FROM DUNKERQUE TO BELPORT
(AUGUST, 1914--FEBUARY, 1915)
On the 30th of July, 1914, motoring north from
All day the sky had been banked with thunder-clouds, but by
the time we reached
It was sunset when we reached the gates of
The next day the air was thundery with rumours. Nobody
believed them, everybody repeated them. War? Of course
there couldn't be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were again dangling
their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of
things-as-they-were, of the daily necessary business of living, continued
calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic
All the while, every one knew that other work was going on
also. The whole fabric of the country's seemingly undisturbed routine was
threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation,
the sense of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in
the balminess of a perfect afternoon.
They said little or nothing except what every one was
already declaring all over the country. "We don't want war--_mais it faut
que cela finisse!_" "This kind of thing has
got to stop": that was the only phase one heard. If diplomacy could still
arrest the war, so much the better: no one in
At the dressmaker's, the next morning, the tired fitters were preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and anxious--decidedly, there was a new weight of apprehension in the air. And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little strip of white paper against the wall of the Ministere de la Marine. "General mobilization" they read--and an armed nation knows what that means. But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the dramatic sense of the race had already told them that the event was too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization...
That evening, in a restaurant of the rue Royale, we sat at a table in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what mobilization was--a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like the sudden rupture of a dyke. The street was flooded by the torrent of people sweeping past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn every cab and taxi and motor--omnibus had disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed our window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the _mobilisables _of the first day, who were on the way to the station accompanied by their families and friends; but among them were little clusters of bewildered tourists, labouring along with bags and bundles, and watching their luggage pushed before them on hand-carts--puzzled inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom.
In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, to stand up for God Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand up again for the Marseillaise. "_Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois qui jouent tout cela!"_ a humourist remarked from the pavement.
As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window
thickened, the loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. "_Allons,
debout!_ "--and the loyal round begins again.
"La chanson du depart" is a frequent demand;
and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A sort of quiet humour was the
note of the street. Down the rue Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of
other restaurants were attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were
strung along the Boulevard like its garlands of arc-lights. It was a night of
singing and acclamations, not boisterous, but gallant and determined. It was
Meanwhile, beyond the fringe of idlers the steady stream of conscripts still poured along. Wives and families trudged beside them, carrying all kinds of odd improvised bags and bundles. The impression disengaging itself from all this superficial confusion was that of a cheerful steadiness of spirit. The faces ceaselessly streaming by were serious but not sad; nor was there any air of bewilderment--the stare of driven cattle. All these lads and young men seemed to know what they were about and why they were about it. The youngest of them looked suddenly grown up and responsible; they understood their stake in the job, and accepted it.
The next day the army of midsummer travel was immobilized to
let the other army move. No more wild rushes to the station,
no more bribing of concierges, vain quests for invisible cabs, haggard hours of
waiting in the queue at Cook's. No train stirred except to carry
soldiers, and the civilians who had not bribed and jammed their way into a
cranny of the thronged carriages leaving the first night could only creep back
through the hot streets to their hotel and wait. Back they went, disappointed
yet half-relieved, to the resounding emptiness of porterless halls, waiterless
restaurants, motionless lifts: to the queer disjointed life of fashionable
hotels suddenly reduced to the intimacies and make-shift of a Latin Quarter
_pension._ Meanwhile it was strange to watch the gradual paralysis of the city.
As the motors, taxis, cabs and vans had vanished from the streets, so the
lively little steamers had left the
The next day--the 2nd of August--from the terrace of the
Hotel de Crillon one looked down on a first faint stir of returning life. Now
and then a taxi-cab or a private motor crossed the Place de la Concorde,
carrying soldiers to the stations. Other conscripts, in
detachments, tramped by on foot with bags and banners. One detachment
stopped before the black-veiled statue of
Looked back on from these sterner months
those early days in
Something of this sense of exaltation seemed to penetrate
the throngs who streamed up and down the Boulevards till late into the night.
All wheeled traffic had ceased, except that of the rare taxi-cabs impressed to
carry conscripts to the stations; and the middle of the Boulevards was as
thronged with foot-passengers as an Italian market-place on a Sunday morning.
The vast tide swayed up and down at a slow pace, breaking now and then to make
room for one of the volunteer "legions" which were forming at every
corner: Italian, Roumanian, South American, North
American, each headed by its national flag and hailed with cheering as it passed.
But even the cheers were sober:
I remember especially the steady-browed faces of the women; and also the small but significant fact that every one of them had remembered to bring her dog. The biggest of these amiable companions had to take their chance of seeing what they could through the forest of human legs; but every one that was portable was snugly lodged in the bend of an elbow, and from this safe perch scores and scores of small serious muzzles, blunt or sharp, smooth or woolly, brown or grey or white or black or brindled, looked out on the scene with the quiet awareness of the Paris dog. It was certainly a good sign that they had not been forgotten that night.
WE had been shown, impressively, what it was to live through a mobilization; now we were to learn that mobilization is only one of the concomitants of martial law, and that martial law is not comfortable to live under--at least till one gets used to it.
At first its main purpose, to the neutral civilian, seemed
certainly to be the wayward pleasure of complicating his life; and in that line
it excelled in the last refinements of ingenuity. Instructions began to shower
on us after the lull of the first days: instructions as to what to do, and what
not to do, in order to make our presence tolerable and our persons secure. In
the first place, foreigners could not remain in
Luckily, too, these incessant comings and goings involved
much walking of the beautiful idle summer streets, which grew idler and more
beautiful each day. Never had such blue-grey softness of afternoon brooded over
So, gradually, we fell into the habit of living under
martial law. After the first days of flustered adjustment the personal
inconveniences were so few that one felt almost ashamed of their not being
more, of not being called on to contribute some greater sacrifice of comfort to
the Cause. Within the first week over two thirds of the shops had closed--the
greater number bearing on their shuttered windows the notice "Pour cause
de mobilisation," which showed that the "patron" and staff were
at the front. But enough remained open to satisfy every ordinary want, and the
closing of the others served to prove how much one could do without. Provisions
were as cheap and plentiful as ever, though for a while it was easier to buy
food than to have it cooked. The restaurants were closing rapidly, and one
often had to wander a long way for a meal, and wait a longer time to get it. A
few hotels still carried on a halting life, galvanized by an occasional inrush
of travel from
The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the
dreaming harmony of
The heaviness of the August air intensified this impression of suspended life. The days were dumb enough; but at night the hush became acute. In the quarter I inhabit, always deserted in summer, the shuttered streets were mute as catacombs, and the faintest pin-prick of noise seemed to tear a rent in a black pall of silence. I could hear the tired tap of a lame hoof half a mile away, and the tread of the policeman guarding the Embassy across the street beat against the pavement like a series of detonations. Even the variegated noises of the city's waking-up had ceased. If any sweepers, scavengers or rag-pickers still plied their trades they did it as secretly as ghosts. I remember one morning being roused out of a deep sleep by a sudden explosion of noise in my room. I sat up with a start, and found I had been waked by a low-voiced exchange of "Bonjours" in the street...
Another fact that kept the reality of war from
Even when the news of the first ephemeral successes in
I remember the morning when our butcher's boy brought the
news that the first German flag had been hung out on the balcony of the
Ministry of War. Now I thought, the Latin will boil
over! And I wanted to be there to see. I hurried down the quiet rue de
Martignac, turned the corner of the Place Sainte Clotilde, and came on an
orderly crowd filling the street before the Ministry of War. The crowd was so
orderly that the few pacific gestures of the police easily cleared a way for
passing cabs, and for the military motors perpetually dashing up. It was
composed of all classes, and there were many family groups, with little boys
straddling their mothers' shoulders, or lifted up by the policemen when they
were too heavy for their mothers. It is safe to say that there was hardly a man
or woman of that crowd who had not a soldier at the front; and there before
them hung the enemy's first flag--a splendid silk flag, white and black and
crimson, and embroidered in gold. It was the flag of an Alsatian regiment--a
regiment of Prussianized Alsace. It symbolized all they most abhorred in the
whole abhorrent job that lay ahead of them; it symbolized also their finest
ardour and their noblest hate, and the reason why, if every other reason
FEBRUARY dusk on the
In the narrow streets of the Rive Gauche the darkness is
even deeper, and the few scattered lights in courts or "cites" create
effects of Piranesi-like mystery. The gleam of the chestnut-roaster's brazier
at a street corner deepens the sense of an old adventurous
Such, after six months of war, are the nights of
Almost all the early flush and shiver of romance is gone; or
so at least it seems to those who have watched the gradual revival of life. It
may appear otherwise to observers from other countries, even from those
involved in the war. After
For a while, in September and October, the streets were made
picturesque by the coming and going of English soldiery, and the aggressive
flourish of British military motors. Then the fresh faces and smart uniforms
disappeared, and now the nearest approach to "militarism" which
What are the Parisians doing meanwhile? For one thing--and the sign is a good one--they are refilling the shops, and especially, of course, the great "department stores." In the early war days there was no stranger sight than those deserted palaces, where one strayed between miles of unpurchased wares in quest of vanished salesmen. A few clerks, of course, were left: enough, one would have thought, for the rare purchasers who disturbed their meditations. But the few there were did not care to be disturbed: they lurked behind their walls of sheeting, their bastions of flannelette, as if ashamed to be discovered. And when one had coaxed them out they went through the necessary gestures automatically, as if mournfully wondering that any one should care to buy. I remember once, at the Louvre, seeing the whole force of a "department," including the salesman I was trying to cajole into showing me some medicated gauze, desert their posts simultaneously to gather about a motor-cyclist in a muddy uniform who had dropped in to see his pals with tales from the front. But after six months the pressure of normal appetites has begun to reassert itself--and to shop is one of the normal appetites of woman. I say "shop" instead of buy, to distinguish between the dull purchase of necessities and the voluptuousness of acquiring things one might do without. It is evident that many of the thousands now fighting their way into the great shops must be indulging in the latter delight. At a moment when real wants are reduced to a minimum, how else account for the congestion of the department store? Even allowing for the immense, the perpetual buying of supplies for hospitals and work-rooms, the incessant stoking-up of the innumerable centres of charitable production, there is no explanation of the crowding of the other departments except the fact that woman, however valiant, however tried, however suffering and however self-denying, must eventually, in the long run, and at whatever cost to her pocket and her ideals, begin to shop again. She has renounced the theatre, she denies herself the teo-rooms, she goes apologetically and furtively (and economically) to concerts--but the swinging doors of the department stores suck her irresistibly into their quicksand of remnants and reductions.
No one, in this respect, would wish the look of
It is still true of
And miseries enough it has to face. Day by day the limping
figures grow more numerous on the pavement, the pale bandaged heads more
frequent in passing carriages. In the stalls at the theatres and concerts there
are many uniforms; and their wearers usually have to wait till the hall is
emptied before they hobble out on a supporting arm. Most of them are very
young, and it is the expression of their faces which I should like to picture
and interpret as being the very essence of what I have called the look of
The permission to visit a few ambulances and evacuation hospitals behind the lines gave me, at the end of February, my first sight of War.
Going eastward, one begins to feel the change just beyond
Meaux. Between that quiet episcopal city and the hill-town of Montmirail, some
forty miles farther east, there are no sensational evidences of the great
conflict of September--only, here and there, in an unploughed field, or among
the fresh brown furrows, a little mound with a wooden cross and a wreath on it.
