did not
give any groan or moan. The lightly wounded sat in groups, telling their
adventures, cursing the German machine-gunners. Young officers spoke in
a different way, and with that sporting spirit which they had learned in
public schools praised their enemy.

“The machine-gunners are wonderful fellows--topping. Fight until they’re
killed. They gave us hell.”

Each man among those thousands of wounded had escaped death a dozen
times or more by the merest flukes of luck. It was this luck of theirs
which they hugged with a kind of laughing excitement.

“It’s a marvel I’m here! That shell burst all round me. Killed six of
my pals. I’ve got through with a blighty wound. No bones broken... God!
What luck!”

The death of other men did not grieve them. They could not waste this
sense of luck in pity. The escape of their own individuality, this
possession of life, was a glorious thought. They were alive! What luck!
What luck!

We called the hospital at Corbie the “Butcher’s Shop.” It was in a
pretty spot in that little town with a big church whose tall white
towers looked down a broad sweep of the Somme, so that for miles they
were a landmark behind the battlefields. Behind the lines during those
first battles, but later, in 1918, when the enemy came nearly to the
gates of Amiens, a stronghold of the Australians, who garrisoned it and
sniped pigeons for their pots off the top of the towers, and took no
great notice of “whizz-bangs” which broke through the roofs of cottages
and barns. It was a safe, snug place in July of ‘16, but that Butcher’s
Shop at a corner of the square was not a pretty spot. After a visit
there I had to wipe cold sweat from my forehead, and found myself
trembling in a queer way. It was the medical officer--a colonel--who
called it that name. “This is our Butcher’s Shop,” he said, cheerily.
“Come and have a look at my cases. They’re the worst possible; stomach
wounds, compound fractures, and all that. We lop off limbs here all day
long, and all night. You’ve no idea!”

I had no idea, but I did not wish to see its reality. The M.O. could not
understand my reluctance to see his show. He put it down to my desire to
save his time--and explained that he was going the rounds and would take
it as a favor if I would walk with him. I yielded weakly, and cursed
myself for not taking to flight. Yet, I argued, what men are brave
enough to suffer I ought to have the courage to see... I saw and
sickened.

These were the victims of “Victory” and the red fruit of war’s
harvest-fields. A new batch of “cases” had just arrived. More were
being brought in on stretchers. They were laid down in rows on the
floor-boards. The colonel bent down to some of them and drew their
blankets back, and now and then felt a man’s pulse. Most of them were
unconscious, breathing with the hard snuffle of dying men. Their skin
was already darkening to the death-tint, which is not white. They were
all plastered with a gray clay and this mud on their faces was, in some
cases, mixed with thick clots of blood, making a hard incrustation from
scalp to chin.

“That fellow won’t last long,” said the M. O., rising from a stretcher.
“Hardly a heart-beat left in him. Sure to die on the operating-table
if he gets as far as that... Step back against the wall a minute, will
you?”

We flattened ourselves against the passage wall while ambulance-men
brought in a line of stretchers. No sound came from most of those
bundles under the blankets, but from one came a long, agonizing wail,
the cry of an animal in torture.

“Come through the wards,” said the colonel. “They’re pretty bright,
though we could do with more space and light.”

In one long, narrow room there were about thirty beds, and in each bed
lay a young British soldier, or part of a young British soldier. There
was not much left of one of them. Both his legs had been amputated to
the thigh, and both his arms to the shoulder-blades.

“Remarkable man, that,” said the colonel. “Simply refuses to die. His
vitality is so tremendous that it is putting up a terrific fight against
mortality... There’s another case of the same kind; one leg gone and
the other going, and one arm. Deliberate refusal to give in. ‘You’re
not going to kill me, doctor,’ he said. ‘I’m going to stick it through.’
What spirit, eh?”

I spoke to that man. He was quite conscious, with bright eyes. His right
leg was uncovered, and supported on a board hung from the ceiling. Its
flesh was like that of a chicken badly carved-white, flabby, and in
tatters. He thought I was a surgeon, and spoke to me pleadingly:

“I guess you can save that leg, sir. It’s doing fine. I should hate to
lose it.”

I murmured something about a chance for it, and the M. O. broke in
cheerfully.

“You won’t lose it if I can help it. How’s your pulse? Oh, not bad. Keep
cheerful and we’ll pull you through.” The man smiled gallantly.

“Bound to come off,” said the doctor as we passed to another bed. “Gas
gangrene. That’s the thing that does us down.”

In bed after bed I saw men of ours, very young men, who had been lopped
of limbs a few hours ago or a few minutes, some of them unconscious,
some of them strangely and terribly conscious, with a look in their eyes
as though staring at the death which sat near to them, and edged nearer.

“Yes,” said the M. O., “they look bad, some of ‘em, but youth is on
their side. I dare say seventy-five per cent. will get through. If it
wasn’t for gas gangrene--”

He jerked his head to a boy sitting up in bed, smiling at the nurse who
felt his pulse.

“Looks fairly fit after the knife, doesn’t he? But we shall have to cut
higher up. The gas again. I’m afraid he’ll be dead before to-morrow.
Come into the operating-theater. It’s very well equipped.”

I refused that invitation. I walked stiffly out of the Butcher’s Shop
of Corbie past the man who had lost both arms and both legs, that vital
trunk, past rows of men lying under blankets, past a stench of mud and
blood and anesthetics, to the fresh air of the gateway, where a column
of ambulances had just arrived with a new harvest from the fields of the
Somme.

“Come in again, any time!” shouted out the cheery colonel, waving his
hand.

I never went again, though I saw many other Butcher’s Shops in the years
that followed, where there was a great carving of human flesh which
was of our boyhood, while the old men directed their sacrifice, and the
profiteers grew rich, and the fires of hate were stoked up at patriotic
banquets and in editorial chairs.



X


The failure on the left hardly balanced by the partial success on the
right caused a sudden pause in the operations, camouflaged by small
attacks on minor positions around and above Fricourt and Mametz. The
Lincolns and others went over to Fricourt Wood and routed out German
machine-gunners. The West Yorks attacked the sunken road at Fricourt.
The Dorsets, Manchesters, Highland Light Infantry, Lancashire Fusiliers,
and Borderers of the 32d Division were in possession of La Boisselle and
clearing out communication trenches to which the Germans were hanging
on with desperate valor. The 21st Division--Northumberland Fusiliers,
Durhams, Yorkshires-were making a flanking attack on Contalmaison,
but weakened after their heavy losses on the first day of battle. The
fighting for a time was local, in small copses--Lozenge Wood, Peak
Wood, Caterpillar Wood, Acid Drop Copse--where English and German troops
fought ferociously for yards of ground, hummocks of earth, ditches.

G. H. Q. had been shocked by the disaster on the left and the failure of
all the big hopes they had held for a break-through on both sides of
the German positions. Rumors came to us that the Commander-in-Chief had
decided to restrict future operations to minor actions for strengthening
the line and to abandon the great offensive. It was believed by officers
I met that Sir Henry Rawlinson was arguing, persuading, in favor of
continued assaults on the grand scale.

Whatever division of opinion existed in the High Command I do not know;
it was visible to all of us that for some days there were uncertainty
of direction, hesitation, conflicting orders. On July 7th the 17th
Division, under General Pilcher, attacked Contalmaison, and a whole
battalion of the Prussian Guard hurried up from Valenciennes and, thrown
on to the battlefield without maps or guidance, walked into the barrage
which covered the advance of our men and were almost annihilated. But
although some bodies of our men entered Contalmaison, in an attack which
I was able to see, they were smashed out of it again by storms of fire
followed by masses of men who poured out from Mametz Wood. The Welsh
were attacking Mametz Wood.

They were handled, as Marbot said of his men in a Napoleonic battle,
“like turnips.” Battalion commanders received orders in direct conflict
with one another. Bodies of Welshmen were advanced, and then retired,
and left to lie nakedly without cover, under dreadful fire. The 17th
Division, under General Pilcher, did not attack at the expected time.
There was no co-ordination of divisions; no knowledge among battalion
officers of the strategy or tactics of a battle in which their men were
involved.

“Goodness knows what’s happening,” said an officer I met near Mametz. He
had been waiting all night and half a day with a body of troops who had
expected to go forward, and were still hanging about under harassing
fire.

On July 9th Contalmaison was taken. I saw that attack very clearly, so
clearly that I could almost count the bricks in the old chateau set in
a little wood, and saw the left-hand tower knocked off by the direct
hit of a fifteen-inch shell. At four o’clock in the afternoon our guns
concentrated on the village, and under the cover of that fire our men
advanced on three sides of it, hemmed it in, and captured it with the
garrison of the 122d Bavarian Regiment, who had suffered the agonies of
hell inside its ruins. Now our men stayed in the ruins, and this time
German shells smashed into the chateau and the cottages and left nothing
but rubbish heaps of brick through which a few days later I went walking
with the smell of death in my nostrils. Our men were now being shelled
in that place.

Beyond La Boisselle, on the left of the Albert-Bapaume road, there had
been a village called Ovillers. It was no longer there. Our guns has
removed every trace of it, except as it lay in heaps of pounded brick.
The Germans had a network of trenches about it, and in their ditches and
their dugouts they fought like wolves. Our 12th Division was ordered
to drive them out--a division of English county troops, including the
Sussex, Essex, Bedfords, and Middlesex--and those country boys of ours
fought their way among communication trenches, burrowed into tunnels,
crouched below hummocks of earth and brick, and with bombs and bayonets
and broken rifles, and boulders of stone, and German stick-bombs, and
any weapon that would kill, gained yard by yard over the dead bodies
of the enemy, or by the capture of small batches of cornered men,
until after seventeen days of this one hundred and forty men of the
3rd Prussian Guard, the last of their garrison, without food or water,
raised a signal of surrender, and came out with their hands up. Ovillers
was a shambles, in a fight of primitive earth-men like human beasts. Yet
our men were not beast-like. They came out from those places--if they
had the luck to come out--apparently unchanged, without any mark of
the beast on them, and when they cleansed themselves of mud and filth,
boiled the lice out of their shirts, and assembled in a village street
behind the lines, they whistled, laughed, gossiped, as though nothing
had happened to their souls--though something had really happened, as
now we know.

It was not until July 14th that our High Command ordered another general
attack after the local fighting which had been in progress since the
first day of battle. Our field-batteries, and some of our “heavies,” had
moved forward to places like Montauban and Contalmaison--where German
shells came searching for them all day long--and new divisions had been
brought up to relieve some of the men who had been fighting so hard and
so long. It was to be an attack on the second German line of defense on
the ridges by the village of Bazentin le Grand and Bazentin le Petit to
Longueval on the right and Delville Wood. I went up in the night to see
the bombardment and the beginning of the battle and the swirl of its
backwash, and I remember now the darkness of villages behind the
lines through which our cars crawled, until we reached the edge of the
battlefields and saw the sky rent by incessant flames of gun-fire, while
red tongues of flames leaped up from burning villages. Longueval was
on fire, and the two Bazentins, and another belt of land in France, so
beautiful to see, even as I had seen it first between the sand-bags of
our parapets, was being delivered to the charcoal-burners.

I have described that night scene elsewhere, in all its deviltry, but
one picture which I passed on the way to the battlefield could not then
be told. Yet it was significant of the mentality of our High Command, as
was afterward pointed out derisively by Sixte von Arnim. It proved the
strange unreasoning optimism which still lingered in the breasts of
old-fashioned generals in spite of what had happened on the left on the
first day of July, and their study of trench maps, and their knowledge
of German machine-guns. By an old mill-house called the Moulin Vivier,
outside the village of Meaulte, were masses of cavalry--Indian cavalry
and Dragoons--drawn up densely to leave a narrow passageway for
field-guns and horse-transport moving through the village, which was
in utter darkness. The Indians sat like statues on their horses,
motionless, dead silent. Now and again there was a jangle of bits. Here
and there a British soldier lit a cigarette and for a second the little
flame of his match revealed a bronzed face or glinted on steel helmets.

Cavalry!... So even now there was a serious purpose behind the joke of
English soldiers who had gone forward on the first day, shouting, “This
way to the gap!” and in the conversation of some of those who actually
did ride through Bazentin that day.

A troop or two made their way over the cratered ground and skirted
Delville Wood; the Dragoon Guards charged a machine-gun in a cornfield,
and killed the gunners. Germans rounded up by them clung to their
stirrup leathers crying: “Pity! Pity!” The Indians lowered their lances,
but took prisoners to show their chivalry. But it was nothing more than
a beau geste. It was as futile and absurd as Don Quixote’s charge of the
windmill. They were brought to a dead halt by the nature of the ground
and machine-gun fire which killed their horses, and lay out that night
with German shells searching for their bodies.

One of the most disappointed men in the army was on General Haldane’s
staff. He was an old cavalry officer, and this major of the old, old
school (belonging in spirit to the time of Charles Lever) was excited
by the thought that there was to be a cavalry adventure. He was one of
those who swore that if he had his chance he would “ride into the blue.”
 It was the chance he wanted and he nursed his way to it by delicate
attentions to General Haldane. The general’s bed was not so comfortable
as his. He changed places. He even went so far as to put a bunch of
flowers on the general’s table in his dugout.

“You seem very attentive to me, major,” said the general, smelling a
rat.

Then the major blurted out his desire. Could he lead a squadron round
Delville Wood? Could he take that ride into the blue? He would give his
soul to do it.

“Get on with your job,” said General Haldane.

That ride into the blue did not encourage the cavalry to the belief
that they would be of real value in a warfare of trench lines and barbed
wire, but for a long time later they were kept moving backward and
forward between the edge of the battlefields and the back areas, to the
great incumbrance of the roads, until they were “guyed” by the infantry,
and irritable, so their officers told me, to the verge of mutiny. Their
irritability was cured by dismounting them for a turn in the trenches,
and I came across the Household Cavalry digging by the Coniston Steps,
this side of Thiepval, and cursing their spade-work.

In this book I will not tell again the narrative of that, fighting in
the summer and autumn of 1916, which I have written with many details
of each day’s scene in my collected despatches called The Battles of
the Somme. There is little that I can add to those word-pictures which
I wrote day by day, after haunting experiences amid the ruin of those
fields, except a summing-up of their effect upon the mentality of our
men, and upon the Germans who were in the same “blood-bath,” as they
called it, and a closer analysis of the direction and mechanism of our
military machine.

Looking back upon those battles in the light of knowledge gained in
the years that followed, it seems clear that our High Command was too
prodigal in its expenditure of life in small sectional battles, and that
the army corps and divisional staffs had not established an efficient
system of communication with the fighting units under their control. It
seemed to an outsider like myself that a number of separate battles were
being fought without reference to one another in different parts of
the field. It seemed as though our generals, after conferring with one
another over telephones, said, “All right, tell So-and-so to have a
go at Thiepval,” or, “To-day we will send such-and-such a division to
capture Delville Wood,” or, “We must get that line of trenches outside
Bazentin.” Orders were drawn up on the basis of that decision and passed
down to brigades, who read them as their sentence of death, and obeyed
with or without protest, and sent three or four battalions to assault
a place which was covered by German batteries round an arc of twenty
miles, ready to open out a tempest of fire directly a rocket rose from
their infantry, and to tear up the woods and earth in that neighborhood
if our men gained ground. If the whole battle-line moved forward the
German fire would have been dispersed, but in these separate attacks on
places like Trones Wood and Delville Wood, and later on High Wood, it
was a vast concentration of explosives which plowed up our men.

So it was that Delville Wood was captured and lost several times and
became “Devil’s” Wood to men who lay there under the crash and fury of
massed gun-fire until a wretched remnant of what had been a glorious
brigade of youth crawled out stricken and bleeding when relieved by
another brigade ordered to take their turn in that devil’s caldron,
or to recapture it when German bombing-parties and machine-gunners had
followed in the wake of fire, and had crouched again among the fallen
trees, and in the shell-craters and ditches, with our dead and their
dead to keep them company. In Delville Wood the South African Brigade
of the 9th Division was cut to pieces, and I saw the survivors come out
with few officers to lead them.

In Trones Wood, in Bernafay Wood, in Mametz Wood, there had been great
slaughter of English troops and Welsh. The 18th Division and the 38th
suffered horribly. In Delville Wood many battalions were slashed to
pieces before these South Africans. And after that came High Wood.. .
All that was left of High Wood in the autumn of 1916 was a thin row of
branchless trees, but in July and August there were still glades
under heavy foliage, until the branches were lopped off and the leaves
scattered by our incessant fire. It was an important position, vital for
the enemy’s defense, and our attack on the right flank of the Pozieres
Ridge, above Bazentin and Delville Wood, giving on the reverse slope a
fine observation of the enemy’s lines above Martinpuich and Courcellette
away to Bapaume. For that reason the Germans were ordered to hold it at
all costs, and many German batteries had registered on it to blast our
men out if they gained a foothold on our side of the slope or theirs.

So High Wood became another hell, on a day of great battle--September
14, 1916--when for the first time tanks were used, demoralizing the
enemy in certain places, though they were too few in number to strike
a paralyzing blow. The Londoners gained part of High Wood at frightful
cost and then were blown out of it. Other divisions followed them and
found the wood stuffed with machine-guns which they had to capture
through hurricanes of bullets before they crouched in craters amid dead
Germans and dead English, and then were blown out like the Londoners,
under shell-fire, in which no human life could stay for long.

The 7th Division was cut up there. The 33d Division lost six thousand
men in an advance against uncut wire in the wood, which they were told
was already captured.

Hundreds of men were vomiting from the effect of gas-shells, choking and
blinded. Behind, the transport wagons and horses were smashed to bits.

The divisional staffs were often ignorant of what was happening to
the fighting-men when the attack was launched. Light signals, rockets,
heliographing, were of small avail through the dust--and smoke-clouds.
Forward observing officers crouching behind parapets, as I often saw
them, and sometimes stood with them, watched fires burning, red rockets
and green, gusts of flame, and bursting shells, and were doubtful what
to make of it all. Telephone wires trailed across the ground for miles,
were cut into short lengths by shrapnel and high explosive. Accidents
happened as part of the inevitable blunders of war. It was all a vast
tangle and complexity of strife.

On July 17th I stood in a tent by a staff-officer who was directing a
group of heavy guns supporting the 3d Division. He was tired, as I
could see by the black lines under his eyes and tightly drawn lips. On a
camp-table in front of him, upon which he leaned his elbows, there was a
telephone apparatus, and the little bell kept ringing as we talked. Now
and then a shell burst in the field outside the tent, and he raised his
head and said: “They keep crumping about here. Hope they won’t tear this
tent to ribbons....That sounds like a gas-shell.”

Then he turned to the telephone again and listened to some voice
speaking.

“Yes, I can hear you. Yes, go on. ‘Our men seen leaving High Wood.’ Yes.
‘Shelled by our artillery.’ Are you sure of that? I say, are you sure
they were our men? Another message. Well, carry on. ‘Men digging on road
from High Wood southeast to Longueval.’ Yes, I’ve got that. ‘They are
our men and not Boches.’ Oh, hell!... Get off the line. Get off the
line, can’t you?... ‘Our men and not Boches.’ Yes, I have that. ‘Heavily
shelled by our guns.’”

The staff-officer tapped on the table with a lead-pencil a tattoo, while
his forehead puckered. Then he spoke into the telephone again.

“Are you there, ‘Heavies’?... Well, don’t disturb those fellows for half
an hour. After that I will give you new orders. Try and confirm if they
are our men.”

He rang off and turned to me.

“That’s the trouble. Looks as if we had been pounding our own men like
hell. Some damn fool reports ‘Boches.’ Gives the reference number. Asks
for the ‘Heavies’. Then some other fellow says: ‘Not Boches. For God’s
sake cease fire!’ How is one to tell?”

I could not answer that question, but I hated the idea of our men sent
forward to capture a road or a trench or a wood and then “pounded” by
our guns. They had enough pounding from the enemy’s guns. There seemed a
missing link in the system somewhere. Probably it was quite inevitable.

Over and over again the wounded swore to God that they had been shelled
by our own guns. The Londoners said so from High Wood. The Australians
said so from Mouquet Farm. The Scots said so from Longueval! They said:
“Why the hell do we get murdered by British gunners? What’s the good of
fighting if we’re slaughtered by our own side?”

In some cases they were mistaken. It was enfilade fire from German
batteries. But often it happened according to the way of that telephone
conversation in the tent by Bronfay Farm.

The difference between British soldiers and German soldiers crawling
over shell-craters or crouching below the banks of a sunken road was no
more than the difference between two tribes of ants. Our flying scouts,
however low they flew, risking the Archies and machine-gun bullets,
often mistook khaki for field gray, and came back with false reports
which led to tragedy.



XI


People who read my war despatches will remember my first descriptions of
the tanks and those of other correspondents. They caused a sensation,
a sense of excitement, laughter which shook the nation because of the
comicality, the grotesque surprise, the possibility of quicker victory,
which caught hold of the imagination of people who heard for the first
time of those new engines of war, so beast-like in appearance
and performance. The vagueness of our descriptions was due to the
censorship, which forbade, wisely enough, any technical and exact
definition, so that we had to compare them to giant toads, mammoths, and
prehistoric animals of all kinds. Our accounts did, however, reproduce
the psychological effect of the tanks upon the British troops when
these engines appeared for the first time to their astonished gaze on
September 13th. Our soldiers roared with laughter, as I did, when they
saw them lolloping up the roads. On the morning of the great battle of
September 15th the presence of the tanks going into action excited all
the troops along the front with a sense of comical relief in the midst
of the grim and deadly business of attack. Men followed them, laughing
and cheering. There was a wonderful thrill in the airman’s message,
“Tank walking up the High Street of Flers with the British army cheering
behind.” Wounded boys whom I met that morning grinned in spite of their
wounds at our first word about the tanks. “Crikey!” said a cockney lad
of the 47th Division. “I can’t help laughing every time I think of them
tanks. I saw them stamping down German machine-guns as though they were
wasps’ nests.” The adventures of Creme de Menthe, Cordon Rouge, and the
Byng Boys, on both sides of the Bapaume road, when they smashed down
barbed wire, climbed over trenches, sat on German redoubts, and received
the surrender of German prisoners who held their hands up to these
monsters and cried, “Kamerad!” were like fairy-tales of war by H. G.
Wells.

Yet their romance had a sharp edge of reality as I saw in those battles
of the Somme, and afterward, more grievously, in the Cambrai salient
and Flanders, when the tanks were put out of action by direct hits of
field-guns and nothing of humankind remained in them but the charred
bones of their gallant crews.

Before the battle in September of ‘16 I talked with the pilots of the
first tanks, and although they were convinced of the value of these new
engines of war and were out to prove it, they did not disguise from
me nor from their own souls that they were going forth upon a perilous
adventure with the odds of luck against them. I remember one young
pilot--a tiny fellow like a jockey, who took me on one side and said, “I
want you to do me a favor,” and then scribbled down his mother’s address
and asked me to write to her if “anything” happened to him.

He and other tank officers were anxious. They had not complete
confidence in the steering and control of their engines. It was a
difficult and clumsy kind of gear, which was apt to break down at a
critical moment, as I saw when I rode in one on their field of maneuver.
These first tanks were only experimental, and the tail arrangement was
very weak. Worse than all mechanical troubles was the short-sighted
policy of some authority at G.H.Q., who had insisted upon A.S.C. drivers
being put to this job a few days before the battle, without proper
training.

“It is mad and murderous,” said one of the officers, “These fellows
may have pluck, all right--I don’t doubt it--but they don’t know their
engines, nor the double steering trick, and they have never been under
shell-fire. It is asking for trouble.”

As it turned out, the A.S.C. drivers proved their pluck, for the most
part, splendidly, but many tanks broke down before they reached the
enemy’s lines, and in that action and later battles there were times
when they bitterly disappointed the infantry commanders and the troops.

Individual tanks, commanded by gallant young officers and served by
brave crews, did astounding feats, and some of these men came back dazed
and deaf and dumb, after forty hours or more of fighting and maneuvering
within steel walls, intensely hot, filled with the fumes of their
engines, jolted and banged about over rough ground, and steering an
uncertain course, after the loss of their “tails,” which had snapped at
the spine. But there had not been anything like enough tanks to secure
an annihilating surprise over the enemy as afterward was attained in the
first battle of Cambrai; and the troops who had been buoyed up with the
hope that at last the machine--gun evil was going to be scotched were
disillusioned and dejected when they saw tanks ditched behind the lines
or nowhere in sight when once again they had to trudge forward under the
flail of machine-gun bullets from earthwork redoubts. It was a
failure in generalship to give away our secret before it could be made
effective.

I remember sitting in a mess of the Gordons in the village of
Franvillers along the Albert road, and listening to a long monologue
by a Gordon officer on the future of the tanks. He was a dreamer and
visionary, and his fellow-officers laughed at him.

“A few tanks are no good,” he said. “Forty or fifty tanks are no good on
a modern battle-front. We want hundreds of tanks, brought up secretly,
fed with ammunition by tank carriers, bringing up field-guns and going
into action without any preliminary barrage. They can smash through the
enemy’s wire and get over his trenches before he is aware that an
attack has been organized. Up to now all our offensives have been futile
because of our preliminary advertisement by prolonged bombardment.
The tanks can bring back surprise to modern warfare, but we must have
hundreds of them.”

Prolonged laughter greeted this speech. But the Celtic dreamer did
not smile. He was staring into the future... And what he saw was true,
though he did not live to see it, for in the Cambrai battle of November
11th the tanks did advance in hundreds, and gained an enormous surprise
over the enemy, and led the way to a striking victory, which turned to
tragedy because of risks too lightly taken.



XII


One branch of our military machine developed with astonishing rapidity
and skill during those Somme battles. The young gentlemen of the Air
Force went “all out” for victory, and were reckless in audacity. How
far they acted under orders and against their own judgment of what was
sensible and sound in fighting-risks I do not know. General Trenchard,
their supreme chief, believed in an aggressive policy at all costs, and
was a Napoleon in this war of the skies, intolerant of timidity, not
squeamish of heavy losses if the balance were tipped against the enemy.
Some young flying-men complained to me bitterly that they were expected
to fly or die over the German lines, whatever the weather or whatever
the risks. Many of them, after repeated escapes from anti-aircraft
shells and hostile craft, lost their nerve, shirked another journey,
found themselves crying in their tents, and were sent back home for
a spell by squadron commanders, with quick observation for the
breaking-point; or made a few more flights and fell to earth like broken
birds.

Sooner or later, apart from rare cases, every man was found to lose his
nerve, unless he lost his life first. That was a physical and mental
law. But until that time these flying-men were the knights-errant of the
war, and most of them did not need any driving to the risks they took
with boyish recklessness.

They were mostly boys--babes, as they seemed to me, when I saw them
in their tents or dismounting from their machines. On “dud” days,
when there was no visibility at all, they spent their leisure hours
joy-riding to Amiens or some other town where they could have a “binge.”
 They drank many cocktails and roared with laughter over, bottles of
cheap champagne, and flirted with any girl who happened to come within
their orbit. If not allowed beyond their tents, they sulked like baby
Achilles, reading novelettes, with their knees hunched up, playing the
gramophone, and ragging each other.

There was one child so young that his squadron leader would not let
him go out across the battle-lines to challenge any German scout in the
clouds or do any of the fancy “stunts” that were part of the next
day’s program. He went to bed sulkily, and then came back again, in his
pajamas, with rumpled hair.

“Look here, sir,” he said. “Can’t I go? I’ve got my wings. It’s
perfectly rotten being left behind.”

The squadron commander, who told me of the tale, yielded.

“All right. Only don’t do any fool tricks.”

Next morning the boy flew off, played a lone hand, chased a German
scout, dropped low over the enemy’s lines, machine-gunned infantry on
the march, scattered them, bombed a train, chased a German motor-car,
and after many adventures came back alive and said, “I’ve had a rare old
time!”

On a stormy day, which loosened the tent poles and slapped the wet
canvas, I sat in a mess with a group of flying-officers, drinking tea
out of a tin mug. One boy, the youngest of them, had just brought down
his first “Hun.” He told me the tale of it with many details, his eyes
alight as he described the fight. They had maneuvered round each other
for a long time. Then he shot his man en passant. The machine crashed on
our side of the lines. He had taken off the iron crosses on the wings,
and a bit of the propeller, as mementoes. He showed me these things
(while the squadron commander, who had brought down twenty-four Germans,
winked at me) and told me he was going to send them home to hang beside
his college trophies... I guessed he was less than nineteen years old.
Such a kid!... A few days later, when I went to the tent again, I
asked about him. “How’s that boy who brought down his first ‘Hun’?” The
squadron commander said:

“Didn’t you hear? He’s gone west. Brought down in a dog-fight. He had a
chance of escape, but went back to rescue a pal... a nice boy.”

They became fatalists after a few fights, and believed in their luck, or
their mascots--teddy-bears, a bullet that had missed them, china dolls,
a girl’s lock of hair, a silver ring. Yet at the back of their brains,
most Of them, I fancy, knew that it was only a question of time before
they “went west,” and with that subconscious thought they crowded in all
life intensely in the hours that were given to them, seized all chance
of laughter, of wine, of every kind of pleasure within reach, and said
their prayers (some of them) with great fervor, between one escape and
another, like young Paul Bensher, who has revealed his soul in verse,
his secret terror, his tears, his hatred of death, his love of life,
when he went bombing over Bruges.

On the mornings of the battles of the Somme I saw them as the heralds of
a new day of strife flying toward the lines in the first light of dawn.
When the sun rose its rays touched their wings, made them white like
cabbage butterflies, or changed them to silver, all a sparkle. I saw
them fly over the German positions, not changing their course. Then all
about them burst black puffs of German shrapnel, so that many times
I held my breath because they seemed in the center of the burst. But
generally when the cloud cleared they were flying again, until they
disappeared in the mists over the enemy’s country. There they did deadly
work, in single fights with German airmen, or against great odds,
until they had an air space to themselves and skimmed the earth like
albatrosses in low flight, attacking machine-gun nests, killing or
scattering the gunners by a burst of bullets from their Lewis guns,
dropping bombs on German wagon transports, infantry, railway trains
(one man cut a train in half and saw men and horses falling out), and
ammunition--dumps, directing the fire of our guns upon living targets,
photographing new trenches and works, bombing villages crowded with
German troops. That they struck terror into these German troops was
proved afterward when we went into Bapaume and Peronne and many
villages from which the enemy retreated after the battles of the Somme.
Everywhere there were signboards on which was written “Flieger Schutz!”
 (aircraft shelter) or German warnings of: “Keep to the sidewalks. This
road is constantly bombed by British airmen.”

They were a new plague of war, and did for a time gain a complete
mastery of the air. But later the Germans learned the lesson of low
flying and night bombing, and in 1917 and 1918 came back in greater
strength and made the nights horrible in camps behind the lines and in
villages, where they killed many soldiers and more civilians.

The infantry did not believe much in our air supremacy at any time, not
knowing what work was done beyond their range of vision, and seeing
our machines crashed in No Man’s Land, and hearing the rattle of
machine-guns from hostile aircraft above their own trenches.

“Those aviators of ours,” a general said to me, “are the biggest liars
in the world. Cocky fellows claiming impossible achievements. What proof
can they give of their preposterous tales? They only go into the air
service because they haven’t the pluck to serve in the infantry.”

That was prejudice. The German losses were proof enough of our men’s
fighting skill and strength, and German prisoners and German letters
confirmed all their claims. But we were dishonest in our reckoning from
first to last, and the British public was hoodwinked about our losses.
“Three of our machines are missing.” “Six of our machines are missing.”
 Yes, but what about the machines which crashed in No Man’s Land and
behind our lines? They were not missing, but destroyed, and the boys who
had flown in them were dead or broken.

To the end of the war those aviators of ours searched the air for their
adventures, fought often against overwhelming numbers, killed the German
champions in single combat or in tourneys in the sky, and let down tons
of high explosives which caused great death and widespread destruction;
and in this work they died like flies, and one boy’s life--one of those
laughing, fatalistic, intensely living boys--was of no more account in
the general sum of slaughter than a summer midge, except as one little
unit in the Armies of the Air.



XIII


I am not strong enough in the science of psychology to understand the
origin of laughter and to get into touch with the mainsprings of gaiety.
The sharp contrast between normal ethics and an abnormality of action
provides a grotesque point of view arousing ironical mirth. It is
probable also that surroundings of enormous tragedy stimulate the sense
of humor of the individual, so that any small, ridiculous thing assumes
the proportion of monstrous absurdity. It is also likely--certain, I
think--that laughter is an escape from terror, a liberation of the soul
by mental explosion, from the prison walls of despair and brooding.
In the Decameron of Boccaccio a group of men and women encompassed by
plague retired into seclusion to tell one another mirthful immoralities
which stirred their laughter. They laughed while the plague destroyed
society around them and when they knew that its foul germs were on
the prowl for their own bodies... So it was in this war, where in many
strange places and in many dreadful days there was great laughter. I
think sometimes of a night I spent with the medical officers of a tent
hospital in the fields of the Somme during those battles. With me as a
guest went a modern Falstaff, a “ton of flesh,” who “sweats to death and
lards the lean earth as he walks along.”

