- 'in the Field with the French'
- from his book 'Vive la France' 1916
an American Journalist Visits the French Front
- from a French magazine 'l'Image de la Guerre' - replenishing ammunition after a battle
BEFORE going to France I was told that the French were very stingy with their war. I was told that the only fighting I would be permitted to see would be on moving-picture screens. I was assured that war correspondents were about as welcome as the small- pox. But I found that I had been misinformed. So far as I am concerned they have been as generous with their war as a Kentucky colonel is with mint-juleps. They have, in fact, been so willing to let me get close up to where things were happening that, on one or two occasions, it looked as though I would never see the Statue of Liberty again. I do not wish to give the impression, however, that these facilities for flirting with sudden death are handed out promiscuously to all who apply for them. To obtain me permission to see the French fighting-machine in action required the united influence of three Cabinet Ministers, a British peer, two ambassadors, a score of newspapers - and the patience of Job.
Unless you have attempted to pierce it, it is impossible to comprehend the marvellous veil of secrecy which the Allied Governments have cast over their military operations. I wonder if you, who will read this, realize that, though the German trenches can be reached by motor-car in ninety minutes from the Rue de la Paix, it is as impossible for an unauthorized person to get within sound, much less within sight, of them as it would be for a tourist to stroll into Buckingham Palace and have a friendly chat with King George. The good old days in Belgium, when the correspondents went flitting light- heartedly about the zone of operations on bicycles and in taxi-cabs and motor-cars, have passed, never to return. Imagine a battle in which more men were engaged and the results of which were more momentous than Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Sedan combined-a battle in which Europe lost more men than the North lost in the whole of the Civil War - being fought at, let us say, Manchester, in December, and the people of London and Edinburgh not knowing the details of that battle, the names of the regiments engaged, the losses, or, indeed, the actual result, until the following March. It is, in fact, not the slightest exaggeration to say that the people of Europe knew more about the wars that were fought on the South African veldt and on the Manchurian steppes than they do about this, the greatest of all wars, which is being fought literally at their front doors. So that when a correspondent does succeed in penetrating the veil of mystery, when he obtains permission to see with his own eyes something of what is happening on that five-hundred-mile-long slaughter-house and cesspool combined which is called "the front," he has every excuse for self-congratulation.
When the Ministry of War had reluctantly issued me the little yellow card, with my photograph pasted on it, which, so far as this war is concerned, is the equivalent of Aladdin's lamp and the magic carpet put together, and I had become for the time being the guest of the nation, my path was everywhere made smooth before me. I was ciceroned by a staff-officer in a beautiful sky-blue uniform and other officers were waiting to explain things to me in the various divisions through which we passed. We travelled by motor-car, with a pilot-car ahead and a luggage-car behind, and we went so fast that it took two people to tell about it, one to shout " Here they come ! and another, "There they go !
Leaving Paris, white and beautiful in the spring sunshine, behind us, we tore down the historic highway which still bears the title of the Route de Flandre, down which countless thousands of other men had hastened, in bygone centuries, to the fighting in the north. The houses of the city thinned and disappeared, and we came to open fields across which writhed, like monstrous yellow serpents, the zigzag lines of trenches. The whole countryside from the Aisne straight away to the walls of Paris is one vast network of trenches and barbed-wire entanglements, and, even in the improbable event of the enemy breaking through the present line, he would be little better off than he was before. The fields between the trenches were being ploughed by women, driving sleek white oxen, but the furrows were scarcely ever straight, for every few yards they would turn aside to avoid a turf-covered mound surmounted by a rude cross and a scarlet kepi. For half a hundred miles this portion of France is one vast cemetery, for it was here that von Kluck made his desperate attempt to break through to Paris, and it was here that Joffre, in the greatest battle of all time, drove the German legions back across the Marne and ended their dream of entering the French capital.
We whirled through villages whose main streets are lined with the broken, blackened shells of what had once been shops and dwellings. At once I felt at home, for with this sort of thing I had grown only too familiar in Belgium during the earlier days of the war. But here the Germans were either careless or in a hurry, for they had left many buildings standing. In Belgium they made a more finished job of it. Nothing better illustrates the implicit confidence which the French people have in their army, and in its ultimate success, than the fact that in all these towns through which we passed the people were hard at work rebuilding their shattered homes, though the strokes of their hammers were echoed by the sullen boom of German cannon. To me there was something approaching the sublime in these impoverished peasants turning with stout hearts and smiling faces to the rebuilding of their homes and the re-tilling of their fields. To these patient, worn men and women I lift my hat in respect and admiration. They, no less than their sons and husbands and brothers in the trenches, are fighting the battles of France.
from the pages of 'the War Illustrated'
- As we approached the front the traditional brick-red trousers and kepis still worn by the second-line men gave way to the new uniform of silvery blue-the colour of early morning. There were soldiers everywhere. Every town and hamlet through which we passed was alive with them. The highways were choked with troops of all arms; cuirassiers, with their medieval steel helmets and breastplates linen-covered; dragoons, riding under thickets of gleaming lances; zouaves in short blue jackets and baggy red breeches ; spahis in turbans and Senegalese in tarbooshes and Moroccans in burnouses; chasseurs d'Afrique in sky-blue and scarlet ; infantry of the line in all the shades of blue that can be produced by dyes and by the weather; mile-long strings of motor transports; field batteries; pontoon trains ; balloon corps ; ambulances with staring scarlet crosses painted on their canvas covers-all the nuts and bolts and springs and screws which go to compose what has become, after months of testing and improvements, as efficient a killing machine as the world has ever seen. And it is, I am convinced, eventually going to do the business. It struck me as having all, or nearly all, of the merits of the German organization with the human element added.
