'On the British Battleline'
from the book ‘Vive la France’ by E. Alexander Powell


An American Reporter Gives his View

two photos from 'the War Illustrated' 1915


Along a road in the outskirts of that French town which is the British Headquarters a youth was running.

He was of considerably less than medium height, and fair-haired and very slender. One would have described him as a nice-looking boy. He wore a jersey and white running-shorts which left his knees bare, and he was bare-headed. Shoulders, back and chest well out, he jogged along at the steady dog- trot adopted by athletes and prize-fighters who are in training. Now, in ordinary times there is not anything particularly remarkable in seeing a scantily clad youth dog-trotting along a country road. You assume that he is training for a cross-country event, or for a seat in a varsity shell, or for the feather- weight championship, and you let it go at that. But these are not ordinary times in France, and ordinary young men in running-shorts are not permitted to trot along the roads as they list in the immediate vicinity of British Headquarters. Even if you travel, as I did, in a large grey car, with an officer of the French General Staff for companion, you are halted every few minutes by a sentry who turns the business end of a rifle in your direction and demands to see your papers. But no one challenged the young man in the running-shorts or asked to see his papers. Instead, whenever a soldier caught sight of him that soldier clicked his heels together and stood rigidly at attention. After you had observed the curious effect which the appearance of this young man produced on the military of all ranks it suddenly struck you that his face was strangely familiar. Then you all at once remembered that you had seen it hundreds of times in the magazines and the illustrated papers. Under it was the caption, "His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales." That young man will some day, if he lives, sit in an ancient chair in Westminster Abbey, and the Archbishop of Canterbury will place a crown upon his head, and his picture will appear on coins and postage-stamps in use over half the globe.

Now, the future King of England - Edward VIII they will doubtless call him - is not getting up at daybreak and reeling off half a dozen miles or so because he particularly enjoys it. He is doing it with an end in view. He is doing it for precisely the same reason that the prize-fighter does it-he is training for a battle. To me there was something wonder-fully suggestive and characteristic in the sight of that young man plugging doggedly along the country road. He seemed to epitomize the spirit which I found to exist along the whole length of the British battle-line. Every British soldier in France has come to appreciate that he is engaged in a struggle without parallel in history - a struggle in which he is confronted by formidable, ferocious, resourceful, and utterly unscrupulous opponents, and from which he is by no means certain to emerge a victor-and he is, therefore, methodically and systematically preparing to win that struggle just as a pugilist prepares himself for a battle in a prize-ring.


British soldiers in France in 1915


The British soldier has at last come to a realization of the terrible gravity of the situation which faces him. You don't hear him singing "Tipperary" any more or boasting about what he is going to do when he gets to Berlin. He has come to have a most profound respect for the fighting qualities of the men in the spiked helmets. He knows that he, an amateur boxer as it were, is up against the world's heavy-weight professional champion, and he perfectly appreciates that he has, to use his own expression, "a hell of a job" in front of him. He has already found out, to his cost and to his very great disgust, that his opponent has no intention of being hampered by the rules laid down by the late Marquis of Queensberry, having missed no opportunity to gouge or kick or hit below the belt. But the British soldier has now become familiar with his opponent's tactics, and one of these days, when he gets quite ready, he is going to give that opponent the surprise of his life by landing on him with both feet, spikes on his shoes, and brass knuckles on his fingers. Meanwhile like the young Prince in the running-shorts, he has buckled down with grim determination to the task of getting himself into condition.

I suppose that if I were really politic and far-sighted I would cuddle up to the War Office and make myself solid with the General Staff by confidently asserting that the British Army is the most efficient killing-machine in existence, and that its complete and early triumph is as certain as that the sparks fly upward; neither of which assertions would be true. It should be kept in mind, however, that the British did not begin the building of their war-machine until after the outbreak of hostilities, while the German organization is the result of upward of half a century of unceasing thought, experiment, and endeavour. But what the British have accomplished since the war began is one of the marvels of military history. Lord Kitchener came to a War Office which had long been in the hands of lawyers and politicians. Not only was he expected to remodel an institution which had become a national joke, but at the same time to raise a huge volunteer army. In order to raise this army he had to have recourse to American business methods. He employed a clever advertising specialist to cover the walls and newspapers of the United Kingdom with all manner of striking advertisements, some pleading, some bullying, some caustic in tone, by which he has proved that, given patriotic impulse, advertising for people to go to war is just like advertising for people to buy automobiles or shaving soap or smoking tobacco. It was not soothing to British pride-but it got the men. Late in the spring of 1915, after half a year or more of training, during which they were worked as a negro teamster works a mule, those men were marching abroad transports and sent across the Channel. So admirably executed were the plans of the War Office and so complete the precautions taken by the Admiralty, that this great force was landed on the Continent without the loss of a single life from German mines or submarines. That, in itself, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the war.

