- left : coverpage
- right : the author (far right) and a German officer
To the West Front
A note from Dr. Roediger of the Foreign Office directed me to report early in January at ten o'clock at that building on Moltkestrasse and Königsplatz, where lives and works that marvelous central organization of the German army, the Great General Staff. There I found waiting Dawson, the photographer who had accompanied me from America, and a plump, smiling, philosophical Austrian, Theyer, a Cino-operator who was to go along with Dawson and make "movies" of the front.
Climbing endless wooden stairways in the old building, I was finally shown into a room that only lacked wax flowers under glass to recall the Rutherford B. Hayes period of interior decorating. Presently the door opened to admit an officer whom I liked at the first glimpse, and in his careful, groping English Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann of the Grosser General Stab introduced himself. He explained that he would accompany us on our trip to the front and bring us back to Berlin; whereupon I blessed the Staff for giving me an officer with merry eyes and delightful personality. He would do everything in his power not small as I later learned to have me shown the things I wanted to see in that forbidden city, the army front.
That afternoon I bought a dunnage bag such as navy men the world over use, and remembering Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann's advice to carry as little as possible, I packed only a change of boots, socks, underclothing, and flannel shirts. Come to think of it, an elaborate series of cloth maps, each a minutely described small district of the whole Western front, took up as much room as anything else. And as I had heard officers say that a hypodermic with a shot of morphine was good to carry in case one was hit, that went in, too. During our conversation at the General Staff, Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann had emphasized the point that it must be understood that this trip I was about to make was entirely upon my own responsibility. A suit of army gray green was desirable and a hat or gloves of a similar neutral color, prevented me from being a conspicuous mark.
American photographer Dawson
I think I was at Anhalter Bahnhof the next night half an hour before the gate opened for the Metz train. There were no sleeping compartments available, so securing a day compartment to themselves, Dawson and Theyer withdrew to concoct a series of movie narratives, while the Ober-Lieutenant induced the conductor to lock me up with him in a nearby compartment meant for four. After the train had pulled out we discussed the war between the United States and Japan, which all well informed people whom I have met in Germany, diplomatic, naval, and army, believe must soon come. For the first time I noticed that the Ober-Lieutenant's uniform was different from any of the thousands of uniforms that I had seen in Germany; trimmed with blue of a shade that I had never before noticed, and across his left chest I observed an order, and that was also as totally different, a bar about four inches long and one inch high, wound with the black and white of the iron cross and yellow and red. Pinned to it were two golden bars, bearing strange words: Heroland, and some outlandish word that I have forgotten.
"You're puzzled at my uniform," smiled the Ober-Lieutenant. "It does not surprise me. There are but two others in Germany. My uniform is that of the regiment of German Southwest Africa. The Emperor created it a special regiment after our campaign there." And I found myself looking at the tiny golden bars, and wondering what deeds of daring this merry-eyed man had performed there. His medals bore now the names of battles in Africa. "My regiment," he explained, "is still in Africa. Since August I have been with the General Staff in Berlin."
We talked long that night, while the train rushed towards the Southwest. He told me of his experiences in German Southwest Africa, and of the ways of the natives there. We slept that night, each sprawled out on a compartment seat, and I awoke with a huge arc lamp glaring through the window. My watch showed seven and when I drowsily heard the Ober-Lieutenant say that we were in Frankfort, and that the train stopped half an hour, and would I like to get out for coffee?
I rubbed open my eyes. We passed the photographers' compartment, to find them both asleep, but then photographers in warring Germany can have nothing but easy consciences; they see so little.
Long after day had broken with the photographers still sleeping we passed the brown mountains of the Rhine, and at Bingen, where we saw the old robber's castle clinging to the cliffs, with the watch tower on an islet below, the train stopped. Opening one of the wide car windows we saw a commotion under a shed of new boards, and there swarmed forth the women of Bingen, with pails of smoking coffee and trays of sandwiches. We saw them crowding past, and then by stretching our necks we were able to see, three cars down, one after another helmeted head and gray-green pair of shoulders pop forth, while the women smiled happily and passed up the coffee and bread.
"I think a car full of soldiers for the front was joined on during the night," observed Herrmann.
Our train passed through Lorraine which those who generalize like to tell us was the cause of this war, forgetting Lombard Street and Honest John Bull. I had heard how they hated the Germans, these people of Lorraine, but at every station there were the women and girls with the cans of coffee and the plates of Butterbrot. One saw no poverty there, only neat, clean little houses no squalor. Germany is wise in the provisions made for the contentment of her working classes.
We drew near Metz, cupped by the distant blue ring of the fortified Vosges where last August the army of the Crown Prince smashed the French invasion. I saw beside a road four graves and four wooden crosses and wondered if on one of those broiling summer days, a gray motor of the Red Cross had not stopped there to bury the wounded. A field flew by, serried with trenches that rotated like the spokes of a great wheel; but the trenches were empty and the road that followed the wire fence close by the tracks, was bare of soldiers. There was no need longer for trenches, or that barbed entanglement of rusted wire, for the guns rumbled now far beyond the guardian hills.
The shadows of a domed station fell over the train, likewise the shadows of supervision, for I was to see none of the fortifications of Metz. Historic Metz that guards the gate to Germany by the south, was not for a foreigner's eyes. For only ten minutes was I in Metz and, although it was the natural thing to do to spend them waiting on the station platform, I had a feeling, though, that had I wished otherwise and attempted to go out into the city, a soldier would have barred the way. Never, not even in the captured French and Belgium cities that I later saw, did I gain the impression of such intense watchfulness as prevailed at Metz.
"We are going to the Great Headquarters now," said Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann, explaining for the first time our destination. Whereupon, I forgot my disappointment at not seeing Metz, and wondered if he had not deliberately withheld this as a surprise for me. The Great Headquarters! You thought of it as the place of mystery. In Berlin you remembered hearing it spoken of only vaguely, its location never named. You had heard it kept in darkness, that all lighted windows were covered, lest French flyers seek it by night. You knew that from the Great Headquarters three hundred miles of battle line were directed ; that it was the birthplace of stratagems; the council table around which sat the Falkenheim, Chief of the General Staff, Tirpitz, ruler of the Navy. Perhaps the Emperor was there!
I think I must have turned over in my mind for half an hour a certain question, before deciding that it was not a breach of military etiquette to put it to Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann.
"Where," I finally asked, "is the Great Headquarters located?"
"At Charleville," he promptly answered. "We shall not arrive there until evening." And then, getting out a number of those marvelous maps of the General Staff that show every tree, fence and brook, in the desired district, he traced for me the route the train was following. "We cross the Frontier into France, just beyond Fentsch and then go diagonally northwest through Longuion, Montmedy and Sedan to Charleville. We are going behind the battle line, out of artillery range, of course, but still the French flyers watch this line," and Herrmann bent down to glance towards the sky. "We may get some excitement."
There is something discomfortingly casual in the way these Prussian officers talk of danger, and from the moment I saw the frontier post, with its barber-pole stripings, slip by unguarded, and realized that frontier guards were a thing of the past and that I was now with the invaders in France, I could not help but feel that an aeroplane bomb was the thing to be expected.
We passed, on a siding, a troop train filled with new troops from Bavaria. One of the compartment doors was open and I saw that the floor was strewn with straw. The soldiers grinned and waved to us and pointed to the blue and white streamers so that we might know from what part of Germany they came.
When we were approaching Audun le Roman, which is just across the frontier on the road to Pierrepont, I saw on a hill not a quarter of a mile from the train a row of gray plastered houses. Through them, the gray sky showed in ragged, circular patches, framed by the holes in their walls. Sunken roofs, shattered floors, heaps of black d6bris, the charred walls gaping with shell holes; beside one house, a garden surprisingly green for so early in the year, serenely impassive to the story of the ruined walls that row of little houses was as a guidepost. At last we followed the road to war.
I saw in the next field a black swarm of birds pecking at the plowed ground. Plow furrows? One wondered. For a mile we did not see a living thing, only the black birds, that feed on death.
'This place," observed Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann, whose face seemed to have lost some of the former indifference to war, "was apparently under heavy artillery fire when the Crown Prince invaded towards Longwy."
At Pierrepont I saw the first formal sign of the German occupation. Near the railroad station in a little square, where you could not miss it, loomed a large wooden sign, that began with "nichts" and ended with "verboten." Then the train passed over a trestle and across the dirty little road that ran beneath. I saw a German soldier hurrying towards a squatty peasant house. I could see the door open and a blue-smocked old man appear on the threshold. Why had the soldier hurried towards him; what was the old man saying? Stories? You felt them to be in every little house.
The train crept on. I saw a French inn with a German flag painted over the red signboard. The tracks ran between fields scarred on either side with the brown, muddy craters of shells. At the Longuion Station I watched a German soldier standing on a ladder, painting out all French words within the sweep of his brush. Further on I saw a two-wheeled cart in a deserted farmhouse yard; its shafts were tilted up, and a load of bags rotted on the ground, as though the owner, unhitching the horse, had fled.
Almost stopping, so slowly did the train move, it approached a tunnel that the retreating French had blown up. Inky darkness closed in, and the Ober-Lieutenant was saying that the Germans were digging the tunnel out, when a yellow torch flared against the window. I sprang to open it and saw the ghostly forms of soldiers standing along the rails.
"Zeitung! Zeitung!" they cried, and in answer we tossed out to them all the newspapers in the compartment. You had a feeling that the tunnel was dangerous, for the shaky, temporary wooden trestle was yielding to the train's weight. The tunnel marked the beginning of a destroyed railroad and, as we proceeded, I found myself looking into a house flush against the track. It was like a room on the stage, the fourth wall removed. All the intimate possessions of the owner were before me; the pink wall paper was hideous in its flamboyant bad taste. Herrmann came to my rescue.
"The tracks from now are either repaired or laid new by our engineers. As they retreated, the French blew up everything. In some cases we had to run our line through houses."
The engineers had cut away the half of the house which was in their way and left the remainder to be boarded up.
A gray castle, that crowned a hill, had been the vortex of the terrific fighting that raged around Montmedy. It seemed tranquil enough now. I saw the front door open, and down the terrace there shuffled a squad of baggy red-trousered French prisoners with their watchful guards.
When we passed through Sedan it was almost dark, swarming with the Germans as in 1870. One after another we tarried at the stations of these captured towns. Finally we pulled up to a larger station where the shadowy forms of houses were closer together. I was awakened from my speculations by the Ober-Lieutenant saying: "We are in Charleville, the Great Headquarters."
As I left the train I felt a thrill of anticipation that grew apace during the long explanation that Herrmann was giving the station guards. Outside loomed the vague tops of trees, and the whiteness of a house accentuated against the dark night. Here and there a solitary light burned, but Oharleville was a place of darkness.
Herrmann had expected an automobile to be waiting, but when to the saluting click of sentries' heels, we had gone the length of the station front, he said to me: "You please get Mr. Dawson and Mr. Theyer and wait in the dining-room. I shall walk to Headquarters and see what we are to do."
Of course, I suggested going with him. There might be a chance of seeing Falkenheim, who now is responsible for the movements of more than a million men on the West front; perhaps I might even see the Emperor. Perhaps Herrmann guessed why I insisted so strongly on keeping him company on his walk to the Great Headquarters.
"The roads are muddy," he said, in a way that blended consideration with decision. "Remain in there," and he pointed to the door of the station dining-room, "until I return."
Then he showed us into a typical way station restaurant that would have reminded you of any dirty American railroad lunchroom, had not the principal object of furniture been a large buffet, shining with bottled French wines and liqueurs. As I sat down at one of the marble-topped tables, I realized that we were the only civilians in the room, except the three men with white aprons and the pretty low-class French girl who was waiting to take our order.
"Diner," I said briefly, not attempting to remember French after struggling for weeks with German, and fell to studying the room. It apparently was an officers' mess of the General Staff. The clean field-green jackets and the dashing gray capes gave a touch of romance to that dingy dining-room.
We lingered long over the coffee and Theyer, the Austrian, was telling how he had been with Jack London, taking movies for Pathé in the South Sea Islands, when Ober- Lieutenant Herrmann finally returned.
"We must go at once to the hotel," he said, "and go to bed. We shall have to be up by five, and on our way to Lille."
So it was Lille! There was real fighting in that northern section of France.
"How long do we remain in Lille?" I asked, disappointed at being rushed away from the Great Headquarters.
"Five days," he replied, setting my fears at rest. "We shall use Lille as a base and go out to different points on the front."
I knew then why he had been so long in returning; clearly he had been receiving his instructions at the Great Headquarters, and the slight distrust I had come to feel at being rushed away from Metz and now from Charleville was entirely dissipated. After all, they meant business; Lille proved that; and five days at the front!
