- In the Dust of the Russian Retreat
- by Arthur Ruhl
- American Journalist for 'Collier's'
On the Galician Front in Summer,1915
Austro-German armies on the move east
WARSAW had fallen, and Ivangorod, and the centre of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, sweeping across eastern Europe like beaters across a prairie, was now before Brest- Litovsk. This was the apex of this central triangle of Russian forts, a city and a rail-road centre as well as a fortress, and the last strongly fortified place on the direct road to Moscow. It seemed as if the Russians must make a stand here, and even though we were four or five days getting there, the heavy artillery was not yet up, and there might still be time.
We wound through the green hills and under the ruined castles of northern Hungary in the afternoon, rolled slowly up across Silesia and into Russian Poland in the night, and came at noon to Radom, only sixty-five miles south of Warsaw. Hindenburg had been here in October, 1914, when he invaded Poland to draw off the Russians from Galicia, then the Russian offensive had rolled over the place. The Russians had held it all the winter; now they were a hundred and fifty miles eastward beyond the Vistula and the Bug "boog," not "bug," by the way and just hanging to the edge of Poland.
The war had scarcely touched Budapest and Vienna scarcely touched the ordinary city surfaces, that is to say. In hotels and cafes, streets and parks, life flowed on almost as brightly as ever. Farther north, in the Hungarian towns and villages, life still went on as usual, but one felt the grip of war you might not go there nor move about without a military pass. Beyond Radom, where now in the pleasant park the very literary Polish young people were strolling, reading as they walked, there was, so to speak, no ordinary life at all only the desert of war and the curious, intense, and complicated life of those who made it. Our car was hitched to a long transport-train for it would be another two days before the automobiles would come back for us from the front and we rode into this deserted Polish country toward Ivangorod.
It had all been fought over at least twice railroad stations and farm buildings burned, bridges dynamited, telegraph-poles cut down. The stations now were mere board shelters for a commandant and a soldiers' lunch-room; the bridges, timber bridges flung across by the pioneers; and the sawed-off telegraph-poles, spliced between railroad rails to save cutting new ones, were stuck back into the ground like forks. The Russians had a rather odd way of burning stations and leaving the rails, the important thing, intact, but here and there they had neatly destroyed them for miles by exploding a cartridge under the end of each.
The country is level here fields interspersed with dark pine forests, planted in the European fashion, to be grown and harvested like any other crop parks of living telephone-posts, thick as the quills of a porcupine. And through these pines and across the fields were the eternal Russian trenches, carefully built, timber-lined, sometimes roofed and sodded over, with rifle holes under the eaves. Barbed-wire entanglements, seven rows deep sometimes, trailed in front of them, through timber, through the long grass and flowers of marsh-land, a wicked foggy band against the green as far as one could see. Along the Galician front and in the Carpathians I had seen mile after mile of such trenches, timber-work, wires, and Spanish riders left behind, good as new, until it began to seem as if war were a peculiarly absurd game, consisting principally in chopping down good trees and digging ditches, and then going somewhere else.
In front of Ivangorod great preparations had been made. There was no town here, but the great fortress, with its citadel, barracks, machine-shops, gardens, church, and protecting forts, was almost a city in itself. It had a garrison of twenty thousand, and its gigantic concrete walls, covered over with earth and grass, its, moat and barbed wire, looked formidable enough. It had no modern heavy artillery, however, and even if it had, artillery in a fixed, known spot is comparatively helpless against the mobile guns, screened by hills and timber, besiegers can bring against it. Elaborate earthworks had, therefore, been thrown up several miles to the west of the fortress, but these became useless when the enemy, crossing the Vistula to north and south, swung round to cut off the one way out the railroad to Brest-Litovsk.
The Russians might have shut themselves in and waited not very long, probably until the big "thirty-point-fives" smashed the fort to pieces. They chose to get out in time, blew up the railroad bridge across the Bug, burned the barracks, and, with enough dynamite to give a good imitation of an earthquake, tumbled the walls and galleries of the fortress into melancholy heaps of rock.