When only a short distance in the rear of the firing-line we left the car and proceeded on foot down a winding country road which debouched quite suddenly into a great, saucer-shaped valley. Its gentle slopes were chequered with the brown squares of fresh-ploughed fields and the green ones of sprouting grain. From beyond a near-by bridge came the mutter of artillery, and every now and then there appeared against the turquoise sky what looked like a patch of cotton-wool but was in reality bursting shrapnel. The far end of the valley was filled with what appeared at first glance to be a low-hanging cloud of grey-blue mist, but which, as we drew nearer, resolved itself of a soldier, descended from the yellow car and, followed by a staff in uniforms of light blue, of dark blue, of tan, of green, of scarlet, walked briskly down the motionless lines. I was having the unique privilege of seeing a President of France reviewing a French army almost within sight of the invader and actually within sound of his guns. It was under almost parallel circumstances that, upward of half a century ago, on the banks of the Rappahannock, another President of another mighty republic reviewed another army, which was likewise fighting the battles of civilization.
Raymond Poincaré is by no means an easy man to describe. He is the only French President within my memory who looks the part of ruler. In his person are centred, as it were, the aspirations of France, for he is a native of Lorraine. He was a captain of Alpine Chasseurs in his younger days and shows the result of his military training in his erect and vigorous bearing. Were you to see him apart from his official surroundings you might well take him, with his air of energy and authority, for a great employer or a captain of industry. Take twenty years from the age of Andrew Carnegie, trim his beard to a point, throw his shoulders back and his chest out, and you will have as good an idea as I can give you of the war-time President of France.
At the President's right walked a thick-set, black-moustached man whose rather shabby blue serge suit and broad-brimmed black slouch hat were in strange contrast to the brilliant uniforms about him. Yet this man in the wrinkled suit, with the un-military bearing, exercised more power than the President and all the officers who followed him; a word from him could make or break generals, could move armies ; he was Millerand, War Minister of France.
After passing down the lines and making a minute inspection of the soldiers and their equipment, the President took his stand in front of the grouped standards, and the officers and men who were to be decorated for gallantry ranged themselves before him, some with bandaged heads, some with their arms in slings, one hobbling painfully along on crutches. Stepping forward, as the Minister of War read off their names from a list, the President pinned to the tunic of each man the coveted bit of ribbon and enamel and kissed him on either cheek, while the troops presented arms and the massed bands played the anthem. On general principles I should think that the President would rebel at having to kiss so many men, even though they are heroes and have been freshly shaved for the occasion.
I might mention in passing that the decoration most highly prized by the French soldier is not, as is popularly supposed, the Legion of Honour, which, like the Iron Cross, has greatly depreciated because of its wholesale distribution (it is the policy of the German military authorities, I believe, to give the Iron Cross to one in every twenty men), but the Médaille Militaire, which, like the Victoria Cross and the Prussian decoration, Pour le Mérite, is awarded only for deeds of the most conspicuous bravery. The Médaille Militaire, moreover, can be won only by privates and non-commissioned officers or by generals, though the Croix de Guerre, the little bronze cross which signifies that the wearer has been mentioned in despatches, is awarded to all ranks and occasionally to women, among the décorées being Madame Alexis Carrel, the wife of the famous surgeon.
The picturesque business of recognizing the brave being concluded, the review of the troops began. Topping a rise, they swept down upon us in line of column-a moving cloud of greyish blue under shifting, shimmering, slanting lines of steel. Company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, swept past, businesslike as a locomotive, implacable as a trip-hammer, irresistible as a steam-roller, moving with mechanical precision to the exultant strains of the march of the Sambre et Meuse. These were the famous poilus, the bearded ones, the men with hair on their chests. Their uniforms were not immaculate. They were faded by wind and rain and sometimes stained with blood. On their boots was the mud of the battle-fields along the Aisne. Fresh from the trenches though they were, they were as pink-cheeked as athletes, and they marched with the buoyancy of men in high spirits and in perfect health. Here before me was a section of that wall of steel which stands unbroken between Western Europe and the Teutonic hordes. Hard on the heels of the infantry came the guns-the famous "75's" - a dozen batteries, well horsed and well equipped, at a spanking trot. A little space to let the foot and guns get out of the way, and then we heard the wild, shrill clangour of the cavalry trumpets pealing the charge. Over the rise they came, helmeted giants on gigantic horses. The earth shook beneath their gallop. The scarlet breeches of the riders gleamed fiery in the sunlight; the horsehair plumes of the helmets floated out behind; the upraised sword-blades formed a forest of glistening steel. As they went thundering past us in a whirlwind of dust and colour they rose in their stirrups, and high above the clank of steel and the trample of hoofs came the deep-mouthed Gallic battle- cry: Vive Ia France! Vive la France !"
To have had a battery of French artillery go into action and pour a torrent of steel- cased death upon the enemy's trenches for one's special benefit is, so far as I am aware, a courtesy which the General Staff has seen fit to extend to no other correspondent. That the guns were of the new 105-millimetre model, which are claimed to be as much superior to the "75's" as the latter are to all other field artillery, made the exhibition all the more Interesting. The road which we had to take in order to reach this particular battery leads for several miles across an open plateau within full view of the German positions. As we approached this danger zone the staff-officer who accompanied me spoke to our driver, who opened up the throttle, and we took that stretch of exposed highway as a frightened cat takes the top of a backyard fence. "Merely a matter of precaution," explained my companion. "Sometimes when the Germans see a car travelling along this road they send a few shells across in the hope of getting a general. There's no use in taking unnecessary chances." Though I didn't say so, it struck me that I was in considerably more danger from the driving than I was from a German shell.
from a French magazine 'l'Image de la Guerre' - in the French front lines
- Leaving the car in the shelter of the ridge on which the battery was posted, we ascended the steep hillside on foot. I noticed that the slope we were traversing was pitted with miniature craters, any one of which was large enough to hold a barrel. "It might be as well to hurry across here," the artillery officer who was acting as our guide casually remarked. "Last evening the Germans dropped eight hundred shells on this field that we are crossing, and one never knows, of course, when they will do it again."
