'Fighting in Alsace and the Vosges'
from the book 'Vive la France'
by American journalist E. Alexander Powell 1916

On the Forgotten Front in Alsace

french magazine covers showing rough and tumble, battle-hardened Chasseur Alpins


Campaining in the Vosges

THE sergeant in charge of the machine gun, taking advantage of a lull in the rifle-fire which had crackled and roared along the trenches since dawn, was sprawled on his back in the gun-pit, reading a magazine. What attracted my attention was its being an American magazine.

"Where did you learn to read English ? " I asked him curiously.

“In America," said he.

“What part ?" said I.

“Schenectady," he answered. "Was with the General Electric until the war began."

“I'm from up-State myself," I remarked. “My people live in Syracuse."

"The hell you say! "he exclaimed, scrambling to his feet and grasping my hand cordially. "I took you for an Englishman. From Syracuse, eh ? Why, that makes us sort of neighbours, doesn't it ? We ought to have a drink on it. I suppose the Boches have plenty of beer over there," waving his hand in the direction of the German trenches, of which I could catch a glimpse through a loophole, "but we haven't anything here but water. I've got an idea, though ! Back in the States, when they have those Old Home Week reunions, they always fire off an anvil or the town cannon. So what's the matter with celebrating this reunion by letting the Boches have a few rounds from the machine gun ?"

Seating himself astride the bicycle saddle on the trail of the machine gun, he swung the lean barrel of the wicked little weapon until it rested on the German trenches a hundred yards away. Then he slipped the end of a cartridge-carrier into the breech.

"Three rousing cheers for the U.S.A.” he shouted, and pressed a button. Rrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r- r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rrrip went the mitrailleuse, with the noise of a million mowing machines. Flame spurted from its muzzle as water spurts from the nozzle of a fire-hose. The racket in the log-roofed gun-pit was ear-shattering. The blast of bullets spattered the German trenches, they pinged metallically against the steel plates set in the embrasures, they kicked up countless spurts of yellow earth. The sergeant stood up, grinning, and with a grimy handkerchief wiped from his face the powder stains and perspiration.

"If you should happen to be in Schenectady you might drop in at the General Electric plant and tell the boys," he began, but the sentence was never finished, for just then a shell whined low above our heads and burst somewhere behind the trenches with the roar of an exploding powder-mill. We had disturbed the Germans' afternoon siesta, and their batteries were showing their resentment.

"I think that perhaps I'd better be moving along," said I hastily. " It's getting on toward dinner-time."

"Well, s'long," said he regretfully. "And say," he called after me, " when you get back to little old New York would you mind dropping into the Knickerbocker and having a drink for me - And be sure and give my regards to Broadway."

" I certainly will," said I.

And that is how a Franco-American whose name I do not know, sergeant in a French line regiment whose number I may not mention, and I held an Old Home Week celebration of our own in the French trenches in Alsace. For all I know there may have been some other residents of central New York over in the German trenches. If so, they made no attempt to join out little reunion. Had they done so they would have received a very warm reception.

There were several reasons why I welcomed the opportunity offered me by the French General Staff to see the fighting in Alsace. In the first place a veil of secrecy had been thrown over the operations in that region, and the mysterious is always alluring. Secondly, most of the fighting that I have seen has been either in fiat or only moderately hilly countries, and I was curious to see how warfare is conducted in a region as mountainous and as heavily forested as the Adirondacks or Oregon. Again, the Alsace sector is at the extreme southern end of that great battle-line, more than four hundred miles long, which stretches its unlovely length across Europe from the North Sea to the Alps, like some monstrous and deadly snake. And lastly, I wanted to see the retaking of that narrow strip of territory lying between the summit of the Vosges and the Rhine which for more than forty years has been mourned by France as one of her "lost provinces."

This land of Alsace is, in many respects the most beautiful that I have ever seen. Strung along the horizon, like sentinels wrapped in mantles of green, the peaks of the Vosges loom against the sky. On the slopes of the ridges, massed in their black battalions, stand forests of spruce and pine. Through peaceful valleys silver streams meander leisurely, and in the meadows which border them cattle stand knee-deep amid the lush green grass. The villages, their tortuous, cobble-paved streets lined on either side by dim arcades, and the old, old houses, with their turrets and balconies and steep-pitched pottery roofs, give you the feeling that they are not real, but that they are scenery on a stage, and this illusion is heightened by the men in their jaunty berets and wooden sabots, and the women, whose huge black silk head-dresses accentuate the freshness of their complexions. It is at once a region of ruggedness and majesty and grandeur, of quaintness and simplicity and charm.

As I motored through it, it was hard to make myself believe that death was abroad in so fair a land, and that over there, on the other side of those near-by hills, men were engaged in the business of wholesale slaughter. I was brought to an abrupt realization of it, however, as we were passing through the old grey town of Gérardier. I heard a sudden outcry, and the streets, which a moment before had been a-bustle with the usual market-day crowd, were all at once deserted. The people dived into their houses as a woodchuck dives into its hole. The sentries on duty in front of the état-Major were staring upward. High in the sky, approaching with the speed of an express train, was what looked like a great white seagull, but which, from the silver sheen of its armour- plated body, I knew to be a German Taube. "We're in for another bombardment," remarked an officer. "The German airmen have been visiting us every day of late." As the aircraft swooped lower and nearer, a field-gun concealed on the wooded hillside above the town spoke sharply, and a moment later there appeared just below the Taube a sudden splotch of white, like one of those powder-puffs that women carry. From the opposite side of the town another anti-aircraft gun began to bark defiance, until soon the aerial intruder was ringed about by wisps of fleecy smoke. At one time I counted as many as forty of them, looking like white tufts on a coverlet of turquoise blue. Things were getting too hot for the German, and with a beautiful sweep he swung about, and went sailing down the wind, content to wait until a more favourable opportunity should offer.

