from 'the War Illustrated' 1st December, 1917
'In the Devastated Regions'
'Re-won by British Arms for France'
by Sidney Low


New Impressions of the Western Front


The Footprints of the Hun

As you pass from behind the base lines to the actual front two phases or aspects of war come 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 Wytschaete 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 oi 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.



Landmarks Wiped Out

On high above the roadway Our Lady leans out from the riven 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 me 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 Authuiile you come to what was once Thiepval Ridge, beyond which are CourceIette and Martinpuich and Flers, names that will live in the annals of the British Army forever.

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 tiie 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-jowl 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 snipe I 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 hot 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 not by shells from without but by bombs within.



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 w as 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 are 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.


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