Nevertheless, one begins to perceive, by certain negative signs,
that one is already in another world. On the cold February day when we
turned out of Meaux and took the road to the
Along the white road rippling away eastward over the dimpled country the army motors were pouring by in endless lines, broken now and then by the dark mass of a tramping regiment or the clatter of a train of artillery. In the intervals between these waves of military traffic we had the road to ourselves, except for the flashing past of despatch-bearers on motor-cycles and of hideously hooting little motors carrying goggled officers in goat-skins and woollen helmets.
The villages along the road all seemed empty--not figuratively but literally empty. None of them has suffered from the German invasion, save by the destruction, here and there, of a single house on which some random malice has wreaked itself; but since the general flight in September all have remained abandoned, or are provisionally occupied by troops, and the rich country between Montmirail and Chalons is a desert.
The first sight of Chame is extraordinarily exhilarating. The old town lying so pleasantly between canal and river is the Head-quarters of an army--not of a corps or of a division, but of a whole army--and the network of grey provincial streets about the Romanesque towers of Notre Dame rustles with the movement of war. The square before the principal hotel--the incomparably named "Haute Mere-Dieu"--is as vivid a sight as any scene of modern war can be. Rows of grey motor-lorries and omnibuses do not lend themselves to as happy groupings as a detachment of cavalry, and spitting and spurting motor-cycles and "torpedo" racers are no substitute for the glitter of helmets and the curvetting of chargers; but once the eye has adapted itself to the ugly lines and the neutral tints of the new warfare, the scene in that crowded clattering square becomes positively brilliant. It is a vision of one of the central functions of a great war, in all its concentrated energy, without the saddening suggestions of what, on the distant periphery, that energy is daily and hourly resulting in. Yet even here such suggestions are never long out of sight; for one cannot pass through Chalons without meeting, on their way from the station, a long line of "eclopes"--the unwounded but battered, shattered, frost-bitten, deafened and half-paralyzed wreckage of the awful struggle. These poor wretches, in their thousands, are daily shipped back from the front to rest and be restored; and it is a grim sight to watch them limping by, and to meet the dazed stare of eyes that have seen what one dare not picture.
If one could think away the "'eclopes" in the streets and the wounded in their hospitals, Chalons would be an invigorating spectacle. When we drove up to the hotel even the grey motors and the sober uniforms seemed to sparkle under the cold sky. The continual coming and going of alert and busy messengers, the riding up of officers (for some still ride!), the arrival of much-decorated military personages in luxurious motors, the hurrying to and fro of orderlies, the perpetual depleting and refilling of the long rows of grey vans across the square, the movements of Red Cross ambulances and the passing of detachments for the front, all these are sights that the pacific stranger could forever gape at. And in the hotel, what a clatter of swords, what a piling up of fur coats and haversacks, what a grouping of bronzed energetic heads about the packed tables in the restaurant! It is not easy for civilians to get to Chalons, and almost every table is occupied by officers and soldiers--for, once off duty, there seems to be no rank distinction in this happy democratic army, and the simple private, if he chooses to treat himself to the excellent fare of the Haute Mere-Dieu, has as good a right to it as his colonel.
The scene in the restaurant is inexhaustibly interesting. The mere attempt to puzzle out the different uniforms is absorbing. A week's experience near the front convinces me that no two uniforms in the French army are alike either in colour or in cut. Within the last two years the question of colour has greatly preoccupied the French military authorities, who have been seeking an invisible blue; and the range of their experiments is proved by the extraordinary variety of shades of blue, ranging from a sort of greyish robin's-egg to the darkest navy, in which the army is clothed. The result attained is the conviction that no blue is really inconspicuous, and that some of the harsh new slaty tints are no less striking than the deeper shades they have superseded. But to this scale of experimental blues, other colours must be added: the poppy-red of the Spahis' tunics, and various other less familiar colours--grey, and a certain greenish khaki--the use of which is due to the fact that the cloth supply has given out and that all available materials are employed. As for the differences in cut, the uniforms vary from the old tight tunic to the loose belted jacket copied from the English, and the emblems of the various arms and ranks embroidered on these diversified habits add a new element of perplexity. The aviator's wings, the motorist's wheel, and many of the newer symbols, are easily recognizable--but there are all the other arms, and the doctors and the stretcher-bearers, the sappers and miners, and heaven knows how many more ramifications of this great host which is really all the nation.
The main interest of the scene, however, is that it shows
almost as many types as uniforms, and that almost all the types are so good.
One begins to understand (if one has failed to before) why the French say of
Our road on leaving Chalons continued to run northeastward
toward the hills of the
We passed through more deserted villages, with soldiers lounging in the doors where old women should have sat with their distaffs, soldiers watering their horses in the village pond, soldiers cooking over gypsy fires in the farm-yards. In the patches of woodland along the road we came upon more soldiers, cutting down pine saplings, chopping them into even lengths and loading them on hand-carts, with the green boughs piled on top. We soon saw to what use they were put, for at every cross-road or railway bridge a warm sentry-box of mud and straw and plaited pine-branches was plastered against a bank or tucked like a swallow's nest into a sheltered corner. A little farther on we began to come more and more frequently on big colonies of "Seventy-fives." Drawn up nose to nose, usually against a curtain of woodland, in a field at some distance from the road, and always attended by a cumbrous drove of motor-vans, they looked like giant gazelles feeding among elephants; and the stables of woven pine-boughs which stood near by might have been the huge huts of their herdsmen.
The country between Marne and
As we ran on toward Sainte Menehould the names on our map showed us that, just beyond the parallel range of hills six or seven miles to the north, the two armies lay interlocked. But we heard no cannon yet, and the first visible evidence of the nearness of the struggle was the encounter, at a bend of the road, of a long line of grey-coated figures tramping toward us between the bayonets of their captors. They were a sturdy lot, this fresh "bag" from the hills, of a fine fighting age, and much less famished and war-worn than one could have wished. Their broad blond faces were meaningless, guarded, but neither defiant nor unhappy: they seemed none too sorry for their fate.
Our pass from the General Head-quarters carried us to Sainte
Menehould on the edge of the
We left Sainte Menehould at about eleven, and before twelve o'clock we were nearing a large village on a ridge from which the land swept away to right and left in ample reaches. The first glimpse of the outlying houses showed nothing unusual; but presently the main street turned and dipped downward, and below and beyond us lay a long stretch of ruins: the calcined remains of Clermont-en-Argonne, destroyed by the Germans on the 4th of September. The free and lofty situation of the little town--for it was really a good deal more than a village--makes its present state the more lamentable. One can see it from so far off, and through the torn traceries of its ruined church the eye travels over so lovely a stretch of country! No doubt its beauty enriched the joy of wrecking it.
At the farther end of what was once the main street another small knot of houses has survived. Chief among them is the Hospice for old men, where Sister Gabrielle Rosnet, when the authorities of Clermont took to their heels, stayed behind to defend her charges, and where, ever since, she has nursed an undiminishing stream of wounded from the eastern front. We found Soeur Rosnet, with her Sisters, preparing the midday meal of her patients in the little kitchen of the Hospice: the kitchen which is also her dining-room and private office. She insisted on our finding time to share the _filet_ and fried potatoes that were just being taken off the stove, and while we lunched she told us the story of the invasion--of the Hospice doors broken down "a coups de crosse" and the grey officers bursting in with revolvers, and finding her there before them, in the big vaulted vestibule, "alone with my old men and my Sisters." Soeur Gabrielle Rosnet is a small round active woman, with a shrewd and ruddy face of the type that looks out calmly from the dark background of certain Flemish pictures. Her blue eyes are full of warmth and humour, and she puts as much gaiety as wrath into her tale. She does not spare epithets in talking of "ces satanes Allemands"--these Sisters and nurses of the front have seen sights to dry up the last drop of sentimental pity--but through all the horror of those fierce September days, with Clermont blazing about her and the helpless remnant of its inhabitants under the perpetual threat of massacre, she retained her sense of the little inevitable absurdities of life, such as her not knowing how to address the officer in command "because he was so tall that I couldn't see up to his shoulder-straps."--"Et ils etaient tous comme ca," she added, a sort of reluctant admiration in her eyes.
A subordinate "good Sister" had just cleared the table and poured out our coffee when a woman came in to say, in a matter-of-fact tone, that there was hard fighting going on across the valley. She added calmly, as she dipped our plates into a tub, that an obus had just fallen a mile or two off, and that if we liked we could see the fighting from a garden over the way. It did not take us long to reach that garden! Soeur Gabrielle showed the way, bouncing up the stairs of a house across the street, and flying at her heels we came out on a grassy terrace full of soldiers.
The cannon were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass, and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was suddenly brought close to us--the rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightnings and white puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering guns, as the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.
Though Soeur Rosnet had seen too many such sights to be much moved, she was full of a lively curiosity, and stood beside us, squarely planted in the mud, holding the field-glass to her eyes, or passing it laughingly about among the soldiers. But as we turned to go she said: "They've sent us word to be ready for another four hundred to-night"; and the twinkle died out of her good eyes.
Her expectations were to be dreadfully surpassed; for, as we learned a fortnight later from a three column _communique,_ the scene we had assisted at was no less than the first act of the successful assault on the high-perched village of Vauquois, a point of the first importance to the Germans, since it masked their operations to the north of Varennes and commanded the railway by which, since September, they have been revictualling and reinforcing their army in the Argonne. Vauquois had been taken by them at the end of September and, thanks to its strong position on a rocky spur, had been almost impregnably fortified; but the attack we looked on at from the garden of Clermont, on Sunday, February 28th, carried the victorious French troops to the top of the ridge, and made them masters of a part of the village. Driven from it again that night, they were to retake it after a five days' struggle of exceptional violence and prodigal heroism, and are now securely established there in a position described as "of vital importance to the operations." "But what it cost!" Soeur Gabrielle said, when we saw her again a few days later.
The time had come to remember our promise and hurry away from Clermont; but a few miles farther our attention was arrested by the sight of the Red Cross over a village house. The house was little more than a hovel, the village--Blercourt it was called--a mere hamlet of scattered cottages and cow-stables: a place so easily overlooked that it seemed likely our supplies might be needed there.
An orderly went to find the _medecin-chef_, and we waded after him through the mud to one after another of the cottages in which, with admirable ingenuity, he had managed to create out of next to nothing the indispensable requirements of a second-line ambulance: sterilizing and disinfecting appliances, a bandage-room, a pharmacy, a well-filled wood-shed, and a clean kitchen in which "tisanes" were brewing over a cheerful fire. A detachment of cavalry was quartered in the village, which the trampling of hoofs had turned into a great morass, and as we picked our way from cottage to cottage in the doctor's wake he told us of the expedients to which he had been put to secure even the few hovels into which his patients were crowded. It was a complaint we were often to hear repeated along this line of the front, where troops and wounded are packed in thousands into villages meant to house four or five hundred; and we admired the skill and devotion with which he had dealt with the difficulty, and managed to lodge his patients decently.
We came back to the high-road, and he asked us if we should like to see the church. It was about three o'clock, and in the low porch the cure was ringing the bell for vespers. We pushed open the inner doors and went in. The church was without aisles, and down the nave stood four rows of wooden cots with brown blankets. In almost every one lay a soldier--the doctor's "worst cases"--few of them wounded, the greater number stricken with fever, bronchitis, frost-bite, pleurisy, or some other form of trench-sickness too severe to permit of their being carried farther from the front. One or two heads turned on the pillows as we entered, but for the most part the men did not move.
