from ‘the War Budget’ July l3th, 1916
'Warfare in a Forest'
by the Editor of the "Daily Chronicle”


With the French Army in the Argonne

the author (civilian on the right) in the Argonne


With the French Army in the Argonne

Along the battle-line in the West, stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier, the war is carried on under varying conditions. The configuration of the country and the nature of the soil determine the weapons mostly in use and the tactics employed. Artillery duels take place over the whole line; but the form of attack and defence, when the contending forces come to close quarters in the trenches, depends on the nature of the ground. Take, for example, the forest-clad mountains of the Argonne, where the fighting has developed on special lines. I have just spent several days with the French armies on this romantic and picturesque battlefield. The Argonne links up with Verdun on the East and with Champagne on the West, but unlike these historic names, will not be the scene of another big battle.

Where War Might Last a Century

The great forest consists of sturdy oaks and beeches and firs, with a thick tangle of undergrowth, mountain, valley, and plateau alternating. The soil is soft clay, admirably suited for entrenching, tunnelling, and mine warfare — when it is dry. As an outside observer, I do not see why the war in this area should not go on for a hundred years, without any decisive result. What is happening now is precisely what happened last year. The only difference is that the trenches are deeper, dug-outs better made, tunnels are longer, and the charges of explosives heavier. The armies are fighting Nature in the Argonne. The great oak and beech trees have to be completely destroyed before any advance can be made. Shells smash the trees, but leave broken trunks and torn and twisted branches as an impenetrable barrier between the foes.

They cannot be destroyed by liquid fire, as there is equal danger to both sides from such a conflagration. Explosives — and sometimes there are fifty tons tear up the trees by the roots, hurl them into the air, and excavate a huge crater; but obstacles remain which make an immediate advance almost impossible.

Fate of Picturesque Villages

Machine guns and rifle bullets would be like a hail storm amid the trees, but would cause few casualties unless men exposed themselves.

There was very severe fighting for the possession of the forest in the autumn of 1914, after the retreat from the battle of the Marne, and before trenches could be dug and big guns brought up. The French drove the army of the Crown Prince and the Wurtemburgers back with rifle and bayonet, in the struggle for the possession of the forest. Some of the most beautiful villages, old, quaint, and picturesque, were burnt by the retreating enemy, and many of them were afterwards destroyed by the furious fighting which took place in this region. The line of. battle, as finally settled, cuts across the forest, leaving the great part of it in the hands of the French.


thatch juts for soldiers


Burden of the Helmet

Let us visit one of the divisions which have held -back the enemy in the Argonne. Starting from Sainte Menehould you are motored along the valley, passing villages which have been burnt by the enemy or have suffered from his artillery. There are many soldiers on the road. There are encampments in the woods where huts have been built or tents erected — "nigger villages" as the French call them.

You notice that the huts are in some cases planted on the hillsides and great underground dwellings constructed. Leaving the car you are led up a mountain- side along rough paths. Everywhere there are trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, where they are least suspected, and all the complicated arrangements for defence. You soon have to take to the trenches. They are very deep, very narrow, and very wet. Streams of water run at the bottom. You must walk over wooden ladders made of the rounded branches of trees, and have difficulty in keeping your feet. When nearing the summit the visitor has to put on one of the steel helmets which the French army officer's and men all wear. It is very heavy.

The sun is very hot, and you realise the additional burden which the gallant French soldiers have to bear.

The nearer one gets to the front the more mysterious and wonderful become the methods of defence. You are allowed to peer through an observation post towards the German trenches a few hundred yards away. You see absolutely nothing but a mass of brushwood, broken trunks of trees, hanging branches and barbed wire. At one point we are only ten yards from the enemy. "The Boches are just on the other side of the road," said our guide. You look through a periscope, but see no sign of life whatever. You can just identify the enemy trenches. They have snipers on both sides to catch the unwary, and just as we are looking a French soldier, on outpost duty, is hit.

We return down the hill-side again by devious trenches to safer quarters.


in a forest trench


Mountains as Mole Hills

Operations of defense in the Argonne forest are of course very largely of an engineering kind. Dug-outs ad underground refuges are capable of holding a large force. Huge tunnels are driven through the mountain-sides and they are lit with electric light.

Presumably the Germans adopt similar means. "The whole mountains," said an officer, "are burrowed like a mole-hill." On another part of the front we had a similar experience of exploring the Forest, but in this case the lines of contending trenches were on a slope. The Germans were about four, hundred yards up the hill; we came down the opposite slope, trudging through trenches to the valley near the Four de Paris, the scene of a fierce battle in 1914.

Shells had left their imprints in the. Valley quite recently. The soldiers were encamped at the foot of the hill. Their kitchens and huts were at the base, barbed wire and entrenchments behind them. We wanted to know why the Germans, having what appeared to foe the advantage of position, did not attack at night. We were told that the French guns on the opposite hill were trained on the enemy trenches, and at the first signal of a movement they would pour a shower of shells into them. The enemy tried an attack by gas recently, but it rolled back on themselves. Every now and then trenches change hands in the Argonne. The French capture a first trench partly for the purpose of securing a few German prisoners.