He was a man of many anecdotes, drawn from the sinks and stews of life,
yet with a sense of beauty lurking under his coarseness, and a voice of
fine, sonorous tone, which he managed with art and a melting grace.

On the way to the field hospital he had taken more than one nip of
whisky. His voice was well oiled when he sang a greeting to a medical
major in a florid burst of melody from Italian opera. The major was a
little Irish medico who had been through the South African War and in
tropical places, where he had drunk fire-water to kill all manner of
microbes. He suffered abominably from asthma and had had a heart-seizure
the day before our dinner at his mess, and told us that he would drop
down dead as sure as fate between one operation and another on “the
poor, bloody wounded” who never ceased to flow into his tent. But he was
in a laughing mood, and thirsty for laughter-making liquid. He had two
whiskies before the dinner began to wet his whistle. His fellow-officers
were out for an evening’s joy, but nervous of the colonel, an austere
soul who sat at the head of the mess with the look of a man afraid that
merriment might reach outrageous heights beyond his control. A courteous
man he was, and rather sad. His presence for a time acted as a restraint
upon the company, until all restraint was broken by the Falstaff with
me, who told soul-crashing stories to the little Irish major across the
table and sang love lyrics to the orderly who brought round the cottage
pie and pickles. There was a tall, thin young surgeon who had been
carving up living bodies all day and many days, and now listened to that
fat rogue with an intensity of delight that lit up his melancholy eyes,
watching him gravely between gusts of deep laughter, which seemed to
come from his boots. There was another young surgeon, once of Barts’,
who made himself the cup-server of the fat knight and kept his wine at
the brim, and encouraged him to fresh audacities of anecdotry, with
a humorous glance at the colonel’s troubled face... The colonel was
forgotten after dinner. The little Irish major took the lid off the
boiling pot of mirth. He was entirely mad, as he assured us, between
dances of a wild and primitive type, stories of adventure in far lands,
and spasms of asthmatic coughing, when he beat his breast and said, “A
pox in my bleeding heart!”

Falstaff was playing Juliet to the Romeo of the tall young surgeon,
singing falsetto like a fat German angel dressed in loose-fitting khaki,
with his belt undone. There were charades in the tent. The boy from
Barts’ did remarkable imitations of a gamecock challenging a rival bird,
of a cow coming through a gate, of a general addressing his troops
(most comical of all). Several glasses were broken. The corkscrew was
disregarded as a useless implement, and whisky-bottles were decapitated
against the tent poles. I remember vaguely the crowning episode of the
evening when the little major was dancing the Irish jig with a kitchen
chair; when Falstaff was singing the Prologue of Pagliacci to the
stupefied colonel; when the boy, once of Barts’, was roaring like a lion
under the mess table, and when the tall, melancholy surgeon was at the
top of the tent pole, scratching himself like a gorilla in his native
haunts... Outside, the field hospital was quiet, under a fleecy sky
with a crescent moon. Through the painted canvas of the tent city
candle-light glowed with a faint rose-colored light, and the Red Cross
hung limp above the camp where many wounded lay, waking or sleeping,
tossing in agony, dying in unconsciousness. Far away over the fields,
rockets were rising above the battle-lines. The sky was flickering with
the flush of gun-fire. A red glare rose and spread below the clouds
where some ammunition-dump had been exploded... Old Falstaff fell asleep
in the car on the way back to our quarters, and I smiled at the memory
of great laughter in the midst of tragedy.



XIV


The struggle of men from one low ridge to another low ridge in a
territory forty miles wide by more than twenty miles deep, during five
months of fighting, was enormous in its intensity and prolongation of
slaughter, wounding, and endurance of all hardships and terrors of war.
As an eye-witness I saw the full scope of the bloody drama. I saw day by
day the tidal waves of wounded limping back, until two hundred and fifty
thousand men had passed through our casualty clearing stations, and
then were not finished. I went among these men when the blood was wet
on them, and talked with hundreds of them, and heard their individual
narratives of escapes from death until my imagination was saturated
with the spirit of their conflict of body and soul. I saw a green, downy
countryside, beautiful in its summer life, ravaged by gun-fire so that
the white chalk of its subsoil was flung above the earth and grass in a
wide, sterile stretch of desolation pitted with shell-craters, ditched
by deep trenches, whose walls were hideously upheaved by explosive fire,
and littered yard after yard, mile after mile, with broken wire, rifles,
bombs, unexploded shells, rags of uniform, dead bodies, or bits of
bodies, and all the filth of battle. I saw many villages flung into ruin
or blown clean off the map. I walked into such villages as Contalmaison,
Martinpuich, Le Sars, Thilloy, and at last Bapaume, when a smell of
burning and the fumes of explosives and the stench of dead flesh rose up
to one’s nostrils and one’s very soul, when our dead and German dead lay
about, and newly wounded came walking through the ruins or were carried
shoulder high on stretchers, and consciously and subconsciously the
living, unwounded men who went through these places knew that death
lurked about them and around them and above them, and at any second
might make its pounce upon their own flesh. I saw our men going into
battle with strong battalions and coming out of it with weak battalions.
I saw them in the midst of battle at Thiepval, at Contalmaison, at
Guillemont, by Loupart Wood, when they trudged toward lines of German
trenches, bunching a little in groups, dodging shell-bursts, falling in
single figures or in batches, and fighting over the enemy’s parapets. I
sat with them in their dugouts before battle and after battle, saw their
bodies gathered up for burial, heard their snuffle of death in hospital,
sat by their bedside when they were sorely wounded. So the full tragic
drama of that long conflict on the Somme was burned into my brain and
I was, as it were, a part of it, and I am still seared with its
remembrance, and shall always be.

But however deep the knowledge of tragedy, a man would be a liar if he
refused to admit the heroism, the gallantry of youth, even the gaiety of
men in these infernal months. Psychology on the Somme was not simple
and straightforward. Men were afraid, but fear was not their dominating
emotion, except in the worst hours. Men hated this fighting, but found
excitement in it, often exultation, sometimes an intense stimulus of
all their senses and passions before reaction and exhaustion. Men became
jibbering idiots with shell-shock, as I saw some of them, but others
rejoiced when they saw our shells plowing into the enemy’s earthworks,
laughed at their own narrow escapes and at grotesque comicalities of
this monstrous deviltry. The officers were proud of their men, eager
for their honor and achievement. The men themselves were in rivalry
with other bodies of troops, and proud of their own prowess. They were
scornful of all that the enemy might do to them, yet acknowledged his
courage and power. They were quick to kill him, yet quick also to give
him a chance of life by surrender, and after that were--nine times
out of ten--chivalrous and kindly, but incredibly brutal on the rare
occasions when passion overcame them at some tale of treachery. They had
the pride of the skilled laborer in his own craft, as machine-gunners,
bombers, raiders, trench-mortar--men, and were keen to show their skill,
whatever the risks. They were healthy animals, with animal courage as
well as animal fear, and they had, some of them, a spiritual and moral
fervor which bade them risk death to save a comrade, or to save a
position, or to kill the fear that tried to fetter them, or to lead men
with greater fear than theirs. They lived from hour to hour and forgot
the peril or the misery that had passed, and did not forestall the
future by apprehension unless they were of sensitive mind, with the
worst quality men might have in modern warfare--imagination.

They trained themselves to an intense egotism within narrow boundaries.
Fifty yards to the left, or five hundred, men were being pounded to
death by shell-fire. Fifty yards to the right, or five hundred, men
were being mowed down by machine-gun fire. For the time being their
particular patch was quiet. It was their luck. Why worry about the other
fellow? The length of a traverse in a ditch called a trench might make
all the difference between heaven and hell. Dead bodies were being piled
up on one side of the traverse. A shell had smashed into the platoon
next door. There was a nasty mess. Men sat under their own mud-bank and
scooped out a tin of bully beef and hoped nothing would scoop them
out of their bit of earth. This protective egotism seemed to me the
instinctive soul-armor of men in dangerous places when I saw them in the
line. In a little way, not as a soldier, but as a correspondent, taking
only a thousandth part of the risks of fighting-men, I found myself
using this self-complacency. They were strafing on the left. Shells were
pitching on the right. Very nasty for the men in either of those places.
Poor devils! But meanwhile I was on a safe patch, it seemed. Thank
Heaven for that!

“Here,” said an elderly officer--one of those rare exalted souls who
thought that death was a little thing to give for one’s country’s
sake--“here we may be killed at any moment!”

He spoke the words in Contalmaison with a glow in his voice, as though
announcing glad tidings to a friend who was a war artist camouflaged as
a lieutenant and new to the scene of battle.

“But,” said the soldier-artist, adjusting his steel hat nervously, “I
don’t want to be killed! I hate the idea of it!”

He was the normal man. The elderly officer was abnormal. The normal man,
soldier without camouflage, had no use for death at all, unless it was
in connection with the fellow on the opposite side of the way. He hated
the notion of it applied to himself. He fought ferociously, desperately,
heroically, to escape it. Yet there were times, many times, when he
paid not the slightest attention to the near neighborhood of that grisly
specter, because in immediate, temporary tranquillity he thrust the
thought from his mind, and smoked a cigarette, and exchanged a joke
with the fellow at his elbow. There were other times when, in a state of
mental exaltation, or spiritual self-sacrifice, or physical excitement,
he acted regardless of all risks and did mad, marvelous, almost
miraculous things, hardly conscious of his own acts, but impelled to do
as he did by the passion within him--passion of love, passion of hate,
passion of fear, or passion of pride. Those men, moved like that, were
the leaders, the heroes, and groups followed them sometimes because of
their intensity of purpose and the infection of their emotion, and
the comfort that came from their real or apparent self-confidence in
frightful situations. Those who got through were astonished at their
own courage. Many of them became convinced consciously or subconsciously
that they were immune from shells and bullets. They walked through
harassing fire with a queer sense of carelessness. They had escaped so
often that some of them had a kind of disdain of shell-bursts, until,
perhaps, one day something snapped in their nervous system, as often it
did, and the bang of a door in a billet behind the lines, or a wreath of
smoke from some domestic chimney, gave them a sudden shock of fear. Men
differed wonderfully in their nerve-resistance, and it was no question
of difference in courage.

In the mass all our soldiers seemed equally brave. In the mass they
seemed astoundingly cheerful. In spite of all the abomination of that
Somme fighting our troops before battle and after battle--a few days
after--looked bright-eyed, free from haunting anxieties, and were easy
in their way of laughter. It was optimism in the mass, heroism in the
mass. It was only when one spoke to the individual, some friend who
bared his soul a second, or some soldier-ant in the multitude, with whom
one talked with truth, that one saw the hatred of a man for his job,
the sense of doom upon him, the weakness that was in his strength, the
bitterness of his grudge against a fate that forced him to go on in
this way of life, the remembrance of a life more beautiful which he
had abandoned--all mingled with those other qualities of pride and
comradeship, and that illogical sense of humor which made up the strange
complexity of his psychology.



XV


It was a colonel of the North Staffordshires who revealed to me the
astounding belief that he was “immune” from shell-fire, and I met
other men afterward with the same conviction. He had just come out of
desperate fighting in the neighborhood of Thiepval, where his battalion
had suffered heavily, and at first he was rude and sullen in the hut.
I gaged him as a hard Northerner, without a shred of sentiment or the
flicker of any imaginative light; a stern, ruthless man. He was bitter
in his speech to me because the North Staffords were never mentioned in
my despatches. He believed that this was due to some personal spite--not
knowing the injustice of our military censorship under the orders of
G.H.Q.

“Why the hell don’t we get a word?” he asked. “Haven’t we done as well
as anybody, died as much?”

I promised to do what I could--which was nothing--to put the matter
right, and presently he softened, and, later was amazingly candid in
self-revelation.

“I have a mystical power,” he said. “Nothing will ever hit me as long as
I keep that power which comes from faith. It is a question of absolute
belief in the domination of mind over matter. I go through any barrage
unscathed because my will is strong enough to turn aside explosive
shells and machine-gun bullets. As matter they must obey my
intelligence. They are powerless to resist the mind of a man in touch
with the Universal Spirit, as I am.”

He spoke quietly and soberly, in a matter-of-fact way. I decided that he
was mad. That was not surprising. We were all mad, in one way or another
or at one time or another. It was the unusual form of madness that
astonished me. I envied him his particular “kink.” I wished I could
cultivate it, as an aid to courage. He claimed another peculiar form of
knowledge. He knew before each action, he told me, what officers and men
of his would be killed in battle. He looked at a man’s eyes and knew,
and he claimed that he never made a mistake... He was sorry to possess
that second sight, and it worried him.

There were many men who had a conviction that they would not be killed,
although they did not state it in the terms expressed by the colonel of
the North Staffordshires, and it is curious that in some cases I know
they were not mistaken and are still alive. It was indeed a general
belief that if a man funked being hit he was sure to fall, that being
the reverse side of the argument.

I saw the serene cheerfulness of men in the places of death at many
times and in many places, and I remember one group of friends on the
Somme who revealed that quality to a high degree. It was when our
front-line ran just outside the village of Martinpuich to Courcelette,
on the other side of the Bapaume road, and when the 8th-10th Gordons
were there, after their fight through Longueval and over the ridge. It
was the little crowd I have mentioned before in the battle of Loos,
and it was Lieut. John Wood who took me to the battalion headquarters
located under some sand-bags in a German dug--out. All the way up to
Contalmaison and beyond there were the signs of recent bloodshed and of
present peril. Dead horses lay about, disemboweled by shell-fire. Legs
and arms protruded from shell-craters where bodies lay half buried.
Heavy crumps came howling through the sky and bursting with enormous
noise here, there, and everywhere over that vast, desolate battlefield,
with its clumps of ruin and rows of dead trees. It was the devil’s
hunting-ground and I hated every yard of it. But John Wood, who lived
in it, was astoundingly cheerful, and a fine, sturdy, gallant figure,
in his kilted dress, as he climbed over sand-bags, walked on the top of
communication trenches (not bothering to take cover) and skirting round
hedges of barbed wire, apparently unconscious of the “crumps” that were
bursting around. I found laughter and friendly greeting in a hole in the
earth where the battalion staff was crowded. The colonel was courteous,
but busy. He rather deprecated the notion that I should go up farther,
to the ultimate limit of our line. It was no use putting one’s head into
trouble without reasonable purpose, and the German guns had been blowing
in sections of his new-made trenches. But John Wood was insistent that
I should meet “old Thom,” afterward in command of the battalion. He had
just been buried and dug out again. He would like to see me. So we left
the cover of the dugout and took to the open again. Long lines of Jocks
were digging a support trench--digging with a kind of rhythmic movement
as they threw up the earth with their shovels. Behind them was another
line of Jocks, not working. They lay as though asleep, out in the open.
They were the dead of the last advance. Captain Thom was leaning up
against the wall of the front-line trench, smoking a cigarette, with his
steel hat on the back of his head--a handsome, laughing figure. He did
not look like a man who had just been buried and dug out again.

“It was a narrow shave,” he said. “A beastly shell covered me with a ton
of earth... Have a cigarette, won’t you?”

We gossiped as though in St. James’s Street. Other young Scottish
officers came up and shook hands, and said: “Jolly weather, isn’t it?
What do you think of our little show?” Not one of them gave a glance at
the line of dead men over there, behind their parados. They told me some
of the funny things that had happened lately in the battalion, some grim
jokes by tough Jocks. They had a fine crowd of men. You couldn’t beat
them. “Well, good morning! Must get on with the job.” There was no
anguish there, no sense of despair, no sullen hatred of this life, so
near to death. They seemed to like it... They did not really like it.
They only made the best of it, without gloom. I saw they did not like
this job of battle, one evening in their mess behind the line. The
colonel who commanded them at the time, Celt of the Celts, was in a
queer mood. He was a queer man, aloof in his manner, a little “fey.” He
was annoyed with three of his officers who had come back late from three
days’ Paris leave. They were giants, but stood like schoolboys before
their master while he spoke ironical, bitter words. Later in the evening
he mentioned casually that they must prepare to go into the line
again under special orders. What about the store of bombs, small-arms
ammunition, machine-guns?

The officers were stricken into silence. They stared at one another as
though to say: “What does the old man mean? Is this true?” One of them
became rather pale, and there was a look of tragic resignation in his
eyes. Another said, “Hell!” in a whisper. The adjutant answered the
colonel’s questions in a formal way, but thinking hard and studying the
colonel’s face anxiously.

“Do you mean to say we are going into the line again, sir? At once?”

The colonel laughed.

“Don’t look so scared, all of you! It’s only a field-day for training.”

The officers of the Gordons breathed more freely. Poof! They had been
fairly taken in by the “old man’s” leg-pulling... No, it was clear
they did not find any real joy in the line. They would not choose a
front-line trench as the most desirable place of residence.



XVI


In queer psychology there was a strange mingling of the pitiful and
comic--among a division (the 35th) known as the Bantams. They were all
volunteers, having been rejected by the ordinary recruiting-officer on
account of their diminutive stature, which was on an average five feet
high, descending to four feet six. Most of them came from Lancashire,
Cheshire, Durham, and Glasgow, being the dwarfed children of industrial
England and its mid-Victorian cruelties. Others were from London, banded
together in a battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. They gave a shock
to our French friends when they arrived as a division at the port of
Boulogne.

“Name of a dog!” said the quayside loungers. “England is truly in a bad
way. She is sending out her last reserves!”

“But they are the soldiers of Lilliput!” exclaimed others.

“It is terrible that they should send these little ones,” said
kind-hearted fishwives.

Under the training of General Pi, who commanded them, they became smart
and brisk in the ranks. They saluted like miniature Guardsmen, marched
with quick little steps like clockwork soldiers. It was comical to see
them strutting up and down as sentries outside divisional headquarters,
with their bayonets high above their wee bodies. In trench warfare they
did well--though the fire-step had to be raised to let them see over the
top--and in one raid captured a German machine-gun which I saw in
their hands, and hauled it back (a heavier weight than ours) like ants
struggling with a stick of straw. In actual battle they were hardly
strong enough and could not carry all that burden of fighting-kit--steel
helmet, rifle, hand-grenades, shovels, empty sand-bags--with which other
troops went into action. So they were used as support troops mostly,
behind the Black Watch and other battalions near Bazentin and Longueval,
and there these poor little men dug and dug like beavers and crouched in
the cover they made under damnable fire, until many of them were blown
to bits. There was no “glory” in their job, only filth and blood, but
they held the ground and suffered it all, not gladly. They had a chance
of taking prisoners at Longueval, where they rummaged in German dugouts
after the line had been taken by the 15th Scottish Division and the 3d,
and they brought back a number of enormous Bavarians who were like the
Brobdingnagians to these little men of Lilliput and disgusted with that
humiliation. I met the whole crowd of them after that adventure, as
they sat, half naked, picking the lice out of their shirts, and the
conversation I had with them remains in my memory because of its
grotesque humor and tragic comicality. They were excited and emotional,
these stunted men. They cursed the war with the foulest curses of
Scottish and Northern dialects. There was one fellow--the jester of them
all--whose language would have made the poppies blush. With ironical
laughter, outrageous blasphemy, grotesque imagery, he described the
suffering of himself and his mates under barrage fire, which smashed
many of them into bleeding pulp. He had no use for this war. He cursed
the name of “glory.” He advocated a trade--unionism among soldiers
to down tools whenever there was a threat of war. He was a Bolshevist
before Bolshevism. Yet he had no liking for Germans and desired to cut
them into small bits, to slit their throats, to disembowel them. He
looked homeward to a Yorkshire town and wondered what his missus would
say if she saw him scratching himself like an ape, or lying with his
head in the earth with shells bursting around him, or prodding Germans
with a bayonet. “Oh,” said that five-foot hero, “there will be a lot of
murder after this bloody war. What’s human life? What’s the value of one
man’s throat? We’re trained up as murderers--I don’t dislike it, mind
you--and after the war we sha’n’t get out of the habit of it. It’ll come
nat’ral like!”

He was talking for my benefit, egged on to further audacities by a group
of comrades who roared with laughter and said: “Go it, Bill! That’s the
stuff!” Among these Lilliputians were fellows who sat aloof and sullen,
or spoke of their adventure with its recent horror in their eyes. Some
of them had big heads on small bodies, as though they suffered from
water on the brain... Many of them were sent home afterward. General
Haldane, as commander of the 6th Corps, paraded them, and poked his
stick at the more wizened ones, the obviously unfit, the degenerates,
and said at each prod, “You can go... You. ..You....” The Bantam
Division ceased to exist.

They afforded many jokes to the army. One anecdote went the round. A
Bantam died--of disease (“and he would,” said General Haldane)--and a
comrade came to see his corpse.

“Shut ze door ven you come out,” said the old woman of his billet.
“Fermez la porte, mon vieux.”

The living Bantam went to see the dead one, and came downstairs much
moved by grief.

“I’ve seed poor Bill,” he said.

“As-tu ferme la porte?” said the old woman, anxiously.

The Bantam wondered at the anxious inquiry; asked the reason of it.

“C’est a cause du chat!” said the old woman. “Ze cat, Monsieur, ‘e ‘ave
‘ad your friend in ze passage tree time already to-day. Trois fois!”

Poor little men born of diseased civilization! They were volunteers to a
man, and some of them with as much courage as soldiers twice their size.

They were the Bantams who told me of the Anglican padre at Longueval. It
was Father Hall of Mirfield, attached to the South African Brigade. He
came out to a dressing station established in the one bit of ruin which
could be used for shelter, and devoted himself to the wounded with a
spiritual fervor. They were suffering horribly from thirst, which made
their tongues swell and set their throats on fire.

“Water!” they cried. “Water! For Christ’s sake, water!”

There was no water, except at a well in Longueval, under the fire of
German snipers, who picked off our men when they crawled down like wild
dogs with their tongues lolling out. There was one German officer there
in a shell-hole not far from the well, who sat with his revolver handy,
and he was a dead shot.

But he did not shoot the padre. Something in the face and figure of that
chaplain, his disregard of the bullets snapping about him, the upright,
fearless way in which he crossed that way of death, held back the
trigger-finger of the German officer and he let him pass. He passed many
times, untouched by bullets or machine-gun fire, and he went into bad
places, pits of horror, carrying hot tea, which he made from the well
water for men in agony.



XVII


During these battles I saw thousands of German prisoners, and studied
their types and physiognomy, and, by permission of Intelligence
officers, spoke with many of them in their barbed-wire cages or on the
field of battle when they came along under escort. Some of them looked
degraded, bestial men. One could imagine them guilty of the foulest
atrocities. But in the mass they seemed to me decent, simple men,
remarkably like our own lads from the Saxon counties of England, though
not quite so bright and brisk, as was only natural in their position
as prisoners, with all the misery of war in their souls. Afterward they
worked with patient industry in the prison-camps and established their
own discipline, and gave very little trouble if well handled. In each
crowd of them there were fellows who spoke perfect English, having lived
in England as waiters and hairdressers, or clerks or mechanics. It was
with them I spoke most because it was easiest, but I know enough German
to talk with the others, and I found among them all the same loathing
of war, the same bewilderment as to its causes, the same sense of being
driven by evil powers above them. The officers were different. They lost
a good deal of their arrogance, but to the last had excuses ready for
all that Germany had done, and almost to the last professed to believe
that Germany would win. Their sense of caste was in their nature. They
refused to travel in the same carriages with their men, to stay even for
an hour in the same inclosures with them. They regarded them, for the
most part, as inferior beings. And there were castes even among the
officers. I remember that in the last phase, when we captured a number
of cavalry officers, these elegant sky-blue fellows held aloof from the
infantry officers and would not mix with them. One of them paced up and
down all night alone, and all next day, stiff in the corsets below that
sky-blue uniform, not speaking to a soul, though within a few yards of
him were many officers of infantry regiments.

Our men treated their prisoners, nearly always, after the blood of
battle was out of their eyes, with a good--natured kindness that
astonished the Germans themselves. I have seen them filling German
water-bottles at considerable trouble, and the escorts, two or three to
a big batch of men, were utterly trustful of them. “Here, hold my rifle,
Fritz,” said one of our men, getting down from a truck-train to greet a
friend.

An officer standing by took notice of this.

“Take your rifle back at once! Is that the way to guard your prisoners?”

Our man was astonished.

“Lor’ bless you, sir, they don’t want no guarding. They’re glad to be
took. They guard themselves.”

“Your men are extraordinary,” a German officer told me. “They asked me
whether I would care to go down at once or wait till the barrage had
passed.”

He seemed amazed at that thoughtfulness for his comfort. It was in the
early days of the Somme fighting, and crowds of our men stood on the
banks above a sunken road, watching the prisoners coming down. This
officer who spoke to me had an Iron Cross, and the men wanted to see it
and handle it.

“Will they give it back again?” he asked, nervously, fumbling at the
ribbon.

“Certainly,” I assured him.

He handed it to me, and I gave it to the men, who passed it from one to
the other and then back to the owner.

“Your men are extraordinary,” he said. “They are wonderful.”

One of the most interesting prisoners I met on the field of battle was
a tall, black-bearded man whom I saw walking away from La Boisselle when
that place was smoking with shell-bursts. An English soldier was on each
side of him, and each man carried a hand-bag, while this black-bearded
giant chatted with them.

It was a strange group, and I edged nearer to them and spoke to one of
the men.

“Who’s this? Why do you carry his bags?”

“Oh, we’re giving him special privileges,” said the man. “He stayed
behind to look after our wounded. Said his job was to look after
wounded, whoever they were. So there he’s been, in a dugout bandaging
our lads; and no joke, either. It’s hell up there. We’re glad to get out
of it.”

I spoke to the German doctor and walked with him. He discussed the
philosophy of the war simply and with what seemed like sincerity.

“This war!” he said, with a sad, ironical laugh. “We go on killing
one another-to no purpose. Europe is being bled to death and will
be impoverished for long years. We Germans thought it was a war for
Kultur--our civilization. Now we know it is a war against Kultur,
against religion, against all civilization.”

“How will it end?” I asked him.

“I see no end to it,” he answered. “It is the suicide of nations.
Germany is strong, and England is strong, and France is strong. It is
impossible for one side to crush the other, so when is the end to come?”

I met many other prisoners then and a year afterward who could see no
end of the massacre. They believed the war would go on until living
humanity on all sides revolted from the unceasing sacrifice. In the
autumn of 1918, when at last the end came in sight, by German defeat,
unexpected a few months before even by the greatest optimist in the
British armies, the German soldiers were glad. They did not care how
the war ended so long as it ended. Defeat? What did that matter? Was it
worse to be defeated than for the race to perish by bleeding to death?



XVIII


The struggle for the Pozieres ridge and High Wood lasted from the
beginning of August until the middle of September--six weeks of fighting
as desperate as any in the history of the world until that time. The
Australians dealt with Pozieres itself, working round Moquet Farm,
where the Germans refused to be routed from their tunnels, and up to the
Windmill on the high ground of Pozieres, for which there was unceasing
slaughter on both sides because the Germans counter-attacked again and
again, and waves of men surged up and fell around that mound of forsaken
brick, which I saw as a reddish cone through flame and smoke.

Those Australians whom I had seen arrive in France had proved their
quality. They had come believing that nothing could be worse than their
ordeal in the Dardanelles. Now they knew that Pozieres was the last word
in frightfulness. The intensity of the shell-fire under which they lay
shook them, if it did not kill them. Many of their wounded told me that
it had broken their nerve. They would never fight again without a sense
of horror.

“Our men are more highly strung than the English,” said one Australian
officer, and I was astonished to hear these words, because those
Australians seemed to me without nerves, and as tough as gristle in
their fiber.

They fought stubbornly, grimly, in ground so ravaged with fire that the
earth was finely powdered. They stormed the Pozieres ridge yard by yard,
and held its crest under sweeping barrages which tore up their trenches
as soon as they were dug and buried and mangled their living flesh. In
six weeks they suffered twenty thousand casualties, and Pozieres now is
an Australian graveyard, and the memorial that stands there is to the
ghosts of that splendid youth which fell in heaps about that plateau and
the slopes below. Many English boys of the Sussex, West Kents, Surrey,
and Warwick regiments, in the 18th Division, died at their side, not
less patient in sacrifice, not liking it better. Many Scots of the 15th
and 9th Divisions, many New-Zealanders, many London men of the 47th and
56th Divisions, fell, killed or wounded, to the right of them, on the
way to Martinpuich, and Eaucourt l’Abbaye and Flers, from High Wood
and Longueval, and Bazentin. The 3d Division of Yorkshires and
Northumberland Fusiliers, Royal Scots and Gordons, were earning that
name of the Iron Division, and not by any easy heroism. Every division
in the British army took its turn in the blood-bath of the Somme and was
duly blooded, at a cost of 25 per cent. and sometimes 50 per cent.
of their fighting strength. The Canadians took up the struggle
at Courcelette and captured it in a fierce and bloody battle. The
Australians worked up on the right of the Albert-Bapaume road to Thilloy
and Ligny Thilloy. On the far left the fortress of Thiepval had fallen
at last after repeated and frightful assaults, which I watched from
ditches close enough to see our infantry--Wiltshires and Worcesters of
the 25th Division--trudging through infernal fire. And then at
last, after five months of superhuman effort, enormous sacrifice,
mass-heroism, desperate will-power, and the tenacity of each individual
human ant in this wild ant-heap, the German lines were smashed,
the Australians surged into Bapaume, and the enemy, stricken by the
prolonged fury of our attack, fell back in a far and wide retreat across
a country which he laid waste, to the shelter of his Hindenburg line,
from Bullecourt to St.-Quentin.



XIX


The goal of our desire seemed attained when at last we reached Bapaume
after these terrific battles in which all our divisions, numbering
nearly a million men, took part, with not much difference in courage,
not much difference in average of loss. By the end of that year’s
fighting our casualties had mounted up to the frightful total of four
hundred thousand men. Those fields were strewn with our dead. Our
graveyards were growing forests of little white crosses. The German dead
lay in heaps. There were twelve hundred corpses littered over the earth
below Loupart Wood, in one mass, and eight hundred of them were German.
I could not walk without treading on them there. When I fell in the
slime I clutched arms and legs. The stench of death was strong and
awful.

But our men who had escaped death and shell-shock kept their sanity
through all this wilderness of slaughter, kept--oh, marvelous!--their
spirit of humor, their faith in some kind of victory. I was with the
Australians on that day when they swarmed into Bapaume, and they brought
out trophies like men at a country fair... I remember an Australian
colonel who came riding with a German beer-mug at his saddle... Next
day, though shells were still bursting in the ruins, some Australian
boys set up some painted scenery which they had found among the rubbish,
and chalked up the name of the “Coo-ee Theater.”

The enemy was in retreat to his Hindenburg line, over a wide stretch
of country which he laid waste behind him, making a desert of French
villages and orchards and parks, so that even the fruit-trees were cut
down, and the churches blown up, and the graves ransacked for their
lead. It was the enemy’s first retreat on the western front, and that
ferocious fighting of the British troops had smashed the strongest
defenses ever built in war, and our raw recruits had broken the most
famous regiments of the German army, so in spite of all tragedy and
all agony our men were not downcast, but followed up their enemy with a
sense of excitement because it seemed so much like victory and the end
of war.

When the Germans retreated from Gommecourt, where so many boys of the
56th (London) Division had fallen on the 1st of July, I went through
that evil place by way of Fonquevillers (which we called “Funky
Villas”), and, stumbling over the shell-craters and broken trenches and
dead bodies between the dead masts of slashed and branchless trees,
came into the open country to our outpost line. I met there a friendly
sergeant who surprised me by referring in a casual way to a little old
book of mine.

“This place,” he said, glancing at me, “is a strange Street of
Adventure.”

It reminded me of another reference to that tale of mine when I was
among a crowd of London lads who had just been engaged in a bloody fight
at a place called The Hairpin.

A young officer sent for me and I found him in the loft of a stinking
barn, sitting in a tub as naked as he was born.

“I just wanted to ask you,” he said, “whether Katharine married Frank?”

The sergeant at Gommecourt was anxious to show me his own Street of
Adventure.

“I belong to Toc-emmas,” he said (meaning trench--mortars), “and my
officers would be very pleased if you would have a look at their latest
stunt. We’ve got a 9.2 mortar in Pigeon Wood, away beyond the infantry.
It’s never been done before and we’re going to blow old Fritz out of
Kite Copse.”

I followed him into the blue, as it seemed to me, and we fell in with a
young officer also on his way to Pigeon Wood. He was in a merry mood, in
spite of harassing fire round about and the occasional howl of a 5.9.
He kept stopping to look at enormous holes in the ground and laughing at
something that seemed to tickle his sense of humor.

“See that?” he said. “That’s old Charlie Lowndes’s work.”

At another pit in upheaved earth he said: “That’s Charlie Lowndes
again... Old Charlie gave ‘em hell. He’s a topping chap. You must meet
him... My God! look at that!”

He roared with laughter again, on the edge of an unusually large crater.

“Who is Charlie?” I asked. “Where can I find him?”

“Oh, we shall meet him in Pigeon Wood. He’s as pleased as Punch at
having got beyond the infantry. First time it has ever been done. Took a
bit of doing, too, with the largest size of Toc-emma.”