The cure, meanwhile, passing around to the sacristy, had come out before the altar in his vestments, followed by a little white acolyte. A handful of women, probably the only "civil" inhabitants left, and some of the soldiers we had seen about the village, had entered the church and stood together between the rows of cots; and the service began. It was a sunless afternoon, and the picture was all in monastic shades of black and white and ashen grey: the sick under their earth-coloured blankets, their livid faces against the pillows, the black dresses of the women (they seemed all to be in mourning) and the silver haze floating out from the little acolyte's censer. The only light in the scene--the candle-gleams on the altar, and their reflection in the embroideries of the cure's chasuble--were like a faint streak of sunset on the winter dusk.
For a while the long Latin cadences sounded on through the church; but presently the cure took up in French the Canticle of the Sacred Heart, composed during the war of 1870, and the little congregation joined their trembling voices in the refrain:
"_Sauvez, sauvez la
The reiterated appeal rose in a sob above the rows of bodies in the nave: "_Sauvez, sauvez la France_," the women wailed it near the altar, the soldiers took it up from the door in stronger tones; but the bodies in the cots never stirred, and more and more, as the day faded, the church looked like a quiet grave-yard in a battle-field.
After we had left Sainte Menehould the sense of the nearness
and all-pervadingness of the war became even more vivid. Every road branching
away to our left was a finger touching a red wound: Varennes, le Four de Paris,
le Bois de la Grurie, were not more than eight or ten miles to the north. Along
our own road the stream of motor-vans and the trains of ammunition grew longer
and more frequent. Once we passed a long line of "Seventy-fives"
going single file up a hillside, farther on we watched a big detachment of
artillery galloping across a stretch of open country. The movement of supplies
was continuous, and every village through which we passed swarmed with soldiers
busy loading or unloading the big vans, or clustered about the commissariat
motors while hams and quarters of beef were handed out. As we approached
The first duty of the traveller who has successfully passed
the challenge of the sentinel at the gates is to climb the steep hill to the
citadel at the top of the town. Here the military authorities inspect one's
papers, and deliver a "permis de sejour" which must be verified by
the police before lodgings can be obtained. We found the principal hotel much
less crowded than the Haute Mere-Dieu at Chalons, though many of the officers
of the garrison mess there. The whole atmosphere of the place was different:
silent, concentrated, passive. To the chance observer,
On entering the gates, the first sight to attract us had been a colony of roughly-built bungalows scattered over the miry slopes of a little park adjoining the railway station, and surmounted by the sign: "Evacuation Hospital No. 6." The next morning we went to visit it. A part of the station buildings has been adapted to hospital use, and among them a great roofless hall, which the surgeon in charge has covered in with canvas and divided down its length into a double row of tents. Each tent contains two wooden cots, scrupulously clean and raised high above the floor; and the immense ward is warmed by a row of stoves down the central passage. In the bungalows across the road are beds for the patients who are to be kept for a time before being transferred to the hospitals in the town. In one bungalow an operating-room has been installed, in another are the bathing arrangements for the newcomers from the trenches. Every possible device for the relief of the wounded has been carefully thought out and intelligently applied by the surgeon in charge and the _infirmiere major_ who indefatigably seconds him. Evacuation Hospital No. 6 sprang up in an hour, almost, on the dreadful August day when four thousand wounded lay on stretchers between the railway station and the gate of the little park across the way; and it has gradually grown into the model of what such a hospital may become in skilful and devoted hands.
In the afternoon we started out again in a snow-storm, over
a desolate rolling country to the south of
The main ambulance was in a grange, of which the two stories had been partitioned off into wards. Under the cobwebby rafters the men lay in rows on clean pallets, and big stoves made the rooms dry and warm. But the great superiority of this ambulance was its nearness to a canalboat which had been fitted up with hot douches. The boat was spotlessly clean, and each cabin was shut off by a gay curtain of red-flowered chintz. Those curtains must do almost as much as the hot water to make over the _morale_ of the men: they were the most comforting sight of the day.
Farther north, and on the other bank of the
We had been told at Sainte Menehould that, for military
reasons, we must follow a more southerly direction on our return to Chalons;
and when we left
Bar-le-Duc seemed unaware of the cloud. The charming old town was in its normal state of provincial apathy: few soldiers were about, and here at last civilian life again predominated. After a few days on the edge of the war, in that intermediate region under its solemn spell, there is something strangely lowering to the mood in the first sight of a busy unconscious community. One looks instinctively, in the eyes of the passers by, for a reflection of that other vision, and feels diminished by contact with people going so indifferently about their business.
A little way beyond Bar-le-Duc we came on another phase of
the war-vision, for our route lay exactly in the track of the August invasion,
and between Bar-le-Duc and Vitry-le-Francois the high-road is lined with ruined
towns. The first we came to was Laimont, a large village wiped out as if a
cyclone had beheaded it; then comes Revigny, a town of over two thousand
inhabitants, less completely levelled because its houses were more solidly
built, but a spectacle of more tragic desolation, with its wide streets winding
between scorched and contorted fragments of masonry, bits of shop-fronts,
handsome doorways, the colonnaded court of a public building. A few miles
farther lies the most piteous of the group: the
In this part of the country, which is one of many cross-roads, we began to have unexpected difficulty in finding our way, for the names and distances on the milestones have all been effaced, the sign-posts thrown down and the enamelled _plaques_ on the houses at the entrance to the villages removed. One report has it that this precaution was taken by the inhabitants at the approach of the invading army, another that the Germans themselves demolished the sign-posts and plastered over the mile-stones in order to paint on them misleading and encouraging distances. The result is extremely bewildering, for, all the villages being either in ruins or uninhabited, there is no one to question but the soldiers one meets, and their answer is almost invariably "We don't know--we don't belong here." One is in luck if one comes across a sentinel who knows the name of the village he is guarding.
It was the strangest of sensations to find ourselves in a chartless wilderness within sixty or seventy miles of Paris, and to wander, as we did, for hours across a high heathery waste, with wide blue distances to north and south, and in all the scene not a landmark by means of which we could make a guess at our whereabouts. One of our haphazard turns at last brought us into a muddy bye-road with long lines of "Seventy-fives" ranged along its banks like grey ant-eaters in some monstrous menagerie. A little farther on we came to a bemired village swarming with artillery and cavalry, and found ourselves in the thick of an encampment just on the move. It seems improbable that we were meant to be there, for our arrival caused such surprise that no sentry remembered to challenge us, and obsequiously saluting _sous-officiers_ instantly cleared a way for the motor. So, by a happy accident, we caught one more war-picture, all of vehement movement, as we passed out of the zone of war.
We were still very distinctly in it on returning to Chalons,
which, if it had seemed packed on our previous visit, was now quivering and
cracking with fresh crowds. The stir about the fountain, in the square before
the Haute Mere-Dieu, was more melodramatic than ever. Every one was in a hurry,
every one booted and mudsplashed, and spurred or sworded or despatch-bagged, or
somehow labelled as a member of the huge military beehive. The privilege of
telephoning and telegraphing being denied to civilians in the war-zone, it was
ominous to arrive at night-fall on such a crowded scene, and we were not
surprised to be told that there was not a room left at the Haute Mere-Dieu, and
that even the sofas in the reading-room had been let for the night. At every
other inn in the town we met with the same answer; and finally we decided to
ask permission to go on as far as
At Chalons the Head-quarters are in the Prefecture, a coldly
handsome building of the eighteenth century, and there, in a majestic stone
vestibule, beneath the gilded ramp of a great festal staircase, we waited in
anxious suspense, among the orderlies and _estafettes_, while our unusual
request was considered. The result of the deliberation,
was an expression of regret: nothing could be done for us, as officers might at
any moment arrive from the General Head-quarters and require the rooms. It was
then past nine o'clock, and bitterly cold--and we began to wonder. Finally the polite
officer who had been charged to dismiss us, moved to compassion at our plight,
offered to give us a _laissez-passer_ back to
The next morning dispelled that vision. We woke to a noise
of guns closer and more incessant than even the first night's cannonade at
Beside me, on my writing-table, stands a bunch of peonies, the jolly round-faced pink peonies of the village garden. They were picked this afternoon in the garden of a ruined house at Gerbeviller--a house so calcined and convulsed that, for epithets dire enough to fit it, one would have to borrow from a Hebrew prophet gloating over the fall of a city of idolaters.
Last March, in the
From Bar-le-Duc we turned northeast, and as we entered the
The town of
This afternoon, on the road to Gerbeviller, we were again in the track of the September invasion. Over all the slopes now cool with spring foliage the battle rocked backward and forward during those burning autumn days; and every mile of the struggle has left its ghastly traces. The fields are full of wooden crosses which the ploughshare makes a circuit to avoid; many of the villages have been partly wrecked, and here and there an isolated ruin marks the nucleus of a fiercer struggle. But the landscape, in its first sweet leafiness, is so alive with ploughing and sowing and all the natural tasks of spring, that the war scars seem like traces of a long-past woe; and it was not till a bend of the road brought us in sight of Gerbeviller that we breathed again the choking air of present horror.
Gerbeviller, stretched out at ease on its slopes above the Meurthe, must have been a happy place to live in. The streets slanted up between scattered houses in gardens to the great Louis XIV chateau above the town and the church that balanced it. So much one can reconstruct from the first glimpse across the valley; but when one enters the town all perspective is lost in chaos. Gerbeviller has taken to herself the title of "the martyr town"; an honour to which many sister victims might dispute her claim! But as a sensational image of havoc it seems improbable that any can surpass her. Her ruins seem to have been simultaneously vomited up from the depths and hurled down from the skies, as though she had perished in some monstrous clash of earthquake and tornado; and it fills one with a cold despair to know that this double destruction was no accident of nature but a piously planned and methodically executed human deed. From the opposite heights the poor little garden-girt town was shelled like a steel fortress; then, when the Germans entered, a fire was built in every house, and at the nicely-timed right moment one of the explosive tabloids which the fearless Teuton carries about for his land-_Lusitanias_ was tossed on each hearth. It was all so well done that one wonders--almost apologetically for German thoroughness--that any of the human rats escaped from their holes; but some did, and were neatly spitted on lurking bayonets.
One old woman, hearing her son's deathcry, rashly looked out of her door. A bullet instantly laid her low among her phloxes and lilies; and there, in her little garden, her dead body was dishonoured. It seemed singularly appropriate, in such a scene, to read above a blackened doorway the sign: "Monuments Funebres," and to observe that the house the doorway once belonged to had formed the angle of a lane called "La Ruelle des Orphelines."
At one end of the main street of Gerbeviller there once stood a charming house, of the sober old Lorraine pattern, with low door, deep roof and ample gables: it was in the garden of this house that my pink peonies were picked for me by its owner, Mr. Liegeay, a former Mayor of Gerbeviller, who witnessed all the horrors of the invasion.
Mr. Liegeay is now living in a neighbour's cellar, his own being fully occupied by the debris of his charming house. He told us the story of the three days of the German occupation; how he and his wife and niece, and the niece's babies, took to their cellar while the Germans set the house on fire, and how, peering through a door into the stable-yard, they saw that the soldiers suspected they were within and were trying to get at them. Luckily the incendiaries had heaped wood and straw all round the outside of the house, and the blaze was so hot that they could not reach the door. Between the arch of the doorway and the door itself was a half-moon opening; and Mr. Liegeay and his family, during three days and three nights, broke up all the barrels in the cellar and threw the bits out through the opening to feed the fire in the yard.