England now (November 1915) has in France an army of approximately a million men. But it is a new army. The bulk of it is without experience and without experienced regiments to stiffen it and give it confidence, for the army of British regulars which landed in France at the outbreak of the war has ceased to exist. The old regimental names remain, but the officers and men who composed those regiments are, to-day, in the hospitals or the cemeteries. The losses suffered by the British Army in Flanders are appalling. The West Kent Regiment, for example, has been three times wiped out and three times reconstituted. Of the Black Watch, the Rifle Brigade, the Infantry of the Household, scarcely a vestige of the original establishments remains. Hardly less terrible are the losses which have been suffered by the Canadian Contingent. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry landed in France 1000 strong. To- day only 100 remain. The present colonel was a private in the ranks when the regiment sailed from Quebec.

The machine that the British have knocked together, though still a trifle wobbly and somewhat creaky in its joints, is, I am convinced, eventually going to succeed. But you cannot appreciate what it is like or what it is accomplishing by reading about it; you have to see it for yourself as I did. That corner of France lying between the forty miles of British front and the sea is, to-day, I suppose, the busiest region in the world. It reminded me of the Panama Canal Zone during the rush period of the Canal's construction. It is as busy as the lot where the Greatest Show on Earth is getting ready for the afternoon performance. Down the roads, far as the eye can see, stretch long lines of London motor-buses, sombre war-coats of elephant grey replacing the staring advertisements of teas, tobaccos, whiskeys, and theatrical attractions, crowded no longer with pale-faced clerks hurrying toward the City, but with sun-tanned men in khaki hurrying toward the trenches. Interminable processions of motor-lorries go lumbering past, piled high with the supplies required to feed and clothe the army, practically all of which are moved from the coast to the front by road, the railways being reserved for the transport of men and ammunition; and the ambulances, hundreds and hundreds of them, hurrying their blood-soaked cargoes to the hospitals so that they may go back to the front for more. So crowded are the highways behind the British front that at the cross-roads in the country and at the street crossings in the towns are posted military policemen as if they were Bobbies at the Bank or at Piccadilly Circus. The roads are never permitted to fall into disrepair, for on their condition depends the rapidity with which the army can be supplied with food and ammunition. Hence road gangs and steam-rollers and sprinkling-carts are at work constantly.

When the war is over, France will have better roads and more of them than she ever had before. There are speed-limit signs everywhere-heretofore practically unknown in France, where anyone who was careless enough to get run over was liable to arrest for obstructing the traffic. At frequent intervals along the roads are blacksmiths' shops and motor-car repair stations, to say nothing of the repair cars, veritable garages on wheels, which, when news of an accident or breakdown is received, go tearing toward the scene of trouble as a fire-engine responds to an alarm of fire. At night all cars must run without lights, as a result of which many camions and motor-buses have met with disaster by running off the roads in the darkness and tipping over in the deep ditches. To provide for this particular form of mishap the Army Service Corps has designed a most ingenious contrivance which yanks the huge machines out of the ditch and sets them on the road again as easily as though they were stubborn mules. Upon the door of every house we passed, whether chateau or cottage, was marked the number of men who could be billeted upon it. There are signs indicating where water can be obtained and fodder and pasturage and petrol. In every town and village are to be found military interpreters, known by a distinctive cap and brassard, who are always ready to straighten out a misunderstanding between a Highlander from the north of the Tweed and a tirailleur from Tunisia, who will assist a Ghurka from the Indian hill country in bargaining for poultry with a Flemish-speaking peasant, or instruct a lost Senegalese how to get back to his command.

An officers' training-school has been established at St. Omer, which is the British Headquarters, where those men in the ranks who possess the necessary education are fitted to receive commissions. After this war is over the British Army will no longer be officered by the British aristocracy. The wholesale promotions of enlisted men made necessary by the appalling losses among the officers will result in completely changing the complexion of the British military establishment. Provided he has the necessary educational qualifications, the son of a day labourer will hereafter stand as much chance as the son of a duke. Did you know, by the way, that the present Chief of the General Staff entered the army as a private in the ranks ?