Part way up the slope we entered what appeared to be a considerable grove of young trees. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered that it was not a natural grove but an artificial one, hundreds of saplings having been brought from elsewhere and set upright in the ground. Soon I saw the reason, for in a little cleared space in the heart of this imitation wood, mounted on what looked not unlike gigantic step-ladders, were two field-guns with their muzzles pointing skyward. "These guns are for use against aircraft," explained the officer in charge. "The German airmen are constantly trying to locate our batteries, and in order to discourage their inquisitiveness we've put these guns in position."
The guns were of the regulation soixante-quinze pattern, but so elevated that the wheels were at the height of a man's head from the ground, the barrels thus being inclined at such an acute angle that, by means of a sort of turntable on which the platforms were mounted, the gunners were able to sweep the sky. "This," said the artillery officer, calling my attention to a curious-looking instrument, "is the telemeter. By means of it we are able to obtain the exact altitude of the aircraft at which we are firing, and thus know at what elevation to set our guns. It is as simple as it is ingenious. There are two apertures, one for each eye. In one the aircraft is seen right side up; in the other it is inverted. By turning this thumbscrew the images are brought together. When one is superimposed exactly over the other the altitude is shown in metres on this dial below. Then we open on the airman with shrapnel." Since these guns were placed in position the German air-scouts have found it extremely hazardous to play peep-a-boo from the clouds.
- from a French magazine 'l'Image de la Guerre'
- French heavy artillery / wine rations arriving at the front
- A few minutes walk along the ridge brought us to the battery of 105's, which was the real object of our visit. The guns were not posted on the summit of the ridge, as a layman might suppose, but a quarter of a mile behind it, so that the ridge itself, a dense forest, and the river Aisne intervened between the battery and the German position. The guns were sunk in pits so ingeniously masked with shrubs and branches that the keenest-eyed airman, flying low overhead, would have seen nothing to arouse his suspicions. Fifty feet away one could detect nothing about that apparently innocent clump of tangled vegetation to suggest that it concealed an amazing quantity of potential death. This battery had been here through the winter, and the gunners had utilized the time, which hung heavy on their hands, in making themselves comfortable and in beautifying their surroundings.
With the taste and ingenuity so characteristic of the French, they had transformed their battery into a sylvan grotto. The earthen walls of the gun-pits were kept in place by deftly woven wattles and the paths leading to them had borders of white sand, on which were patriotic mottoes in coloured pebbles. Scattered about were ingeniously constructed rustic seats and tables. Within ten feet of one of the great grey guns a bed of hyacinths made the air heavy with their fragrance. The next gun-pit was banked about with yellow crocus. Hanging from the arbour which shielded another of the steel monsters were baskets made of moss and bark, in which were growing violets. At a rustic table, under a sort of pergola, a soldier was painting a picture in water-colours. It was a good picture. I saw it afterward on exhibition in the Salon des Humoristes in Paris. A few yards behind each gun-emplacement were cave-like shelters, dug in the hillside, in which the men sleep, and in which they take refuge during the periodic shell- storms which visit them. Those into which I went were warm and dry and not at all uncomfortable. Over the entrance to one of these troglodyte dwellings was a sign announcing that it was the Villa des Roses.
"Do the Germans know the position of these guns ? " I asked the battery commander.
"Not exactly, though they have, of course, a pretty general idea."
"Then you are not troubled by German shells," I remarked.
"Indeed we are," was the answer. "Though they have not been able to locate us exactly, they know that we are somewhere at the back of. this ridge, so every now and then they attempt to clear us out by means of progressive fire. That is, they start in at the summit, and by gradually increasing the elevation of their guns, systematically sweep the entire reverse slope of the ridge, so that some of their shells are almost certain to drop in on us. Do you appreciate, however, that, though we have now been in this same position for nearly six months, though not a day goes by that we ate not under fire, and though a number of my men have been killed and wounded, we have never seen the target at which we are firing and we have never seen a German soldier ?
A ten-minute walk across the open table-land which lay in front of the battery, and which forms the summit of the ridge, then through a dense bit of forest, and we found ourselves at the entrance to one of those secret observatoires from which the French observers keep an unceasing watch on the movements of the enemy, and by means of telephones, control the fire of their own batteries with incredible accuracy. This particular observatoire occupied the mouth of a cave on the precipitous hillside above the Aisne, being rendered invisible by a cleverly arranged screen of bushes. Pinned to the earthen walls were contour maps and fire-control charts; powerful telescopes mounted on tripods brought the German trenches across the river so close to us that, had a German soldier being incautious enough to show himself, we could almost have seen the spike upon his helmet; and a military telephonist with receivers clamped to his ears sat at a switchboard and pushed buttons or pulled out pegs just as the telephone girls do in London hotels. The chief difference was that this operator, instead of ordering a bellhop to take ice-water and writing-paper to Room 511, would tell the commander of a battery, four or five or six miles away, to send over to a German trench, which he would designate by number, a few rounds of shrapnel or high explosive.
An officer in a smart uniform of dark blue with the scarlet facings of the artillery beckoned to me to come forward, and indicated a small opening in the screen of branches.
Look through there," he said, "but please be extremely careful not to show yourself or to shake the branches. That hillside opposite us is dotted with the enemy's observatoires, just as this hillside is dotted with ours, and they are constantly sweeping this ridge with powerful glasses in the hope of spotting us and shelling us out. Thus far they've not been able to locate us. We've had better luck, however. We've located two of their fire-control stations, and put them out of business."