Finally, on the third day, when they began to be afraid that the ruins of the house would fall in on them, they made a dash for safety. The house was on the edge of the town, and the women and children managed to get away into the country; but Mr. Liegeay was surprised in his garden by a German soldier. He made a rush for the high wall of the adjoining cemetery, and scrambling over it slipped down between the wall and a big granite cross. The cross was covered with the hideous wire and glass wreaths dear to French mourners; and with these opportune mementoes Mr. Liegeay roofed himself in, lying wedged in his narrow hiding-place from three in the afternoon till night, and listening to the voices of the soldiers who were hunting for him among the grave-stones. Luckily it was their last day at Gerbeviller, and the German retreat saved his life.
Even in Gerbeviller we saw no worse scene of destruction than the particular spot in which the ex-mayor stood while he told his story. He looked about him at the heaps of blackened brick and contorted iron. "This was my dining-room," he said. "There were some good old paneling on the walls, and some fine prints that had been a wedding-present to my grand-father." He led us into another black pit. "This was our sitting-room: you see what a view we had." He sighed, and added philosophically: "I suppose we were too well off. I even had an electric light out there on the terrace, to read my paper by on summer evenings. Yes, we were too well off..." That was all.
Meanwhile all the town had been red with horror--flame and shot and tortures unnameable; and at the other end of the long street, a woman, a Sister of Charity, had held her own like Soeur Gabrielle at Clermont-en-Argonne, gathering her flock of old men and children about her and interposing her short stout figure between them and the fury of the Germans. We found her in her Hospice, a ruddy, indomitable woman who related with a quiet indignation more thrilling than invective the hideous details of the bloody three days; but that already belongs to the past, and at present she is much more concerned with the task of clothing and feeding Gerbeviller. For two thirds of the population have already "come home"--that is what they call the return to this desert! "You see," Soeur Julie explained, "there are the crops to sow, the gardens to tend. They had to come back. The government is building wooden shelters for them; and people will surely send us beds and linen." (Of course they would, one felt as one listened!) "Heavy boots, too--boots for field-labourers. We want them for women as well as men--like these." Soeur Julie, smiling, turned up a hob-nailed sole. "I have directed all the work on our Hospice farm myself. All the women are working in the fields--we must take the place of the men." And I seemed to see my pink peonies flowering in the very prints of her sturdy boots!
Nancy, the most beautiful town in
The last time I looked out on the great architectural setting of the Place Stanislas was on a hot July evening, the evening of the National Fete. The square and the avenues leading to it swarmed with people, and as darkness fell the balanced lines of arches and palaces sprang out in many coloured light. Garlands of lamps looped the arcades leading into the Place de la Carriere, peacock-coloured fires flared from the Arch of Triumph, long curves of radiance beat like wings over the thickets of the park, the sculptures of the fountains, the brown-and-gold foliation of Jean Damour's great gates; and under this roofing of light was the murmur of a happy crowd carelessly celebrating the tradition of half-forgotten victories.
Now, at sunset, all life ceases in
Luncheon with the General Staff in an old
bourgeois house of a little town as sleepy as "
We started early for Mousson on the
A little way up the ascent to Mousson we left the motor behind a bit
of rising ground. The road is raked
by the German lines, and stray pedestrians (unless in a group) are less liable
than a motor to have a shell spent on them. We climbed under a driving grey sky
which swept gusts of rain across our road. In the lee of the castle we stopped
to look down at the valley of the
Suddenly an officer, pointing to the west of the trenched hill said: "Do you see that farm?" It lay just below, near the river, and so close that good eyes could easily have discerned people or animals in the farm-yard, if there had been any; but the whole place seemed to be sleeping the sleep of bucolic peace. "_They are there_," the officer said; and the innocent vignette framed by my field-glass suddenly glared back at me like a human mask of hate. The loudest cannonade had not made "them" seem as real as that!...
At this point the military lines and the old political
frontier everywhere overlap, and in a cleft of the wooded hills that conceal
the German batteries we saw a dark grey blur on the grey horizon. It was
Through wet vineyards and orchards we scrambled down the hill to the river and entered Pont-a-Mousson. It was by mere meteorological good luck that we got there, for if the winds had been asleep the guns would have been awake, and when they wake poor Pont-a-Mousson is not at home to visitors. One understood why as one stood in the riverside garden of the great Premonstratensian Monastery which is now the hospital and the general asylum of the town. Between the clipped limes and formal borders the German shells had scooped out three or four "dreadful hollows," in one of which, only last week, a little girl found her death; and the facade of the building is pock-marked by shot and disfigured with gaping holes. Yet in this precarious shelter Sister Theresia, of the same indomitable breed as the Sisters of Clermont and Gerbeviller, has gathered a miscellaneous flock of soldiers wounded in the trenches, civilians shattered by the bombardment, eclopes, old women and children: all the human wreckage of this storm-beaten point of the front. Sister Theresia seems in no wise disconcerted by the fact that the shells continually play over her roof. The building is immense and spreading, and when one wing is damaged she picks up her proteges and trots them off, bed and baggage, to another. "_Je promene mes malades_," she said calmly, as if boasting of the varied accommodation of an ultra-modern hospital, as she led us through vaulted and stuccoed galleries where caryatid-saints look down in plaster pomp on the rows of brown-blanketed pallets and the long tables at which haggard eclopes were enjoying their evening soup.
I have seen the happiest being on earth: a man who has found his job.
This afternoon we motored southwest of
On the way to Menil we stopped at the
About two miles from the German frontier (_frontier_ just
here as well as front) an isolated hill rises out of
From this vigilant height--one of the intentest eyes open on
the frontier--we went a short distance down the hillside to a village out of
range of the guns, where the commanding officer gave us tea in a charming old
house with a terraced garden full of flowers and puppies. Below the terrace,
Below the village the road wound down to a forest that had formed a dark blur in our bird's-eye view of the plain. We passed into the forest and halted on the edge of a colony of queer exotic huts. On all sides they peeped through the branches, themselves so branched and sodded and leafy that they seemed like some transition form between tree and house. We were in one of the so-called "villages negres" of the second-line trenches, the jolly little settlements to which the troops retire after doing their shift under fire. This particular colony has been developed to an extreme degree of comfort and safety. The houses are partly underground, connected by deep winding "bowels" over which light rustic bridges have been thrown, and so profoundly roofed with sods that as much of them as shows above ground is shell-proof. Yet they are real houses, with real doors and windows under their grass-eaves, real furniture inside, and real beds of daisies and pansies at their doors. In the Colonel's bungalow a big bunch of spring flowers bloomed on the table, and everywhere we saw the same neatness and order, the same amused pride in the look of things. The men were dining at long trestle-tables under the trees; tired, unshaven men in shabby uniforms of all cuts and almost every colour. They were off duty, relaxed, in a good humour; but every face had the look of the faces watching on the hill-top. Wherever I go among these men of the front I have the same impression: the impression that the absorbing undivided thought of the Defense of France lives in the heart and brain of each soldier as intensely as in the heart and brain of their chief.
We walked a dozen yards down the road and came to the edge of the forest. A wattled palisade bounded it, and through a gap in the palisade we looked out across a field to the roofs of a quiet village a mile away. I went out a few steps into the field and was abruptly pulled back. "Take care--those are the trenches!" What looked like a ridge thrown up by a plough was the enemy's line; and in the quiet village French cannon watched. Suddenly, as we stood there, they woke, and at the same moment we heard the unmistakable Gr-r-r of an aeroplane and saw a Bird of Evil high up against the blue. Snap, snap, snap barked the mitrailleuse on the hill, the soldiers jumped from their wine and strained their eyes through the trees, and the Taube, finding itself the centre of so much attention, turned grey tail and swished away to the concealing clouds.
Today we started with an intenser sense of adventure. Hitherto we had always been told beforehand where we were going and how much we were to be allowed to see; but now we were being launched into the unknown. Beyond a certain point all was conjecture--we knew only that what happened after that would depend on the good-will of a Colonel of Chasseurs-a-pied whom we were to go a long way to find, up into the folds of the mountains on our southeast horizon.
We picked up a staff-officer at Head-quarters and flew on to a battered town on the edge of the hills. From there we wound up through a narrowing valley, under wooded cliffs, to a little settlement where the Colonel of the Brigade was to be found. There was a short conference between the Colonel and our staff-officer, and then we annexed a Captain of Chasseurs and spun away again. Our road lay through a town so exposed that our companion from Head-quarters suggested the advisability of avoiding it; but our guide hadn't the heart to inflict such a disappointment on his new acquaintances. "Oh, we won't stop the motor--we'll just dash through," he said indulgently; and in the excess of his indulgence he even permitted us to dash slowly.
Oh, that poor town--when we reached it, along a road ploughed with fresh obus-holes, I didn't want to stop the motor; I wanted to hurry on and blot the picture from my memory! It was doubly sad to look at because of the fact that it wasn't _quite dead;_ faint spasms of life still quivered through it. A few children played in the ravaged streets; a few pale mothers watched them from cellar doorways. "They oughtn't to be here," our guide explained; "but about a hundred and fifty begged so hard to stay that the General gave them leave. The officer in command has an eye on them, and whenever he gives the signal they dive down into their burrows. He says they are perfectly obedient. It was he who asked that they might stay..."
Up and up into the hills. The vision of human pain and ruin
was lost in beauty. We were among the firs, and the air was full of balm. The
mossy banks gave out a scent of rain, and little water-falls from the heights
set the branches trembling over secret pools. At each turn of the road, forest,
and always more forest, climbing with us as we climbed, and dropped away from
us to narrow valleys that converged on slate-blue distances. At one of these
turns we overtook a company of soldiers, spade on shoulder and bags of tools
across their backs--"trench-workers" swinging up to the heights to which
we were bound. Life must be a better thing in this crystal air than in the
mud-welter of the
Higher still ... and presently a halt on a ridge, in another
"black village," this time almost a town! The soldiers gathered round
us as the motor stopped--throngs of chasseurs-a-pied in faded, trench-stained
uniforms--for few visitors climb to this point, and their pleasure at the sight
of new faces was presently expressed in a large "_Vive l'Amerique!_"
scrawled on the door of the car. _L'Amerique_ was glad and proud to be there,
and instantly conscious of breathing an air saturated with courage and the
dogged determination to endure. The men were all reservists: that is to say,
mostly married, and all beyond the first fighting age. For many months there
has not been much active work along this front, no great adventure to rouse the
blood and wing the imagination: it has just been month after month of
monotonous watching and holding on. And the soldiers' faces showed it: there
was no light of heady enterprise in their eyes, but the look of men who knew
their job, had thought it over, and were there to hold their bit of
Meanwhile, they had made the best of the situation and turned their quarters into a forest colony that would enchant any normal boy. Their village architecture was more elaborate than any we had yet seen. In the Colonel's "dugout" a long table decked with lilacs and tulips was spread for tea. In other cheery catacombs we found neat rows of bunks, mess-tables, sizzling sauce-pans over kitchen-fires. Everywhere were endless ingenuities in the way of camp-furniture and household decoration. Farther down the road a path between fir-boughs led to a hidden hospital, a marvel of underground compactness. While we chatted with the surgeon a soldier came in from the trenches: an elderly, bearded man, with a good average civilian face--the kind that one runs against by hundreds in any French crowd. He had a scalp-wound which had just been dressed, and was very pale. The Colonel stopped to ask a few questions, and then, turning to him, said: "Feeling rather better now?"
"Good. In a day or two you'll be thinking about going back to the trenches, eh?"
"_I'm going now, sir._" It was said quite simply, and received in the same way. "Oh, all right," the Colonel merely rejoined; but he laid his hand on the man's shoulder as we went out.