We entered Pigeon Wood after a long walk over wild chaos, and, guided by
the officer and sergeant, I dived down into a deep dugout just captured
from the Germans, who were two hundred yards away in Kite Copse.

“What cheer, Charlie!” shouted the young officer.

“Hullo, fellow-my-lad!... Come in. We’re getting gloriously binged on a
rare find of German brandy.”

“Topping and I’ve brought a visitor.”

Capt. Charles Lowndes--“dear old Charlie”--received us most politely in
one of the best dugouts I ever saw, with smoothly paneled walls fitted
up with shelves, and good deal furniture made to match.

“This is a nice little home in hell,” said Charles. “At any moment, of
course, we may be blown to bits, but meanwhile it is very comfy down
here, and what makes everything good is a bottle of rare old brandy and
an unlimited supply of German soda-water. Also to add to the gaiety
of indecent minds there is a complete outfit of ladies’ clothing in a
neighboring dugout. Funny fellows those German officers. Take a pew,
won’t you? and have a drink. Orderly!”

He shouted for his man and ordered a further supply of German
soda-water.

We drank to the confusion of the enemy, in his own brandy and
soda-water, out of his own mugs, sitting on his own chairs at his own
table, and “dear old Charlie,” who was a little etoile, as afterward I
became, with a sense of deep satisfaction (the noise of shells seemed
more remote), discoursed on war, which he hated, German psychology,
trench-mortar barrages (they had simply blown the Boche out of
Gommecourt), and his particular fancy stunt of stealing a march on the
infantry, who, said Captain Lowndes, are “laps behind.” Other officers
crowded into the dugout. One of them said: “You must come round to mine.
It’s a blasted palace,” and I went round later and he told me on the
way that he had escaped so often from shell-bursts that he thought the
average of luck was up and he was bound to get “done in” before long.

Charlie Lowndes dispensed drinks with noble generosity. There was much
laughter among us, and afterward we went upstairs and to the edge of
the wood, to which a heavy, wet mist was clinging, and I saw the
trench-mortar section play the devil with Kite Copse, over the way. Late
in the afternoon I took my leave of a merry company in that far-flung
outpost of our line, and wished them luck. A few shells crashed through
the wood as I left, but I was disdainful of them after that admirable
brandy. It was a long walk back to “Funky Villas,” not without the
interest of arithmetical calculations about the odds of luck in
harassing fire, but a thousand yards or so from Pigeon Wood I looked
back and saw that the enemy had begun to “take notice.” Heavy shells
were smashing through the trees there ferociously. I hoped my friends
were safe in their dugouts again....

And I thought of the laughter and gallant spirit of the young men, after
five months of the greatest battles in the history of the world. It
seemed to me wonderful.



XX


I have described what happened on our side of the lines, our fearful
losses, the stream of wounded that came back day by day, the “Butchers’
Shops,” the agony in men’s souls, the shell-shock cases, the welter
and bewilderment of battle, the shelling of our own troops, the lack
of communication between fighting units and the command, the filth
and stench of the hideous shambles which were our battlefields. But to
complete the picture of that human conflict in the Somme I must now tell
what happened on the German side of the lines, as I was able to piece
the tale together from German prisoners with whom I talked, German
letters which I found in their abandoned dugouts, and documents which
fell into the hands of our staff--officers.

Our men were at least inspirited by the knowledge that they were beating
their enemy back, in spite of their own bloody losses. The Germans had
not even that source of comfort, for whatever it might be worth under
barrage fire. The mistakes of our generalship, the inefficiency of our
staff-work, were not greater than the blunderings of the German High
Command, and their problem was more difficult than ours because of
the weakness of their reserves, owing to enormous preoccupation on the
Russian front. The agony of their men was greater than ours.

To understand the German situation it must be remembered that from
January to May, 1916, the German command on the western front was
concentrating all its energy and available strength in man-power and
gun--power upon the attack of Verdun. The Crown Prince had staked his
reputation upon that adventure, which he believed would end in the
capture of the strongest French fortress and the destruction of the
French armies. He demanded men and more men, until every unit that
could be spared from other fronts of the line had been thrown into
that furnace. Divisions were called in from other theaters of war, and
increased the strength on the western front to a total of about one
hundred and thirty divisions.

But the months passed and Verdun still held out above piles of German
corpses on its slopes, and in June Germany looked east and saw a great
menace. The Russian offensive was becoming violent. German generals on
the Russian fronts sent desperate messages for help. “Send us more
men,” they said, and from the western front four divisions containing
thirty-nine battalions were sent to them.

They must have been sent grudgingly, for now another menace threatened
the enemy, and it was ours. The British armies were getting ready to
strike. In spite of Verdun, France still had men enough---withdrawn
from that part of the line in which they had been relieved by the
British---to co-operate in a new attack.

It was our offensive that the German command feared most, for they had
no exact knowledge of our strength or of the quality of our new troops.
They knew that our army had grown prodigiously since the assault on
Loos, nearly a year before.

They had heard of the Canadian reinforcements, and the coming of the
Australians, and the steady increase of recruiting in England, and month
by month they had heard the louder roar of our guns along the line, and
had seen their destructive effect spreading and becoming more terrible.
They knew of the steady, quiet concentration of batteries and divisions
on the west and south of the Ancre.

The German command expected a heavy blow and, prepared for it, but as
yet had no knowledge of the driving force behind it. What confidence
they had of being able to resist the British attack was based upon
the wonderful strength of the lines which they had been digging and
fortifying since the autumn of the first year of war--“impregnable
positions,” they had called them--the inexperience of our troops, their
own immense quantity of machine-guns, the courage and skill of their
gunners, and their profound belief in the superiority of German
generalship.

In order to prevent espionage during the coming struggle, and to conceal
the movement of troops and guns, they ordered the civil populations to
be removed from villages close behind their positions, drew cordons of
military police across the country, picketed crossroads, and established
a network of counter espionage to prevent any leakage of information.

To inspire the German troops with a spirit of martial fervor (not easily
aroused to fever pitch after the bloody losses before Verdun) Orders
of the Day were issued to the battalions counseling them to hold fast
against the hated English, who stood foremost in the way of peace (that
was the gist of a manifesto by Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, which I
found in a dugout at Montauban), and promising them a speedy ending to
the war.

Great stores of material and munitions were concentrated at rail-heads
and dumps ready to be sent up to the firing-lines, and the perfection
of German organization may well have seemed flawless--before the attack
began.

When they began they found that in “heavies” and in expenditure of high
explosives they were outclassed.

They were startled, too, by the skill and accuracy of the British
gunners, whom they had scorned as “amateurs,” and by the daring of our
airmen, who flew over their lines with the utmost audacity, “spotting”
 for the guns, and registering on batteries, communication trenches,
crossroads, rail-heads, and every vital point of organization in the
German war-machine working opposite the British lines north and south of
the Ancre.

Even before the British infantry had left their trenches at dawn on July
1st, German officers behind the firing--lines saw with anxiety that
all the organization which had worked so smoothly in times of ordinary
trench--warfare was now working only in a hazardous way under a deadly
storm of shells.

Food and supplies of all kinds could not be sent up to front-line
trenches without many casualties, and sometimes could not be sent up
at all. Telephone wires were cut, and communications broken between the
front and headquarters staffs. Staff-officers sent up to report were
killed on the way to the lines. Troops moving forward from reserve areas
came under heavy fire and lost many men before arriving in the support
trenches.

Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, sitting aloof from all this in personal
safety, must have known before July 1st that his resources in men and
material would be strained to the uttermost by the British attack, but
he could take a broader view than men closer to the scene of battle, and
taking into account the courage of his troops (he had no need to doubt
that), the immense strength of their positions, dug and tunneled beyond
the power of high explosives, the number of his machine-guns, the
concentration of his artillery, and the rawness of the British troops,
he could count up the possible cost and believe that in spite of a heavy
price to pay there would be no break in his lines.

At 7.30 A.M. on July 1st the British infantry, as I have told, left
their trenches and attacked on the right angle down from Gommecourt,
Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, and La Boisselle, and eastward
from Fricourt, below Mametz and Montauban. For a week the German
troops--Bavarians and Prussians--had been crouching in their dugouts,
listening to the ceaseless crashing of the British “drum-fire.” In
places like Beaumont Hamel, the men down in the deep tunnels--some of
them large enough to hold a battalion and a half--were safe as long as
they stayed there. But to get in or out was death. Trenches disappeared
into a sea of shell-craters, and the men holding them--for some men had
to stay on duty there--were blown to fragments.

Many of the shallower dugouts were smashed in by heavy shells, and
officers and men lay dead there as I saw them lying on the first days
of July, in Fricourt and Mametz and Montauban. The living men kept their
courage, but below ground, under that tumult of bursting shells, and
wrote pitiful letters to their people at home describing the horror of
those hours.

“We are quite shut off from the rest of the world,” wrote one of them.
“Nothing comes to us. No letters. The English keep such a barrage on our
approaches it is terrible. To-morrow evening it will be seven days since
this bombardment began. We cannot hold out much longer. Everything is
shot to pieces.”

Thirst was one of their tortures. In many of the tunneled shelters there
was food enough, but the water could not be sent up. The German soldiers
were maddened by thirst. When rain fell many of them crawled out and
drank filthy water mixed with yellow shell-sulphur, and then were
killed by high explosives. Other men crept out, careless of death, but
compelled to drink. They crouched over the bodies of the men who lay
above, or in, the shell-holes, and lapped up the puddles and then
crawled down again if they were not hit.

When our infantry attacked at Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval
they were received by waves of machine-gun bullets fired by men who, in
spite of the ordeal of our seven days’ bombardment, came out into
the open now, at the moment of attack which they knew through their
periscopes was coming. They brought their guns above the shell-craters
of their destroyed trenches under our barrage and served them. They ran
forward even into No Man’s Land, and planted their machine-guns there,
and swept down our men as they charged. Over their heads the German
gunners flung a frightful barrage, plowing gaps in the ranks of our men.

On the left, by Gommecourt and Beaumont Hamel, the British attack
failed, as I have told, but southward the “impregnable” lines were
smashed by a tide of British soldiers as sand castles are overwhelmed by
the waves. Our men swept up to Fricourt, struck straight up to Montauban
on the right, captured it, and flung a loop round Mametz village.

For the German generals, receiving their reports with great difficulty
because runners were killed and telephones broken, the question was:
“How will these British troops fight in the open after their first
assault? How will our men stand between the first line and the second?”

As far as the German troops were concerned, there were no signs of
cowardice, or “low morale” as we called it more kindly, in those early
days of the struggle. They fought with a desperate courage, holding on
to positions in rearguard actions when our guns were slashing them and
when our men were getting near to them, making us pay a heavy price for
every little copse or gully or section of trench, and above all serving
their machine-guns at La Boisselle, Ovillers, above Fricourt, round
Contalmaison, and at all points of their gradual retreat, with a
wonderful obstinacy, until they were killed or captured. But fresh waves
of British soldiers followed those who were checked or broken.

After the first week of battle the German General Staff had learned the
truth about the qualities of those British “New Armies” which had been
mocked and caricatured in German comic papers. They learned that
these “amateur soldiers” had the qualities of the finest troops in the
world--not only extreme valor, but skill and cunning, not only a great
power of endurance under the heaviest fire, but a spirit of attack which
was terrible in its effect. They were fierce bayonet fighters. Once
having gained a bit of earth or a ruined village, nothing would budge
them unless they could be blasted out by gun-fire. General Sixt von
Arnim put down some candid notes in his report to Prince Rupprecht.

“The English infantry shows great dash in attack, a factor to which
immense confidence in its overwhelming artillery greatly contributes. ..
It has shown great tenacity in defense. This was especially noticeable
in the case of small parties, which, when once established with
machine-guns in the corner of a wood or a group of houses, were very
difficult to drive out.”

The German losses were piling up. The agony of the German troops under
our shell-fire was reaching unnatural limits of torture. The early
prisoners I saw--Prussians and Bavarians of the 14th Reserve Corps--were
nerve-broken, and told frightful stories of the way in which their
regiments had been cut to pieces. The German generals had to fill up the
gaps, to put new barriers of men against the waves of British infantry.
They flung new troops into the line, called up hurriedly from reserve
depots.

Now, for the first time, their staff-work showed signs of disorder and
demoralization. When the Prussian Guards Reserves were brought up from
Valenciennes to counter--attack at Contalmaison they were sent on to the
battlefield without maps or local guides, and walked straight into our
barrage. A whole battalion was cut to pieces and many others suffered
frightful things. Some of the prisoners told me that they had lost
three-quarters of their number in casualties, and our troops advanced
over heaps of killed and wounded.

The 122d Bavarian Regiment in Contalmaison was among those which
suffered horribly. Owing to our ceaseless gun-fire, they could get no
food-supplies and no water. The dugouts were crowded, so that they had
to take turns to get into these shelters, and outside our shells were
bursting over every yard of ground.

“Those who went outside,” a prisoner told me, “were killed or wounded.
Some of them had their heads blown off, and some of them their arms.
But we went on taking turns in the hole, although those who went outside
knew that it was their turn to die, most likely. At last most of those
who came into the hole were wounded, some of them badly, so that we lay
in blood.” That is one little picture in a great panorama of bloodshed.

The German command was not thinking much about the human suffering of
its troops. It was thinking of the next defensive line upon which they
would have to fall back if the pressure of the British offensive could
be maintained--the Longueval-Bazentin-Pozires line. It was getting
nervous. Owing to the enormous efforts made in the Verdun offensive, the
supplies of ammunition were not adequate to the enormous demand.

The German gunners were trying to compete with the British in continuity
of bombardments and the shells were running short. Guns were wearing
out under this incessant strain, and it was difficult to replace them.
General von Gallwitz received reports of “an alarmingly large number of
bursts in the bore, particularly in field-guns.”

General von Arnim complained that “reserve supplies of ammunition were
only available in very small quantities.” The German telephone system
proved “totally inadequate in consequence of the development which the
fighting took.” The German air service was surprisingly weak, and the
British airmen had established temporary mastery.

“The numerical superiority of the enemy’s airmen,” noted General von
Arnim, “and the fact that their machines were better made, became
disagreeably apparent to us, particularly in their direction of the
enemy’s artillery fire and in bomb-dropping.”

On July 15th the British troops broke the German second line at
Longueval and the Bazentins, and inflicted great losses upon the enemy,
who fought with their usual courage until the British bayonets were
among them.

A day or two later the fortress of Ovillers fell, and the remnants
of the garrison--one hundred and fifty strong--after a desperate and
gallant resistance in ditches and tunnels, where they had fought to the
last, surrendered with honor.

Then began the long battle of the woods--Devil’s Wood, High Wood, Trones
Wood--continued through August with most fierce and bloody fighting,
which ended in our favor and forced the enemy back, gradually but
steadily, in spite of the terrific bombardments which filled those
woods with shell-fire and the constant counter-attacks delivered by the
Germans.

“Counter-attack!” came the order from the German staff, and battalions
of men marched out obediently to certain death, sometimes with
incredible folly on the part of their commanding officers, who ordered
these attacks to be made without the slightest chance of success.

I saw an example of that at close range during a battle at Falfemont
Farm, near Guillemont. Our men had advanced from Wedge Wood, and I
watched them from a trench just south of this, to which I had gone at
a great pace over shell-craters and broken wire, with a young observing
officer who had been detailed to report back to the guns. (Old
“Falstaff,” whose songs and stories had filled the tent under the
Red Cross with laughter, toiled after us gallantly, but grunting and
sweating under the sun like his prototype, until we lost him in our
hurry.) Presently a body of Germans came out of a copse called Leuze
Wood, on rising ground, faced round among the thin, slashed trees of
Falfemont, and advanced toward our men, shoulder to shoulder, like a
solid bar. It was sheer suicide. I saw our men get their machineguns
into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and
then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed.
They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward, but it
seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death. They
died. The simile is outworn, but it was exactly as though some invisible
scythe had mown them down.

In all the letters written during those weeks of fighting and captured
by us from dead or living men there was one cry of agony and horror.

“I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life,” wrote one
of them. “They were those of the battle of the Somme. It began with a
night attack on August 13th and 14th. The attack lasted till the evening
of the 18th, when the English wrote on our bodies in letters of blood,
‘It is all over with you.’ A handful of half-mad, wretched creatures,
worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of a whole battalion.
We were that handful.”

The losses of many of the German battalions were staggering (yet not
greater than our own), and by the middle of August the morale of the
troops was severely shaken. The 117th Division by Pozires suffered
very heavily. The 11th Reserve and 157th Regiments each lost nearly
three-quarters of their effectives. The 9th Reserve Corps had also lost
heavily. The 9th Reserve Jager Battalion lost about three-quarters,
the 84th Reserve and 86th Reserve over half. On August 10th the 16th
Division had six battalions in reserve.

By August 19th, owing to the large number of casualties, the greater
part of those reserves had been absorbed into the front and support
trenches, leaving as available reserves two exhausted battalions.

The weakness of the division and the absolute necessity of reinforcing
it led to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment (2d Guards Division) being
brought up to strengthen the right flank in the Leipzig salient. This
regiment had suffered casualties to the extent of over 50 percent west
of Pozires during the middle of July, and showed no eagerness to return
to the fight. These are but a few examples of what was happening along
the whole of the German front on the Somme.

It became apparent by the end of August that the enemy was in trouble
to find fresh troops to relieve his exhausted divisions, and that the
wastage was faster than the arrival of new men. It was noticeable that
he left divisions in the line until incapable of further effort rather
than relieving them earlier so that after resting they might again be
brought on to the battlefield. The only conclusion to be drawn from this
was that the enemy had not sufficient formations available to make the
necessary reliefs.

In July three of these exhausted divisions were sent to the east,
their place being taken by two new divisions, and in August three more
exhausted divisions were sent to Russia, eight new divisions coming to
the Somme front. The British and French offensive was drawing in all the
German reserves and draining them of their life’s blood.

“We entrained at Savigny,” wrote a man of one of these regiments, “and
at once knew our destination. It was our old blood-bath--the Somme.”

In many letters this phrase was used. The Somme was called the “Bath of
Blood” by the German troops who waded across its shell-craters and in
the ditches which were heaped with their dead. But what I have described
is only the beginning of the battle, and the bath was to be filled
deeper in the months that followed.



XXI


The name (that “blood-bath”) and the news of battle could not be hidden
from the people of Germany, who had already been chilled with horror
by the losses at Verdun, nor from the soldiers of reserve regiments
quartered in French and Belgian towns like Valenciennes, St. Quentin,
Cambrai, Lille, Bruges, and as far back as Brussels, waiting to go to
the front, nor from the civil population of those towns, held for two
years by their enemy--these blond young men who lived in their houses,
marched down their streets, and made love to their women.

The news was brought down from the Somme front by Red Cross trains,
arriving in endless succession, and packed with maimed and mangled men.
German military policemen formed cordons round the railway stations,
pushed back civilians who came to stare with somber eyes at these
blanketed bundles of living flesh, but when the ambulances rumbled
through the streets toward the hospitals--long processions of them, with
the soles of men’s boots turned up over the stretchers on which they lay
quiet and stiff--the tale was told, though no word was spoken.

The tale of defeat, of great losses, of grave and increasing anxiety,
was told clearly enough--as I read in captured letters--by the faces
of German officers who went about in these towns behind the lines with
gloomy looks, and whose tempers, never of the sweetest, became irritable
and unbearable, so that the soldiers hated them for all this cursing and
bullying. A certain battalion commander had a nervous breakdown because
he had to meet his colonel in the morning.

“He is dying with fear and anxiety,” wrote one of his comrades.

Other men, not battalion commanders, were even more afraid of their
superior officers, upon whom this bad news from the Somme had an evil
effect.

The bad news was spread by divisions taken out of the line and sent back
to rest. The men reported that their battalions had been cut to pieces.
Some of their regiments had lost three-quarters of their strength. They
described the frightful effect of the British artillery--the smashed
trenches, the shell-crater, the horror.

It was not good for the morale of men who were just going up there to
take their turn.

The man who was afraid of his colonel “sits all day long writing home,
with the picture of his wife and children before his eyes.” He was
afraid of other things.

Bavarian soldiers quarreled with Prussians, accused them (unjustly) of
shirking the Somme battlefields and leaving the Bavarians to go to the
blood-bath.

“All the Bavarian troops are being sent to the Somme (this much is
certain, you can see no Prussians there), and this in spite of the
losses the 1st Bavarian Corps suffered recently at Verdun! And how we
did suffer!... It appears that we are in for another turn--at least the
5th Bavarian Division. Everybody has been talking about it for a long
time. To the devil with it! Every Bavarian regiment is being sent into
it, and it’s a swindle.”

It was in no cheerful mood that men went away to the Somme battlefields.
Those battalions of gray-clad men entrained without any of the old
enthusiasm with which they had gone to earlier battles. Their gloom was
noticed by the officers.

“Sing, you sheeps’ heads, sing!” they shouted.

They were compelled to sing, by order.

“In the afternoon,” wrote a man of the 18th Reserve Division, “we had
to go out again; we were to learn to sing. The greater part did not join
in, and the song went feebly. Then we had to march round in a circle and
sing, and that went no better. After that we had an hour off, and on the
way back to billets we were to sing ‘Deutschland uber Alles,’ but this
broke down completely. One never hears songs of the Fatherland any
more.”

They were silent, grave-eyed men who marched through the streets of
French and Belgian towns to be entrained for the Somme front, for they
had forebodings of the fate before them. Yet none of their forebodings
were equal in intensity of fear to the frightful reality into which they
were flung.

The journey to the Somme front, on the German side, was a way of terror,
ugliness, and death. Not all the imagination of morbid minds searching
obscenely for foulness and blood in the great, deep pits of human agony
could surpass these scenes along the way to the German lines round
Courcelette and Flers, Gueudecourt, Morval, and Lesboeufs.

Many times, long before a German battalion had arrived near the
trenches, it was but a collection of nerve--broken men bemoaning
losses already suffered far behind the lines and filled with hideous
apprehension. For British long-range guns were hurling high explosives
into distant villages, barraging crossroads, reaching out to rail-heads
and ammunition-dumps, while British airmen were on bombing flights over
railway stations and rest-billets and highroads down which the German
troops came marching at Cambrai, Bapaume, in the valley between Irles
and Warlencourt, at Ligny-Thilloy, Busigny, and many other places on the
lines of route.

German soldiers arriving one morning at Cambrai by train found
themselves under the fire of a single airplane which flew very low and
dropped bombs. They exploded with heavy crashes, and one bomb hit the
first carriage behind the engine, killing and wounding several men. A
second bomb hit the station buildings, and there was a clatter of broken
glass, the rending of wood, and the fall of bricks. All lights went out,
and the German soldiers groped about in the darkness amid the splinters
of glass and the fallen bricks, searching for the wounded by the sound
of their groans. It was but one scene along the way to that blood-bath
through which they had to wade to the trenches of the Somme.

Flights of British airplanes circled over the villages on the way. At
Grevilliers, in August, eleven 112-16 bombs fell in the market square,
so that the center of the village collapsed in a state of ruin, burying
soldiers billeted there. Every day the British airmen paid these visits,
meeting the Germans far up the roads on their way to the Somme, and
swooping over them like a flying death. Even on the march in open
country the German soldiers tramping silently along--not singing in
spite of orders--were bombed and shot at by these British aviators,
who flew down very low, pouring out streams of machine-gun bullets. The
Germans lost their nerve at such times, and scattered into the ditches,
falling over one another, struck and cursed by their Unteroffizieren,
and leaving their dead and wounded in the roadway.

As the roads went nearer to the battlefields they were choked with
the traffic of war, with artillery and transport wagons and horse
ambulances, and always thousands of gray men marching up to the lines,
or back from them, exhausted and broken after many days in the fires of
hell up there. Officers sat on their horses by the roadside, directing
all the traffic with the usual swearing and cursing, and rode alongside
the transport wagons and the troops, urging them forward at a quicker
pace because of stern orders received from headquarters demanding
quicker movement. The reserves, it seemed, were desperately wanted up in
the lines. The English were attacking again. .. God alone knew what
was happening. Regiments had lost their way. Wounded were pouring
back. Officers had gone mad. Into the midst of all this turmoil shells
fell--shells from long-range guns. Transport wagons were blown to bits.
The bodies and fragments of artillery horses lay all over the roads. Men
lay dead or bleeding under the debris of gun-wheels and broken bricks.
Above all the noise of this confusion and death in the night the
hard, stern voices of German officers rang out, and German discipline
prevailed, and men marched on to greater perils.

They were in the shell-zone now, and sometimes a regiment on the
march was tracked all along the way by British gun-fire directed from
airplanes and captive balloons. It was the fate of a captured officer I
met who had detrained at Bapaume for the trenches at Contalmaison.

At Bapaume his battalion was hit by fragments of twelve-inch shells.
Nearer to the line they came under the fire of eight-inch and six-inch
shells. Four-point-sevens (4.7’s) found them somewhere by Bazentin. At
Contalmaison they marched into a barrage, and here the officer was taken
prisoner. Of his battalion there were few men left.

It was so with the 3d Jager Battalion, ordered up hurriedly to make a
counter-attack near Flers. They suffered so heavily on the way to the
trenches that no attack could be made. The stretcher-bearers had all the
work to do.

The way up to the trenches became more tragic as every kilometer was
passed, until the stench of corruption was wafted on the wind, so that
men were sickened, and tried not to breathe, and marched hurriedly to
get on the lee side of its foulness. They walked now through places
which had once been villages, but were sinister ruins where death lay in
wait for German soldiers.

“It seems queer to me,” wrote one of them, “that whole villages close to
the front look as flattened as a child’s toy run over by a steam-roller.
Not one stone remains on another. The streets are one line of
shell--holes. Add to that the thunder of the guns, and you will see
with what feelings we come into the line--into trenches where for months
shells of all caliber have rained... Flers is a scrap heap.”

Again and again men lost their way up to the lines. The reliefs could
only be made at night lest they should be discovered by British airmen
and British gunners, and even if these German soldiers had trench maps
the guidance was but little good when many trenches had been smashed in
and only shell-craters could be found.

“In the front line of Flers,” wrote one of these Germans, “the men
were only occupying shell-holes. Behind there was the intense smell of
putrefaction which filled the trench--almost unbearably. The corpses lie
either quite insufficiently covered with earth on the edge of the trench
or quite close under the bottom of the trench, so that the earth lets
the stench through. In some places bodies lie quite uncovered in a
trench recess, and no one seems to trouble about them. One sees horrible
pictures--here an arm, here a foot, here a head, sticking out of the
earth. And these are all German soldiers-heroes!

“Not far from us, at the entrance to a dugout, nine men were buried, of
whom three were dead. All along the trench men kept on getting
buried. What had been a perfect trench a few hours before was in parts
completely blown in... The men are getting weaker. It is impossible
to hold out any longer. Losses can no longer be reckoned accurately.
Without a doubt many of our people are killed.”

That is only one out of thousands of such gruesome pictures, true as the
death they described, true to the pictures on our side of the line as
on their side, which went back to German homes during the battles of the
Somme. Those German soldiers were great letter-writers, and men sitting
in wet ditches, in “fox-holes,” as they called their dugouts, “up to my
waist in mud,” as one of them described, scribbled pitiful things which
they hoped might reach their people at home, as a voice from the dead.
For they had had little hope of escape from the blood--bath. “When you
get this I shall be a corpse,” wrote one of them, and one finds the same
foreboding in many of these documents.

Even the lucky ones who could get some cover from the incessant
bombardment by English guns began to lose their nerves after a day or
two. They were always in fear of British infantry sweeping upon them
suddenly behind the Trommelfeuer, rushing their dugouts with bombs and
bayonets. Sentries became “jumpy,” and signaled attacks when there were
no attacks. The gas--alarm was sounded constantly by the clang of a
bell in the trench, and men put on their heavy gas-masks and sat in them
until they were nearly stifled.

Here is a little picture of life in a German dugout near the British
lines, written by a man now dead:

“The telephone bell rings. ‘Are you there? Yes, here’s Nau’s battalion.’
‘Good. That is all.’ Then that ceases, and now the wire is in again
perhaps for the twenty-fifth or thirtieth time. Thus the night is
interrupted, and now they come, alarm messages, one after the other,
each more terrifying than the other, of enormous losses through the
bombs and shells of the enemy, of huge masses of troops advancing upon
us, of all possible possibilities, such as a train broken down, and we
are tortured by all the terrors that the mind can invent. Our nerves
quiver. We clench our teeth. None of us can forget the horrors of the
night.”

Heavy rain fell and the dugouts became wet and filthy.

“Our sleeping-places were full of water. We had to try and bail out the
trenches with cooking-dishes. I lay down in the water with G-. We were
to have worked on dugouts, but not a soul could do any more. Only a
few sections got coffee. Mine got nothing at all. I was frozen in every
limb, poured the water out of my boots, and lay down again.”

Our men suffered exactly the same things, but did not write about them.

The German generals and their staffs could not be quite indifferent to
all this welter of human suffering among their troops, in spite of the
cold, scientific spirit with which they regarded the problem of war. The
agony of the individual soldier would not trouble them. There is no war
without agony. But the psychology of masses of men had to be considered,
because it affects the efficiency of the machine.

The German General Staff on the western front was becoming seriously
alarmed by the declining morale of its infantry under the increasing
strain of the British attacks, and adopted stern measures to cure it.
But it could not hope to cure the heaps of German dead who were lying on
the battlefields, nor the maimed men who were being carried back to the
dressing stations, nor to bring back the prisoners taken in droves by
the French and British troops.

Before the attack on the Flers line, the capture of Thiepval, and the
German debacle at Beaumont Hamel, in November, the enemy’s command
was already filled with a grave anxiety at the enormous losses of its
fighting strength; was compelled to adopt new expedients for increasing
the number of its divisions. It was forced to withdraw troops badly
needed on other fronts, and the successive shocks of the British
offensive reached as far as Germany itself, so that the whole of its
recruiting system had to be revised to fill up the gaps torn out of the
German ranks.



XXII


All through July and August the enemy’s troops fought with wonderful and
stubborn courage, defending every bit of broken woodland, every heap of
bricks that was once a village, every line of trenches smashed by heavy
shell-fire, with obstinacy.

It is indeed fair and just to say that throughout those battles of the
Somme our men fought against an enemy hard to beat, grim and resolute,
and inspired sometimes with the courage of despair, which was hardly
less dangerous than the courage of hope.

The Australians who struggled to get the high ground at Pozieres did not
have an easy task. The enemy made many counter-attacks against them. All
the ground thereabouts was, as I have said, so smashed that the earth
became finely powdered, and it was the arena of bloody fighting at close
quarters which did not last a day or two, but many weeks. Mouquet Farm
was like the phoenix which rose again out of its ashes. In its tunneled
ways German soldiers hid and came out to fight our men in the rear long
after the site of the farm was in our hands.

But the German troops were fighting what they knew to be a losing
battle. They were fighting rear-guard actions, trying to gain time for
the hasty digging of ditches behind them, trying to sell their lives at
the highest price.

They lived not only under incessant gun-fire, gradually weakening their
nerve-power, working a physical as well as a moral change in them, but
in constant terror of British attacks.

They could never be sure of safety at any hour of the day or night, even
in their deepest dugouts. The British varied their times of attack. At
dawn, at noon, when the sun was reddening in the west, just before the
dusk, in pitch darkness, even, the steady, regular bombardment that had
never ceased all through the days and nights would concentrate into the
great tumult of sudden drum-fire, and presently waves of men--English
or Scottish or Irish, Australians or Canadians--would be sweeping on
to them and over them, rummaging down into the dugouts with bombs and
bayonets, gathering up prisoners, quick to kill if men were not quick to
surrender.

In this way Thiepval was encircled so that the garrison there--the 180th
Regiment, who had held it for two years--knew that they were doomed. In
this way Guillemont and Ginchy fell, so that in the first place hardly a
man out of two thousand men escaped to tell the tale of horror in German
lines, and in the second place there was no long fight against the
Irish, who stormed it in a wild, fierce rush which even machine-guns
could not check. The German General Staff was getting flurried, grabbing
at battalions from other parts of the line, disorganizing its divisions
under the urgent need of flinging in men to stop this rot in the lines,
ordering counter-attacks which were without any chance of success, so
that thin waves of men came out into the open, as I saw them several
times, to be swept down by scythes of bullets which cut them clean to
the earth. Before September 15th they hoped that the British offensive
was wearing itself out. It seemed to them at least doubtful that after
the struggle of two and a half months the British troops could still
have spirit and strength enough to fling themselves against new lines.

But the machinery of their defense was crumbling. Many of their guns had
worn out, and could not be replaced quickly enough. Many batteries had
been knocked out in their emplacements along the line of Bazentin and
Longueval before the artillery was drawn back to Grand-court and a new
line of safety. Battalion commanders clamored for greater supplies of
hand-grenades, intrenching-tools, trench-mortars, signal rockets, and
all kinds of fighting material enormously in excess of all previous
requirements.