The inhabitants of these Asatian towns have become so accustomed to visits from German airmen that they pay scarcely more attention to them than they do to thunder- storms, going indoors to avoid the bombs just as they go indoors to avoid the rain. I remarked, indeed, as I motored through the country, that nearly every town through which we passed showed evidences, either by shattered roofs or shrapnel-spattered walls, of aeroplane bombardment. Thus is the war brought home to those who, dwelling many miles from the line of battle, might naturally suppose themselves safe from harm. In those towns which are within range of the German guns the inhabitants are in double danger, yet the shops and schools are open, and the townspeople go about their business apparently wholly unmindful of the possibility that a shell may drop in on them at any moment. In St. Dié we stopped for lunch at the Hotel Terminus, which is just opposite the railway station. St. Dié is within easy range of the German guns - or was when I was there - and when the Germans had nothing better to do they shelled it, centring their fire, as is their custom, upon the railway station, so as to interfere as much as possible with traffic and the movement of troops. The station and the adjacent buildings looked like cardboard boxes in which with a lead-pencil somebody had jabbed many ragged holes. The hotel, despite its upper floor having been wrecked by shell-fire only a few days previously, was open and doing business. Ranged upon the mantel of the dining-room was a row of German 77-millimetre shells, polished until you could see your face in them. "Where did you get those ?” I asked the woman who kept the hotel.

"Those are some German shells that fell in the garden during the last bombardment, and didn't explode," she answered carelessly. "I had them unloaded-the man who did it made an awful fuss about it, too - and I use them for hot-water bottles. Sometimes it gets pretty cold here at night, and it's very comforting to have a nice hot shell in your bed."

From St. Dié to Le Rudlin, where the road ends, is in the neighbourhood of thirty miles, and we did it in not much over thirty minutes. We went so fast that the telegraph-poles looked like the palings in a picket fence, and we took the corners on two wheels - doubtless to save rubber. Of one thing I am quite certain : if I am killed in this war, it is not going to be by a shell or a bullet ; it is going to be in a military motor-car. No cars save military ones are permitted on the roads in the zone of operations, and for the military cars no speed limits exist. As a result, the drivers tear through the country as though they were running speed-trials at Brooklands. Sometimes, of course, a wheel comes off, or they meet another vehicle when going round a corner at full speed-and the next morning there is a military funeral. To be the driver of a military car in the zone of operations is the joy-rider's dream come true. The soldier who drove my car steered with one hand because he had to use the other to illustrate the stories of his exploits in the trenches. Despite the fact that we were on a mountain road, one side of which dropped away into nothingness, when he related the story of how he captured six Germans single-handed he took both hands off the wheel to tell about it. It would have made Barney Oldfield's hair permanently pompadour.

At Le Rudlin, where there is an outpost of Alpine chasseurs, we left the car, and mounted mules for the ascent of the Hautes Chaumes, or High Moors, which crown the summit of the Vosges. Mong this ridge ran the imaginary line which Bismarck made the boundary between Germany and France. Each mule was led by a soldier, whose short blue tunic, scarlet breeches, blue puttees, rakish blue beret, and rifle slung hunter- fashion across his back, made him look uncommonly like a Spanish brigand, while another soldier hung to the mule's tail to keep him on the path, which is as narrow and slippery as the path of virtue. Have you ever ridden the trail which leads from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado - Yes - Well, the trail which we took up to the Hautes Chaumes was in places like that, only more so. Yet over that and similar trails has passed an army of invasion, carrying with it, either on the backs of mules or on the backs of men, its guns, food, and ammunition, and sending back in like fashion its wounded. Reaching the summit, the trail debouched from the dense pine forest on to an open, wind-swept moor Dotting the backbone of the ridge, far as the eye could see, ran a line of low stone boundary posts. On one side of each post was carved the letter F. On the other, the eastern face, was the letter D. Is it necessary to say that F stood for France and D for Deutschland - Squatting beside one of the posts was a French soldier busily engaged with hammer and chisel in cutting away the D. "It will not be needed again," he explained, grinning.


left :Chasseurs Alpins patroling on skies - 'la Guerre des Nations'
right : a hand colored photo of a Chasseur Alpin unit - see Colored Photos


Leaving the mules in the shelter of the wood, we proceeded across the open tableland which crowns the summit of the ridge on foot, for, being now within both sight and range of the German batteries, there seemed no object in attracting more attention to ourselves than was absolutely necessary. Half a mile or so beyond the boundary posts the plateau suddenly fell away in a sheer precipice, a thin screen of bushes bordering its brink. The topographical officer who had assumed the direction of the expedition at Le Rudlin motioned me to come forward. "Have a look," said he, "but be careful not to show yourself or to shake the bushes, or the Boches may send us a shell." Cautiously I peered through an opening in the branches. The mountain slope below me, almost at the foot of the cliff on which I stood, was scarred across by two great undulating yellow ridges. In places they were as much as a thousand yards apart, in others barely ten. I did not need to be told what they were. I knew. The ridge higher up the slope marked the line of the French trenches; the lower that of the German. From them came an incessant crackle and splutter which sounded like a forest fire. Sometimes it would die down until only an occasional shot would punctuate the mountain silence, and then, apparently without cause, it would rise into a clatter which sounded like an army of carpenters shingling a roof. In the forests on either side of us batteries were at work steadily, methodically, and, though we could not see the guns, the frequent fountains of earth thrown up along both lines of trenches by bursting shells showed how heavy was the bombardment that was in progress, and how accurate was both the French and German fire.

We were watching what the official communiqué described the next day as the fighting on the Fecht very much as one would watch a football game from the upper row of seats at the Oval. Above the forest at our right swayed a French observation balloon, tugging impatiently at its rope, while the observer, glasses glued to his eyes, telephoned to the commander of the battery in the wood below him where his shells were hitting. Suddenly, from the French position just below me, there rose, high above the duotone of rifle and artillery fire, the shrill clatter of a quick-firer. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat- tat it went, for all the world like one of those machines which they use for riveting steel girders. And, when you come to think about it, that is what it was doing : riveting the bonds which bind Alsace to France.

I have heard it said that the French army has been opposed, and in many instances betrayed, by the people whom they thought they were liberating from the German yoke, and that consequently the feeling of the French soldiers for the Alsatians is very bitter. This assertion is not true. I talked with a great many people during my stay in Alsace- with the maires of towns, with shopkeepers, with peasant farmers, and with village priests-and I found that they welcomed the French as whole-heartedly as a citizen who hears a burglar in his house welcomes a policeman. I saw old men and women who had dwelt in Alsace before the Germans came, and who had given up all hope of seeing the beloved tricolour flying again above Alsatian soil, standing at the doors of their cottages, with tears coursing down their cheeks, while the endless columns of soldiery in the familiar uniform tramped by. In the schoolhouses of Alsace I saw French soldiers patiently teaching children of French blood, who have been born under German rule and educated under German schoolmasters, the meaning of "Liberté, Egalité; Fraternité;" and that p-a-t-r-i-e spells France.