Our next visit was to a sod-thatched hut, "At the sign of the Ambulant Artisans," where two or three soldiers were modelling and chiselling all kinds of trinkets from the aluminum of enemy shells. One of the ambulant artisans was just finishing a ring with beautifully modelled fauns' heads, another offered me a "Pickelhaube" small enough for Mustard-seed's wear, but complete in every detail, and inlaid with the bronze eagle from an Imperial pfennig. There are many such ringsmiths among the privates at the front, and the severe, somewhat archaic design of their rings is a proof of the sureness of French taste; but the two we visited happened to be Paris jewellers, for whom "artisan" was really too modest a pseudonym. Officers and men were evidently proud of their work, and as they stood hammering away in their cramped smithy, a red gleam lighting up the intentness of their faces, they seemed to be beating out the cheerful rhythm of "I too will something make, and joy in the making."...
Up the hillside, in deeper shadow, was another little structure; a wooden shed with an open gable sheltering an altar with candles and flowers. Here mass is said by one of the conscript priests of the regiment, while his congregation kneel between the fir-trunks, giving life to the old metaphor of the cathedral-forest. Near by was the grave-yard, where day by day these quiet elderly men lay their comrades, the _peres de famille_ who don't go back. The care of this woodland cemetery is left entirely to the soldiers, and they have spent treasures of piety on the inscriptions and decorations of the graves. Fresh flowers are brought up from the valleys to cover them, and when some favourite comrade goes, the men scorning ephemeral tributes, club together to buy a monstrous indestructible wreath with emblazoned streamers. It was near the end of the afternoon, and many soldiers were strolling along the paths between the graves. "It's their favourite walk at this hour," the Colonel said. He stopped to look down on a grave smothered in beady tokens, the grave of the last pal to fall. "He was mentioned in the Order of the Day," the Colonel explained; and the group of soldiers standing near looked at us proudly, as if sharing their comrade's honour, and wanting to be sure that we understood the reason of their pride...
"And now," said our Captain of Chasseurs, "that you've seen the second-line trenches, what do you say to taking a look at the first?"
We followed him to a point higher up the hill, where we plunged into a deep ditch of red earth--the "bowel" leading to the first lines. It climbed still higher, under the wet firs, and then, turning, dipped over the edge and began to wind in sharp loops down the other side of the ridge. Down we scrambled, single file, our chins on a level with the top of the passage, the close green covert above us. The "bowel" went twisting down more and more sharply into a deep ravine; and presently, at a bend, we came to a fir-thatched outlook, where a soldier stood with his back to us, his eye glued to a peep-hole in the wattled wall. Another turn, and another outlook; but here it was the iron-rimmed eye of the mitrailleuse that stared across the ravine. By this time we were within a hundred yards or so of the German lines, hidden, like ours, on the other side of the narrowing hollow; and as we stole down and down, the hush and secrecy of the scene, and the sense of that imminent lurking hatred only a few branch-lengths away, seemed to fill the silence with mysterious pulsations. Suddenly a sharp noise broke on them: the rap of a rifle-shot against a tree-trunk a few yards ahead.
"Ah, the sharp-shooter," said our guide. "No more talking, please--he's over there, in a tree somewhere, and whenever he hears voices he fires. Some day we shall spot his tree."
We went on in silence to a point where a few soldiers were sitting on a ledge of rock in a widening of the "bowel." They looked as quiet as if they had been waiting for their bocks before a Boulevard cafe.
"Not beyond, please," said the officer, holding me back; and I stopped.
Here we were, then, actually and literally in the first lines! The knowledge made one's heart tick a little; but, except for another shot or two from our arboreal listener, and the motionless intentness of the soldier's back at the peep-hole, there was nothing to show that we were not a dozen miles away.
Perhaps the thought occurred to our Captain of Chasseurs; for just as I was turning back he said with his friendliest twinkle: "Do you want awfully to go a little farther? Well, then, come on."
We went past the soldiers sitting on the ledge and stole down and down, to where the trees ended at the bottom of the ravine. The sharp-shooter had stopped firing, and nothing disturbed the leafy silence but an intermittent drip of rain. We were at the end of the burrow, and the Captain signed to me that I might take a cautious peep round its corner. I looked out and saw a strip of intensely green meadow just under me, and a wooded cliff rising abruptly on its other side. That was all. The wooded cliff swarmed with "them," and a few steps would have carried us across the interval; yet all about us was silence, and the peace of the forest. Again, for a minute, I had the sense of an all-pervading, invisible power of evil, a saturation of the whole landscape with some hidden vitriol of hate. Then the reaction of the unbelief set in, and I felt myself in a harmless ordinary glen, like a million others on an untroubled earth. We turned and began to climb again, loop by loop, up the "bowel"--we passed the lolling soldiers, the silent mitrailleuse, we came again to the watcher at his peep-hole. He heard us, let the officer pass, and turned his head with a little sign of understanding.
"Do you want to look down?"
He moved a step away from his window. The look-out projected over the ravine, raking its depths; and here, with one's eye to the leaf-lashed hole, one saw at last ... saw, at the bottom of the harmless glen, half way between cliff and cliff, a grey uniform huddled in a dead heap. "He's been there for days: they can't fetch him away," said the watcher, regluing his eye to the hole; and it was almost a relief to find it was after all a tangible enemy hidden over there across the meadow...
The sun had set when we got back to our starting-point in
the underground village. The chasseurs-a-pied were lounging along the roadside
and standing in gossiping groups about the motor. It was long since they had
seen faces from the other life, the life they had left nearly a year earlier
and had not been allowed to go back to for a day; and under all their jokes and
good-humour their farewell had a tinge of wistfulness. But one felt that this
fugitive reminder of a world they had put behind them would pass like a dream,
and their minds revert without effort to the one reality: the business of holding
their bit of
It is hard to say why this sense of the French soldier's single-mindedness is so strong in all who have had even a glimpse of the front; perhaps it is gathered less from what the men say than from the look in their eyes. Even while they are accepting cigarettes and exchanging trench-jokes, the look is there; and when one comes on them unaware it is there also. In the dusk of the forest that look followed us down the mountain; and as we skirted the edge of the ravine between the armies, we felt that on the far side of that dividing line were the men who had made the war, and on the near side the men who had been made by it.
June 19th, 1915.
On the way from Doullens to Montreuil-sur-Mer, on a shining summer afternoon. A road between dusty hedges, choked, literally strangled, by a torrent of westward-streaming troops of all arms. Every few minutes there would come a break in the flow, and our motor would wriggle through, advance a few yards, and be stopped again by a widening of the torrent that jammed us into the ditch and splashed a dazzle of dust into our eyes. The dust was stifling--but through it, what a sight!
Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind toward us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers' flanks, flushed rows and rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition waggons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory...
Finally we left the last detachment behind, and had the
country to ourselves. The disfigurement of war has not touched the fields of
The sun had set and the sea-twilight was rolling in when we
dipped down from the town of
Sunset, and summer dusk, and the moon. Under the monastery windows a walled garden with stone pavilions at the angles and the drip of a fountain. Below it, tiers of orchard-terraces fading into a great moon-confused plain that might be either fields or sea...
Today our way ran northeast, through a landscape so English that there was no incongruity in the sprinkling of khaki along the road. Even the villages look English: the same plum-red brick of tidy self-respecting houses, neat, demure and freshly painted, the gardens all bursting with flowers, the landscape hedgerowed and willowed and fed with water-courses, the people's faces square and pink and honest, and the signs over the shops in a language half way between English and German. Only the architecture of the towns is French, of a reserved and robust northern type, but unmistakably in the same great tradition.
War still seemed so far off that one had time for these
digressions as the motor flew on over the undulating miles. But presently we
came on an aviation camp spreading its sheds over a wide plateau. Here the
khaki throng was thicker and the familiar military stir enlivened the
landscape. A few miles farther, and we found ourselves in what was seemingly a
big English town oddly grouped about a nucleus of French churches. This was St.
Omer, grey, spacious, coldly clean in its Sunday emptiness. At the street
crossings English sentries stood mechanically directing the absent traffic with
gestures familiar to Piccadilly; and the signs of the British Red Cross and
The Englishness of things was emphasized, as we passed out through the suburbs, by the look of the crowd on the canal bridges and along the roads. Every nation has its own way of loitering, and there is nothing so unlike the French way as the English. Even if all these tall youths had not been in khaki, and the girls with them so pink and countrified, one would instantly have recognized the passive northern way of letting a holiday soak in instead of squeezing out its juices with feverish fingers.
When we turned westward from St. Omer, across the same
pastures and watercourses, we were faced by two hills standing up abruptly out
of the plain; and on the top of one rose the walls and
towers of a compact little mediaeval town. As we took the windings that led up
to it a sense of
It was not surprising to learn from the guide-book that
Cassel has the most extensive view of any town in
We found our hotel in the most perfect of little market
squares, with a Renaissance town-hall on one side, and on the other a miniature
Spanish palace with a front of rosy brick adorned by grey carvings. The square
was crowded with English army motors and beautiful prancing chargers; and the
restaurant of the inn (which has the luck to face the pink and grey palace)
swarmed with khaki tea-drinkers turning indifferent shoulders to the widest
From the park on top of the hill we looked down on another
picture. All about us was the plain, its distant rim merged in northern
sea-mist; and through the mist, in the glitter of the afternoon sun, far-off
towns and shadowy towers lay steeped, as it seemed, in summer quiet. For a
moment, while we looked, the vision of war shrivelled up like a painted veil;
then we caught the names pronounced by a group of English soldiers leaning over
the parapet at our side. "That's Dunkerque"--one of them pointed it
out with his pipe--"and there's Poperinghe, just under us; that's Furnes
That night we went up once more to the rock of
On the road from
From the thronged high-road we passed into the emptiness of
deserted Poperinghe, and out again on the way to
The motor slipped through a suburb of small brick houses and stopped under cover of some slightly taller buildings. Another military motor waited there, the chauffeur relic-hunting in the gutted houses.
We got out and walked toward the centre of the Cloth Market.
We had seen evacuated towns--
We had seen other ruined towns, but none like this. The
We had just reached the square before the Cathedral when the
cannonade began, and its roar seemed to build a roof of iron over the glorious
We were turning to go when we heard a whirr overhead,
followed by a volley of mitrailleuse. High up in the blue, over the centre of
the dead city, flew a German aeroplane; and all about it hundreds of white
shrapnel tufts burst out in the summer sky like the miraculous snow-fall of
Italian legend. Up and up they flew, on the trail of the Taube, and on flew the
Taube, faster still, till quarry and pack were lost in mist, and the barking of
the mitrailleuse died out. So we left
The afternoon carried us back to Poperinghe, where I was
bound on a quest for lace-cushions of the special kind required by our Flemish
refugees. The model is unobtainable in
Poperinghe, though little injured, is almost empty. In its tidy desolation it looks like a town on which a wicked enchanter has laid a spell. We roamed from quarter to quarter, hunting for some one to show us the way to the convent I was looking for, till at last a passer-by led us to a door which seemed the right one. At our knock the bars were drawn and a cloistered face looked out. No, there were no cushions there; and the nun had never heard of the order we named. But there were the Penitents, the Benedictines--we might try. Our guide offered to show us the way and we went on. From one or two windows, wondering heads looked out and vanished; but the streets were lifeless. At last we came to a convent where there were no nuns left, but where, the caretaker told us, there were cushions--a great many. He led us through pale blue passages, up cold stairs, through rooms that smelt of linen and lavender. We passed a chapel with plaster saints in white niches above paper flowers. Everything was cold and bare and blank: like a mind from which memory has gone. We came to a class room with lines of empty benches facing a blue-mantled Virgin; and here, on the floor, lay rows and rows of lace-cushions. On each a bit of lace had been begun--and there they had been dropped when nuns and pupils fled. They had not been left in disorder: the rows had been laid out evenly, a handkerchief thrown over each cushion. And that orderly arrest of life seemed sadder than any scene of disarray. It symbolized the senseless paralysis of a whole nation's activities. Here were a houseful of
women and children, yesterday engaged in a useful task and now aimlessly astray over the earth. And in hundreds of such houses, in dozens, in hundreds of open towns, the hand of time had been stopped, the heart of life had ceased to beat, all the currents of hope and happiness and industry been choked--not that some great military end might be gained, or the length of the war curtailed, but that, wherever the shadow of Germany falls, all things should wither at the root.