As I was by no means anxious to have a storm of shrapnel bursting about my head, I was careful not to do anything which might attract the attention of a German with a telescope glued to his eye. Peering cautiously through the opening in the screen of bushes, I find myself looking down upon the winding course of the Aisne; to the south- west I could catch a glimpse of the pottery roofs of Soissons, while from the farther bank of the river rose the gentle slopes which formed the opposite side of the river valley. These slopes were everywhere slashed and scarred by zigzag lines of yellow which I knew to be the German trenches. But, though I knew that those trenches sheltered an invading army, not a sign of life was to be seen. Barring a few black-and- white cows grazing contentedly in a pasture, the landscape was absolutely deserted. There was something strangely oppressive and uncanny about this great stretch of fertile countryside, dotted here and there with white-walled cottages and clumps of farm buildings, but with not a single human being to be seen. On the other side of the opposite ridge I knew that the German batteries were posted, just as the French guns were stationed out of sight at the back of the ridge on which I stood. This artillery warfare is, after all, only a gigantic edition of the old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek; the chief difference being that when you catch sight of your opponent, instead of saying politely, "I see you !" you try to kill him with a three-inch shell.
A soldier set a tripod in position and on it carefully adjusted a powerful telescope. The colonel motioned me to look through it, and suddenly the things that had looked like sinuous yellow lines became recognizable as marvellously constructed earthworks.
"Now," said the colonel, "focus your glass on that trench just above the ruined farmhouse and I will show you what our gunners can do." After consulting a chart with innumerable radiating blue and scarlet lines which was pinned to a drafting-table, and making some hasty calculations with a pencil, he gave a few curt orders to a junior officer who sat at a telephone switchboard with receivers clamped to his ears. The young officer spoke some cabalistic figures into the transmitter and concluded with the order: "Tir rapide."
Now, Monsieur Powell," called the colonel, watch the trenches."
A moment later, from somewhere behind the ridge at the back of us, came in rapid succession six splitting crashes-bang! bang! bang! bang! bang! bang! A fraction of a second later I saw six puffs of black smoke suddenly appear against one of the yellow lines on the distant hillside ; six fountains of earth shot high into the air.
Right into the trenches !" exclaimed the colonel, who was kneeling beside me with his glasses glued to his eyes. "Watch once more."
Again six splitting crashes, six distant puffs of smoke, and, floating back to us a moment later, six muffled detonations.
"The battery that has just fired is four miles from those trenches," remarked the colonel casually. " Not so bad, eh ?
It's marvellous," I answered, but all the time I was wondering how many lives had been snuffed out for my benefit that morning on the distant hillside, how many men with whom I have no quarrel had been maimed for life, how many women had been left husband-less, how many children fatherless.
"I do not wish to hasten your departure, Monsieur Powell," apologized the colonel, "but if you wish to get back to your car without annoyance, I think that you had better be starting. We've stirred up the Boches, and at any moment now their guns may begin to answer."
He knew what he was talking about, did that colonel. In fact, we had delayed our departure too long, for just as we reached the edge of the wood, and started across the open plateau which crowns the summit, something hurtled through the air above the tree-tops with a sound between a moan and a snarl and exploded with a crash like a thousand cannon crackers set off together a few yards in front of us. Before the echoes of the first had time to die away came another and yet another. They burst to the right of us, to the left of us, seemingly all around us. We certainly had stirred up the Germans.
For a few minutes we were in a very warm corner, and I am no stranger to shell-fire, either. At first we decided to make a dash for it across the plateau, but a shell which burst in the undergrowth not thirty feet ahead induced us to change our minds, and we precipitately retreated to the nearest bomb-proof. The next half-hour we spent snugly and securely several feet below the surface of the earth, while shrapnel whined overhead like bloodhounds seeking their prey. Have you ever heard shrapnel by any chance ? No ? Well, it sounds as much as anything else like a winter gale howling through the branches of a pine-tree. It is a moan, a groan, a shriek, and a wail rolled into one, and when the explosion comes it sounds as though some one had touched off a stick of dynamite under a grand piano. And it is not particularly cheering to know that the ones you hear do not harm you, and that it is the ones you do not have time to hear that send you to the cemetery. The French artillery officers tell me that the German ammunition has noticeably deteriorated of late. Well, perhaps. Still, I hadn't noticed it.
It was thirty minutes before the storm of shrapnel slackened and it was safe to start for the car. We had a mile of open field to cross with shells still occasionally falling. I felt like a man wearing a silk hat who has just passed a gang of boys engaged in making snowballs. In a lifetime largely made up of interesting experiences that exhibition of French gunnery will always stand out as one of the most interesting things I have ever seen. But all the way back to headquarters I kept wondering about those men in the trenches where the shells had fallen, and about the women and children who are waiting and watching and praying for them over there across the Rhine.
from the pages of 'the War Illustrated'
- I had expressed a wish to visit Soissons, and, upon communicating with division headquarters, permission was granted and the necessary orders issued. Before we started, however, I was told quite frankly that the military authorities accepted no responsibility for the consequences of the proposed excursion, for, though the town was in the possession of the French, it was under almost constant bombardment by the Germans. In order to get the setting of the picture clearly in your mind, you must picture two parallel ranges of hills, separated by a wonderfully fertile valley, perhaps three miles in width, down which meanders, with many twists and hairpin turns, the silver ribbon which is the Aisne. On its north bank, at a gentle bend in the river, stands the quaint old town of Soissons, so hoary with antiquity that its earlier history is lost in the mists of tradition. Of its normal population of fifteen thousand, when I was there only a few score remained, and those only because they had no other place to go.