The difficulties of dealing with the wounded, who littered the
battlefields and choked the roads with the traffic of ambulances, became
increasingly severe, owing to the dearth of horses for transport and the
longer range of British guns which had been brought far forward.

The German General Staff studied its next lines of defense away through
Courcelette, Martinpuich, Lesboeufs, Morval, and Combles, and they did
not look too good, but with luck and the courage of German soldiers,
and the exhaustion--surely those fellows were exhausted!--of British
troops--good enough.

On September 15th the German command had another shock when the whole
line of the British troops on the Somme front south of the Ancre rose
out of their trenches and swept over the German defenses in a tide.

Those defenses broke hopelessly, and the waves dashed through. Here and
there, as on the German left at Morval and Lesboeufs, the bulwarks stood
for a time, but the British pressed against them and round them. On the
German right, below the little river of the Ancre, Courcelette fell,
and Martinpuich, and at last, as I have written, High Wood, which the
Germans desired to hold at all costs, and had held against incessant
attacks by great concentration of artillery, was captured and left
behind by the London men. A new engine of war had come as a demoralizing
influence among German troops, spreading terror among them on the first
day out of the tanks. For the first time the Germans were outwitted in
inventions of destruction; they who had been foremost in all engines
of death. It was the moment of real panic in the German lines--a panic
reaching back from the troops to the High Command.

Ten days later, on September 25th, when the British made a new
advance--all this time the French were pressing forward, too, on our
right by Roye--Combles was evacuated without a fight and with a litter
of dead in its streets; Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs, and Morval were lost by
the Germans; and a day later Thiepval, the greatest fortress position
next to Beaumont Hamel, fell, with all its garrison taken prisoners.

They were black days in the German headquarters, where staff-officers
heard the news over their telephones and sent stern orders to artillery
commanders and divisional generals, and after dictating new instructions
that certain trench systems must be held at whatever price, heard that
already they were lost.

It was at this time that the morale of the German troops on the Somme
front showed most signs of breaking. In spite of all their courage,
the ordeal had been too hideous for them, and in spite of all their
discipline, the iron discipline of the German soldier, they were on the
edge of revolt. The intimate and undoubted facts of this break in the
morale of the enemy’s troops during this period reveal a pitiful picture
of human agony.

“We are now fighting on the Somme with the English,” wrote a man of
the 17th Bavarian Regiment. “You can no longer call it war. It is mere
murder. We are at the focal-point of the present battle in Foureaux
Wood (near Guillemont). All my previous experiences in this war--the
slaughter at Ypres and the battle in the gravel-pit at Hulluch--are the
purest child’s play compared with this massacre, and that is much too
mild a description. I hardly think they will bring us into the fight
again, for we are in a very bad way.”

“From September 12th to 27th we were on the Somme,” wrote a man of the
10th Bavarians, “and my regiment had fifteen hundred casualties.”

A detailed picture of the German losses under our bombardment was given
in the diary of an officer captured in a trench near Flers, and dated
September 22d.

“The four days ending September 4th, spent in the trenches, were
characterized by a continual enemy bombardment that did not abate for a
single instant. The enemy had registered on our trenches with light,
as well as medium and heavy, batteries, notwithstanding that he had no
direct observation from his trenches, which lie on the other side of
the summit. His registering was done by his excellent air service, which
renders perfect reports of everything observed.

“During the first day, for instance, whenever the slightest movement was
visible in our trenches during the presence, as is usually the case, of
enemy aircraft flying as low as three and four hundred yards, a heavy
bombardment of the particular section took place. The very heavy losses
during the first day brought about the resolution to evacuate the
trenches during the daytime. Only a small garrison was left, the
remainder withdrawing to a part of the line on the left of the
Martinpuich-Pozieres road.

“The signal for a bombardment by ‘heavies’ was given by the English
airplanes. On the first day we tried to fire by platoons on the
airplanes, but a second airplane retaliated by dropping bombs and firing
his machine-gun at our troops. Our own airmen appeared only once for a
short time behind our lines.

“While many airplanes are observing from early morning till late
at night, our own hardly ever venture near. The opinion is that
our trenches cannot protect troops during a barrage of the shortest
duration, owing to lack of dugouts.

“The enemy understands how to prevent, with his terrible barrage,
the bringing up of building material, and even how to hinder the work
itself. The consequence is that our trenches are always ready for an
assault on his part. Our artillery, which does occasionally put a heavy
barrage on the enemy trenches at a great expense of ammunition, cannot
cause similar destruction to him. He can bring his building material up,
can repair his trenches as well as build new ones, can bring up rations
and ammunition, and remove the wounded.

“The continual barrage on our lines of communication makes it very
difficult for us to ration and relieve our troops, to supply water,
ammunition, and building material, to evacuate wounded, and causes heavy
losses. This and the lack of protection from artillery fire and the
weather, the lack of hot meals, the continual necessity of lying still
in the same place, the danger of being buried, the long time the wounded
have to remain in the trenches, and chiefly the terrible effect of
the machine--and heavy-artillery fire, controlled by an excellent air
service, has a most demoralizing effect on the troops.

“Only with the greatest difficulty could the men be persuaded to stay in
the trenches under those conditions.”

There were some who could not be persuaded to stay if they could see any
chance of deserting or malingering. For the first time on our front
the German officers could not trust the courage of their men, nor their
loyalty, nor their sense of discipline. All this horror of men blown
to bits over living men, of trenches heaped with dead and dying, was
stronger than courage, stronger than loyalty, stronger than discipline.
A moral rot was threatening to bring the German troops on the Somme
front to disaster.

Large numbers of men reported sick and tried by every kind of trick to
be sent back to base hospitals.

In the 4th Bavarian Division desertions were frequent, and several
times whole bodies of men refused to go forward into the front line. The
morale of men in the 393d Regiment, taken at Courcelette, seemed to be
very weak. One of the prisoners declared that they gave themselves up
without firing a shot, because they could trust the English not to kill
them.

The platoon commander had gone away, and the prisoner was ordered to
alarm the platoon in case of attack, but did not do so on purpose. They
did not shoot with rifles or machine-guns and did not throw bombs.

Many of the German officers were as demoralized as the men, shirking
their posts in the trenches, shamming sickness, and even leading the
way to surrender. Prisoners of the 351st Regiment, which lost thirteen
hundred men in fifteen days, told of officers who had refused to take
their men up to the front-line, and of whole companies who had declined
to move when ordered to do so. An officer of the 74th Landwehr Regiment
is said by prisoners to have told his men during our preliminary
bombardment to surrender as soon as we attacked.

A German regimental order says: “I must state with the greatest regret
that the regiment, during this change of position, had to take notice
of the sad fact that men of four of the companies, inspired by shameful
cowardice, left their companies on their own initiative and did not move
into line.”

Another order contains the same fact, and a warning of what punishment
may be meted out:

“Proofs are multiplying of men leaving the position without permission
and hiding at the rear. It is our duty... each at his post--to deal with
this fact with energy and success.”

Many Bavarians complained that their officers did not accompany them
into the trenches, but went down to the hospitals with imaginary
diseases. In any case there was a great deal of real sickness, mental
and physical. The ranks were depleted by men suffering from fever,
pleurisy, jaundice, and stomach complaints of all kinds, twisted up with
rheumatism after lying in waterlogged holes, lamed for life by bad cases
of trench-foot, and nerve-broken so that they could do nothing but weep.

The nervous cases were the worst and in greatest number. Many men went
raving mad. The shell-shock victims clawed at their mouths unceasingly,
or lay motionless like corpses with staring eyes, or trembled in every
limb, moaning miserably and afflicted with a great terror.

To the Germans (barely less to British troops) the Somme battlefields
were not only shambles, but a territory which the devil claimed as his
own for the torture of men’s brains and souls before they died in the
furnace fires. A spirit of revolt against all this crept into the minds
of men who retained their sanity--a revolt against the people who had
ordained this vast outrage against God and humanity.

Into German letters there crept bitter, burning words against “the
millionaires--who grow rich out of the war,” against the high people
who live in comfort behind the lines. Letters from home inflamed these
thoughts.

It was not good reading for men under shell-fire.

“It seems that you soldiers fight so that official stay-at-homes can
treat us as female criminals. Tell me, dear husband, are you a criminal
when you fight in the trenches, or why do people treat women and
children here as such?...

“For the poor here it is terrible, and yet the rich, the gilded ones,
the bloated aristocrats, gobble up everything in front of our very
eyes... All soldiers--friend and foe--ought to throw down their weapons
and go on strike, so that this war which enslaves the people more than
ever may cease.”

Thousands of letters, all in this strain, were reaching the German
soldiers on the Somme, and they did not strengthen the morale of men
already victims of terror and despair.

Behind the lines deserters were shot in batches. To those in front came
Orders of the Day warning them, exhorting them, commanding them to hold
fast.

“To the hesitating and faint-hearted in the regiment,” says one of these
Orders, “I would say the following:

“What the Englishman can do the German can do also. Or if, on the other
hand, the Englishman really is a better and superior being, he would be
quite justified in his aim as regards this war, viz., the extermination
of the German. There is a further point to be noted: this is the first
time we have been in the line on the Somme, and what is more, we
are there at a time when things are more calm. The English regiments
opposing us have been in the firing-line for the second, and in some
cases even the third, time. Heads up and play the man!”

It was easy to write such documents. It was more difficult to bring up
reserves of men and ammunition. The German command was harder pressed by
the end of September.

From July 1st to September 8th, according to trustworthy information,
fifty-three German divisions in all were engaged against the Allies on
the Somme battlefront. Out of these fourteen were still in the line on
September 8th.

Twenty-eight had been withdrawn, broken and exhausted, to quieter
areas. Eleven more had been withdrawn to rest-billets. Under the
Allies’ artillery fire and infantry attacks the average life of a German
division as a unit fit for service on the Somme was nineteen days. More
than two new German divisions had to be brought into the front-line
every week since the end of June, to replace those smashed in the
process of resisting the Allied attack. In November it was reckoned by
competent observers in the field that well over one hundred and twenty
German divisions had been passed through the ordeal of the Somme, this
number including those which have appeared there more than once.



XXIII


By September 25th, when the British troops made another attack, the
morale of the German troops was reaching its lowest ebb. Except on their
right, at Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt, they were far beyond the great
system of protective dugouts which had given them a sense of safety
before July 1st. Their second and third lines of defense had been
carried, and they were existing in shell-craters and trenches hastily
scraped up under ceaseless artillery fire.

The horrors of the battlefield were piled up to heights of agony and
terror. Living men dwelt among the unburied dead, made their way to
the front-lines over heaps of corpses, breathed in the smell of human
corruption and had always in their ears the cries of the wounded they
could not rescue. They wrote these things in tragic letters--thousands
of them--which never reached their homes in Germany, but lay in their
captured ditches.

“The number of dead lying about is awful. One stumbles over them.”

“The stench of the dead lying round us is unbearable.”

“We are no longer men here. We are worse than beasts.”

“It is hell let loose.”... “It is horrible.”... “We’ve lived in misery.”

“If the dear ones at home could see all this perhaps there would be a
change. But they are never told.”

“The ceaseless roar of the guns is driving us mad.”

Poor, pitiful letters, out of their cries of agony one gets to the real
truth of war-the “glory” and the “splendor” of it preached by the
German philosophers and British Jingoes, who upheld it as the great
strengthening tonic for their race, and as the noblest experience of
men. Every line these German soldiers wrote might have been written by
one of ours; from both sides of the shifting lines there was the same
death and the same hell.

Behind the lines the German General Staff, counting up the losses of
battalions and divisions who staggered out weakly, performed juggling
tricks with what reserves it could lay its hands on, and flung up
stray units to relieve the poor wretches in the trenches. Many of those
reliefs lost their way in going up, and came up late, already shattered
by the shell-fire through which they passed.

“Our position,” wrote a German infantry officer, “was, of course, quite
different from what we had been told. Our company alone relieved a whole
battalion. We had been told we were to relieve a company of fifty men
weakened by casualties.

“The men we relieved had no idea where the enemy was, how far off he
was, or whether any of our own troops were in front of us. We got no
idea of our support position until six o’clock this evening. The English
are four hundred yards away, by the windmill over the hill.”

One German soldier wrote that the British “seem to relieve their
infantry very quickly, while the German commands work on the principle
of relieving only in the direst need, and leaving the divisions in as
long as possible.”

Another wrote that:

“The leadership of the divisions really fell through. For the most part
we did not get orders, and the regiment had to manage as best it could.
If orders arrived they generally came too late or were dealt out ‘from
the green table’ without knowledge of the conditions in front, so that
to carry them out was impossible.”

All this was a sign of demoralization, not only among the troops who
were doing the fighting and the suffering, but among the organizing
generals behind, who were directing the operations. The continual
hammer-strokes of the British and French armies on the Somme
battlefields strained the German war-machine on the western front almost
to breaking-point.

It seemed as though a real debacle might happen, and that they would be
forced to effect a general retreat--a withdrawal more or less at ease or
a retirement under pressure from the enemy....

But they had luck--astonishing luck. At the very time when the morale of
the German soldiers was lowest and when the strain on the High Command
was greatest the weather turned in their favor and gave them just the
breathing-space they desperately needed. Rain fell heavily in the middle
of October, autumn mists prevented airplane activity and artillery-work,
and the ground became a quagmire, so that the British troops found it
difficult to get up their supplies for a new advance.

The Germans were able in this respite to bring up new divisions, fresh
and strong enough to make heavy counter--attacks in the Stuff and
Schwaben and Regina trenches, and to hold the lines more securely for a
time, while great digging was done farther back at Bapaume and the next
line of defense. Successive weeks of bad weather and our own tragic
losses checked the impetus of the British and French driving power, and
the Germans were able to reorganize and reform.

As I have said, the shock of our offensive reached as far as Germany,
and caused a complete reorganization in the system of obtaining reserves
of man-power. The process of “combing out,” as we call it, was pursued
with astounding ruthlessness, and German mothers, already stricken with
the loss of their elder sons, raised cries of despair when the youngest
born were also seized--boys of eighteen belonging to the 1918 class.

The whole of the 1917 class had joined the depots in March and May of
this year, receiving a three months’ training before being transferred
to the field-recruit depots in June and July. About the middle of July
the first large drafts joined their units and made their appearance at
the front, and soon after the beginning of our offensive at least half
this class was in the front-line regiments. The massacre of the boys had
begun.

Then older men, men beyond middle age, who correspond to the French
Territorial class, exempted from fighting service and kept on lines of
communication, were also called to the front, and whole garrisons of
these gray heads were removed from German towns to fill up the ranks.

“The view is held here,” wrote a German soldier of the Somme, “that
the Higher Command intends gradually to have more and more Landsturm
battalions (men of the oldest reserves) trained in trench warfare for
a few weeks, as we have been, according to the quality of the men, and
thus to secure by degrees a body of troops on which it can count in an
emergency.”

In the month of November the German High Command believed that the
British attacks were definitely at an end, “having broken down,” as they
claimed, “in mud and blood,” but another shock came to them when once
more British troops--the 51st Highland Division and the 63d Naval
Division--left their trenches, in fog and snow, and captured the
strongest fortress position on the enemy’s front, at Beaumont Hamel,
bringing back over six thousand prisoners. It was after that they began
their retreat.

These studies of mine, of what happened on both sides of the shifting
lines in the Somme, must be as horrible to read as they were to write.
But they are less than the actual truth, for no pen will ever in one
book, or in hundreds, give the full record of the individual agony, the
broken heart-springs, the soul-shock as well as the shell-shock, of that
frightful struggle in which, on one side and the other, two million men
were engulfed. Modern civilization was wrecked on those fire-blasted
fields, though they led to what we called “Victory.” More died there
than the flower of our youth and German manhood. The Old Order of the
world died there, because many men who came alive out of that conflict
were changed, and vowed not to tolerate a system of thought which had
led up to such a monstrous massacre of human beings who prayed to the
same God, loved the same joys of life, and had no hatred of one another
except as it had been lighted and inflamed by their governors, their
philosophers, and their newspapers. The German soldier cursed the
militarism which had plunged him into that horror. The British soldier
cursed the German as the direct cause of all his trouble, but looked
back on his side of the lines and saw an evil there which was also his
enemy--the evil of a secret diplomacy which juggled with the lives of
humble men so that war might be sprung upon them without their knowledge
or consent, and the evil of rulers who hated German militarism not
because of its wickedness, but because of its strength in rivalry and
the evil of a folly in the minds of men which had taught them to regard
war as a glorious adventure, and patriotism as the right to dominate
other peoples, and liberty as a catch--word of politicians in search of
power. After the Somme battles there were many other battles as bloody
and terrible, but they only confirmed greater numbers of men in the
faith that the old world had been wrong in its “make-up” and wrong
in its religion of life. Lip service to Christian ethics was not good
enough as an argument for this. Either the heart of the world must be
changed by a real obedience to the gospel of Christ or Christianity must
be abandoned for a new creed which would give better results between
men and nations. There could be no reconciling of bayonet-drill and high
explosives with the words “Love one another.” Or if bayonet-drill and
high-explosive force were to be the rule of life in preparation for
another struggle such as this, then at least let men put hypocrisy away
and return to the primitive law of the survival of the fittest in a
jungle world subservient to the king of beasts. The devotion of military
chaplains to the wounded, their valor, their decorations for gallantry
under fire, their human comradeship and spiritual sincerity, would not
bridge the gulf in the minds of many soldiers between a gospel of love
and this argument by bayonet and bomb, gas-shell and high velocity,
blunderbuss, club, and trench-shovel. Some time or other, when German
militarism acknowledged defeat by the break of its machine or by the
revolt of its people--not until then--there must be a new order of
things, which would prevent such another massacre in the fair fields of
life, and that could come only by a faith in the hearts of many peoples
breaking down old barriers of hatred and reaching out to one another in
a fellowship of common sense based on common interests, and inspired by
an ideal higher than this beast-like rivalry of nations. So thinking
men thought and talked. So said the soldier--poets who wrote from the
trenches. So said many onlookers. The simple soldier did not talk like
that unless he were a Frenchman. Our men only began to talk like that
after the war--as many of them are now talking--and the revolt of the
spirit, vague but passionate, against the evil that had produced this
devil’s trap of war, and the German challenge, was subconscious as they
sat in their dugouts and crowded in their ditches in the battles of the
Somme.



PART SEVEN. THE FIELDS OF ARMAGEDDON



I


During the two years that followed the battles of the Somme I recorded
in my daily despatches, republished in book form (“The Struggle in
Flanders” and “The Way to Victory”), the narrative of that continuous
conflict in which the British forces on the western front were at
death-grips with the German monster where now one side and then the
other heaved themselves upon their adversary and struggled for the
knock-out blow, until at last, after staggering losses on both sides,
the enemy was broken to bits in the last combined attack by British,
Belgian, French, and American armies. There is no need for me to retell
all that history in detail, and I am glad to know that there is nothing
I need alter in the record of events which I wrote as they happened,
because they have not been falsified by any new evidence; and those
detailed descriptions of mine stand true in fact and in the emotion
of the hours that passed, while masses of men were slaughtered in the
fields of Armageddon.

But now, looking back upon those last two years of the war as an
eye-witness of many tragic and heroic things, I see the frightful drama
of them as a whole and as one act was related to another, and as the
plot which seemed so tangled and confused, led by inevitable stages, not
under the control of any field-marshal or chief of staff, to the climax
in which empires crashed and exhausted nations looked round upon the
ruin which followed defeat and victory. I see also, as in one picture,
the colossal scale of that human struggle in that Armageddon of our
civilization, which at the time one reckoned only by each day’s success
or failure, each day’s slaughter on that side or the other. One may add
up the whole sum according to the bookkeeping of Fate, by double-entry,
credit and debit, profit and loss. One may set our attacks in the
battles of Flanders against the strength of the German defense, and say
our losses of three to one (as Ludendorff reckons them, and as many of
us guessed) were in our favor, because we could afford the difference
of exchange and the enemy could not put so many human counters into the
pool for the final “kitty” in this gamble with life and death. One may
balance the German offensive in March of ‘18 with the weight that was
piling up against them by the entry of the Americans. One may also see
now, very clearly, the paramount importance of the human factor in this
arithmetic of war, the morale of men being of greater influence than
generalship, though dependent on it, the spirit of peoples being as
vital to success as the mechanical efficiency of the war-machine; and
above all, one is now able to observe how each side blundered on in a
blind, desperate way, sacrificing masses of human life without a clear
vision of the consequences, until at last one side blundered more than
another and was lost. It will be impossible to pretend in history that
our High Command, or any other, foresaw the thread of plot as it was
unraveled to the end, and so arranged its plan that events happened
according to design. The events of March, 1918, were not foreseen nor
prevented by French or British. The ability of our generals was not
imaginative nor inventive, but limited to the piling up of men and
munitions, always more men and more munitions, against positions of
enormous strength and overcoming obstacles by sheer weight of flesh and
blood and high explosives. They were not cunning so far as I could
see, nor in the judgment of the men under their command, but simple and
straightforward gentlemen who said “once more unto the breach,” and sent
up new battering-rams by brigades and divisions. There was no evidence
that I could find of high directing brains choosing the weakest spot
in the enemy’s armor and piercing it with a sharp sword, or avoiding a
direct assault against the enemy’s most formidable positions and leaping
upon him from some unguarded way. Perhaps that was impossible in the
conditions of modern warfare and the limitations of the British front
until the arrival of the tanks, which, for a long time, were wasted in
the impassable bogs of Flanders, where their steel skeletons still lie
rusting as a proof of heroic efforts vainly used. Possible or not, and
rare genius alone could prove it one way or another, it appeared to the
onlooker, as well as to the soldier who carried out commands that our
method of warfare was to search the map for a place which was strongest
in the enemy’s lines, most difficult to attack, most powerfully
defended, and then after due advertisement, not to take an unfair
advantage of the enemy, to launch the assault. That had always been the
English way and that was our way in many battles of the great war, which
were won (unless they were lost) by the sheer valor of men who at great
cost smashed their way through all obstructions.

The Germans, on the whole, showed more original genius in military
science, varying their methods of attack and defense according to
circumstances, building trenches and dugouts which we never equaled;
inventing the concrete blockhouse or “pill-box” for a forward defensive
zone thinly held in advance of the main battle zone, in order to lessen
their slaughter under the weight of our gun-fire (it cost us dearly for
a time); scattering their men in organized shell-craters in order to
distract our barrage fire; using the “elastic system of defense” with
frightful success against Nivelle’s attack in the Champagne; creating
the system of assault of “infiltration” which broke the Italian lines at
Caporetto in 1917 and ours and the French in 1918. Against all that we
may set only our tanks, which in the end led the way to victory, but the
German High Command blundered atrociously in all the larger calculations
of war, so that they brought about the doom of their empire by a series
of acts which would seem deliberate if we had not known that they were
merely blind. With a folly that still seems incredible, they took the
risk of adding the greatest power in the world--in numbers of men and
in potential energy--to their list of enemies at a time when their own
man-power was on the wane. With deliberate arrogance they flouted
the United States and forced her to declare war. Their temptation,
of course, was great. The British naval blockade was causing severe
suffering by food shortage to the German people and denying them access
to raw material which they needed for the machinery of war.

The submarine campaign, ruthlessly carried out, would and did inflict
immense damage upon British and Allied shipping, and was a deadly menace
to England. But German calculations were utterly wrong, as Ludendorff in
his Memoirs now admits, in estimating the amount of time needed to break
her bonds by submarine warfare before America could send over
great armies to Europe. The German war lords were wrong again in
underestimating the defensive and offensive success of the British
navy and mercantile marine against submarine activities. By those
miscalculations they lost the war in the long run, and by other errors
they made their loss more certain.

One mistake they made was their utter callousness regarding the
psychology and temper of their soldiers and civilian population. They
put a greater strain upon them than human nature could bear, and by
driving their fighting-men into one shambles after another, while they
doped their people with false promises which were never fulfilled, they
sowed the seeds of revolt and despair which finally launched them into
gulfs of ruin. I have read nothing more horrible than the cold-blooded
cruelty of Ludendorff’s Memoirs, in which, without any attempt at
self-excuse, he reveals himself as using the lives of millions of men
upon a gambling chance of victory with the hazards weighted against him,
as he admits. Writing of January, 1917, he says: “A collapse on the
part of Russia was by no means to be contemplated and was, indeed, not
reckoned upon by any one... Failing the U-boat campaign we reckoned
with the collapse of the Quadruple Alliance during 1917.” Yet with that
enormous risk visible ahead, Ludendorff continued to play the grand jeu,
the great game, and did not advise any surrender of imperial ambitions
in order to obtain a peace for his people, and was furious with the
Majority party in the Reichstag for preparing a peace resolution. The
collapse of Russia inspired him with new hopes of victory in the
west, and again he prepared to sacrifice masses of men in the
slaughter-fields. But he blundered again, and this time fatally. His
time-table was out of gear. The U--boat war had failed. American manhood
was pouring into France, and German soldiers on the Russian front had
been infected with ideas most dangerous to German discipline and the
“will to win.” At the end, as at the beginning, the German war lords
failed to understand the psychology of human nature as they had failed
to understand the spirit of France, of Belgium, of Great Britain, and
of America. One of the most important admissions in history is made by
Ludendorff when he writes:

“Looking back, I say our decline began clearly with the outbreak of the
revolution in Russia. On the one side the government was dominated
by the fear that the infection would spread, and on the other by the
feeling of their helplessness to instil fresh strength into the masses
of the people and to strengthen their warlike ardor, waning as it was
through a combination of innumerable circumstances.”

So the web of fate was spun, and men who thought they were directing
the destiny of the world were merely caught in those woven threads like
puppets tied to strings and made to dance. It was the old Dance of Death
which has happened before in the folly of mankind.



II


During the German retreat to their Hindenburg line we saw the full
ruthlessness of war as never before on the western front, in the laying
waste of a beautiful countryside, not by rational fighting, but by
carefully organized destruction. Ludendorff claims, quite justly, that
it was in accordance with the laws of war. That is true. It is only that
our laws of war are not justified by any code of humanity above that of
primitive savages. “The decision to retreat,” he says, “was not reached
without a painful struggle. It implied a confession of weakness that was
bound to raise the morale of the enemy and to lower our own. But as
it was necessary for military reasons we had no choice. It had to be
carried out... The whole movement was a brilliant performance... The
retirement proved in a high degree remunerative.”

I saw the brilliant performance in its operation. I went into beautiful
little towns like Peronne, where the houses were being gutted by
smoldering fire, and into hundreds of villages where the enemy had just
gone out of them after touching off explosive charges which had made all
their cottages collapse like card houses, their roofs spread flat upon
their ruins, and their churches, after centuries of worship in them,
fall into chaotic heaps of masonry. I wandered through the ruins of
old French chateaux, once very stately in their terraced gardens, now a
litter of brickwork, broken statuary, and twisted iron--work above open
vaults where not even the dead had been left to lie in peace. I saw the
little old fruit-trees of French peasants sawn off at the base, and the
tall trees along the roadsides stretched out like dead giants to bar our
passage. Enormous craters had been blown in the roadways, which had
to be bridged for our traffic of men and guns, following hard upon the
enemy’s retreat.

There was a queer sense of illusion as one traveled through this
desolation. At a short distance many of the villages seemed to stand as
before the war. One expected to find inhabitants there. But upon close
approach one saw that each house was but an empty shell blown out from
cellar to roof, and one wandered through the streets of the ruins in a
silence that was broken only by the sound of one’s own voice or by a
few shells crashing into the gutted houses. The enemy was in the next
village, or the next but one, with a few field-guns and a rear-guard of
machine-gunners.

In most villages, in many of his dugouts, and by contraptions with
objects lying amid the litter, he had left “booby traps” to blow our men
to bits if they knocked a wire, or stirred an old boot, or picked up a
fountain-pen, or walked too often over a board where beneath acid was
eating through a metal plate to a high-explosive charge. I little
knew when I walked round the tower of the town hall of Bapaume that in
another week, with the enemy far away, it would go up in dust and ashes.
Only a few of our men were killed or blinded by these monkey-tricks. Our
engineers found most of them before they were touched off, but one went
down dugouts or into ruined houses with a sense of imminent danger. All
through the devastated region one walked with an uncanny feeling of an
evil spirit left behind by masses of men whose bodies had gone away. It
exuded from scraps of old clothing, it was in the stench of the dugouts
and in the ruins they had made.

In some few villages there were living people left behind, some hundreds
in Nesle and Roye, and, all told, some thousands. They had been driven
in from the other villages burning around them, their own villages,
whose devastation they wept to see. I met these people who had lived
under German rule and talked with many of them--old women, wrinkled
like dried-up apples, young women waxen of skin, hollow-eyed, with sharp
cheekbones, old peasant farmers and the gamekeepers of French chateaux,
and young boys and girls pinched by years of hunger that was not quite
starvation. It was from these people that I learned a good deal about
the psychology of German soldiers during the battles of the Somme.
They told me of the terror of these men at the increasing fury of our
gun-fire, of their desertion and revolt to escape the slaughter, and
of their rage against the “Great People” who used them for gun-fodder.
Habitually many of them talked of the war as the “Great Swindle.” These
French civilians hated the Germans in the mass with a cold, deadly
hatred. They spoke with shrill passion at the thought of German
discipline, fines, punishments, requisitions, which they had suffered
in these years. The hope of vengeance was like water to parched throats.
Yet I noticed that nearly every one of these people had something good
to say about some German soldier who had been billeted with them. “He
was a good-natured fellow. He chopped wood for me and gave the children
his own bread. He wept when he told me that the village was to
be destroyed.” Even some of the German officers had deplored this
destruction. “The world will have a right to call us barbarians,” said
one of them in Ham. “But what can we do? We are under orders. If we do
not obey we shall be shot. It is the cruelty of the High Command. It is
the cruelty of war.”

On the whole it seemed they had not misused the women. I heard no
tales of actual atrocity, though some of brutal passion. But many women
shrugged their shoulders when I questioned them about this and said:
“They had no need to use violence in their way of love--making. There
were many volunteers.”

They rubbed their thumbs and fingers together as though touching money
and said, “You understand?”

I understood when I went to a convent in Amiens and saw a crowd of
young mothers with flaxen-haired babies, just arrived from the liberated
districts. “All those are the children of German fathers,” said the old
Reverend Mother. “That is the worst tragedy of war. How will God punish
all this? Alas! it is the innocent who suffer for the guilty.”

Eighteen months later, or thereabouts, I went into a house in Cologne,
where a British outpost was on the Hohenzollern bridge. There was a
babies’ creche in an upper room, and a German lady was tending thirty
little ones whose chorus of “Guten Tag! Guten Tag!” was like the
quacking of ducks.

“After to-morrow there will be no more milk for them,” she said.

“And then?” I asked.

“And then many of them will die.”

She wept a little. I thought of those other babies in Amiens, and of the
old Reverend Mother.

“How will God punish all this? Alas! it is the innocent who suffer for
the guilty.”

Of those things General Ludendorff does not write in his Memoirs, which
deal with the strategy and machinery of war.



III


Sir Douglas Haig was not misled into the error of following up the
German retreat, across that devastated country, with masses of men. He
sent forward outposts to keep in touch with the German rear-guards and
prepared to deliver big blows at the Vimy Ridge and the lines round
Arras. This new battle by British troops was dictated by French strategy
rather than by ours. General Nivelle, the new generalissimo, was
organizing a great offensive in the Champagne and desired the British
army to strike first and keep on striking in order to engage and exhaust
German divisions until he was ready to launch his own legions. The
“secret” of his preparations was known by every officer in the French
army and by Hindenburg and his staff, who prepared a new method
of defense to meet it. The French officers with whom I talked were
supremely confident of success. “We shall go through,” they said. “It
is certain. Anybody who thinks otherwise is a traitor who betrays his
country by the poison of pessimism. Nivelle will deal the death--blow.”
 So spoke an officer of the Chasseurs Alpins, and a friend in the
infantry of the line, over a cup of coffee in an estaminet crammed with
other French soldiers who were on their way to the Champagne front.

Nivelle did not launch his offensive until April 16th, seven days after
the British had captured the heights of Vimy and gone far to the east of
Arras. Hindenburg was ready. He adopted his “elastic system of defense,”
 which consisted in withdrawing the main body of his troops beyond
the range of the French barrage fire, leaving only a few outposts to
camouflage the withdrawal and be sacrificed for the sake of the others
(those German outposts must have disliked their martyrdom under orders,
and I doubt whether they, poor devils, were exhilarated by the thought
of their heroic service). He also withdrew the full power of his
artillery beyond the range of French counter-battery work and to such
a distance that when it was the German turn to fire the French infantry
would be beyond the effective protection of their own guns. They were
to be allowed an easy walk through to their death-trap. That is what
happened. The French infantry, advancing with masses of black troops
in the Colonial Corps in the front-line of assault, all exultant and
inspired by a belief in victory, swept through the forward zone of the
German defenses, astonished, and then disconcerted by the scarcity
of Germans, until an annihilating barrage fire dropped upon them and
smashed their human waves. From French officers and nurses I heard
appalling tales of this tragedy. The death--wail of the black troops
froze the blood of Frenchmen with horror. Their own losses were immense
in a bloody shambles. I was told by French officers that their losses on
the first day of battle were 150,000 casualties, and these figures
were generally believed. They were not so bad as that, though terrible.
Semi-official figures state that the operations which lasted from April
16th to April 25th cost France 28,000 killed on the field of battle,
5,000 who died of wounds in hospital, 4,000 prisoners, and 80,000
wounded. General Nivelle’s offensive was called off, and French officers
who had said, “We shall break through... It is certain,” now said: “We
came up against a bec de gaz. As you English would say, we ‘got it in
the neck.’ It is a great misfortune.”

