A VISIT TO THREE FRONTS
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In the course of May 1916, the Italian authorities expressed
a desire that some independent observer from
My experiences and impressions are here set down, and may have some small effect in counteracting those mischievous misunderstandings and mutual belittlements which are eagerly fomented by our cunning enemy.
Arthur Conan Doyle.
It is not an easy matter to write from the front. You know
that there are several courteous but inexorable gentlemen who may have a word
in the matter, and their presence 'imparts but small ease to the style.' But
above all you have the twin censors of your own conscience and common sense,
which assure you that, if all other readers fail you, you will certainly find a
most attentive one in the neighbourhood of the Haupt-Quartier. An instructive story is still told of how a
certain well-meaning traveller recorded his
satisfaction with the appearance of the big guns at the retiring and peaceful
I have been with soldiers on the warpath before, but never
have I had a day so crammed with experiences and impressions as yesterday. Some
of them at least I can faintly convey to the reader, and if they ever reach the
eye of that gentleman at the Haupt-Quartier they will
give him little joy. For the crowning impression of all is the enormous
imperturbable confidence of the Army and its extraordinary efficiency in organisation, administration, material, and personnel. I
met in one day a sample of many types, an Army commander, a corps commander,
two divisional commanders, staff officers of many grades, and, above all, I met
repeatedly the two very great men whom
* * * * *
If there are pessimists among us they are not to be found
among the men who are doing the work. There is no foolish bravado, no
under-rating of a dour opponent, but there is a quick, alert, confident
attention to the job in hand which is an inspiration to the
observer. These brave lads are guarding
'Get out of the car. Don't let it stay here. It may be hit.'
These words from a staff officer give you the first idea that things are going
to happen. Up to then you might have been driving through the black country in the Walsall
district with the population of
We cross a meadow and enter a trench. Here and there it comes to the surface again where there is dead ground. At one such point an old church stands, with an unexploded shell sticking out of the wall. A century hence folk will journey to see that shell. Then on again through an endless cutting. It is slippery clay below. I have no nails in my boots, an iron pot on my head, and the sun above me. I will remember that walk. Ten telephone wires run down the side. Here and there large thistles and other plants grow from the clay walls, so immobile have been our lines. Occasionally there are patches of untidiness. 'Shells,' says the officer laconically. There is a racket of guns before us and behind, especially behind, but danger seems remote with all these Bairnfather groups of cheerful Tommies at work around us. I pass one group of grimy, tattered boys. A glance at their shoulders shows me that they are of a public school battalion. 'I thought you fellows were all officers now,' I remarked. 'No, sir, we like it better so.' 'Well, it will be a great memory for you. We are all in your debt.'
They salute, and we squeeze past them. They had the fresh,
brown faces of boy cricketers. But their comrades were men of a different type,
with hard, strong, rugged features, and the eyes of men who have seen strange
sights. These are veterans, men of
* * * * *
Up to this we have only had two clay walls to look at. But
now our interminable and tropical walk is lightened by the sight of a British aeroplane sailing overhead. Numerous shrapnel bursts are
all round it, but she floats on serenely, a thing of delicate beauty against
the blue background. Now another passes--and yet another. All morning we saw
them circling and swooping, and never a sign of a Boche.
They tell me it is nearly always so--that we hold the air, and that the Boche intruder, save at early morning, is a rare bird. A
visit to the line would reassure Mr. Pemberton-Billing. 'We have never met a
British aeroplane which was not ready to fight,' said
a captured German aviator the other day. There is a fine stern courtesy between
the airmen on either side, each dropping notes into the other's aerodromes to
tell the fate of missing officers. Had the whole war been fought by the Germans
as their airmen have conducted it (I do not speak of course of the Zeppelin
murderers), a peace would eventually have been more easily arranged. As it is,
if every frontier could be settled, it would be a hard thing to stop until all
that is associated with the words Cavell, Zeppelin,
And now we are there--in what is surely the most wonderful
spot in the world, the front firing trench, the outer breakwater which holds
back the German tide. How strange that this monstrous oscillation of giant
forces, setting in from east to west, should find their equilibrium here across
this particular meadow of
A mile of front trenches and then we are on our way back down that weary walk. Then I am whisked off upon a ten mile drive. There is a pause for lunch at Corps Headquarters, and after it we are taken to a medal presentation in a market square. Generals Munro, Haking and Landon, famous fighting soldiers all three, are the British representatives. Munro with a ruddy face, and brain above all bulldog below; Haking, pale, distinguished, intellectual; Landon a pleasant, genial country squire. An elderly French General stands beside them.
