from the book : 'Behind the Scenes in Warring Germany'
'In the German Trenches'
by Edward Lyell Fox
McBride, Nast & Co. New York - 1915
an American in the German Front Lines

left : from 'die Wochenschau' a German war-time magazine
officers in a German trench
right : German ranks in a snow-bound trench

continued from : An American Journalist Visits German Trenches part 1


In the Trenches

By the first of October, 1914, every European war map had become a bore. After Von Kluck had conducted what a United States military attaché in Berlin told me was the most masterly retreat in the history of the world, the black fishhook line stopped moving across northern France and fastening its barb in Belgium, it ceased to move. Day after day, as we read the newspapers we saw that the line was the same; perhaps near Dixmude or Mulhausen it changed from time to time, but by November first it was evident that it was there to stay - for a time at least -and war maps became a bore. The reality of that line of ink is not, I assure you.

The next time you read your newspaper, glance again at the map of the West Front. Follow the line that begins on the Channel above Calais, turning southeast above Ypres and ending in the passes of the Vosges in Alsace; and then think of it in this way. On the dunes you can enter a ditch that has been dug across Europe from the English Channel to Mulhausen. You can walk about three hundred miles underground, eat three meals a day, and sleep on officers' cots without once having to expose yourself in the open. You will realize as you see second, third, and fourth trenches parallel and connecting by labyrinthine passages that the amount of excavating required would dig a subway. The labor involved in the New York Aqueduct, the Chicago Subway, the irrigation works of our West seem trivial when you consider this work was done under fire.

Before I came to Germany I was told: "There is not much doing in the West. Both armies are marking time." Since then the battle line has become about three hundred miles long. A surgeon in the Feld Lazarette, in Vis-en-Artois, told me that they had on the average ten wounded a day and that their hospital was fed by a segment of the front about two miles long. When you recall the terrific fighting near the Channel ports, this average is not high for the whole line. So when you glance at the little map in your newspaper think of it as meaning three thousand wounded men a day, ninety thousand a month, and a tenth as many dead. Remember also the Ypres Canal, where soldiers have gone mad and thrown themselves into red water, and at the same time the field of Soissons, strewn twice with the dead; of men in the trenches of the Argonne, undermined, dynamited, their bodies blown as high as leafless forest trees.

Again, when any one says to you, "There is not much doing in the West," imagine a three hundred mile line with three quarters of a million soldiers standing in muddy brown water, and three quarters of a million more, too, whom they have just relieved, lying on beds of straw, too exhausted to remove their uniforms until it is time to wash; think of that line in which for every five minutes of every day a German is being killed - and God knows how many English, French and Belgians.

For two days I had been in the vicinity of Lille with Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann of the Great General Staff, Near Labasse I had seen the trenches at night, but I wanted to see them by day; for at night the soldiers are all keyed high; it is then that the hard fighting is done. What did they do with themselves during the day? It was at Lille, the fifth night after I had left Berlin, that I met five other American correspondents, a Hollander and a Norwegian, who were in Hauptmann Kliewer's party. After dinner in the Hotel de Europe, Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann, who had gone with Hauptmann Kliewer to the Staff of the Second Bavarian Army Corps, told me that from now on the two parties would travel together until we reached Brussels. "In the morning," he said, "we go to the trenches in front of Arras. You must be here in the lobby ready to take the motor not later than six."

In the inky darkness of a clear, cold morning three army automobiles left the Hotel de Europe and roared away through the streets of Lille. A Second Army Corps officer whom Bob Dunn, the New York Post’s correspondent, was apologetically explaining as being a cousin of his, rode in the first car. This officer, who had never traveled the road to Arras before, was acting as our guide; soon we understood Dunn's apologetic way, for after one challenge upon another came ringing out of the night, and we had stopped to have our papers read in the lantern light of sentries and patrols, Dunn's cousin lost the way. "I knew he would," remarked Dunn. "No one related to me could go straight."

The officer tried again. He took us along the crumbling path of war, along a road where under a dark centered half moon we saw in the silvery graying light the lanes of abandoned trenches and rows of gaping shell torn houses, while one by one the stars turned to tiny icicle tips, and day slowly came on. I think after crossing the Ypres Canal at Douai, that we followed every blind alley between there and Vitry, for turning one corner after another, with each new row of poplars coloring clearer against a brightening sky, we seemed to come no nearer to the boom of the guns.

As we plowed through a heavy cross road to Mouchy le Preux and came out on the highway to Arras, we saw a German battery. The last stars had withdrawn, and in the grayish morning light the clanking field pieces lumbered by, a ghostly company with vague gray ghostly men on ghostly horses. I imagined they were moving parallel to the firing line, changing position. How close were we now? Probably six kilometers. Two miles riding up the road to Arras with the battlefield of October 1st, the muddy, desolated fields on either side. It was up this road that the French artillery made its retreat, across those fields that their infantry poured with the Duke of Altenburg's Saxonians in hot pursuit. Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann had told me that the French had given way all along the line here before the German second drive, retreating to Arras, which they now held. I remember that he had spoken of Arras as an objective and that the Germans were constantly drawing nearer. How close were they now? How far from the French would we be in the trench? One began to feel a tremulous excitement.