German ytoops parading in Lille
If ever I return to Charleville and want to go to the Hotel de Commerce, it will be impossible without a guide. I remember going the length of a long street of shady trees, crossing a wide square, and then turning off into a narrow alley where ancient lanterns, well masked, hung over from grilled wall brackets. I remember flashing my electric pocket lamp down on the cobbled street, for just an instant, when Herrmann dropped his gloves. We stumbled down a blind alley that called to mind the habitation of Francois Villon in "The Lodging for a Night." Then Herrmann was rattling the knocker on the huge oaken doors of a two story flat-roofed house that looked a century old. The door groaned back and I found myself gazing into the blinking eyes of an old portier who held a candle and who would have demanded what we wanted had he not suddenly spied the military gray of Herrmann's cape and at once asked us to come in.
The few hours I slept that night were in a venerable, four-posted bed, in a low-ceilinged, high-casemented room such as you sometimes see on the stage in a romantic play. I remember hearing a rapping on the door, almost as soon, it seemed, as I had closed my eyes.
Five o'clock! And I heard the portier shuffling down the hall and then the hollow, rapping sound of another early morning call on the Ober-Lieutenant's door. Below in the alley panted one of the gray-green army motors waiting to bring us to the station. Cold sprouts, coffee, and a roll, and we had climbed into a compartment of the train for Lille. From now on, soldiers with fixed bayonets composed the train crew. We crossed a wooden trestle built by German pioneers high above a green swirl of water between pretty trees, and on the left we saw the ruins of a stone bridge dynamited by the French. We rushed out at St. Vincennes to eat at an officers' mess, and as the train moved on I saw at a siding a long line of cars, their sides and roofs marked with the Red Cross; and even as we passed I saw two stretchers being borne along the track and lifted with their wounded through the open windows of one of the cars. I saw a white bandaged leg as the stretcher tilted and then the attendants inside the car covered it from sight. Hourly the front drew nearer.
German troops storming Lille in 1914
Trenches appeared. The train suddenly slid into a station and stopped. We were in Lille. While two soldiers were loading the luggage, photograph apparatus and all, upon a small truck, Herrmann suddenly plucked my arm. "Look," he exclaimed, pointing up at the huge glass-domed roof. I saw there a big hole, edged with splintered glass, and a fragment of blue sky beyond. "That's the hole made by a French aeroplane bomb. The Staff told me to look for it when we came to Lille. The bomb never exploded and was picked up on the tracks over there."
Not the most reassuring thought in the world, that French fliers had marked this place for destruction. In the waiting-rooms I saw nothing but soldiers fresh troops with clean uniforms, unshaven men whose clothes were brownish with the mud of the trenches. By that time I had become used to being saluted, and to enjoy the click of a sentry's heels. While Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann was telephoning for a military automobile I noticed one of the Landwehr guards begin to eye suspiciously the photographers and their formidable luggage. I saw him call another of the dark-coated Landwehr, and they were obviously on the point of making a possible arrest when the Ober-Lieutenant returned, averting the situation.
We were, the Ober-Lieutenant informed us, to wait in the Cafe de Paris, which was just across the square from the station, until he returned.
"The telephones have all been cut," he explained with a smile. "I shall have to walk to Headquarters and bring back a motor for us. I may be gone half an hour, or an hour, but please remain in the cafe. Remember Lille is a captured city."
American photographer Alfred Dawson in France
So we crossed the square, Dawson, Theyer and I, while the wind brought us the grumbling of heavy cannon from the West where, not fifteen miles away, the Germans were making their terrific drive on that segment of the Allies' line, extending out from the Channel shore. Boo-omm, Boo-omm, Boo-omm, with the last syllable prolonged like a low note on the piano. Army transports rattled over the cobbled square; one of the gray motors with its muffler cut out, snorted past; and then the eye began to take in its surroundings.
There on my left, as I went away from the station, I saw a place of destruction, an entire block of ruined buildings, their shattered sides rearing with hideous ugliness against the perspective of untouched houses beyond. Blackened walls, gaping holes, roofless skeletons of houses; and within, a chaos of plaster and falling floors, one house after another, some almost razed to the ground, others with only their tops shot off, but all desolation and ruin. It was not the destruction that made me stop in the square and stare about me, for I had become sated with shelled houses, all the way from Charleville to Lille; it was amazement at the artillery fire that could lay low an entire block and not even drop a shell. The undisturbed cobbles in the square confirmed this conclusion. What deadly accuracy! How, if something be marked for destruction in this war, can it escape? I stood in the square for several minutes and counted thirty-eight soldiers and sixty civilians walk past the ruins and no one so much as turned his head to glance even indifferently upon them.
"How long," I asked the fatherly, white-haired Frenchman who brought us our coffee in the Café de Paris, "is it, since those buildings over there were destroyed?"
"A month, sir," he said, and in a moment he added wearily, "Our city has been captured and recaptured three times."
And it was easy then to know why they had all walked by without the slightest interest in the ruins beside them; think of people becoming bored with destruction! A typical French café with its big window, the Paris gave a view of the sidewalk. I saw a beautiful, dark- eyed French boy, dirtily clad, selling post cards of Lille to a good natured German infantryman. The soldier went away and then, what appeared to be the other members of the firm, a bigger and a smaller boy, darted from a doorway to divide the spoils with the dark-eyed youngster who had closed the deal. I saw five different parties of German soldiers come into the Café de Paris, and I heard not even a loud word or jest against the French; and three black-bearded Frenchmen played dominoes nearby. The soldiers ordered their coffee, or wine, paid for it, and minded their own business, just as they would at home, perhaps even more scrupulously so.
On the Back of the Bird of War
Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann was an hour longer than he expected, but he had good news for me.
"I have a car outside," he said hurriedly. "We shall bring Mr. Dawson and Mr. Theyer to the Staff and then I shall take you to an aeroplane base not far from here. It has been arranged for you to go up if you wish."
Hmm! The battle line could not be more than forty kilometers away, and a French flyer had almost wrecked the Lille station.
"A fine day for flying," observed the Ober-Lieutenant. "You can see much," and he smiled. "A fine day also for the French fliers."
"Schön!' I said, but refused to believe that a German aeroplane was ever hit. "Let's go."
Two hours after the crawling military train had set us down in what used to be the Gare du Nord in Lille, but which is now the Nord Bahnhof, I was hurriedly getting into a fur- lined military undercoat in the Hotel d'Europe. About to go up in one of Germany's war planes, I was determined to be comfortable, if not mentally, physically. Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann laughed when he saw me appear, as bulky with clothing as a polar explorer, and said: "We shall have to hurry if we are to reach the aviation base before dark." We hurried.
I have ridden with Robertson, Strang, and other race drivers. I have had my blood turned to ice when they skidded their cars around hairpin turns. But I never rode before with a chauffeur of the German army who was in a hurry; nor shall I again if W can help it. Bound for a place near Lens, so small that it appears only on the wonderful Automobil-kartes that the Germans have made of all Europe, the brown leather-coated soldier-chauffeur began to distance everything on the road. It was one of those long, rakish motors, painted field gray green, that the Benz Company manufactures only for the army, cabalistic black letters and numerals marking its hood.
As, with the muffler cut out, we roared through the streets of Lille, I saw the civilians pause to watch us pass with sullen eyes. Poor Herrmann had his arm working like a restless semaphore, returning salutes, and as we thundered through the silenced business streets at mile a minute speed, military trumpetings warned the poor bewildered citizens of Lille of our approach. The car began its mad dance through the outskirts of the city and down between the sentinel poplars toward Lens. Not two months before I had been riding down Fifth Avenue on the roof of a slumbering bus; to-day I was speeding in a German car through captured France.
Ahead we saw the gray canvas tops of a transport train. The trumpet blared, but those mud-splashed, creaking wagons had the right of way. What if the two lancers who rode as a rear guard did recognize the officer in our car? After all, he was only an officer, and they were bringing ammunition for the entrenched battle line. So our soldier-chauffeur swore, but indifferent to his "Donnerwetters," the drivers astride the transport horses stolidly held their course as, with an angry rasping of the tires, we skidded over to the side of the road, and rushed on in a splatter of mud. I looked at Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann and shouted: "They knew their business, those fellows back there."
"Certainly," he replied, "their work is most important. They were entirely right in not turning off the road for an officer's automobile. Everything depends on the transports, you know."
Whereupon I began to have a greater respect for the light, rattling supply wagons that we passed by the dozen on the road to Lens, and found myself thinking how unjustly those men might be regarded. "What did you do in the war?" ... "I drove a supply cart." ... How unheroic it sounds. Yet the Ober-Lieutenant told me that those men astride the bulky, unpicturesque dray horses were often put to the severest tests of courage.
"During our drive on Paris," he said, "the French would often succeed in covering a segment of road with their long range artillery, and continually drop shells upon it. They knew, of course, that our infantry, by making a detour through the fields, could avoid this death zone, but they shelled on, knowing that our transport trains would have to go by the road. So the transports would make a rush for it, and of course many were killed."
Another mile passed without our seeing any more of the gray wagon trains, and now the distant artillery grumbled louder. Two Uhlans cantered by, scanning us, and further on we passed another patrol. A corral of the familiar gray-topped wagons beside red brick farm buildings showed the location of a base of supplies, and in front of the house we saw a naked soldier unconcernedly scrubbing himself in a tub of water. And always the sullen roaring guns grew steadier and more disconcertingly clear.
"On this section of the line," Ober-Lieutenant explained, "the Staff told me that the French generally begin their heaviest firing every day at half past three."
I asked him why that was it was like the curtain going up in a theater at a certain time. But he did not know, and could not even guess. I was wondering how much further we were going to rush towards that unearthly booming when at a muddy crossroad, patrolled by a Uhlan, as motionless as Remington might have painted him, we made a quick turn and plowed away. Apparently we were bound for a weather-beaten house and barn, half hidden by a leafless clump of willows, apparently shorn by shrapnel, for the broken branches hung down dead in a perfect arc as though the projectile had burst, perhaps right there above the tiny moss-banked stream, and sprayed its leaden shower.
As our motor, which had been heavily crawling along the farmhouse lane, finally sogged in the mud, refusing to go further, I followed Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann out of the machine, across the yard to where a sentry stood before the barn door. They exchanged words and then the barn door slid back a trifle, a youngish man, wearing the black leather helmet and coat of the aviation corps, appearing in the aperture. Excusing himself, Herrmann drew him aside and now and then I heard their voices raised in assent; they were evidently discussing my proposed flight. I guessed that Herrmann wanted to know exactly how much danger there would be. Conjecturing that he was apparently satisfied that the risk was a minimum, and that the aviator had been instructed to bring me nowhere near the firing line, I waited for their conference to break up.
Their talk evidently finished to the satisfaction of both, introductions were in order. Then the aviator, Hals, shouted a command into the barn and instantly there issued from the gloom within, four soldiers. I watched them roll back the creaking door and then, as though it were a fragile thing, they began slowly to push out the aeroplane a monoplane I judged, as its long, tapering fuselage protruded into the farm yard, and then I saw with a start that the wings were a biplane's a strange craft.
Events passed with bewildering rapidity. Half in a daze I saw the tall, solemn-looking aviator survey my warm clothing with an approving nod. The next instant I was buckling on a steel head protector, and when I noticed the machine again, it had been wheeled out into the flat, neighboring field. A level place I observed, packed hard with shale and dirt, made into a landing place for the planes. I caught a glimpse, at the extreme end of the field near the house, of two soldiers, fitting two wooden objects, painted the drab green of the field, into two pairs of prepared holes, one thirty feet behind the other. They were stout hoops, supported by posts, and rimmed with electric light bulbs. I noticed that the rear was perhaps two feet less in diameter than the other, and that when you stood directly in front of them, they gave the effect of concentric circles, their circumference but a foot apart.
"What is that for?" I asked Hals, and he explained that if it grew dark, the lights were lit, and if from above the aviator saw two fiery circles concentric, he knew that he could fly straight for them and alight in safety.
"But I hope," he added, "that nothing will prevent us from landing in daylight."
I did not like that "nothing will prevent us." I found myself wondering what could prevent us, deciding finally that it was only the usual jocular way of the aviator to frighten his passenger unduly before the flight begins. Had I but known!