British infantry keep the ground. In front are about fifty Frenchmen in civil dress of every grade of life, workmen and gentlemen, in a double rank. They are all so wounded that they are back in civil life, but to-day they are to have some solace for their wounds. They lean heavily on sticks, their bodies are twisted and maimed, but their faces are shining with pride and joy. The French General draws his sword and addresses them. One catches words like 'honneur' and 'patrie.' They lean forward on their crutches, hanging on every syllable which comes hissing and rasping from under that heavy white moustache. Then the medals are pinned on. One poor lad is terribly wounded and needs two sticks. A little girl runs out with some flowers. He leans forward and tries to kiss her, but the crutches slip and he nearly falls upon her. It was a pitiful but beautiful little scene.
Now the British candidates march up one by one for their
medals, hale, hearty men, brown and fit. There is a smart young officer of
Scottish Rifles; and then a selection of Worcesters,
Welsh Fusiliers and Scots Fusiliers, with one funny little Highlander, a tiny
figure with a soup-bowl helmet, a grinning boy's face beneath it, and a
bedraggled uniform. 'Many acts of great bravery'--such was the record for which
he was decorated. Even the French wounded smiled at his quaint appearance, as
they did at another Briton who had acquired the chewing-gum habit, and came up
for his medal as if he had been called suddenly in the middle of his dinner,
which he was still endeavouring to bolt. Then came the end, with the National Anthem. The British regiment
formed fours and went past. To me that was the most impressive sight of any.
They were the Queen's West Surreys, a veteran regiment of the great
* * * * *
Now the ceremony was ended, and once again we set out for
the front. It was to an artillery observation post that we were bound, and once
again my description must be bounded by discretion. Suffice it, that in an hour
I found myself, together with a razor-keen young artillery observer and an
excellent old sportsman of a Russian prince, jammed into a very small space,
and staring through a slit at the German lines. In front of us lay a vast
plain, scarred and slashed, with bare places at intervals, such as you see
where gravel pits break a green common. Not a sign of life or movement, save some wheeling crows. And yet down there,
within a mile or so, is the population of a city. Far away a single train is
puffing at the back of the German lines. We are here on a definite errand. Away
to the right, nearly three miles off, is a small red house, dim to the eye but
clear in the glasses, which is suspected as a German post. It is to go up this
afternoon. The gun is some distance away, but I hear the telephone directions.
'"Mother" will soon do her in,' remarks the gunner boy cheerfully.
'Mother' is the name of the gun. 'Give her five six three four,' he cries
through the 'phone. 'Mother' utters a horrible bellow from somewhere on our
right. An enormous spout of smoke rises ten seconds later from near the house.
'A little short,' says our gunner. 'Two and a half minutes left,' adds a little
small voice, which represents another observer at a different angle. 'Raise her
seven five,' says our boy encouragingly. 'Mother' roars more angrily than ever.
'How will that do?' she seems to say. 'One and a half right,' says our
invisible gossip. I wonder how the folk in the house are feeling as the shells
creep ever nearer. 'Gun laid, sir,' says the telephone. 'Fire!'
I am looking through my glass. A flash of fire on the house, a huge pillar of
dust and smoke--then it settles, and an unbroken field is there. The German
post has gone up. 'It's a dear little gun,' says the officer boy. 'And her
shells are reliable,' remarked a senior behind us. 'They vary with different calibres, but "Mother" never goes wrong.' The
German line was very quiet. 'Pourquoi ils ne répondent
pas?' asked the Russian prince. 'Yes, they are quiet to-day,' answered the
senior. 'But we get it in the neck sometimes.' We are all led off to be
introduced to 'Mother,' who sits, squat and black, amid twenty of her grimy
children who wait upon and feed her. She is an important person is 'Mother,'
and her importance grows. It gets clearer with every month that it is she, and
only she, who can lead us to the
* * * * *
One more experience of this wonderful day--the most crowded with impressions of my whole life. At night we take a car and drive north, and ever north, until at a late hour we halt and climb a hill in the darkness. Below is a wonderful sight. Down on the flats, in a huge semi-circle, lights are rising and falling. They are very brilliant, going up for a few seconds and then dying down. Sometimes a dozen are in the air at one time. There are the dull thuds of explosions and an occasional rat-tat-tat. I have seen nothing like it, but the nearest comparison would be an enormous ten-mile railway station in full swing at night, with signals winking, lamps waving, engines hissing and carriages bumping. It is a terrible place down yonder, a place which will live as long as military history is written, for it is the Ypres Salient. What a salient it is, too! A huge curve, as outlined by the lights, needing only a little more to be an encirclement. Something caught the rope as it closed, and that something was the British soldier. But it is a perilous place still by day and by night. Never shall I forget the impression of ceaseless, malignant activity which was borne in upon me by the white, winking lights, the red sudden glares, and the horrible thudding noises in that place of death beneath me.