Hauptmann Kliewer and Ober-Lieutenant "Herr-mann told us that this was as far as they dared go with the motors. To approach closer than two kilometers to Arras with automobiles, and we easily would be discerned by the French artillery observers. Evidently having been telephoned that we were coming, two gray cloaked officers were waiting for us outside a little brown shack that I guessed was regimental headquarters. The Captain, an intelligent looking Prussian - and, by the way, I've yet to see one of the upturned mustached bullies of whom our cartoonists are so fond - spoke perfect English.

"Leave your overcoats here," he advised. "It's rather warm going up to the trenches."

Then he glanced at our feet and gave an approving nod. "No pumps or gaiters, I see. That's good; you'll be up to your knees in water," and as I walked up the road towards Arras, he told me that two Italian journalists - any newspaper man is a journalist in Europe - had visited the trenches at Arras. And the Captain laughed. " One wore a pair of gray spats and the other had one of those artist ties, those black fluffy things. One of our soldiers drew a sketch of them."

When we had gone about a hundred yards, we turned to the right, descending by an abrupt run-away into a trench that dug in a plowed field, led away at right angles from the road. More than a thousand meters from the French trench, and with rifle fire yet to begin, and shielded by the very fact that you walked in a narrow pit seven feet under ground, comparatively less in danger than you had been in the motor from Mouchy le Preux on, you nevertheless tingled with a strange exhilaration. Keeping one eye on the top of the trench, prepared to duck, lest it suddenly became uniform in height and expose your head to the open field, gazing the rest of the time at the bottom of the pit, lest you slip in a hole and go sprawling in the yellow liquid ooze, we followed the officers, slavishly imitating their movements of progress. Then we came to another trench that made a right angle with our own, advancing towards the firing line, parallel to the road we had left as unsafe, exactly as in the approach trenches at Labasse. But as we trudged on, splashing now and then through water to our knees, we no longer imitated the officers. They walked as before, unconcernedly and erect. We were going along ducking our backs, for shrapnel was beginning to fly in a neighboring field, and I heard it panging in the mud on all sides.

It was light now, although a fleecy white moon still hung in the sky, and as it grew brighter, one after another, the batteries began the forenoon cannonade, and as I heard the bursting shrapnel ever growing more numerous, I. guessed it was the same as at that other point on the line where I had been two days before, where the French cannonade before and after luncheon, always beginning at the same time. And then directly above me I heard the disconcerting burst of shrapnel and I saw the pretty billowing white clouds that the explosion always makes, and knowing that to be directly under shrapnel is to be out of danger for the little balls spray like the stream of a watering cart, I comfortably watched the smoke until it drifted away, thinning like blown silk.

From the field the trench sloped up into a deserted house. Obviously a part of the trench, I saw the wall of the house had been pierced to make a passage the same width of the ditch, and that in the far wall there loomed a similar passage doubtless leading down into the trench again. As I walked through the ground floor rooms of the house, it reminded me of something I had seen from the windows of the military train that had brought me from Metz to Lille. There the survey of the German pioneers had hit through the middle of certain villages, and I had seen houses flush against the track, with their side walls torn off so that the trains might pass without smashing into them; and I had seen everything in the disordered rooms of those houses. Here it was the same, only this time war had invaded homes with a trench instead of a train. First one, then through a doorway into a second room in utter disorder. I saw concentric holes that marked the entrance and exit of a shell and the confusion of turmoil and pillage. A bureau with the drawers emptied out, clothing strewn on the floor, a baby's high chair overturned, a crucifix lying broken in a heap of fallen plaster, those rooms seemed to be a contrast, a chaos, the picture of the illimitable dissolution of war in one home. Into the trench again, up another slope through another silent house, through a stableyard, vile with blackish typhus water, and so on along a path of desolation, if not where the trench led through farmhouses where it pierced unharvested beet fields, with the panging of shrapnel and now the sucking whistle of rifle balls until we came to another and wider trench. This at right angles to our own, crossed the road to Arras.

"This is the line," the Captain explained. "The French are only two hundred meters away. Don't expose yourself, and when you hear shrapnel close, it is best to stoop down a little. Come," and turning into the pit, he led the way towards the highway. We were walking parallel to the French, and they were only two hundred meters away. And I thought then of it being the great ditch, burrowed under Europe for three hundred miles, and I was soon to feel that I was among the inhabitants of a new and terrible world.

Your pulse quickened. Back there where you left the road and the brown muddy walls about you there had come a thrill; as you floundered on up through the approaches hearing the burst of shrapnel and the spatter of the balls on the soaked field, you were uneasy; but now as you gazed up and down the trench, which you have thought of not in so commonplace a way as to call it "trench," rather "firing line," as slowly its impressions came upon you, they left you amazed. This goal that you had been striving for during a whole month was a place where men looked bored!

