from 'the War Illustrated' 7th September, 1918
'Amiens in Its Darkest Hour'


Men and Cities of the War

illustrations from 'the War Illustrated'


Nothing I have seen of the ravages of war has struck a colder chill to my heart than the empty streets and squares of Amiens, that gay, bustling city which during four months was silent and deserted, but which now, freed — as Marshal Foch promised it should be — from the threat of a second German occupation, is gradually coming back to life.

Of villages and small towns abandoned by their inhabitants, fiercely bombarded, ruined sometimes beyond recognition, I had seen many in France, in Poland, in Galicia, in Rumania, in Italy. But to drive through a city that has no people in it ; to walk through streets at noon where your footsteps are loud on the pavement ; to see in what had been so short a while before a hive of every activity, no living creature except perhaps a cat scratching feebly in the ruins of a shop, or a famished dog outside a shattered house — that affects the imagination with sinister force.

It would have been less uncanny if the city had been in ruins ; but for a long time the marks of damage were few. There seemed to be no reason for the empty, silent streets, unless a plague had terrified the citizens into fleeing before it, or some mysterious disaster slain them in their dwellings while they slept. One saw the long rows of house and shop-fronts looking very much as they looked before the place was evacuated.

The German Offensive

As the weeks of bombardment grew in number the signs of German fury became more plain. The cathedral, happily, suffered little. A small hole in the roof, some stained window glass broken, a buttress broken, the interior damaged here and there ; nothing which cannot be repaired. But it will be a long time before the central part of Amiens is built up again. There are blocks in which not a building has escaped. Blackened by fire, scarred by shell-bursts, hundreds of beautiful old structures have been turned into heaps of charred timber, shattered brickwork, or mere dust.

Many were built chiefly of lath and plaster. These were literally blown . away. I remember a bomb falling in those last days of March in the roadway of the Street of the Three Pebbles, as the main thoroughfare of the city is oddly named. The force of the explosion ripped the fronts off several of the old shops. Buildings of this character hit by a shell collapse and disappear.

The night that this happened was the beginning of the troubles which Amiens was to go through. There had been air raids the week before — the week of the opening of the German offensive on March 2ist. The weather, warm and clear and windless, suited the raiders. A full moon shone. This night, March 26th, was cloudless. The Germans took full advantage of it.

Already some thousands of the population had been scared into leaving the city at sundown. I took a walk between six and eight along the Somme and among the market-gardens which it waters. On the banks of the calm, shining river I found peace and beauty to refresh a spirit wearied by the sights and sounds of war. Coming down the stream from districts threatened already by the German" advance were fugitives in boats with their belongings piled up round them. Then, as I re-entered Amiens, I met numbers of people with bags and bundles. I thought at first these were also refugees who had arrived by tiain. I soon discovered that they were flying not into but out of the city. They were going to sleep in villages round about so as to escape the bombs.

On a Wild Night

Before we had finished our frugal evening meal in the Hotel du Rhin the entertainment began. There were two or three explosions at some little distance, and then a tremendous bang. Half the officers in the dining-room dropped instinctively on to their hands and knees. They had been taught to do this so well that it had become an instinct. The noise suggested that the bomb had struck the hotel; it had fallen just outside.

That was a wild night. The moon showed where dead horses lay in the streets, and lit up parties of rescuers dragging victims out of devastated houses, or trying to collect the remains of those who had been blown to bits. Wild rumours passed from lip to lip. "The Germans were close to the city. Their cavalry was in the suburbs already They would be in Amiens before daylight."

All this was absurd, of course; but it is useless to argue with frightened people. Before the daylight came, bitter cold and mistily grey (and no hot coffee to be got before I started out for the battlefield at six a.m.), many thousands had taken flight. From the hotel where I was billeted the proprietor and all his assistants had gone. I slept for a few hours in my clothes on a couch in another hotel which, being the only one with any servants left, was full up, three or four in each room. Next morning Amiens showed signs of having been badly damaged, and still more badly scared. The order for everyone to be ready to leave was issued that day.

Big Guns at Work

A great many had left before the bombardment cleared the city completely. It began one morning without notice. People looked up to see where the German airman was who had dropped a bomb. It was not until several shells had burst that they grasped the difference and understood that big German guns were at work. Then Amiens was abandoned.

For a time a few people stayed on. One of the pluckiest was the English chemist at the corner facing the garden in Three Pebbles Street. The shop, known to everyone who has been in this part of France during the war, was sandbagged up to a height of eight or ten feet. Inside you could still buy drugs and toothpaste, soap and blushes, until the stock was exhausted. Then the brave fellow left.