The battle of Arras, in which the British army was engaged, began on
April 9th, an Easter Sunday, when there was a gale of sleet and snow.
From ground near the old city of Arras I saw the preliminary bombardment
when the Vimy Ridge was blasted by a hurricane of fire and the German
lines beyond Arras were tossed up in earth and flame. From one of old
Vauban’s earthworks outside the walls I saw lines of our men going up
in assault beyond the suburbs of Blangy and St.-Laurent to Roclincourt,
through a veil of sleet and smoke. Our gun-fire was immense and
devastating, and the first blow that fell upon the enemy was
overpowering. The Vimy Ridge was captured from end to end by the
Canadians on the left and the 51st Division of Highlanders on the right.
By the afternoon the entire living German population, more than seven
thousand in the tunnels of Vimy, were down below in the valley on our
side of the lines, and on the ridge were many of their dead as I saw
them afterward horribly mangled by shell-fire in the upheaved earth. The
Highland Division, commanded by General Harper--“Uncle Harper,” he was
called--had done as well as the Canadians, though they had less honor,
and took as many prisoners. H.D. was their divisional sign as I saw it
stenciled on many ruined walls throughout the war. “Well, General,” said
a Scottish sergeant, “they don’t call us Harper’s Duds any more!”... On
the right English county troops of the 12th Division, 3d Division, and
others, the 15th (Scottish) and the 36th (London) had broken through,
deeply and widely, capturing many men and guns after hard fighting round
machine-gun redoubts. That night masses of German prisoners suffered
terribly from a blizzard in the barbed-wire cages at Etrun, by Arras,
where Julius Caesar had his camp for a year in other days of history.
They herded together with their bodies bent to the storm, each man
sheltering his fellow and giving a little human warmth. All night
through a German commandant sat in our Intelligence hut with his head
bowed on his breast. Every now and then he said: “It is cold! It is
cold!” And our men lay out in the captured ground beyond Arras and on
the Vimy Ridge, under harassing fire and machine-gun fire, cold, too,
in that wild blizzard, with British dead and German dead in the mangled
earth about them.

Ludendorff admits the severity of that defeat.

“The battle near Arras on April 9th formed a bad beginning to the
capital fighting during this year.

“April 10th and the succeeding days were critical days. A breach twelve
thousand to fifteen thousand yards wide and as much as six thousand
yards and more in depth is not a thing to be mended without more ado.
It takes a good deal to repair the inordinate wastage of men and guns as
well as munitions that results from such a breach. It was the business
of the Supreme Command to provide reserves on a large scale. But in view
of the troops available, and of the war situation, it was simply not
possible to hold a second division in readiness behind each division
that might, perhaps, be about to drop out. A day like April 9th upset
all calculations. It was a matter of days before a new front could be
formed and consolidated. Even after the troops were ultimately in
line the issue of the crisis depended, as always in such cases, very
materially upon whether the enemy followed up his initial success with a
fresh attack and by fresh successes made it difficult for us to create
a firm front. In view of the weakening of the line that inevitably
resulted, such successes were only too easy to achieve.

“From April 10th onward the English attacked in the breach in great
strength, but after all not in the grand manner; they extended their
attack on both wings, especially to the southward as far as Bullecourt.
On April 11th they gained Monchy, while we during the night before the
12th evacuated the Vimy heights. April 23d and 28th, and also May 3d,
were again days of heavy, pitched battle. In between there was some
bitter local fighting. The struggle continued, we delivered minor
successful counter-attacks, and on the other hand lost ground slightly
at various points.”

I remember many pictures of that fighting round Arras in the days that
followed the first day. I remember the sinister beauty of the city
itself, when there was a surging traffic of men and guns through its
ruined streets in spite of long-range shells which came crashing into
the houses. Our soldiers, in their steel hats and goatskin coats, looked
like medieval men-at-arms. The Highlanders who crowded Arras had their
pipe-bands there and they played in the Petite Place, and the skirl of
the pipes shattered against the gables of old houses. There were tunnels
beneath Arras through which our men advanced to the German lines, and I
went along them when one line of men was going into battle and another
was coming back, wounded, some of them blind, bloody, vomiting with the
fumes of gas in their lungs--their steel hats clinking as they groped
past one another. In vaults each side of these passages men played cards
on barrels, to the light of candles stuck in bottles, or slept until
their turn to fight, with gas-masks for their pillows. Outside the
Citadel of Arras, built by Vauban under Louis XIV, there were long
queues of wounded men taking their turn to the surgeons who were working
in a deep crypt with a high-vaulted roof. One day there were three
thousand of them, silent, patient, muddy, blood-stained. Blind boys or
men with smashed faces swathed in bloody rags groped forward to the dark
passage leading to the vault, led by comrades. On the grass outside lay
men with leg wounds and stomach wounds. The way past the station to
the Arras-Cambrai road was a death-trap for our transport and I saw the
bodies of horses and men horribly mangled there. Dead horses were thick
on each side of an avenue of trees on the southern side of the city,
lying in their blood and bowels. The traffic policeman on “point duty”
 on the Arras-Cambrai road had an impassive face under his steel helmet,
as though in Piccadilly Circus; only turned his head a little at the
scream of a shell which plunged through the gable of a corner house
above him. There was a Pioneer battalion along the road out to
Observatory Ridge, which was a German target. They were mending the road
beyond the last trench, through which our men had smashed their way.
They were busy with bricks and shovels, only stopping to stare at shells
plowing holes in the fields on each side of them. When I came back one
morning a number of them lay covered with blankets, as though asleep.
They were dead, but their comrades worked on grimly, with no joy of
labor in their sweat.

Monchy Hill was the key position, high above the valley of the Scarpe.
I saw it first when there was a white village there, hardly touched
by fire, and afterward when there was no village. I was in the village
below Observatory Ridge on the morning of April 11th when cavalry
was massed on that ground, waiting for orders to go into action. The
headquarters of the cavalry division was in a ditch covered by planks,
and the cavalry generals and their staffs sat huddled together with maps
over their knees. “I am afraid the general is busy for the moment,” said
a young staff-officer on top of the ditch. He looked about the fields
and said, “It’s very unhealthy here.” I agreed with him. The bodies of
many young soldiers lay about. Five-point-nines (5.9’s) were coming over
in a haphazard way. It was no ground for cavalry. But some squadrons
of the 10th Hussars, Essex Yeomanry, and the Blues were ordered to take
Monchy, and rode up the hill in a flurry of snow and were seen by German
gunners and slashed by shrapnel. Most of their horses were killed in the
village or outside it, and the men suffered many casualties, including
their general--Bulkely Johnson--whose body I saw carried back on a
stretcher to the ruin of Thilloy, where crumps were bursting. It is
an astonishing thing that two withered old French women stayed in the
village all through the fighting. When our troops rode in these women
came running forward, frightened and crying “Camarades!” as though in
fear of the enemy. When our men surrounded them they were full of joy
and held up their scraggy old faces to be kissed by these troopers.
Afterward Monchy was filled with a fury of shell-fire and the troopers
crawled out from the ruins, leaving the village on the hill to be
attacked and captured again by our infantry of the 15th and 37th
Divisions, who were also badly hammered.

Heroic folly! The cavalry in reserve below Observatory Hill stood to
their horses, staring up at a German airplane which came overhead,
careless of our “Archies.” The eye of the German pilot must have widened
at the sight of that mass of men and horses. He carried back glad
tidings to the guns.

One of the cavalry officers spoke to me.

“You look ill.”

“No, I’m all right. Only cold.”

The officer himself looked worn and haggard after a night in the open.

“Do you think the Germans will get their range as far as this? I’m
nervous about the men and the horses. We’ve been here for hours, and it
seems no good.”

I did not remind him that the airplane was undoubtedly the herald of
long-range shells. They came within a few minutes. Some men and horses
were killed. I was with a Highland officer and we took cover in a
ditch not more than breast high. Shells were bursting damnably close,
scattering us with dirt.

“Let’s strike away from the road,” said Major Schiach. “They always tape
it out.”

We struck across country, back to Arras, glad to get there... other men
had to stay.

The battles to the east of Arras that went before the capture of Monchy
and followed it were hard, nagging actions along the valley of the
Scarpe, which formed a glacis, where our men were terribly exposed to
machine--gun fire, and suffered heavily day after day, week after week,
for no object apparent to our battalion officers and men, who did not
know that they were doing team-work for the French. The Londoners of the
56th Division made a record advance through Neuville-Vitasse to Henin
and Heninel, and broke a switch-line of the Hindenburg system across the
little Cojeul River by Wancourt. There was a fatal attack in the dark on
May 3d, when East Kents and Surreys and Londoners saw a gray dawn come,
revealing the enemy between them and our main line, and had to hack
their way through if they could, There were many who could not, and even
divisional generals were embittered by these needless losses and by the
hard driving of their men, saying fierce things about our High Command.

Their language was mild compared with that of some of our young
officers. I remember one I met near Henin. He was one of a group
of three, all gunner officers who were looking about for better gun
positions not so clearly visible to the enemy, who was in two little
woods--the Bois de Sart and Bois Vert--which stared down upon them like
green eyes. Some of their guns had been destroyed, many of their horses
killed; some of their men. A few minutes before our meeting a shell
had crashed into a bath close to their hut, where men were washing
themselves. The explosion filled the bath with blood and bits of flesh.
The younger officer stared at me under the tilt forward of his steel hat
and said, “Hullo, Gibbs!” I had played chess with him at Groom’s Cafe in
Fleet Street in days before the war. I went back to his hut and had tea
with him, close to that bath, hoping that we should not be cut up with
the cake. There were noises “off,” as they say in stage directions,
which were enormously disconcerting to one’s peace of mind, and not very
far off. I had heard before some hard words about our generalship and
staff-work, but never anything so passionate, so violent, as from that
gunner officer. His view of the business was summed up in the word
“murder.” He raged against the impossible orders sent down from
headquarters, against the brutality with which men were left in the line
week after week, and against the monstrous, abominable futility of all
our so-called strategy. His nerves were in rags, as I could see by the
way in which his hand shook when he lighted one cigarette after
another. His spirit was in a flame of revolt against the misery of his
sleeplessness, filth, and imminent peril of death. Every shell that
burst near Henin sent a shudder through him. I stayed an hour in his
hut, and then went away toward Neuville-Vitasse with harassing fire
following along the way. I looked back many times to the valley, and to
the ridges where the enemy lived above it, invisible but deadly. The
sun was setting and there was a tawny glamour in the sky, and a mystical
beauty over the landscape despite the desert that war had made there,
leaving only white ruins and slaughtered trees where once there were
good villages with church spires rising out of sheltering woods. The
German gunners were doing their evening hate. Crumps were bursting
heavily again amid our gun positions.

Heninel was not a choice spot. There were other places of extreme
unhealthfulness where our men had fought their way up to the Hindenburg
line, or, as the Germans called it, the Siegfried line. Croisille and
Cherisy were targets of German guns, and I saw them ravaging among the
ruins, and dodged them. But our men, who lived close to these places,
stayed there too long to dodge them always. They were inhabitants, not
visitors. The Australians settled down in front of Bullecourt, captured
it after many desperate fights, which left them with a bitter grudge
against tanks which had failed them and some English troops who were
held up on the left while they went forward and were slaughtered. The
4th Australian Division lost three thousand men in an experimental
attack directed by the Fifth Army. They made their gun emplacements
in the Noreuil Valley, the valley of death as they called it, and
Australian gunners made little slit trenches and scuttled into them when
the Germans ranged on their batteries, blowing gun spokes and wheels and
breech-blocks into the air. Queant, the bastion of the Hindenburg line,
stared straight down the valley, and it was evil ground, as I knew when
I went walking there with another war correspondent and an Australian
officer who at a great pace led us round about, amid 5.9’s, and
debouched a little to see one of our ammunition-dumps exploding like a
Brock’s Benefit, and chattered brightly under “woolly bears” which made
a rending tumult above our heads. I think he enjoyed his afternoon out
from staff-work in the headquarters huts. Afterward I was told that he
was mad, but I think he was only brave. I hated those hours, but put
on the mask that royalty wears when it takes an intelligent interest in
factory-work.

The streams of wounded poured down into the casualty clearing stations
day by day, week by week, and I saw the crowded Butchers’ Shops of war,
where busy surgeons lopped at limbs and plugged men’s wounds.

Yet in those days, as before and afterward, as at the beginning and
as at the end, the spirits of British soldiers kept high unless their
bodies were laid low. Between battles they enjoyed their spells of rest
behind the lines. In that early summer of ‘17 there was laughter in
Arras, lots of fun in spite of high velocities, the music of massed
pipers and brass bands, jolly comradeship in billets with paneled walls
upon which perhaps Robespierre’s shadow had fallen in the candle-light
before the Revolution, when he was the good young man of Arras.

As a guest of the Gordons, of the 15th Division, I listened to the
pipers who marched round the table and stood behind the colonel’s chair
and mine, and played the martial music of Scotland, until something
seemed to break in my soul and my ear-drums. I introduced a French
friend to the mess, and as a guest of honor he sat next to the colonel,
and the eight pipers played behind his chair. He went pale, deadly
white, and presently swooned off his chair... and the Gordons thought it
the finest tribute to their pipes!

The officers danced reels in stocking feet with challenging cries,
Gaelic exhortations, with fine grace and passion, though they were
tangled sometimes in the maze... many of them fell in the fields outside
or in the bogs of Flanders.

On the western side of Arras there were field sports by London men,
and Surreys, Buffs, Sussex, Norfolks, Suffolks, and Devons. They played
cricket between their turns in the line, lived in the sunshine of the
day, and did not look forward to the morrow. At such times one found no
trace of war’s agony in their faces or their eyes nor in the quality of
their laughter.

My dwelling-place at that time, with other war correspondents, was in an
old white chateau between St.-Pol and Hesdin, from which we motored out
to the line, Arras way or Vimy way, for those walks in Queer Street.
The contrast of our retreat with that Armageddon beyond was profound
and bewildering. Behind the old white house were winding walks through
little woods beside the stream which Henry crossed on his way to
Agincourt; tapestried in early spring with bluebells and daffodils and
all the flowers that Ronsard wove into his verse in the springtime of
France. Birds sang their love-songs in the thickets. The tits twittered
fearfully at the laugh of the jay. All that beauty was like a sharp pain
at one’s heart after hearing the close tumult of the guns and trudging
over the blasted fields of war, in the routine of our task, week by
week, month by month.

“This makes for madness,” said a friend of mine, a musician surprised
to find himself a soldier. “In the morning we see boys with their heads
blown off”--that morning beyond the Point du Jour and Thelus we had
passed a group of headless boys, and another coming up stared at them
with a silly smile and said, “They’ve copped it all right!” and went on
to the same risk; and we had crouched below mounds of earth when shells
had scattered dirt over us and scared us horribly, so that we felt a
little sick in the stomach--“and in the afternoon we walk through this
garden where the birds are singing... There is no sense in it. It’s just
midsummer madness!”

But only one of us went really mad and tried to cut his throat, and
died. One of the best, as I knew him at his best.



IV


The battles of the Third Army beyond Arras petered out and on June 7th
there was the battle of Messines and Wytschaete when the Second Army
revealed its mastery of organization and detail. It was the beginning
of a vastly ambitious scheme to capture the whole line of ridges through
Flanders, of which this was the southern hook, and then to liberate the
Belgian coast as far inland as Bruges by a combined sea-and-land attack
with shoregoing tanks, directed by the Fourth Army. This first blow at
the Messines Ridge was completely and wonderfully successful, due to
the explosion of seventeen enormous mines under the German positions,
followed by an attack “in depth,” divisions passing through each other,
or “leap-frogging,” as it was called, to the final objectives against an
enemy demoralized by the earthquake of the explosions.

For two years there had been fierce underground fighting at Hill 60
and elsewhere, when our tunnelers saw the Germans had listened to one
another’s workings, racing to strike through first to their enemies’
galleries and touch off their high-explosive charges. Our miners, aided
by the magnificent work of Australian and Canadian tunnelers, had beaten
the enemy into sheer terror of their method of fighting and they had
abandoned it, believing that we had also. But we did not, as they found
to their cost.

I had seen the working of the tunnelers up by Hill 70 and elsewhere. I
had gone into the darkness of the tunnels, crouching low, striking
my steel hat with sharp, spine-jarring knocks against the low beams
overhead, coming into galleries where one could stand upright and walk
at ease in electric light, hearing the vibrant hum of great engines, the
murmur of men’s voices in dark crypts, seeing numbers of men sleeping
on bunks in the gloom of caverns close beneath the German lines, and
listening through a queer little instrument called a microphone, by
which I heard the scuffle of German feet in German galleries a thousand
yards away, the dropping of a pick or shovel, the knocking out of German
pipes against charcoal stoves. It was by that listening instrument,
more perfect than the enemy’s, that we had beaten him, and by the grim
determination of those underground men of ours, whose skin was the color
of the chalk in which they worked, who coughed in the dampness of the
caves, and who packed high explosives at the shaft-heads--hundreds of
tons of it--for the moment when a button should be touched far away, and
an electric current would pass down a wire, and the enemy and his works
would be blown into dust.

That moment came at Hill 60 and sixteen other places below the
Wytschaete and Messines Ridge at three-thirty on the morning of June
7th, after a quiet night of war, when a few of our batteries had
fired in a desultory way and the enemy had sent over some flocks of
gas-shells, and before the dawn I heard the cocks crow on Kemmel Hill.
I saw the seventeen mines go up, and earth and flame gush out of them as
though the fires of hell had risen. A terrible sight, as the work of men
against their fellow--creatures... It was the signal for seven hundred
and fifty of our heavy guns and two thousand of our field--guns to open
fire, and behind a moving wall of bursting shells English, Irish, and
New Zealand soldiers moved forward in dense waves. It was almost
a “walk-over.” Only here and there groups of Germans served their
machine-guns to the death. Most of the living were stupefied amid their
dead in the upheaved trenches, slashed woods, and deepest dugouts.
I walked to the edge of the mine-craters and stared into their great
gulfs, wondering how many German bodies had been engulfed there. The
following day I walked through Wytschaete Wood to the ruins of the
Hospice on the ridge. In 1914 some of our cavalry had passed this way
when the Hospice was a big red-brick building with wings and outhouses
and a large community of nuns and children. Through my glasses I had
often seen its ruins from Kemmel Hill and the Scherpenberg. Now nothing
was left but a pile of broken bricks, not very high. Our losses were
comparatively small, though some brave men had died, including Major
Willie Redmond, whose death in Wytschaete Wood was heard with grief in
Ireland.

Ludendorff admits the severity of the blow:

“The moral effect of the explosions was simply staggering... The 7th of
June cost us dear, and, owing to the success of the enemy attack, the
price we paid was very heavy. Here, too, it was many days before the
front was again secure. The British army did not press its advantage;
apparently it only intended to improve its position for the launching
of the great Flanders offensive. It thereupon resumed operations between
the old Arras battlefield and also between La Bassee and Lens. The
object of the enemy was to wear us down and distract our attention from
Ypres.”

That was true. The Canadians made heavy attacks at Lens, some of which I
saw from ground beyond Notre Dame de Lorette and the Vimy Ridge and the
enemy country by Grenay, when those men besieged a long chain of mining
villages which girdled Lens itself, where every house was a machine-gun
fort above deep tunnels. I saw them after desperate struggles, covered
in clay, parched with thirst, gassed, wounded, but indomitable. Lens was
the Troy of the Canadian Corps and the English troops of the First Army,
and it was only owing to other battles they were called upon to fight in
Flanders that they had to leave it at last uncaptured, for the enemy to
escape.

All this was subsidiary to the great offensive in Flanders, with its
ambitious objects. But when the battles of Flanders began the year was
getting past its middle age, and events on other fronts had upset the
strategical plan of Sir Douglas Haig and our High Command. The
failure and abandonment of the Nivelle offensive in the Champagne were
disastrous to us. It liberated many German divisions who could be sent
up to relieve exhausted divisions in Flanders. Instead of attacking the
enemy when he was weakening under assaults elsewhere, we attacked him
when all was quiet on the French front. The collapse of Russia was
now happening and our policy ought to have been to save men for the
tremendous moment of 1918, when we should need all our strength. So it
seems certain now, though it is easy to prophesy after the event.

I went along the coast as far as Coxyde and Nieuport and saw secret
preparations for the coast offensive. We were building enormous gun
emplacements at Malo-les--Bains for long-range naval guns, camouflaged
in sand--dunes. Our men were being trained for fighting in the dunes.
Our artillery positions were mapped out.

“Three shots to one, sir,” said Sir Henry Rawlinson to the King, “that’s
the stuff to give them!”

But the Germans struck the first blow up there, not of importance to the
strategical position, but ghastly to two battalions of the 1st Division,
cut off on a spit of land at Lombartzyde and almost annihilated under a
fury of fire.

At this time the enemy was developing his use of a new
poison-gas--mustard gas--which raised blisters and burned men’s bodies
where the vapor was condensed into a reddish powder and blinded them for
a week or more, if not forever, and turned their lungs to water. I saw
hundreds of these cases in the 3rd Canadian casualty clearing station
on the coast, and there were thousands all along our front. At Oast
Dunkerque, near Nieuport, I had a whiff of it, and was conscious of a
burning sensation about the lips and eyelids, and for a week afterward
vomited at times, and was scared by queer flutterings of the heart which
at night seemed to have but a feeble beat. It was enough to “put the
wind up.” Our men dreaded the new danger, so mysterious, so stealthy in
its approach. It was one of the new plagues of war.



V


The battle of Flanders began round Ypres on July 31st, with a greater
intensity of artillery on our side than had ever been seen before in
this war in spite of the Somme and Messines, when on big days of battle
two thousand guns opened fire on a single corps front. The enemy was
strong also in artillery arranged in great groups, often shifting to
enfilade our lines of attack. The natural strength of his position
along the ridges, which were like a great bony hand outstretched through
Flanders, with streams or “beeks,” as they are called, flowing in the
valleys which ran between the fingers of that clawlike range, were
strengthened by chains of little concrete forts or “pill-boxes,” as our
soldiers called them, so arranged that they could defend one another
by enfilade machine-gun fire. These were held by garrisons of
machine--gunners of proved resolution, whose duty was to break up our
waves of attack until, even if successful in gaining ground, only small
bodies of survivors would be in a position to resist the counter-attacks
launched by German divisions farther back. The strength of the
pill--boxes made of concrete two inches thick resisted everything but
the direct hit of heavy shells, and they were not easy targets at long
range. The garrisons within them fought often with the utmost courage,
even when surrounded, and again and again this method of defense proved
terribly effective against the desperate heroic assaults of British
infantry.

What our men had suffered in earlier battles was surpassed by what they
were now called upon to endure. All the agonies of war which I have
attempted to describe were piled up in those fields of Flanders. There
was nothing missing in the list of war’s abominations. A few days after
the battle began the rains began, and hardly ceased for four months.
Night after night the skies opened and let down steady torrents, which
turned all that country into one great bog of slime. Those little rivers
or “beeks,” which ran between the knobby fingers of the clawlike range
of ridges, were blown out of their channels and slopped over into broad
swamps. The hurricanes of artillery fire which our gunners poured
upon the enemy positions for twenty miles in depth churned up deep
shell-craters which intermingled and made pits which the rains and
floods filled to the brim. The only way of walking was by “duck-boards,”
 tracks laid down across the bogs under enemy fire, smashed up day by
day, laid down again under cover of darkness. Along a duckboard walk men
must march in single file, and if one of our men, heavily laden in his
fighting-kit, stumbled on those greasy boards (as all of them stumbled
at every few yards) and fell off, he sank up to his knees, often up
to his waist, sometimes up to his neck, in mud and water. If he were
wounded when he fell, and darkness was about him, he could only cry to
God or his pals, for he was helpless otherwise. One of our divisions of
Lancashire men--the 66th--took eleven hours in making three miles or
so out of Ypres across that ground on their way to attack, and then, in
spite of their exhaustion, attacked. Yet week after week, month after
month, our masses of men, almost every division in the British army
at one time or another, struggled on through that Slough of Despond,
capturing ridge after ridge, until the heights at Passchendaele were
stormed and won, though even then the Germans clung to Staden and
Westroosebeeke when all our efforts came to a dead halt, and that
Belgian coast attack was never launched.

Sir Douglas Haig thinks that some of the descriptions of that six
months’ horror were “exaggerated.” As a man who knows something of the
value of words, and who saw many of those battle scenes in Flanders, and
went out from Ypres many times during those months to the Westhoek
Ridge and the Pilkem Ridge, to the Frezenburg and Inverness Copse and
Glencourse Wood, and beyond to Polygon Wood and Passchendaele, where his
dead lay in the swamps and round the pill-boxes, and where tanks that
had wallowed into the mire were shot into scrap-iron by German gun-fire
(thirty were knocked out by direct hits on the first day of battle), and
where our own guns were being flung up by the harassing fire of heavy
shells, I say now that nothing that has been written is more than the
pale image of the abomination of those battlefields, and that no pen or
brush has yet achieved the picture of that Armageddon in which so many
of our men perished.

They were months of ghastly endurance to gunners when batteries sank up
to their axles as I saw them often while they fired almost unceasingly
for days and nights without sleep, and were living targets of shells
which burst about them. They were months of battle in which our men
advanced through slime into slime, under the slash of machine-gun
bullets, shrapnel, and high explosives, wet to the skin, chilled to
the bone, plastered up to the eyes in mud, with a dreadful way back for
walking wounded, and but little chance sometimes for wounded who
could not walk. The losses in many of these battles amounted almost to
annihilation to many battalions, and whole divisions lost as much as 50
per cent of their strength after a few days in action, before they were
“relieved.” Those were dreadful losses. Napoleon said that no body of
men could lose more than 25 per cent of their fighting strength in an
action without being broken in spirit. Our men lost double that, and
more than double, but kept their courage, though in some cases they lost
their hope.

The 55th Division of Lancashire men, in their attacks on a line of
pill-boxes called Plum Farm, Schuler Farm, and Square Farm, below the
Gravenstafel Spur, lost 3,840 men in casualties out of 6,049. Those
were not uncommon losses. They were usual losses. One day’s fighting in
Flanders (on October 4th) cost the British army ten thousand casualties,
and they were considered “light” by the Higher Command in relation to
the objects achieved.

General Harper of the 51st (Highland) Division told me that in his
opinion the official communiques and the war correspondents’ articles
gave only one side of the picture of war and were too glowing in their
optimism. (I did not tell him that my articles were accused of being
black in pessimism, pervading gloom.) “We tell the public,” he said,
“that an enemy division has been ‘shattered.’ That is true. But so is
mine. One of my brigades has lost eighty-seven officers and two thousand
men since the spring.” He protested that there was not enough liaison
between the fighting-officers and the Higher Command, and could not
blame them for their hatred of “the Staff.”

The story of the two Irish divisions--the 36th Ulster; and 16th
(Nationalist)--in their fighting on August 16th is black in tragedy.
They were left in the line for sixteen days before the battle and were
shelled and gassed incessantly as they crouched in wet ditches. Every
day groups of men were blown to bits, until the ditches were bloody and
the living lay by the corpses of their comrades. Every day scores of
wounded crawled back through the bogs, if they had the strength to
crawl. Before the attack on August 16th the Ulster Division had lost
nearly two thousand men. Then they attacked and lost two thousand more,
and over one hundred officers. The 16th Division lost as many men before
the attack and more officers. The 8th Dublins had been annihilated in
holding the line. On the night before the battle hundreds of men were
gassed. Then their comrades attacked and lost over two thousand more,
and one hundred and sixty--two officers. All the ground below two knolls
of earth called Hill 35 and Hill 37, which were defended by German
pill-boxes called Pond Farm and Gallipoli, Beck House and Borry
Farm, became an Irish shambles. In spite of their dreadful losses
the survivors in the Irish battalion went forward to the assault
with desperate valor on the morning of August 16th, surrounded the
pill-boxes, stormed them through blasts of machine-gun fire, and toward
the end of the day small bodies of these men had gained a footing on the
objectives which they had been asked to capture, but were then too weak
to resist German counter-attacks. The 7th and 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers
had been almost exterminated in their efforts to dislodge the enemy from
Hill 37. They lost seventeen officers out of twenty-one, and 64 per cent
of their men. One company of four officers and one hundred men, ordered
to capture the concrete fort known as Borry Farm, at all cost, lost four
officers and seventy men. The 9th Dublins lost fifteen officers out of
seventeen, and 66 per cent of their men.

The two Irish divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers called
it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth Army for
having put their men into the attack after those thirteen days of heavy
shelling, and after the battle they complained that they were cast aside
like old shoes, no care being taken for the comfort of the men who had
survived. No motor-lorries were sent to meet them and bring them down,
but they had to tramp back, exhausted and dazed. The remnants of the
16th Division, the poor, despairing remnants, were sent, without rest or
baths, straight into the line again, down south.

I found a general opinion among officers and men, not only of the Irish
Division, under the command of the Fifth Army, that they had been the
victims of atrocious staff-work, tragic in its consequences. From what I
saw of some of the Fifth Army staff-officers I was of the same opinion.
Some of these young gentlemen, and some of the elderly officers,
were arrogant and supercilious without revealing any symptoms of
intelligence. If they had wisdom it was deeply camouflaged by an air
of inefficiency. If they had knowledge they hid it as a secret of their
own. General Gough, commanding the Fifth Army in Flanders, and afterward
north and south of St.-Quentin, where the enemy broke through, was
extremely courteous, of most amiable character, with a high sense of
duty. But in Flanders, if not personally responsible for many tragic
happenings, he was badly served by some of his subordinates; and
battalion officers and divisional staffs raged against the whole of
the Fifth Army organization, or lack of organization, with an extreme
passion of speech.

“You must be glad to leave Flanders,” I said to a group of officers
trekking toward the Cambrai salient.

One of them answered, violently: “God be thanked we are leaving the
Fifth Army area!”

In an earlier chapter of this book I have already paid a tribute to the
Second Army, and especially to Sir John Harington, its chief of staff.
There was a thoroughness of method, a minute attention to detail, a care
for the comfort and spirit of the men throughout the Second Army staff
which did at least inspire the troops with the belief that whatever they
did in the fighting-lines had been prepared, and would be supported,
with every possible help that organization could provide. That belief
was founded not upon fine words spoken on parade, but by strenuous work,
a driving zeal, and the fine intelligence of a chief of staff whose
brain was like a high-power engine.

I remember a historic little scene in the Second Army headquarters at
Cassel, in a room where many of the great battles had been planned,
when Sir John Harington made the dramatic announcement that Sir Herbert
Plumer, and he, as General Plumer’s chief of staff, had been ordered to
Italy--in the middle of a battle--to report on the situation which had
become so grave there. He expressed his regret that he should have
to leave Flanders without completing all his plans, but was glad that
Passchendaele had been captured before his going.

In front of him was the map of the great range from Wytschaete to
Staden, and he laid his hand upon it and smiled and said: “I often
used to think how much of that range we should get this year. Now it
is nearly all ours.” He thanked the war correspondents for all their
articles, which had been very helpful to the army, and said how glad he
had been to have our co-operation.

“It was my ambition,” he said, speaking with some emotion, “to make
cordial relations between battalion officers and the staff, and to get
rid of that criticism (sometimes just) which has been directed against
the staff. The Second Army has been able to show the fighting soldiers
that the success of a battle depends greatly on efficient staff
work, and has inspired them with confidence in the preparations and
organization behind the lines.”

Yet it seemed to me, in my pessimism, and seems to me still, in my
memory of all that ghastly fighting, that the fine mechanism of the
Second Army applied to those battles in Flanders was utterly misspent,
that after the first heavy rains had fallen the offensive ought to have
been abandoned, and that it was a frightful error of judgment to ask
masses of men to attack in conditions where they had not a dog’s chance
of victory, except at a cost which made it of Pyrrhic irony.

Nevertheless, it was wearing the enemy out, as well as our own strength
in man-power. He could less afford to lose his one man than we could our
three, now that the United States had entered the war. Ludendorff
has described the German agony, and days of battle which he calls
“terrific,” inflicting “enormous loss” upon his armies and increasing
his anxiety at the “reduction of our fighting strength.”

“Enormous masses of ammunition, the like of which no mortal mind before
the war had conceived, were hurled against human beings who lay, eking
out but a bare existence, scattered in shell-holes that were deep in
slime. The terror of it surpassed even that of the shell-pitted field
before Verdun. This was not life; it was agony unspeakable. And out
of the universe of slime the attacker wallowed forward, slowly but
continually, and in dense masses. Time and again the enemy, struck by
the hail of our projectiles in the fore field, collapsed, and our lonely
men in the shell-holes breathed again. Then the mass came on. Rifle and
machine-gun were beslimed. The struggle was man to man, and--only too
often--it was the mass that won.