- A sandstone ridge which rises abruptly from the south bank of the river directly opposite Soissons was held by the French, and from its shelter their batteries spat unceasing defiance at the Germans, under General von Heeringen, whose trenches lined the heights on the other side of the river and immediately behind the town. From dawn to dark and often throughout the night, the screaming messengers of death crisscrossed above the red-tiled roofs of Soissons and served to make things interesting for the handful of inhabitants who remained. Every now and then the German gunners, apparently for no reason save pure deviltry, would drop a few shells into the middle of the town. They argued, no doubt, that it would keep the townsfolk from becoming ennuied and give them something to occupy their minds.
The ridge on the French side of the river is literally honeycombed with quarries, tunnels, and caverns, many of these subterranean chambers being as large and as curiously formed as the grottoes in the Mammoth Cave. Being weatherproof as well as shell-proof, the French had turned them to excellent account, utilizing them for barracks, ammunition stores, fire-control stations, hospitals, and even stables. In fact, I can recall few stranger sights than that of a long line of helmeted horsemen, comprising a whole squadron of dragoons, disappearing into the mouth of one of these caverns like a gigantic snake crawling into its lair.
Leaving the car three miles from the out-skirts of Soissons, we made our way through dense undergrowth up a hillside until we came quite unexpectedly upon the yawning mouth of a tunnel, which, I surmised, passed completely under the backbone of the ridge.
Groping our way for perhaps an eighth of a mile through inky blackness, we suddenly emerged, amid a blinding glare of sunlight, into just such another observing station as we had visited that morning farther up the Aisne. This observatoire, being in the mouth of the tunnel, could not be seen from above, while a screen of branches and foliage concealed it from the German observers across the river. The officer in command at this point was anxious to give us a demonstration of the accuracy with which his gunners could land on the German solar plexus, but when he learned that we were going into the town he changed his mind.
"They've been quiet all day," he explained, and if you are going across the river it's just as well not to stir them up. You'll probably get a little excitement in any event, for the Boches usually shell the town for an hour or so at sunset before knocking off for supper. We call it 'The Evening Prayer.'
Slipping through an opening in the screen of foliage which masked the observatoire, we found ourselves at the beginning of a boyau, or communication trench, which led diagonally down the face of the hillside to the river. Down this we went, sometimes on hands and knees and always stooping, for as long as we were on the side of the hill we were within sight of the German positions, and to have shown our heads above the trench would have attracted the bullets of the German sharpshooters. And a second is long enough for a bullet to do its business. Emerging from the boyau at the foot of the hill, we crossed the river by an ancient stone bridge and for a mile or more followed a cobble-paved high road which ran between rows of workmen's cottages which had been wrecked by shell-fire. Some had shattered roofs and the plastered walls of others were pockmarked with bullets, for here the fighting had been desperate and bloody. But over the garden walls strayed blossom-laden branches of cherry, peach, and apple trees. The air was heavy with their fragrance. Black-and-white cattle grazed contentedly knee-deep in lush green grass. Pigeons cooed and chattered on the housetops. By an open window an old woman with a large white cat in her lap sat knitting. As she knitted she looked out across the blossoming hillsides to the sky-line where the invaders lay entrenched and waiting. I wondered what she was thinking about. She must have remembered quite distinctly when the Germans came to Soissons for the first time, five and forty years before, and how they shot the townsmen in the public square. A few years ago the people of Soissons unveiled a monument to those murdered citizens. When this war is over they will have more names to add to those already carved on its base.
It is not a cheerful business strolling through a shell-shattered and deserted town. You feel depressed and speak in hushed tones, as though you were in a house that had been visited by death as, indeed, you are. In the Place de la Republique we found a score or so of infantrymen on duty, these being the only soldiers that we saw in the town. Along the main thoroughfares nearly every shop was closed and its windows shuttered. Some tobacconists and two or three cafe's remained bravely open, but little business was being done. I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that every fourth or fifth house we passed showed evidences of the German bombardment. One shell, I remember, had exploded in the show-window of a furniture store and had demolished a gilt and-red-plush parlour suite. The only thing unharmed was a sign which read "Cheap and a bargain."
In the very heart of Soissons stands the huge bulk of the magnificent twelfth-century cathedral, its massive tower rising skyward like a finger pointing toward heaven. There are nobler piles in France.
Repeated rappings a door in the churchyard wall brought the curé; a white-haired, kindly faced giant of a man. Under his guidance we entered the cathedral, or rather what remains of it, for its famous Gothic windows are now but heaps of shattered glass, the splendid nave is open to the sky, half the roof has been torn away, the pulpit with its exquisite carvings has been splintered by a shell, and the massive columns have been chipped and scarred. Carvings which were the pride of master craftsmen long centuries dead have been damaged past repair. In the floor of the nave yawns a hole large enough to hold a horse. Around the statues which flank the altar, and which are too large to move, have been raised barricades of sand-bags. And this, mind you, in the house of Him who was the Apostle of Peace.
While the curé was pointing out to us the ruined beauties of his celebrated windows, something passed overhead with a wail like a lost soul. A moment later came an explosion which made the walls of the cathedral tremble. "Ah," remarked the curé unconcernedly, "they've begun again. I thought it must be nearly time. They bombard the cathedral every evening between five and seven."
As he finished speaking, another shell came whining over the housetops and burst with a prodigious racket in the street outside.
"How far away was that one ?" I asked one of the officers.
Only about a hundred metres," was the careless reply.
As unmoved as though at a church supper, the curé placidly continued his recital of the cathedral's departed glories, reeling off the names of the saints and martyrs who lie buried beneath the floor of its nave, his recital being punctuated at thirty-second intervals by explosions, each a little louder than the one preceding. Finally a shell came so low that I thought it was going through the roof. It came so near, in fact, that I suggested it was getting on toward dinner time and that we really ought to be on our way. But the curé was not to be hurried. He had had no visitors for nearly a year and he was determined to make the most of us. He insisted on showing us that cathedral from sacristy to belfry, and if he thought that we were missing anything he carefully explained it all over again.