I was hurrying across the field towards the aeroplane, its fish-like tail bearing the black inscription "B 604/14," which I later came to know meant biplane number 604 of the year 1914. Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann was wishing me luck and in the same breath whispering admonitions to the grave aviator. I climbed up into the observer's compartment and found myself staring, first at the brown propeller blades only the length of the wagon in front of me, then at the brass petrol tank overhead, and the thick, curving celluloid shield behind, through which I could see the black sleeved arms of the aviator, moving towards the levers. I glanced down at Herrmann, who looked a little nervous I thought. Two soldiers were grasping the brown wings on my left. The brown propeller began to spin, lazily at first, then faster, while the engine that I could have reached forward and touched, began its roaring. A quick comparison between the observer's compartment of this machine, and the one in which I had sat at the Doeberitz Flugplatz near Berlin came to me that one had the tiny, brass, bomb-dropping levers, two on each side of the rail; these were all in one line and on the left; that one had a writing shelf that fell out from the front wall of the tiny tonneau, so had this, and I touched the lever that brought the shelf sloping down towards my knees; the floor of that machine had seemed solid, though perhaps not, for this was cut to admit the insertion of an observing device which, protruding up between my knees, offered a lens on which the eyes might be cupped by a shield as on a Graflex camera. I was wondering if four bombs dangled from the four releasing hooks below, when the engine started, smiting my ears with a mad roaring, and driving cold air against my face. I remembered to pull down my goggles and the next moment I felt a shudder run the length of the machine as it lurched forward, running over the field, to rise slightly, bump gently on its rubbered wheels, and then gliding upward on a gradual slant, sail towards the willows, dead sentinels grotesquely standing at the far end of the field with their shrapnel-torn branches dangling against the gray-ringed dreariness of sky.
One or two little spasms of fear and, as the aeroplane climbed towards a wood, I began to want to recognize instantly all the objects on the earth. They spread out, unrolling as on a huge panorama, a patchwork of many shaded woods and fields; there the brownish ribbon of a road losing itself like a thread in the gray distance, here little groups of absurdly small brick houses, off to the right a church steeple and beside it the uneven blackened walls of a shell-riddled building. The motor had settled now into an ever- increasing clamor, in which, if you caught one false beat, you would have cause for alarm. No longer visible, the propeller blades had lost their individuality in a grayish blur out there in front, shadowy scimiters whirling too fast for the eye to see. You thought of the engine and the blades but a moment, and then they seemed to become a part of you, and I wonder now if my heart did not try to synchronize its beat with theirs.
We climbed higher and higher. Although minutes ago, objects had ceased to seem strange by their magical tininess, you could sense the growing height now by the development of color; you never knew that the drab winter earth could have so many hues and wondrous shades of brown, gray, green, ochre, and purple; they separated each into fantastic tintings, as though earth's beauties were not for those who dwelt upon it. The long army transport that we had passed on the road, was just a gray worm, crawling along in its brown dirt. And over there by the village, in that field where the thin bluish smoke wraiths were crawling, must be the field kitchens ... and that multitude of specks, a regiment off duty, back from the trenches, waiting to be fed.
A gust felt cold on my cheek. The machine was turning. Now faintly, almost lost in the roaring of our motor, I imagined I heard once more that other sound, the grumbling of the guns, and now I thought of it as the hungry growls of some monster, already sated with the puny living things in that other world beneath us, but which ever grumbled for more. And then suddenly I saw a white cloud appear in the gray sky, and then the white cloud was gone and there came a second, a third, a fourth white cloud, then no more for a minute it seemed, and then four more again. And you knew that over there the enemy's shrapnel was bursting. Fascinated, I watched the pure ringing, billowing beauty of the smoke, celestial, white roses that bloomed out of nothing, dropped death from their petals, and died themselves in the gray sepulcher of sky. We banked away; we saw the white clouds no more.
I was conjecturing in a feverish sort of way how far we had been from the trenches and if that shrapnel line had been bursting over them, or if the enemy, spotting a base of some kind, had begun to shell it, when growing out of the air there approached a sound. Scarcely audible at first, like the faint whining of the wind, gathering its frenzy, now whistling, screaming, shrieking, I heard somewhere near in the void, the song of a shell. And when writing on the observer's table, I was trying to jot down how it felt, I heard another, nearer it seemed, and the pencil fell from my fingers, rolling down until it stopped by the ledge while I sat staring at it and trying not to think what might have occurred had we been a few seconds faster or the shell a few seconds slower. And then I felt myself slide forward in the seat and I knew that the machine was diving down. There was no danger, I felt; of course the aviator was all right. No shrapnel had burst near us but then, we might have been within rifle range. No! Absurd! Yet I quickly glanced over my shoulder and felt centuries younger when I saw the smile on Hals' solemn face. And then, as unexpectedly as it had begun, the downward bolt ceased. Hals was rattling the celluloid screen. It dawned on me that he wanted to tell me something. I leaned back and he leaned forward. I could hear him but faintly although he shouted. "Those shells were on the same elevation as we, or we could not have heard them. So I dove." And there they were screaming their death song overhead now, although I could no longer hear them.
We flew towards a yellow chateau and then once more began to climb. Of course we were out of the path of the shells, but Hals had not then known that we were in the line of howitzers. The minutes passed, and slowly I admitted that the danger was over. A stinging pain, moreover, was settling above my eyes, and what I might have put down to the quick breathing of excitement, I realized now to be the gasping of the lungs in a rarified atmosphere. High indeed we were climbing, for the earth seemed to shrink and its many colors to blend themselves in a vague tinting suffusion of purple and gold, the veil of a dream.
Heaven only knows what the officers must think who sit in the observing compartment as did I, though they know that this upward climb has a purpose, a purpose of war, as I was soon to see. More faint, then befogged, became the diaphanously veiled earth. Clouds interspersed, graying the vision, clouds and a drifting, wet mist that settled in beads on the glass of my goggles so that I was continually rubbing away with my gloved fingers. We were hidden now, from the earth, and the earth from us. Marching gray gloom all around, ghostly wet wisps that straggled past, caressing one's face. In that Nomad's void, in which even the voice of the engine seemed hesitant and more subdued, I began to feel as if I was making some awful intrusion into what I did not know, but one felt the guilt of an appalling, defying presumption.
And then I realized that we had been slowly descending through the clouds, for suddenly to the left I saw a patch of the purplish dream veil, and in a moment we were gliding down through the clouds and running just beneath them. Hals was shouting and pointing down. And I saw the battlefield.
At first you thought of a cotton field, of white blown buds and then, as your vision shook off the spell of the bursting shells, you discerned down there a purplish, grayish patch of the earth, of which you were no longer a part, so remote, that only by peering down between your knees into the graflex-like observing glass set in the bottom of the car, could you distinguish even vaguely a single object in that colorous haze of distance. And then gradually there took shape in the glass, as in a crystal ball, accented lines and dabs of color, and there grew before you the black, zigzagging scars of the trenches although you knew them to be brown with wet clay and behind them more black lines, only straighter and you guessed those to be reserve pits and behind them, approaching at right angles, more black lines, only fewer and further apart and these you judged the approach trenches. As you stared with the glass your eye never ranged the whole battle line, always the white puffing smoke obscured the view in tiny, white, swift-dispelling clouds, that rose from the area between the zigzagging lines. You wondered which were the French and which were the German trenches. Now a white spot suddenly appeared, exactly upon one of the black lines, and in fancy you heard the explosion of a shell and the groans of men, and you wondered if observers had seen officers coming up and if that shell had been particularly well aimed. A patch of earth, purplish gray in that hastening dusk, and illimitable lines of black stretching away, puffing white smoke quickly coming, quickly going; that was the battlefield as I saw it below the clouds.
Possibly my eyes were accustoming themselves to the great height, for in the glass between my feet objects were becoming clearer. From the thinnest thread the black lines had thickened perceptibly and now as it grew darker, I began to see innumerable, tiny, yellow-red tongues that had a way of darting out from the black lines and as suddenly withdrawing, and I began to think I heard a faint sound like the broken rolling of a drum, and somewhere very far off some one seemed to be beating a bass drum with less frequent but perfectly timed strokes, and there came up to me the booming of the battle or did I imagine it? Observers tell me it is next to impossible to hear.
Even clearer became the battlefield, clearer though it was ever darkening, and it dawned upon me that we were descending; approaching that patch of black-lined land where the pygmies played with death. It was with a weird trembling fascination that you saw the picture in the glass become more and more distinct. It looked like a relief map now, with objects coming out of the purplish gray haze, and you wondered at the geometrical precision of it all. By staring steadily at the black scarred lines you slowly discerned another color and there at intervals, which gave that same impression of mathematical exactness, you made out darker colored dots. "The soldiers!" Involuntarily the words escaped me. And then the black lines seemed to march across the glass and were gone and you saw now only the parallels of the approach trenches, one at one extreme of the lines, the other but half visible on the outer edge.
You knew then that you were flying away from the battle firing line, but even as you looked, what seemed to be a row of broken boxes, moved across the glass, hesitated and paused there as the aeroplane hovered above them; and in that moment a yellowish box which seemed to stand apart from the others, and which you guessed to be the great house of the village, was blotted out by the spewing gray white smoke of a grenat and when the glass cleared you saw that the yellow box had changed to a jagged shape, red with flames. Fascinated, you watched the burning house, and then you realized that the celluloid shield behind you was rattling from violent rapping. Hals was shouting something; finally I guessed what it was "Want to go down?" I shook my head no. As he bent to the levers, I think he chuckled.
I wondered if what immediately followed had anything to do with that mirth. My muscles were cramped from bending over the glass. I tried now the naked eye, but the gray dusk was blackening and the fringe of flame on the trenches becoming redder and more vivid. But this flame, which should have been even more lurid, began to grow dim and to wane away, like a thousand guttering candles, and I knew then that we were climbing once more; why, only the man behind me knew.
The flickering trenches slid by and away; below us the earth had become calm, luminous blue, pricked here and there with yellow pin points of light; but still I thought I heard that measured, muffled beating as of a great drum, only presently it became harsher as though the drummer was wielding his stick with sudden fury, an insanely growing fury; and you felt a wind on your face, then it was gone, and you felt it again, for the aeroplane had begun to swing round in a slow circle, a nightbird you thought, seeking something below. And then again came the roars, two, one almost upon the other; they seemed ahead on our right somewhere; and again I felt the wind on my cheek, but not again; we were flying straight now.
By this time I thought I knew what Hals had planned. Those pausing, slow, swinging circles had been made in order to get the exact source of the sound, and now Hals was flying towards it his object the location of one of the enemy's batteries, a new battery, I judged as yet unknown to the Germans, possibly the one that had dropped the shell on the yellow house. Now, had Hals known that the shell was from a battery just getting into action? Because they are men of air as well as of earth, have these soldier-fliers strange powers?
I noticed that the tiny lights from what must be a farmhouse down there, had a way of increasing and as suddenly decreasing from two to four to two; and always the vanishing lights would be patches, not pinpricks, more vivid, too, as though they were not shone through glass, but came from doors that opened into illuminated rooms. And I was wondering why these doors always kept opening and closing. The place must be a brigade headquarters or something equally important. That was it! Soldiers were constantly coming and going. And as regularly appearing, these patches of light grew more lurid, and the guns raged on, I thought with a smile that the firing might well be the slamming of those farmhouse doors, for just then the two had perfectly synchronized the sudden flaring lights, the faint sound of guns. And then it happened again, one upon the other, and I must have risen to my feet for it dawned upon me There's the battery over there! Those lights that I thought were part of the farmhouse! Our motor seemed to thunder unnaturally loud then, again they flashed down there, again the faint boom tore up to us. "Kollosal!" Hals had spotted the French guns.
Of the race back through the night, I have only the most feverish recollections. I knew we were flying faster than ever before, for the fuselage was throbbing madly and you had a feeling that to escape an awful strain put upon it, the engine was trying to tear itself loose. And then you thought of the need for this speed. Had I been careless with the electric torch? Had we been seen? Might not even now the enemy be after us? Perhaps a telephone call from the battery down to the trenches where the muzzle of an aeroplane gun was tilted to the sky. Or had they telephoned their own aeroplanes to put up after us? Why the speed that Hals evidently deemed necessary?
You knew, too, that somewhere down there, shells from the German batteries were whining towards the enemy's positions. You knew, too, that to reach the earth, you would have to bolt down through this battle-filled sky. The chances were one in five thousand that we would be in the line of our own shell fire. You did not like to think of that one chance. The machine had ceased to shake. I imagined that Hals was looking down on all sides. The wind, certain signal of a turn, struck my cheek. The slow swinging circles began as before. And then, just upon sighting the French battery, Hals suddenly drove the machine forward. Off to the left, what had seemed an unnaturally bright point of light grew incredibly fast into a circle of light and beside it a smaller circle, and their circumferences seemed to be restlessly moving, intersecting here and there with exasperating frequency, although gradually becoming steadier and finally becoming almost concentric, intersecting not at all, the smaller though seeming to have moved in front of the larger, shifting from side to side, although never touching the outer fiery rim. And suddenly I remembered the two circular frameworks, fitted with the electric bulbs, in the field by the shrapnel-scarred willows and I recalled the explanation of them, that they were guide posts for an aviator at night, and that once he had them concentric, he knew that he was flying true to his landing field.