“What the German soldier accomplished, lived through, and suffered
during the Flanders battle will stand in his honor for all time as a
brazen monument that he set himself with his own hands on enemy soil!

“The enemy’s losses, too, were heavy. When, in the spring of 1918, we
occupied the battlefield, it presented a horrible spectacle with its
many unburied dead. Their number ran into thousands. Two-thirds of
them were enemy dead; one-third were German soldiers who had met here a
hero’s death.

“And yet the truth must be told; individual units no longer surmounted
as before the demoralizing influences of the defensive campaign.

“October 26th and 30th and November 6th and 10th were also days of
pitched battle of the heaviest kind. The enemy stormed like a wild bull
against the iron wall that kept him at a distance from our U-boat base.
He hurled his weight against the Houthulst Wood; he hurled it against
Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Becelaere, Gheluvelt, and Zandvoorde; at
very many points he dented the line. It seemed as if he would charge
down the wall; but, although a slight tremor passed through its
foundation, the wall held. The impressions that I continued to receive
were extremely grave. Tactically everything had been done; the fore
field was good. Our artillery practice had materially improved. Behind
nearly every fighting--division there stood a second, as rear wave. In
the third line, too, there were still reserves. We knew that the wear
and tear of the enemy’s forces was high. But we also knew that the enemy
was extraordinarily strong and, what was equally important, possessed
extraordinary will-power.”

That was the impression of the cold brain directing the machinery of war
from German headquarters. More human and more tragic is a letter of an
unknown German officer which we found among hundreds of others, telling
the same tale, in the mud of the battlefield:

“If it were not for the men who have been spared me on this fierce day
and are lying around me, and looking timidly at me, I should shed hot
and bitter tears over the terrors that have menaced me during these
hours. On the morning of September 18th my dugout containing seventeen
men was shot to pieces over our heads. I am the only one who withstood
the maddening bombardment of three days and still survives. You cannot
imagine the frightful mental torments I have undergone in those few
hours. After crawling out through the bleeding remnants of my comrades,
and through the smoke and debris, wandering and running in the midst of
the raging gun-fire in search of a refuge, I am now awaiting death at
any moment. You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless
human endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies.
Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness even unto death.”

To British and to Germans it meant the same.



VI


During the four and a half months of that fighting the war
correspondents were billeted in the old town of Cassel, where, perched
on a hill which looks over a wide stretch of Flanders, through our
glasses we could see the sand-dunes beyond Dunkirk and with the naked
eyes the whole vista of the battle-line round Ypres and in the wide
curve all the countryside lying between Aire and Hazebrouck and Notre
Dame de Lorette. My billet was in a monastery for old priests, on the
eastern edge of the town, and at night my window was lighted by distant
shell-fire, and I gazed out to a sky of darkness rent by vivid flashes,
bursts of red flame, and rockets rising high. The priests used to tap
at my door when I came back from the battlefields all muddy, with a
slime-plastered face, writing furiously, and an old padre used to plague
me like that, saying:

“What news? It goes well, eh? Not too well, perhaps! Alas! it is a
slaughter on both sides.”

“It is all your fault,” I said once, chaffingly, to get rid of him. “You
do not pray enough.”

He grasped my wrist with his skinny old hand.

“Monsieur,” he whispered, “after eighty years I nearly lose my faith
in God. That is terrible, is it not? Why does not God give us victory?
Alas! perhaps we have sinned too much!”

One needed great faith for courage then, and my courage (never much to
boast about) ebbed low those days, when I agonized over our losses and
saw the suffering of our men and those foul swamps where the bodies of
our boys lay in pools of slime, vividly colored by the metallic vapors
of high explosives, beside the gashed tree-stumps; and the mangled
corpses of Germans who had died outside their pill-boxes; and when I saw
dead horses on the roads out of Ypres, and transport drivers dead beside
their broken wagons, and officers of ours with the look of doomed men,
nerve-shaken, soul-stricken, in captured blockhouses, where I took a nip
of whisky with them now and then before they attacked again; and groups
of dazed prisoners coming down the tracks through their own harrowing
fire; and always, always, streams of wounded by tens of thousands.

There was an old mill-house near Vlamertinghe, beyond Goldfish Chateau,
which was made into a casualty clearing station, and scores of times
when I passed it I saw it crowded with the “walking wounded,” who had
trudged down from the fighting-line, taking eleven hours, fourteen hours
sometimes, to get so far. They were no longer “cheerful” like the gay
lads who came lightly wounded out of earlier battles, glad of life,
excited by their luck. They were silent, shivering, stricken men; boys
in age, but old and weary in the knowledge of war. The slime of the
battlefields had engulfed them. Their clothes were plastered to their
bodies. Their faces and hands were coated with that whitish clay. Their
steel hats and rifles were caked with it. Their eyes, brooding, were
strangely alive in those corpselike figures of mud who huddled
round charcoal stoves or sat motionless on wooden forms, waiting for
ambulances. Yet they were stark in spirit still.

“Only the mud beat us,” they said. Man after man said that.

“We should have gone much farther except for the mud.”

Along the Menin road there were wayside dressing stations for wounded,
with surgeons at work, and I saw the same scenes there. They were not
beyond the danger zone. Doctors and orderlies were killed by long-range
shells. Wounded were wounded again or finished off. Some ambulances were
blown to bits. A colonel who had been standing in talk with a doctor was
killed halfway through a sentence.

There was never a day in which Ypres was not shelled by long-range high
velocities which came howling overhead as I heard them scores of times
in passing through those ruins with gas-mask at the alert, according
to orders, and steel hat strapped on, and a deadly sense of nostalgia
because of what was happening in the fields of horror that lay beyond.
Yet to the soldier farther up the Menin road Ypres was sanctuary and
God’s heaven.

The little old town of Cassel on the hill--where once a Duke of York
marched up and then marched down again--was beyond shell-range, though
the enemy tried to reach it and dropped twelve-inch shells (which make
holes deep enough to bury a coach and horses) round its base. There
is an inn there--the Hotel du Sauvage--which belongs now to English
history, and Scottish and Irish and Welsh and Australian and Canadian.
It was the last place along the road to Ypres where men who loved life
could get a dinner sitting with their knees below a table-cloth,
with candle-light glinting in glasses, while outside the windows the
flickering fires of death told them how short might be their tarrying
in the good places of the world. This was a good place where the
blinds were pulled down by Madame, who understood. Behind the desk was
Mademoiselle Suzanne, “a dainty rogue in porcelain,” with wonderfully
bright eyes and just a little greeting of a smile for any young officer
who looked her way trying to get that greeting, because it was ever so
long since he had seen a pretty face and might be ever so long again.
Sometimes it was a smile met in the mirror against the wall, to which
Suzanne looked to touch her curls and see, like the Lady of Shalott,
the pictures of life that passed. A man would tilt his chair to get
that angle of vision. Outside, on these nights of war, it was often
blusterous, very dark, wet with heavy rain. The door opened, and other
officers came in with waterproofs sagging round their legs and top-boots
muddy to the tags, abashed because they made pools of water on polished
boards.

“Pardon, Madame.”

“Ca ne fait rien, Monsieur.”

There was a klip-klop of horses’ hoofs in the yard. I thought of
D’Artagnan and the Musketeers who might have ridden into this very yard,
strode into this very room, on their way to Dunkirk or Calais. Madame
played the piano remarkably well, classical music of all kinds, and any
accompaniment to any song. Our young officers sang. Some of them touched
the piano with a loving touch and said, “Ye gods, a piano again!” and
played old melodies or merry ragtime. Before Passchendaele was taken a
Canadian boy brought a fiddle with him, and played last of all, after
other tunes, “The Long, Long Trail,” which his comrades sang.

“Come and play to us again,” said Madame.

“If I come back,” said the boy.

He did not come back along the road through Ypres to Cassel.

From the balcony one could see the nightbirds fly. On every moonlight
night German raiders were about bombing our camps and villages. One
could see just below the hill how the bombs crashed into St.-Marie
Capelle and many hamlets where British soldiers lay, and where peasants
and children were killed with them. For some strange reason Cassel
itself was never bombed.

“We are a nest of spies,” said some of the inhabitants, but others had
faith in a miraculous statue, and still others in Sir Herbert Plumer.

Once when a big shell burst very close I looked at Mademoiselle Suzanne
behind the desk. She did not show fear by the flicker of an eyelid,
though officers in the room were startled.

“Vous n’avez pas peur, meme de la mort?” (“You are not afraid, even of
death?”) I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Je m’en fiche de la mort!” (“I don’t care a damn for death!”)

The Hotel du Sauvage was a pleasant rendezvous, but barred for a time to
young gentlemen of the air force, who lingered too long there sometimes
and were noisy. It was barred to all officers for certain hours of
the day without special permits from the A.P.M., who made trouble in
granting them. Three Scottish officers rode down into Cassel. They had
ridden down from hell-fire to sit at a table covered with a table-cloth,
and drink tea in a room again. They were refused permission, and their
language to me about the A.P.M. was unprintable. They desired his blood
and bones. They raised their hands to heaven to send down wrath upon
all skunks dwelling behind the lines in luxury and denying any kind of
comfort to fighting-men. They included the P.M. in their rage, and all
staff-officers from Cassel to Boulogne, and away back to Whitehall.

To cheer up the war correspondents’ mess when we assembled at night
after miserable days, and when in the darkness gusts of wind and rain
clouted the window-panes and distant gun-fire rumbled, or bombs were
falling in near villages, telling of peasant girls killed in their beds
and soldiers mangled in wayside burns, we had the company sometimes
of an officer (a black-eyed fellow) who told merry little tales of
executions and prison happenings at which he assisted in the course of
his duty.

I remember one about a young officer sentenced to death for cowardice
(there were quite a number of lads like that). He was blindfolded by a
gas-mask fixed on the wrong way round, and pinioned, and tied to a post.
The firing--party lost their nerve and their shots were wild. The boy
was only wounded, and screamed in his mask, and the A.P.M. had to shoot
him twice with his revolver before he died.

That was only one of many little anecdotes told by a gentleman who
seemed to like his job and to enjoy these reminiscences.

The battles of Flanders ended with the capture of Passchendaele by the
Canadians, and that year’s fighting on the western front cost us 800,000
casualties, and though we had dealt the enemy heavy blows from which he
reeled back, the drain upon our man-power was too great for what was to
happen next year, and our men were too sorely tried. For the first time
the British army lost its spirit of optimism, and there was a sense of
deadly depression among many officers and men with whom I came in touch.
They saw no ending of the war, and nothing except continuous slaughter,
such as that in Flanders.

Our men were not mythical heroes exalted by the gods above the
limitations of nature. They were human beings, with wives and children,
or mothers and sisters, whom they desired to see again. They hated this
war. Death had no allurement for them, except now and then as an escape
from intolerable life under fire. They would have been superhuman if
they had not revolted in spirit, though still faithful to discipline,
against the foul conditions of warfare in the swamps, where, in spite
of all they had, in that four months or so of fighting, achieved the
greatest effort of human courage and endurance ever done by masses of
men in obedience to command.



VII


At the end of those battles happened that surprising, audacious
adventure in the Cambrai salient organized by the Third Army under
General Byng, when on November 20, 1917, squadrons of tanks broke
through the Hindenburg line, and infantry streamed through the breach,
captured hundreds of guns, ten thousand prisoners, many villages and
ridges, and gave a monstrous shock to the German High Command.

The audacity of the adventure lay in the poverty of manpower with which
it was attempted and supported. The divisions engaged had all been
through the grinding mill of Flanders and were tired men. The artillery
was made up largely of those batteries which had been axle--deep in
Flanders mud. It was clearly understood by General Byng and Gen. Louis
Vaughan, his chief of staff, that Sir Douglas Haig could not afford
to give them strong reserves to exploit any success they might gain
by surprise or to defend the captured ground against certain
counter-attacks. It was to be a surprise assault by tanks and infantry,
with the hope that the cavalry corps might find its gap at last and
sweep round Cambrai before the enemy could recover and reorganize. With
other correspondents I saw Gen. Louis Vaughan, who expounded the scheme
before it was launched. That charming man, with his professional manner,
sweetness of speech, gentleness of voice and gesture, like an Oxford
don analyzing the war correspondence of Xenophon, made no secret of the
economy with which the operation would have to be made.

“We must cut our coat according to our cloth,” he said.

The whole idea was to seize only as much ground as the initial success
could gain, and not to press if resistance became strong. It was a
gamble, with a chance of luck. The cavalry might do nothing, or score
a big triumph. All depended on the surprise of the tanks. If they were
discovered before the assault the whole adventure would fail at the
start.

They had been brought up secretly by night, four hundred of them, with
supply-tanks for ammunition and petrol lying hidden in woods by day. So
the artillery and infantry and cavalry had been concentrated also. The
enemy believed himself secure in his Hindenburg line, which had been
constructed behind broad hedges of barbed wire with such wide ditches
that no tank could cross.

How, then, would tanks cross? Ah, that was a little trick which would
surprise the Germans mightily. Each tank would advance through the early
morning mists with a bridge on its nose. The bridge was really a big
“fascine,” or bundle of fagots about a yard and a half in diameter, and
controlled by a lever and chain from the interior of the tank. Having
plowed through the barbed wire and reached the edge of the Hindenburg
trench, the tank would drop the fascine into the center of the ditch,
stretch out its long body, reach the bundle of fagots, find support on
it, and use it as a stepping-stone to the other side. Very simple in
idea and effect!

So it happened, and the mists favored us, as I saw on the morning of the
attack at a little place called Beaumont, near Villers Pluich. The enemy
was completely surprised, caught at breakfast in his dugouts, rounded up
in batches. The tanks went away through the breach they had made, with
the infantry swarming round them, and captured Havrincourt, Hermies,
Ribecourt, Gouzeaucourt, Masnieres, and Marcoing, and a wide stretch of
country forming a cup or amphitheater below a series of low ridges south
of Bourlon Wood, where the ground rose again.

It was a spectacular battle, such as we had never seen before, and
during the following days, when our troops worked up to Bourlon Wood and
through the intervening villages of Anneux, Graincourt, Containg, and
Fontaine Notre Dame, I saw tanks going into action and cruising about
like landships, with cavalry patrols riding over open ground, airplanes
flying low over German territory, and masses of infantry beyond all
trench-lines, and streams of liberated civilians trudging through the
lines from Marcoing. The enemy was demoralized the first day and made
only slight resistance. The chief losses of the tanks were due to a
German major of artillery who served his own guns and knocked out a
baker’s dozen of these monsters as they crawled over the Flesquieres
Ridge. I saw them lying there with the blood and bones of their pilots
and crews within their steel walls. It was a Highland soldier who
checked the German major.

“You’re a brave man,” he said, “but you’ve got to dee,” and ran
him through the stomach with his bayonet. It was this check at the
Flesquieres Ridge, followed by the breaking of a bridge at Masnieres
under the weight of a tank and the holding of a trench-line called the
Rumilly switch by a battalion of Germans who raced to it from Cambrai
before our men could capture it, which thwarted the plans of
the cavalry. Our cavalry generals were in consultation at their
headquarters, too far back to take immediate advantage of the situation.
They waited for the capture of the Rumilly switch, and held up masses
of cavalry whom I saw riding through the village of Ribecourt, with
excitement and exaltation, because they thought that at last their
chance had come. Finally orders were given to cancel all previous plans
to advance. Only one squadron, belonging to the Canadian Fort Garry
Horse in General Seely’s division, failed to receive the order (their
colonel rode after them, but his horse slipped and fell before he caught
them up), and it was their day of heroic folly. They rode fast and made
their way through a gap in the wire cut by the troopers, and came under
rifle and machine-gun fire, which wounded the captain and several men.

The command was carried on by a young lieutenant, who rode with his
men until they reached the camouflaged road southeast of the village of
Rumilly, where they went through in sections under the fire of the enemy
hidden in the banks. Here they came up against a battery of field-guns,
one of which fired point-blank at them. They charged the battery,
putting the guns out of action and killing some of the gunners. Those
who were not destroyed surrendered, and the prisoners were left to
be sent back by the supports. The squadron then dealt with the German
infantry in the neighborhood. Some of them fled, while some were killed
or surrendered. All these operations were done at a gallop under fire
from flanking blockhouses. The squadron then slowed down to a walk
and took up a position in a sunken road one kilometer east of Rumilly.
Darkness crept down upon them, and gradually they were surrounded by
German infantry with machine-guns, so that they were in great danger of
capture or destruction. Only five of their horses remained unhit, and
the lieutenant in command decided that they must endeavor to cut their
way through and get back. The horses were stampeded in the direction
of the enemy in order to draw the machine-gun fire, and while these
riderless horses galloped wildly out of one end of the sunken road, the
officer and his surviving troopers escaped from the other end. On the
way back they encountered four bodies of the enemy, whom they attacked
and routed. On one occasion their escape was due to the cunning of
another young lieutenant, who spoke German and held conversations with
the enemy in the darkness, deceiving them as to the identity of his
force until they were able to take the German troops by surprise and
hack a way through. This lieutenant was hit in the face by a bullet,
and when he arrived back in Masnieres with his men in advance of the
rear-guard he was only able to make his report before falling in a state
of collapse.

Other small bodies of cavalry--among them the 8th Dragoons and 5th
Hussars--had wild, heroic adventures in the Cambrai salient, where they
rode under blasts of machine-gun fire and rounded up prisoners in the
ruined villages of Noyelles and Fontaine Notre Dame. Some of them went
into the Folie Wood nearby and met seven German officers strolling about
the glades, as though no war was on. They took them prisoners, but had
to release some of them later, as they could not be bothered with them.
Later they came across six ammunition--wagons and destroyed them. In the
heart of the wood was one of the German divisional headquarters, and
one of our cavalry officers dismounted and approached the cottage
stealthily, and looked through the windows. Inside was a party of German
officers seated at a table, with beer mugs in front of them, apparently
unconscious of any danger near them. Our officer fired his revolver
through the windows and then, like a schoolboy who has thrown a stone,
ran away as hard as he could and joined his troop. Youthful folly of
gallant hearts!

After the enemy’s surprise his resistance stiffened and he held the
village of Fontaine Notre Dame, and Bourlon Wood, on the hill above,
with strong rear-guards. Very quickly, too, he brought new batteries
into action, and things became unpleasant in fields and villages where
our men, as I saw them on those days, hunted around for souvenirs in
German dugouts and found field-glasses, automatic pistols, and other
good booty.

It seemed to me that the plan as outlined by Gen. Louis Vaughan, not
to exploit success farther than justified by the initial surprise, was
abandoned for a time. A brigade of Guards was put in to attack Fontaine
Notre Dame, and suffered heavily from machine-gun fire before taking it.
The 62d (Yorkshire) Division lost many good men in Bourlon Village
and Bourlon Wood, into which the enemy poured gas-shells and high
explosives.

Then on November 30th the Germans, under the direction of General von
Marwitz, came back upon us with a tiger’s pounce, in a surprise attack
which we ought to have anticipated. I happened to be on the way to
Gouzeaucourt early that morning, and, going through the village of Fins,
next to it, I saw men straggling back in some disorder, and gun-teams
wedged in a dense traffic moving in what seemed to me the wrong
direction.

“I don’t know what to do,” said a young gunner officer. “My battery has
been captured and I can’t get into touch with the brigade.”

“What has happened?” I asked.

He looked at me in surprise.

“Don’t you know? The enemy has broken through.”

“Broken through where?”

The gunner officer pointed down the road.

“At the present moment he’s in Gouzeaucourt.”

I went northward, and saw that places like Hermies and Havrincourt,
which had been peaceful spots for a few days, were under heavy fire.
Bourlon Wood beyond was a fiery furnace. Hell had broken out again and
things looked bad. There was a general packing up of dumps and field
hospitals and heavy batteries. In Gouzeaucourt and other places our
divisional and brigade headquarters were caught napping. Officers
were in their pajamas or in their baths when they heard the snap of
machine-gun bullets. I saw the Guards go forward to Gouzeaucourt for a
counter-attack. They came along munching apples and whistling, as though
on peace maneuvers. Next day, after they had gained back Gouzeaucourt, I
saw many of them wounded, lying under tarpaulins, all dirty and bloody.

The Germans had adopted our own way of attack. They had assembled masses
of troops secretly, moving them forward by night under the cover of
woods, so that our air scouts saw no movement by day. Our line was
weakly held along the front--the 55th Division, thinned out by losses,
was holding a line of thirteen thousand yards, three times as much as
any troops can hold, in safety--and the German storm-troops, after a
short, terrific bombardment, broke through to a distance of five miles.

Our tired men, who had gained the first victory, fought heroic
rear-guard actions back from Masnieres and Marcoing, and back from
Bourlon Wood on the northern side of the salient. They made the enemy
pay a high price in blood for the success of his counter-attack, but we
lost many thousands of brave fellows, and the joy bells which had rung
in London on November 20th became sad and ironical music in the hearts
of our disappointed people.

So ended 1917, our black year; and in the spring of 1918, after all the
losses of that year, our armies on the western front were threatened by
the greatest menace that had ever drawn near to them, and the British
Empire was in jeopardy.



VIII


In the autumn of 1917 the Italian disaster of Caporetto had happened,
and Sir Herbert Plumer, with his chief of staff, Sir John Harington, and
many staff-officers of the Second Army, had, as I have told, been sent
to Italy with some of our best divisions, so weakening Sir Douglas
Haig’s command. At that very time, also, after the bloody losses in
Flanders, the French government and General Headquarters brought severe
pressure upon the British War Council to take over a greater length of
line in France, in order to release some of the older classes of the
French army who had been under arms since 1914. We yielded to that
pressure and Sir Douglas Haig extended his lines north and south of
St.-Quentin, where the Fifth Army, under General Gough, was intrusted
with the defense.

I went over all that new ground of ours, out from Noyon to Chaulny and
Barisis and the floods of the Oise by La Fere; out from Ham to Holmon
Forest and Francilly and the Epine de Dullon, and the Fort de Liez
by St.-Quentin; and from Peronne to Hargicourt and Jeancourt and La
Verguier. It was a pleasant country, with living trees and green fields
not annihilated by shell-fire, though with the naked eye I could see
the scarred walls of St.-Quentin cathedral, and the villages near the
frontlines had been damaged in the usual way. It was dead quiet there
for miles, except for short bursts of harassing fire now and then, and
odd shells here and there, and bursts of black shrapnel in the blue sky
of mild days.

“Paradise, after Flanders!” said our men, but I knew that there was a
great movement of troops westward from Russia, and wondered how long
this paradise would last.

I looked about for trench systems, support lines, and did not see them,
and wondered what our defense would be if the enemy attacked here in
great strength. Our army seemed wonderfully thinned out. There were few
men to be seen in our outpost line or in reserve. It was all strangely
quiet. Alarmingly quiet.

Yet, pleasant for the time being. I had a brother commanding a battery
along the railway line south of St.-Quentin. I went to see him, and we
had a picnic meal on a little hill staring straight toward St.-Quentin
cathedral. One of his junior officers set the gramophone going. The
colonel of the artillery brigade came jogging up on his horse and called
out, “Fine morning, and a pretty spot!” The infantry divisions were
cheerful. “Like a rest-cure!” they said. They had sports almost within
sight of the German lines. I saw a boxing-match in an Irish battalion,
and while two fellows hammered each other I glanced away from them to
winding, wavy lines of chalk on the opposite hillsides, and wondered
what was happening behind them in that quietude.

“What do you think about this German offensive?” I asked the general of
a London division (General Gorringe of the 47th) standing on a wagon
and watching a tug-of--war. From that place also we could see the German
positions.

“G.H.Q. has got the wind-up,” he said. “It is all bluff.”

General Hall, temporarily commanding the Irish Division, was of the
same opinion, and took some pains to explain the folly of thinking
the Germans would attack. Yet day after day, week after week, the
Intelligence reports were full of evidence of immense movements of
troops westward, of intensive training of German divisions in back
areas, of new hospitals, ammunition-dumps, airplanes, battery
positions. There was overwhelming evidence as to the enemy’s intentions.
Intelligence officers took me on one side and said: “England ought to
know. The people ought to be prepared. All this is very serious. We
shall be ‘up against it.’” G.H.Q. was convinced. On February 23d the war
correspondents published articles summarizing the evidence, pointing out
the gravity of the menace, and they were passed by the censorship. But
England was not scared. Dances were in full swing in London. Little
ladies laughed as usual, light-hearted. Flanders had made no difference
to national optimism, though the hospitals were crowded with blind and
maimed and shell-shocked.

“I am skeptical of the German offensive” said Mr. Bonar Law.

Nobody believed the war correspondents. Nobody ever did believe us,
though some of us wrote the truth from first to last as far as the facts
of war go apart from deeper psychology, and a naked realism of horrors
and losses, and criticism of facts, which did not come within our
liberty of the pen.

They were strange months for me. I felt that I was in possession, as
indeed I was, of a terrible secret which might lead to the ending of the
world--our world, as we knew it--with our liberties and power. For weeks
I had been pledged to say no word about it, to write not a word about
it, and it was like being haunted by a specter all day long. One
laughed, but the specter echoed one’s laughter and said, “Wait!” The
mild sunshine of those spring days was pleasant to one’s spirit in
the woods above La Fere, and in fields where machine-guns chattered a
little, while overhead our airplanes dodged German “Archies.” But the
specter chilled one’s blood at the reminder of vast masses of field-gray
men drawing nearer to our lines in overwhelming numbers. I motored
to many parts of the front, and my companion sometimes was a little
Frenchman who had lost a leg in the war--D’Artagnan with a wooden peg,
most valiant, most gay. Along the way he recited the poems of Ronsard.
At the journey’s end one day he sang old French chansons, in an English
mess, within gunshot of the German lines. He climbed up a tree and gazed
at the German positions, and made sketches while he hummed little tunes
and said between them, “Ah, les sacres Boches!.. . If only I could fight
again!”

I remember a pleasant dinner in the old town of Noyon, in a little
restaurant where two pretty girls waited. They had come from Paris with
their parents to start this business, now that Noyon was safe. (Safe,
O Lord!) And everything was very dainty and clean. At dinner that night
there was a hostile air raid overhead. Bombs crashed. But the girls were
brave. One of them volunteered to go with an officer across the square
to show him the way to the A.P.M., from where he had to get a pass to
stay for dinner. Shrapnel bullets were whipping the flagstones of
the Grande Place, from anti-aircraft guns. The officer wore his steel
helmet. The girl was going out without any hat above her braided hair.
We did not let her go, and the officer had another guide. One night I
brought my brother to the place from his battery near St. Quentin. We
dined well, slept well.

“Noyon is a good spot,” he said. “I shall come here again when you give
me a lift.”

A few days later my brother was firing at masses of Germans with open
sights, and the British army was in a full-tide retreat, and the junior
officer who had played his gramophone was dead, with other officers
and men of that battery. When I next passed through Noyon shells were
falling into it, and later I saw it in ruins, with the glory of the
Romanesque cathedral sadly scarred. I have ofttimes wondered what
happened to the little family in the old hotel.

So March 21st came, as we knew it would come, even to the very date, and
Ludendorff played his trump cards and the great game.

Before that date I had an interview with General Gough, commanding
the Fifth Army. He pulled out his maps, showed his method of forward
redoubts beyond the main battle zone, and in a quiet, amiable way spoke
some words which froze my blood.

“We may have to give ground,” he said, “if the enemy attacks in
strength. We may have to fall back to our main battle zone. That will
not matter very much. It is possible that we may have to go farther
back. Our real line of defense is the Somme. It will be nothing like a
tragedy if we hold that. If we lose the crossings of the Somme it will,
of course, be serious. But not a tragedy even then. It will only be
tragic if we lose Amiens, and we must not do that.”

“The crossings of the Somme... Amiens!”

Such a thought had never entered my imagination. General Gough had
suggested terrible possibilities.

All but the worst happened. In my despatches, reprinted in book form
with explanatory prefaces, I have told in full detail the meaning and
measure of the British retreat, when forty-eight of our divisions were
attacked by one hundred and fourteen German divisions and fell back
fighting stubborn rear-guard actions which at last brought the enemy
to a dead halt outside Amiens and along the River Ancre northward from
Albert, where afterward in a northern attack the enemy under Prince
Rupprecht of Bavaria broke through the Portuguese between Givenchy and
Festubert, where our wings held, drove up to Bailleul, which was burned
to the ground, and caused us to abandon all the ridges of Flanders which
had been gained at such great cost, and fall back to the edge of Ypres.
In this book I need not narrate all this history again.

They were evil days for us. The German offensive was conducted with
masterly skill, according to the new method of “infiltration” which
had been tried against Italy with great success in the autumn of ‘17 at
Caporetto.

It consisted in a penetration of our lines by wedges of machine-gunners
constantly reinforced and working inward so that our men, attacked
frontally after terrific bombardment, found themselves under flanking
fire on their right and left and in danger of being cut off. Taking
advantage of a dense fog, for which they had waited according to
meteorological forecast, the Germans had easily made their way between
our forward redoubts on the Fifth Army front, where our garrisons held
out for a long time, completely surrounded, and penetrated our inner
battle zone. Through the gaps they made they came in masses at a great
pace with immense machine--gun strength and light artillery. On the
Third Army front where penetrations were made, notably near Bullecourt
between the 6th and 51st Divisions, the whole of our army machine was
upset for a time like a watch with a broken mainspring and loose wheels.
Staffs lost touch with fighting units. Communications were broken down.
Orders were given but not received. After enormous losses of men and
guns, our heavy artillery was choking the roads of escape, while our
rear-guards fought for time rather than for ground. The crossings of the
Somme were lost too easily. In the confusion and tumult of those days
some of our men, being human, were demoralized and panic-stricken, and
gave ground which might have been longer held. But on the whole, and in
the mass, there was no panic, and a most grim valor of men who fought
for days and nights without sleep; fought when they were almost
surrounded or quite surrounded, and until few of them remained to hold
any kind of line. Fortunately the Germans were unable to drag their
heavy guns over the desert they had made a year before in their own
retreat, and at the end of a week their pace slackened and they halted,
in exhaustion.

I went into the swirl of our retreat day after day up by Guiscard and
Hum; then, as the line moved back, by Peronne and Bapaume, and at
last on a dreadful day by the windmill at Pozieres, our old heroic
fighting-ground, where once again after many battles the enemy was in
Courcelette and High Wood and Delville Wood, and, as I saw by going to
the right through Albert, driving hard up to Mametz and Montauban. That
meant the loss of all the old Somme battlefields, and that struck a
chill in one’s heart. But what I marveled at always was the absence of
panic, the fatalistic acceptance of the turn of fortune’s wheel by many
officers and men, and the refusal of corps and divisional staffs to give
way to despair in those days of tragedy and crisis.

The northern attack was in many ways worse to bear and worse to see. The
menace to the coast was frightful when the enemy struck up to Bailleul
and captured Kemmel Hill from a French regiment which had come up to
relieve some of our exhausted and unsupported men. All through this
country between Estaires and Merville, to Steenwerck, Metern, and
Bailleul, thousands of civilians had been living on the edge of the
battlefields, believing themselves safe behind our lines. Now the line
had slipped and they were caught by German shell-fire and German guns,
and after nearly four years of war had to abandon their homes like the
first fugitives. I saw old women coming down lanes where 5.9’s were
bursting and where our gunners were getting into action. I saw young
mothers packing their babies and their bundles into perambulators while
shells came hurtling over the thatched roofs of their cottages. I stood
on the Mont des Chats looking down upon a wide sweep of battle, and
saw many little farmsteads on fire and Bailleul one torch of flame and
smoke.

There was an old monastery on the Mont des Chats which had been in the
midst of a cavalry battle in October of 1914, when Prince Max of Hesse,
the Kaiser’s cousin, was mortally wounded by a shot from one of our
troopers. He was carried into the cell of the old prior, who watched
over him in his dying hours when he spoke of his family and friends.
Then his body was borne down the hill at night and buried secretly by a
parish priest; and when the Kaiser wrote to the Pope, desiring to know
the whereabouts of his cousin’s grave, the priest to whom his message
was conveyed said, “Tell the Kaiser he shall know when the German armies
have departed from Belgium and when reparation has been made for all
their evil deeds.” It was the prior who told me that story and who
described to me how the British cavalry had forged their way up the
hill. He showed me the scars of bullets on the walls and the windows
from which the monks looked out upon the battle.

“All that is a wonderful memory,” said the prior. “Thanks to the
English, we are safe and beyond the range of German shells.”

I thought of his words that day I climbed the hill to see the sweep of
battle beyond. The monastery was no longer beyond the range of German
shells. An eight--inch shell had just smashed into the prior’s parlor.
Others had opened gaps in the high roofs and walls. The monks had fled
by order of the prior, who stayed behind, like the captain of a sinking
ship. His corridors resounded to the tramp of army boots. The Ulster
gunners had made their headquarters in the refectory, but did not stay
there long. A few days later the monastery was a ruin.