"Why do you stay on here, father ?" I asked him. "A shell is likely to drop in on you at any moment."
That is as God wills, monsieur," was the quiet answer. "A captain does not leave his ship in a storm. I have my people to look after, for they are as helpless as children and look to me for advice. And the wounded also. We have turned the sacristy, as you saw, into a dressing-station. Yes, there is much to do. If a shell comes it will find me at my post of duty doing what I may to serve God and France."
So we went away and left him standing there alone in the doorway of his shattered cathedral, a picturesque and gallant figure, with his white hair coming down upon his shoulders and his tall figure wrapped in the black soutane. To such men as these the people of France owe a debt that they can never repay. Though they wear cassocks instead of cuirasses, though they carry Bibles instead of bayonets, they are none the less real soldiers - soldiers of the Lord.
from the pages of 'the War Illustrated'
- It must be borne in mind that the task of the artillery is far easier in hilly or mountainous country, such as is found along the Aisne and in the Vosges and Alsace, where the movements of the enemy can be observed with comparative facility and where both observers and gunners can usually find a certain degree of shelter, than in Artois and Flanders, where the country is as flat as the top of a table, with nothing even remotely resembling a hill on which the observers can be stationed or behind which the guns can be concealed. In the flat country the guns, which in all cases are carefully masked by means of branches from detection by hostile aircraft, take position at distances varying from two thousand to five thousand yards from the enemy's trenches. Immediately in the rear of each gun is a subterranean shelter, in which the gunners can take refuge in case a German battery locates them and attempts to shell them out. An artillery subaltern, known in the British service as the "forward observing officer," goes up to the infantry trenches and chooses a position, sometimes in a tree, sometimes in a shattered church-tower, sometimes in a sort of dug-out, from which he can obtain an unobstructed view of his battery's zone of fire. He is to his battery very much what a coach is to a football team, giving his men directions by telephone instead of through a megaphone, but, unlike the coach, he is stationed not on the side-line but on the firing- line. Laid on the surface of the ground, connecting him with the battery, is the field- telephone. As wires are easily cut by bursting shells, they are now being laid in a sort of ladder formation so that a dozen wires may be cut without interrupting communication. When the noise is so deafening that the voice of the observing officer cannot be heard on the field-telephone communication is carried on in the Morse code by means of a giant buzzer.
Amid all the uproar of battle the observing officer has to keep careful track, through his glasses, of every shell his battery fires, and to inform his battery commander by telephone of the effect of his fire. He must make no mistakes, for on those portions of the battle-line where the trenches are frequently less than a hundred yards apart the slightest miscalculation in giving the range might land the shells among his own men. The critical moment for the observing officer is, however, when the enemy makes a sudden rush and swarms of helmeted, grey-clad figures, climbing out of their trenches, come rolling forward in a steel-tipped wave, tripping in the barbed wire and falling in ones and twos and dozens. Instantly the French trenches crackle and roar into the full blast of magazine fire. The rattle of the machine guns sounds like a boy drawing a stick along the palings of a picket fence. The air quivers to the incessant crash of bursting shrapnel.
Infantry attack !" calls the observation officer into the telephone receiver which is clamped to his head. "Commence firing!" and his battery, two or three miles in the rear, begins pouring shrapnel on the advancing Germans. But still the grey figures come on, hoarsely cheering. "Drop twenty-five!" he orders. "Careful with your fuse-setting . . . very close to our trenches." The French shrapnel sprays the ground immediately in front of the French trenches as a street cleaner sprays the pavement with a hose. The grey line checks, falters, sways uncertainly before the blast of steel. Men begin to fall by dozens and scores, others turn and run for their lives. With a shrill cheer the French infantry spring from their trenches in a counter-attack. " Raise twenty-five ! raise fifty !" telephones the observing officer as the blue figures of his countrymen sweep forward in the charge.
And so it goes, the guns backing up the French attacks and breaking the German ones, shelling a house or a haystack for snipers, putting a machine gun out of business, dropping death into the enemy's trenches or sending its steel calling-cards across to a German battery whose position has been discovered and reported by wireless by a scouting French aeroplane. And all the time the youngster out in front, flattened to the ground, with glasses at his eyes and a telephone at his lips - acts the part of prompter and tells the guns when to speak their parts.
In reading accounts of artillery fire it should be remembered that there are two types of shell in common use to-day-shrapnel and high explosive-and that they are used for entirely different purposes and produce entirely different results. Shrapnel, which is intended only for use against infantry in the open, or when lightly entrenched, is a shell with a very thin steel body and a small bursting charge, generally of low-power explosive, in the base. By means of a time-fuse the projectile is made to burst at any given moment after leaving the gun, the explosion of the weak charge breaking the thin steel case and liberating the bullets, which fly forward with the velocity of the shrapnel, scattering much as do the pellets from a shot-gun. At a range of 3500 yards the bullets of a British 18-pound shrapnel, 375 in number, cover a space of 250 yards long and 30 yards wide-an area of more than one and a half acres. Though terribly effective against infantry attacks or unprotected batteries, shrapnel are wholly useless against fortified positions, strongly built houses, or deep and well-planned entrenchments. The difference between shrapnel and high explosive is the difference between a shot-gun and an elephant rifle.