In old days we had a great name as organisers. Then came a long period when we deliberately adopted a policy of individuality and 'go as you please.' Now once again in our sore need we have called on all our power of administration and direction. But it has not deserted us. We still have it in a supreme degree. Even in peace time we have shown it in that vast, well-oiled, swift-running, noiseless machine called the British Navy. But now our powers have risen with the need of them. The expansion of the Navy has been a miracle, the management of the transport a greater one, the formation of the new Army the greatest of all time. To get the men was the least of the difficulties. To put them here, with everything down to the lid of the last field saucepan in its place, that is the marvel. The tools of the gunners, and of the sappers, to say nothing of the knowledge of how to use them, are in themselves a huge problem. But it has all been met and mastered, and will be to the end. But don't let us talk any more about the muddling of the War Office. It has become just a little ridiculous.
* * * * *
I have told of my first day, when I visited the front trenches, saw the work of 'Mother,' and finally that marvellous spectacle, the Ypres Salient at night. I have passed the night at the headquarters of a divisional-general, Capper, who might truly be called one of the two fathers of the British flying force, for it was he, with Templer, who laid the first foundations from which so great an organisation has arisen. My morning was spent in visiting two fighting brigadiers, cheery weather-beaten soldiers, respectful, as all our soldiers are, of the prowess of the Hun, but serenely confident that we can beat him. In company with one of them I ascended a hill, the reverse slope of which was swarming with cheerful infantry in every stage of dishabille, for they were cleaning up after the trenches. Once over the slope we advanced with some care, and finally reached a certain spot from which we looked down upon the German line. It was the advanced observation post, about a thousand yards from the German trenches, with our own trenches between us. We could see the two lines, sometimes only a few yards, as it seemed, apart, extending for miles on either side. The sinister silence and solitude were strangely dramatic. Such vast crowds of men, such intensity of feeling, and yet only that open rolling countryside, with never a movement in its whole expanse.
The afternoon saw us in the Square at
We stood in the lonely grass-grown Square, once the busy
centre of the town, and we marvelled at the beauty of
the smashed cathedral and the tottering Cloth Hall beside it. Surely at their
best they could not have looked more wonderful than now. If they were preserved
even so, and if a heaven-inspired artist were to model a statue of
We were glad to get out of the place, for the gloom of it
lay as heavy upon our hearts as the shrapnel helmets did upon our heads. Both
were lightened as we sped back past empty and shattered villas to where, just
behind the danger line, the normal life of rural
* * * * *
The afternoon saw us on the Sharpenburg,
from which many a million will gaze in days to come, for from no other point can
so much be seen. It is a spot forbid, but a special permit took us up, and the sentry on duty, having satisfied himself of our
bona fides, proceeded to tell us tales of the war in a pure
It has been a full day, and the next is even fuller, for it
is my privilege to lunch at Headquarters, and to make the acquaintance of the
Commander-in-chief and of his staff. It would be an invasion of private
hospitality if I were to give the public the impressions which I carried from
that charming château. I am the more sorry, since they
were very vivid and strong. This much I will say--and any man who is a face
reader will not need to have it said--that if the Army stands still it is not
by the will of its commander. There will, I swear, be no happier man in
Extraordinary are the contrasts of war. Within three hours of leaving the quiet atmosphere of the Headquarters Château I was present at what in any other war would have been looked upon as a brisk engagement. As it was it would certainly figure in one of our desiccated reports as an activity of the artillery. The noise as we struck the line at this new point showed that the matter was serious, and, indeed, we had chosen the spot because it had been the storm centre of the last week. The method of approach chosen by our experienced guide was in itself a tribute to the gravity of the affair. As one comes from the settled order of Flanders into the actual scene of war, the first sign of it is one of the stationary, sausage-shaped balloons, a chain of which marks the ring in which the great wrestlers are locked. We pass under this, ascend a hill, and find ourselves in a garden where for a year no feet save those of wanderers like ourselves have stood. There is a wild, confused luxuriance of growth more beautiful to my eye than anything which the care of man can produce. One old shell-hole of vast diameter has filled itself with forget-me-nots, and appears as a graceful basin of light blue flowers, held up as an atonement to heaven for the brutalities of man. Through the tangled bushes we creep, then across a yard--'Please stoop and run as you pass this point'--and finally to a small opening in a wall, whence the battle lies not so much before as beside us. For a moment we have a front seat at the great world-drama, God's own problem play, working surely to its magnificent end. One feels a sort of shame to crouch here in comfort, a useless spectator, while brave men down yonder are facing that pelting shower of iron.