So we were almost home now home! the thought made you grimace miles away! And in a moment now we must drop, begin that bolt down through that zone, through which the shells of our own batteries were flying. And I heard that most disconcerting of all sounds that you hear in the air, the shutting off of the motor an instant, and as we slid forward, I felt for thöfcbrass handles to brace myself, and no longer sped round by the motor's power, the propeller blades became as the strings of a monstrous harp through which the rushing wind wailed a weird song; and we bolted down. ... If a shell passed I did not hear it. Gaining in violence, the wind shrieked through the slowly spinning blades, shrieked as though the very air had gone mad; and just when you had begun to doubt that it was beyond human skill to bring an aeroplane to earth through the night like this, you felt a sudden forward horizontal glide, and the next moment the rubber tired wheels were bouncing over the hardened field, and the shadowy forms of soldiers seemed to spring out of the earth, laying hold of the wings as though to make it captive, and the concentric lights were gleaming just in front; and a voice you knew to be Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann's was calling, with a trace of relief, you thought: "Well, how was it?"
Laboriously climbing down from the fuselage, I looked for the aviator, Hals.
"He ran off to telephone," a soldier said.
"The French battery," I said aloud.
As we motored back to Lille, I heard a German howitzer open fire.
- left : German soldiers posing before a French café
- right : standing guard in a trench
Behind the Battleline
The service was as good as you get at the Waldorf. Moving with deft skill round the long table, as if their training in the army had consisted of passing platters of food, the soldiers in field gray silently importuned you to have at least another helping of cheese. In a detached way I was gazing at the big canvas hanging on the brocaded wall, the lower part of the picture half hidden by the smart jackets and shaven heads of the Prussian officers, sitting opposite; then I saw a soldier opening one of the stained glass windows, and muttering along the wet wind, I heard the muffled grumbling of the guns.
"An excellent canvas, is it not?" the staff officer at my right was saying, a slender man with one of those young mustaches; he wore a monocle, and the Iron Cross. "The Marquis, you know, has one of the best collections in France. He has several Eubens, I believe, but I have never seen them," he added hastily. The gallery is on the second floor, and the Marchioness has a perfect terror of our going in there we barbarians," he laughed.
Through the opened window I could see the green tops of the winter trees, enveloping each in a separate silvery haze, as the unceasing rains that have turned these Western battle lines into quagmires drizzled down. The sullen monotone of the guns made you glance around at Commander von Arnim, the rather frail, reserved, iron-grayed aristocrat who leads the Fourth Army Corps. Finding no trace of emotion there, you scanned the line of his staff, whose faces, thoughtful, mature, or as young and dapper as musical comedy ever staged its "Lieutenant of the Huzzars," all seemed as unconcerned as though they were lunching in a Berlin cafe. And, when the noise of the guns obsessed you, your ear caught the incongruity of the tinkle of coffee cups and you wanted to laugh, although you did not know why.
The Lieutenant who had spoken of the Marquis's paintings was saying that he had been in New York last winter and asked where one went there after the restaurants closed at one o'clock? Just then I saw that Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann, who had been talking with Commander von Arnim, wanted to speak to me. I had learned that the Ober- Lieutenant generally had something keenly interesting to say, especially after conversing with a Corps Commander.
"We must go now," said Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann.
"Back to Lille?" I asked in dismay.
"Not until the evening when we go to the Second Bavarian Corps Staff for dinner. Meanwhile we see something behind the battle line."
Assured that they were not hurrying me away because at three o'clock so they all had said the French artillery invariably began heavy firing, I said good-by to the officers and climbed into one of the fast army motors, painted the same gray green as the uniforms, unable to shake off the feeling that it was not war at all, but that this buff- walled chateau in the beautiful iron-fenced park, had not been commandeered as an army headquarters, but that it was simply the home of one of these young men who had invited all his brother officers from a nearby garrison to a luncheon; and that now we were leaving to catch a train. But as the motor lurched soggily from the soaked driveway I took a last glance at the chateau; a wisp of blackish smoke beaten low by the rain, was creeping along the brick chimney, and an old servant was sweeping away the mud that our boots had left on the stoop; but as the motor swung past the little square-paned library windows I saw that they were pierced with tiny holes, through which passed the thin tendrils of six wires, caught against a great tree and leading off through the park; and in the window I saw a soldier telephoning, while another at a table seemed to be writing down what the man in the window was calling off. Ahead a tranquil driveway tunneled through the trees.
The army chauffeur, ignoring the insane skidding of the car, was racing through a desolated country. It is the contrast that always catches you in this war, and in the sugar beet fields that came up to the road I began to see an increasing number of mounds, some four, some thirty feet long, incongruously protruding from the flat ground. And I began to see little wooden crosses, turned the deeper yellow that new wood turns in the rain, and some of the crosses loosened by the downpours, leaned over, their arms resting in the mud, and on one a helmet hung. On either side the unharvested fields of sugar beets had become the harvested fields of the dead.
Where I saw the white sides of a farmhouse, no smoke mounted from the gaunt, gray chimney; and in the yard beyond, no human thing moved, for we were passing through a countryside where the armies had passed. We drove on, but we could not leave the long, sinister mounds behind, and I began to think: What an awful thing it is not to be able to go a hundred yards without seeing a grave. I noticed that Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann no longer sat hunched with the blue collar of his cape turned up to his ears and staring straight ahead; restlessly he seemed ever glancing from left to right. I wondered what he, a soldier, who had been decorated for bravery in German Southwest Africa, thought of these things that he so restlessly saw.
"A great battle was fought here early in October," he said, after a time. "Sixty thousand men were engaged." He paused. "There were six thousand dead. Every day for five days a hundred were wounded for each mile of a forty-mile line."
That was all, but his eyes roved from grave to grave. For two miles we followed the avenue of wooden crosses and then, still in the open country, the car stopped. I saw that the car ahead with the staff officers had stopped too, and that they were getting out.
"Over to the right there," said a captain, pointing towards a clump of trees through which the ruins of cottages loomed dismally in the rain, "is a village which we had to shell because the French had a position there. Then they took up positions in the cemetery," and, with a wave of his hand, the Captain indicated an ancient brick wall that had seemed to enclose a grove of tall cassia at the end of the sugar beet field. "It took us three days of hard fighting to capture the cemetery," he continued, as we waded through the mud.
"Three days and how many lives?" I thought, as we approached the brick wall, "and now it is not considered of enough importance to have a single soldier on guard "; which is one of the false impressions that always comes to you after hearing that a certain point was taken at such sacrifice, and then to find that point abandoned. For the moment you seem to think of it as being typically futile of war; and then its place in the vast strategical contemplation of a battle line three hundred miles long emerges from your temporarily befogged vision. It is the military point of view to think that too much peace makes a nation soft, and you become angry at the feeling that has whispered that war is futile and forthwith you place war where the idealists forget that it belongs, not beside barbarism, but with civilization.
We entered by the rusted iron gate and stood among the place of desecrated graves. But as I walked among them, their white monuments chipped with rifle balls, the leafless boughs of the great trees overspreading above splintered with shrapnel, the red wall torn open here and there to admit the shells that must have burst in that rain-filled crater by the iron-railed shaft; as I saw a clutter of rifle butts, smashed off against a tombstone, perhaps, so that the metal parts could be taken back to an ordnance factory to be molded again, I was thinking of the men who had fought here, and whether they had lived. I was wondering how many of those thick, white, bullet-chipped tombstones had shielded men from death. I was wondering how many more of them would have been killed had they fought in the open field; and as I examined the shattered granite slabs, I thought of the protection they had given.
One of the staff officers was speaking to me. "Will you return to headquarters with us for tea? " he was saying, and he gave a slight shudder. Perhaps it was from the cold rain.
As we motored into Vis en Artois, the sun broke through the gray-ringed dreariness of sky. Up a narrow hill street with the powerful car waking the echoes among the low white stone houses, two or three peasants in wooden shoes flattening themselves against the walls to escape the muddy spray from our tires, and we stopped in what seemed to be the village center. Down the street I could see the last hooped roof of a transport caravan, and from a stealthy creaking in the house across the street, I had an idea that shutters were being slowly pushed open and that there were frightened, bewildered eyes behind.
With Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann, whose French is better than mine, I crossed the street to read the proclamation Avis! pasted to the wall of a church. Worded by the Germans and signed by the French Burgomaster of Vis en Artois, it told the inhabitants what to do if they would keep out of trouble.
From the church we walked to a tall, gray stone, square-turreted building that loomed above everything in the village and passing through a wide archway we came into a court filled with drilling soldiers. I wondered what it could have been before the war, for the stacks of hay and the manure piles were wholly incongruous. Clearly, it now was being utilized as a transport station, for at the end of the court I saw four empty, gray, canvas-covered wagons. Turning to the soldiers, you were instantly struck by the fact that they were smaller than any you had ever seen in uniforms. All of the same size divided into squads, each in the hands of a drill sergeant. I watched them doing the "goose steps," to the proud clapping of their boots on the cobbled court, while others marched by briskly in twos, saluting. It was the barest rudimentary training that they were being put through but it was stiffening them for the firing line and as they drilled these raw troops, I could hear in the distance the drumming of the guns. It seemed to electrify these stocky little fellows in the new uniforms, for their feet stamped the louder, and their saluting hands snapped up like automatons; and I wondered if it were hard to content yourself with harmless drilling in a manure-strewn yard, with the music of war playing for you to march; or if behind any of those stupid, utterly peasant faces there lurked a craven thought that they were glad to be there and not where those shells were bursting. But as I watched them and felt the eagerness with which they went about the drill, I found myself thinking of the craving I had seen the Jews of New York's Ghetto show for education and that these stolid peasants were just as eager to learn that they might go to war. And I wondered if after all it might not be a lark for the youth in them, better than giving themselves day after day to an industrialism that made them old before their time. Was it not better than trudging off in the morning to the blowing of a whistle? I asked Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann where they came from.
"They are all Saxonians," he explained; and I remembered what a German Socialist had told me, that the low laboring class of Saxony is notoriously poor and short-lived, their years taken by work in the mines. No wonder they had pranced at the roll of the guns! They were thinking of it as a deliverance ... Into what?
We walked under the gray arch and across the muddy street into a paved school yard, where evergreen hedges bloomed in pretty red tubs. The sun, as if to make up to those rain-soaked men who crouched in the trenches but six kilometers away, streamed down, as in a glory before its setting, and as the school yard rung to the fall of our heavy boots, it seemed for a moment as if the brown door must open and children come pouring forth.
We entered the school house and turning into the classroom on the left, I saw twelve cots made of rough boards and twelve wan, unshaven men who lay there as men dead, although, at the sound of our approach, their eyes turned in a disinterested stare. I observed a German, who seemed to tremble under the covers, and as I walked beside his bed, I saw that the sweat was standing out on his face.
"How high is his fever?" I asked the surgeon.
"He has no fever. He is sweating with pain."
I turned to go out. I think the surgeon was offended that I did not make the rounds with him, for, with true German consideration and thoroughness, it was doubtless his plan to show me every detail of his little hospital.
"Eight weeks ago," he was saying, as I walked back towards the door, "we had two hundred wounded in here but now," and his tone was almost apologetic.
I asked him how far the wounded had to be transported from here before they could be placed in a hospital train.
"Thirty-five kilometers," he said; " that is to Cambrai," and he was explaining something about his interesting cases, and doubtless wondering why I did not write them down in the memorandum that stuck from my pocket. Two weeks before I would have done so, but as you come to see the wounded in this war, you feel rightly or wrongly; I do not know that it is the grossest banalism to draw a notebook before the eyes of the wounded and write of their sufferings. Unthinking, I did it once in the hospital at Gleiwitz, and I shall never forget the look in a dying Austrian's eyes.
Close by the door, I noticed a black-bearded Frenchman, his leg heavily bandaged, and over his head on the schoolroom wall hung a cheap copy of an etching of Friedland with the victorious French cuirassiers galloping by. What a world of sadness looked out from that wounded Frenchman's eyes. As we walked out into the court, you could hear the cannon more plainly, a steady crashing seeming ever to grow in violence as though one new battery after another was being unlimbered to make work for the surgeons in little school houses the countryside round. In great indignation, the surgeon drew a fragment of metal from his pocket and explained that two days ago an English aviator had dropped the bomb of which that was a part, only eighty meters from the hospital. But I scarcely heard him. From the manure-strewn courtyard across the street floated a cheer. Had the Saxonians been told they were to be sent to the trenches? And I wondered if this was to be their deliverance the beds of unpainted wood, where I had seen a man sweat with pain.