The high-explosive shell, which is considerably stronger than the shrapnel, contains no bullets but a charge of high explosive-in the French service melinite, in the British usually lyddite, and in the German army trinitrotoluene. The effect of the high explosive is far more concentrated than that of shrapnel, covering only one-fifteenth of the area affected by the latter. Though shrapnel has practically no effect on barbed-wire entanglements or on concrete, and very little on earthworks, high-explosive shells of the same calibre destroy everything in the vicinity, concrete, wire entanglements, steel shields, guns, and even the trenches themselves disappearing like a dynamited stump before the terrific blast. The men holding the trenches are driven into their dug-outs, and may be reached even there by high-explosive shells fired from high-angle howitzers.
The commanding importance of the high-explosive shell in this war is due to the peculiar nature of the conflict. Instead of fighting in the open field, the struggle has developed into what is, to all intents and purposes, a fortress warfare on the most gigantic scale. In this warfare all strategic manoeuvres are absent, because manoeuvres are impossible on ground where every square yard is marked and swept by artillery fire. The opposing armies are not simply entrenched. They have protected themselves with masses of concrete and steel armour, so that the so-called trenches are in reality concrete forts, shielded and casemated with armour plate, flanked with rapid-firers and mortars, linked to one another by marvellously concealed communicating trenches which are protected in turn by the fire of heavy batteries, guarded by the most ingenious entanglements, pitfalls and other obstructions that the mind of man has been able to devise, and defended by machine guns, in the enormous proportion of one to every fifty men, mounted behind steel plates and capable of firing six hundred shots a minute. In these subterranean works dwell the infantry, abundantly provided with hand grenades and appliances for throwing bombs and flaming oil, their rifles trained, day and night, on the space over which an enemy must advance. That is the sort of wall which one side or the other will have to break through in order to win in this war.
The only way to take such a position is by frontal attack, and the only way to make a frontal attack possible is by paving the way with such a torrent of high explosive that both entanglements and earthworks are literally torn to pieces and the infantry defending them demoralized or annihilated. No one before the war could have imagined the vast quantity of shells required for such an operation. In order to prepare the way for an infantry attack on a German position near Arras, the French fired two hundred thousand rounds of high explosive in a single day-and the scouts came back to report that not a barbed-wire entanglement, a trench, or a living human being remained. During the same battle the British, owing to a shortage of high-explosive ammunition, were able to precede their attack by only forty minutes of shell fire. This was wholly insufficient to clear away the entanglements and other obstructions, and, as a result, the men were literally mowed down by the German machine guns. Even when the storming-parties succeed in reaching the first line of the enemy's trenches and bayonet or drive out the defenders, the opposing artillery, with a literal wall of fire, effectively prevents any reinforcements from advancing to their support. Shattered and exhausted though they are, the attackers must instantly set to work to fortify and consolidate the captured trenches, being subjected, meanwhile, to a much more accurate bombardment, as the enemy knows, of course, the exact range of his former positions and is able to drop his shells into them with unerring accuracy.
It is obvious that such offensive movements cannot be multiplied or prolonged indefinitely, both on account of the severe mental and physical strain on the men and the appalling losses which they involve. Neither can such offensives be improvised. A commanding officer cannot smash home a frontal attack on an enemy's position at any moment that he deems auspicious any more than a surgeon can perform a major operation without first preparing his patient physically. Before launching an attack the ground must be minutely studied; the position to be attacked must be reconnoitred and photographed by aviators ; advanced trenches must be dug; reserve troops must be moved forward and batteries brought into position without arousing the suspicions of the enemy; and, most important of all, enormous quantities of projectiles and other material must be gathered in one place designated by the officer in charge of the operations. The greatest problem presented by an offensive movement is that of delivering to the artillery the vast supplies of shells necessary to pave the way for a successful attack. To give some idea of what this means, I might mention that the Germans, during the crossing of the San, fired seven hundred thousand shells in four hours.
- from a French magazine 'l'Image de la Guerre'
- scenes in and behind the French front lines
- There are no words between the covers of the dictionary which can convey any adequate idea of what one of these great artillery actions is like. One has to see - and hear it. Buildings of brick and stone collapse as though they were built of cards. Whole towns are razed to the ground as a city of tents would be levelled by a cyclone. Trees are snapped off like carrots. Gaping holes as large as cottage cellars suddenly appear in the fields and in the stone-paved roads. Geysers of smoke and earth shoot high into the air. The fields are strewn with the shocking remains of what had once been mens: bodies without heads or without legs; legs and arms and heads without bodies. Dead horses, broken waggons, bent and shattered equipment are everywhere. The noise is beyond all description - yes, beyond all conception. It is like a close-by clap of thunder which, instead of lasting for a fraction of a second, lasts for hours. There is no break, no pause in the hell of sound, not even a momentary diminution. The ground heaves and shudders beneath your feet. You find it difficult to breathe. Your head throbs until you think that it is about to burst. Your eyeballs ache and burn. Giant fingers seem to be steadily pressing your ear-drums inward. The very atmosphere palpitates to the tremendous detonations. The howl of the shell-storm passing overhead gives you the feeling that the skies are falling. Compared with it the roar of the cannon at Waterloo or even at Gettysburg must have sounded like the popping of fire-crackers.
Inconceivably awe-inspiring and terrifying as is a modern artillery action, one eventually becomes accustomed to it, but I have yet to meet the person who could say with perfect truthfulness that he was indifferent to the fire of the great German siege cannon. I have three times been under the fire of the German siege-guns-during the bombardments of Antwerp, of Soissons, and of Dunkirk-and I hope with all my heart that I shall never have the experience again. Let me put it to you, my friends. How would you feel if you were sleeping quite peacefully in - let us say - the Hotel Metropole, and at six o'clock in the morning something dropped from the clouds, and in the pavement of Northumberland Avenue blew a hole large enough to bury a horse in ? And what would be your sensations if, still bewildered by the suddenness of your awakening, you ran to the window to see what had happened, and something that sounded like an express- train came hurtling through the air from somewhere over in Lambeth, and with the crash of an exploding powder-mill transformed Whiteley's into a heap of pulverized stone and concrete ? Well, that is precisely what happened to me one beautiful spring morning in Dunkirk.