* * * * *
There is a large field on our left rear, and the German gunners have the idea that there is a concealed battery therein. They are systematically searching for it. A great shell explodes in the top corner, but gets nothing more solid than a few tons of clay. You can read the mind of Gunner Fritz. 'Try the lower corner!' says he, and up goes the earth-cloud once again. 'Perhaps it's hid about the middle. I'll try.' Earth again, and nothing more. 'I believe I was right the first time after all,' says hopeful Fritz. So another shell comes into the top corner. The field is as full of pits as a Gruyère cheese, but Fritz gets nothing by his perseverance. Perhaps there never was a battery there at all. One effect he obviously did attain. He made several other British batteries exceedingly angry. 'Stop that tickling, Fritz!' was the burden of their cry. Where they were we could no more see than Fritz could, but their constant work was very clear along the German line. We appeared to be using more shrapnel and the Germans more high explosives, but that may have been just the chance of the day. The Vimy Ridge was on our right, and before us was the old French position, with the labyrinth of terrible memories and the long hill of Lorette. When, last year, the French, in a three weeks' battle, fought their way up that hill, it was an exhibition of sustained courage which even their military annals can seldom have beaten.
And so I turn from the British line. Another and more distant task lies before me. I come away with the deep sense of the difficult task which lies before the Army, but with a deeper one of the ability of these men to do all that soldiers can ever be asked to perform. Let the guns clear the way for the infantry, and the rest will follow. It all lies with the guns. But the guns, in turn, depend upon our splendid workers at home, who, men and women, are doing so grandly. Let them not be judged by a tiny minority, who are given, perhaps, too much attention in our journals. We have all made sacrifices in the war, but when the full story comes to be told, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all is that which Labour made when, with a sigh, she laid aside that which it had taken so many weary years to build.
One meets with such extreme kindness and consideration among the Italians that there is a real danger lest one's personal feeling of obligation should warp one's judgment or hamper one's expression. Making every possible allowance for this, I come away from them, after a very wide if superficial view of all that they are doing, with a deep feeling of admiration and a conviction that no army in the world could have made a braver attempt to advance under conditions of extraordinary difficulty.
First a word as to the Italian soldier.
He is a type by himself which differs from the earnest solidarity of the new
French army, and from the businesslike alertness of the Briton, and yet has a
very special dash and fire of its own, covered over by a very pleasing and
But if that is so, you will ask, why is it that they have
not made more impression upon the enemy's position? The answer lies in the strategical position of
And they are excellently led. Cadorna is an old Roman, a man cast in the big simple mould of antiquity, frugal in his tastes, clear in his aims, with no thought outside his duty. Every one loves and trusts him. Porro, the Chief of the Staff, who was good enough to explain the strategical position to me, struck me as a man of great clearness of vision, middle-sized, straight as a dart, with an eagle face grained and coloured like an old walnut. The whole of the staff work is, as experts assure me, moot excellently done.
So much for the general situation. Let me descend for a moment to my own trivial adventures since leaving the British front. Of France I hope to say more in the future, and so I will pass at a bound to Padua, where it appeared that the Austrian front had politely advanced to meet me, for I was wakened betimes in the morning by the dropping of bombs, the rattle of anti-aircraft guns, and the distant rat-tat-tat of a maxim high up in the air. I heard when I came down later that the intruder had been driven away and that little damage had been done. The work of the Austrian aeroplanes is, however, very aggressive behind the Italian lines, for they have the great advantage that a row of fine cities lies at their mercy, while the Italians can do nothing without injuring their own kith and kin across the border. This dropping of explosives on the chance of hitting one soldier among fifty victims seems to me the most monstrous development of the whole war, and the one which should be most sternly repressed in future international legislation--if such a thing as international law still exists. The Italian headquarter town, which I will call Nemini, was a particular victim of these murderous attacks. I speak with some feeling, as not only was the ceiling of my bedroom shattered some days before my arrival, but a greasy patch with some black shreds upon it was still visible above my window which represented part of the remains of an unfortunate workman, who had been blown to pieces immediately in front of the house. The air defence is very skilfully managed however, and the Italians have the matter well in hand.