That evening, after a successful dinner, Herrmann took the edge off our pleasure by announcing that we must get up at five o'clock next morning. "You will be taken to the trenches with Captain Kliewer's party (another group of correspondents had come to Lille). We will all meet in Commines for luncheon and in the afternoon you may see a field battery in action. Of course, it is expected that you will not want to go, and it is understood that those who wish to remain in Lille may do so with the full approval of the staff."
aftermath of street-fighting in Lille, 1914
Rotkohl was approved; so was the Dutch general. Rotkohl said something about his grandmother, who lived on the Christiania Fjord, and the general well, he said there were more pretty girls to be seen in Lille than along those muddy roads; besides it' might rain, and suppose his patent umbrella did not work. In three motors, one for Ober- Lieutenant Herrmann and I, and the others for Captain Kliewer's party, we raced through Lille long before dawn, to get into the trenches before daylight would reveal our approach to the French. We lunched with the Second Bavarian Army Corps at Commines as the guests of General von Stettin and we told every officer in the room that we wanted to see the trenches by night, and, being Bavarians, they thought it a tremendous joke, and roared with laughter.
Bidding the Bavarian staff good-by, we went out to our motors. With Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann and the photographers, I was supposed to go to a battery already in action. Hauptmann Kliewer's party were going to see their battery later. Telling myself that this early start the heavy artillery firing never begins around Commines until four in the afternoon was being made so that the photographers could photograph the battery, and that at this time of day there would be little doing there, I explained the situation to Ober-Lieutenant Herrmann. With the utmost good nature I knew from his smile that I had guessed right he spoke to Hauptmann Kliewer, who courteously granted my request. So, with Poole, Eeed and Dunn, I rode away from Commines, Hauptmann Kliewer following with an officer in another car. Poole was telling us that the Major who sat beside him at luncheon said that last night the English had dropped four shells into Commines, evidently taking a long chance on hitting headquarters; and Reed came back writh another officer's story of how the enemy's observers had seen a motor leaving Commines and had put three grenaten in the field beside the road not forty yards away. And as the gray-green army auto car soughed down the heavy roads and you saw the puddled fields beginning to mirror a suddenly sunlit sky, you wondered if the enemy's observers could see your car too, and you caught yourself, every now and then, watching the sky, as though to spy the shell they had picked out for you. Nothing happened in that ride, but from the moment of leaving Commines we thrilled to innumerable paradoxical motions too laboriously complex to describe, that always come when you are approaching the firing line and the novelty has not worn off. Growing heavier with the sound, until it became almost the slow roll of huge drums, the sky filled itself with the echoes of the guns, crashing and crashing as though the heavens were a vault of blue steel. And always, out of that growing grumble towards which we rode, we heard more distinctly the explosions of the shells, each in a separate disconcerting violence, and always louder, nearer.
Two Uhlans, their mortar board helmets covered with cloth, galloped by; we overtook a transport train, the light, springy wagons moving easily through the mud, the drivers posting in their stirrups, which somehow seemed like an exhibition of beautiful riding that should have been done in a park. We turned out, our wheels spinning in mud up to the hubs, to let one of the big gray motor ambulances painted with huge red crosses, rumble by, with its red load for the field hospital in Commines. We passed two rosy- cheeked peasant girls, who carried food in baskets, and then the clank and jangle of a string of caissons, going at a canter, as though a battery needed shells. Perhaps the very battery we sought.
Somewhere on that road we must have crossed the Belgian frontier, for after passing through silent, shelled Maraid we drove into Houthem, Commando of the Second Bavarian Corps. We had been following a road that ran parallel to the firing line only a mile on our left. Shells from the German batteries had been flying overhead, but the muffler cut-out had drowned their wicked whine. We were in Houthem, and across the muddy fields there was that row of trenches where the German line seems to come to a point, and where there was a colonel of whom we had heard in Commines, Oberst Meyer of the Seventeenth Bavarians, who had pushed forward as far as he dared go, lest he be enfiladed, was waiting now for his supports to come up hence the point that you may have seen on your newspaper maps of January of the lines near Ypres.
I looked out from under the dirt-colored top of our motor to find that we had stopped before a little yellow-brown building over the door of which was nailed a black and white letter shingle, saying that here were the headquarters of an artillery regiment. Seeing Hauptmann Kliewer and the Corps Staff officer from Commines get out of their car and enter the house, I concluded they were arranging for our visit to the battery, and climbed out with the others to look around. We stood at the intersection of one narrow, muddy road with another that seemed to lead off at right angles towards the trenches. I looked up the village street, at the end of which a red brick church laid its high white steeple against the blue sky. I could see the shell holes in the church walls, but the steeple appeared untouched. Poor marksmanship! I saw what had been a row of houses. All that was standing now was their walls, and in the ruins of one I saw soldiers picking up the heavy roof tiles; they would use them to floor their dugouts in the trenches.
A group of soldiers, evidently off duty, had been watching us, and one of them came over. "I'm a German-American," he said, introducing himself. "I lived in Brooklyn. I worked in an exporting house on Hanover Square."
"You're not a German-American," I replied. "There's no such thing. You're a German. That's why you came over to fight, isn't it?"
"Sure," he grinned; and then he put to me that everlasting question: "What do Americans think now? Are they more friendly than when I left?" (That was in August, and he had stowed away on an Italian steamer.)
I told him that I thought they were; whereupon, apparently greatly relieved, he told me something about the street upon which we stood.
"You see those houses over there? " and he pointed to the row of ruins. "Well, when we first came here, Artillery Headquarters were in the last house. Then a shell hit it when the officers were out Gott sei Dank!? so they moved next door. A shell bursting on the street here " and he indicated where the road was filled in "smashed up that house so that it caught fire. Then the Colonel moved down to the yellow house there. I wonder when he'll have to move again."
I wondered too, and began to feel uncomfortable. Over in front of the yellow house the first floor had evidently been a store I saw a group of soldiers looking in the window. They were closely inspecting and talking about the photographic reproductions that have evidently been hung there by orders, there where all the soldiers, back from the trenches on their relief, might see. For I noticed that there were pictures of captured Russian guns, of General Hindenburg, of the victorious German troops entering Lodz. And I thought that here was but another instance of the marvelous system which is carrying on this war against nearly all Europe. Pictures of triumph from the Eastern lines posted where the soldiers in the West can see and be thrilled with national pride.
I began to notice these soldiers who, back from the trenches and cleaned up, were strolling around Houthem as on holiday, shaved, their uniforms made as clean as possible, smoking cigars, they reminded me of the workmen you see stopping before the windows of the cheap shop in a factory town on pay-envelope afternoon. In a field close by I saw a swarm of them, gathered round one of the yellow and black Liebesgaben wagons that bring gifts from home to the soldiers free of charge. Presently, his back bending under the weight of a bulky white bag, I saw one of the soldiers come away from the wagon and slowly shuffle down the street. You guessed he had been the one chosen to get the gifts sent to the men of his company, and as he plodded on past the shelled houses, I heard him whistling. There came, a few minutes later, from behind a gray shed where a transport had been delivering lumber, two other soldiers, and on their shoulders they carried a long box made of new wood a coffin. And in confusion I thought it must be for some officer, and I thought of the man with the Liebesgaben pack and of the homes that had sent the gifts it contained, and that when he would read off the names, that there would be names of the dead.
The yard in front of the white-steepled church of the Annunciation of Mary the Virgin was filled with the familiar little wooden crosses, fitted in, it seemed, between the old tombstones of the Belgian inhabitants. As Hauptmann Kliewer swung back the heavy door, I was amazed to see that the church swarmed with soldiers. A confusing clash between the instincts of religion and military necessity, and I walked among the soldiers. They were recruits receiving a last drill in the use of arms, stiffening them before they went down into the trenches. You told yourself that you were glad all the benches had been torn from this church so that these men might be drilled here without being exposed to the shelling that their detected massed presence anywhere around Houthem would of a certainty bring on. I know had it not been war, instincts of my upbringing would have revolted against this, that the thoughtless like to speak of as desecration. But the more you see of war, the more you come to measure the things of war time solely in terms of life and death. It is not the spilling of Holy Water that matters, only blood.
Almost in a daze, I stared up at the gaping holes that the shells had made in the roof. Broken slates stuck down from out the smashed plaster ceiling, and you thought of them as of bones, and the brown tatters of hanging plaster as wounded flesh, for you came to think of this place as being a stricken personality, call it a stricken religion, if you like. But was it not written that He suffered so that a world might be saved? Surely, then, what could mean a few shell holes in one of His houses, if most of those who hid there might still be spared.
I walked between the lines of young recruits, some loading, others learning the sights, others emptying their magazines, and I came at last to a shrine of the Virgin built in a recess in the wall. Above it I could see a patch of the blue sky, framed in the hole of a shell; but it was not the shrine that held me; it was the soldiers before it. They were down on one knee, and I wondered if they were Catholics worshiping there while the others drilled. "Feuer!" And each man whom I had thought on reverent knee, snapped a gun to his shoulder; I heard the hammers click. They had been learning to shoot kneeling. I wondered if any of them thought of the Virgin ... "Damn dumbheads!" cried an officer. "Faster!"
Explaining that the enemy had left an observation post in the steeple and that the Germans were using it for the same purpose now, Hauptmann Kliewer led us into a circular staircase of wood that coiled away into the darkness of the narrow tower. Did we wish to climb up to it? The Hauptmann explained that it was dangerous, for "knowing we had observers in the steeple, the French artillery would, sooner or later, open fire." But arguing with yourself that the French had evidently tried to hit the steeple before but had only succeeded in putting a few shell holes in the church roof, you became convinced of the comparative safety of it, and began to climb the spiral stairs. The higher you got, the more rotten the boards became, and I was wondering if there wasn't more danger from my two hundred odd pounds being brought down on a rotten step than there was of a shell crashing through the brick cylinder. After climbing up a series of shaky vertical ladders we stepped out on the observing platform. To put us at our ease, Hauptmann Kliewer warned us all about not gathering around the observing window, a hole, a foot square, cut in the wall, adding that the platform was not strong. So, two at a time, we stood at the window and looked out.
I saw the country laid out as it is from a low-flying aeroplane, the soggy fields exaggerating the squareness that the gray fences gave; beyond the flat red-roofed houses I saw a dark green fringe of trees, and then above that a tiny puff of white smoke appeared, then another, until I counted four, all billowing out in the thinnest of fleecy clouds, until thinning all in a white blur, they vanished.
"That's shrapnel," Hauptmann Kliewer was saying. "Our trenches are right by the woods there."
And it came to me, the wondrous glory of the little white clouds; if that was so the soldiers might look upon beauty before death. The wind was blowing towards us, and we heard the shrapnel's peculiar whistling burst and then the heavy shaking roar of grenaten and over to the right, just at the edge of the wood, I saw rising the blackish smoke of heavy shells. About a mile away, exactly opposite, I saw a brown tower between the trees.
"Our artillery observers are in there," explained Hauptmann Kliewer, "and the French must know it, for they've had a cross fire on it from right and left all day."
I watched the steeple with a new fascination. Shrapnel framed it in a soft billow of clouds, and lower, where grenaten struck the ground, I saw the dissolving blackish smoke. Would they hit it?
"They have fired a hundred shells at the tower since morning," laughed the Hauptmann. "They're not shooting very well to-day."
I forgot everything but the brown tower. I felt that any moment it must sway and topple over, but when we were told to leave, it was still standing. I wonder if it is there now. As we left the church and plowed through the mud to our motors, I saw a battalion of artillerymen drawn up before the little yellow headquarters, receiving their instructions. I caught one admonition not to be careless with ammunition, and then we were told that we were going to a battery. Down a road, where we saw five abandoned French caissons mired in a field, we had another experience with a most disconcerting sign. Hauptmann Kliewer's automobile stopped and seeing him get out, we followed, joining line in mud that came above our shoe tops.
"It is unsafe," he explained, "to take these motors any further. Knowing we were officers, the French would surely spray the road with shrapnel."
"Then the French observer can see us?"
The Hauptmann laughed.
"They've probably seen us from the moment we entered Houthem, and if our artillery hadn't been keeping them busy, they probably would have thrown some shells at our automobiles. But here we haven't even that chance. We walk to the battery. Separate yourselves at intervals of fifty paces so that if a shell drops on the road we won't all get it."
Too business-like a tone had come into his voice to let you think he was fooling. At once his manner became that of the officer in action, terse and taking instant obedience as a matter of course. We spread out. I found myself walking with Poole. We were approaching a high-banked railroad track, the road disappearing under a trestle. I suppose the field must have been strewn with the objects of war. I did not see them. I was staring straight ahead at the sky, looking for shells, and getting ready to throw myself on my face as I had been told to if one came. And then, from behind the railroad embankment, came a terrific explosion and I was watching a whisk of grayish smoke trailing away. I stood for a moment unable to talk. The embankment was only a hundred yards away.
