- from the War Illustrated 11th August, 1917
- 'When Paris Was in Peril'
- Memories of Bordeaux as the Capital of France
My Corners Of Armageddon
French soldiers bivouacing in a public square in Bordeaux
I have made many long and uncomfortable journeys during the war.
As I took back on them, though, the tedium and discomfort fade away. I recollect the pleasant, diverting episodes. I forget the weariness, the aching bones, the hunger and thirst.
Even my journey to Bordeaux, just after the French Government had betaken itself thither, has now become an amusing memory. Yet at the time it had its tiresome, also its painful, sides.
In the ordinary way the fast train takes seven hours to reach Bordeaux. I left Paris at nine o'clock on a Sunday evening, and did not arrive until past two o'clock on Tuesday morning. Twenty-nine hours in a crowded carriage and no-food obtainable. I did not suffer, for I am used to rough travelling and I had taken a packet of food with me. But it was a harsh experience for women and babes.
To begin with, it was a struggle to get to the Austerlitz railway-station. Outside was a big and angry crowd. All entrances were barred, I flourished an official letter, of some sort, put on an air of importance, and was allowed to pass the sentries. Only twenty minutes before the train started was the crowd permitted to begin fighting its way in. .A narrow ticket-examining gateway held them up and forced them to squeeze through, dragging their bundles and their babies after them. There was screaming and shearing. The confusion and heat and noise were indescribable.
Somewhere in this pack was the messenger I had sent to carry my bags to the station. I stood on a chair to look for him. How should I ever spot him in that seething throng ? By good luck I saw him, and he battled through the gateway.
"I am wet to the skin," he said.
Off at Last
I started off most comfortably. All the compartments save one were full. This one had been reserved for somebody who did not turn up. At the last moment before the train pulled out it was opened for me and for a postman, one of many called to Bordeaux to reinforce the local staff. We chuckled, thinking we should have a ride each, and be able to sleep stretched out.
We chuckled too soon. .At the first stop our compartment was filled, too. Four of our travelling companions were cattle-drovers. They had been driving bullocks up from Orleans for the Army, and were now going back. Their blouses, blood-stained and byre- filthy, brought in an appalling smell. Each had a little cask of wine, from which he drank often. They were decent fellows enough and one got used to the smell. I slept pretty well, with one of them leaning against my shoulder. But it was a relief when in the crisp, fresh early September morning, they got out at Orleans and made room for more savoury passengers.
These now included two young girls fleeing to the Atlantic seaboard for safety ; the widow of a colonel, killed already, with her maid ; the wife of an artillery captain and a tiny baby ; several relations of hers : and another postman. We all made friends. The widow and the wife mingled their tears, poor creatures ! We picnicked together and shared our scraps of. food in the most affectionate way.
The refreshment-rooms in the stations were nearly all turned into hospitals or bandaging-places. By the afternoon we had eaten the provisions brought with us. I managed to buy some bread and chocolate, and was pleasantly refreshed in the heat of the southern noon by delicious little Cantaloupe melons sold by a roadside fruit-dealer at twopence each. We were better off, at any rate, than the Ambassadors and their staffs who had travelled a day or two before. They had expected to arrive at Bordeaux in a night. They were twenty-four hours on the way. None of them had foreseen the need of food. At a small station, where it was possible to get coffee and rolls, there was a positive fight for sustenance. World- famous diplomatists scrambled and jostled one another at the little counter. Hunger put the heads of missions and their secretaries on a common level.
"There's No Room"
Many trains started off from Paris and did not reach Bordeaux at all. We passed one at Tours that had left a whole .day before ours. The delays were due to troop-trains, horse-trains, trains carrying supplies for the army. One could not complain. "After all," said the artillery captain's wife, "there are many worse off than we the poor wounded, for example."
She looked out of the window at a platform where stretchers with mutilated men on them were lying, two by two, for fifty yards or more. The colonel's widow caught her hand. The eyes of both of them were wet.
We wore the long, hot day out, then dragged through the evening and far into the night. It was 2.30 a.m. when we jogged into Bordeaux Station. "All hotels full," said the cabmen who were waiting outside. Some of us had hoped to be allowed to stay in the train, but this was denied us. Nor was any station waiting-room available for roofless arrivals.
Nobody was. permitted to remain on the platform even.
I got a cab after-waiting an hour, and told the driver to go to the hotel. "It's no use," he said, "there's no room."
"Never you mind," I told him. "Drive me there."
I appealed to the feelings of the night-porter. "Let me sleep in the hall," I said. He was touched. I stretched my tired frame on three chairs, and slumbered deeply until the servants began to dust me with the rest of the furniture at seven o'clock. Then I remembered that for two nights I had not had my clothes off. I inquired for a swimming- bath, and made off to it with all possible speed.