My first experience of the Italian line was at the portion
which I have called the gap by the sea, otherwise the Isonzo
front. From a mound behind the trenches an extraordinary fine view can be got
of the Austrian position, the general curve of both lines being marked, as in
The story of trench attack and defence
is no doubt very similar in all quarters, but I am convinced that close touch
should be kept between the Allies on the matter of new inventions. The quick
Latin brain may conceive and test an idea long before we do. At present there
seems to be very imperfect sympathy. As an example, when I was on the British
lines they were dealing with a method of clearing barbed wire. The experiments
were new and were causing great interest. But on the Italian front I found that
the same system had been tested for many months. In the use of bullet proof
jackets for engineers and other men who have to do exposed work the Italians
are also ahead of us. One of their engineers at our headquarters might give
some valuable advice. At present the Italians have, as I understand, no
military representative with our armies, while they receive a British General
with a small staff. This seems very wrong not only from the point of view of
courtesy and justice, but also because
Having got this general view of the position I was anxious
in the afternoon to visit Monfalcone, which is the
small dockyard captured from the Austrians on the
The civilian cuts a ridiculous figure when he enlarges upon small adventures which may come his way--adventures which the soldier endures in silence as part of his everyday life. On this occasion, however, the episode was all our own, and had a sporting flavour in it which made it dramatic. I know now the feeling of tense expectation with which the driven grouse whirrs onwards towards the butt. I have been behind the butt before now, and it is only poetic justice that I should see the matter from the other point of view. As we approached Ronchi we could see shrapnel breaking over the road in front of us, but we had not yet realised that it was precisely for vehicles that the Austrians were waiting, and that they had the range marked out to a yard. We went down the road all out at a steady fifty miles an hour. The village was near, and it seemed that we had got past the place of danger. We had in fact just reached it. At this moment there was a noise as if the whole four tyres had gone simultaneously, a most terrific bang in our very ears, merging into a second sound like a reverberating blow upon an enormous gong. As I glanced up I saw three clouds immediately above my head, two of them white and the other of a rusty red. The air was full of flying metal, and the road, as we were told afterwards by an observer, was all churned up by it. The metal base of one of the shells was found plumb in the middle of the road just where our motor had been. There is no use telling me Austrian gunners can't shoot. I know better.
It was our pace that saved us. The motor was an open one, and the three shells burst, according to one of my Italian companions who was himself an artillery officer, about ten metres above our heads. They threw forward, however, and we travelling at so great a pace shot from under. Before they could get in another we had swung round the curve and under the lee of a house. The good Colonel B. wrung my hand in silence. They were both distressed, these good soldiers, under the impression that they had led me into danger. As a matter of fact it was I who owed them an apology, since they had enough risks in the way of business without taking others in order to gratify the whim of a joy-rider. Barbariche and Clericetti, this record will convey to you my remorse.
Our difficulties were by no means over. We found an ambulance lorry and a little group of infantry huddled under the same shelter with the expression of people who had been caught in the rain. The road beyond was under heavy fire as well as that by which we had come. Had the Ostro-Boches dropped a high-explosive upon us they would have had a good mixed bag. But apparently they were only out for fancy shooting and disdained a sitter. Presently there came a lull and the lorry moved on, but we soon heard a burst of firing which showed that they were after it. My companions had decided that it was out of the question for us to finish our excursion. We waited for some time therefore and were able finally to make our retreat on foot, being joined later by the car. So ended my visit to Monfalcone, the place I did not reach. I hear that two 10,000-ton steamers were left on the stocks there by the Austrians, but were disabled before they retired. Their cabin basins and other fittings are now adorning the Italian dug-outs.
My second day was devoted to a view of the Italian mountain
warfare in the
The Italians are a quick high-spirited race, and it is very
necessary that we should consider their feelings, and that we should show our
sympathy with what they have done, instead of making querulous and unreasonable
demands of them. In some ways they are in a difficult position. The war is made
by their splendid king--a man of whom every one speaks with extraordinary
reverence and love--and by the people. The people, with the deep instinct of a
very old civilisation, understand that the liberty of
the world and their own national existence are really at stake. But there are
several forces which divide the strength of the nation. There is the clerical,
which represents the old
The last day spent upon the Italian front was in the Trentino. From
The attitude of the people behind the firing line should
give one confidence. I had heard that the Italians were a nervous people. It
does not apply to this part of
We passed a burst dug-out by the roadside where a tragedy
had occurred recently, for eight medical officers were killed in it by a single
shell. There was no particular danger in the valley however, and the aimed fire
was all going across us to the fighting lines in the two passes above us. That
to the right, the
When we arrived at the spot where the two valleys forked we
were halted, and we were not permitted to advance to the advance trenches which
lay upon the crests above us. There was about a thousand yards between the
adversaries. I have seen types of some of the Bosnian and Croatian prisoners,
men of poor physique and intelligence, but the Italians speak with chivalrous
praise of the bravery of the Hungarians and of the Austrian Jaeger. Some of
their proceedings disgust them however, and especially the fact that they use
Russian prisoners to dig trenches under fire. There is no doubt of this, as some
of the men were recaptured and were sent on to join their comrades in
Nothing could be more cool or methodical than the Italian
arrangements on the Trentino front. There are no
troops who would not have been forced back by the Austrian fire. It
corresponded with the French experience at
That night found me back at
The French soldiers are grand. They are grand. There is no other word to express it. It is not merely their bravery. All races have shown bravery in this war. But it is their solidity, their patience, their nobility. I could not conceive anything finer than the bearing of their officers. It is proud without being arrogant, stern without being fierce, serious without being depressed. Such, too, are the men whom they lead with such skill and devotion. Under the frightful hammer-blows of circumstance, the national characters seem to have been reversed. It is our British soldier who has become debonair, light-hearted and reckless, while the Frenchman has developed a solemn stolidity and dour patience which was once all our own. During a long day in the French trenches, I have never once heard the sound of music or laughter, nor have I once seen a face that was not full of the most grim determination.