To be quite frank, I didn't like Dunkirk from the first. Its empty streets, the shuttered windows of its shops, and the inky blackness into which the city was plunged at night from fear of aeroplanes, combined to give me a feeling of uneasiness and depression. The place was about as cheerful as a country cemetery on a rainy evening. From the time I set foot in it I had the feeling that something was going to happen. I found that a room had been reserved for me on the upper floor of the local hostelry, known as the Hotel des Arcades - presumably because there are none. I did not particularly relish the idea of sleeping on the upper floor, with nothing save the roof to ward off a bomb from a marauding aeroplane, for, ever since I was under the fire of Zeppelins in Antwerp, I have made it a point to put as many floors as possible between me and the sky.
It must have been about six o clock in the morning when I was awakened by a splitting crash which made my bedroom windows rattle. A moment later came another and then another, each louder and therefore nearer than the one preceding. All down the corridor doors began to open, and I heard voices excitedly inquiring what was happening. I didn't have to inquire. I knew from previous experience. A German Taube was raining death upon the city. Throwing open my shutters I could see the machine quite plainly, its armour-plated body gleaming in the morning sun like polished silver as it swept in ever-widening circles across the sky.
Somewhere to the east a pom-pom began its infernal trip-hammerlike clatter. An armoured-car, evidently British from the R.N." painted on its turret, tore into the square in front of the hotel, the lean barrel of its quick-firing gun sweeping the sky, and began to send shell after shell at the aerial intruder. From down near the water front came the raucous wail of a steam-siren warning the people to get under cover. A church bell began to clang hastily, insistently, imperatively. It seemed to say, "To your cellars! To your cellars ! Hurry! . . . Hurry! . . . HURRY!"
From the belfry of the church of St. Eloi a flag with blue and white stripes was run up as a warning to the townspeople that death was abroad. Suddenly, above the tumult of the bells and horns and hurrying footsteps, came a new and inconceivably terrifying found that there was standing-room only. Guests, porters, cooks, waiters, chambermaids, English Red Cross nurses, and a French colonel wearing the Legion of Honour were shivering in the dampness amid the cobwebs and the wine-bottles. Every time a shell exploded the wine-bottles in their bins shook and quivered as though they, too, were alive and frightened. I lay no claim to bravery, but in other bombarded cities I have seen what happens to the people in the cellar when a shell strikes that particular building, and I had no desire to end my career like a rat in a trap. Should you ever, by any chance, find yourself in a city which is being bombarded, take my advice, I beg of you, and go out into the middle of the nearest open square and stay there until the bombardment is over. I believe that far more people are killed during bombardment by falling masonry and timbers than by the shells themselves. As I went upstairs I heard a Frenchwoman angrily demanding of the chambermaid why she had not brought her hot water. "But, madame," pleaded the terrified girl, "the city is being bombarded."
"Is that any reason why I should not wash ? cried the irate lady. " Bring my hot water instantly."
At eight o'clock the officer commanding the garrison hurried in. He had invited me to lunch with him. "I am desolated that I cannot have the pleasure of your company at dejeuner, Monsieur Powell," said he, "but it is not wise for you to remain in the city. I am responsible to the Government for your safety, and it would make things easier for me if you would go. I have taken the liberty of sending for your car." You can call it cowardice or timidity or anything you please, but I am not at all ashamed to admit that I was never so glad to have an invitation cancelled. I have had a somewhat extensive acquaintance with bombardments, and I have always found that those who speak lightly of them are those who have never seen one.
In order to get out of range of the German shells my driver, acting under the orders of the commandant, turned the bonnet of the car toward Bergues, five miles to the southward. But we found that Bergues had not been overlooked by the German gunners, having, indeed, suffered more severely than Dunkirk. When we arrived the bombardment was just over and the dust was still rising from the shattered houses. Twelve 38-centimetre shells had landed in the very heart of the little town, sending a score or more of its inhabitants, men, women, and children, to the hospital and a like number to the cemetery.
A few hours before Bergues had been as quaint and peaceful and contented a town of five thousand people as you could have found in France. Because of its quaint and simple charm touring motorists used to go out of their way to see it. It is fortified in theory but not in fact, for its moss-grown ramparts, which date from the Crusaders, have about as much military significance as the Tower of London. But the guide-books describe it as a fortified town, and that was all the excuse the Germans needed to turn loose upon it sudden death. To-day that little town is an empty, broken shell, its streets piled high with the brick and plaster of its ruined homes. One has to see the ruin produced by a 38-centimetre shell to believe it. If one hits a building that building simply ceases to exist. It crumbles, disintegrates, disappears. I do not mean to say that its roof is ripped off or that one of its walls is blown away. I mean to say that the whole building crashes to the ground as though flattened by the hand of God.
The Germans sent only twelve of their shells into Bergues, but the central part of the town looked like Market Street in San Francisco after the earthquake. One of the shells struck a hospital and exploded in a ward filled with wounded soldiers. They are not wounded any longer. Another shell completely demolished a three-story brick house. In the cellar of that house a man, his wife, and their three children had taken refuge. There was no need to dig graves for them in the local cemetery. Throughout the bombardment a Taube hung over the doomed town to observe the effect of the shots, and to direct by wireless the distant gunners. I wonder what the German observer, peering down through his glasses upon the wrecked hospital and the shell-torn houses and the mangled bodies of the women and children, thought about it all. It would be interesting to know, wouldn't it ?
from a French magazine 'l'Image de la Guerre' - a soldier's meal al fresco
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