Bordeaux in those days was an amusing place. Government offices were housed in schools, theatres anywhere. The Senate occupied a variety stage, where a huge placard with "Smile" on it had to be taken down. The War Office clerks were at work among the plaster casts of an Academy of Arts. Others breathed a noisome atmosphere vitiated by chemistry and mathematics.
Most of the Paris newspapers, including the Continental "Daily Mail," moved with the Government. The result of so large and so distinguished an addition to the city's inhabitants was a sharp rise in the prices of rooms and meals. Everyone talks patriotism in war-time, but everyone likes to make extra profits out of war emergencies. At the famous Bordeaux restaurant, the Chapon Fine, tables had to be booked two or three days in advance. . The. Postmaster-General was to be found in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. As the long- distance telephone had not worked since war began, and as the telegraph had become so uncertain that many messages were being sent by train instead of over the wire, this was said to be an appropriate dwelling for a master of telegraphs which did not speak and telephones that could not hear.
Down here there was no' feeling of depression such as reigned in Paris. The southern, open-air life seemed as gay and light-hearted as usual. There was little to remind people that a war was going on except the presence of the Government Ministers and officials and other famous people from Paris and that meant profit to the place. The only melancholy faces to be seen were those of local celebrities. No one thought anything of them now. Their noses were badly out of joint.
several photos of scenes in Bordeaux when it was temporary capital of France
- from the War Illustrated 18th August, 1917
- 'When Paris Was Saved'
- How Bordeaux Celebrated the Victory of the Marne
- By Hamilton Fyfe
from a British magazine : after the battle of the Marne
Among my Bordeaux memories there is one on which I dwell with a specially affectionate glow. One evening in a cafe everyone suddenly jumped up. I looked round for the reason. An old man had just come in. He wore a private's uniform, but on his breast were several medals, with the Cross of the Legion of Honour. He was clearly not an ordinary private.
He bowed in acknowledgment of the honour paid him, and sat down. I learned that he was a Colonel Royal, long retired from the service. He had asked for permission to rejoin his old regiment as a simple soldier. Army regulations prevented his recovering his rank as officer. He went to the front, was twice mentioned in Army Orders, promoted for gallantry to the rank of second-lieutenant, entrusted with the regimental colours. Later I heard that his colonelcy had been restored to him, and that he commanded a regiment. I am glad to have seen that splendid old man.
Glad, too, to recollect, as I shall always do, the announcement in Bordeaux of the Marne victory. Every afternoon and evening while I was there I attended a class for correspondents, held by Commandant Thomasson, in the University building. Before the war this officer was military critic to a leading French newspaper. He was now employed as head of the Press Department in the French War Office.
A Fateful September Night
I was informed about this time that, since Lord Kitchener had decided to have no correspondents with the British Forces, General Joffre was obliged to make the same rule ; therefore, my application to go with the French Army was refused. But the French authorities, unlike ours, did what they could to assist the newspapers in keeping their readers well informed about the war. Every afternoon and evening Commandant Thomasson lectured to us on the operations in progress, drawing diagrams on a black- board and using large-scale maps.
At first we used to meet in a corridor, v/here he could chalk his diagrams on the wall. Then we had a lecture theatre given to us, and sat at our desks, taking notes, and feeling as if we were schoolboys or undergraduates again.
The night of September 12th in that bare corridor will remain one of my most .vivid memories of the war. The week had been one of tense anxiety. All knew that a fateful battle was being fought. It the German advance was not checked, Paris must fall. For some reason which is still obscure, General von Kluck had turned aside from his direct rush upon the capital the rush which brought him to Chantilly, and had marched across his front south-eastward, to be met by the French and British forces, skilfully disposed on the Marne. We knew the battle had been going well for us, but in those days the French had come to think the Germans irresistible. Was it possible they could be turned back ?
On the night of September 12th this query was answered. We gathered in the corridor. It was hot, stifling. We waited, hoping, fearing, watching the door by which the commandant would come in.
It was close on midnight when he did come in. A smile was breaking up the severity of his usually impassive features.
"Is there good news ?"someone cried out.
"Listen !" he said, and read out to us the official telegram announcing the victory of the Marne.
Journalists do not often "demonstrate." It takes a great deal of emotion to provoke them to cheer. But that corridor echoed cheering as spontaneous and as enthusiastic as any I ever heard. No one knew better than we did how much depended upon victory. No one could feel more thankful that it had come.
As I ran to the telegraph, office, I passed through streets full of people shaking hands with one another, falling on each other's necks. It was an immense relief to everyone to know that the flood had been checked.
Next day Bordeaux was a city of happy, smiling faces. " The Germans had been taught their lesson, the war would soon be over. Joffre had bided his time. He had led the enemy on." Everyone was now as sure of speedy victory as they had before been gloomily sure of catastrophe. Extravagant hopes were born that in a few weeks the Germans would be retreating into Germany.
