from 'The War Illustrated', 23rd June, 1917
'What I Learned
on the Western Front'
by F. A. McKenzie

In the British Sector

on the British sector of the Western front


I have visited the British western front three times since last Christmas, and am just back from my latest journey. During a busy fortnight in May I was given every opportunity to see things as they are. I visited the fighting-lines from the valley beyond Vimy Ridge to the country south-east of Bapaume. I had frank discussions on the general situation with eminent soldiers. I was allowed to stay with the men in the trenches and to live with them in hillside caves and in captured German dug-outs.

It was the most common experience to lunch or dine in comfort in some station while the heavy enemy shells were singing overhead as they went to their mark two or three miles farther behind the firing-line.

I remember one evening coming down from an advanced position to find that the men in the support lines were amusing themselves in a great field at football. Just beyond that field a steady succession of shells was falling. The footballers never even troubled to look up at them. Two or three hundred yards beyond the shells a battalion band was playing the latest musical-comedy tune in the horse lines. The three strata—the footballers, the shelled area, and the horse lines—seemed each independent of the others.

Awful Havoc on Vimy Ridge

I had opportunity to spend several days on Vimy Ridge. From here one could see the terrible ravages our own guns were working behind the German positions. Vimy Ridge itself was an awesome witness to the results of war. Every yard of the old German lines was torn up by shell-fire. The slope from the "Pimple" down to the village of Givenchy was one mere mass of tangled wires, shivered timbers, and ploughed-up earth: Here and there among them one could see many terrible relics of the battle of April 9th ; the pools still red with the blood of brave men, the remnants of the broken uniform and shattered gas-helmet of some fallen soldier, the boots, the coats, the smashed rifles, the packages of cartridges, the cylindrical sticks that had not yet exploded, and the like. Here and there, from the fallen weapons, one could retrace the story of some venture. Here was a point where Hun and Canadian had clearly faced one another, thrown each Ids bomb truly at the same second, and had both died.

And all over the hillside were the solitary graves and groups of graves, many of them surmounted by wooden crosses carefully designed and with wreaths of flowers or other memorials of affection from surviving comrades. Where-ever it is possible to do so, every care is taken of the bodies of our dead.

Down in the valley beyond Vimy Ridge, closer towards the German positions, one came into still more vigorous war. This valley is a very "unhealthy" place. You never know when a German barrage will start on any particular spot; all you can be certain of is that there will probably be one somewhere near before you have been many hours there. The Germans are busy with "pineapples"—big grenades which are hurled over by mechanical throwers. Scarcely an hour goes past on some days but there are airfights overhead, the "Archibalds" opening out their furious fire on some aeroplanes attempting to, pass. This anti-aircraft fire is almost as unpleasant for the people below as it is for the airmen above, and if you are standing anywhere near where a fight is taking place you are likely to find bits of shell quite appreciable in size, coming hurtling around.

Desolation on the Somme

Along the valley you see every now and again little stretcher-parties slowly wending their way with the wounded, taking them to the advanced dressing-station, where a doctor is always ready and waiting, and from the advanced dressing-station to the clearing-station farther behind. To gaze on these weary, muddy, khaki-clad soldiers, steel helmeted, often with several days' growth of beard, slowly moving along with their burden of pain, to walk .by the desperately wounded, attempting to do some last service as their faces grow ashen grey and their bubbling wounds tell their surely coming end, is to know the grimmest and most tragic side of war.

I was able to go over a large part of the territory on the Somme and the Ancre from which the Germans retired in February and March last. Most of this is simply one great ruin. The villages are so destroyed that one recalls the prophecy about "not one stone standing upon another." The very trees are blackened, leafless, and branchless with the long fighting. Trenches and wire entanglements, old dug-outs and temporary shelters tell where Fritz was. The piles of munitions that he left behind and the heaps of effects tell how he hurried away with our troops urging him on. I have travelled through miles of this country without seeing a sign of life save a wild cat struggling amid the wire entanglements or a solitary crow hovering overhead.

You pass over some of the historic fighting grounds of 1916 with at first a feeling of wonder that such little spaces should have cost both sides so dearly. I naturally stood with special interest at Regina Trench, at Courcelette, and round the ruined boilers of the sugar refinery, where so many of my fellow-Canadians died last autumn. Regina Trench has been half obliterated by the course of time. The sugar, refinery, was a mass of broken iron and bricks, with heaps of the wreckage of war still around it.

Perfection of the Army Machine

Looking farther afield across the sodden and desolate uplands there seemed little to mark out their muddy, blasted, and poisoned surface, except an occasional wrecked "tank" lying about and the broken impedimenta of war.

Everywhere behind the lines one saw abundant evidences of the great advances we have made in military organisation. The army machine in France is now as perfect as any machine can be. Great operations are carried through without a hitch. The most elaborate and carefully considered measures are taken to provide for every possible contingency. We are building railways—many railways—behind our lines. A hundred miles from

Bapaume you will come across a battalion of Western foresters who have quickly built a mill in the midst of a wood, and who are cutting down trees and turning them into ties for the railway, props for the mines, and planks for the army roads.

We have reached the point where we can say that our weapons are in practically every case at least as good and, in a number of cases, much better than those of the Germans.

The best proof of this is what the fighting man himself says. To hear genuine praise of the wonderful Lewis machine-gun, the fine Stokes trench-mortar; and the deadly little egg-bomb one must go among the men using them. I talked with many hundreds of soldiers. I never heard from one of them anything but praise for the weapons he was fighting with. Even the German prisoners have to pay them a tribute. "It was your artillery overcame us," said one.

As for our men themselves, Imperial troops and men from the Dominions, any praise that I could give would be inadequate and maybe a trifle impertinent. Their best praise is given in the formal records of their doings. Take, for instance, one lieutenant who was wounded at the beginning of a recent advance. He kept on leading his men, his orderly helping him. Another shell killed the orderly and wounded the lieutenant a second time, now in the leg. Unable to walk farther, he crawled three hundred yards with his men till they had taken their objective.

Our Task Still Ahead

Driver X was taking a load of wounded along the road behind the lines when a heavy German barrage opened there. Two of his horses were blown to bits. I got off, dazed as he was, and carried each of his wounded men to a trench where they were comparatively safe over a hundred yards away. Crossing through the barrage he found a regimental-aid station, and guided the stretcher-bearers back to the wounded, helping them to carry them home. It is becoming almost a matter of everyday occurrence for? badly-wounded men to keep on in the fight, to tie a bandage around their wound and to continue hour after hour in the front line.

Heroes all! They are accomplishing the seemingly impossible. They are enduring conditions, undertaking great tasks, carrying through difficult enterprises such as a few years ago we would have thought beyond human capacity.

But the valour and efficiency of our own Army must not let us shut our eyes to the fact that the German Army is still a very formidable power. The German soldiers are full of confidence. Their guns show no shortage of shells. To ensure their defeat still demands all our strength, all our potential resources, and all our energy.

I for one returned from France for a temporary stay at home, realising as perhaps never before the formidable nature of the task yet ahead of us. I felt that I ought to go as a missionary to my fellow-countrymen to shout in their ears: "Make still more ready, for the day of still more arduous conflict is near to hand."

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