Amiens had been,, all through the Somme battles and through the months following, such a refuge for the officer or the man with a couple of days' leave, such a good place to lunch and dine ; such a rendezvous of all sorts and conditions of men, that its loss for these purposes was sorely felt. With wistful regret we recalled dinner at Marguerite's (otherwise the Cathedral Restaurant, where a very pretty girl brought you exquisitely cooked duck or chicken at an exorbitant price), or lunch at Charley's . Bar. We thought of the crowded streets, the well-filled shop-windows, the relief and relaxation which the city had always offered from the monotony and squalor of life at the front.

Where Marguerite went to I know not. The chemist shifted, I believe, to Boulogne. Charley's Bar was set up in Abbeville. The greater part of the inhabitants were sent to the centre and the South of France. Now they are trickling back. Some of them, poor creatures, will look for their houses or places of business in vain. The hotels will, I suppose, be reopening soon, those which still stand. Among these must not be counted the Hotel du Rhin. It was hit by a shell in June, and must be rebuilt in large part before it can be made habitable again.

Two Historic Birds

Bound up with our memories of the Hotel du Rhin — and all who recollect Amiens recollect the hotel_ — are thoughts of Gaston, the head waiter, and of the odd bird couple in the garden, the seagull and the stork. Gaston was a friendly, companionable soul, with a nice discrimination in wine, and an exact knowledge always of the relative excellence of every dish on the menu. He was also, in a harmless way, a bit of a liar. Gaston made us believe that he had served in the early stages of the war as an officer, and beea wounded severely in an heroic charge. He said once in a melancholy aside, as he took an order from an officer with only one pip on his shoulder, "To think that I was once a full lieutenant, and monsieur's superior officer ! "

Alas ! just before he quitted, Gaston confessed, in a fit of remorse induced by alarm and apprehension, that he had never been out of the ranks.

Here was rich comedy. The stork and the seagull came to a tragic end. Some days after the hotel was shut up, an American war correspondent and a Press officer, filled with misgiving as to the fate of the birds, managed to get into the garden. They found the inseparables in poor condition. With some difficulty they caught them and carried them off to War Correspondents' Headquarters. The seagull enjoyed itself, for there was plenty of water, but the stork pined, refused its food, and in a few days died. An altercation with a villager, which ended in its being thrown over a' wall, was held to have hastened the end. After this the seagull disappeared, and thus lost its chance of figuring in the War Museum along with its companion.

They had lived through the German occupation of Amiens in 1914, and they were more familiar to all whom business or pleasure took often to the Hotel du Rhin than any other inhabitants of the city. They had a right to be stuffed and exhibited. They were historic birds.

see also : The Great March Offensive of 1918



from 'the War Illustrated, 1st December, 1917
'the Footprints of the Hun'
New Impressions of the Western Front


In the Devastated Region Re-won by British Arms for France

pages from 'the War Illustrated'


As you pass from behind the base lines to the actual front two phases or aspects of war corne vividly before you. In the fighting zone itself you see the demon of destruction actually at work; the traces of his hand are hot and reeking upon the soil. They were very plainly before me one morning when we threaded our way through the woodland paths of Kemmel Hill, and emerged at length upon a famous viewpoint that looks far and wide over the arena of the memorable battles of last summer and this blood-stained autumn.

At our feet lay Wytschacte village; a little to its right was the long Ridge of Messines, and farther on, the patch of ragged stumps and sticks that was Ploogsteert Wood, the "Plug Street" wherein our soldiers lay and dodged the snipers and the shells for two unforgettable years ; in front the plain stretches grey to the horizon, broken by the long faint line of distant chimneys where, in Boche hands, smoke the factories of Lille.

But if we turn our gaze to the left, it falls upon the dim ruins which are Ypres, and travels towards Langemarck and Poelcappelle and the skirts of Houthulst Forest, where the armies are still locked in savage grapple. Here the guns were speaking, and brilliant flashes of fire and cloud- bursts of smoke showed where the shells were falling. It was a day of great fighting in that quarter, a day which carried the British line a little farther forward, and drove the Boche from another of his systems of concrete posts and fortified craters.

Ruin and Desolation

Over the Messines Ridge, as we cautiously ascended it through sinuous approach trenches, there was only an intermittent bombardment from distant German guns, with reverberant responses from our own batteries. But the ridge itself was possible going, though we were warned not to keep too close together lest we might attract undue attention from some enemy observation-post.

Here, where the fighting still goes on, there is the feeling of life, though it is life tortured, strained, agonised. But farther south, on the Somme and Ancre battleground, now well in the rear of the advancing host, there is the chill of ruin and desolation. All this country which Haig's' troops have won back for France is silent waste and desert. It was populous and prosperous before the war. Its ancient famous little towns were full of vitality, doing a brisk trade with the farmers and vine- dressers, and reaching out a hand to the rich manufacturing and mining centres of the Flanders border.