The wonderful thoroughness of the British is exemplified by the bulletins which are issued every morning by the Intelligence Department for the information of the brigade and regimental commanders. They resemble ordinary handbills and contain a summary of all the information which the Intelligence Department has been able to collect during the preceding twenty-four hours as to what is going on behind the German lines - movements of troops, construction of new trenches, changes in the location of batteries, shortage of ammunition, condition of the roads; everything, in short, which might be of any conceivable value to the British to know. For example, the report might contain a sentence something like this: "At five o'clock to-morrow morning the Prussian Guard, which has been holding position No … to the south of Ypres, will be relieved by the … th Bavarian Landsturm" which, by the way, would probably result in the British attacking the position mentioned. The information contained in these bulletins comes from many sources-from spies in the pay of the Intelligence Department, from aviators who make reconnaissance flights over the German lines, and particularly from the inhabitants of the invaded regions, who, by various ingenious expedients, succeed in communicating to the Allies much important information often at the cost of their lives.

The great base camps which the British have established at Calais and Havre and Boulogne and Rouen are marvels of organization, efficiency, and cleanliness. Cities whose macadamized streets are lined with portable houses of wood or metal which have been brought to the Continent in sections, and which have sewers and telephone systems and electric lights, and accommodation for a hundred thousand men apiece, have sprung up on the sand dunes of the French coast as though by the wave of a magician's wand. Here, where the fresh, healing wind blows in from the sea, have been established hospitals, each with a thousand beds. Huge warehouses have been built of concrete to hold the vast quantity of stores which are being rushed across the Channel by an endless procession of transports and cargo steamers. So efficient is the British field-post system, which is operated by the Army Post Office Division of the Royal Engineers, that within forty-eight hours after a wife or mother or sweetheart drops a letter into a post-box in England that letter has been delivered in the trenches to the man t6 whom it was addressed.

In order to prevent military information leaking out through the letters which are written by the soldiers to the folks at home, one in every five is opened by the regimental censor, it being obviously out of the question to peruse them all. If, however, the writer is able to get hold of one of the precious green envelopes, whose colour is a guarantee of private and family matters only, he is reasonably certain that his letter will not be read by other eyes than those for which it is intended. Nor does the field-post confine itself to the transmission of letters, but transmits delicacies and comforts of every sort to the boys in the trenches, and the boys in the trenches use the same medium to send shell fragments, German helmets, and other souvenirs to their friends at home. I know a lady who sent her son in Flanders a box of fresh asparagus from their Devonshire garden on a Friday, and he had it for his Sunday dinner. And this reminds me of an interesting little incident which is worth the telling and might as well be told here as elsewhere. A well-known American business man, the president of one of New York's street railway systems, has a son who is a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. The father was called back to America at a time when his son's battery was stationed in a particularly hot corner to the south of Ypres. The father was desperately anxious to see his son before he sailed, but he knew that the chances of his being permitted to do so were almost infinitesimal. Nevertheless, he wrote a note to Lord Kitchener explaining the circumstances and adding that he realized that it was probably quite impossible to grant such a request. He left the note himself at York House. Before he had been back in his hotel an hour he was called to the telephone. "This is the secretary of Lord Kitchener speaking," said the voice. "he desires me to say that you shall certainly see your son before returning to America, and that you are to hold yourself in readiness to go to the Continent at a moment's notice." A few days later he received another message from the War Office:

"Take to-morrow morning's boat from Folke-stone to Boulogne. Your son will be waiting for you on the quay." The long arm of the great War Minister had reached out across the English Channel and had picked that obscure second lieutenant out from that little Flemish village, and had brought him by motor- car to the coast, with a twenty-four hours leave of absence in his pocket, that he might say good-bye to his father.

The maxim that "an army marches on its belly" is as true to-day as when Napoleon uttered it, and the Army Service Corps is seeing to it that the belly of the British soldier is never empty. Of all the fighting men in the field, the British soldier is far and away the best fed. He is, indeed, almost overfed, particularly as regards jams, marmalades, puddings, and other articles containing large quantities of sugar, which, so the army surgeons assert, is the greatest restorer of the muscular tissues. Though the sale of spirits is strictly prohibited in the military zone, a ration of rum is served out at daybreak each morning to the men in the trenches.