The same sight met us everywhere that afternoon. Over Furnes
and Bergues, and all the little intermediate villages, the evil shadow lay.
Late in the afternoon we came to Dunkerque, lying peacefully
between its harbour and canals. The bombardment of the previous month had
emptied it, and though no signs of damage were visible the same spellbound air
lay over everything. As we sat alone at tea in the hall of the hotel on the
Place Jean Bart, and looked out on the silent square and its lifeless shops and
cafes, some one suggested that the hotel would be a convenient centre for the
excursions we had planned, and we decided to return there the next evening.
Then we motored back to
My first waking thought was: "How time flies! It must
be the Fourteenth of July!" I knew it could not be the Fourth of that specially commemorative month, because I was just awake
enough to be sure I was not in
Then, what--? A Taube, of course! And all the guns in the
place were cracking at it! By the time this mental process was complete, I had
scrambled up and hurried downstairs and, unbolting the heavy doors, had rushed
out into the square. It was about four in the morning, the heavenliest moment
of a summer dawn, and in spite of the tumult
Silence and sleep came down again on
We set off early for a neighbouring
Head-quarters, and it was not till we turned out of the gates of
At Head-quarters we learned more of the morning's incidents.
Dunkerque, it appeared, had first been visited by the Taube which afterward
came to take the range of
After luncheon we turned north, toward the dunes. The villages we drove through were all evacuated, some quite lifeless, others occupied by troops. Presently we came to a group of military motors drawn up by the roadside, and a field black with wheeling troops. "Admiral Ronarc'h!" our companion from Head-quarters exclaimed; and we understood that we had had the good luck to come on the hero of Dixmude in the act of reviewing the marine fusiliers and territorials whose magnificent defense of last October gave that much-besieged town another lease of glory.
We stopped the motor and climbed to a ridge above the field. A high wind was blowing, bringing with it the booming of the guns along the front. A sun half-veiled in sand-dust shone on pale meadows, sandy flats, grey wind-mills. The scene was deserted, except for the handful of troops deploying before the officers on the edge of the field. Admiral Ronarc'h, white-gloved and in full-dress uniform, stood a little in advance, a young naval officer at his side. He had just been distributing decorations to his fusiliers and territorials, and they were marching past him, flags flying and bugles playing. Every one of those men had a record of heroism, and every face in those ranks had looked on horrors unnameable. They had lost Dixmude--for a while--but they had gained great glory, and the inspiration of their epic resistance had come from the quiet officer who stood there, straight and grave, in his white gloves and gala uniform.
One must have been in the North to know something of the tie that exists, in this region of bitter and continuous fighting, between officers and soldiers. The feeling of the chiefs is almost one of veneration for their men; that of the soldiers, a kind of half-humorous tenderness for the officers who have faced such odds with them. This mutual regard reveals itself in a hundred undefinable ways; but its fullest expression is in the tone with which the commanding officers speak the two words oftenest on their lips: "My men."
The little review over, we went on to Admiral Ronarc'h's quarters in the dunes, and thence, after a brief visit, to another brigade Head-quarters. We were in a region of sandy hillocks feathered by tamarisk, and interspersed with poplar groves slanting like wheat in the wind. Between these meagre thickets the roofs of seaside bungalows showed above the dunes; and before one of these we stopped, and were led into a sitting-room full of maps and aeroplane photographs. One of the officers of the brigade telephoned to ask if the way was clear to Nieuport; and the answer was that we might go on.
Our road ran through the "Bois Triangulaire," a bit of woodland exposed to constant shelling. Half the poor spindling trees were down, and patches of blackened undergrowth and ragged hollows marked the path of the shells. If the trees of a cannonaded wood are of strong inland growth their fallen trunks have the majesty of a ruined temple; but there was something humanly pitiful in the frail trunks of the Bois Triangulaire, lying there like slaughtered rows of immature troops.
A few miles more brought us to Nieuport, most lamentable of
the victim towns. It is not empty as
Modern Nieuport seems to have died in a colic. No less homely image expresses the contractions and contortions of the houses reaching out the appeal of their desperate chimney-pots and agonized girders. There is one view along the exterior of the town like nothing else on the warfront. On the left, a line of palsied houses leads up like a string of crutch-propped beggars to the mighty ruin of the Templars' Tower; on the right the flats reach away to the almost imperceptible humps of masonry that were once the villages of St. Georges, Ramscappelle, Pervyse. And over it all the incessant crash of the guns stretches a sounding-board of steel.
In front of the cathedral a German shell has dug a crater thirty feet across, overhung by splintered tree-trunks, burnt shrubs, vague mounds of rubbish; and a few steps beyond lies the peacefullest spot in Nieuport, the grave-yard where the zouaves have buried their comrades. The dead are laid in rows under the flank of the cathedral, and on their carefully set grave-stones have been placed collections of pious images gathered from the ruined houses. Some of the most privileged are guarded by colonies of plaster saints and Virgins that cover the whole slab; and over the handsomest Virgins and the most gaily coloured saints the soldiers have placed the glass bells that once protected the parlour clocks and wedding-wreaths in the same houses.
From sad Nieuport we motored on to a little seaside colony where gaiety prevails. Here the big hotels and the adjoining villas along the beach are filled with troops just back from the trenches: it is one of the "rest cures" of the front. When we drove up, the regiment "au repos" was assembled in the wide sandy space between the principal hotels, and in the centre of the jolly crowd the band was playing. The Colonel and his officers stood listening to the music, and presently the soldiers broke into the wild "chanson des zouaves" of the --th zouaves. It was the strangest of sights to watch that throng of dusky merry faces under their red fezes against the background of sunless northern sea. When the music was over some one with a kodak suggested "a group": we struck a collective attitude on one of the hotel terraces, and just as the camera was being aimed at us the Colonel turned and drew into the foreground a little grinning pock-marked soldier. "He's just been decorated--he's got to be in the group." A general exclamation of assent from the other officers, and a protest from the hero: "Me? Why, my ugly mug will smash the plate!" But it didn't--
Reluctantly we turned from this interval in the day's sad round, and took the road to La Panne. Dust, dunes, deserted villages: my memory keeps no more definite vision of the run. But at sunset we came on a big seaside colony stretched out above the longest beach I ever saw: along the sea-front, an esplanade bordered by the usual foolish villas, and behind it a single street filled with hotels and shops. All the life of the desert region we had traversed seemed to have taken refuge at La Panne. The long street was swarming with throngs of dark-uniformed Belgian soldiers, every shop seemed to be doing a thriving trade, and the hotels looked as full as beehives.
June 23rd LA PANNE.
The particular hive that has taken us in is at the extreme
end of the esplanade, where asphalt and iron railings lapse abruptly into sand
and sea-grass. When I looked out of my window this morning I saw only the
endless stretch of brown sand against the grey roll of the
Before luncheon we motored over to Dunkerque. The road runs along the canal, between grass-flats and prosperous villages. No signs of war were noticeable except on the road, which was crowded with motor vans, ambulances and troops. The walls and gates of Dunkerque rose before us as calm and undisturbed as when we entered the town the day before yesterday. But within the gates we were in a desert. The bombardment had ceased the previous evening, but a death-hush lay on the town, Every house was shuttered and the streets were empty. We drove to the Place Jean Bart, where two days ago we sat at tea in the hall of the hotel. Now there was not a whole pane of glass in the windows of the square, the doors of the hotel were closed, and every now and then some one came out carrying a basketful of plaster from fallen ceilings. The whole surface of the square was literally paved with bits of glass from the hundreds of broken windows, and at the foot of David's statue of Jean Bart, just where our motor had stood while we had tea, the siege-gun of Dixmude had scooped out a hollow as big as the crater at Nieuport.
Though not a house on the square was touched, the scene was
one of unmitigated desolation. It was the first time we had seen the raw wounds
of a bombardment, and the freshness of the havoc seemed to accentuate its
cruelty. We wandered down the street behind the hotel to the graceful Gothic
A few people stood in clusters looking up at the ruins, or
strayed aimlessly about the streets. Not a loud word was heard. The air seemed
heavy with the suspended breath of a great city's activities: the mournful hush
of Dunkerque was even more oppressive than the death-silence of
All the afternoon we wandered about La Panne. The exercises of the troops had begun again, and the deploying of those endless black lines along the beach was a sight of the strangest beauty. The sun was veiled, and heavy surges rolled in under a northerly gale. Toward evening the sea turned to cold tints of jade and pearl and tarnished silver. Far down the beach a mysterious fleet of fishing boats was drawn up on the sand, with black sails bellying in the wind; and the black riders galloping by might have landed from them, and been riding into the sunset out of some wild northern legend. Presently a knot of buglers took up their stand on the edge of the sea, facing inward, their feet in the surf, and began to play; and their call was like the call of Roland's horn, when he blew it down the pass against the heathen. On the sandcrest below my window the lonely sentinel still watched...
It is like coming down from the mountains to leave the
front. I never had the feeling more strongly than when we passed out of
On leaving St. Omer we took a short cut southward across rolling country. It was a happy accident that caused us to leave the main road, for presently, over the crest of a hill, we saw surging toward us a mighty movement of British and Indian troops. A great bath of silver sunlight lay on the wheat-fields, the clumps of woodland and the hilly blue horizon, and in that slanting radiance the cavalry rode toward us, regiment after regiment of slim turbaned Indians, with delicate proud faces like the faces of Princes in Persian miniatures. Then came a long train of artillery; splendid horses, clattering gun-carriages, clear-faced English youths galloping by all aglow in the sunset. The stream of them seemed never-ending. Now and then it was checked by a train of ambulances and supply-waggons, or caught and congested in the crooked streets of a village where children and girls had come out with bunches of flowers, and bakers were selling hot loaves to the sutlers; and when we had extricated our motor from the crowd, and climbed another hill, we came on another cavalcade surging toward us through the wheat-fields. For over an hour the procession poured by, so like and yet so unlike the French division we had met on the move as we went north a few days ago; so that we seemed to have passed to the northern front, and away from it again, through a great flashing gateway in the long wall of armies guarding the civilized world from the North Sea to the Vosges.
August 13th, 1915.
My trip to the east began by a dash toward the north. Near
A stone and brick chateau in a flat park with a stream running through it. Pampas-grass, geraniums, rustic bridges, winding paths: how _bourgeois_ and sleepy it would all seem but for the sentinel challenging our motor at the gate!