The change from Teutonic to Gallic rule is, however, by no means welcomed by all Alsatians. The Alsatians of to-day, remember, are not the Alsatians of 1870. It has been the consistent policy of the German Government to encourage, and where necessary, to assist German farmers to settle in Alsace, and as the years passed and the old hatred died down, these newcomers intermarried with the old French stock, so that to- day there are thousands of the younger generation in whose veins flow both French and German blood, and who scarcely know themselves to whom their allegiance belongs. As a result of this peculiar condition, both the French and German military authorities have to be constantly on their guard against treachery, for a woman bearing a French name may well be of German birth, while a man who speaks nothing but German may, nevertheless, be of pure French extraction. Hence spies, both French and German, abound. If the French Intelligence Department is well served, so is that of Germany. Peasants working in the fields, petty tradesmen in the towns, women of social position, and other women whose virtue is as easy as an old shoe, Germans dressed as priests, as hospital attendants, as Red Cross nurses, sometimes in French uniforms and travelling in motor-cars with all the necessary papers - all help to keep the German military authorities informed of what is going on behind the French lines.

Sometimes they signal by means of lamps, or by raising and lowering the shade of a lighted room of some lonely farmhouse; sometimes by means of cunningly concealed telephone wires ; occasionally by the fashion in which the family washing is arranged upon a line within range of German telescopes, innocent-looking red-flamed petticoats, blue-linen blouses, and white undergarments being used instead of signal-flags t9 spell out messages in code. A plough with a white or grey horse has more than once indicated the position of a French battery to the German airmen. The movements of a flock of sheep, driven by a spy disguised as a peasant, has sometimes given similar information. On one occasion three German officers in a motor-car managed to get right through the British lines in Flanders. Two of them were disguised as French officers, who were supposed to be bringing back the third as a prisoner, he being, of course, in German uniform. So clever and daring was their scheme that they succeeded in getting close to British Headquarters before they were detected and captured. They are no cowards who do this sort of work. They know perfectly well what it means if they are caught : sunrise, a wall, and a firing-party.

From the Hautes Chaumes we descended by a very steep and perilous path to the Lac Noir, where a battalion of Alpine Chasseurs had built a cantonment at which we spent the night. The Lac Noir, or Black Lake, occupies the crater of an extinct volcano, whose rocky sides are so smooth and steep that it looks like a gigantic washtub, in which a weary Hercules might wash the clothing of the world. There were in the neighbourhood of a thousand chasseurs in camp on the shores of the Lac Noir when I was there, the chef de brigade having been, until the beginning of the war, military adviser to the President of China. The amazing democracy of the French army was illustrated by the fact that his second in command, Lieutenant-Colonel Messimy, was, until the change of Cabinet which took place after the battle of the Marne, Minister of War. The cantonment-" Black Lake City" Colonel Messimy jokingly called it-looked far more like a summer camp in the Adirondacks than a soldiers' camp in Alsace.

All the buildings were of logs, their roofs being covered with masses of green boughs to conceal them from inquisitive aeroplanes, and at the back of each hut, hollowed from the mountainside, was an underground shelter in which the men could take refuge in case of bombardment. Gravelled paths, sometimes bordered with flowers, wound amid the pine-trees; the officers' quarters had broad verandas, with ingeniously made rustic furniture upon them; the mess-tables were set under leafy arbours ; there was a swimming-raft and a diving-board, and a sort of rustic pavilion known as the "Casino," where the men passed their spare hours in playing cards or danced to the music of a really excellent band. Over the doorway was a sign which read: "The music of the tambourine has been replaced by the music of the cannon." Though the Lac Noir was, when I was there, within the French lines, it was within range of the German batteries, which shelled it almost daily. The slopes of the crater on which the cantonment was built are so steep, however, that the shells would miss the barracks altogether, dropping harmlessly in the middle of the little lake. The ensuing explosion would stun hundreds of fish, which would float upon the surface of the water, whereupon the soldiers would paddle out in a rickety flatboat and gather them in. In fact, a German bombardment came to mean that the chasseurs would have fish for dinner. This daily bombardment, which usually began just before sunset, the French called the "Evening Prayer." The first shot was the signal for the band to take position on that shore of the lake which could not be reached by the German shells, and play the Marseillaise, a bit of irony which afforded huge amusement to the French and excessive irritation to the Germans.


'the Blue Devils' as seen in French magazines


When the history of the campaign in the Vosges comes to be written, a great many pages will have to be devoted to recounting the exploits of the chasseurs alpins. The "Blue Devils," as the Germans have dubbed them, are the Highlanders of the French army, being recruited from the French slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees. Tough as rawhide, keen as razors, hard as nails, they are the ideal troops for mountain warfare. They wear a distinctive dark-blue uniform, and the beret or cap, of the French Alps, a flat-topped, jaunty head-dress which is brother to the tam-o' -shanter. The frontier of Alsace, from a point opposite Strasburg to a point opposite Mulhausen, follows the summit of the Vosges, and over this range, which in places is upward of four thousand feet in height, have poured the French armies of invasion. In the van of those armies have marched the chasseurs alpins, dragged their guns by hand up the almost sheer precipices, and dragging the gun-mules after them; advancing through forests so dense that they had to chop paths for the line regiments which followed them ; carrying by storm the apparently impregnable positions held by the Germans ; sleeping often without blankets and with the mercury hovering near zero on the heights which they had captured; taking their batteries into positions where it was believed no batteries could go ; raining shells from those batteries upon the wooded slopes ahead, and, under cover of that fire, advancing, always advancing.

Think of what it meant to get a great army over such a mountain range in the face of desperate opposition; think of the labour involved in transporting the enormous supplies of food, clothing, and am-munition required by that army; think of the sufferings of the wounded who had to be taken back across those mountains, many of them in the depths of winter, sometime8 in litters, sometimes lashed to the backs of mules. The mule, whether from the Alps, the Pyrenees, or from Missouri, is playing a brave part in this mountain warfare, and whenever I saw one I felt like the motorist who, after his automobile had been hauled out of an apparently bottomless Southern bog by a negro who happened to be passing with a mule team, said to his son: "My boy, from now on always raise your hat to a mule."