And how can any one be uneasy or frightened when every one else seems as though the very safety of their existence is torturing them to death? But that was before I went into the advance trenches, for out posts make a difference in the soldiers, as I was presently to see.

"This position," explained the Captain, as we walked in single file, "was a French trench. We did some work on it. Made bombproofs out of some of their old rifle pits and dug new ones along what was the back of their trenches. Now the French see our guns sticking out where their stove pipes used to be."

I noticed one little square doorway after another cut in the back wall of the trench, curtained with burlap bags, and as we passed, the curtains were pushed aside and I saw the soldiers sitting inside playing cards by candlelight or smoking and talking, and all looking so comfortably bored; just as you would imagine them sitting in a Friedrichstrasse café and watching the crowds go by. "There's no attacking now," explained the Captain, "so only half the men are on duty in the rifle pits. The others lounge in their dugouts."

And as we went further along I saw signs of idle time when soldiers revert to childhood and remember that they used to dig things in the dirt and sand. Here in the trench wall four nitches had been dug, three in a line and the other below. And in the upper nitches, tiled in various attitudes suggestive of destruction, were three toy battleships, flying tiny Union Jacks and below them a toy submarine with U 9 painted on his gray hull. And I was positive that I knew the store in Leipzigerstrasse from which they had been sent by Feld Post.

To the right I saw the short wide passages leading up to the rifle pits where two soldiers stood on a platform cut in the dirt. One was cleaning his gun while the other squinted along a rifle barrel that protruded through a narrow port re-enforced with bags of sand, and watched. His manner, the stiffened pose of the gray-green shoulders, the boot braced in the ground, set him off in increasing alertness and vigilance. In one of the dugouts I heard the whine of a harmonica; it was the waltz from "The Dollar Princess." And as I came along the line the impression grew on me, the men in the rifle pits, crouching statues of war; and the men in the dugouts behind, wondering what to do with their time.

The trench sloped upwards and we were crossing the road to Arras, but I could not see the village, for there loomed a barrier of sandbags six feet high; and thrust through this gray wall, I saw a machine gun, with a soldier dabbing it with oil, while another peered through a slit towards Arras. It was obvious that the gun was trained on the road. A Lieutenant came to meet us.

"The Lieutenant," said the Captain, after he had introduced us, "is in command of this section of the trench."

As we followed up along the line, I began to think of the French as being only two hundred meters away and that it was uncanny not to see them. Every now and then the whistle of a bullet told you that they too were watching this trench just as the Germans were watching theirs, and in an empty field, a quarter of a mile away, grenaten were bursting with terrific din. Yet perversely you half doubted that the French were there at all. Subconsciously the thing didn't seem possible, a line of armed men just across the field; and you had been walking opposite them for more than a quarter mile without any more of a realization of their presence than that caused by the suck of a rifle ball. Where were they? What did they look like?

At the next rifle pit, with a nod to the Captain, I turned in. The soldier who sat with his gun on his knee, smiled in a friendly way. I said something in German and his comrade at the oblong porthole, relaxed his vigilance long enough to look around and grin. Carefully I listened for bullets. On this point there was apparently no firing. With absurd stealth - I imagine they must have both grinned - I stuck my head up over the top of the trenches. I saw about a quarter of a mile away a fringe of trees with white and yellow houses showing through, and further forward, just off the macadam road, a house of grayish stone. The sky was blue and in the bright sunlight the furrowed rain-soaked field was a golden brown.

I could see a black wisp of smoke curling from a red brick chimney, but where were the French? . Something slapped against the mud in front of me, and a shower of dirt flew over the trench. Down I ducked. Yes, the French were there.

The soldier at the porthole was talking excited German. "He says," smiled the man with the gun across the knee, speaking English now for the first time, "that you kept your head up too long. It's all right to look quickly and get down, but the other way they see you."

His growing beard did not conceal his smiling mouth. I wondered at his easy dialect, spoken without the London accent noticeable in so many Prussian officers. I asked him where he had learned to speak American. He told me he had worked in the Bronx - which those who are not New Yorkers may or may not know - and that he was a joiner in a piano factory. Every Sunday afternoon he played baseball in Claremont Park; his team had won a Church League championship. Bullets began to whistle overhead. Doubtless thinking that a reckless officer had exposed himself, the French were covering the pit. "Do you hear them?" grinned the Bronx piano joiner, as the whistle of the bullets kept up. "Fine, isn't it?"

"You like to hear bullets?" I asked. He nodded.

Well, I suppose it's a cultivated taste, like German hors d'oeuvres. I began to think of him as of the Saxonians whom I saw drilling in the courtyard in Vis en Artois. Of course he liked this better than piecing together colorless bits of wood in a factory. Not a day passed, probably, but that he got his little thrill, and when the war was over he could go back to the Bronx - if he lived - and be a hero among his friends for the rest of his days. And as I wished him good luck and turned to overtake the others I wondered if this war is going to change the workingman in this way; if he is going to become so accustomed to a spicy existence that he never tasted before, that he will not follow to the humdrum of shops and mills as inevitably as before; rather demanding something more?