If any prophet had told the French people at this time that a year later, two years later, the armies would be in much the same positions as they were after the Marne, and that three years later they would only see the Germans pushed a short way farther back, that prophet would have been lucky to get away alive. The strength and solidity of the German war-machine were still grievously under-estimated. I call the German Army a war-machine. It was that, and it was the only one. It worked with every connection oiled. It was the result of year after year of hard thinking, much spending of money, turning a nation's energy to a destructive aim.
The French Army was ably officered. Its soldiers were brave, enduring, intelligent. But it was not a machine. It had been stinted of the money it required. It had been prepared, not by intellectual and highly-trained Staff, officers, but by politicians. It began the war with a uniform absurdly unsuited for warfare. I recollect in the first days of the fighting talking with a French friend about the- red trousers of the Piou-piou.
"We shall never give them up," he said. " They are bound up with our idea of glory. They are a tradition, an inspiration."
Of course, they had to go.
Soldiers and Politicians
The German Army had been prepared for war by men who knew war was coming, and meant it to come ; the French Army by politicians who hoped it might be avoided.
Man for man, the French were as good as the Germans, probably better. But there were fewer of them, lamentably, tragically fewer; and, as a wounded officer said to me on my way back from Bordeaux to Paris : "This is not a war of men ; it is a war of machines." He spoke bitterly. He had seen more than half the battalion which he commanded swept down, as the tall grass falls to the mower's scythe, by the terrible machine gun.
"There is an appalling soullessness about it," this officer went on. "It is savagely inhuman. Men turn handles, and death flies out in big bundles. Men could never kill one another by heaps, by hecatombs, if they met face to face. They would sicken at such wholesale slaughter. They would cry out : 'We are soldiers, not butchers '; only machines ingeniously devised to destroy men as locusts have to be destroyed when they sweep over a fertile land, only automatic death-dealers without heart or pity or remorse could carpet the earth with dead in this frightful way."
A Machine-Gun War
As I returned from Bordeaux I found France one vast hospital. From the Atlantic to the Channel there- were wounded everywhere to be seen. Already beds were scarce. Every available school, institution, public hall, was turned into an infirmary, all the big railway stations, numberless large private houses. Britain has never had the war seared into its consciousness, stamped on its imagination, as France has from the first.
If Britain had had this experience, the British people might have forced the managers of the war to put their soldiers more on an equality with the German in this matter of machines, especially machine-guns. It was the German superiority in this direction which, more than anything else, I believe, -accounted for the downfall of the hopes raised by the victory of the Marne.
It is clear," I wrote in September, "that this will be a machine-gun war." Yet in the following June there was still complaint that the British War Office had not understood and acted upon this plain and easily-graspable truth.
The Marne victory broke the German offensive. But it was in defensive positions that they were to show themselves strongest because they had the better machines.
from French and British magazines : the fighting along the Marne, September 1914
- from The War Illustrated 25th August, 1917
- 'Spy-Mania in Amiens'
- Encounter with a Suspicious Town Councillor
- by Hamilton Fyfe
German troops marching through Amiens
Paris was at its emptiest and gloomiest when I went through it on my way from Bordeaux to Boulogne, where Eric Loder with his Rolls-Royce car was waiting for me again. The dusty, brown-leaved mid-September streets had a desert air. In the restaurants were rows of tables un-occupied. The only places crowded were the railway stations and the trains.
The one daily train to Boulogne left at two o'clock. I went to the station at half-past one. There was not a seat vacant. No one was allowed on the platform. Passengers had been there since ten o'clock in order to secure places. At this time all trains were packed. I had travelled from Tours to Paris, all through the night, in the corridor, sitting on my kit-bag. Now it looked as if I might not be able to find even standing-room.
I searched for the officer in command at the station. He was a fluffy, agonised youth, incapable of decision. By forcing him to look at my papers and telling him my business in Boulogne could not wait, I hypnotised him into going to ask the conductor of the train whether any room remained. The conductor said "No." The little officer thought he would now get rid of my importunity. I undeceived him.
Peevishly he piped out a query as to what he could do further. "You can find the traffic manager," I said severely. "He is the man I want." He tried again to shake me off. He took hesitating steps this way and that.
"The traffic manager," I repeated firmly. His weak will yielded again. He found the man I wanted and departed, cursing feebly. I travelled by that train in the corridor, but that did not worry me. After crawling for nine hours it reached Boulogne.
Dangers of Imperfect Accent
Loder and I discussed possibilities, and decided to make for Rheims, which the Germans had just begun shelling. We secured from the Mayor of Boulogne a pass entitling us to go to Bar-le-Duc. We knew it was not worth much. The mayor would I believe, if we had asked for it, have written out a pass for Berlin. But any stamped official paper is useful to show to sentries.