Just as the crimson disk of the sun peered cautiously over the crater's rim, we bade good-bye to our friends the chasseurs aipins, and turned the noses of our mules up the mountains. As we reached the summit of the range, the little French captain who was acting as our guide halted us with a gesture. "Look over there," he said, pointing to where, far beyond the trench-scarred hillsides, a great, broad valley was swimming in the morning mists. There were green squares which I knew for meadow-lands, and yellow squares which were fields of ripening grain; here and there were clusters of white-walled, red-roofed houses, with ancient church-spires rising above them; and winding down the middle of the plain was a broad grey ribbon which turned to silver when the sun struck upon it.

"Look," said the little captain again, and there was a break in his voice. "That is what we are fighting for. That is Alsace."

Then I knew that I was looking upon what is, to every man of Gallic birth, the Promised Land; I knew that the great, dim bulk which loomed against the distant skyline was the Black Forest ; I knew that somewhere up that mysterious, alluring valley, Strasburg sat, like an Andromeda waiting to be freed; and that the broad, silent-flowing river which I saw below me was none other than the Rhine.

And as I looked I recalled another scene, on another continent and beside another river, two years before. I was standing with a coloured cavalry sergeant of the border patrol on the banks of the Rio Grande, and we were looking southward to where the mountains of Chihuahua rose, purple, mysterious, forbidding, grim, against the evening sky. On the Mexican side of the river a battle was in progress.

"I suppose," I remarked to my companion, "that you'll be mighty glad when orders come to cross the border and clean things up over there in Mexico."

“Mistah," he answered earnestly, " we ain't nevah gwine tuh cross dat bodah, but one of these yere days wese a gwine tuh pick dat bodah up an' carry it right down to Panama."

And that is what the French are doing in Alsace. They have not crossed the border, but they have picked the border up, and are carrying it right down to the banks of the Rhine.


left : original color photos from 1914/15 of French Chasseurs Alpin


The Retaking of Alsace

Then I asked the general commanding the armies operating in Alsace for permission to visit the fire-trenches,

I did it merely as a matter of form. I was quite prepared to be met with a polite but firm refusal, for it is as difficult to get into the French trenches as it is to get behind the scenes of a West End theatre on the first night of a big production. This, understand, is not from any solicitude for your safety, but because a fire-trench is usually a very busy place indeed, and a visitor is apt to get in the way and make him-self a nuisance generally. Imagine my astonishment, then, when the general said, “Certainly, if you wish," just as though he were giving me permission to visit his stables or his gardens. I might add that almost every correspondent who has succeeded in getting to the French front has been taken, with a vast deal of ceremony and precaution, into a trench of some sort, thus giving him an experience to tell about all the rest of his life, but those who have been permitted to visit the actual fire-trenches might almost be numbered on one's fingers. In this respect the French have been much less accommodating than the Belgians or the Germans. The fire, or first-line, trench, is the one nearest the enemy, and both from it and against it there is almost constant firing. The difference between a second-line, or reserve trench, and a fire-trench is the difference between sitting in a comfortable orchestra stall and in being on the stage and a part of the show.

Before they took me out to the trenches we lunched in Dannemarie, or, as it used to be known under German rule, Dammerkirch. Though the town was within easy range of the German guns, and was shelled by them on occasion, the motto of the townsfolk seemed to be "business as usual," for the shops were busy and the school were open. We had lunch at the local inn it began with fresh lobster, followed by omelette au fromage, spring lamb, and asparagus, and ended with strawberries, and it cost me half a crown, wine included. From which you will gather that the people behind the French lines are not suffering for food.

Just outside Dannemarie the railway crosses the River Ill by three tremendous viaducts eighty feet in height. When, early in the war, the Germans fell back before the impetuous French advance, they effectually stopped railway traffic by blowing up one of these viaducts behind them. Urged by the railway company, which preferred to have the Government foot the bill, the viaduct was rebuilt by the French military authorities, and a picture of the ceremony which marked its inauguration by the Minister of War was published in one of the Paris illustrated papers. The jubilation of the French was a trifle premature, however, for a few days later the Germans moved one of their monster siege-guns into position and, at a range of eighteen miles, sent over a shell which again put the viaduct out of commission. That explains, perhaps, why the censorship is so strict on pictures taken in the zone of operations.

Dannemarie is barely ten miles from that point where the French and German trenches, after zigzagging across more than four hundred miles of European soil, come to an abrupt end against the frontier of Switzerland. The Swiss, who are taking no chances of having the violation of Belgium repeated with their own country for the victim, have at this point massed a heavy force of extremely businesslike-looking troops, the frontier is marked by a line of wire entanglements, and a military zone has been established, civilians not being permitted to approach within a mile or more of the border. When I was in that region the French officers gave a dinner to the officers in command of the Swiss frontier force opposite them. That there might be no embarrassing breaches of neutrality the table was set exactly on the international boundary, so that the Swiss officers sat in Switzerland, and the French officers sat in France. One of the amusing incidents of the war was when the French "put one over" on the Germans at the beginning of hostilities in this region. Taking advantage of a sharp angle in the contour of the Swiss frontier, the French posted one of their batteries in such a position, that though it could sweep the German trenches, it was so close to the border that whenever the German guns replied their shells fell on Swiss soil, and an international incident was created.

The trenches in front of Altkirch, and indeed throughout Alsace, are flanked by patches of dense woods, and it is in these woods that the cantonments for the men are built, and amid their leafy recesses that the soldiers spend their time when off duty in sleeping, smoking, and card-playing. Though the German batteries periodically rake the woods with shell-fire, it is an almost total waste of ammunition, for the men simply retreat to the remarkable underground cities which they have constructed, and stay there until the shell-storm is over. The troglodyte habitations which have come into existence along the entire length of the western battle-front are perhaps the most curious products of this siege warfare. In these dwellings burrowed out of the earth the soldiers of France live as the cavemen lived before the dawn of civilization. A dozen to twenty feet below the surface of the ground, and so strongly roofed over with logs and earth as to render their occupants safe from the most torrential rain of high explosive, I was shown rooms with sleeping-quarters for a hundred men apiece, blacksmiths' and carpenters' shops, a recreation-room where the men lounged and smoked and read the papers and wrote to the folks at home, a telegraph station, a telephone exchange from which one could talk with any section of the trenches, with division headquarters, or with Paris ; a bathing establishment with hot and cold water and shower-baths; a barber's shop-all with board floors, free from dampness, and surprisingly clean.