"Poole," I remember saying. "That was close."
"The French must be trying to destroy the railroad," he returned.
He was saying something else when another explosion shook the air, almost in the same place. Badly rattled, for I could see Hauptmann Kliewer and the Second Bavarian Army Corps Staff Officer calmly walking on, where every stride was bringing us nearer the track, I tried to say unconcernedly: "That's wonderful marksmanship. Two in the same place," thinking, "suppose another battery not so accurate, should open up, and missing the tracks, drop one where we stood. "Wonderful shooting," I repeated, adding to myself, "and we're walking right into it."
Whereupon Poole and I decided that if two German officers wanted to commit suicide, good enough, but as for us, we were not going another step further unless there was some other way than by this road that ran under the tracks not thirty feet from the bursting shells. Yet I found myself walking on, although my blood had long ago turned cold; and I wonder now if that is the way some men go into action, ashamed to hold back. But we weren't going into action and there was no hot, nervous frenzy of battle and patriotism to urge us on. Walking towards those explosions was a case of "going in cold."
Disobeying orders, we hurried forward, overtaking the officers, and to our amazement we learned that the explosions were not of bursting shells; but the firing of our own battery hidden behind the tracks! Sheepishly, we trudged under the trestle. We had had all the sensations of being under heavy shell fire, dangerously close, and there had been no shells at all!
Coming out from under the trestle, I saw, sleeping under the high embankment of the railway, a greenish canal. Dug in the side of the opposite bank, that slanted upward forty feet from the water, I saw a hole shaped like a door, and as I looked, an officer darted forth and, scrambling up over the slippery clay, disappeared in a scraggle of bushes. I saw the mud-spattered carriages of two German field pieces, their dull barrels lying back between the wheels and serenely pointing into the blue and gray mottled sky.
Leaving the road, we sank shin deep into a yellow ooze, and standing on some planks about the yards behind the guns, we waited. The boyish-looking artillerymen, rigid gray- green figures, so statuesque that something in the mud must have turned them to stone, they seemed waiting too. And then, from the direction of the hole in the bank, I heard:
"Links! Ein viertal tiefer!"
And the statues by the guns became alive; they darted this way and that. They reminded me of sprinters leaving the mark. One leaped to the sights. "Links! Ein viertal tiefer!" And as the man on the bank bellowed again, the soldiers at the sights began tugging madly on something I could not see; and I knew that the range receiving telephones must be in that cave in the bank, for it dawned upon me now what that shouting meant: "Left! A quarter deeper." Sight the gun to the left, advancing the range a quarter some scale on the gun obviously and they would get the French! I glanced towards the shouter; he was disappearing into the hole in the bank.
I saw another of the boyish artillerymen bend down over one of the brown straw baskets that stood in neat little piles and lift from it a shell, evidently heavy, for while stripping off a waterproofed cover, he rested the projectile on his knee. As he darted towards the opened muzzle, the waterproof cover fell in the mud, but instantly the soldier who had just lain the brown shell basket upon a pile of empties, picked up the cover and, neatly folding it, saved that too. And I saw a pile of discharged shell cases; copper was too valuable these days to leave in the mud. And as I saw them load and prepare to fire, each man doing his task with the speed and deftness of a whirling gear, I thought of it as one part of the war machine in which individuality was utterly lost in the gun; but that was before I went into the hole in the canal bank.
And then I saw that all the soldiers were holding their hands on their ears; and I was quick to put mine there too. But even then, as the gun discharged, I could feel my ear drums trembling as though they would break the long red flash, the roar, the frightened recoil of the barrel, the dark puff of quick dispelling smoke, the air flying with black specks, and then a sound like a gigantic coil of wire being whirled through the air and a 7.7 centimeter shell was whistling towards the French line.
As swiftly as they had loaded and fired, the youthful artillerymen withdrew the shell and when one of them stood patting the copper jacket of a new pro-jective and glancing towards the edge of the bank, as if waiting for the man who cried "Links, ein viertal tiefer!" to appear, I knew that they were firing shrapnel. They must wait for the range before setting the tiny indicator which travels with the projectile through the air. And as I waited, marveling at the detailed accuracy for shooting at an enemy who must be nearly two miles away, the other gun in the battery went off with a roar, and, while my ears throbbed madly, I watched the village hidden among the dense trees about a quarter of a mile away, for an enemy's shrapnel was spreading its white clouds there. And just above those trees there appeared another white speck, two more and the sky was ringed with curling smoke; then two heavy booms and tatters of black smoke whirled from the trees. The French had opened fire on the village. As I waded through the mud to go down into the bombproof, it struck me uneasily that our officers glanced at each other.
I was slipping down the bank as the "Links ein viertal tiefer" man rushed from the bombproof, bellowing something to the gun crews. Then we climbed down through the hole of a door into darkness. The first thing I saw by flashing on an electric lamp was a dirt wall, a little artificial Christmas tree that stood in a niche in the walls; beside it a half loaf of black bread, a bottle of wine and a picture of the Emperor. And then the man who lived there nodded to me.
He was sitting at a rough board table. He looked as absurdly young as the men under his command. I saw from his shoulder straps that he was an Unter-Lieutenant, and, even as I looked, his features seemed to grow grave with something he must be hearing through the telephone, which was strapped to his head. The stub of a candle guttered on the table and only his face seemed lighted; everything else faded away into shadowy silhouetting darkness. I saw him begin to race his pencil across a little pad and calling the orderly who, standing back in the darkness, I had not seen, he sent him scurrying away. The telephone buzzed. He called into it, lighting as he did a cigarette; from the blackened stubs strewn on the table, it was evident that he smoked constantly. He began scribbling again. I saw that he was looking at me nervously. I was thinking how this little room with the bread, wine, and Christmas tree, and the Emperor's picture, was the very organism of the battery and that this good-looking, nervous young lieutenant was directing it all, when I saw the orderly hurrying in. Another officer hurried after him. I noticed that the Lieutenant at the table looked relieved.
"You gentlemen will have to go now," said the officer, whom I saw was an artillery captain. "The French have opened the village with heavy grenaten and two just burst four hundred yards from here."
"What was that lieutenant so excited about?" I asked, as we left the bombproof.
"Why, his observer just telephoned that the French and their aeroplanes were ascending."
Even as I climbed up the canal bank, I saw the young artillerymen reluctantly covering their guns with branches, until, through a distant field glass, they would seem to be bushes. Their battery was "strategically silenced." I saw the under officers scampering down into the bombproof and their guns transformed into big gray leafless bushes, the boyish soldiers ran into hiding behind the blackened brick wall of a shelled house. Boo- oom! Boo-oom! Over in the village the smoke was pouring from a burning house and above the treetops the shrapnel spread their fleecy clouds.
In the next field I saw a patch of blackened smoke; dirt flew.
"Run! " shouted the Bavarian Captain, who had been in America. "Run like hell."
And as we tore pell mell past the ruined house, the artillerymen grinned and waved their hands.
"Gute Reise!" one of them yelled.
a German dug-out
A Night Before Ypres
The following are expanded pages of the diary that I kept from five o'clock in the evening of January 10th, 1915, to seven o'clock the next morning.
5 P. M. The motor has stopped, but I wonder why. In Houthem the Bavarian captain told us that we were going to Brigade Headquarters. I can see though only a dirty brick farmhouse; its door is open and the light of a lamp falling on the yard seems to float in a yellow watery pool. But the other gray-green army car has stopped too, and Hauptmann Kliewer is getting out.
So we pile out on the muddy road just as Hauptmann Kliewer beckons us to come on. Behind us the ruined walls of Houthem are hiding in the thickening dusk, but the grayish steeple where the Germans have and the French used to have their observers, persistently shows itself.
Hauptmann Kliewer and the Bavarian captain have left the road and are wading through the mud of the farmhouse yard. I thought we were going to Brigade Headquarters. We splash on after them. Hours before at the battery we sank in mud to the tops of our puttees; now the novelty has worn off. Through an open barn door I see a motor and think of it as being hidden there, an impression which grows, upon noticing that all the windows in the rear of the house are covered with boards, so that no light is visible. But the front door is visible. Yes, but that faces Houthem where the Germans are, and these rear windows face Ypres and the English and the French. About that silent house broods mystery. Hauptmann Kliewer is knocking and the door opens just enough for us to pass in one at a time, and is hurriedly closed. I wonder if a French observer could have seen that narrow bar of light. Probably not, for in the room only candles are burning three stubby candles on a long kitchen table, around which soldiers are sitting. And something buzzes, and picking up one of the many telephones, a soldier says into it, Brigade Hauptquartier." A moment, and it buzzes again. And once more the monotonous "Brigade Hauptquartier." And it dawns upon me that this dirty farmhouse must be the Brigade Headquarters that they told us we would visit. The kitchen now has a new interest.
Bidding us wait, Hauptmann Kliewer and the Bavarian captain have gone with an orderly into another room. The man at the table with the ragged beard and the boyish face has clamped a telephone to his head and is writing rapidly, pausing now and then to assure the man at the other end of the wire that he is getting every word. I wonder where that other man is? Down in a trench, perhaps, or possibly in the regimental headquarters. What is he saying? Have the French attacked? The other man at the table, puffing stolidly at the briar pipe, is clasping a telephone as though ready should the buzzer call. I wonder how he can be fresh and clean shaven, when all the other faces seen in the flickering candle light look weary and unkempt.
"Come!" Hauptmann Kliewer is calling us, so we leave the men around the kitchen table, who, unlike most of the German soldiers we have met, seem too exhausted to talk, and file through a latched door into a room that might have been in a farmhouse somewhere near Monroe, New York. The little black, pillow-seated chairs, the old-fashioned piano with its rack of torn music, the red-cushioned stool with the stuffing coming out, a hideous colored print of Antwerp on the wall, the oil lamp with the buff china shade, it all seems so utterly un-European. And then the door to an adjoining room opens and a slender, nervous-looking man in the fifties, whose impressive shoulder straps indicate an officer of high rank, begins to bow to us all. "General Major Clauss," Hauptmann Kliewer is introducing us, and at once the General Major dominates the room. It is for him to say whether we must go back to Lille, or spend the night at one of his regimental headquarters.
He begins a long conversation with the Hauptmann. General Major Clauss is shaking his head. I guess it's back to Lille.
"Ask him," I beg the Hauptmann, as he begins to give us the substance of what had been said, "if they cannot let us go to the firing line, if they'll let us stay here until morning."
With a smile, Hauptmann Kliewer is telling the General Major our wishes, but he too smiles, and spreads out his hands the right one is wounded as though it were out of the question.
The little parlor is filling with officers. They are all bowing and smiling in a friendly way. I appeal to one of them, a young chap, handsome in spite of the dueling scar across his chin. "We can do nothing," he says regretfully, in English. The General Major, apparently, is reluctant even to ask one of his regimental commanders to assume the responsibility for us. As if to bid us good-by, the staff is standing at attention. We urge the Hauptmann to telephone. "I shall try," he says, with rare good nature. General Major Clauss has closed the door behind him in his bedroom, and the Hauptmann buttonholes a Major. The Staff officers look at each other in surprise. They believed they were well rid of us. Briefly the Hauptmann is making the point for us. The young officer with the scarred chin puts in a word. The Major seems undecided. A lieutenant says something that I imagine would translate into, "Telephone, anything to be rid of them," but he regards us with the amazing polite smile.
The Major darts into the kitchen where the telephones are and then, smiling broadly, Hauptmann Kliewer comes in followed by the Major.
"Permission has been granted," he says, "for you to go to the headquarters of the Seventeenth Regiment. You will spend the night there, and be here at seven in the morning, where I shall meet you with the motor."
"Aren't you coming with us, Captain?" somebody asks.
"I'm going to spend the evening in the headquarters of my own regiment in Commines," the Hauptmann explains. "One of the officers here will take you to the Seventeenth's headquarters."
Thanking everybody, we leave the parlor, and the officers smile sententiously. We pass through the dimly lit kitchen where the tired soldiers sit around the table, and cautiously opening that betraying light filled door, we file, one at a time, into the stable yard. It is still dusk, and as we follow our officer towards the narrow road, that meets the one we had taken from Houthem, Kliewer bids us good-by. "Be careful," he calls. His motor drives away, and to my surprise our car follows. "Call back that driver," I say to our officer, "he's made a mistake."
"No, he is right," smiles the officer. "No automobile ever goes up this road. The French would see it. It's an easy walk, only a mile."
We follow him through the mud, finally setting foot on the road, less muddy I notice, than the road from Houthem. We are on our way to the headquarters of the Seventeenth Regiment. The dream of every correspondent in this war is about to be realized. We are on our way to spend the night on the firing line.