To Miss Jane Addams has been attributed the following assertion : "We heard in all countries similar statements in regard to the necessity for the use of stimulants before men would engage in bayonet charges, that they have a regular formula in Germany, that they give them rum in England and absinthe in France ; that they all have to give them the dope' before the bayonet charge is possible." Now, Miss Addams, or whoever is responsible for this statement, has never, so far as I am aware, been in the trenches. Of the conditions which exist there she knows only by hearsay. Miss Addams says that ruin is given to the British soldier. That is perfectly true. In pursuance of orders issued by the Army Medical Corps, every man who has spent the night in the trenches is given a ration (about a gill) of rum at daybreak, not to render him reckless, as Miss Addams would have us believe, but to counteract the effects of the mud and water in which he has been standing for many hours.

But when the author of the paragraph asserts that the French soldiers are given absinthe she or he makes an assertion that is without foundation of fact. Not only have I never seen a glass of absinthe served in France since the law was passed which made its sale illegal, but I have never seen spirits of any kind in use in the zone of operations. More than once, coming back, chilled and weary, from the trenches, I have attempted to obtain either whiskey or brandy only to be told that its sale is rigidly prohibited in the zone of the armies. The regular ration of the French soldier includes now, just as in time of peace, a pint of vin ordinaire - the cheap wine of the country - this being, I might add, considerably less than the man would drink with his meals were he in civil life. As regards the conditions which exist in the German armies I cannot speak with the same assurance, because I have not been with them since the autumn of 1914. During the march across Belgium there was, I am perfectly willing to admit, considerable drunkenness among the German soldiers, but this was due to the men looting the wine- cellars in the towns through which they passed and not, as we are asked to believe, to their officers having systematically "doped" them. I have heard it stated, on various occasions, that German troops are given a mixture of rum and ether before going into action. Whether this is true I cannot say. Personally, I doubt it. If a man's life ever depends upon a clear brain and a cool head it is when he is going into battle. Everything considered, therefore, I am convinced that intemperance virtually does not exist among the armies in the field. I feel that this accusation does grave injustice to brave and sober men and that its author owes them an apology.

The British troops are not permitted to drink unboiled or unfiltered water, each regiment having two steel water-carts fitted with Birkenfeldt filters from which the men fill their water-bottles. As a result of this precaution, dysentery and diarrhoea, the curse of armies in previous wars, have practically disappeared, while, thanks to compulsory inoculation, typhoid is unknown. Perhaps the most important of all the sanitary devices which have been brought into existence by this war, and without which it would not be possible for the men to remain in the trenches at all, is the great force-pump that is operated at night and which throws lime and carbolic acid on the unburied dead. It is, indeed, impossible to overpraise the work being done by the Royal Army Medical Corps, which has, among its many other activities, so improved and speeded up the system of getting the wounded from the firing-line to the hospitals that, as one Tommy remarked, "You 'ears a 'ell of a noise, and then the nurse says ' Sit hup and take this broth.'

Though in this war the work of the cavalry is almost negligible; though cartridges and marmalade are hurried to the front on motor-trucks and the wounded are hurried from the front back to the hospital in motor-ambulances; though dispatch riders bestride panting motorcycles instead of panting steeds ; though scouting is done by airmen instead of horsemen, the day of the horse in warfare has by no means passed. Without the horse, indeed, the guns could not go into action, for no form of tractor has yet been devised for hauling batteries over broken country. In fact, all of the belligerent nations are experiencing great difficulty in providing a sufficient supply of horses, for the average life of a war-horse is very short; ten days assert some authorities, sixteen say others. For the first time in the history of warfare, therefore, the horse 15 treated as a creature which must be cared for when sick or wounded as well as when in health, and this not merely from motives of sentiment or humanity but as a detail of military efficiency. " For want of a nail," runs the old ditty, "the shoe was lost ; for want of a shoe the horse was lost ; for want of a horse the rider was lost ; for want of a rider the battle was lost "-and the Royal Army Veterinary. Corps is seeing to it that no battles are lost for lack of either horses or horseshoes. The Army Veterinary Corps now has on the British sector 700 officers and 8ooo men, whose business it is to conserve the lives of the horses.

The last report that I have seen places the total number of horses treated in the various hospital units (each of which accommodates 1000 animals) as approximately 81,000, of which some 47,000 had been returned to the Remount Department as again fit for active service; 30,000 were still under treatment; the balance having died, been destroyed, or sold.

The horses in use by the British Army in France are the very pick of England, the Colonies, and foreign countries; thoroughbred and three-quarter bred hunters from the hunting counties and from Ireland; hackneys, draught and farm animals; Walers from Australia; wire-jumpers from New Zealand; hardy stock from Alberta and Saskatchewan; sturdy ponies from the hill country of India; thousands upon thousands of animals from the American South-West, and from the Argentine; to say nothing of the great sixteen-hand mules from Missouri and Spain.