Continuous Bombardment

The guns are always at work. On the day of my visit to this area there was an almost continuous bombardment going on. The shells were hurtling over our heads You heard the sharp discharge, and then the explosion of the shell. You saw nothing. The sound re-echoes through the woods and valleys like rolling thunder. The French fire six rounds to the enemy's one. The object of the. Cannonading is to disturb any work going on behind the enemy lines, to destroy transport, or interfere with any activity or movement which observers report to be going on.

We watched the system at work from the safe security of an observation post. The concealment of observation stations in the Argonne is complete.

The Boches occupied an exposed position about a mile and a-half away. They were at work in; a quarry above the French trenches. "Give them a salvo of ten," telephoned the Lieutenant to the guns perhaps a couple of miles behind us. The first shell fell short. The Lieutenant telephoned the direction in metres and the gunners soon got the exact range and planted their shells in the quarry. "We saw a German band hobbling along over there in a bunch the other day," said the Lieutenant, "and we planted a shell in the middle of them. You should have seen them roll down the hill," he added. "They didn't all gather themselves together again."

And so the intermittent bombardment goes on. The enemy fires every day during the lunch and dinner hours of the French troops in the hope of hitting the supplies on the way to the trenches.

from a German magazine 'der Weltkrieg 1914' - French shelters in the Argonne


Tree Broken Like a Match

There is no safety among the trees when a bombardment is taking place. Some time ago,, near a chateau which General Humbert had made the headquarters of a divisional command, the Chief Medical Officer said to a friend: "Why do you expose yourself unnecessarily ? Do as I am doing; get behind one of the big trees." A moment later a shell cut the tree in two, as if it had been a match, killing the doctor immediately, while the officer who was advised to hide remained in the open twenty yards away and was unhurt.

We had abundant evidence that the French soldiers are well fed; they have coffee and bread in the morning. Lunch, with soup, meat, vegetables, wine and coffee about 12. Dinner between five and six, with soup, meat and coffee. Soup and bread are the great mainstays of the French army, and the soup invariably contains meat and vegetables.

Poilu's Good Living

The French poilu adds to his fare by a little poaching. The forest swarms with game. Since the war sport of all kinds is suppressed in France. Game is allowed to increase untouched. There is every kind of game in the Argonne.

Wild boars are numerous, but the soldiers are not allowed to shoot them because of the possibility of accidents. Some however have been killed, and game is frequently brought down. The French army utilises everything which comes its way. It is run on economical lines. I visited tripe and sausage shops behind the lines. Everything is utilised. The fat from the army slaughter-houses is made into candles for the trenches. Wounded horses are killed and their meat eaten. Horse sausage is a favourite meal. There is economy in other directions. The linen and clothing of the soldiers is cleaned, and mended by slightly wounded and invalided men, who are sent to stations behind the lines to recover. These temporarily disabled men — éclopés they are called — also make a variety of articles required by the men at the front.

"These men," said the Colonel in charge of an, encampment of éclopés, "who have little strength and much time, work for the men at the front who have plenty of strength and little time."

Efficiency of the French Army

The whole organisation of the French army has been carried to a high state of efficiency. The French officer is a fine type. He is smart, businesslike, and the pink of courtesy. He is proud of his men and keenly interested in their welfare. There is a comradeship between the French officers and men closer and more ultimate than in any other army. That does not mean there is not discipline. Order is strictly maintained.

The regimental officers near the front are established in very comfortable quarters. They have made bomb-proof dug-outs on the slopes of the forest. The Frenchman's love of flowers and passion for neatness are shown by the window gardens and the beds of flowers in front of the officers' quarters. The qualities of the artist are also seen in the decorations of the rooms. The French officers in the Argonne are all cheerful and confident, determined to see this war through to a finish. No compromise is their policy, no halting half way, no. stalemate peace. "It must be the last war," they say, "however great the sacrifice," and most of them add, "however long the struggle," All were extremely anxious to hear .of the English offensive which had not then begun, and rested great hopes on their British comrades.

French Hospitality

English visitors to the French Army near the firing line are shown the greatest hospitality by the French, officers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and myself had the honour of lunching and dining with all the Generals of the armies in the Argonne.

One General ordered a special dinner in our honour, and one of his orderlies, who has artistic gifts, designed a menu for the occasion, of which a reproduction is given. The medallion at the top represents the Sherlook Holmes coat-of-arms — a revolver, a pipe, and a violin. The lion and the unicorn are seen in the top corners, and the thistle and the shamrock at the bottom, while in the centre are the German and Austrian eagles, represented as .being hanged. The dishes are named after the Allies, whose flags were reproduced on the menu.

The fine physical condition of the men is the first characteristic which strikes one. Battalions marching along in firm and measured steps look as if they meant business.


French soldiers in the Argonne


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