Off we started, therefore hopefully enough ; got to Amiens without difficulty save being obliged to take a by-road, because on the Grande Route a bridge had been blown up and put up at the same pleasant old-fashioned Hotel du Commerce which had sheltered us just over three weeks before when the Germans were on the point of entering the town.
Now they had been gone again some days, but the inhabitants had not recovered yet from the numbing effect of their occupation. One result of it was a raging attack of spy- mania. It was enough to speak French with an accent; you fell under suspicion at once. I had not been an hour in Amiens when I heard that two British journalists, one an old friend of mine, had been arrested the day before, and that all the kindly efforts of the American Vice-Consul to release them had failed. The British Vice-Consul had departed. M. Tessancourt, representative of the United States, was looking after British interests ably, and with the most cordial goodwill.
One of these two journalists had been shaved in a barber's shop. As soon as he left the shop the barber ran out, told a policeman his customer was certainly a German and caused him to be arrested. How did the barber know he was a German ? Because he had, during the German occupation, shaved his beard off and seen him constantly in the company of German officers ! The unfortunate correspondent was marched off to gaol. He gave his companion's name as a reference. The companion was arrested too and lodged in the lock-up with his friend.
For thirty-six hours they remained in prison. They were abused and brow-beaten. Attempts to entrap them were made by suddenly shouting German words of command and so on. Then they were told they could go. They were sensible and good-humoured about it. Otherwise they might have fared worse.
Suspected by a Town Councillor
Three other British correspondents were arrested and turned out of the city a few days later. I was taken half-way to the police-station one evening on suspicion of being a spy.
I had been reading an official despatch posted on a wall, and fell to discussing the situation with some Frenchmen who stood by. A fussy person said to these Frenchmen : "Don't speak to him. You don't know who he may be." His fussiness angered me.
"You accuse me of what ?" I demanded.
I have a right to think what I choose," he answered.
"And I too. If you have the right to hint that I am a spy, I have the right to consider you a suspicious person."
That made him gasp.
"But I am a town councillor," he gobbled.
"So you say," I retorted, simply to annoy him. No imputation is more offensive than that of being a creature whom his fellow-men may not trust.
"Do me the favour to go with me to the Commissariat of Police," he said.
"With all my heart," I replied. And we stalked in that direction.
My absurd accusation puzzled him.
Effect of a Soft Answer
"Of what, in fine, do you accuse me ?" he blurted out.
"Of a hastiness of judgment which belies your good sense," I answered, at which he stopped, looked at me, and burst into a laugh. I laughed too and held out my hand.
"I am a good Englishman as you are a good Frenchman and we are Allies. Are we good friends, hein ?"
Our walk ended, not at the police station, but in a café.
In a general way, anyone who did not wear uniform was apt to be suspect. An amusing little comedy played at Amiens in these days neatly illustrated this.
There were some members of the British Red Cross Society there. They had been kept at the coast for a fortnight with the ambulances which they had brought out. Now they were very eager to get to work.
I went with the leaders of the party to Headquarters. They asked for passes. They offered their cars. Politely, but without hesitation, both petition and offer were refused. They went back to Boulogne.
Magic of Fine Feathers
After they had gone arrived another party. This was in charge of a tall Englishman of soldierly bearing, with the manners of an affable Grand Duke. He wore uniform. What uniform it was I never exactly discovered, but he looked magnificent in it and since it had several stripes on the cuff, he was saluted wherever he went and addressed as "Mon Colonel." I went with him also to Headquarters. His reception could not have been more cordial. As soon as they saw his uniform, the whole staff placed themselves at his disposal.
What would he like ? Passes ? Certainly. This way, please. Passes for all the party. His offer of help was accepted with enthusiasm. A number of officers came out and inspected the ambulances. The very thing they needed ! A crowd gathered and cheered the colonel as we drove away.
It was a useful lesson in the readiness of mankind to be imposed upon ; in the value of uniform as a means of imposing upon it.
I do not mean that my friend "the colonel" pretended to any rank which he did not possess, or asked for any favour under false pretenses. Nothing of the kind. But I recollected how the Red Cross leaders in civilian dress had been sent empty away, although they had exactly the same position and authority as the new-comer. The incident both amused and instructed my mind.
- the War Illustrated 8th September, 1917
- 'The Broken Bits from Mons'
- How Some Scattered British Soldiers Won Through
- by Hamilton Fyfe
British soldiers in northern France, August 1914
AMIENS, in those days of early autumn lived outwardly a tranquil, sunny life. I used to walk in the wide, pleasant meadows which lie about the city, enjoying the calm beauty of the declining year. We could still hear the guns. The enemy were little farther off than in those yeasty days before the short German occupation An aeroplane came over one day and dropped a bomb or two a novelty then. Every day the hospitals received their tale of wounded, but the fear of the Germans had faded. The victory of the Marne had put heart into the population.
"It cannot be long now before they are driven back across the Rhine."