The trenches and passage-ways connecting these underground dwellings were named and marked like city streets-the Avenue Joffre, the Avenue Foch, the Rue des Victoires-and many of them were lighted by electricity. The bedroom of an artillery officer, twenty feet underground, had its walls and ceiling covered with flowered cretonne - heaven knows where he got it ! - and the tiny windows of the division commander's headquarters, though they gave only on a wall of yellow mud, were hung with dainty muslin curtains - evidently the work of a woman's loving fingers. In one place a score of steps led down to a passage-way whose mud walls were so close together that I brushed one with either elbow as I passed. On this subterranean corridor doors - real doors - opened.

One of these doors led into an officer's sitting-room. The floor and walls were covered with planed wood and there was even an attempt at polish. The rustic furniture was excellently made. Beside the bed was a telephone and an electric-light, and on a rude table was a brass shell-case filled with wild flowers. On the walls the occupant had tacked pictures of his wife and children in a pitiful attempt to make this hole in the ground look "homelike."

But don't get the idea, from anything that I have said, that life in the trenches is anything more than endurable. Two words describe it misery and muck. War is not only fighting, as many people seem to think. Bronchitis is more deadly than bullets. Pneumonia does more harm than poison-gas. Shells are less dangerous than lack of sanitation. To be attacked by strange and terrible diseases; to stand day after day, week after week, between walls of oozy mud and amid seas of slime ; to be eaten alive by vermin ; to suffer the intolerable irritation of the itch; to be caked with mud and filth; to go for weeks and perhaps for months with no opportunity to bathe; to be so foul of person that you are an offence to all who come near - such are the real horrors of the trench.

Yet, when the circumstances are taken into consideration, the French soldier is admirably cared for. His health is carefully looked after. He is well fed, well clothed, and, following the policy of conserving by every possible means the lives of the men, he is afforded every protection that human ingenuity can devise. The kepi has been replaced by the trench-helmet, a light casque of blued steel, which will protect a man's brain-pan from shell-splinter, shrapnel, or grenade, and which has saved many a man's life. Rather a remarkable thing, is it not, that the French soldier of to-day should adopt a head-dress almost identical with the casque worn by his ancestor, the French man-at- arms of the Middle Ages ? I am convinced that it is this policy of conserving the lives of her fighting-men which is going to win the war for France. If necessity demands that a position be taken with the bayonet, no soldiers in the world sacrifice themselves more freely than the French, but the military authorities have realized that men, unlike shells, cannot be replaced. "The duration and the outcome of the war," General de Maud'huy remarked to me, "depend upon how fast we can kill off the Germans. Their army has reached its maximum strength, and every day sees it slowly but surely weakening. Our game, therefore, is to kill as many as possible of the enemy while at the same time saving our own men. It is, after all, a purely mathematical proposition."

I believe that the losses incidental to trench warfare, as it is being conducted in Alsace, have been considerably exaggerated. The officer in command of the French positions in front of Altkirch told me that, during the construction of some of the trenches, the Germans rained twelve thousand shells upon the working parties, yet not a man was killed and only ten were wounded. The modern trench is so ingeniously constructed that, even in the comparatively rare event of a shell dropping squarely into it, only the soldiers in the immediate vicinity, seldom more than half a dozen at the most, are injured, the others being protected from the flying steel by the traverses, earthen walls which partially intersect the trench at intervals of a few yards. In the trench one has only to keep one's head down, and he is nearly as safe as though he were at home. To crouch, to move bowed, always to keep the parapet between your head and the German riflemen, becomes an instinct, like the lock-step which used to be the rule for the convicts at Sing Sing.

So cleverly have the French engineers taken advantage of the configuration of the country in front of Altkirch, that we were able to enter the boyaux, or communication trenches, without leaving the shelter of the wood. Half an hour's brisk walking through what would, in times of peace, be called a ditch, perhaps three feet wide and seven deep, its earthen walls kept in place by wattles of woven willows, and with as many twists and turns as the maze at Hampton Court, brought us at last into the fire-trenches. These were considerably roomier than the boyaux, being in places six feet wide and having a sort of raised step or platform of earth, on which the men stood to fire, running along the side nearest the enemy. Each soldier was pr6tected by a steel shield about the size of a newspaper, and painted a lead-grey, set in the earth of the parapet. In the centre of the shield is cut an opening slightly larger than a playing-card, through which the soldier pokes his rifle when he wishes to fire, and which, when not in use, is screened by a steel shutter or a cloth curtain, so that the riflemen in the German trench cannot see anyone who may happen to pass behind it. At intervals of five or six yards men were on watch, with their rifles laid. Their instructions are never to take their eyes off the enemy's trenches, a shout from them bringing their comrades tumbling out of their dug-outs just as firemen respond to the clang of the fire-bell. When the men come rushing out of the shelters they have, in the earth platform, a good steady footing which will bring their heads level with the parapet, where their rifles, leaning against the steel shields, await them. It is planned always to keep a sufficient force in the fire-trenches, so that, roughly speaking, there will be a man to every yard, which is about as close as they can fight to advantage. Every thirty yards or so, in a log-roofed shelter known as a gun-pit, is a machine gun, though in the German trenches it is not at all uncommon to find a machine gun to every fifteen men.


left : portrait of commanding officer of a corps of Chasseurs Alpin - from 'le Petit Journal'
right : a drawing from a french children's magazine


As we passed through the trenches I noticed at intervals of a hundred yards or so men, standing motionless as statues, who seemed to be intently listening. And that, I found, was precisely what they were doing. In this trench warfare men are specially told off to listen, both above and beneath the ground, for any sapping or mining operations on the part of the enemy. Without this precaution there would be the constant danger of the Germans driving a tunnel under the French trenches (or vice versa) and, by means of a mine, blowing those trenches and the men in them into the air. Indeed, scarcely a night passes that soldiers, armed with knives and pistols, do not crawl out on hands and knees between the trenches in order to find out, by holding the ear to the ground, whether the enemy is sapping. Should the listener hear the muffled sounds which would suggest that the enemy was driving a mine, he tells it in a whisper to his companion, who crawls back to his own trenches with the message, whereupon the engineers immediately take steps to start a counter-mine.