Beside the door to a dugout I saw on the wall a page torn from a French periodical L'Illustration. It was a lay-out of actresses and bicycle riders and it struck you as incongruous until you remembered that the trench had been captured from the French. I saw a profusion of mottoes lettered by the soldiers on their writing paper - Gott mit Uns. You could not pass a rifle pit - and they are about ten yards apart - without seeing those words of the Emperor that have become the slogan of the German army; and you thought as you saw them, not printed under some official orders and sent to the soldiers so that they would ever have them before them, but written by the men themselves out of the feeling in their hearts, you thought that it is going to be a tremendous job to hold at bay an army, that thinks the Divine is on its side.

I noticed that the soldiers try to outdo each other in the Individuality of their dugouts. There was one that had a little sign over the door "Gasthaus zur Kron" and the soldier inside told me that it was the name of the hotel he owned in his home town. I saw another with three inches of stove pipe protruding from the roof that billeted itself as the Schmaltz Kuchen Backerie, under which was modestly written in pencil "Here is the best kitchen in the world." Delightful these signs, for presently I came upon an exceedingly frank one, the tenant of a dugout having stuck over the door, a shingle upon which was written "Gasthaus der Wilde Wanze;' which means "The Inn of the Wild Bed Bug."

I went down into one of the dugouts. I saw a square hole in the earth where one had to move about stooped. A candle flickered on an empty box and in the corner I saw two piles of mud-caked blankets. A pair of wet socks hung from a string that had been fastened in some miraculous way from wall to wall and a soldier was straining his eyes In the candlelight, reading the tiny Bible which is part of the equipment of every German private. Perhaps I do the man an injustice but I imagined he was reading because he was bored; and that by the time this war is over, more Germans will know their Bible from cover to cover because of hours in the trenches when they had nothing else to do. I saw no crucifix in that room in the ground - and I have seen crucifixes in bomb-proofs - but I saw another cross, the Maltese outlines of the Iron Cross dug in the dirt wall, and I thought of it as that soldier's dream.

At the next passage to a rifle pit, the officers stopped and I saw that here were no soldiers on watch and that a narrow passageway opened up into the field.

"That is. the way we advance our trenches," explained the Captain. "At different points we dig out like this and then after we have gone out awhile, we dig sideways in both directions, parallel to this trench. Soon the different little trenches that are being dug that way, meet. Then they are deepened and the soldiers have pits here and take the new position."

It was the method, as old as fortifications that the Japanese gave perfected, to the military world at Port Arthur and that the Bulgarians copied around Adrianople, and it is the way by which the -th Infantry finally closed in Arras, the way the whole German line, meter by meter, is moving France, creeping this time, not running wild over the country side, as during those wild August days, but gaining slowly here, losing slowly there, instead of being driven back across their own frontier, as the English newspapers promised they would be long before this writing. I went up into one of the little outpost trenches. The approach was shallow and you had to walk doubled over. I passed a door of solid iron that slid into a groove dug in the mud, and through another gate, this one of wood and tangled with barbed wire.

"In case anything should happen during the night," offered the Captain with a smile; and then we came to the new trench where soldiers were digging, while a squad of eight stood guard with leveled rifles and a machine gun lest the French attack by surprise. It was not yet a trench in the military sense; only a ditch in which you dared not stand erect for even your chest would be exposed above the bags of sand that lined the top. Crouched beside a soldier I peered through an opening between the bags. I felt that the gray stone house that I had seen before, was approaching nearer. Where were the French? I stared across the plowed field. Finally I made out a furrow that was different from the others. It seemed higher and more gray than the color of dirt and I saw that it extended as far as the eye could see, and as I watched it I suddenly saw a speck of blue. It was the hat I had seen by the thousands in the prison camps. I had seen the French.

The soldier beside me seemed engrossed in the gray stone' house. He muttered something to the next man - there were not separate rifle pits here - just a line of men. I too watched the gray house. I saw on the roof the rack of a wireless, and in the middle of the wall where the garret must be, a circular open window looked almost as if it had been made as a shell. I became conscious that there was somebody in that room and the next moment I saw a figure slowly approach the big gaping window, and a head cautiously appeared. I had a glimpse of a pallid blank face and then a rifle roared in my ear, and three more went off in a salvo. "French officers in that room,” remarked the soldier wisely. "We get them."

As I turned to go back to the main trench, I saw that already in this little ditch the irrepressible German soldier had been at work. There in the mud wall was a heart, outlined with the ends of exploded cartridges, and as I looked at it, a boyish man smiled sheepishly and turned away. On the battleline, less - here in the outermost ditch - than two hundred meters from the French, they draw pictures and trace hearts, these sentimental people; and yet they have been accused of wantonly burning houses, these Germans, to whom the home is the biggest thing in all existence. Were every American who believes those Belgian stories, to live with the German soldiers as I have, and to know them off duty, and to watch them in the trenches, he would be utterly at sea. The stories of Belgium do not agree with the men of the German army.