5:30. We have been walking ten minutes. We have passed a mounted patrol and an unarmed private, walking fast. The long twilight has grayed, but even far up the road I can still distinguish the posts of the wire fence. We have just passed a lonely, brown frame cottage, the last house between the open fields and a fringe of wood, when the Lieutenant stops short and faces us.
"From now on," says the Lieutenant, with that easy way of authority, "we shall walk at intervals of thirty paces."
I know what that means. Only a few hours before, when approaching a battery, Hauptmann Kliewer told us the same thing. I remember his words: "Altogether we make too plain a mark. We must separate." How uneasy you feel, walking along this way. Not only are you gauging your own interval of thirty paces, but you are careful to keep an eye on the others, ready to warn them if they draw too close; and they are keeping an eye on you. You expect something to happen. Uneasy, you watch the sky, but no shrapnel is bursting nearby. Ahead somewhere the artillery is booming, but here everything is quiet. This walking along, pacing your distance, restlessly glancing to right and left, and listening, is getting on my nerves. No wonder I can't hear anything. The flaps of that aviator's cap are tight around my ears. Expectantly I unloosen them. And then I hear it, above us, a sound that makes me stop short; a sound as though a giant had sucked in his breath.
Above us a shell is screaming on its way to the French trenches. From beyond the woods the cannonading sounds heavier. Through the trees, where the road bends to the right, a row of roofless houses seems ghostly gray in the dusk. "That's what's left of Hollenbeck," I am saying to Poole; "I heard the Major say we'd pass through it." And then it seems as though the air is being sucked in all around us; it shrills to a multitude of strange whistlings. The fence wire rings; a twig rattles along the dried limbs of a tree and floats down; something spats against a stone and goes ricocheting away. I'm positive we're going to be hit; the air is wild with bullets. The trees are closer. There we'll be safe. Why don't the others hurry, so that we can move faster, too?
And then, right on the road, almost where my heel has just lifted, a bullet strikes. The dirt flies high. Instinctively I lurch forward and fall on one knee. Forgetting his blanket, Poole bends over me. "Did you get it?" he asks. I wonder if I didn't, and look at my foot. "It was close," he says, relieved; "I heard the thing hit right behind you."
"I don't think we're seen," I unconcernedly try to say. "They wouldn't have let us come up here if we were. These must be wild bullets flying above the trenches. They're just beyond the wood, you know."
"Too wild," is Poole's comment, with which I agree. We are climbing a slight hill now, the road turning to the right into Hollenbeck, a silent place of unroofed, shell-battered houses. Here you feel safe for the walls protect you, but over our head the loud whining of the German shells keeps up the sound of war. Passing the last house we come upon two squads of soldiers waiting in its shelter, and as we go on out into the open road, they grin. The dusk is turning to black, and ahead it is hard to tell where the tops of that clump of trees leave off, and the sky begins. I am certain that those trees are our destination, and although the bullets are whistling again, one feels safe.
A few minutes' walking and we have turned into what seems to be a wooded lawn. A hundred feet away the vague shape of a low roofed house marks itself by a thin bar of light, evidently from a closed door. The lawn is muddy, and as, walking in single file, we cross on planks, the liquid ground soshes beneath our feet. As we approach what seems to be the stable of a farm, those in front walk slower, and even slower descend into the earth. Poole and I follow them down a flight of rough stone steps, and seeing two uprights of stout logs standing as a doorway and, level with my head as I descend, a roof of tree trunks and dirt, I whisper, "Bombproof."
The opening of what seems to be an old kitchen door. A warning to keep your head down, and we go stooping into a room dug in the ground, at the other end of which a genial, gray-haired man, whom you instantly decide is Colonel Meyer of the Seventeenth Infantry, is rising from beside a homemade table spread with military maps, a hospitable smile on his ruddy face.
"Welcome," he is saying in German. "So you got up the road all right? "
A sudden suspicion possesses me, and after introductions are over, I ask: "Colonel, there were too many bullets on that road. Where did they come from? Wild?"
"Wild? " he chuckled. "Why, sir, that road is our line of communication. It is watched and is covered by French sharpshooters. We lose half a dozen men on it every day."
And the officers at Brigade Headquarters smiled.
5:57 P. M. The broad wooden benches against the walls seem to us as comfortable as a cushioned lounge, and repeating, with many a "glaube mir"which the Colonel and his Adjutant are quick to catch on to as the "believe me" of American slang that wild horses couldn't drag us out on that road again, we take in the details of the room. It is about ten feet from where I sit to the strip of burlap covering the earthen wall behind the opposite bench. I should say that from the shelf, where the Colonel has his personal belongings, down to the other end of the room, which the glow from our big oil table lamp only lights faintly, is about twenty-five feet, enough for men to sleep on the benches along either wall. In the middle squats a red bellied stove, its pipe going up through the roof. The door looks as if it came from a farmhouse kitchen; it is paneled with four little squares of glass, one of them cracked, probably from the concussion of a bursting shell.
Yes, the timbers overhead look strong, intensely safe unless a grenat should burst squarely on top of them. And only by one chance in a thousand could a shrapnel ball fly down through the door. Yes, it seems safe in here; slowly we began to forget about the road. The Colonel excuses himself to study a map that seems to have been done by a stencil, and I cannot help but notice that it has been executed to the most minute detail, even individual trees and bushes being marked. I wonder what the scale is. I have to compel myself to glance elsewhere, for the fascination of the map is strong.
Above the shelf that runs across the end of the room, just so high that the Colonel who is sitting beside me, can reach up and take from it what he wants, stands a large square mirror. It seems also to be doing service as a visiting card tray, for stuck in the frame are five or six cards bearing the names of officers and their regiments. Somebody is taking good care of the Colonel I imagine he's married for the shelf is filled with luxuries, boxes of cigars and cigarettes, bottles of liquor, and there's a quart of sparkling Moselle! Strewn in a long row are all varieties of those wonderful food pastes that Germany began to put up so extensively in tubes, since the war Strassburg gooselivers, anchovies, rum chocolate. Colonel, you're living well down here!
It's queer how you can, in a few minutes, learn the tastes and habits of a man in a place like this. The Colonel is religious. There is a crucifix fastened to the burlap over my head. The Colonel must sleep on this bench. At the ends of his shelf, I see two other crucifixes, and there, standing on the top of a box of cigars, is a colored print, a Station of the Cross. I begin to know the Colonel better than if I had observed him for months in his Bavarian home. As I gaze at him now, bending over the map, that in his preoccupation he has pushed farther across the table, the lamp's yellow glow shows me his face in relief against the shadowed walls. It is a strong face, and kind; the chin is grim and square, but the eyes are big and gentle, grayish though, the color of a fighter. The gray mustache almost hides it, but reveals enough of the full mouth of one who is not ascetic. As for the crucifixes and the picture; they belong to the eyes. A seasoned man, the Colonel.
With a nervous start, that seems incongruous with his broad shoulders, the Colonel looks up. Then, appearing suddenly to remember something, he pushes the map towards me. I see it is a map of his position.
"There," he says, running his finger the length of a broken line in the upper right hand corner, "are the French trenches." "There," and he points to lines paralleling them, " is our position. Here," and his finger travels down the map, to rest on a group of oblongs and squares, "is where we are now. This unterstand!' and he makes a mark beside the smallest square, "was dug next to the shed where the farmer kept his wagons. This place is known as ..." Were I to name this place, it would, upon publication, be cabled to France, and telephoned out to the French artillery positions. "Now," and the Colonel smiles and runs his finger along a thick blue line that makes an angle and then disappears at the lower end of the map, "that is the road by which you came from Houthem, and at this point you were fired upon. Notice the curve that the French trenches make. From the extremity of that trench," and the Colonel indicates an imaginary line sweeping a section of the road, "it is not a thousand meters, easy for a sharpshooter."
"And that," I laugh, and I'm trying to make this gaiety real, "is the point that we don't care about crossing when we return."
"Can we not go back by some other road," Poole suggests, "a longer way, making a detour? "
The Colonel shakes his head with a reluctant smile.
I hear then the same buzzing that I heard in the kitchen at Brigade headquarters. And from the top of a varnished box, on the floor where I had not seen it, the Adjutant picks up a telephone. "Hier ist Siebsehn Bayrischer Regiment' he calls, and hands the instrument across the table to the Colonel. "Hier ist Oberst Meyer" says the Colonel, "Ja ... Jawohl? Adieu." With a chuckle, he turns to us. "That was Hauptmann Kliewer," he explains, "telephoning from Houthem. Somebody must have told him there about the road. He was rather concerned for you, but I assured him that you were about to take dinner."
Feebly we try to protest. But the Colonel insists that we'll have to eat with him, and we all feel guilty and self-conscious. It's just like these Germans to share their black bread and army wurst with us. But this is the firing line; this bombproof is only-eight hundred meters from the French trenches, and every scrap of food must count. An electric torch flashes on the wall outside the door; some one is coming down. A black mustached, young Bavarian comes in, and picking up the varnished box, which I now see sprouts with vine-like wires that climb up the wall and out under the roof, he carries the telephone away. The door opens again and another private comes in. Clicking his heels in a salute, he bows low from the waist, and then announces dinner. In bewilderment we look at each other and follow the Colonel up the earthen stairs.
"I always dine," Colonel Meyer seems to be apologizing, "in the farmhouse."
Overhead a stray bullet whistles, and I hear it rattling through the dried tops of the trees.
officers in the trenches
7:05 P. M. It seems safe, until leaving the shelter of the bar, we see that we have to cross an open space before reaching the farmhouse. I can see, standing outside the door there, the vague form of a soldier. He passes the shaded window, a faint orange square in the shadowy wall, and his bayonet flashes. As we cross this open space the Adjutant is asking us to turn off our electric lamps, for their reflection might attract French observers. So we trust to luck in the darkness and, slipping in mud, dart behind the shelter of the farmhouse. I hear a bullet thudding against the stone wall of the barn.
The door creaks open and we go in. As I gape around, the fragrance of good cooking comes from a coal stove, crammed with tall cylindrical army pots. The room is evidently the kitchen a typical farmhouse kitchen with a wide fireplace of red bricks and a long mixing table along the wall by the shade-drawn window. Tacked to a slate-colored pantry door is a calendar with the month of October not yet torn off, and on top of the fireplace an old wooden clock that has run down at half past four was it on the day the Germans came? "Sit down, gentlemen," the Colonel is saying, indicating a round kitchen table, around which six chairs are crowded. On a snow white cloth our places have been set. There are not enough forks to go round so some have soup spoons. I see only three knives, so some of us will have to use our pocket knives. A comfortable yellow light falls from the yellow lamp in the center of the table. We begin to feel as snug as a fireside cat. "Our knives and forks are rather limited," apologizes the Adjutant, who introduces himself as Hauptmann Koller, a tall handsome Bavarian with a scraggy black growth on his chin. "However, there are dishes enough to go around." I begin to have a suspicion that our sympathy has been absurd. Black bread and army wurst never gave out the odors that are coming from those pots on the stoves, and then our surprise is complete when the Colonel offers us a cocktail. Cocktails, and the French trenches eight hundred meters away!
"A German cocktail," smiles the Colonel, as he pours out the white schnapps, "not like the kind you have in America. One of my friends had a bottle of them in München Bronx cocktails," and the Colonel makes a grimace. There are only two cordial glasses, but by passing them around, we succeed in drinking the Colonel's health. As we take our seats at the table I notice that while four of the chairs seem to belong to the kitchen, the other two are richly tapestried. There must be a chateau near here. The Colonel is sitting in one of them and Dunn in the other. Leave it to Dunn to be lounging in the other tapestried chair. Hauptmann Koller, who is opposite, is hacking off chunks of bread from a round rye loaf. On my other side Reed is looking at the bottle of schnapps and wearing his unextinguishable smile.
A soldier brings a pot from the stove and the Colonel serves us. It is an oxtail stew, canned of course, but smells appetizing. "The Colonel hasn't any left for himself," exclaims Poole; but the Colonel is holding up his hand. "There is plenty," he says, and the soldier brings another steaming pot. Magically, tall, dark liter bottles make their appearance and on the labels I see "Rocker-Bran."
"Münchener Beer," cries Reed. "Isn't this amazing?" The Colonel looks at Hauptmann Koller and grins. I think that from their viewpoint they are enjoying it as much as we. Canned boiled beef follows the stew; more of the tall, dark bottles appear. I see a soldier open a green door in the wall at my left and, reaching into what is evidently another room, straighten up with his arms full of beer bottles. "That is our Bierkeller in there," explains Koller. Dunn decides that it is the very place for him to sleep.
"Colonel," says Poole, pointing at the wall behind me, "what did you do, have those windows boarded up so that the light wouldn't be seen?"