Animals suffering from wounds or sickness are shipped back to the hospital bases on the coast in herds, each being provided with a separate covered stall, or, in case of pneumonia, with a box-stall. The spotless buildings, with their exercise tracks and acres of green pad-docks, suggest a racecourse rather than a hospital for horses injured in war. Each hospital has its operating-sheds, its X-ray department, its wards for special ailments, its laboratories for preventive research work, a pharmacy, a museum which affords opportunity for the study of the effects of sabre, shell, and bullet wounds, and a staff of three hundred trained veterinarians. Schools have also been established in connection with the hospitals in which the grooms and attendants are taught the elements of anatomy, dentistry, farriery, stabling, feeding, sanitation, and, most important of all, the care of hoofs. All the methods and equipment employed are the best that science can suggest and money can obtain, everything having passed the inspection of the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Lonsdale, the two greatest horse-breeders in England.

Attached to each division of troops in the field is a mobile veterinary section, consisting of an officer and twenty-two men, who are equipped to render first-aid service to wounded horses and whose duty it is to decide which animals shall be sent to the hospitals for treatment, which are fit to return t6 the front for further service, and which cases are hopeless and must be destroyed. The enormous economic value of this system is conclusively proved by the fact that it has reduced sickness among horses in the British Army 50 per cent., and mortality 47 per cent.

The question that has been asked me more frequently than any other is why the British, with upwards of a million men in the field, are holding only fifty miles of battle-front, as compared with seventeen miles held by the Belgians and nearly four hundred by the French. There are several reasons for this. It should be remembered, in the first place, that the British Army is composed of green troops, while the French ranks, thanks to the universal service law, are filled with men all of whom have spent at least three years with the colours. In the second place, the British sector is by far the most difficult portion of the Western battle-front to hold, not only because of the configuration of the country, which offers little natural protection, but because it lies squarely athwart me road to the Channel ports-and it is to the Channel ports that the Germans are going if men and shells can get them there. The fighting along the British sector is, moreover, of a more desperate and relentless nature than elsewhere on the Allied line, because the Germans nourish a deeper hatred for the English than for all their other enemies put together.


two pages from 'the War Illustrated' showing the use of poisin gas


It was against the British, remember, that the Germans first used their poison-gas. The first engagement of importance in which gas played a part was the second battle of Ypres, lasting from April 22 until May 13, which will probably take rank in history as one of the greatest battles of all time. In it the Germans, owing to the surprise and confusion created by their introduction of poison-gas, came within a hair's breadth of breaking through the Allied line, and would certainly have done so had it not been for the gallantry and self-sacrifice of the Canadian Division, which, at the cost of appalling losses, won imperishable fame. The German bombardment of Ypres began on April 20 and in forty-eight hours, so terrible was the rain of heavy projectiles which poured down upon it, the quaint old city, with its exquisite Cloth Hall, was but a heap of blackened, smoking ruins. That portion of the Allied line to the north of the city was held, along a front of some four miles, by a French division composed of Colonials, Algerians, and Senegalese, stiffened by several line regiments. Late in the afternoon of the 22nd, peering above their trenches, they saw, rolling toward them across the Flemish plain, an impalpable cloud of yellowish-green, which, fanned by a brisk wind, moved forward at the speed of a trotting horse. It came on with the remorselessness of Fate.

It blotted but what was happening behind it as the smoke screen from a destroyer masks the manoeuvres a Dreadnought. The spring vegetation shrivelled up before it as papers shrivel when thrown into a fire. It blasted everything it touched as with a hand of death. No one knew what it was or whence it came. Nearer it surged and nearer. It was within a hundred metres of the French position . . . fifty … thirty . . . ten . . . and then the silent horror was upon them. Men began to cough and hack and strangle. Their eyes smarted and burned with the pungent, acrid fumes. Soldiers staggered and fell before it in twos and fours and dozens as miners succumb to fire-damp. Men, strained and twisted into grotesque, horrid attitudes, were sobbing their lives out on the floors of the trenches. The fire of rifles and machine guns weakened, died down, ceased. The whole line swayed, wavered, trembled on the verge of panic. Just then a giant Algerian shouted, "The Boches have turned loose evil spirits upon us! We can fight men, but we cannot fight afri ! Run, brothers! Run for your lives ! "

That was all that was needed to precipitate the disaster. The superstitious Africans, men from the West Coast where voodooism still holds sway, men of the desert steeped in the traditions and mysteries of Islam, broke and ran. The French white troops, carried off their feet by the sudden rush, were swept along in the mad debacle. And as they ran the yellow cloud pursued them remorselessly, like a great hand reaching out for their throats.