Back in the main trench, I turned off with the Lieutenant, going down what seemed to be a retreating trench until he stopped before a wooden sign that read Kamp Fuhrer. The sign marked his bombproof, and descending a flight of dirt steps, I entered his quarters, different naturally from the private soldiers. He lived in a warren of straw and mud-caked bags and the walls of his ten by ten room in the ground were covered with genuine Afghanistan rugs. The carved desk, strewn with personal belongings, also had the chateau look, although the rickety washstand seemed to have come from a farmhouse. There was even a tiny window looking out away from the French, a mirror, a hatrack and a stone, and when upon coming out I saw that the door to this strange abode could be locked and that a little weather vane fluttered from the roof, I gave him up. He was too wonderful.

He had been watching me with the quiet smile with which all these German officers regard you when they show you the marvels of their army front, and he said: "Would you like to telephone anybody in Berlin? I shall have my orderly get the connection."

I began to catch on and when he said that I could stand at the field telephone which lay in a niche in the trench wall, near his bombproof and get a series of connections that would terminate in Germany and that I actually could carry on a conversation from the firing line with somebody in the Hotel Adlon at Berlin - well, you come to expect anything possible of achievement by these people. I thanked the Lieutenant, but told him I knew of no one to telephone and he said with a laugh that he felt sorry for me, that one always knew a Charlottenburg telephone number in Berlin.

To get back to our motors, we used other approach trenches, and we had not gone a hundred and fifty meters from the trenches, when Bob Dunn and I - we had lingered so long to talk to a German soldier who spoke American that our party had gone ahead - discovered that the water in the pits was rising above our knees. The only thing then that occurred to us when the trench ran close to a road was to climb up out of it. Dunn was hungry and took some bread and cheese from his pocket; munching it we walked along. The sky was white with tiny clouds hanging over the trees ahead. For January it was too warm; we unbuttoned our coats.

"Amazing people," Dunn was saying. I happened to look behind me. The gray stone house! "Do you know," I said feeling cold, "that we're exposed to the French trenches?"

"What of it, they're not firing now," remarked Dunn, who would no more have said that two hours before than I would. And we walked along the road, eating our bread and cheese with the French to look at our backs if they cared to, a quarter of a mile away. There was no danger; the only danger was potential. We had let ourselves feel comfortable in the lulling security of the trenches, which paradoxically kills men. - -

You have read that trenches have changed war, that the life of a soldier is regarded as so precious by those who devise the war machines, that everything is done to protect him. "Digging in" and "trench-work," reassuring phrases for those who do not know, or for those who do not think. By statistics I tried to show how safe the trenches are. Yes, everything is done to safeguard the soldier; he is valuable to the State, which is not a cynicism, for feeling the tremendous national spirit of Germany, you come to think that there is only one thing worth while in these years, and that is the State; and you feel that such a thing as national pride is more worth while than dollar pride; which is something which would come shamefacedly to most Americans were they to walk through the German trenches from the Channel to the Vosges. But if trenches were devised to save the soldier, modern artillery and explosives were devised to kill him; and the only thing that makes you wonder about the trenches and their relative value to life, is how a man can go into them and be alive at the end of the war. At Labasse one night I talked to a captain who told me something of these things.

"Yesterday," he said, "the English fired a hundred and fifty shells over our trench. One hundred and forty-eight burst harmlessly. The other two dropped into the trench and killed fifteen men. It took one hundred and fifty shells to do it, but fifteen men," and the Captain shook his head. I asked him what the effects of shell fire were on the men and he told me: "The moral influence of shells in breaking courage is terrific. That's why a heavy cannonading always precedes the storming of a trench. Especially is this so at night when you have to keep sending up rockets that light the ground between the trenches so the enemy cannot creep up. You see, during the day, the soldiers sight their rifles on different points and at night they simply sweep those points with fire. We only use machine guns to repeal air attack, but further down the line where the French are, officers have told me that the French will waste ammunition firing a machine gun for hours, apparently satisfied if they kill only one man."

And in conversations that I had with officers at the different brigade and corps headquarters where I dined while in the West, and from things I heard in Berlin, I formed an opinion about the trenches. They are tremendously important to Germany. I would go so far as to say that everything depends upon that three hundred mile ditch in the West. If the Germans hold it, it means this: the war is going to end with Germany in possession of Belgium and a big section of industrial France; and somebody has to pay Germany's bill. for this war; and German troops may not leave captured soil until the bill is paid; whereupon billions of dollars depend on a six-foot hole in the ground that twists and burrows across Europe.

I had seen the trenches by day; later I saw them by night. A tedious, slipping walk through half a mile of muddy, unroofed tunnels and I was in the front German. line near Labasse.

When I had accustomed myself to the steady cracking of rifles in the firing pits which I could not see, but which I knew must be close by; when I had nervously counted the bursting of twenty shells, all in an appalling few minutes, yet had heard no plop of fragments burying themselves into the mud above, I began to be able to look about me. By turning my indispensable electric torch this way and that, I could see in the rear wall of the trench a series of caves dug in the earth, their entrances so low that a man would have to enter them on hands and knees, and in some I saw the yellowish gutter of candles and others were pitch dark. At Unter Officer Ochsler's suggestion I went down into one of the caves.