"Look through here," said the intelligence officer who was acting as my guide, indicating the porthole in one of the steel shields, "but don't stay too long or a German sharpshooter may spot you. A second is long enough to get a bullet through the brain." Cautiously applying my eye to the opening, I saw, perhaps a hundred yards away, a long, low mound of earth, such as would be thrown up from a sewer excavation, and dotting it at three-foot intervals darker patches which I knew to be just such steel shields as the one behind which I was sheltered. And I knew that behind each one of those steel shields was standing a keen-eyed rifleman searching for something suspicious at which to fire. Immediately in front of the German trench, just as in front of the trench in which I stood, a forest of stout stakes had been driven deep into the ground, and draped between these stakes were countless strands of barbed wire, so snarled and tangled, and interlaced and woven that a cat could not have got through unscratched. Between the two lines of entanglements stretched a field of ripening wheat, streaked here and there with patches of scarlet poppies. There were doubtless other things besides poppies amid that wheat, but, thank God it was high enough to hide them. Rising from the wheatfield, almost midway between the French and German lines, was a solitary apple-tree.

"Behind that tree," whispered the officer standing beside me - for some reason they always speak in hushed tones in the trenches - "is a German outpost. He crawls out every morning before sunrise and is relieved at dark. Though some of our men keep their rifles constantly laid on the tree, we've never been able to get him. Still, he's not a very good life-insurance risk, eh ?" And I agreed that he certainly was not.

I must have remained at my loophole a little too long or possibly some movement of mine attracted the attention of a German sniper, for pang came a bullet against the shield behind which I was standing, with the same ringing, metallic sound which a bullet makes when it hits the iron target in a shooting-gallery. In this case, however, I was the' bull's eye. Had that bullet been two inches nearer the centre there would have been, in the words of the poet, more work for the undertaker, another little job for the casket- maker."

"Lucky for you that wasn't one of the new armour-piercing bullets," remarked the officer as I hastily stepped down. "After the Germans introduced the steel shields we went them one better by introducing a jacketed bullet which will go through a sheet of armour-plate as though it were made of cheese. We get lots of amusement from them. Sometimes one of our men will fire a dozen rounds of ordinary ammunition at a shield behind which he hears some Boches talking, and as the bullets glance off harmlessly they laugh and jeer at him. Then he slips in one of the jacketed bullets and whang !!-we hear a wounded Boche yelping like a dog that has been run over by a motor-car.

Funny thing about the Germans. They're brave enough - no one questions that - but they scream like animals when they're wounded."

From all that I could gather, the French did not have a particularly high opinion of the quality of the troops opposed to them in Alsace, most of whom, at the time I was there, were Bavarians and Saxons. An officer in the trenches on the Hartmannswillerkopf, where the French and German positions were in places very close together, told me that whenever the Germans attempted an attack the French trenches burst into so fierce a blast of rifle and machine-gun fire that the men in the spiked helmets refused to face it. "Vorwarts ! Vorwarts ! " the German officers would scream, exposing themselves recklessly. "Nein! Nein!" the fear-maddened men would answer as they broke and ran for the shelter of their trenches. Then the French would hear the angry bark of automatics as the officers pistolled their men.

When the French, in one of the bloodiest and most desperate assaults of the war, carried the summit of the Hartmannswillerkopf by storm, they claim to have found the German machine-gun crews chained to their guns as galley-slaves were chained to their oars. French artillery officers have repeatedly told me that when German infantry advance to take a position by assault, the men are frequently urged forward by their own batteries raking them from the rear. As the German gunners gradually advance their fire as the infantry moves forward, it is as dangerous for the men to retreat as to go on. Hence it is by no means uncommon, so the French officers assert, for the German troops to arrive pell-mell at the French trenches, breathless, terrified, hands above their heads, seeking not a fight but a chance to surrender.


scenes from a British magazine


One of the assertions that you hear repeated everywhere along the French lines, by officers and men alike, is that the German does not fight fair, that you cannot trust him, that he is not bound by any of the recognized rules of the game. Innumerable instances have been related to me of wounded Germans attempting to shoot or stab the French surgeons and nurses who were caring for them. An American serving in the Foreign Legion told me that on one occasion, when his regiment carried a German position by assault, the wounded Germans lying on the ground waited until the legionaries had passed, and then shot them in the back. Now, when the Foreign Legion goes into action, each company is followed by men with axes, whose business it is to see that such incidents do not happen again.

The reason for the French soldier's deep-seated distrust of the German is illustrated by a grim comedy of which I heard when I was in Alsace.

A company of German infantry was defending a stone-walled farmstead on the Fecht. So murderous was the fire of the French batteries that soon a white sheet was seen waving from one of the farmhouse windows. The French fire ceased, and through the gateway came a group of Germans, holding their hands above their heads and shouting: "Kamerad! Kamerad !" which has become the euphemism for "I surrender."

But when a detachment of chasseurs went forward to take them prisoners the Germans suddenly dropped to the ground, while from an upper window in the farmhouse a hidden machine gun poured a stream of lead into the unsuspecting Frenchmen. Thereupon the French batteries proceeded to transform that farmhouse into a sieve. In a quarter of an hour the tablecloth was again seen waving, the French guns again ceased firing, and again the Germans came crowding out, with their hands above their heads. But this time they were stark naked ! To prove that they had no concealed weapons they had stripped to the skin. It is scarcely necessary to add that those Germans were not taken prisoners.

Though the incidents I have above related were told me by officers who claimed to have witnessed them, and whose reliability I have no reason to doubt, I do not vouch for them, mind you; I merely repeat them for what they are worth.

I had, of course, heard many stories of the German ranks being filled with boys and old men, but the large convoys of prisoners which I saw in Alsace and in Champagne convinced me that there is but little truth in the assertion. Some of the prisoners, it is true, looked as though they should have been in high school, and others as though they had been called from old soldiers' homes, but these formed only a sprinkling of the whole. By far the greater part of the prisoners that I saw were men between eighteen and forty, and they all impressed me as being in the very pink of physical condition and this despite the fact that they were dirty and hungry and very, very tired. But they struck me as being not at all averse to being captured. They seemed exhausted and dispirited and crushed, as though all the fight had gone out of them. In those long columns of weary, dirty men were represented all the Teutonic types : arrogant, supercilious Prussians; strapping young peasants from the Silesian farm-lands; tradesmen and mechanics from the great industrial centres ; men from the mines of Wurtemberg and the forests of Baden; scowling Bavarians and smiling Saxons. Among them were some brutish faces, accentuated, no doubt, by the close-cropped hair which makes any man look like a convict, but the countenances of most of them were frank and honest and open.