If ever one wanders into the high places of mankind, the
places whence the guidance should come, it seems to me that one has to recall
the dying words of the Swedish Chancellor who declared that the folly of those
who governed was what had amazed him most in his experience of life. Yesterday
I met one of these men of power--M. Clemenceau, once Prime Minister, now the
destroyer of governments. He is by nature a destroyer, incapable of rebuilding
what he has pulled down. With his personal force, his eloquence, his thundering
voice, his bitter pen, he could wreck any policy, but would not even trouble to
suggest an alternative. As he sat before me with his face of an old
prizefighter (he is remarkably like Jim Mace as I can remember him in his later
days), his angry grey eyes and his truculent, mischievous smile, he seemed to
me a very dangerous man. His conversation, if a squirt on one side and
* * * * *
But this is digression. I had set out to say something of a
day's experience of the French front, though I shall write with a fuller pen
when I return from the
A walk down a ruined street brings one to the opening of the
trenches. There are marks upon the walls of the German occupation. '
A sudden turn among some broken walls takes one into the communication trench. Our guide is a Commandant of the Staff, a tall, thin man with hard, grey eyes and a severe face. It is the more severe towards us as I gather that he has been deluded into the belief that about one out of six of our soldiers goes to the trenches. For the moment he is not friends with the English. As we go along, however, we gradually get upon better terms, we discover a twinkle in the hard, grey eyes, and the day ends with an exchange of walking-sticks and a renewal of the Entente. May my cane grow into a marshal's baton.
* * * * *
A charming young artillery subaltern is our guide in that
maze of trenches, and we walk and walk and walk, with a brisk exchange of
compliments between the '75's' of the French and the '77's' of the Germans
going on high over our heads. The trenches are boarded at the sides, and have a
more permanent look than those of
I am led to a cunning loop-hole, and have a glimpse through
it of a little framed picture of French countryside. There are fields, a road, a sloping hill beyond with trees. Quite close, about thirty
or forty yards away, was a low, red-tiled house. 'They are there,' said our
guide. 'That is their outpost. We can hear them cough.' Only the guns were
coughing that morning, so we heard nothing, but it was certainly wonderful to
be so near to the enemy and yet in such peace. I suppose wondering visitors
Now we are shown all the devices which a year of experience has suggested to the quick brains of our Allies. It is ground upon which one cannot talk with freedom. Every form of bomb, catapult, and trench mortar was ready to hand. Every method of cross-fire had been thought out to an exact degree. There was something, however, about their disposition of a machine gun which disturbed the Commandant. He called for the officer of the gun. His thin lips got thinner and his grey eyes more austere as we waited. Presently there emerged an extraordinarily handsome youth, dark as a Spaniard, from some rabbit hole. He faced the Commandant bravely, and answered back with respect but firmness. 'Pourquoi?' asked the Commandant, and yet again 'Pourquoi?' Adonis had an answer for everything. Both sides appealed to the big Captain of Snipers, who was clearly embarrassed. He stood on one leg and scratched his chin. Finally the Commandant turned away angrily in the midst of one of Adonis' voluble sentences. His face showed that the matter was not ended. War is taken very seriously in the French army, and any sort of professional mistake is very quickly punished. I have been told how many officers of high rank have been broken by the French during the war. The figure was a very high one. There is no more forgiveness for the beaten General than there was in the days of the Republic when the delegate of the National Convention, with a patent portable guillotine, used to drop in at headquarters to support a more vigorous offensive.
* * * * *
As I write these lines there is a burst of bugles in the
street, and I go to my open window to see the 41st of the line march down into
what may develop into a considerable battle. How I wish they could march down
I think that an injustice has been done to the French army
by the insistence of artists and cinema operators upon the picturesque Colonial
corps. One gets an idea that Arabs and negroes are
* * * * *
But I have wandered far from the trenches of
Among the many neat little marks upon the French uniforms which indicate with precision but without obtrusion the rank and arm of the wearer, there was one which puzzled me. It was to be found on the left sleeve of men of all ranks, from generals to privates, and it consisted of small gold chevrons, one, two, or more. No rule seemed to regulate them, for the general might have none, and I have heard of the private who wore ten. Then I solved the mystery. They are the record of wounds received. What an admirable idea! Surely we should hasten to introduce it among our own soldiers. It costs little and it means much. If you can allay the smart of a wound by the knowledge that it brings lasting honour to the man among his fellows, then surely it should be done. Medals, too, are more freely distributed and with more public parade than in our service. I am convinced that the effect is good.