"Later," he said, "you won't want to be moving around much. It'll get hotter then and you'll want to remain in one place where you're sure the shelter is good."

From one of the candle-lighted dugouts, I heard part singing, a lively air, doubtless from some German operetta, and above us shells whined and burst roaring in the fields. It was while we were walking thus, peering to right and left into the life of the catacombs of mud, that a stentorian cry behind us seemed to spin the Lieutenant round on his heels and I followed him thumping heavily back down the slippery pit. "It's an attack," he shouted over his shoulder. "Get into one of the dugouts and stay there. And, if they get us, wave your passport if they find you, and yell you're an American."

Indicating one of the little passages towards the firing pits, he gave me a shove and spattered away to take command. Down on all fours I went. I wondered if the two soldiers in the pit saw me. Apparently not. Their shoulders were hunched to their guns. I hesitated. Of course the dugout would be the safest place, but shells had been flying over the trench for an hour now and nothing had happened; and their shriek and heavy boom no longer seemed so terrifying. But then the Lieutenant had strongly hinted about my being in the way. He had told me to get into that dugout and remain there. Was I not really under his orders? Strange things to be reasoning out with yourself, points of military etiquette, with the skies raining death and the whole line of the trenches blazing with a red, repelling flame. But war is strange, and now I wonder if in the firing line, cowardice and bravery do really exist; if it is not rather one man's nervous system responding to reckless hysteria quicker than another's?

You forgot the Lieutenant's request; you forgot that perhaps you owed it to some one to remain where it was safe - and dull. You forgot that these were not American soldiers leveling their guns not a stride from you, and that they were Englishmen who were pouring up over the trenches across that muddy field and storming towards you; you never thought of nationality, that was a creation of man's. You thought of nothing; you only felt things. You felt something chaotic going on, an inchoate impulse possessed you. It was to fire a gun. If only there was something to shoot, something to throw you into the surge of this fight so you could be thrilled the more. The men in front of you were fighting away; but it was not your fight.

And then came the quick banging beat of the machine guns and you ran to where they were, your pulse beating with them. As you ran, stumbling down the slippery trench, there seemed to jump out of the ground a soldier with black belts of cartridges slung over his shoulder. Then another darted up from another pit and you knew they were bringing ammunition for the gun. In an ecstasy you followed them. At the second little passageway they turned and you turned too and found yourself crouching behind an armored wall of mud, above which the machine gun lay between heavy bags, and you saw a man's elbow jerking round in a circle and you knew he was firing the gun. If only your arm could move like that!

And above even that incessant hellish clamor you heard the crackling report of rifles, one report seeming to run upon the other, as though trays of dishes were constantly being dropped downstairs, and then the heavy booming of shells would deafen all, to the fierce spurting of shrapnel and the slapping impact of fragments of grenaten in the mud. Then a swift rush of air, as of a mighty exhalation, and rockets from our trenches began to swish, one after the other, in short flaming arcs that terminated in a burst of greenish light, turning the night into a mad radiance so that we might better see to kill. I crowded forward, wanting to peer through a slit between the bags, but a soldier pushed me back. I was in the way. I cannot convey how that makes you feel, a realization that you are indeed in the way with these men fighting for their lives and you just there watching them.

I ran from the machine gun, ducking in at the first pit I came to, and here I saw men who without a word, their movements as regular as machines, were loading, firing . . . loading, firing. They were shorter than I, and by raising a trifle on my toes, I could squint along their gun barrels and see the patch of the open field that their loop hole framed. I saw a confusion of color - the green, unearthly haze of the rockets; a wavering red hue of fire that had a way of rushing at you, vanishing and then appearing further back, rushing at you again; and I saw a patch of mud, glistening like mottled tarnished silver in the rain, and once when a whitish rocket burst, the air seemed to be sparkling with myriad drops of silver and diamonds. And the rain poured down; and the guns shook the sky; and the rifles rattled on.

I began to notice then, by craning my head from left to right, that the red wavering lines of fire, which had a way of rushing at you and vanishing to appear again further back, was slower now in appearing after it lost itself somewhere in the mud, and then it became even slower in showing itself and finally when it came, you saw that it had disintegrated into segments, that it was no longer a steady oncoming line, rather a slowly squirming thing like the curling parts of some monstrous fiery worm that had been chopped to bits and was squirming its life away out there on the mud. And it dawned upon you in horror that the fiery red lines had been lines of men, shooting as they had come; and that, when one line had been mowed down, another had rushed up from behind, so on almost endlessly it had seemed until they came broken and squirmed like the others had done, into the mud, and came no more. And the spell that you had been held in was broken; and you remembered that there was a God, and you thanked Him. that your hands had found nothing with which to kill....