Hauptmann Koller is laughing and rubbing his frowsy chin in delight.
"Those are not windows," the Colonel says, with a laugh. "They are shell holes." We press Koller to give us the story: "The Colonel was dictating a report in here one morning. That orderly was writing it," and Koller nods towards the smiling, good-looking private with the Iron Cross, who is writing at the mixing table. "Without warning, for our battery was not in action and there was nothing to draw the French fire, two shrapnels tore through the wall and burst in the room. You can see the holes their balls made in the other walls and the floor and the Colonel wasn't hit!"
With a wave of his hand the Colonel indicates the last of three cots against the wall. "I was sitting on the edge of that bed," he says, "and the shells passed over the other two beds."
Almost incredulously we gaze at him as if to make sure that he is wounded but doesn't know it.
I am staring now at the walls and ceiling, trying to count the little shrapnel holes. Above the Colonel's head there is an Empire mirror that never hung in any farmhouse, and perched upon it a brass-black, hair-plumed helmet of a French Cuirassier.
"Out in the yard," remarks the Colonel, "there is an unexploded shell, one of the French 'twenty-eights.' It fell there one day and didn't burst. We had one of our ordnance experts up to examine it, but he says it won't explode now. If it did, it would blow up the house."
So we sit here thinking of the silent guest in the yard outside. I forget that there is something more to eat. With the cheese and coffee, the evening concert begins. A German field piece in the woods close by has opened fire. Suddenly the night is roaring with the bursting of shells, and down in the trenches the rifles begin their incessant harsh croaking. The Colonel is looking at the tiny watch dial on his wrist. "The same as last night," he remarks to Hauptmann Koller, adding to us, "The French always open heavy fire at eight."
That's the third German officer I've heard make that statement in as many days. The French always shelled Mouchy at three; they put grenaten in Houthem every evening at six; they concentrated their fire here at eight. Frenchmen, the last people in the world you would suspect of systemization!
"They'll keep it up," continues the Colonel, "until two, and then they'll stop and begin again at five for two hours. We know exactly what to expect from them. They're hammering on us, for we hold the furthest front on this part of the line. I dare not advance any further until my supports come up."
We ask him to tell us something about the fighting here.
"The French attacked on December second," says Colonel Meyer, "more than a month ago. They came in columns of fours, and you can see them now, lying out there between the trenches in columns of fours. They were mowed down, and for a month the fighting has been so heavy that they can't get out to bury their dead. You can see them afterwards when the rockets go up. They make it quite bright."
"How many rockets, Colonel, do you send up in a night?"
"About a hundred generally."
"And how many men on an average are in the trenches?"
The Colonel considers long. "That varies greatly," he says finally. "At some points only 400 men of a regiment are in the trenches, at a time; at others, 800. I have used as high as 1200 for repelling a hard attack."
"Strange things happen, fighting the French," he muses. "The night after they were cut up so, they were ordered to attack again. As soon as it came dark, one of our soldiers heard a Frenchman calling across to him in German. The Frenchman had crawled across from his own trench on his belly. 'Don't shoot,' he told my man. 'Two hundred soldiers and an officer want to surrender.' The soldier kept him covered, and sent for an under officer. They telephoned me from the trenches and I told them to let the Frenchmen come over if they threw down their arms. And two hundred Frenchmen with their officers, did come over. I asked their officer why they had surrendered, and he told me that the order had come to storm our trenches again that night, and that all day his men had been looking out and seeing their comrades lying in the mud in columns of fours, and that they nearly went mad." And the Colonel slowly shakes his head. "I saw them lying there, too. I can understand how it affected them."
As Hauptmann Koller pushes back his chair and goes to the fireplace, I notice that his shoulder straps are covered with meaningless cloth; no sharpshooter will pick him for choice game. And from beside the old wooden clock Koller takes down a box of cigars, piling on it a tin of cigarettes, while with the other hand he picks up a bottle of Anisette. "They're Austrian cigars," he says, "but they're all right." While we are lighting up, he pours out the Anisette. This time we drink Koller's health and then the officers insist upon drinking ours; we return with a toast to Bavaria. Colonel comes back with a standing health to the United States.
"Tell them," he begs, "that we are not barbarians. I have a sister who lives in Wyckoff, New York, and I'm afraid that by reading your newspapers, she thinks that I've become a terrible ogre." Again the Colonel is the easy smiling host.
The door opens; a private comes in and sits by the telephone. He moves it down the mixing table quite close to us. "Is it time for the concert?" asks the Colonel.
Hauptmann Koller nods. "At eight thirty. It's that now."
"Gut!" and the Colonel indicates us with a wave of his hand, "Gentlemen, be my guests at our regular evening concert."
We look at each other blankly. The Colonel seems to have a huge joke up his sleeve. He is bustling about the telephone like a man dressing a Christmas tree. He takes up the instrument and holds it to his ear. "Come," he says, beckoning me. I pick up the receiver and almost drop it in my amazement. Somewhere an excellent pianist is playing the Valkerie. In a spell, I listen to the music, each note retaining its sweetness over the wire. The music stops; I hear a flutter of handclapping.
"Where is it?" I gasp, coming over to the table.
"That comes from the headquarters in Houthem," explains Koller, while the Colonel nods, smiling, as with a surprise well planned. "That was General Major Clauss at the piano. He was playing under great difficulties."
"The man with the wounded hand!" I exclaim. Poole takes up the 'phone.
"He is playing Tristam," whispers Poole, and outside I hear the growing fury of the shells and the crash of the German field piece close by. The Colonel is telling me how on Christmas Eve they played "Heilige Nacht" for them, down in Houthem, and that while he was listening to the music a heavy shell burst down in the trenches, killing eight of his men. But I am not following half of what he says. Everything seems to be in a daze. It is all too incredible. We have finished what seemed to be one of the best savory dinners I have ever eaten. The supply of golden-brown Münchener beer seems to be limitless. We are finishing with coffee, cigarettes, cigars, and a cordial; and now a concert. And outside the sky is hideous with war, and eight hundred meters away are the French. And this is war.
Koller is at the 'phone now. "When General Clauss is through," I tell him, "ask him to play something from Chopin." In a moment Koller nods for me to come over. And I am listening to the opening bars perhaps my nerves are overstrained but I hear a noise that sounds like a bullet hitting a wire fence, and the music is still. Snatching up the 'phone the orderly tries in vain for a connection and finally transfers it to another wire. Perhaps, after all, I heard only a normal snapping of the wire. Imagination plays strange tricks in this world of uncanny and violent impressions.
The door opens and an orderly comes in with the mail. There are two letters for the Colonel, and while he is reading them Koller opens a bottle of cognac. The Colonel is stuffing one of the letters inside his coat. His eyes are wet and, not to embarrass him, I watch Hauptmann Koller measuring out the cognac. Probably a letter from the Colonel's wife. The door opens again; the room fills with officers, who click their heels and bow to us. "The relief," whispers Koller.
A thin, gray-mustached man, whose precise speech makes you think of a university professor, comes forward; the Colonel remains on his feet. The room seems to stiffen with military etiquette. The Major is making his report to the Colonel. I catch the words: "They put heavy shells on us, beginning with eleven o'clock last night and lasting until one." What time is it now? Ten thirty-three. Soon the shelling starts. It is a very detailed report and, unfolding his map, the Colonel spreads it on the table and indicates a position. The Major studies it and offers some thoughtful comment. How like those Civil War plays played in New York years ago, in fact identical in situation. The Colonel gives some orders, asks if there are any questions, and to the clicking of heels and polite adieus, the relief officers file out. They are going to the trenches.
The good looking private with the Iron Cross salutes. "Sir, the concert is ready."
What! do they keep it up all night? But the Colonel is getting up, leading us out of the room. We follow him out into the night and the sky seems faintly luminous with weird light going along the farmhouse wall until we come to a short flight of steps into the ground. Descending, we are seated in an extremely low-roofed bombproof, in which five soldiers, half in uniform, are sitting around a wooden table. They look like the comic band of the music halls. One has a harmonica, another a flute, another sits before an inverted glass bowl, which he is ready to tap with a bayonet tip and beside him is the guitar man a wonderfully made guitar, its wires, telephone strings, its box, a case for canned goods, planed thin; and there is a serious-faced drummer. But facing them, blasé and autocratic, is a man with sensitive features and pince nez. He has discarded his uniform for an old black coat, and with a dirty hat pulled down over his eyes, he suggests the Jewish comedian of burlesque. Evidently he is the leader for, raising a bayonet scabbard, counting, "Ein, zwei, drei," he brings it down and the concert begins.
You recognize Puppchen. Leisurely beating time, sipping a glass of coffee that our orderly with the Iron Cross has filled for him from a pot that simmers on the squat coal stove, the leader is having the time of his life. They play some old German Folk songs, and once the harmonica man is late in starting and receives a boisterous reprimand from the leader. They are singing now, "Röslein auf der Heide ... Morgen Rot," and you think how sinister the words are, "leads me to an early death." Red morning! Will it ever be for them? Even here under the earth I can hear the hungry growling of the shells.
Modestly the leader is telling us that the Bavarian musicians are the best in Germany, "therefore our band is the best in the trenches," and the Colonel is beaming on them all. The orderly with the Iron Cross, who, unable to speak a word of English, has been smiling at me all night, urges us to take some more coffee; and it's "Good-by, boys! Good Luck," and we're out into the battle-shaken night.
"Want to have a look at it?" Hauptmann Koller asks me. I nod, yes. Hugging the wall, Koller and I turn the corner of the barn and slowly go down the open space between the buildings, that we had rushed past earlier in the evening, plastering ourselves against the walls. As if that would do us any good! We can hear the French bullets whistling by, and the air is shaking with heavy guns.
"After eleven," remarks Koller, "I fancy the French are at it with big grenaten," and as he speaks I see a flash in the trees not two hundred meters away and a field piece discharges with a crash. "Our, seven answering them," Koller is pointing towards where a greenish light seems to flash in the sky. "Over there about a mile," he says, "is the Ypres Canal. The Thirty-sixth Division is on the other bank, and as soon as they push back the French, we'll go ahead again," he speaks with a quiet confidence that makes you feel that the advance of his regiment is a matter of course.
"Come down here," he suggests, "and you can see the battle. Don't scorn the shelter of those trees. Keep them between you and the trenches. Go from one tree to the other."
I hear him splash through the mud; he is waving from behind a tree. I plow after him, going so fast that I almost slip and fall. The whistle of a bullet will make you move faster than you ever thought possible. Out of breath we come to the edge of the little grove and look out on the battlefield.
It is all color and noise unearthly colors, unearthly noises. I stand at the edge of an Inferno. The heavens streak with a sulphurous green, and the earth is scarred with flame. I see the rockets swishing up from the trenches, breaking with the weird light that would reveal any enemy creeping up, and falling in a shower of sparks, like shooting stars. It gives a strange confirmation of an old saying that when a star falls some one dies.
I see the steady, streaming, reddish line of rifle fire and the yellow flash of shells. I hear their fierce, harsh croaking and their deafening boom. I see, in the burst of a rocket, the wet fields glistening with mud; and the night crashes and rolls with awful clamor.
Koller is handing me his binoculars. Through them I can see the Ypres Canal, a monstrous glistening water snake, sleepily drinking the blood of men. It is a green night, a green land, a universe gone mad, for the sky was never meant to shine with those hideous lights. And the rockets spread their fiery trail and spill their hideous glare; and the line of fire brightens and grows dim and brightens again; perhaps as men are falling and others are springing to their places, and I turn my glasses on the glistening fields, and think I can see the columns of fours, the mounds of the dirt, the color of the mud, and I can hear the bullets panging in the mud at our feet. How they must be riddling the bodies of the dead!
"I've had enough," I tell Hauptmann Koller.
We say good night and cross the farmyard. The din of the battle seems to have died down, although the bullets still whistle and rattle among the dried trees. We lie down on the benches in the bombproof, with our clothes on, with the dirty blankets over us. Our night of nights is done.
12 P. M. to 6 A. M. Bits of dirt from the ceiling fall on my face. Hauptmann Koller is snoring. The guns are rumbling again. Koller snores blissfully on. The cannonading is terrific. Those poor devils down in the trenches. The cannonading sounds fainter and fainter. The handsome orderly with the Iron Cross is flashing a lamp on Roller's blanket, "All right," calls Koller, but in a moment he's snoring. Only stray rifles are crackling now. The glowing phosphorescent face of the watch on my wrist shows six o'clock. Morning! Hauptmann Koller is already out of bed.
"Good morning," he says, with a yawn. "The orderly was in a minute ago. Breakfast will be served at six-thirty."
In the trenches it's the hour when they pick up the dead.
see also : An American Journalist Visits German Trenches part 2
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