Two things aroused my curiosity. The first was that I did not see a helmet - a pickeihaube - among them. When I asked the reason they explained that they had been captured in the fire-trenches, and that they seldom wear their helmets there, as the little round grey caps with the scarlet band are less conspicuous and more comfortable. The other thing that aroused my curiosity was when I saw French soldiers, each with a pair of scissors, going from prisoner to prisoner.

"What on earth are you doing ?" I asked.

"We are cutting the braces of the Boches," was the answer. "Their trousers are made very large around the waist so that if their braces are cut they have to hold them up with their hands, thus making it difficult for them to run away."

As I looked at these unshaven, unkempt men in their soiled and tattered uniforms, it was hard to make myself believe that they had been a part of that immaculate, confident, and triumphant army which I had seen roll across Belgium like a tidal wave in the late summer of 1914.


from 'l'Image de la Guerre' - Chasseurs Alpin in their quarters and manning an anti-aircraft gun


Though the French and German positions in Alsace are rarely less than a hundred yards apart and usually considerably more, there i~ one point on the line, known as La Fontenelle, where, owing to a peculiar rocky formation, the French and German trenches are within six yards of each other. The only reason one side does not blow up the other by means of mines is because the vein of rock which separates them is too hard to tunnel through. In cases when the trenches are exceptionally close together, the men have the comfort of knowing that they are at least safe from shell-fire, for, as the battery commanders are perfectly aware that the slightest error in calculating the range, or the least deterioration in the rifling of the guns, would result in their shells landing among their own men, they generally play safe and concentrate their fire on the enemy's second-line trenches instead of on the first-line. The fighting in these close-up positions has consequently degenerated into a warfare of bombs, hand-grenades, poison-gas, burning oil, and other methods reminiscent of the Middle Ages. As a protection against bombs and hand-grenades, some of the trenches which I visited had erected along their parapets ten-foot-high screens of wire netting, like the back nets of tennis-courts.

In this war the hand-grenade is king. Compared with it the high-power rifle is a joke. The grenadier regiments again deserve the name. For cleaning out a trench or stopping a massed charge there is nothing like a well-aimed volley of hand-grenades. I believe that the total failure of the repeated German attempts to break through on the western front is due to three causes : the overwhelming superiority of the French artillery; the French addiction to the use of the bayonet-for the Germans do not like cold steel; and to the remarkable proficiency of the French in the use of hand-grenades. The grenade commonly used by the French is of the "bracelet " type, consisting of a cast- iron ball filled with explosive. The thrower wears on his wrist a leather loop or bracelet which is prolonged by a piece of cord about a foot in length with an iron hook at the end. Just before the grenade is thrown, the hook is passed through the ring of a friction-pin inside the firing-plug which closes the iron ball. By a sharp backward turn of the wrist when the grenade is thrown, the ring, with the friction-pin held back by the hook, is torn off, the grenade itself continuing on its brief journey of destruction. The French also use a primed grenade attached to a sort of wooden racket, which can be quickly improvised on the spot, and which, from its form, is popularly known as the "hair-brush."

To acquire proficiency in the use of grenades requires considerable practice for the novice who attempts to throw one of these waspish-tempered missiles is as likely to blow up his comrades as he is the enemy. So at various points along the front the French have established bomb-throwing schools, under competent instructors, where the soldiers are taught the proper method of throwing grenades, just as, at the winter training-camps in America, candidates for the big leagues are taught the proper method of throwing a baseball.

Some of the grenades are too large to be thrown by hand and so they are hurled into the enemy's trenches by various ingenious machines designed for the purpose. There is, for example, the sauterelle, a modern adaptation of the ancient arbalist, which can toss a bomb the size of a nail-keg into a trench ninety feet away. Mortars which did good service in the days of Bertrand du Guesclin have been unearthed from ancient citadels, and in the trenches are again barking defiance at the enemies of France. Because of their frog-like appearance, the soldiers have dubbed them crapouillots, and they are used for throwing bombs of the horned variety, which look more than anything else like snails pushing their heads out of their shells. Still another type, known as the taupia, consists merely of a German 7-millimetre shell-case with a touch-hole bored in the base so that it can be fired by a match. This little improvised mortar, whose name was no doubt coined from the French word for "mole" (taupe) as appropriate to underground warfare throws a tin containing two and a quarter pounds of high explosive for a short distance with considerable accuracy. Still another type of bomb is hurled from a catapult, which does not differ materially from those which were used at the siege of Troy.

Doubtless the most accurate and effective of all the bombs used in this trench warfare is the so-called air-torpedo, a cigar-shaped shell about thirty inches long and weighing thirty-three pounds, which is fitted with steel fins, like the feathers on an arrow and for the same purpose. This projectile, which is fired from a specially designed mortar, has an effective range of five hundred yards and carries a charge of high explosive sufficient to demolish everything within a radius of twenty feet. Tens of thousands of these torpedoes of the air were used during the French offensive in Champagne and created terrible havoc in the German trenches. But by far the most imposing of these trench projectiles is the great air-mine, weighing two hundred and thirty-six pounds and as large as a barrel, which is fired from an 80-millimetre mountain gun with the wheels removed and mounted on an oak platform. In the case of both the air-torpedo and the air-mine the projectile does not enter the barrel of the gun from which it is fired, but is attached to a tube which alone receives the propulsive force. At first the various forms of trench mortars - minenwerfer, the Germans call them - were unsatisfactory because they were not accurate and could not be depended upon, no one being quite sure whether the resulting explosion was going to occur in the French trenches or in the German. They have been greatly improved, however, and though no attempt has been made to give them velocity, they drop their bombs with reasonable accuracy. You can see them plainly as they end-over-end toward you, like beer-bottles or beer-barrels coming through the air.

Nor does this by any means exhaust the list of killing devices which have been produced by this war. There is for example, the little, insignificant-looking bomb with wire triggers sticking out from it in all directions, like the prickers on a horse-chestnut burr. These bombs are thickly strewn over the ground between the trenches. If the enemy attempts to charge across that ground some soldier is almost certain to step on one of those little trigger-wires. To collect that soldier's remains it would be necessary to use a pail and shovel. The Germans are said to dig shallow pools outside their trenches and cement the bottoms of those pools and fill them with acid, which is masked by boughs or straw. Any soldiers who stumbled into those pools of acid would have their feet burned off. This I have not seen, but I have been assured that it is so.