An eye-witness of the rout that followed told me that he never expects to see its like this side of the gates of hell. The fields were dotted with blue-clad figures wearing kepis, and brown-clad ones wearing turbans and tarbooshes, who stumbled and fell and rose again and staggered along a few paces and fell to rise no more. The highways leading from the trenches were choked with maddened, fear-crazed white and black and brown men who had thrown away their rifles, their cartridge pouches, their knapsacks, in some cases even their coats and shirts. Some were calling on Christ and some on Allah and some on their strange pagan gods. Their eyes were starting from their sockets, on their foreheads stood glistening beads of sweat, they slavered at the mouth like dogs, their cheeks and breasts were flecked with foam. "We're not afraid of the Boches !" screamed a giant sergeant of Zouaves on whose breast were the ribbons of a dozen wars. "We can fight them until hell turns cold. But this we cannot fight. Le Bon Dieu does not expect us to stay and die like rats in a sewer."

Guns and gun-caissons passed at a gallop, Turcos and tirailleurs clinging to them, the fear- crazed gunners flogging their reeking horses frantically. The ditches bordering the roads were filled with overturned waggons and abandoned equipment. Giant negroes, naked to the waist, tore by shrieking that the spirits had been loosed upon them and slashing with their bayonets at all who got in their path. Mounted officers, frantic with anger and mortification, using their swords and pistols indiscriminately, vainly tried to check the human stream. And through the four-mile breach which the poison-gas had made the Germans were pouring in their thousands. The roar of their artillery sounded like unceasing thunder. The scarlet rays of the setting sun lighted up such a scene as Flanders had never before beheld in all its bloody history. Then darkness came and the sky was streaked across with the fiery trails of rockets and the sudden splotches of bursting shrapnel. The tumult was beyond all imagination-the crackle of musketry, the rattle of machine guns, the crash of high explosive, the thunder of falling walls, the clank of harness and the rumble of wheels, the screams of the wounded and the groans of the dying, the harsh commands of the officers, the murmur of many voices, and the shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of countless hurrying feet.

And through the breach still poured the helmeted legions like water bursting through a broken dam. Into that breach were thrown the Canadians. The story of how, overwhelmed by superior numbers of both men and guns, choked by poison-fumes, reeling from exhaustion, sometimes without food, for it was impossible to get it to them, under such a rain of shells as the world had never before seen, the brawny men from the oversea Dominion fought on for a solid week, and thereby saved the army from annihilation, needs no re-telling here. Brigade after brigade of fresh troops, division after division, was hurled against them but still they battled on. So closely were they pressed at times that they fought in little groups; men from Ontario and Quebec shoulder to shoulder with blood-stained heroes from Alberta and Saskatchewan. At last, when it seemed as though human endurance could stand the strain no longer, up went the cry, "Here come the guns !" and the Canadian batteries, splashed with. sweat and mud, tore into action on the run. "Action front !" screamed the officers, and the guns whirled like polo ponies so that their muzzles faced the oncoming wave of grey.

With shrapnel ! . . . Load!" The lean and polished projectiles slipped in and the breech-blocks snapped home. "Fire at will!" and the blast of steel tore bloody avenues in the German ranks. But fresh battalions filled the gaps - the German reserves seemed inexhaustible-and they still came on. At one period of the battle the Germans were so close to the guns that the order was given, Set your fuses at zero !" which means that a shell bursts almost the moment it leaves the muzzle of the gun. It was not until early on Friday morning that reinforcements reached the shattered Canadians and enabled them to hold their ground. Later the Northumbrian Division - Territorials arrived only three days before from the English training-camps - were sent to aid them and proved themselves as good soldiers as the veterans beside whom they fought. For days the fate of the army hung in the balance, for there seemed no end to the German reserves, who were wiped out by whole divisions only to be replaced by more, but against the stone wall of the Canadian resistance the men in the spiked helmets threw themselves in vain. On May 13, 1915, after three weeks of continuous fighting, ended the Second Battle of Ypres, not in a terrific and decisive climax, but slowly, sullenly, like two prize-fighters who have fought to the very limit of their strength.