From many little villages caught by the oncoming tide of war our
soldiers helped the people to escape in lorries or on gun-wagons. They
did not weep, nor say much, but were wonderfully brave. I remember a
little family in Robecq whom I packed into my car when shells began to
fall among the houses. A pretty girl, with a little invalid brother in
her arms, and a mother by her side, pointed the way to a cottage in a
wood some miles away. She was gay and smiling when she said, “Au revoir
et merci!” A few days later the cottage and the wood were behind the
German lines.

The northern defense, by the 55th Lancashires, 51st Highlanders (who
had been all through the Somme retreat), the 25th Division of Cheshires,
Wiltshires and Lancashire Fusiliers, and the 9th Scottish Division, and
others, who fought “with their backs to the wall,” as Sir Douglas Haig
demanded of them, without reliefs, until they were worn thin, was heroic
and tragic in its ordeal, until Foch sent up his cavalry (I saw them
riding in clouds of dust and heard the panting of their horses),
followed by divisions of blue men in hundreds of blue lorries tearing
up the roads, and forming a strong blue line behind our thin brown line.
Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria had twenty-six fresh divisions in reserve,
but had to hold them until other plans were developed--the Crown
Prince’s plan against the French, and the attack on Arras.

The defense of Arras by the 3d and 56th Divisions--the Iron Division and
the London Division on the left, and by the 15th Division and Guards
on the right, saved the center of our line and all our line. We had a
breathing--space while heavy blows fell against the French and against
three British divisions who had been sent to hold “a quiet sector” on
their right. The Germans drove across the Chemin des Dames, struck right
and left, terrific blows, beat the French back, reached the Marne again,
and threatened Paris.

Foch waited to strike. The genius of Foch was that he waited until the
last minute of safety, taking immense risks in order to be certain of
his counter-stroke. For a time he had to dissipate his reserves, but
he gathered them together again. As quick as the blue men had come up
behind our lines they were withdrawn again. Three of our divisions went
with them, the 51st Highlanders and 15th Scottish, and the 48th English.
The flower of the French army, the veterans of many battles, was massed
behind the Marne, and at Chateau Thierry the American marines and
infantry were given their first big job to do. What happened all the
world knows. The Crown Prince’s army was attacked on both flanks and in
the center, and was sent reeling back to escape complete annihilation.



IX


Ludendorff’s great offensive had failed and had turned to ruin. Some of
the twenty-six fresh divisions under Rupprecht of Bavaria were put into
the melting-pot to save the Crown Prince. The British army, with its
gaps filled up by 300,000 new drafts from England, the young brothers of
the elder brothers who had gone before, was ready to strike again,
and on August 8th the Canadians and Australians north and south of
the Somme, led by many tanks, broke the enemy’s line beyond Amiens and
slowly but surely rolled it back with enormous losses.

For the first time in the war the cavalry had their chance of pursuit,
and made full use of it, rounding up great batches of prisoners,
capturing batteries of heavy and light guns, and fighting in many
actions.

“August 8th,” writes Ludendorff, “was the black day of the German army
in the history of this war.”

He describes from the German point of view what I and others have
described from the British point of view, and the general narrative
is the same--a succession of hammer-blows by the British armies, which
broke not only the German war-machine, but the German spirit. It was a
marvelous feat when the 19th Division and the Welsh waded at dusk across
the foul waters of the River Ancre, under the heights of Thiepval,
assembled under the guns of the enemy up there, and then, wet to their
skins, and in small numbers compared with the strength of the enemy,
stormed the huge ridges from both sides, and hurled the enemy back from
what he thought was an impregnable position, and followed him day by
day, taking thousands of prisoners and smashing his rear-guard defenses
one by one.

The most decisive battle of the British front in the “come-back,” after
our days of retreat, was when with the gallant help of American troops
of the 27th New York Division our men of the English Midlands, the
46th Division, and others, broke the main Hindenburg line along the
St.-Quentin Canal. That canal was sixty feet wide, with steep cliffs
rising sheer to a wonderful system of German machine-gun redoubts and
tunneled defenses, between the villages of Bellicourt and Bellinglis.
It seemed to me an impossible place to assault and capture. If the enemy
could not hold that line they could hold nothing. In a dense fog
on Sunday morning, September 30th, our men, with the Americans and
Australians in support, went down to the canal-bank, waded across where
the water was shallow, swam across in life-belts where it was deep,
or got across somehow and anyhow, under blasts of machine-gun fire, by
rafts and plank bridges. A few hours after the beginning of the battle
they were far out beyond the German side of the canal, with masses of
prisoners in their hands. The Americans on the left of the attack, where
the canal goes below ground, showed superb and reckless gallantry (they
forgot, however, to “mop up” behind them, so that the enemy came out of
his tunnels and the Australians had to cut their way through), and that
evening I met their escorts with droves of captured Germans. They had
helped to break the last defensive system of the enemy opposite the
British front, and after that our troops fought through open country on
the way to victory.

I saw many of the scenes which led up to Mons and Le Cateau and
afterward to the Rhine. Something of the horror of war passed when the
enemy drew back slowly in retreat from the lands he had invaded, and we
liberated great cities like Lille and Roubaix and Tourcoing, and scores
of towns and villages where the people had been waiting for us so long,
and now wept with joy to see us. The entry into Lille was unforgetable,
when old men and women and girls and boys and little children crowded
round us and kissed our hands. So it was in other places. Yet not all
the horror had passed. In Courtrai, in St.-Amand by Valenciennes, in
Bohain, and other villages, the enemy’s shell-fire and poison-gas killed
and injured many of the people who had been under the German yoke so
long and now thought they were safe. Hospitals were filled with women
gasping for breath, with gas-fumes in their lungs, and with dying
children. In Valenciennes the cellars were flooded when I walked there
on its day of capture, so that when shells began to fall the people
could not go down to shelter. Some of them did not try to go down. At an
open window sat an old veteran of 1870 with his medal on his breast, and
with his daughter and granddaughter on each side of his chair. He called
out, “Merci! Merci!” when English soldiers passed, and when I stopped a
moment clasped my hands through the window and could not speak for the
tears which fell down his white and withered cheeks. A few dead Germans
lay about the streets, and in Maubeuge on the day before the armistice
I saw the last dead German of the war in that part of the line. He
lay stretched outside the railway station into which many shells had
crashed. It was as though he had walked from his own comrades toward our
line before a bullet caught him.

Ludendorff writes of the broken morale of the German troops, and of how
his men surrendered to single troopers of ours, while whole detachments
gave themselves up to tanks. “Retiring troops,” he wrote, “greeted one
particular division (the cavalry) that was going up fresh and gallantly
to the attack, with shouts of ‘Blacklegs!’ and ‘War-prolongers!”’ That
is true. When the Germans left Bohain they shouted out to the French
girls: “The English are coming. Bravo! The war will soon be over!” On a
day in September, when British troops broke the Drocourt-Queant line,
I saw the Second German Guards coming along in batches, like companies,
and after they had been put in barbed-wire inclosures they laughed
and clapped at the sight of other crowds of comrades coming down as
prisoners. I thought then, “Something has broken in the German spirit.”
 For the first time the end seemed very near.

Yet the German rear-guards fought stubbornly in many places, especially
in the last battles round Cambrai, where, on the north, the Canadian
corps had to fight desperately, and suffered heavy and bitter losses
under machine-gun fire, while on the south our naval division and others
were badly cut up.

General Currie, whom I saw during those days, was anxious and
disheartened. He was losing more men in machine-gun actions round
Cambrai than in bigger battles. I watched those actions from Bourlon
Wood, saw the last German railway train steam out of the town, and went
into the city early on the morning of its capture, when there was a
roaring fire in the heart of it and the Canadians were routing out the
last Germans from their hiding-places.

The British army could not have gone on much farther after November
11th, when the armistice brought us to a halt. For three months
our troops had fought incessantly, storming many villages strongly
garrisoned with machine-gunners, crossing many canals under heavy fire,
and losing many comrades all along the way. The pace could not have been
kept up. There is a limit even to the valor of British troops, and for a
time we had reached that limit. There were not many divisions who could
have staggered on to new attacks without rest and relief. But they had
broken the German armies against them by a succession of hammer-strokes
astounding in their rapidity and in their continuity, which I need not
here describe in detail, because in my despatches, now in book form, I
have narrated that history as I was a witness of it day by day.

Elsewhere the French and Americans had done their part with steady,
driving pressure. The illimitable reserves of Americans, and their
fighting quality, which triumphed over a faulty organization of
transport and supplies, left the German High Command without hope even
for a final gamble.

Before them the German troops were in revolt, at last, against the
bloody, futile sacrifice of their manhood and people. A blinding light
had come to them, revealing the criminality of their war lords in
this “Great Swindle” against their race. It was defeat and agony which
enlightened them, as most people--even ourselves--are enlightened only
by suffering and disillusionment, and never by successes.



X


After the armistice I went with our troops to the Rhine, and entered
Cologne with them. That was the most fantastic adventure of all in four
and a half years of strange and terrible adventures. To me there was no
wild exultation in the thought of being in Cologne with our conquering
army. The thought of all the losses on the way, and of all the futility
of this strife, smote at one’s heart. What fools the Germans had been,
what tragic fools! What a mad villainy there had been among rival
dynasties and powers and politicians and peoples to lead to this
massacre! What had any one gained out of it all? Nothing except ruin.
Nothing except great death and poverty and remorse and revolt.

The German people received us humbly. They were eager to show us
courtesy and submission. It was a chance for our young Junkers, for the
Prussian in the hearts of young pups of ours, who could play the petty
tyrant, shout at German waiters, refuse to pay their bills, bully
shopkeepers, insult unoffending citizens. A few young staff-officers
behaved like that, disgustingly. The officers of fighting battalions
and the men were very different. It was a strange study in psychology to
watch them. Here they were among the “Huns.” The men they passed in the
streets and sat with in the restaurants had been in German uniforms a
few weeks before, or a few days. They were “the enemy,” the men they
had tried to kill, the men who had tried to kill them. They had actually
fought against them in the same places. At the Domhof Hotel I overheard
a conversation between a young waiter and three of our cavalry officers.
They had been in the same fight in the village of Noyelles, near
Cambrai, a tiny place of ruin, where they had crouched under machine-gun
fire. The waiter drew a diagram on the table-cloth. “I was just there.”
 The three cavalry officers laughed. “Extraordinary! We were a few
yards away.” They chatted with the waiter as though he were an old
acquaintance who had played against them in a famous football-match.
They did not try to kill him with a table-knife. He did not put poison
in the soup.

That young waiter had served in a hotel in Manchester, where he had
served a friend of mine, to whom he now expressed his opinion on the
folly of the war, and the criminality of his war lords, and things in
general. Among these last he uttered an epigram which I remember for its
brutal simplicity. It was when a staff-officer of ours, rather the worse
for wine, had been making a scene with the head waiter, bullying him in
a strident voice.

“Some English gentlemen are swine,” said the young waiter. “But all
German gentlemen are swine.”

Some of our officers and men billeted in houses outside Cologne or
across the Rhine endeavored to stand on distant terms with the “Huns.”
 But it was impossible to be discourteous when the old lady of the house
brought them an early cup of coffee before breakfast, warmed their boots
before the kitchen fire, said, “God be praised, the war is over.” For
English soldiers, anything like hostility was ridiculous in the presence
of German boys and girls who swarmed round their horses and guns, kissed
their hands, brought them little pictures and gifts.

“Kids are kids,” said a sergeant-major. “I don’t want to cut their
throats! Queer, ain’t it?”

Many of the “kids” looked half starved. Our men gave them bread and
biscuit and bully beef. In Cologne the people seemed pleased to see
British soldiers. There was no sense of humiliation. No agony of
grief at this foreign occupation. Was it lack of pride, cringing--or a
profound relief that the river of blood had ceased to flow and even a
sense of protection against the revolutionary mob which had looted their
houses before our entry? Almost every family had lost one son. Some of
them two, three, even five sons, in that orgy of slaughter. They had
paid a dreadful price for pride. Their ambition had been drowned in
blood.

In the restaurants orchestras played gay music. Once I heard them
playing old English melodies, and I sickened a little at that. That was
going too far! I looked round the Cafe Bauer--a strange scene after
four and a half years Hun-hating. English soldiers were chatting with
Germans, clinking beer mugs with them. The Germans lifted their hats
to English “Tommies”; our men, Canadian and English, said “Cheerio!” to
German soldiers in uniforms without shoulder-straps or buttons. English
people still talking of Huns, demanding vengeance, the maintenance of
the blockade, would have become hysterical if they had come suddenly to
this German cafe before the signing of peace.

Long before peace was signed at Versailles it had been made on the
Rhine. Stronger than the hate of war was human nature. Face to face,
British soldiers found that every German had two eyes, a nose, and a
mouth, in spite of being a “Hun.” As ecclesiastics would say when not
roused to patriotic fury, they had been made “in the image of God.”
 There were pleasant-spoken women in the shops and in the farmhouses.
Blue-eyed girls with flaxen pigtails courtesied very prettily to English
officers. They were clean. Their houses were clean, more spotless even
than English homes. When soldiers turned on a tap they found water came
out of it. Wonderful! The sanitary arrangements were good. Servants were
hard--working and dutiful. There was something, after all, in German
Kultur. At night the children said their prayer to the Christian God.
Most of them were Catholics, and very pious.

“They seem good people,” said English soldiers.

At night, in the streets of Cologne, were women not so good. Shameless
women, though daintily dressed and comely. British soldiers--English,
Scottish, and Canadian--grinned back at their laughing eyes, entered
into converse with them, found they could all speak English, went down
side-streets with them to narrow-fronted houses. There were squalid
scenes when the A.P.M. raided these houses and broke up an entente
cordiale that was flagrant and scandalous.

Astonishing climax to the drama of war! No general orders could stop
fraternization before peace was signed. Human nature asserted itself
against all artificial restrictions and false passion. Friends of mine
who had been violent in their hatred of all Germans became thoughtful,
and said: “Of course there are exceptions,” and, “The innocent must
not suffer for the guilty,” and, “We can afford to be a little generous
now.”

But the innocent were made to suffer for the guilty and we were not
generous. We maintained the blockade, and German children starved, and
German mothers weakened, and German girls swooned in the tram-cars,
and German babies died. Ludendorff did not starve or die. Neither did
Hindenburg, nor any German war lord, nor any profiteer. Down the streets
of Cologne came people of the rich middle classes, who gorged themselves
on buns and cakes for afternoon tea. They were cakes of ersatz flour
with ersatz cream, and not very healthy or nutritious, though very
expensive. But in the side-streets, among the working--women, there was,
as I found, the wolf of hunger standing with open jaws by every doorway.
It was not actual starvation, but what the Germans call unternahrung
(under-nourishment), producing rickety children, consumptive girls, and
men out of whom vitality had gone They stinted and scraped on miserable
substitutes, and never had enough to eat. Yet they were the people who
for two years at least had denounced the war, had sent up petitions
for peace, and had written to their men in the trenches about the Great
Swindle and the Gilded Ones. They were powerless, as some of them told
me, because of the secret police and martial law. What could they do
against the government, with all their men away at the front? They were
treated like pigs, like dirt. They could only suffer and pray. They had
a little hope that in the future, if France and England were not too
hard, they might pay back for the guilt of their war lords and see a new
Germany arise out of its ruin, freed from militarism and with greater
liberties. So humble people talked to us when I went among them with
a friend who spoke good German, better than my elementary knowledge. I
believed in their sincerity, which had come through suffering, though
I believed that newspaper editors, many people in the official
classes, and the old military caste were still implacable in hatred and
unrepentant.

The German people deserved punishment for their share in the guilt of
war. They had been punished by frightful losses of life, by a multitude
of cripples, by the ruin of their Empire. When they told me of their
hunger I could not forget the hungry wives and children of France and
Belgium, who had been captives in their own land behind German lines,
nor our prisoners who had been starved, until many of them died. When
I walked through German villages and pitied the women who yearned
for their men, still prisoners in our hands, nearly a year after the
armistice, and long after peace (a cruelty which shamed us, I think),
I remembered hundreds of French villages broken into dust by German
gun-fire, burned by incendiary shells, and that vast desert of the
battlefields in France and Belgium which never in our time will regain
its life as a place of human habitation. When Germans said, “Our
industry is ruined,” “Our trade is killed,” I thought of the factories
in Lille and many towns from which all machinery had been taken or in
which all machinery had been broken. I thought of the thousand crimes of
their war, the agony of millions of people upon whose liberties they had
trampled and upon whose necks they had imposed a brutal yoke. Yet even
with all those memories of tragic scenes which in this book are but
lightly sketched, I hoped that the peace we should impose would not be
one of vengeance, by which the innocent would pay for the sins of the
guilty, the children for their fathers’ lust, the women for their
war lords, the soldiers who hated war for those who drove them to the
shambles; but that this peace should in justice and mercy lead the
working-people of Europe out of the misery in which all were plunged,
and by a policy no higher than common sense, but as high as that,
establish a new phase of civilization in which military force would be
reduced to the limits of safety for European peoples eager to end the
folly of war and get back to work.

I hoped too much. There was no such peace.



PART EIGHT. FOR WHAT MEN DIED



I


In this book I have written in a blunt way some episodes of the war as
I observed them, and gained first-hand knowledge of them in their
daily traffic. I have not painted the picture blacker than it was, nor
selected gruesome morsels and joined them together to make a jig-saw
puzzle for ghoulish delight. Unlike Henri Barbusse, who, in his dreadful
book Le Feu, gave the unrelieved blackness of this human drama, I have
here and in other books shown the light as well as the shade in which
our men lived, the gaiety as well as the fear they had, the exultation
as well as the agony of battle, the spiritual ardor of boys as well as
the brutality of the task that was theirs. I have tried to set down as
many aspects of the war’s psychology as I could find in my remembrance
of these years, without exaggeration or false emphasis, so that out of
their confusion, even out of their contradiction, the real truth of the
adventure might be seen as it touched the souls of men.

Yet when one strives to sum up the evidence and reach definite
conclusions about the motives which led men of the warring nations
to kill one another year after year in those fields of slaughter, the
ideals for which so many millions of men laid down their lives, and the
effect of those years of carnage upon the philosophy of this present
world of men, there is no clear line of thought or conviction.

It is difficult at least to forecast the changes that will be produced
by this experience in the social structure of civilized peoples, and in
their relations to one another though it is certain, even now, that
out of the passion of the war a new era in the world’s history is being
born. The ideas of vast masses of people have been revolutionized by
the thoughts that were stirred up in them during those years of intense
suffering. No system of government designed by men afraid of the new
ideas will have power to kill them, though they may throttle them for
a time. For good or ill, I know not which, the ideas germinated in
trenches and dugouts, in towns under shell--fire or bomb-fire, in hearts
stricken by personal tragedy or world-agony, will prevail over the old
order which dominated the nations of Europe, and the old philosophy
of political and social governance will be challenged and perhaps
overthrown. If the new ideas are thwarted by reactionary rulers
endeavoring to jerk the world back to its old-fashioned discipline under
their authority, there will be anarchy reaching to the heights of terror
in more countries than those where anarchy now prevails. If by fear or
by wisdom the new ideas are allowed to gain their ground gradually, a
revolution will be accomplished without anarchy. But in any case, for
good or ill, a revolution will happen. It has happened in the sense that
already there is no resemblance between this Europe after-the-war and
that Europe-before-the-war, in the mental attitude of the masses toward
the problems of life. In every country there are individuals, men and
women, who are going about as though what had happened had made no
difference, and as though, after a period of restlessness, the
people will “settle down” to the old style of things. They are merely
sleep-walkers. There are others who see clearly enough that they cannot
govern or dupe the people with old spell-words, and they are struggling
desperately to think out new words which may help them to regain their
power over simple minds. The old gangs are organizing a new system of
defense, building a new kind of Hindenburg line behind which they are
dumping their political ammunition. But their Hindenburg line is not
impregnable. The angry murmur of the mob--highly organized, disciplined,
passionate, trained to fight, is already approaching the outer bastions.

In Russia the mob is in possession, wiping the blood out of their eyes
after the nightmare of anarchy, encompassed by forces of the old regime,
and not knowing yet whether its victory is won or how to shape the new
order that must follow chaos.

In Germany there is only the psychology of stunned people, broken for
a time in body and spirit, after stupendous efforts and bloody losses
which led to ruin and the complete destruction of their old pride,
philosophy, and power. The revolution that has happened there is strange
and rather pitiful. It was not caused by the will--power of the people,
but by a cessation of will-power. They did not overthrow their ruling
dynasty, their tyrants. The tyrants fled, and the people were not angry,
nor sorry, nor fierce, nor glad. They were stupefied. Members of the old
order joined hands with those of the people’s parties, out to evolve a
republic with new ideals based upon the people’s will and inspired by
the people’s passion. The Germans, after the armistice and after the
peace, had no passion, as they had no will. They were in a state of
coma. The “knock-out blow” had happened to them, and they were incapable
of action. They just ceased from action. They had been betrayed to this
ruin by their military and political rulers, but they had not vitality
enough to demand vengeance on those men. The extent of their ruin was so
great that it annihilated anger, political passion, pride, all emotion
except that of despair. How could they save something out of the
remnants of the power that had been theirs? How could they keep alive,
feed their women and children, pay their monstrous debts? They had lost
their faith as well as their war. Nothing that they had believed was
true. They had believed in their invincible armies--and the armies had
bled to death and broken. They had believed in the supreme military
genius of their war lords, and the war lords, blunderers as well as
criminals, had led them to the abyss and dropped them over. They had
believed in the divine mission of the German people as a civilizing
force, and now they were despised by all other peoples as a brutal and
barbarous race, in spite of German music, German folk-songs, German art,
German sentiment. They had been abandoned by God, by the protecting hand
of the altes gutes Deutsches Gottes to whom many had prayed for comfort
and help in those years of war, in Protestant churches and Catholic
churches, with deep piety and childlike faith. What sins had they done
that they should be abandoned by God? The invasion of Belgium? That,
they argued, was a tragic necessity. Atrocities? Those were (they
believed) the inventions of their enemies. There had been stern things
done, terrible things, but according to the laws of war. Francs-tireurs
had been shot. That was war. Hostages had been shot. It was to save
German lives from slaughter by civilians. Individual brutalities, yes.
There were brutes in all armies. The U-boat war? It was (said the
German patriot) to break a blockade that was starving millions of German
children to slow death, condemning millions to consumption, rickets, all
manner of disease. Nurse Cavell? She pleaded guilty to a crime that was
punishable, as she knew, by death. She was a brave woman who took her
risk open-eyed, and was judged according to the justice of war, which is
very cruel. Poison-gas? Why not, said German soldiers, when to be gassed
was less terrible than to be blown to bits by high explosives? They had
been the first to use that new method of destruction, as the English
were the first to use tanks, terrible also in their destructiveness.
Germany was guilty of this war, had provoked it against peaceful
peoples? No! A thousand times no. They had been, said the troubled soul
of Germany, encompassed with enemies. They had plotted to close her in.
Russia was a huge menace. France had entered into alliance with Russia,
and was waiting her chance to grab at Alsace-Lorraine. Italy was ready
for betrayal. England hated the power of Germany and was in secret
alliance with France and Russia. Germany had struck to save herself. “It
was a war of self-defense, to save the Fatherland.”

The German people still clung desperately to those ideas after the
armistice, as I found in Cologne and other towns, and as friends of
mine who had visited Berlin told me after peace was signed. The Germans
refused to believe in accusations of atrocity. They knew that some of
these stories had been faked by hostile propaganda, and, knowing
that, as we know, they thought all were false. They said
“Lies-lies-lies!”--and made counter--charges against the Russians and
Poles. They could not bring themselves to believe that their sons and
brothers had been more brutal than the laws of war allow, and what
brutality they had done was imposed upon them by ruthless discipline.
But they deplored the war, and the common people, ex-soldiers and
civilians, cursed the rich and governing classes who had made profit out
of it, and had continued it when they might have made peace with honor.
That was their accusation against their leaders--that and the ruthless,
bloody way in which their men had been hurled into the furnace on a
gambler’s chance of victory, while they were duped by faked promises of
victory.

When not put upon their defense by accusations against the whole
Fatherland, the German people, as far as I could tell by talking with a
few of them, and by those letters which fell into our hands, revolted
in spirit against the monstrous futility and idiocy of the war, and were
convinced in their souls that its origin lay in the greed and pride
of the governing classes of all nations, who had used men’s bodies as
counters in a devil’s game. That view was expressed in the signboards
put above the parapet, “We’re all fools: let’s all go home”; and in that
letter by the woman who wrote:

“For the poor here it is terrible, and yet the rich, the gilded ones,
the bloated aristocrats, gobble up everything in front of our very
eyes... All soldiers--friend and foe--ought to throw down their weapons
and go on strike, so that this war, which enslaves the people more than
ever, may cease.”

It is that view, terrible in its simplicity, which may cause a more
passionate revolution in Germany when the people awaken from their
stupor. It was that view which led to the Russian Revolution and to
Bolshevism. It is the suspicion which is creeping into the brains of
British working-men and making them threaten to strike against any
adventure of war, like that in Russia, which seems to them (unless
proved otherwise) on behalf of the “gilded ones” and for the enslavement
of the peoples.

Not to face that truth is to deny the passionate convictions of masses
of men in Europe. That is one key to the heart of the revolutionary
movement which is surging beneath the surface of our European state.
It is a the belief of many brooding minds that almost as great as
the direct guilt of the German war lords was the guilt of the whole
political society of Europe, whose secret diplomacy (unrevealed to
the peoples) was based upon hatred and fear and rivalry, in play for
imperial power and the world’s markets, as common folk play dominoes
for penny points, and risking the lives of common folk in a gamble for
enormous stakes of territory, imperial prestige, the personal vanity of
politicians, the vast private gain of trusts and profiteers. To keep the
living counters quiet, to make them jump into the pool of their own free
will at the word “Go,” the statesmen, diplomats, trusts, and profiteers
debauch the name of patriotism, raise the watchword of liberty, and play
upon the ignorance of the mob easily, skillfully, by inciting them to
race hatred, by inflaming the brute-passion in them, and by concocting
a terrible mixture of false idealism and self-interest, so that simple
minds quick to respond to sentiment, as well as those quick to hear
the call of the beast, rally shoulder to shoulder and march to the
battlegrounds under the spell of that potion. Some go with a noble
sense of sacrifice, some with blood-lust in their hearts, most with the
herd-instinct following the lead, little knowing that they are but the
pawns of a game which is being played behind closed doors by the great
gamblers in the courts and Foreign Offices, and committee-rooms, and
counting-houses, of the political casinos in Europe.

I have heard the expression of this view from soldiers during the war
and since the war, at street-corners, in tram-cars, and in conversations
with railway men, mechanics, policemen, and others who were soldiers a
year ago, or stay-at-homes, thinking hard over the meaning of the war.
I am certain that millions of men are thinking these things, because
I found the track of those common thoughts, crude, simple, dangerous,
among Canadian soldiers crossing the Atlantic, in Canadian towns, and in
the United States, as I had begun to see the trail of them far back in
the early days of the war when I moved among French soldiers, Belgian
soldiers, and our own men.

My own belief is not so simple as that. I do not divorce all peoples
from their governments as victims of a subtle tyranny devised by
statesmen and diplomats of diabolical cunning, and by financial magnates
ready to exploit human life for greater gains. I see the evil which led
to the crime of the war and to the crimes of the peace with deep-spread
roots to the very foundation of human society. The fear of statesmen,
upon which all international relations were based, was in the hearts
of peoples. France was afraid of Germany and screwed up her military
service, her war preparations, to the limit of national endurance, the
majority of the people of France accepting the burden as inevitable
and right. Because of her fear of Germany France made her alliance with
Russian Czardom, her entente cordiale with Imperial England, and the
French people poured their money into Russian loans as a life insurance
against the German menace. French statesmen knew that their diplomacy
was supported by the majority of the people by their ignorance as well
as by their knowledge.

So it was in Germany. The spell-words of the German war lords expressed
the popular sentiment of the German people, which was largely influenced
by the fear of Russia in alliance with France, by fear and envy of the
British Empire and England’s sea-power, and by the faith that Germany
must break through that hostile combination at all costs in order to
fulfil the high destiny which was marked out for her, as she thought,
by the genius and industry of her people. The greed of the “bloated
aristocrats” was only on a bigger scale than the greed of the small
shopkeepers. The desire to capture new markets belonged not only to
statesmen, but to commercial travelers. The German peasant believed as
much in the might of the German armies as Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
The brutality of German generals was not worse than that of the
Unteroffizier or the foreman of works.

In England there was no traditional hatred of Germany, but for some
years distrust and suspicions, which had been vented in the newspapers,
with taunts and challenges, stinging the pride of Germans and playing
into the hands of the Junker caste.

Our war psychology was different from that of our allies because of our
island position and our faith in seapower which had made us immune from
the fear of invasion. It took some time to awaken the people to a sense
of real peril and of personal menace to their hearths and homes. To the
very end masses of English folk believed that we were fighting for the
rescue of other peoples--Belgian, French, Serbian, Rumanian--and not for
the continuance of our imperial power.

The official propaganda, the words and actions of British statesmen,
did actually express the conscious and subconscious psychology of the
multitude. The call to the old watchwords of national pride and imperial
might thrilled the soul of a people of proud tradition in sea--battles
and land-battles. Appeals for the rescue of “the little nations” struck
old chords of chivalry and sentiment--though with a strange lack of
logic and sincerity Irish demand for self-government was unheeded. Base
passions as well as noble instincts were stirred easily. Greedy was the
appetite of the mob for atrocity tales. The more revolting they were the
quicker they were swallowed. The foul absurdity of the “corpse-factory”
 was not rejected any more than the tale of the “crucified Canadian”
 (disproved by our own G.H.Q.) or the cutting off of children’s hands
and women’s breasts, for which I could find no evidence from the only
British ambulances working in the districts where such horrors were
reported. Spy-mania flourished in mean streets, German music was banned
in English drawing-rooms. Preachers and professors denied any quality of
virtue or genius to German poets, philosophers, scientists, or scholars.
A critical weighing of evidence was regarded as pro-Germanism and lack
of patriotism. Truth was delivered bound to passion. Hatred at home,
inspired largely by feminine hysteria and official propaganda, reached
such heights that when fighting-men came back on leave their refusal
to say much against their enemy, their straightforward assertions that
Fritz was not so black as he was painted, that he fought bravely, died
gamely, and in the prison-camps was well-mannered, decent, industrious,
good-natured, were heard with shocked silence by mothers and sisters who
could only excuse this absence of hate on the score of war-weariness.



II


The people of all countries were deeply involved in the general
blood-guiltiness of Europe. They made no passionate appeal in the name
of Christ or in the name of humanity for the cessation of the slaughter
of boys and the suicide of nations and for a reconciliation of
peoples upon terms of some more reasonable argument than that of high
explosives. Peace proposals from the Pope, from Germany, from Austria,
were rejected with fierce denunciation, most passionate scorn, as “peace
plots” and “peace traps,” not without the terrible logic of the vicious
circle, because, indeed, there was no sincerity of renunciation in
some of those offers of peace, and the powers hostile to us were simply
trying our strength and our weakness in order to make their own kind of
peace which should be that of conquest. The gamblers, playing the
game of “poker,” with crowns and armies as their stakes, were upheld
generally by the peoples, who would not abate one point of pride, one
fraction of hate, one claim of vengeance, though all Europe should fall
in ruin and the last legions of boys be massacred. There was no call
from people to people across the frontiers of hostility: “Let us end
this homicidal mania! Let us get back to sanity and save our younger
sons. Let us hand over to justice those who will continue the slaughter
of our youth!” There was no forgiveness, no generous instinct, no
large-hearted common sense in any combatant nation of Europe. Like
wolves they had their teeth in one another’s throats, and would not let
go, though all bloody and exhausted, until one should fall at the last
gasp, to be mangled by the others. Yet in each nation, even in Germany,
there were men and women who saw the folly of the war and the crime of
it, and desired to end it by some act of renunciation and repentance,
and by some uplifting of the people’s spirit to vault the frontiers of
hatred and the barbed wire which hedged in patriotism. Some of them were
put in prison. Most of them saw the impossibility of counteracting the
forces of insanity which had made the world mad, and kept silent,
hiding their thoughts and brooding over them. The leaders of the nations
continued to use mob-passion as their argument and justification,
excited it anew when its fires burned low, focused it upon definite
objectives, and gave it a sense of righteousness by the high-sounding
watchwords of liberty, justice, honor, and retribution. Each side
proclaimed Christ as its captain and invoked the blessing and aid of the
God of Christendom, though Germans were allied with Turks and France
was full of black and yellow men. The German people did not try to avert
their ruin by denouncing the criminal acts of their war lords nor by
deploring the cruelties they had committed. The Allies did not help them
to do so, because of their lust for bloody vengeance and their desire
for the spoils of victory. The peoples shared the blame of their rulers
because they were not nobler than their rulers. They cannot now
plead ignorance or betrayal by false ideals which duped them, because
character does not depend on knowledge, and it was the character of
European peoples which failed in the crisis of the world’s fate, so that
they followed the call-back of the beast in the jungle rather than the
voice of the Crucified One whom they pretended to adore.