Before the door a collie dozing in the sun, and a group of staff-officers waiting for luncheon. Indoors, a room with handsome tapestries, some good furniture and a table spread with the usual military maps and aeroplane-photographs. At luncheon, the General, the chiefs of the staff--a dozen in all--an officer from the General Head-quarters. The usual atmosphere of _camaraderie_, confidence, good-humour, and a kind of cheerful seriousness that I have come to regard as characteristic of the men immersed in the actual facts of the war. I set down this impression as typical of many such luncheon hours along the front...
This morning we set out for reconquered
We slipped through a valley or two, passed some placid
villages with vine-covered gables, and noticed that most of the signs over the
shops were German. We had crossed the old frontier unawares, and were presently
in the charming town of
At the Golden Eagle we laid in a
store of provisions, and started out across the mountains in the direction of
Thann itself is at the valley-head, in a neck between hills; a handsome old town, with the air of prosperous stability so oddly characteristic of this tormented region. As we drove through the main street the pall of war-sadness fell on us again, darkening the light and chilling the summer air. Thann is raked by the German lines, and its windows are mostly shuttered and its streets deserted. One or two houses in the Cathedral square have been gutted, but the somewhat over-pinnacled and statued cathedral which is the pride of Thann is almost untouched, and when we entered it vespers were being sung, and a few people--mostly in black--knelt in the nave.
No greater contrast could be imagined to the happy feast-day scene we had left, a few miles off, at Massevaux; but Thann, in spite of its empty streets, is not a deserted city. A vigorous life beats in it, ready to break forth as soon as the German guns are silenced. The French administration, working on the best of terms with the population, are keeping up the civil activities of the town as the Canons of the Cathedral are continuing the rites of the Church. Many inhabitants still remain behind their closed shutters and dive down into their cellars when the shells begin to crash; and the schools, transferred to a neighbouring village, number over two thousand pupils. We walked through the town, visited a vast catacomb of a wine-cellar fitted up partly as an ambulance and partly as a shelter for the cellarless, and saw the lamentable remains of the industrial quarter along the river, which has been the special target of the German guns. Thann has been industrially ruined, all its mills are wrecked; but unlike the towns of the north it has had the good fortune to preserve its outline, its civic personality, a face that its children, when they come back, can recognize and take comfort in.
After our visit to the ruins, a diversion was suggested by the amiable administrators of Thann who had guided our sight-seeing. They were just off for a military tournament which the --th dragoons were giving that afternoon in a neighboring valley, and we were invited to go with them.
The scene of the entertainment was a meadow enclosed in an amphitheatre of rocks, with grassy ledges projecting from the cliff like tiers of opera-boxes. These points of vantage were partly occupied by interested spectators and partly by ruminating cattle; on the lowest slope, the rank and fashion of the neighbourhood was ranged on a semi-circle of chairs, and below, in the meadow, a lively steeple-chase was going on. The riding was extremely pretty, as French military riding always is. Few of the mounts were thoroughbreds--the greater number, in fact, being local cart-horses barely broken to the saddle--but their agility and dash did the greater credit to their riders. The lancers, in particular, executed an effective "musical ride" about a central pennon, to the immense satisfaction of the fashionable public in the foreground and of the gallery on the rocks.
The audience was even more interesting than the artists.
Chatting with the ladies in the front row were the General of division and his
staff, groups of officers invited from the adjoining Head-quarters, and most of
the civil and military administrators of the restored "Departement du Haut
Rhin." All classes had turned out in honour of the fete, and every one was
in a holiday mood. The people among whom we sat were mostly Alsatian
property-owners, many of them industrials of Thann. Some had been driven from
their homes, others had seen their mills destroyed, all had been living for a
year on the perilous edge of war, under the menace of reprisals too hideous to
picture; yet the humour prevailing was that of any group of merry-makers in a
peaceful garrison town. I have seen nothing, in my wanderings along the front,
more indicative of the good-breeding of the French than the spirit of the
ladies and gentlemen who sat chatting with the officers on that grassy slope of
The display of _haute ecole_ was to be followed by an exhibition of "transportation throughout the ages," headed by a Gaulish chariot driven by a trooper with a long horsehair moustache and mistletoe wreath, and ending in a motor of which the engine had been taken out and replaced by a large placid white horse. Unluckily a heavy rain began while this instructive "number" awaited its turn, and we had to leave before Vercingetorix had led his warriors into the ring...
Up and up into the mountains. We started early, taking our
way along a narrow interminable valley that sloped up gradually toward the
east. The road was encumbered with a stream of hooded supply vans drawn by
mules, for we were on the way to one of the main positions in the
Mules were brought, and we started on a long ride up the mountain. The way led first over open ledges, with deep views into valleys blue with distance, then through miles of forest, first of beech and fir, and finally all of fir. Above the road the wooded slopes rose interminably and here and there we came on tiers of mules, three or four hundred together, stabled under the trees, in stalls dug out of different levels of the slope. Near by were shelters for the men, and perhaps at the next bend a village of "trappers' huts," as the officers call the log-cabins they build in this region. These colonies are always bustling with life: men busy cleaning their arms, hauling material for new cabins, washing or mending their clothes, or carrying down the mountain from the camp-kitchen the two-handled pails full of steaming soup. The kitchen is always in the most protected quarter of the camp, and generally at some distance in the rear. Other soldiers, their job over, are lolling about in groups, smoking, gossiping or writing home, the "Soldiers' Letter-pad" propped on a patched blue knee, a scarred fist laboriously driving the fountain pen received in hospital. Some are leaning over the shoulder of a pal who has just received a Paris paper, others chuckling together at the jokes of their own French journal--the "Echo du Ravin," the "Journal des Poilus," or the "Diable Bleu": little papers ground out in purplish script on foolscap, and adorned with comic-sketches and a wealth of local humour.
Higher up, under a fir-belt, at the edge of a meadow, the officer who rode ahead signed to us to dismount and scramble after him. We plunged under the trees, into what seemed a thicker thicket, and found it to be a thatch of branches woven to screen the muzzles of a battery. The big guns were all about us, crouched in these sylvan lairs like wild beasts waiting to spring; and near each gun hovered its attendant gunner, proud, possessive, important as a bridegroom with his bride.
We climbed and climbed again, reaching at last a
sun-and-wind-burnt common which forms the top of one of the highest mountains
in the region. The forest was left below us and only a belt of dwarf firs ran
along the edge of the great grassy shoulder. We dismounted, the mules were
tethered among the trees, and our guide led us to an insignificant looking
stone in the grass. On one face of the stone was cut the letter F., on the
other was a D.; we stood on what, till a year ago, was the boundary line
between Republic and Empire. Since then, in certain places, the line has been
bent back a long way; but where we stood we were still under German guns, and
we had to creep along in the shelter of the squat firs to reach the outlook on
the edge of the plateau. From there, under a sky of racing clouds, we saw
outstretched below us the Promised Land of Alsace. On one horizon, far off in
the plain, gleamed the roofs and spires of
We stopped at a gap in the firs and walked to the brink of the plateau. Just under us lay a rock-rimmed lake. More zig-zag earthworks surmounted it on all sides, and on the nearest shore was the branched roofing of another great mule-shelter. We were looking down at the spot to which the night-caravans of the Chasseurs Alpins descend to distribute supplies to the fighting line.
"Who goes there? Attention! You're in sight of the lines!" a voice called out from the firs, and our companion signed to us to move back. We had been rather too conspicuously facing the German batteries on the opposite slope, and our presence might have drawn their fire on an artillery observation post installed near by. We retreated hurriedly and unpacked our luncheon-basket on the more sheltered side of the ridge. As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and every-day activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.
We had not yet made the whole tour of the mountain-top; and after luncheon we rode over to a point where a long narrow yoke connects it with a spur projecting directly above the German lines. We left our mules in hiding and walked along the yoke, a mere knife-edge of rock rimmed with dwarf vegetation. Suddenly we heard an explosion behind us: one of the batteries we had passed on the way up was giving tongue. The German lines roared back and for twenty minutes the exchange of invective thundered on. The firing was almost incessant; it seemed as if a great arch of steel were being built up above us in the crystal air. And we could follow each curve of sound from its incipience to its final crash in the trenches. There were four distinct phases: the sharp bang from the cannon, the long furious howl overhead, the dispersed and spreading noise of the shell's explosion, and then the roll of its reverberation from cliff to cliff. This is what we heard as we crouched in the lee of the firs: what we saw when we looked out between them was only an occasional burst of white smoke and red flame from one hillside, and on the opposite one, a minute later, a brown geyser of dust.
Presently a deluge of rain descended on us, driving us back to our mules, and down the nearest mountain-trail through rivers of mud. It rained all the way: rained in such floods and cataracts that the very rocks of the mountain seemed to dissolve and turn into mud. As we slid down through it we met strings of Chasseurs Alpins coming up, splashed to the waist with wet red clay, and leading pack-mules so coated with it that they looked like studio models from which the sculptor has just pulled off the dripping sheet. Lower down we came on more "trapper" settlements, so saturated and reeking with wet that they gave us a glimpse of what the winter months on the front must be. No more cheerful polishing of fire-arms, hauling of faggots, chatting and smoking in sociable groups: everybody had crept under the doubtful shelter of branches and tarpaulins; the whole army was back in its burrows.
Sunshine again for our arrival at
Today again we started early for the mountains. Our road ran
more to the westward, through the heart of the Vosges, and up to a fold of the
hills near the borders of
While we stood watching we heard the sudden scream of a battery close above us. The crest of the hill we were climbing was alive with "Seventy-fives," and the piercing noise seemed to burst out at our very backs. It was the most terrible war-shriek I had heard: a kind of wolfish baying that called up an image of all the dogs of war simultaneously tugging at their leashes. There is a dreadful majesty in the sound of a distant cannonade; but these yelps and hisses roused only thoughts of horror. And there, on the opposite slope, the black and brown geysers were beginning to spout up from the German trenches; and from the batteries above them came the puff and roar of retaliation. Below us, along the cart-track, the little French soldiers continued to scramble up peacefully to the dilapidated village; and presently a group of officers of dragoons, emerging from the wood, came down to welcome us to their Head-quarters.
We continued to climb through the forest, the cannonade still whistling overhead, till we reached the most elaborate trapper colony we had yet seen. Half underground, walled with logs, and deeply roofed by sods tufted with ferns and moss, the cabins were scattered under the trees and connected with each other by paths bordered with white stones. Before the Colonel's cabin the soldiers had made a banked-up flower-bed sown with annuals; and farther up the slope stood a log chapel, a mere gable with a wooden altar under it, all tapestried with ivy and holly. Near by was the chaplain's subterranean dwelling. It was reached by a deep cutting with ivy-covered sides, and ivy and fir-boughs masked the front. This sylvan retreat had just been completed, and the officers, the chaplain, and the soldiers loitering near by, were all equally eager to have it seen and hear it praised.
The commanding officer, having done the honours of the camp, led us about a quarter of a mile down the hillside to an open cutting which marked the beginning of the trenches. From the cutting we passed into a long tortuous burrow walled and roofed with carefully fitted logs. The earth floor was covered by a sort of wooden lattice. The only light entering this tunnel was a faint ray from an occasional narrow slit screened by branches; and beside each of these peep-holes hung a shield-shaped metal shutter to be pushed over it in case of emergency.