And coming across that stretch of mud - only one hundred and fifty meters were their trenches -broke forth the rattle of the English machine guns and the fever of it over, you could reason out what that meant. The English attack had failed and now they were sweeping the field with machine gun fire so that the Germans could not form and storm in turn. Their shells, too, no longer exploded behind our trenches, but in front, and you knew that the English had telephoned back to their artillery to shorten the range about fifty meters, making that field a muddy Golgotha in which nothing could live and upon which their own wounded must be being slain by the score.

We had almost ceased firing. In the pits I heard the straggling shots that mean "at will," but our machine guns were silent. The rockets still swished upward, making their parabola of sparks and keeping the night hideous with their bursting green. The Lieutenant was running down the trench towards me. "You're not hurt?" he asked. I told him no, and he seemed immeasurably relieved. What a futile outsider you felt!

"I think our losses were, by comparison, slight," he said, leading the way towards the passage that turned back into his bombproof. "I shall have an exact report on them in a few minutes." From out of the pits, as we passed, I heard a groan. Thinking the man might be alone, I paused and turned on my lamp. Its white light found a circle of brown mud and then moving down, it shone upon the grotesquely hunched up form of a man in soiled gray green, and wavering across the pit it rested then upon a pair of boots, their soles turned towards me.

"Probably shrapnel," remarked the Lieutenant, as he looked over my shoulder. "Both dead."

You caught a professional lack of emotion in his voice and you experienced a moment's unpleasantness before you realized that a kind providence makes the spectacle of death seem as commonplace to the soldier as it does to the surgeon; otherwise he should go mad. There was a business-like air about the Lieutenant now, rather different, you thought, from that rush through the mud when first the alarm sounded. By the way, how long ago was that; not more than twenty minutes? But when you looked at your watch, the hands shaped more. Two hours!

I followed the Lieutenant into his bombproof.

"We're safe here," he said in a dutiful way, "unless a shell should strike the roof. But I think they'll soon cease their artillery fire altogether."

He twirled the spark wheel of one of those patent lighters that the German soldiers carry and the glowing coal at the end of the chemically treated cord began to seek the wick of a candle. I flashed on my lamp to help him, and in a moment the little dirt walled room was faintly luminous with yellow light. It was possible to stand without bumping your head against the logged roof, and while he picked up the field telephone, whose slender tendrils crept up through the roof like a vine, I glanced around me. Over there in the corner one saw a red rubber wash basin, evidently folding, for it was creased in many places; it rested upon an empty ammunition box, and above it a tiny mirror gave out the reflection of the candle. I heard him call for regimental headquarters and then in a very calm voice he proceeded to give the details of the engagement insofar as he had been able to collect them in such a brief time. He begged me to excuse him while he wrote out a report.

"This must be delivered at once by a soldier to my Colonel," he explained. "I shall leave blanks for the number of our killed and wounded and telephone it to headquarters to be filled in as soon as the under officer brings me the figures."

I told him that I would go out and take a look around while he was writing his report. "I'll only be a minute," he begged.

"I'll be careful," I replied, and he smiled in a way that showed he understood. I then went down the line of the trench for perhaps fifty meters, stopping here and there to go into the firing pits, where by now most of the rifles were silent, one man in each pit watching through the oblong hole between the sand bags, lest the enemy creep up, for their cannonading had ceased and shells no longer fell upon that narrow zone between the trenches. They appeared to take turns watching, the two men in each pit, the one on relief sitting on the ground, his back against the dirt wall, as though fatigued.

It was in one of these pits that I stuck up my head - for the enemy's bullets no longer whizzed by -and looked out upon the little battle field. The rain had ceased; the stars were coming out. It was quiet out there now, but in the distance, north and south, you heard muffled uproars as though what had begun and ended here was happening there now. It was quiet out there, too quiet, not even the wounded groaned; there were no wounded; the artillery had turned them into dead. In the feeble starlight nothing was visible, only vague outlines as of a rise of ground, just at a distance, you imagined, for the English trenches to crest; only that and close by the short, shadowy posts across which the German barbed entanglements were strung. Slowly the silence grew upon you.

And then I heard the hiss of a rocket. I watched its arc of yellow sparks. I watched its burst, and in its light I saw that which I pray my eyes may never behold again. I saw in that eerie radiance the glistening, puddled field and across it, on the upward sloping ground what you might have thought were in-numerable graves, but which you knew to be the bodies of men, fallen as they had come at the charge; in twos - threes - I counted ten in a perfect row; and behind them were more of these lumps which seemed to be of the earth, for they were the color of that blackish field; and there the mounds seemed higher, as though a pile of them lay there; and you heard the hissing rockets, and their greenish fires seemed to be now of that green which sometimes burns on an altar's rail. And then the rockets stopped, and the field of the dead was shut from your eyes. If only a sound would come from out there.

I found the Lieutenant in his bombproof.

"I have been waiting for you," he called in a cheery way, and he reached down under the empty cartridge box. "Cognac," he exclaimed, producing a flask. "It will taste good now."

"I suppose," I nodded.

I admired his unshaking hand as he poured out the liquid. "There's only one glass," he smiled. "Go ahead, I insist."