* * * * *
The rain has now stopped, and we climb from our burrow. Again we are led down that endless line of communication trench, again we stumble through the ruins, again we emerge into the street where our cars are awaiting us. Above our heads the sharp artillery duel is going merrily forward. The French are firing three or four to one, which has been my experience at every point I have touched upon the Allied front. Thanks to the extraordinary zeal of the French workers, especially of the French women, and to the clever adaptation of machinery by their engineers, their supplies are abundant. Even now they turn out more shells a day than we do. That, however, excludes our supply for the Fleet. But it is one of the miracles of the war that the French, with their coal and iron in the hands of the enemy, have been able to equal the production of our great industrial centres. The steel, of course, is supplied by us. To that extent we can claim credit for the result.
And so, after the ceremony of the walking-sticks, we bid
adieu to the lines of
There is a couplet of Stevenson's which haunts me, 'There
fell a war in a woody place--in a land beyond the sea.' I have just come back
from spending three wonderful dream days in that woody place. It lies with the
open, bosky country of
* * * * *
To return to my personal impressions, it was at Chalons that we left the
Now we found ourselves in the depths of the woods, primeval woods of oak and beech in the deep clay soil that the great oak loves. There had been rain and the forest paths were ankle deep in mire. Everywhere, to right and left, soldiers' faces, hard and rough from a year of open air, gazed up at us from their burrows in the ground. Presently an alert, blue-clad figure stood in the path to greet us. It was the Colonel of the sector. He was ridiculously like Cyrano de Bergerac as depicted by the late M. Coquelin, save that his nose was of more moderate proportion. The ruddy colouring, the bristling feline full-ended moustache, the solidity of pose, the backward tilt of the head, the general suggestion of the bantam cock, were all there facing us as he stood amid the leaves in the sunlight. Gauntlets and a long rapier--nothing else was wanting. Something had amused Cyrano. His moustache quivered with suppressed mirth, and his blue eyes were demurely gleaming. Then the joke came out. He had spotted a German working party, his guns had concentrated on it, and afterwards he had seen the stretchers go forward. A grim joke, it may seem. But the French see this war from a different angle to us. If we had the Boche sitting on our heads for two years, and were not yet quite sure whether we could ever get him off again, we should get Cyrano's point of view. Those of us who have had our folk murdered by Zeppelins or tortured in German prisons have probably got it already.
* * * * *
We passed in a little procession among the French soldiers, and viewed their multifarious arrangements. For them we were a little break in a monotonous life, and they formed up in lines as we passed. My own British uniform and the civilian dresses of my two companions interested them. As the General passed these groups, who formed themselves up in perhaps a more familiar manner than would have been usual in the British service, he glanced kindly at them with those singular eyes of his, and once or twice addressed them as 'Mes enfants.' One might conceive that all was 'go as you please' among the French. So it is as long as you go in the right way. When you stray from it you know it. As we passed a group of men standing on a low ridge which overlooked us there was a sudden stop. I gazed round. The General's face was steel and cement. The eyes were cold and yet fiery, sunlight upon icicles. Something had happened. Cyrano had sprung to his side. His reddish moustache had shot forward beyond his nose, and it bristled out like that of an angry cat. Both were looking up at the group above us. One wretched man detached himself from his comrades and sidled down the slope. No skipper and mate of a Yankee blood boat could have looked more ferociously at a mutineer. And yet it was all over some minor breach of discipline which was summarily disposed of by two days of confinement. Then in an instant the faces relaxed, there was a general buzz of relief and we were back at 'Mes enfants' again. But don't make any mistake as to discipline in the French army.
Trenches are trenches, and the main specialty of these in
* * * * *
When we emerged from these hushed places of danger Cyrano
took us all to his dug-out, which was a tasty little cottage carved from the
side of a hill and faced with logs. He did the honours
of the humble cabin with the air of a seigneur in his château. There was little
furniture, but from some broken mansion he had extracted an iron fire-back,
which adorned his grate. It was a fine, mediaeval bit of work, with Venus, in
her traditional costume, in the centre of it. It seemed the last touch in the
picture of the gallant, virile Cyrano. I only met him this once, nor shall I
ever see him again, yet he stands a thing complete within my memory. Even now
as I write these lines he walks the leafy paths of the
That night we dined with yet another type of the French soldier, General A., who commands the corps of which my friend has one division. Each of these French generals has a striking individuality of his own which I wish I could fix upon paper. Their only common point is that each seems to be a rare good soldier. The corps general is Athos with a touch of d'Artagnan. He is well over six feet high, bluff, jovial, with huge, up-curling moustache, and a voice that would rally a regiment. It is a grand figure which should have been done by Van Dyck with lace collar, hand on sword, and arm akimbo. Jovial and laughing was he, but a stern and hard soldier was lurking behind the smiles. His name may appear in history, and so may Humbert's, who rules all the army of which the other's corps is a unit. Humbert is a Lord Robert's figure, small, wiry, quick-stepping, all steel and elastic, with a short, sharp upturned moustache, which one could imagine as crackling with electricity in moments of excitement like a cat's fur. What he does or says is quick, abrupt, and to the point. He fires his remarks like pistol shots at this man or that. Once to my horror he fixed me with his hard little eyes and demanded 'Sherlock Holmes, est ce qu'il est un soldat dans l'armée Anglaise?' The whole table waited in an awful hush. 'Mais, mon general,' I stammered, 'il est trop vieux pour service.' There was general laughter, and I felt that I had scrambled out of an awkward place.