III


The character of European peoples failed in common sense and in
Christian charity. It did not fail in courage to endure great agonies,
to suffer death largely, to be obedient to the old tradition of
patriotism and to the stoic spirit of old fighting races.

In courage I do not think there was much difference between the chief
combatants. The Germans, as a race, were wonderfully brave until their
spirit was broken by the sure knowledge of defeat and by lack of food.
Many times through all those years they marched shoulder to shoulder,
obedient to discipline, to certain death, as I saw them on the Somme,
like martyrs. They marched for their Fatherland, inspired by the spirit
of the German race, as it had entered their souls by the memory of old
German songs, old heroic ballads, their German home life, their German
women, their love of little old towns on hillsides or in valleys, by
all the meaning to them of that word Germany, which is like the name of
England to us--who is fool enough to think otherwise?--and fought often,
a thousand times, to the death, as I saw their bodies heaped in the
fields of the Somme and round their pill-boxes in Flanders and in the
last phase of the war behind the Hindenburg line round their broken
batteries on the way of Mons and Le Cateau. The German people endured
years of semi-starvation and a drain of blood greater than any other
fighting people--two million dead--before they lost all vitality, hope,
and pride and made their abject surrender. At the beginning they were
out for conquest, inspired by arrogance and pride. Before the end they
fought desperately to defend the Fatherland from the doom which cast its
black shadow on them as it drew near. They were brave, those Germans,
whatever the brutality of individual men and the cold-blooded cruelty of
their commanders.

The courage of France is to me like an old heroic song, stirring the
heart. It was medieval in its complete adherence to the faith of valor
and its spirit of sacrifice for La Patrie. If patriotism were enough as
the gospel of life--Nurse Cavell did not think so--France as a nation
was perfect in that faith. Her people had no doubt as to their duty. It
was to defend their sacred soil from the enemy which had invaded it. It
was to hurl the brutes back from the fair fields they had ravaged
and despoiled. It was to liberate their brothers and sisters from the
outrageous tyranny of the German yoke in the captured country. It was to
seek vengeance for bloody, foul, and abominable deeds.

In the first days of the war France was struck by heavy blows which sent
her armies reeling back in retreat, but before the first battle of the
Marne, when her peril was greatest, when Paris seemed doomed, the
spirit of the French soldiers rose to a supreme act of faith--which was
fulfilled when Foch attacked in the center, when Manoury struck on
the enemy’s flank and hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen hurled
themselves, reckless of life, upon the monster which faltered and then
fled behind the shelter of the Aisne. With bloodshot eyes and parched
throats and swollen tongues, blind with sweat and blood, mad with the
heat and fury of attack, the French soldiers fought through that first
battle of the Marne and saved France from defeat and despair.

After that, year after year, they flung themselves against the German
defense and died in heaps, or held their lines, as at Verdun, against
colossal onslaught, until the dead lay in masses. But the living said,
“They shall not pass!” and kept their word.

The people of France--above all, the women of France--behind the lines,
were the equals of the fighting-men in valor. They fought with despair,
through many black months, and did not yield. They did the work of their
men in the fields, and knew that many of them--the sons or brothers or
lovers or husbands--would never return for the harvest-time, but did not
cry to have them back until the enemy should be thrust out of France.
Behind the German line, under German rule, the French people, prisoners
in their own land, suffered most in spirit, but were proud and patient
in endurance.

“Why don’t your people give in?” asked a German officer of a woman in
Nesle. “France is bleeding to death.”

“We shall go on for two years, or three years, or four, or five, and in
the end we shall smash you,” said the woman who told me this.

The German officer stared at her and said, “You people are wonderful!”

Yes, they were wonderful, the French, and their hatred of the Germans,
their desire for vengeance, complete and terrible, at all cost of life,
even though France should bleed to death and die after victory, is to be
understood in the heights and depths of its hatred and in the passion of
its love for France and liberty. When I think of France I am tempted to
see no greater thing than such patriotism as that to justify the gospel
of hate against such an enemy, to uphold vengeance as a sweet virtue.
Yet if I did so I should deny the truth that has been revealed to many
men and women by the agony of the war--that if civilization may continue
patriotism is “not enough,” that international hatred will produce other
wars worse than this, in which civilization will be submerged, and that
vengeance, even for dreadful crimes, cannot be taken of a nation without
punishing the innocent more than the guilty, so that out of its cruelty
and injustice new fires of hatred are lighted, the demand for vengeance
passes to the other side, and the devil finds another vicious circle in
which to trap the souls of men and “catch ‘em all alive O!”

To deny that would also be a denial of the faith with which millions of
young Frenchmen rushed to the colors in the first days of the war. It
was they who said, “This is a war to end war.” They told me so. It was
they who said: “German militarism must be killed so that all militarism
shall be abolished. This is a war for liberty.” So soldiers of France
spoke to me on a night when Paris was mobilized and the tragedy began.
It is a Frenchman--Henri Barbusse--who, in spite of the German invasion,
the outrages against his people, the agony of France, has the courage
to say that all peoples in Europe were involved in the guilt of that war
because of their adherence to that old barbaric creed of brute force and
the superstitious servitude of their souls to symbols of national pride
based upon military tradition. He even denounces the salute to the flag,
instinctive and sacred in the heart of every Frenchman, as a fetish
worship in which the narrow bigotry of national arrogance is raised
above the rights of the common masses of men. He draws no distinction
between a war of defense and a war of aggression, because attack is the
best means of defense, and all peoples who go to war dupe themselves
into the belief that they do so in defense of their liberties, and
rights, and power, and property. Germany attacked France first because
she was ready first and sure of her strength. France would have attacked
Germany first to get back Alsace-Lorraine, to wipe out 1870, if she also
had been ready and sure of her strength. The political philosophy on
both sides of the Rhine was the same. It was based on military power and
rivalry of secret alliances and imperial ambitions. The large-hearted
internationalism of Jean Jaures, who with all his limitations was a
great Frenchman, patriot, and idealist, had failed among his own
people and in Germany, and the assassin’s bullet was his reward for the
adventure of his soul to lift civilization above the level of the old
jungle law and to save France from the massacre which happened.

In war France was wonderful, most heroic in sacrifice, most splendid
in valor. In her dictated peace, which was ours also, her leaders were
betrayed by the very evil which millions of young Frenchmen had gone out
to kill at the sacrifice of their own lives. Militarism was exalted in
France above the ruins of German militarism. It was a peace of vengeance
which punished the innocent more than the guilty, the babe at the breast
more than the Junker in his Schloss, the poor working-woman more than
the war lord, the peasant who had been driven to the shambles more than
Sixt von Arnim or Rupprecht of Bavaria, or Ludendorff, or Hindenburg. It
is a peace that can only be maintained by the power of artillery and by
the conscription of every French boy who shall be trained for the next
“war of defense” (twenty years hence, thirty years hence), when Germany
is strong again--stronger than France because of her population,
stronger then, enormously, than France, in relative numbers
of able-bodied men than in August, 1914. So if that philosophy
continue--and I do not think it will--the old fear will be
re-established, the old burdens of armament will be piled up anew, the
people of France will be weighed down as before under a military regime
stifling their liberty of thought and action, wasting the best years of
their boyhood in barracks, seeking protective alliances, buying allies
at great cost, establishing the old spy system, the old diplomacy, the
old squalid ways of inter--national politics, based as before on fear
and force. Marshal Foch was a fine soldier. Clemenceau was a strong
Minister of War. There was no man great enough in France to see beyond
the passing triumph of military victory and by supreme generosity of
soul to lift their enemy out of the dirt of their despair, so that
the new German Republic should arise from the ruins of the Empire,
remorseful of their deeds in France and Belgium, with all their rage
directed against their ancient tyranny, and with a new-born spirit of
democratic liberty reaching across the old frontiers.

Is that the foolish dream of the sentimentalist? No, more than that; for
the German people, after their agony, were ready to respond to generous
dealing, pitiful in their need of it, and there is enough sentiment in
German hearts--the most sentimental people in Europe--to rise with a
surge of emotion to a new gospel of atonement if their old enemies had
offered a chance of grace. France has not won the war by her terms of
peace nor safeguarded her frontiers for more than a few uncertain
years. By harking back to the old philosophy of militarism she has
re-established peril amid a people drained of blood and deeply in debt.
Her support of reactionary forces in Russia is to establish a government
which will guarantee the interest on French loans and organize a new
military regime in alliance with France and England. Meanwhile France
looks to the United States and British people to protect her from
the next war, when Germany shall be strong again. She is playing the
militarist role without the strength to sustain it.



IV


What of England?... Looking back at the immense effort of the British
people in the war, our high sum of sacrifice in blood and treasure,
and the patient courage of our fighting-men, the world must, and does,
indeed, acknowledge that the old stoic virtue of our race was called
out by this supreme challenge, and stood the strain. The traditions of a
thousand years of history filled with war and travail and adventure, by
which old fighting races had blended with different strains of blood and
temper--Roman, Celtic, Saxon, Danish, Norman-survived in the fiber of
our modern youth, country-bred or city-bred, in spite of the weakening
influences of slumdom, vicious environment, ill-nourishment, clerkship,
and sedentary life. The Londoner was a good soldier. The Liverpools and
Manchesters were hard and tough in attack and defense. The South
Country battalions of Devons and Dorsets, Sussex and Somersets, were
not behindhand in ways of death. The Scots had not lost their fire and
passion, but were terrible in their onslaught. The Irish battalions,
with recruiting cut off at the base, fought with their old gallantry,
until there were few to answer the last roll-call. The Welsh dragon
encircled Mametz Wood, devoured the “Cockchafers” on Pilkem Ridge, and
was hard on the trail of the Black Eagle in the last offensive. The
Australians and Canadians had all the British quality of courage and
the benefit of a harder physique, gained by outdoor life and unweakened
ancestry. In the mass, apart from neurotic types here and there among
officers and men, the stock was true and strong. The spirit of a
seafaring race which has the salt in its blood from Land’s End to
John o’ Groat’s and back again to Wapping had not been destroyed, but
answered the ruffle of Drake’s drum and, with simplicity and gravity
in royal navy and in merchant marine, swept the highways of the seas,
hunted worse monsters than any fabulous creatures of the deep, and
shirked no dread adventure in the storms and darkness of a spacious
hell. The men who went to Zeebrugge were the true sons of those who
fought the Spanish Armada and singed the King o’ Spain’s beard in Cadiz
harbor. The victors of the Jutland battle were better men than Nelson’s
(the scourings of the prisons and the sweepings of the press-gang) and
not less brave in frightful hours. Without the service of the British
seamen the war would have been lost for France and Italy and Belgium,
and all of us.

The flower of our youth went out to France and Flanders, to Egypt,
Palestine, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Saloniki, and it was a fine
flower of gallant boyhood, clean, for the most part eager, not brutal
except by intensive training, simple in minds and hearts, chivalrous
in instinct, without hatred, adventurous, laughter-loving, and dutiful.
That is God’s truth, in spite of vice-rotted, criminal, degenerate, and
brutal fellows in many battalions, as in all crowds of men.

In millions of words during the years of war I recorded the bravery of
our troops on the western front, their patience, their cheerfulness,
suffering, and agony; yet with all those words describing day by day
the incidents of their life in war I did not exaggerate the splendor
of their stoic spirit or the measure of their sacrifice. The heroes of
mythology were but paltry figures compared with those who, in the great
war, went forward to the roaring devils of modern gun-fire, dwelt amid
high explosives more dreadful than dragons, breathed in the fumes of
poison-gas more foul than the breath of Medusa, watched and slept
above mine-craters which upheaved the hell-fire of Pluto, and defied
thunderbolts more certain in death-dealing blows than those of Jove.

Something there was in the spirit of our men which led them to endure
these things without revolt--ideals higher than the selfish motives of
life. They did not fight for greed or glory, not for conquest, nor for
vengeance. Hatred was not the inspiration of the mass of them, for I
am certain that except in hours when men “see red” there was no direct
hatred of the men in the opposite trenches, but, on the other hand, a
queer sense of fellow--feeling, a humorous sympathy for “old Fritz,”
 who was in the same bloody mess as themselves. Our generals, it is true,
hated the Germans. “I should like one week in Cologne,” one of them told
me, before there seemed ever a chance of getting there, “and I would let
my men loose in the streets and turn a blind eye to anything they liked
to do.”

Some of our officers were inspired by a bitter, unrelenting hate.

“If I had a thousand Germans in a row,” one of them said to me, “I would
cut all their throats, and enjoy the job.”

But that was not the mentality of the men in the ranks, except those
who were murderers by nature and pleasure. They gave their cigarettes to
prisoners and filled their water-bottles and chatted in a friendly way
with any German who spoke a little English, as I have seen them time
and time again on days of battle, in the fields of battle. There were
exceptions to this treatment, but even the Australians and the Scots,
who were most fierce in battle, giving no quarter sometimes, treated
their prisoners with humanity when they were bundled back. Hatred was
not the motive which made our men endure all things. It was rather, as
I have said, a refusal in their souls to be beaten in manhood by all
the devils of war, by all its terrors, or by its beastliness, and at
the back of all the thought that the old country was “up against it” and
that they were there to avert the evil.

Young soldiers of ours, not only of officer rank, but of “other ranks,”
 as they were called, were inspired at the beginning, and some of them to
the end, with a simple, boyish idealism. They saw no other causes of war
than German brutality. The enemy to them was the monster who had to be
destroyed lest the world and its beauty should perish--and that was
true so long as the individual German, who loathed the war, obeyed the
discipline of the herd-leaders and did not revolt against the natural
laws which, when the war had once started, bade him die in defense of
his own Fatherland. Many of those boys of ours made a dedication of
their lives upon the altar of sacrifice, believing that by this service
and this sacrifice they would help the victory of civilization over
barbarism, and of Christian morality over the devil’s law. They believed
that they were fighting to dethrone militarism, to insure the happiness
and liberties of civilized peoples, and were sure of the gratitude of
their nation should they not have the fate to fall upon the field of
honor, but go home blind or helpless.

I have read many letters from boys now dead in which they express that
faith.

“Do not grieve for me,” wrote one of them, “for I shall be proud to die
for my country’s sake.”

“I am happy,” wrote another (I quote the tenor of his letters),
“because, though I hate war, I feel that this is the war to end war.
We are the last victims of this way of argument. By smashing the German
war-machine we shall prove for all time the criminal folly of militarism
and Junkerdom.”

There were young idealists like that, and they were to be envied for
their faith, which they brought with them from public schools and from
humble homes where they had read old books and heard old watchwords. I
think, at the beginning of the war there were many like that. But as it
continued year after year doubts crept in, dreadful suspicions of
truth more complex than the old simplicity, a sense of revolt against
sacrifice unequally shared and devoted to a purpose which was not that
for which they had been called to fight.

They had been told that they were fighting for liberty. But their first
lesson was the utter loss of individual liberty under a discipline which
made the private soldier no more than a number. They were ordered about
like galley--slaves, herded about like cattle, treated individually and
in the mass with utter disregard of their comfort and well-being. Often,
as I know, they were detrained at rail-heads in the wind and rain and by
ghastly errors of staff-work kept waiting for their food until they were
weak and famished. In the base camps men of one battalion were drafted
into other battalions, where they lost their old comrades and were
unfamiliar with the speech and habits of a crowd belonging to different
counties, the Sussex men going to a Manchester regiment, the Yorkshire
men being drafted to a Surrey unit. By R.T.O.’s and A.M.L.O.’s and camp
commandments and town majors and staff pups men were bullied and bundled
about, not like human beings, but like dumb beasts, and in a thousand
ways injustice, petty tyranny, hard work, degrading punishments for
trivial offenses, struck at their souls and made the name of personal
liberty a mockery. From their own individuality they argued to broader
issues. Was this war for liberty? Were the masses of men on either side
fighting with free will as free men? Those Germans--were they not under
discipline, each man of them, forced to fight whether they liked it or
not? Compelled to go forward to sacrifice, with machine-guns behind them
to shoot them down if they revolted against their slave-drivers? What
liberty had they to follow their conscience or their judgment--“Theirs
not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”--like all soldiers in all
armies. Was it not rather that the masses of men engaged in slaughter
were serving the purpose of powers above them, rival powers, greedy for
one another’s markets, covetous of one another’s wealth, and callous of
the lives of humble men? Surely if the leaders of the warring nations
were put together for even a week in some such place as Hooge, or the
Hohenzollern redoubt, afflicted by the usual harassing fire, poison-gas,
mine explosions, lice, rats, and the stench of rotting corpses, with the
certainty of death or dismemberment at the week-end, they would settle
the business and come to terms before the week was out. I heard that
proposition put forward many times by young officers of ours, and as an
argument against their own sacrifice they found it unanswerable.



V


The condition and psychology of their own country as they read about
it in the Paris Daily Mail, which was first to come into their billets,
filled some of these young men with distress and disgust, strengthened
into rage when they went home on leave. The deliberate falsification
of news (the truth of which they heard from private channels) made
them discredit the whole presentation of our case and state. They said,
“Propaganda!” with a sharp note of scorn. The breezy optimism of public
men, preachers, and journalists, never downcast by black news, never
agonized by the slaughter in these fields, minimizing horrors and loss
and misery, crowing over the enemy, prophesying early victory which did
not come, accepting all the destruction of manhood (while they stayed
safe) as a necessary and inevitable “misfortune,” had a depressing
effect on men who knew they were doomed to die, in the law of averages,
if the war went on. “Damn their optimism!” said some of our officers.
“It’s too easy for those behind the lines. It is only we who have the
right of optimism. It’s we who have to do the dirty work! They seem to
think we like the job! What are they doing to bring the end nearer?”

The frightful suspicion entered the heads of some of our men (some of
those I knew) that at home people liked the war and were not anxious to
end it, and did not care a jot for the sufferings of the soldiers. Many
of them came back from seven days’ leave fuming and sullen. Everybody
was having a good time. Munition-workers were earning wonderful wages
and spending them on gramophones, pianos, furs, and the “pictures.”
 Everybody was gadding about in a state of joyous exultation. The painted
flapper was making herself sick with the sweets of life after office
hours in government employ, where she did little work for a lot
of pocket-money. The society girl was dancing bare-legged for “war
charities,” pushing into bazaars for the “poor, dear wounded,” getting
her pictures into the papers as a “notable warworker,” married for
the third time in three years; the middle-class cousin was driving
staff-officers to Whitehall, young gentlemen of the Air Service to
Hendon, junior secretaries to their luncheon. Millions of girls were in
some kind of fancy dress with buttons and shoulder--straps, breeches and
puttees, and they seemed to be making a game of the war and enjoying it
thoroughly. Oxford dons were harvesting, and proud of their prowess with
the pitchfork--behold their patriotism!--while the boys were being blown
to bits on the Yser Canal. Miners were striking for more wages, factory
hands were downing tools for fewer hours at higher pay, the government
was paying any price for any labor--while Tommy Atkins drew his
one-and-twopence and made a little go a long way in a wayside estaminet
before jogging up the Menin road to have his head blown off. The
government had created a world of parasites and placemen housed
in enormous hotels, where they were engaged at large salaries upon
mysterious unproductive labors which seemed to have no result in
front-line trenches. Government contractors were growing fat on the life
of war, amassing vast fortunes, juggling with excess profits, battening
upon the flesh and blood of boyhood in the fighting-lines. These old
men, these fat men, were breathing out fire and fury against the Hun,
and vowing by all their gods that they would see their last son die
in the last ditch rather than agree to any peace except that of
destruction. There were “fug committees” (it was Lord Kitchener’s word)
at the War Office, the Board of Trade, the Foreign Office, the Home
Office, the Ministry of Munitions, the Ministry of Information, where
officials on enormous salaries smoked cigars of costly brands and
decided how to spend vast sums of public money on “organization” which
made no difference to the man stifling his cough below the parapet in a
wet fog of Flanders, staring across No Man’s Land for the beginning of a
German attack.

In all classes of people there was an epidemic of dancing, jazzing,
card-playing, theater-going. They were keeping their spirits up
wonderfully. Too well for men slouching about the streets of London on
leave, and wondering at all this gaiety, and thinking back to the things
they had seen and forward to the things they would have to do. People at
home, it seemed, were not much interested in the life of the trenches;
anyhow, they could not understand. The soldier listened to excited tales
of air raids. A bomb had fallen in the next street. The windows had been
broken. Many people had been killed in a house somewhere in Hackney. It
was frightful. The Germans were devils. They ought to be torn to pieces,
every one of them. The soldier on leave saw crowds of people taking
shelter in underground railways, working--men among them, sturdy lads,
panic-stricken. But for his own wife and children he had an evil sense
of satisfaction in these sights. It would do them good. They would know
what war meant--just a little. They would not be so easy in their damned
optimism. An air raid? Lord God, did they know what a German barrage was
like? Did they guess how men walked day after day through harassing fire
to the trenches? Did they have any faint idea of life in a sector where
men stood, slept, ate, worked, under the fire of eight-inch shells,
five-point--nines, trench-mortars, rifle-grenades, machine-gun bullets,
snipers, to say nothing of poison-gas, long-range fire on the billets
in small farmsteads, and on every moonlight night air raids above wooden
hutments so closely crowded into a small space that hardly a bomb could
fall without killing a group of men.

“Oh, but you have your dugouts!” said a careless little lady.

The soldier smiled.

It was no use talking. The people did not want to hear the tragic side
of things. Bairnsfather’s “Ole Bill” seemed to them to typify the spirit
of the fighting-man... “‘Alf a mo’, Kaiser!”...

The British soldier was gay and careless of death--always. Shell-fire
meant nothing to him. If he were killed--well, after all, what else
could he expect? Wasn’t that what he was out for? The twice-married
girl knew a charming boy in the air force. He had made love to her even
before Charlie was “done in.” These dear boys were so greedy for love.
She could not refuse them, poor darlings! Of course they had all got
to die for liberty, and that sort of thing. It was very sad. A terrible
thing--war!... Perhaps she had better give up dancing for a week, until
Charlie had been put into the casualty lists.

“What are we fighting for?” asked officers back from leave, turning
over the pages of the Sketch and Tatler, with pictures of race-meetings,
strike-meetings, bare--backed beauties at war bazaars, and portraits
of profiteers in the latest honors list. “Are we going to die for
these swine? These parasites and prostitutes? Is this the war for noble
ideals, liberty, Christianity, and civilization? To hell with all this
filth! The world has gone mad and we are the victims of insanity.”

Some of them said that below all that froth there were deep and quiet
waters in England. They thought of the anguish of their own wives
and mothers, their noble patience, their uncomplaining courage, their
spiritual faith in the purpose of the war. Perhaps at the heart England
was true and clean and pitiful. Perhaps, after, all, many people at home
were suffering more than the fighting-men, in agony of spirit. It was
unwise to let bitterness poison their brains. Anyhow, they had to go on.
How long, how long, O Lord?

“How long is it going to last?” asked the London Rangers of their
chaplain. He lied to them and said another three months. Always he had
absolute knowledge that the war would end three months later. That was
certain. “Courage!” he said. “Courage to the end of the last lap!”

Most of the long-service men were dead and gone long before the last
lap came. It was only the new boys who went as far as victory. He asked
permission of the general to withdraw nineteen of them from the line to
instruct them for Communion. They were among the best soldiers, and not
afraid of the ridicule of their fellows because of their religious zeal.
The chaplain’s main purpose was to save their lives, for a while, and
give them a good time and spiritual comfort. They had their good time.
Three weeks later came the German attack on Arras and they were all
killed. Every man of them.

The chaplain, an Anglican, found it hard to reconcile Christianity
with such a war as this, but he did not camouflage the teachings of the
Master he tried to serve. He preached to his men the gospel of love and
forgiveness of enemies. It was reported to the general, who sent for
him.

“Look here, I can’t let you go preaching ‘soft stuff’ to my men. I can’t
allow all that nonsense about love. My job is to teach them to hate. You
must either cooperate with me or go.”

The chaplain refused to change his faith or his teaching, and the
general thought better of his intervention.

For all chaplains it was difficult. Simple souls were bewildered by the
conflict between the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of war. Many
of them--officers as well as men--were blasphemous in their scorn of
“parson stuff,” some of them frightfully ironical.

A friend of mine watched two chaplains passing by. One of them was a
tall man with a crown and star on his shoulder-strap.

“I wonder,” said my friend, with false simplicity, “whether Jesus Christ
would have been a lieutenant--colonel?”

On the other hand, many men found help in religion, and sought its
comfort with a spiritual craving. They did not argue about Christian
ethics and modern warfare. Close to death in the midst of tragedy,
conscious in a strange way of their own spiritual being and of a
spirituality present among masses of men above the muck of war, the
stench of corruption, and fear of bodily extinction, they groped out
toward God. They searched for some divine wisdom greater than the folly
of the world, for a divine aid which would help them to greater courage.
The spirit of God seemed to come to them across No Man’s Land with pity
and comradeship. Catholic soldiers had a simpler, stronger faith than
men of Protestant denominations, whose faith depended more on ethical
arguments and intellectual reasonings. Catholic chaplains had an easier
task. Leaving aside all argument, they heard the confessions of the
soldiers, gave them absolution for their sins, said mass for them in
wayside barns, administered the sacraments, held the cross to their lips
when they fell mortally wounded, anointed them when the surgeon’s knife
was at work, called the names of Jesus and Mary into dying ears. There
was no need of argument here. The old faith which has survived many
wars, many plagues, and the old wickedness of men was still full of
consolation to those who accepted it as little children, and by their
own agony hoped for favor from the Man of Sorrows who was hanged upon a
cross, and found a mother-love in the vision of Mary, which came to them
when they were in fear and pain and the struggle of death. The padre
had a definite job to do in the trenches and for that reason was allowed
more liberty in the line than other chaplains. Battalion officers,
surgeons, and nurses were patient with mysterious rites which they did
not understand, but which gave comfort, as they saw, to wounded men; and
the heroism with which many of those priests worked under fire, careless
of their own lives, exalted by spiritual fervor, yet for the most part
human and humble and large-hearted and tolerant, aroused a general
admiration throughout the army. Many of the Protestant clergy were
equally devoted, but they were handicapped by having to rely more upon
providing physical comforts for the men than upon spiritual acts, such
as anointing and absolution, which were accepted without question by
Catholic soldiers.

Yet the Catholic Church, certain of its faith, and all other churches
claiming that they teach the gospel of Christ, have been challenged to
explain their attitude during the war and the relation of their teaching
to the world-tragedy, the Great Crime, which has happened. It will not
be easy for them to do so. They will have to explain how it is that
German bishops, priests, pastors, and flocks, undoubtedly sincere
in their professions of faith, deeply pious, as our soldiers saw in
Cologne, and fervent in their devotion to the sacraments on their side
of the fighting-line, as the Irish Catholics on our side, were able
to reconcile this piety with their war of aggression. The faith of the
Austrian Catholics must be explained in relation to their crimes, if
they were criminal, as we say they were, in leading the way to this
war by their ultimatum to Serbia. If Christianity has no restraining
influence upon the brutal instincts of those who profess and follow its
faith, then surely it is time the world abandoned so ineffective a
creed and turned to other laws likely to have more influence on human
relationships. That, brutally, is the argument of the thinking world
against the clergy of all nations who all claimed to be acting according
to the justice of God and the spirit of Christ. It is a powerful
argument, for the simple mind, rejecting casuistry, cuts straight to the
appalling contrast between Christian profession and Christian practice,
and says: “Here, in this war, there was no conflict between one faith
and another, but a murderous death-struggle between many nations holding
the same faith, preaching the same gospel, and claiming the same God as
their protector. Let us seek some better truth than that hypocrisy! Let
us, if need be, in honesty, get back to the savage worship of national
gods, the Ju-ju of the tribe.”

My own belief is that the war was no proof against the Christian faith,
but rather is a revelation that we are as desperately in need of the
spirit of Christ as at any time in the history of mankind. But I
think the clergy of all nations, apart from a heroic and saintly few,
subordinated their faith, which is a gospel of charity, to national
limitations. They were patriots before they were priests, and their
patriotism was sometimes as limited, as narrow, as fierce, and as
bloodthirsty as that of the people who looked to them for truth and
light. They were often fiercer, narrower, and more desirous of vengeance
than the soldiers who fought, because it is now a known truth that the
soldiers, German and Austrian, French and Italian and British, were sick
of the unending slaughter long before the ending of the war, and would
have made a peace more fair than that which now prevails if it had
been put to the common vote in the trenches; whereas the Archbishop of
Canterbury, the Archbishop of Cologne, and the clergy who spoke from
many pulpits in many nations, under the Cross of Christ, still stoked up
the fires of hate and urged the armies to go on fighting “in the
cause of justice,” “for the defense of the Fatherland,” “for Christian
righteousness,” to the bitter end. Those words are painful to write,
but as I am writing this book for truth’s sake, at all cost, I let them
stand....



VI


The entire aspect of the war was changed by the Russian Revolution,
followed by the collapse of the Russian armies and the Peace of
Brest-Litovsk, when for the first time the world heard the strange word
“Bolshevism,” and knew not what it meant.

The Russian armies had fought bravely in the first years of the war,
with an Oriental disregard of death. Under generals in German pay,
betrayed by a widespread net of anarchy and corruption so villainous
that arms and armaments sent out from England had to be bribed on their
way from one official to another, and never reached the front, so
foul in callousness of human life that soldiers were put into the
fighting-line without rifle or ammunition, these Russian peasants
flung themselves not once, but many times, against the finest troops of
Germany, with no more than naked bayonets against powerful artillery
and the scythe of machine-gun fire, and died like sheep in the
slaughter-houses of Chicago. Is it a wonder that at the last they
revolted against this immolation, turned round upon their tyrants, and
said: “You are the enemy. It is you that we will destroy”?

By this new revelation they forgot their hatred of Germans. They said:
“You are our brothers; we have no hatred against you. We do not want
to kill you. Why should you kill us? We are all of us the slaves of
bloodthirsty castes, who use our flesh for their ambitions. Do not shoot
us, brothers, but join hands against the common tyranny which enslaves
our peoples.” They went forward with outstretched hands, and were shot,
down like rabbits by some Germans, and by others were not shot, because
German soldiers gaped, wide-eyed, at this new gospel, as it seemed, and
said: “They speak words of truth. Why should we kill one another?”

The German war lords ordered a forward movement, threatened their own
men with death if they fraternized with Russians, and dictated their
terms of peace on the old lines of military conquest. But as Ludendorff
has confessed, and as we now know from other evidence, many German
soldiers were “infected” with Bolshevism and lost their fighting spirit.

Russia was already in anarchy. Constitutional government had been
replaced by the soviets and by committees of soldiers and workmen.
Kerensky had fled. Lenin and Trotzky were the Marat and Danton of
the Revolution, and decreed the Reign of Terror. Tales of appalling
atrocity, some true, some false (no one can tell how true or how false),
came through to France and England. It was certain that the whole fabric
of society in Russia had dissolved in the wildest anarchy the world has
seen in modern times, and that the Bolshevik gospel of “brotherhood”
 with humanity was, at least, rudely “interrupted” by wholesale murder
within its own boundaries.

One other thing was certain. Having been relieved of the Russian menace,
Germany was free to withdraw her armies on that front and use all her
striking force in the west. It should have cautioned our generals to
save their men for the greatest menace that had confronted them. But
without caution they fought the battles of 1917, in Flanders, as I have
told.

In 1917 and in the first half of 1918 there seemed no ending to the war
by military means. Even many of our generals who had been so breezy
in their optimism believed now that the end must come by diplomatic
means--a “peace by understanding.” I had private talks with men in high
command, who acknowledged that the way must be found, and the British
mind prepared for negotiations, because there must come a limit to the
drain of blood on each side. It was to one man in the world that many
men in all armies looked for a way out of this frightful impasse.

President Wilson had raised new hope among many men who otherwise were
hopeless. He not only spoke high words, but defined the meanings of
them. His definition of liberty seemed sound and true, promising the
self-determination of peoples. His offer to the German people to deal
generously with them if they overthrew their tyranny raised no quarrel
among British soldiers. His hope of a new diplomacy, based upon “open
covenants openly arrived at,” seemed to cut at the root of the old evil
in Europe by which the fate of peoples had been in the hands of the few.
His Fourteen Points set out clearly and squarely a just basis of peace.
His advocacy of a League of Nations held out a vision of a new world
by which the great and small democracies should be united by a common
pledge to preserve peace and submit their differences to a supreme court
of arbitration. Here at last was a leader of the world, with a clear
call to the nobility in men rather than to their base passions, a gospel
which would raise civilization from the depths into which it had fallen,
and a practical remedy for that suicidal mania which was exhausting the
combatant nations.

I think there were many millions of men on each side of the
fighting-line who thanked God because President Wilson had come with
a wisdom greater than the folly which was ours to lead the way to an
honorable peace and a new order of nations. I was one of them... Months
passed, and there was continual fighting, continued slaughter, and no
sign that ideas wou