That was the general belief. Rumours of battle, born of this belief so falsely founded, were often afloat on the sea of public credulity. My landlady, a kind, motherly soul, was accustomed to pour out to me her lamentations over her country's plight.
'Ah, monsieur,'' she would say tragically, in her deep, impressive voice, "quelle angoisse, quelle angoisse !" But one afternoon she laboured upstairs to where I sat writing to tell me une grande nouvelle.
"Ah, monsieur, quelle joie, quelle joie !"
A battle had been won. An army corps of Bavarians had been destroyed. Everyone knew it. The news had been read out in the barracks.
Rumour's Ready Acceptance
I ran into the streets. I found that certainly "everyone knew it.'' But how they knew it none could say.
Amiens was a joyful city that evening. Next morning and for days afterwards the official despatches were searched for confirmation vainly. How the story was born we never heard, Paris had it also and many other parts of France. The spread of rumour in war-time indeed, in all time of intense interest and excited nerves is an interesting study. Such reports as that of the Russian troops passing through England, of the shooting of a French general after the disastrous retreat from Charleroi, of the wounding of the Grand Duke Nicholas by a would-be assassin, of this and many another "victory," appear to spring up at the same moment in different places and in numberless different minds. The explanation must lie in the heightening of the consciousness of masses of people by stirring events.
I am persuaded there is thought-transference. Ideas are literally "in the air." Facts are often resolutely disbelieved. Fictions are accepted without hesitation. One of the facts condemned as untrue in Moore's and my Amiens despatches was this: that British regiments had been "broken to bits." In Amiens, now, I saw a great many of the "bits," and helped to put them on the road to England.
Every day there came into the city, by twos and threes, soldiers who had been in hiding since the Battle of Mons. The stories they told confirmed every word that Moore and I had written. They also confirmed my opinion that for pluck and cool resourcefulness in difficult conditions the British private soldier has no equal in the world.
Imagine yourself landed in a country where you have never been before, where you know not a word of the language. You are put into a train, carried a long way, at the end of your journey thrust into a battle at once. For twenty-four hours you lie in small holes that you have scraped in the soil, with shells falling all about you. Then you take part in a hurried retreat through the darkness,
Men Who Got Through
Early next morning a surprise attack is made while you are washing or getting your breakfast. The same thing happens whenever you are halted. No rest is possible. Hasty efforts are made, under fire, to get sections and companies and battalions together. Some succeed, some fail. You are bustled about, ignorant of what has happened with no idea of what may come next.
What does come next is that you are wounded or lost perhaps both. Now you are a wanderer in a land altogether strange, trying to avoid an enemy who seems to be everywhere at once. In such a plight, don't you think you might feel sorry for yourself, discouraged, depressed ?
Wouldn't yon feel inclined to "chuck it" and surrender ? Wouldnt you at all events, want to blame someone for what had happened ?
Not so the British soldier. He had no grievance. He made no complaint. He took it all as part of the job claimed no credit for going through with it. From the cheery manner in which he narrated his adventures, one might have supposed that he had enjoyed them.
Here is an example. A private in the West Kent Regiment was forced to fall out by sore feet. He was still limping when he came into Amiens. This was his story as he told it to me : "I was left in a village and there I found a man (K.) belonging to the Yorkshire Light Infantry. We got a lodging in a baker's shop. Next morning we saw some transport coming through.
Come on, I says, we'll get a lift. But just as I was going out of the shop the baker hollers, and I saw it was German transport. K, was in the street already, Luckily, he had his coat off. Germans didn't take any notice of him.
"That night we started off. Hid all day. Only kept going in the dark. One morning we were in a field with a hedge along it, just like England. A motor comes along. German officer in it. Quick as you could say 'knife,' we put our rifles on the top of the hedge and aimed. That officer went white. He did, really. He ducked his head. So did the chauffeur. And we'd got no cartridges, y'know ! I can tell you we laughed.
"Another day we got hungry. K. says, We don't care for no Germans. I'm going to get some grub.
Down he went to a village. Germans there all right. They said nothing to him. Brought back a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread. Only paid fivepence. Cheap enough !"
Then they ran into some Uhlans, were taken prisoners, escaped while a sentry slept 'drunk I think " lived in a quarry for a while, were almost speared by French lancers, then carried along with the lancers, helped them to capture a German convoy and were sent to the rear in one of the captured vans.
"The Men Were Splendid"
Some men lived on farms, helping in the farm-work. Some stayed in the woods, kept alive by food brought to them by good Samaritans. Some were taken into French houses and hidden till danger was past. A Connaught Ranger told me of a kindly French lady who sheltered him, of her son who gave him clothes in which to escape.
More than a month they had been "missing," and there were many who fell by the wayside. In their stories of the battle and their wanderings was the oddest mixture of sadness and humour, of wild adventure, and matter-of-fact acceptance of conditions utterly strange. I always liked and respected the British soldier. These talks filled me with a great affection for him. Whoever blundered or miscalculated, "the men were splendid."