And talking of awkward places, I had forgotten about that
spot upon the road whence the Boche observer could
see our motor-cars. He had actually laid a gun upon it, the rascal, and waited
all the long day for our return. No sooner did we appear upon the slope than a
shrapnel shell burst above us, but somewhat behind me, as well as to the left.
Had it been straight the second car would have got it, and there might have
been a vacancy in one of the chief editorial chairs in
* * * * *
Next morning we were down in the front trenches again at
another portion of the line. Far away on our right, from a spot named the
Observatory, we could see the extreme left of the
Yet another type of French general takes us round this
morning! He, too, is a man apart, an unforgettable man. Conceive a man with a
large broad good-humoured face, and two placid, dark
seal's eyes which gaze gently into yours. He is young and has pink cheeks and a
soft voice. Such is one of the most redoubtable fighters of France, this
General of Division D. His former staff officers told me something of the man.
He is a philosopher, a fatalist, impervious to fear, a dreamer of distant
dreams amid the most furious bombardment. The weight of the French assault upon
the terrible labyrinth fell at one time upon the brigade which he then
commanded. He led them day after day gathering up Germans with the detached air
of the man of science who is hunting for specimens. In whatever shell-hole he
might chance to lunch he had his cloth spread and decorated with wild flowers
plucked from the edge. If fate be kind to him he will go far. Apart from his valour he is admitted to be one of the most scientific
From the Observatory we saw the destruction of a German trench. There had been signs of work upon it, so it was decided to close it down. It was a very visible brown streak a thousand yards away. The word was passed back to the '75's' in the rear. There was a 'tir rapide' over our heads. My word, the man who stands fast under a 'tir rapide,' be he Boche, French or British, is a man of mettle! The mere passage of the shells was awe-inspiring, at first like the screaming of a wintry wind, and then thickening into the howling of a pack of wolves. The trench was a line of terrific explosions. Then the dust settled down and all was still. Where were the ants who had made the nest? Were they buried beneath it? Or had they got from under? No one could say.
There was one little gun which fascinated me, and I stood for some time watching it. Its three gunners, enormous helmeted men, evidently loved it, and touched it with a swift but tender touch in every movement. When it was fired it ran up an inclined plane to take off the recoil, rushing up and then turning and rattling down again upon the gunners who were used to its ways. The first time it did it, I was standing behind it, and I don't know which moved quickest--the gun or I.
French officers above a certain rank develop and show their
own individuality. In the lower grades the conditions of service enforce a certain uniformity. The British officer is a British
gentleman first, and an officer afterwards. The Frenchman is an officer first,
though none the less the gentleman stands behind it. One very strange type we
met, however, in these Argonne Woods. He was a French-Canadian who had been a
French soldier, had founded a homestead in far Alberta, and had now come back
of his own will, though a naturalised Briton, to the
old flag. He spoke English of a kind, the quality and quantity being equally
extraordinary. It poured from him and was, so far as it was intelligible, of
the woolly Western variety. His views on the Germans were the most emphatic we
had met. 'These Godam sons of'--well, let us say
'Canines!' he would shriek, shaking his fist at the woods to the north of him.
A good man was our compatriot, for he had a very recent Legion of Honour pinned upon his breast. He had been put with a few
men on Hill 285, a sort of volcano stuffed with mines,
and was told to telephone when he needed relief. He refused to telephone and
remained there for three weeks. 'We sit like a rabbit in his hall,' he
explained. He had only one grievance. There were many wild boars in the forest,
but the infantry were too busy to get them. 'The Godam
Artillaree he get the wild
pig!' Out of his pocket he pulled a picture of a frame-house with snow round
it, and a lady with two children on the stoop. It was his homestead at Trochu, seventy miles north of
* * * * *
It was the evening of the third day that we turned our faces
And so it is back to
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord --He is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored.
We have found no inspired singer yet, like Julia Howe, to
voice the divine meaning of it all--that meaning which is more than numbers or
guns upon the day of battle. But who can see the adult manhood of
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.