According to the present British system, the soldiers spend three weeks at the front and one week in the rear - if possible, out of sound of the guns. The entire three weeks at the front is, to all intents and purposes, spent in the trenches, though every third day the men are given a breathing spell. Three weeks in the trenches? I wonder if you of the sheltered life have any but the haziest notion of what that means. I wonder if you, Mr. Lawyer you, Mr. Doctor; you, Mr. Business Man, can conceive of spending your summer vacation in a ditch 4 feet wide and 8 feet deep, sometimes with mud and water to your knees, sometimes faint from heat and lack of air, in your nostrils the stench of bodies long months dead, rotting amid the wire entanglements a few yards in front of you, and over your head steel death whining angrily, ceaselessly. I wonder if you can imagine what it must be like to sleep - when the roar of the guns dies down sufficiently to make sleep possible - on foul straw in a hole hollowed in the earth, into which you have to crawl on all fours, like an animal into its lair. I wonder if you can picture yourself as wearing a uniform so stiff with sweat and dirt that it would stand alone, and underclothes so rotten with filth that they would fall apart were you to take them off, your body so crawling with vermin and so long unwashed that you are an offence to all whom you approach-yet with no chance to bathe or to change your clothes or sometimes even to wash your hands and face for weeks on end. I wonder how your nerves would stand the strain if you knew that at any moment a favourable wind might bring a gas cloud rolling down upon you to kill you by slow strangulation, or that a shell might drop into the trench in which you were standing in water to your knees and leave you floating about in a bloody mess which turned that water red, or that a Taube might let loose upon you a shower of steel arrows which would pass through you as a needle passes through a piece of cloth, or that a mine might be exploded beneath your feet and distribute you over the landscape in fragments too small to be worth burying, or, worse still, to leave you alive amid a litter of heads and arms and legs which a moment before had belonged to your comrades, the horror of it all turning you into a maniac who alternately shrieks and gibbers and rocks with insane mirth at the horror of it all. I am perfectly aware that this makes anything but pleasant reading, my friends, but if men of gentle birth, men with university educations, men who are accustomed to the same refinements and luxuries that you are, can endure these things, why, it seems to me that you ought to be able to endure reading about them.

The effect of some of the newer types of high-explosive shells is almost beyond belief. For sheer horror and destruction those from the Austrian-made Skoda howitzer, known as "Pilseners," make the famous 42-centimetre shells seem almost kind. The Skoda shells weigh 2800 lb., and their usual curve is 4+ miles high. In soft ground they penetrate 20 feet before exploding. The explosion, which occurs two seconds after impact, kills every living thing within 150 yards, while scores of men who escape the flying metal are killed, lacerated, or blinded by the mere pressure of the gas. This gas pressure is so terrific that it breaks in the roofs and partitions of bombproof shelters. Of men close by not a fragment remains. The gas gets into the body cavities and expands, literally tearing them to pieces. Occasionally the clothes are stripped off leaving only the boots. Rifle-barrels near by are melted as though struck by lightning. These mammoth shells travel comparatively slowly, however, usually giving enough warning of their approach so that the men have time to dodge them. Their progress is so slow, indeed, that sometimes they can be seen. Far more terrifying is the smaller shell which, because of its shrill, plaintive whine, has been nicknamed "Weary Willie," or those from the new "noiseless” field-gun recently introduced by the Germans, which gives no intimation of its approach until it explodes with a shattering crash above the trenches. Is it any wonder that hundreds of officers and men are going insane from the strain that they are under, and that hundreds more are in the hospitals suffering from neuritis and nervous breakdown ? Is it any wonder that, when their term in the trenches is over, they have to be taken out of sight and sound of battle and their shattered nerves restored by means of a carefully planned routine of sports and games, as though they were children in a kindergarten

The breweries, mills, and factories immediately behind the British lines have, wherever practicable, been converted into bath-houses to which the men are marched as soon as they leave the trenches. The soldiers strip and, retaining nothing but their boots, which they deposit beside the bath-tub, they go in, soap in one hand and scrubbing-brush in the other, the hot bath being followed by a cold shower. The underclothes which they have taken off are promptly burned and fresh sets given to them, as are also clean uniforms, the discarded ones, after passing through a fumigating machine, being washed, pressed, and repaired by the numerous Frenchwomen who are employed for the purpose, so as to be ready for their owners the next time they return from the trenches. At one of these improvised bath-houses thirteen hundred men pass through each day.

"What do the French think of the English?"