They always are.
- from the War Illustrated, 15th September 1917
- 'a Pit in a Beetroot Field'
- Some Grim Experiences as a Stretcher-Bearer
- by Hamilton Fyfe
from 'the War Illustrated'
THE French wounded were in sorry plight those early days of war. I saw the arrival at Rouen of the first trains of men put out of action in the Battle of Mons. The British soldiers were in well- found ambulance carriages, The French in ordinary third-class compartments. I recollect how they cried for water, which we drew for them at a pump on the platform; how they snatched the pails and pitchers to their fevered lips.
In the fighting around Amiens towards the end of September the French losses were heavy, and there were not enough motors to bring the wounded in quickly.
The Abbé of Chaulnes
The French Red Cross president in the town was trying to find more. I offered him Eric Loder's Rolls-Royce of course with Loder's consent, willingly given. He at once pulled a Red Cross armlet out of his pocket and put it on my sleeve. Without any formality he attached me to his society. I was now a stretcher-bearer under orders. Loder was an ambulance driver. We were told to go immediately to the village of Villers-Bretonneaux, a few miles behind the battle which was being fought.
With me went an abbé whose curé of souls was at Chaulnes, a village near by. He had a narrow escape from being shot by the Germans during the occupation of Amiens. "They did not behave badly," said the abbé, "until they knew their advance on Paris had been stopped. Then they grew savage and resentful. One day three officers went out of the village and did not come back. The other officers accused me of giving notice of their movements. They said they would shoot me if their comrades did not return.
"I did not wait to see whether they would return or not. A butcher was going out to fetch some pigs. I got him to drive me with him until we were beyond the German outposts; then I walked into safety. Unfortunately I heard afterwards that the butcher had been shot. I trust it was not for helping me."
"Do you think they would really have murdered you, Monsieur l'Abbé?"
"Certainly I do." The good priest seemed surprised by my question. "In a village close to ours they asked the curé for bread. He said he had none to spare. You are keeping it for French soldiers," they declared.
If I had any to spare, he retorted, I would sooner give it to my own countrymen than to you. They shot him then and there."
Tragedy at VilIers-Bretonneaux
At Villers we turned the school into a hospital. Farm-carts were bringing in shattered and sick men - farm-carts with no springs, engines of jolting torture to men in pain. As we lifted them out and carried them into the school we could tell that every movement was an agony.
We tried to comfort them by saying they would go on more comfortably when they left Villers. A British Red Cross detachment had turned up with several motor-ambulances. This was only a dressing-station on the way to hospital at Amiens. But a good many of these poor fellows got no farther than Villers.
They were burying a man who had died of wounds when we arrived. In the warm September afternoon sunshine bees murmured among the gay flower beds of the school garden. There was a sweet and homely scent in the air from. These last outposts of summer. The coffin rested for a few moments on the gravel path between the autumn borders. Then with chanting priest and acolytes, bearing tapers, which flamed an unwholesome yellow against the sky, the procession moved away.
In the school-room the heat and the smell dizzied the brain. Beds had been carried in. We laid the wounded on them and took off their bandages. Some of these had been put on three days before. Some of the wounds were in a state which I could not describe without making many of. you sick. I turned sick myself. I was attached as aid to a clever little Irish surgeon who was with the British Red Cross party. Lucky that they brought him. There was no doctor in the village, only the apothecary, a kindly wise old man, but no operator naturally. It made me proud of our country to see how quietly and reassuringly young Dr. Kelly took off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and set to work with his dressings and instruments.
ln the School-room of Agony
After an hour or so of helping him I felt the heat and smell of the room becoming more than I could bear. I went out to breathe fresher air. I sat on the doorstep for a minute, then started to go back, then found myself lying in the passage with a bump on the side of my head where I had hit the wall as I fell. I could not think for a few moments what I was doing in the passage on my back then I remembered, and I hastened to adopt Nature's remedy for a turned stomach. Oddly enough I had not felt sick before. My imagination did not seem to be affected in the least by the sight of horrible wounds. And after I had got rid of the trouble I was fit again immediately, ready to go on stretcher-bearing and acting as surgeon's aid.
The work was hard at first, but there was so much of it that one had no time to think of its hardness. As quickly as we could we patched the sufferers and carried them out to the ambulances and cars. It seemed cruel to touch some of them.
We could see their teeth bite hard on to their under lips. Some cried out as we lifted them, sheet, pillow and all. But there was scarcely one who did not turn grateful eyes to ours, reach out, if he could, a grimy hand and murmur, "Merci, m'sieu !" Goodwill had to supply many deficiencies in that improvised hospital, and did it nobly. All classes in the village sent help. There was the Lady Bountiful of the neighbourhood, and from her downwards, some of all sorts, to peasant women in their gingham overalls. How gently and yet in how businesslike a manner they went about their duties!