I gulped down the stuff and hoped he had not noticed my manner. I watched him pour out his own drink, holding it like the connoisseur you felt him to be, before the candle flame. He must have been ad-miring the amber color when footfalls came from without. The under-officer saluted and handed him a bit of paper. Putting down the cognac and returning the salute, the Lieutenant picked up the telephone. I heard him call regimental headquarters, and then reading from the paper, he reported in German: "Fifteen dead - thirty-eight wounded." And laying aside the 'phone he picked up his cognac, slowly sipping it down.

I had seen the men in the trenches and it was at Commines that I saw them out. With a tall young Prussian officer, who told me in entire sincerity that before this war was done Germany was going to invade England and that the plans had all been perfected, but what they were he naturally could not say - I walked along the cobbled street of the old French town until I came to a gray stone factory. Through the paling of a picket fence I saw soldiers moving about in the yard, and going in we walked along a narrow cobbled driveway between dingy workshops until the officer opened a door, and we went into what had been a storeroom. I saw rows of pens, each as wide as a cot and filled with straw, and in the straw lay men. You thought of them as being too exhausted upon coming back from the trenches to take off their uniforms and wash before lying down. I saw their cartridge belts, knapsacks and guns strewn in the straw beside them, and I became conscious of a faint sickening odor that minute by minute became stronger in that stuffy room, the stench of men who had not been able to as much as unloosen their clothing for days at a time.

As I walked between the pens I saw further on that some of the men were awake. I saw their faces; the others seemed all to sleep with their faces buried in the straw; and they were wild, unshaven faces, yellowish with mud, and bleary with sleepless eyes that somehow could not sleep now. There was one munching on a big chunk of black bread, and another who had been leaning on his elbow, writing a letter, jumped up as I passed.

"You're an American, aren't you?" he called after me.

I saw from the blue and white button on his cap that he belonged to one of the Bavarian regiments.

"I lived in the United States," he told me, "until the war came. Then I joined my regiment. I was the cashier of a bank in Juarez, and I lived across the river. I used to make my money In Mexico and live in America."

He went on telling me of his experiences and obligingly answering certain questions that must have sounded foolish to him.

"We work here in the army," he said, "seven day shifts. We're in the trenches forty- eight hours and then out for twenty-four hours rest; in again for twenty-four and then out for three days."

I asked him what the men did during the last three days and he told me.

"To-day, for instance, we get paid. Then we wash up and go out and buy cigars and cheese and things, though I'm afraid some of the boys will be laid up this time with the typhoid vaccine. We're fresh troops, you know, and haven't had it yet. I suppose when spring comes on, they'll have us working as farmers when we're not on duty."

I asked him what he meant, and he told me that all the captured farmland of Belgium and France that could be planted during the fall had been sown by German soldiers, and that when the crops were ready that the soldiers would harvest them. And again the marvelous details of this German machine amazed me.

I said good-by to the Bavarian who had made his money in Mexico, spent it in America, and did his fighting with Germany in France, and went down the damp cobbled alley where you thought the wagons used to drive into these mills with their supplies; the officer told me a thousand soldiers rested, bathed and were fed every day in the factory. We saw the room where they bathed, one tub running the entire length of the machine room - overhead the motionless belt wheels looked self-conscious - this tub for the legs, another for the feet, while in the middle of the stone floor the army barbers, daubed white with lather, were shaving the soldiers and chipping their hair to the scalp.

"These are three companies of the -th Bavarian Infantry who have the room for this hour. They must be bathed and shaved within that time."

Outside I saw three soldiers picking mud off their uniforms; and when we returned to the street, waiting for our car, three of them passed with shiny shaven faces and puffing on long cigars. We saw three girls and the soldiers smiled. It was their day off.

When I think of the trenches again I think of the bombproof, near Labasse. The English have attacked, to be beaten back. The young German officer has just telephoned his report to his Colonel, and is pouring himself a second glass of cognac. They are the same at night as they are in the day, these trenches; they have the same bored men lounging in the dugouts, waiting for an attack; the same tensely watchful men in the rifle pits, scanning the enemy's line. I heard a harmonica. The dead still lay where they fell, the wounded were getting first aid, and you could hear the whining harmonica above the scattering spatter of the shrapnel. Yes, in the trenches it was the same; they had settled down once more into the lulling secure feeling of the protection of a dirt wall, six feet high, which paradoxically ends by killing them. Only the night was different.

Hideous night, pierced with flame, serried with a rocket's gleaming train, weird with bursting bombs that light the glistening fields a grayish green; awful night, shaking to the booming of heavy guns, blotched with the red of splitting shells, quivering insanely to a machine gun's steady beat; night of death, with the wounded turning white, waiting for the hours just before the dawn when the firing stops and their comrades may be spared to carry them back; with the field of the soaked dead, a nightmare of lumpy things, seen hellishly in the rocket's glow.

But in the trenches - all along the big ditch from the dunes of Flanders to the foothills of the Vosges - it is the same night and day; and bullets are whistling and harmonicas are playing. I heard them both at Arras and Labasse.


left : coverpage
right : the author (far right) and a German officer


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