To every one I put that question. Summing up all opinions, I should say that the French thoroughly appreciate the value of Britain's sea-power and what it has meant to them for her to have control of the seas, but they regard her lack of military preparedness and the deficiency of technique among the British officers as inexcusable; they consider the deep-seated opposition to conscription in England as incomprehensible; they view the bickerings between British capital and labour as little short of criminal; they regard the British officers who needlessly expose themselves as being not heroic but insane. The attitude of the British Press was, in the earlier days of the war at least, calculated to put a slight strain on the entente cordiale. Anxious, naturally enough, to throw into high relief the exploits of the British troops in France, the British newspapers vastly exaggerated the importance of the British expedition, thus throwing the whole picture of the war out of perspective. The behaviour of the British officers, moreover, though punctiliously correct, was not such as to mend matters, for they assumed an attitude of haughty condescension which, as I happen to know, was extremely galling to their French colleagues, most of whom had forgotten more about the science of war than the patronizing youngsters who officered the new armies had ever known. "To listen to you English and to read your newspapers," I heard a Frenchman say to an Englishman in the Travellers' Club in Paris not long ago, "one would think that there was no one in France except the British Army and a few Germans."

I have never heard anyone in France suggest that the British officer is lacking in bravery, but I have often heard it intimated that he is lacking in brains. The view is held that he regards the war as a sporting affair, much as he would regard polo or a big-game hunting, rather than as a deadly serious business. When the British officers in Flanders brought over several packs of hounds and thus attempted to combine war and hunting, it created a more unfavourable impression among the French than if the British had lost a battle. "The British Army," a distinguished Italian general remarked to me shortly before Italy joined the Allies, "is composed of magnificent material ; it is well fed and admirably equipped - but the men look on war as sport and go into battle as they would into a game of football." To the Frenchman, whose soil is under the heel of the invader, whose women have been violated by a ruthless and brutal soldiery, whose historic monuments have been destroyed, and whose towns have been sacked and burned, this attitude of mind is absolutely incomprehensible, and in his heart he resents it. The above, mind you, is written in no spirit of criticism; I am merely attempting to show you the Englishman through French eyes.

I have heard it said, in criticism, that the new British Army is composed of youngsters. So it is, but for the life of me I fail to see why this should be any objection. The ranks of both armies during our Civil War were filled with boys still in their teens. It was one of Wellington's generals, if I remember rightly, who used to say that, for really desperate work, he would always take lads in preference to seasoned veterans because the latter were apt to be "too cunning." "These children," exclaimed Marshal Ney, reviewing the beardless conscripts of 1813, "are wonderful ! I can do anything with them; they will go anywhere !"

But the thing that really counts, when all is said and done, is the spirit of the men. The British soldier of this new army has none of the rollicking, devil-may-care recklessness of the traditional Tommy Atkins. He has not joined the army from any spirit of adventure or because he wanted to see the world. He is not an adventurer; he is a crusader. With him it is a deadly serious business. He has not enlisted because he wanted to, or because he had to, but because he felt he ought to. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he has left a family, a comfortable home, and a good job behind him. And, unlike the stay-at-homes in England, he doesn't make the mistake of underrating his enemy. He knows that the headlines which appear regularly in the English papers exultantly announcing "another British advance" are generally buncombe. He knows that it isn't a question of advancing but of hanging on. He knows that he will have to fight with every ounce of fight there is in him if he is to remain where he is now. He knows that before the Germans can be driven out of France and Belgium, much less across the Rhine, all England will be wearing crape. He knows that there is no truth in the reports that the enemy is weakening. He knows it because hasn't he vainly thrown himself in successive waves against that unyielding wall of steel ? He knows that it is going to be a long war - probably a very long war indeed.

Every British officer or soldier with whom I have talked has said that he expects that the spring of 1916 will find them in virtually the same positions that they have occupied for the past year. They will gain ground in some places, of course, and lose ground in others, but the winter, so the men in the trenches believe, will see no radical alteration in the present Western battle-line. All this, of course, will not make pleasant reading in England, where the Government and certain sections of the Press have given the people the impression that Germany is already beaten to her knees and that it is all over bar the shouting. Out along the battle-front, however, in the trenches, and around the camp-fires, you do not hear the men discussing "the terms of peace we will grant Germany," or " What shall we do with the Kaiser ?" They are not talking much, they are not singing much, they are not boasting at all, but they have settled down to the Herculean task that lies before them with a grim determination, a bull-dog tenacity of purpose, which is eventually, I believe, going to prove the deciding factor in the war. Nothing better illustrates this spirit than the inscription which I saw on a cross over a newly made grave in Flanders :



on the British held front in 1915
from 'the War Illustrated'


Back to Index