With infinite care they dressed the men, gathered up their poor belongings (it made one's heart ache to see the anxiety with which the wounded looked for their little bundles containing perhaps a spare shirt or a few francs tied up in a rag-purse), and, as soon as beds were empty, stripped off the bloodstained bedclothes and prepared for fresh arrivals.
All day and the next day these continued to fill the school-room. Then the sound of the guns came nearer. The farm-carts, could not bring the wounded in quickly enough. We were ordered to take our cars and go to a point just behind the firing-line, where a number of bad cases were assembled. Of a fine autumn Sunday afternoon, clear and tranquil, we drove between the stubble cornlands and among vast stretches of beetroot field.
The Pity of It
The guns boom and rattle ahead. In the blue air little balls of white smoke. Out of them come flashes. Then the smoke slowly drifts away. Shrapnel bursting. The battle is not far away. The enemy are advancing. That is why soldiers are burying dead comrades so hastily.
A cart comes slowly up the road. It is full of men killed in the fighting. They are in their uniforms just as they have been picked up. Sleeping you might think, save that men do not sleep piled upon one another, all swaying, to the motion of a cart. They are lifted out, put into a big pit that the soldiers have dug to receive them, the earth is shovelled in, away goes the cart for more.
Did we feel the pity of it ? I suppose we did. Yet no one said anything. What was there to say ? We had seen worse than this in hospitals. Better death outright than ghastly wounds.
But somehow those dead bodies in the late afternoon sunshine, thrown into a pit in a beetroot field, depressed me more than the hospital. The wounded might recover for these it was all over. What a wretched use to put a man to! What a futile, pitiable end to a creature capable of enjoyment, of quiet, honest happiness, of healthful, profitable work.
Loving Hearts at Home
We found among the wreckage of war a scrap of a letter, muddy and crumpled - a letter to a French soldier from his wife:
"My dear Auguste, I was very pleased to receive your letter and to hear your news. I do not know if you will receive this, for now it is forbidden to write to soldiers only allowed to send postcards all ready prepared. We are doing pretty well at present. We take our meals on one side. (? of the room) "and sleep on the other. Send my parents a card. If you have not written to your mother, write to her too. She is so anxious about you. I will now finish by sending you a good hug and a kiss ; also for our little Marie, who is always asking about you.
Poor Cara ! Poor- mother ! Poor little Marie ! Auguste lies in a pit in a beetroot field part of the "wastage" of war. Yet men call themselves "reasoning animals" !
- 'the War Illustrated' 22nd September, 1917
- 'The Burning of Albert'
- Last Terrible Hours in a Bombarded Town
- by Hamilton Fyfe
ALBERT is, or was, a little town about twenty miles distant from Amiens. On a cold autumn morning, grey and misty, the Red Cross column I was with received orders to go to Albert. A battle was being fought there.
It is hard to fight on a dull, chilly day; harder still to be wounded and to lie out on damp ground, shivering with fever, beneath a gloomy sky until you are picked up and carried to a hospital. It was in order to shorten for the wounded this painful period of waiting that we had been enrolled.
Nine o'clock struck from the cathedral as we started. Soon the mist rolled away, the sun shone. A hazy blue sky promised a hot day, From the top of a hill, before we got to Albert, we could watch the battle, as much as a battle of to-day can be watched. It is only in Italy that war is still spectacular.
There, from an observation-post on one mountain you can look across to another mountain and see it being stormed. You feel as if you were in a box at the play. On other fronts you may see corners of a battlefield, incidents, a move or two in the terrible game which is played with men for pawns. More than this is not permitted by the nature of modern war. What we saw that day was this.
In a hollow below us, to the right of the road, French field-batteries were in action. They were shelling a wooded hill and a village about two miles distant.
Scene at the Hospital
Beyond the town, which lay at our feet, German shells were falling. Here were the French lines. There were no elaborate trenches in those days. The men lay in scooped-out shallow holes, with a little earth heaped in front of them to form a rudimentary parapet. We could hear the rifle fire of both sides, exactly like the noise of riveters' hammers in a shipbuilding yard. Machine-guns broke in constantly with a din which suggested a small boy running a stick quickly along railings.
As we watched through our field-glasses the French made an attempt to take the wood and village which their gunners were shelling. The men could be seen running across the open space between them and the enemy. They looked like dark ants swarming up the side of an ant-hill. We did not see any grey ants come out of the German positions, but we heard the noise of the stick on the railings become more continuous. The attack was beaten off by machine-gun fire.
If we had waited we should have seen the grey ants issue forth a little later and charge down the hill, for the Germans were gaining ground. But we had our work to do. When they took the French "trenches" we were hard at it in the town. The scene at the hospital was ghastly. Every minute wounded men either hobbled or were carried in. They sat about in their bloody bandages. In the corridor stretchers were laid-side by, side so closely that one had to pick one's way over them.