The passage wound down the hill, almost doubling on itself, in order to give a view of all the surrounding lines. Presently the roof became much higher, and we saw on one side a curtained niche about five feet above the floor. One of the officers pulled the curtain back, and there, on a narrow shelf, a gun between his knees, sat a dragoon, his eyes on a peep-hole. The curtain was hastily drawn again behind his motionless figure, lest the faint light at his back should betray him. We passed by several of these helmeted watchers, and now and then we came to a deeper recess in which a mitrailleuse squatted, its black nose thrust through a net of branches. Sometimes the roof of the tunnel was so low that we had to bend nearly double; and at intervals we came to heavy doors, made of logs and sheeted with iron, which shut off one section from another. It is hard to guess the distance one covers in creeping through an unlit passage with different levels and countless turnings; but we must have descended the hillside for at least a mile before we came out into a half-ruined farmhouse. This building, which had kept nothing but its outer walls and one or two partitions between the rooms, had been transformed into an observation post. In each of its corners a ladder led up to a little shelf on the level of what was once the second story, and on the shelf sat a dragoon at his peep-hole. Below, in the dilapidated rooms, the usual life of a camp was going on. Some of the soldiers were playing cards at a kitchen table, others mending their clothes, or writing letters or chuckling together (not too loud) over a comic newspaper. It might have been a scene anywhere along the second-line trenches but for the lowered voices, the suddenness with which I was drawn back from a slit in the wall through which I had incautiously peered, and the presence of these helmeted watchers overhead.
We plunged underground again and began to descend through another darker and narrower tunnel. In the upper one there had been one or two roofless stretches where one could straighten one's back and breathe; but here we were in pitch blackness, and saved from breaking our necks only by the gleam of the pocket-light which the young lieutenant who led the party shed on our path. As he whisked it up and down to warn us of sudden steps or sharp corners he remarked that at night even this faint glimmer was forbidden, and that it was a bad job going back and forth from the last outpost till one had learned the turnings.
The last outpost was a half-ruined farmhouse like the other.
A telephone connected it with Head-quarters and more dumb dragoons sat
motionless on their lofty shelves. The house was shut off from the tunnel by an
armoured door, and the orders were that in case of attack that door should be
barred from within and the access to the tunnel defended to the death by the
men in the outpost. We were on the extreme verge of the defences, on a slope
just above the village over which we had heard the artillery roaring a few
hours earlier. The spot where we stood was raked on all sides by the enemy's
lines, and the nearest trenches were only a few yards away. But of all this nothing was really perceptible or comprehensible to
me. As far as my own observation went, we might have been a hundred miles from
the valley we had looked down on, where the French soldiers were walking
peacefully up the cart-track in the sunshine. I only knew that we had come out
of a black labyrinth into a gutted house among fruit-trees, where soldiers were
lounging and smoking, and people whispered as they do about a death-bed. Over a
break in the walls I saw another gutted farmhouse close by in another orchard:
it was an enemy outpost, and silent watchers in helmets of another shape sat
there watching on the same high shelves. But all this was infinitely less real
and terrible than the cannonade above the disputed village. The artillery had
ceased and the air was full of summer murmurs. Close by on a sheltered ledge I
saw a patch of vineyard with dewy cobwebs hanging to the vines. I could not
understand where we were, or what it was all about, or why a shell from the
enemy outpost did not suddenly annihilate us. And then, little by little, there
came over me the sense of that mute reciprocal watching from trench to trench:
the interlocked stare of innumerable pairs of eyes, stretching on, mile after
mile, along the whole sleepless line from Dunkerque to
My last vision of the French front which I had traveled from end to end was this picture of a shelled house where a few men, who sat smoking and playing cards in the sunshine, had orders to hold out to the death rather than let their fraction of that front be broken.
Nobody now asks the question that so often, at the beginning
of the war, came to me from the other side of the world: "_What is
Nevertheless, to those on whom that illumination has shone
only from far off, there may still be something to learn about its component
elements; for it has come to consist of many separate rays, and the weary
strain of the last year has been the spectroscope to decompose them. From the
very beginning, when one felt the effulgence as the mere pale brightness before
dawn, the attempt to define it was irresistible. "There _is_ a
tone--" the tingling sense of it was in the air from the first days, the
first hours--"but what does it consist in? And just how is one aware of
it?" In those days the answer was comparatively easy. The tone of
But there is a term to the flight of the most soaring _elan_. It is likely, after a while, to come back broken-winged and resign itself to barn-yard bounds. National judgments cannot remain for long above individual feelings; and you cannot get a national "tone" out of anything less than a whole nation. The really interesting thing, therefore, was to see, as the war went on, and grew into a calamity unheard of in human annals, how the French spirit would meet it, and what virtues extract from it.
The war has been a calamity unheard of; but
There was never much doubt about the army. When a warlike
race has an invader on its soil, the men holding back the invader can never be
said to be inactive. But behind the army were the waiting millions to whom that
long motionless line in the trenches might gradually have become a mere
condition of thought, an accepted limitation to all sorts of activities and
pleasures. The danger was that such a war--static, dogged, uneventful--might gradually
cramp instead of enlarging the mood of the lookers-on. Conscription, of course,
was there to minimize this danger. Every one was sharing alike in the glory and
the woe. But the glory was not of a kind to penetrate or dazzle. It requires
more imagination to see the halo around tenacity than around dash; and the
French still cling to the view that they are, so to speak, the patentees and
proprietors of dash, and much less at home with his dull drudge of a partner.
So there was reason to fear, in the long run, a gradual but irresistible
disintegration, not of public opinion, but of something subtler and more
fundamental: public sentiment. It was possible that civilian
The French would not be human, and therefore would not be interesting, if one had not perceived in them occasional symptoms of such a peril. There has not been a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman--save a few harmless and perhaps nervous theorizers--who has wavered about the military policy of the country; but there have naturally been some who have found it less easy than they could have foreseen to live up to the sacrifices it has necessitated. Of course there have been such people: one would have had to postulate them if they had not come within one's experience. There have been some to whom it was harder than they imagined to give up a certain way of living, or a certain kind of breakfast-roll; though the French, being fundamentally temperate, are far less the slaves of the luxuries they have invented than are the other races who have adopted these luxuries.
There have been many more who found the sacrifice of
personal happiness--of all that made life livable, or one's country worth
fighting for--infinitely harder than the most apprehensive imagination could
have pictured. There have been mothers and widows for whom a single grave, or
the appearance of one name on the missing list, has turned the whole conflict
into an idiot's tale. There have been many such; but there have apparently not
been enough to deflect by a hair's breadth the subtle current of public
sentiment; unless it is truer, as it is infinitely more inspiring, to suppose
that, of this company of blinded baffled sufferers, almost all have had the
strength to hide their despair and to say of the great national effort which
has lost most of its meaning to them: "Though it slay me, yet will I trust
in it." That is probably the finest triumph of the tone of
This does not in the least imply that resignation is the
prevailing note in the tone of
Two questions are likely to be put to any observer of the struggle who risks such assertions. What, one may be asked, are the proofs of this national tone? And what conditions and qualities seem to minister to it?
The proofs, now that "the tumult and the shouting
dies," and civilian life has dropped back into something like its usual
routine, are naturally less definable than at the outset. One of the most
evident is the spirit in which all kinds of privations are accepted. No one who
has come in contact with the work-people and small shop-keepers of Paris in the
last year can fail to be struck by the extreme dignity and grace with which
doing without things is practised. The Frenchwoman leaning in the door of her
empty _boutique_ still wears the smile with which she used to calm the
impatience of crowding shoppers. The seam-stress living on the meagre pay of a
charity work-room gives her day's sewing as faithfully as if she were working
for full wages in a fashionable _atelier_, and never tries, by the least hint
of private difficulties, to extract additional help. The habitual cheerfulness
of the Parisian workwoman rises, in moments of sorrow, to the finest fortitude.
In a work-room where many women have been employed since the beginning of the
war, a young girl of sixteen heard late one afternoon that her only brother had
been killed. She had a moment of desperate distress; but there was a big family
to be helped by her small earnings, and the next morning punctually she was
back at work. In this same work-room the women have one half-holiday in the
week, without reduction of pay; yet if an order has to be rushed through for a
hospital they give up that one afternoon as gaily as if they were doing it for
their pleasure. But if any one who has lived for the last year among the
workers and small tradesmen of
The second question: What are the conditions and qualities that have produced such results? is less easy to answer. The door is so largely open to conjecture that every explanation must depend largely on the answerer's personal bias. But one thing is certain. France has not achieved her present tone by the sacrifice of any of her national traits, but rather by their extreme keying up; therefore the surest way of finding a clue to that tone is to try to single out whatever distinctively "French" characteristics--or those that appear such to the envious alien--have a direct bearing on the present attitude of France. Which (one must ask) of all their multiple gifts most help the French today to be what they are in just the way they are?
_Intelligence!_ is the first and instantaneous answer. Many French people seem unaware of this. They are sincerely persuaded that the curbing of their critical activity has been one of the most important and useful results of the war. One is told that, in a spirit of patriotism, this fault-finding people has learned not to find fault. Nothing could be more untrue. The French, when they have a grievance, do not air it in the _Times:_ their forum is the cafe and not the newspaper. But in the cafe they are talking as freely as ever, discriminating as keenly and judging as passionately. The difference is that the very exercise of their intelligence on a problem larger and more difficult than any they have hitherto faced has freed them from the dominion of most of the prejudices, catch-words and conventions that directed opinion before the war. Then their intelligence ran in fixed channels; now it has overflowed its banks.
This release has produced an immediate readjusting of all
the elements of national life. In great trials a race is tested by its values;
and the war has shown the world what are the real values of
Intelligence first, then, has helped
"A god gave me the voice to speak my pain."
It is not too much to say that the French are at this moment
drawing a part of their national strength from their language. The piety with
which they have cherished and cultivated it has made it a precious instrument
in their hands. It can say so beautifully what they feel that they find
strength and renovation in using it; and the word once uttered is passed on,
and carries the same help to others. Countless instances of such happy
expression could be cited by any one who has lived the last year in
"Thank you," such a mourner wrote me the other
day, "for having understood the cruelty of our fate, and having pitied us.
Thank you also for having exalted the pride that is mingled with our
unutterable sorrow." Simply that, and no more; but she might have been
speaking for all the mothers of
When the eloquent expression of feeling does not issue in
action--or at least in a state of mind equivalent to action--it sinks to the
level of rhetoric; but in
No people so sensitive to beauty, so penetrated with a
passionate interest in life, so endowed with the power to express and
immortalize that interest, can ever really enjoy destruction for its own sake.
The French hate "militarism." It is stupid, inartistic, unimaginative
and enslaving; there could not be four better French reasons for detesting it.
Nor have the French ever enjoyed the savage forms of sport which stimulate the
blood of more apathetic or more brutal races. Neither prize-fighting nor
bull-fighting is of the soil in
The women of
The same display of reasoned courage is visible in the hasty adaptation of the Frenchwoman to all kinds of uncongenial jobs. Almost every kind of service she has been called to render since the war began has been fundamentally uncongenial. A French doctor once remarked to me that Frenchwomen never make really good sick-nurses except when they are nursing their own people. They are too personal, too emotional, and too much interested in more interesting things, to take to the fussy details of good nursing, except when it can help some one they care for. Even then, as a rule, they are not systematic or tidy; but they make up for these deficiencies by inexhaustible willingness and sympathy. And it has been easy for them to become good war-nurses, because every Frenchwoman who nurses a French soldier feels that she is caring for her kin. The French war-nurse sometimes mislays an instrument or forgets to sterilize a dressing; but she almost always finds the consoling word to say and the right tone to take with her wounded soldiers. That profound solidarity which is one of the results of conscription flowers, in war-time, in an exquisite and impartial devotion.
This, then, is what "