Along certain portions of the front the orthodox barbed-wire entanglements are giving way to great spirals of heavy telegraph wire, which, lying loose upon the ground, envelop and hamper an advancing force like the tentacles of a giant cuttlefish. This wire comes in coils about three feet in diameter, but instead of unwinding it the coils are opened out into a sort of spiral cage, which can be rolled over the tops of the trenches without exposing a man. A bombardment which would wipe the ordinary barbed-wire entanglement out of existence, does this new form of obstruction comparatively little harm, while the wire is so tough and heavy that the soldiers with nippers who precede a storming-party cannot cut it. Another novel contrivance is the hinged entanglement, a sort of barbed-wire fence which when not in use, lies flat upon the ground, where it is but little exposed to shell-fire, but which, by means of wires running back to the trenches, can be pulled upright in case of an attack, so that the advancing troops suddenly find themselves confronted by a formidable and unexpected barrier. In cases where the lines are so close together that for men to expose themselves would mean almost certain death, chevaux-de-frise of steel and wire are constructed in the shelter of the trenches and pushed over the parapet with poles. The French troops now frequently advance to the assault, carrying huge rolls of thick linoleum, which is unrolled and thrown across the entanglements, thus forming a sort of bridge, by means of which the attacking force is enabled to cross the river of barbed wire in front of the German trenches.

It is not safe to assert that anything relating to this war is untrue merely because it is incredible. I have with my own eyes seen things which, had I been told about them before the war began, I would have set down as the imaginings of a disordered mind. Some one asked me if I knew that the scene-painters of the French theatres had been mobilized and formed into a battalion for the purpose of painting scenery to mask gun- positions-and I laughed at the story. Since then I have seen gun-positions so hidden. Suppose that it is found necessary to post a battery in the open, where no cover is available. In the ordinary course of events the German airmen would discover those guns before they had fired a dozen rounds, and the German batteries would promptly proceed to put them out of action. So they erect over them a sort of tent, and the scene-painters are set to work so to paint that tent, that from a little distance, it cannot be distinguished from the surrounding scenery. If it is on the Belgian littoral they will paint it to look like a sand-dune. If it is in the wooded country of Alsace or the Argonne they will so paint it that, seen from an aeroplane, it will look like a clump of trees. I have seen a whole row of aeroplane hangars, each of them the size of a church, so cleverly painted that, from a thousand feet above, they could not be seen at all. A road over which there is heavy traffic lies within both range and sight of the enemy's guns.

Anything seen moving along that road instantly becomes the target for a rain of shells. So along the side of the road nearest the enemy is raised a screen of canvas, like those which surround the side-shows at the circus, but, instead of being decorated with lurid representations of the Living Skeleton and the Wild Man from Borneo and the Fattest Woman on Earth, and the Siamese Twins, it is painted to represent a row of trees such as commonly border French highways. Behind that canvas screen horse, foot, and guns can then be moved in safety, though the road must be kept constantly sprinkled so that the suspicions of the German observers shall not be aroused by a tell- tale cloud of dust. The stalking-screen is a device used for approaching big game by sportsmen the world over. Now the idea has been applied by the French to warfare, the big game being in this case Germans. The screens are of steel plates covered with canvas so painted that it looks like a length of trench, the deception being heightened by sticking to the canvas tufts of grass. Thus screened from the enemy, two or three men may secretly keep watch at points considerably in advance of the real trenches, creeping forward as opportunity offers, pushing their scenery before them.

Both sides have long been daubing field-guns and caissons and other bulky equipment with all the colours of the rainbow, like a futurist landscape, so that they assume the properties of a chameleon and become indistinguishable from the landscape. Now they are painting the faces of the snipers, and splashing their uniforms and rifle barrels with many colours and tying to their heads wisps of grass and foliage. But the crowning touch was when the French began systematically to paint their white horses with permanganate so as to turn them into less obtrusive browns and sorrels.

Hollowed at frequent intervals from the earthen back walls of the trenches are niches, in each of which is kept a bottle of hyposulphate of soda and a pail of water. When the yellow cloud which denotes that the Germans have turned loose their poison-gas comes rolling down upon them, the soldiers hastily empty the hyposulphate into the water, saturate in the solution thus formed a pad of gauze which they always carry with them, fasten it over the mouth and nostrils by means of an elastic, and, as an additional precaution, draw over the head a bag of blue linen with a piece of mica set in the front and a draw-string to pull it tight about the neck. Thus protected and looking strangely like the hooded familiars of the Inquisition, they are able to remain at their posts without fear of asphyxiation. But no protection has as yet been devised against the terrible flame projector which has been introduced on several portions of the western front by the Germans. It is a living sheet of flame, caused by a gas believed to be oxyacetylene, and is probably directed through a powerful air-jet. The pressure of the air must be enormous, for the flame, which springs from the ground level and expands into a roaring wave of fire, chars and burns everything within thirty yards. The flame is, indeed, very like that of the common blowpipe used by plumbers, but instead of being used upon lead pipe it is used upon human flesh and bone.

But poison-gas and flame projectors are by no means the most devilish of the devices introduced by the Germans. The soldiers of the Kaiser have now adopted the weapon of the jealous prostitute and are throwing vitriol. The acid is contained in fragile globes or phials which break upon contact, scattering the liquid fire upon everything in the immediate vicinity. I might add that I do not make this assertion except after the fullest investigation and confirmation. I have not only talked with officers and men who were in the trenches into which these vitriol bombs were thrown, but American ambulance drivers both in the Vosges and the Argonne told me that they had carried to the hospitals French soldiers whose faces had been burned almost beyond recognition.

"But we captured one of the vitriol-throwers," said an officer who was telling me about the hellish business. "He was pretty badly burned himself."

"I suppose you shot him then and there," said I.

"Oh, no," was the answer, "we sent him along with the other prisoners."

“You don't mean to say," I exclaimed, indignation in my voice, "that you captured a man who had been throwing vitriol at your soldiers and let him live ?”

"Naturally," said the officer quietly. "There was nothing else to do. You see, monsieur, we French are civilized."


French Chasseurs Alpins in Alsace : from 'le Miroir'

a Chasseurs Alpins unit on review

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