There were comfortable citizens in the snug old streets, well-to-do folk in the villages and farmsteads ; and the land was humming with activity, for always the peasants were out at work in their fields and orchard-closes, the carts laden with farm-stuff were trundling along the roadways, the women were selling vegetables and poultry in the market-squares, there 'was the constant clatter of wheels over the street cobbles. Now it is empty save for the British Army. There are tramping feet, but they are the feet of soldiers; if wheels grind the stones they are the wheels of military waggons and lorries. The inhabitants have departed, scattered into the interior of France, or held in exile and servitude under the foe.

From the towns unravaged by the Boche you come down the roads into this sorrowful and tormented land. You may travel from St. Omer and Hazebrouck, through St. Pol to Arras, or from Amiens, a great military and transport centre in these days, to Bapaume or Peronne. If you go by the Amiens route you will presently reach Albert, with that gilded statue of the Madonna which has been the theme of so many rhapsodies.


pages from 'the War Illustrated'

Landmarks Wiped Out

On high above the roadway Our Lady leans out from the river and shell-shattered tower; and there, I suppose, she will lean through many a year for all the tourists of all the world to see. But though they gaze and moralise over the Great War these sightseers of the future will never catch its spirit and its sadness as one does now. For as you pass through these villages you can understand why the people have not come back though the Hun has gone. They could not come ; there is no place left for them to live or sleep.

Many of the villages are mere heaps of loose brick and rubble. In some there are still a few roofless houses standing. But in some there is not even that, or anything at all to speak of human habitation. They have been simply obliterated; there are no houses, no churches or barns, no buildings of any kind ; nothing but some mounds, strewn over with slates and shards, to show that this was once a home of men and women.

There are spaces in this area where natural, as well as human, landmarks have been erased, so that the residents; coming back to the scene, can scarcely find their way. Roads, paths, hedges, woods, plantations have been blotted out. If you go up from Albert past Aveluy and Authuille you come to what was once Thiepval Ridge, beyond which are Courcelette and Martinpuich and Flers, names that will live in the annals of the British Army for ever.

The Agony of Arras

The fields here have been soddened with British blood; for on this ridge were the Schwaben Redoubt and the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and some of the fiercest fighting in the Ancre Battle. There was a wood on the Thiepval bank, but it is gone now, except for a few thin stumps stripped like telegraph-poles. There were farms, a great chateau, and other buildings, vanished too. Nothing remains but the mouldering slits in the earth, which are the dismantled trenches, with their salvage of rusting wire, broken sheets of corrugated iron, and balks of timber, stacked and piled by the pioneers and labour-parties, who are the only workers on this ground.

Scattered among the holes and cavities of the soil, or lying about in the open, are shell-cases, bombs, fuses, cartridges. You are bidden to walk warily here. Otherwise you may plant a foot upon an unexploded grenade or a "dud" shell which a chance kick may waken. Not till all the debris, has been cleared away will it be safe to ply the spade in this envenomed soil.

In Arras for two years they lived cheek-by-jaw with the enemy. There was one spot where the trenches all but touched. In those times you walked about the town in the daylight at the risk of your life, for the Boche snipers could look down into every street. Now the enemy is driven miles back, but his long-range guns can still reach the place sometimes. So it is deserted except for the soldiers.

There is scarcely a house which has not been shattered or holed. The cathedral is only broken walls and rubbish heaps, with one great arch still crossing the rectangle of ruin. There was a lovely old Hotel de Ville, a triumph of delicate tracery and noble towers, and that has gone, too. The houses round the square have lost their outer walls, and you can see their interiors.

Much of the destruction was deliberate and purposeless, or if it had any purpose there was none but that of causing loss and suffering. The Germans were resolved to do all the harm they could. One saw whole rows of houses in Bapaume and elsewhere which had been destroyed no! by shells from without but by bombs within.

see also : The Tunnels of Arras


Unforgettable — Unforgivable

Sometimes the walls had been blown out by internal explosion, so that the roof had fallen intact like an extinguisher. There was no military object to be served by this ; it was simply malice and brutal fury. So was the leaving of a clockwork infernal machine in .the cellars of the Town Hall, timed to explode several days after the German evacuation. This was mere murder, not war.

Everybody has heard how the orchards of the peasants were laid waste, and there is indeed a kind of primitive savagery in this act which affects the observer more than some worse crimes. You see the poor fruit trees sawn across or gashed with great cuts through the bark and fibre, and you feel as if you were looking at the torture of defenceless human beings. More vile things than that the Germans did in their baffled rage as they fell back. In some of the towns they rounded up the people and carried them away in thousands, old men and women, to work in slavery behind the German front; and young girls for that purpose, or perhaps some other. And there arc German professors who tell their countrymen that after the war France and Germany will make up their quarrel and be friends!

No one who has traversed the evacuated territory can believe it. No Frenchman of this or the next generation will forget the wrongs of the martyred provinces. Nor I think, will Frenchmen easily forget the British guns and rifles that loosed the fangs of the invader; or the sturdy British arms, which are busy clearing out and cleaning up the ravaged area, and restoring it to decency and civilised order.


pages from 'the War Illustrated'


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