The men on them were waiting their turn on the operating-table. Some groaned, some were scarcely conscious, some smoked cigarettes and were glad to chat to any-one who passed by. The surgeons in the operating-room worked without pause. They cut and tied and set. As fast as one patient was moved off the tables another was put on.
In the garden were strewn tunics and trousers - those terrible red trousers in which the French troops began - caps, boots, cartridge-cases, and all kinds of accoutrements.
Flight of Inhabitants
Orderlies gathered them into heaps and took them away, but they accumulated quickly again. A pile of amputated legs and arms was hastily buried, That was a dreadful sight, worse somehow than the burial of dead men. All the while the French cannon barked near at hand; the more distant German guns boomed heavily in reply. Overhead an aeroplane whirred.
The inhabitants were leaving the town. Shells fell close by. The road we had to take with our wounded - a road leading to a railway-station thirteen miles away, where Red Cross trains were made up - was thronged with these unhappy refugees. Some wheeled barrows or perambulators with a few belongings thrown hastily into them. Others carried bundles. Farm-waggons were full of old people, who seemed dazed - mothers with babes at the breast, small children who thought this unexpected excursion great fun. Few had any idea where they were going.
Their one all-mastering idea was to escape the Germans, to get away from the terrifying, shattering sound of the guns and shell-bursts.
The confusion was made worse by the meeting of the fugitives with bodies of troops hurrying to reinforce the failing line, with interminable transport columns, hay-wagons, ammunition-carts, motor meat-vans.
Somehow we steered our motor-ambulances through the press of traffic, laid our wounded in barns or in tents close to the station, left them exhausted in their straw, and returned to fetch others. Again I was touched by the gratitude of these poor broken men. Kind women went about among them with baskets of bread and-pears, jugs of wine and water.
A "Near Thing"
Never did they fail to speak their thanks, if they could speak. One had his lower jaw smashed. He grasped my hand and looked his gratitude out of glassy, sunken eyes.
Next day Albert was very still and empty. Those inhabitants who remained had made up their minds to "stick it out." In the afternoon Dr. Kelly and I were sent off to find a wounded man just ahead of a battery that was in action east of the town.
An artillery sergeant guided us to where an officer crouched under a bush, observing the effect of the fire, correcting the gunners' aim. With him an orderly, who signalled his instructions as tick-tack men signal for book-makers on race-courses.
Shells had been screeching over our heads. Just as we got to the bush there was a noise like a giant's slate-pencil being drawn sharply across a giant's slate. Then a tremendous explosion. We were flat on the ground. The slate-pencil sound had warned us. A cloud of earth flew up.
Another shell-hole was added to the many by which the earth was pock-marked already.
"Near thing," the officer said; "but I had one nearer just now. Look at my boot." A piece of the toe had been ripped clean away. There is nothing exhilarating about shell-fire. I should never choose to spend an afternoon's holiday that way.
Kelly and I searched the town vainly for food. We were forced at last to beg in the hospital kitchen. There we were, munching bread and drinking coffee, when I was called to lift wounded men into the ambulance and start off again. The journey to the station was made and we were nearly back at Albert when dusk fell.
The whole country-side was lit up by fires. Some were villages ablaze, some woods, some only straw-ricks. Along a range of low hills commanding the town there were constant flashes, like the winking of signal-lamps. The noise of cannonading was incessant.
One blur of smoke and flame was larger than the rest. We cried out to passers-by, asking them what this was.
They replied, "Albert is on fire." We did not believe them, but when we came to the hill above the town we saw the place in flame below us,
Methodical, Unhasting Bombardment
It was like a scene in a Drury Lane melodrama. The town collapsed like cards that have been built up into houses Now the Town Hall went, now a row of cottages, now a high wall. Shells fell at the rate of three a minute - methodical, unhasting. Some were fire-shells, others high explosive. The buildings went down as if they had been set up to be knocked over.
I could not for a while convince myself that we were seeing a real bombardment. It was as if some inventor had made a new explosive, and had invited his friends to see it demolish a model. It was impossible to enter the town, the heat was too great. No streets were safe, even in the outskirts. The people had rushed away as soon as the bombardment had begun. They did not stay to take anything with them.
Hurriedly the wounded were dragged out of the hospital. All left it within half an hour, save two of the nursing nuns, to whom the hospital belonged. In the grounds six coffins were left unburied, by six open graves.
We got as near to the town as we could. We thought there might still be someone needing rescue. Dogs could be heard howling piteously. With a strange effect of calmness in catastrophe, the church-clock struck eight. Those on the road all said the place was deserted.
That was how the Germans celebrated the day of their patron saint - German Michael - September 29th, 1914
from 'the War Illustrated'
Back to Part 1
Back to Index