It was dusk when we rolled into Ivangorod and into the thick of that vast and complicated labor which goes on in the rear of an advancing army all that laborious building up which follows the retreating army's orgy of tearing down bridge builders, an acre or two of transport horses, blacksmiths and iron-workers, a semi-permanent bakery, the ovens, on wheels, like thrashing-machine engines, dropping sparks and sending out a sweet, warm, steamy smell of corn and wheat. It never stopped, this bakery, night or day, and the bread was piled up in a big tent near by like cord-wood.
And here you could see the amount of trouble that can be made by blowing up a railroad bridge. First, of course, a new timber bridge has to be flung across, and the Vistula is a good two hundred yards wide here and the river was high. Up ahead the army was fighting forward, dependent, for the moment, on what came across that bridge. A train arrives, hundreds of tons of freight which normally would roll across the river in a few puffs of a cigarette. The cars must be opened, each box and sack taken out by hand, carried down a bank, loaded into a wagon; the wagons creep over the pontoons, struggle through the sand on the other side, then each piece must be unloaded and put on a train again.
An axle breaks, the returning line waits an hour for the other to cross, a sixty-foot pine log for the new railway bridge wedges fast in turning a corner and stops everything you must imagine them at it all day, sweating and swearing in all the dialects of the dual monarchy all night, with fagged horses and drivers dazed with sleep, in the blaze of a search-light reaching out over the river. Meanwhile a tall timber railroad bridge was creeping across. There was no pile-driver engine, and at each cluster of piles fifteen or twenty Russian prisoners, in their brown service uniforms, hung to as many ropes "Heave . . . whack! Heave . . . whack!" in quaint retribution for what a few sticks of dynamite had done a fortnight before.
A thousand fresh Hungarian troops had just come , in next morning, and were waiting for their coffee, when the word came by field-telephone that a Russian flier was dropping bombs about twenty kilometres away. It was fine hunting-ground men, horses, stores, and the new bridge but he sailed away, and we drove a dozen miles up the Vistula to New Alexandria, burned during the enveloping movement on Ivangorod.
All along the way were trenches, telltale yellow lines of sand winding among the pines, gun positions, barbed wire, and every now and then a big plane-tree, with ladders running up to an artillery observation platform. I climbed up one of them on cleats worn by Russian boots for a look at the Vistula and the string of Red Cross barges, filled with wounded, going up the river. The children hereabout, at any. rate, will revere the Russians, for their pioneers had carried that winding stairway up to the very tip-top of the tree in a manner only seen in dreams or picture- books.
All the farmhouses had been burned, and the peasants were just returning. We passed several tired mothers with babies in shawls hanging from their shoulders and little boys trudging behind with some rusty kettle or coffee-pot, and once a woman, standing in the ruins of her house, of which only the chimney was left, calmly cooking her dinner.
New Alexandria, a pleasant little town, grown up round an old chateau, and used as a sort of summer resort by Warsaw people, was nothing but blackened chimneys and heaps of brick. The Russians had burned everything, and the inhabitants, who had fled into the pines, were just now beginning to straggle back. Some had set up little stands in front of their burned houses and were trying to sell apples, plums, pears, about the only marketable thing left; some were cleaning brick and trying to rebuild, some contented themselves with roofing over their cellars. And while we were observing these domestic scenes, the army, which had taken the outer forts by assault the preceding night, was marching into burning Brest-Litovsk.
It was another day before the motors came and we could get under way and whirl through such a cross-section of a modern army's life as one could scarcely have seen in the west of Europe since the Germans first came rolling down on Paris. No suburban warfare this; none of that hideous, burrowing, blowing up, methodically squashing out yard after yard of trenches and men. This was war in the grand old style an army on the march, literally, down roads smoky with dust and sunshine, across bridges their own pioneers had built, a river of men and horses, wagons and guns, from one hazy blue horizon to another.
And all these men had come from victory and knew they were marching to it. How far they were going none could tell, but the gods were with them so might the Grand Army have looked when it started eastward a hundred years ago. Men and horses had been pouring down that road for weeks on each side of the macadam highway the level, unfenced fields were trampled flat. It was fully one hundred and twenty miles, as the motor road ran, to Brest-Litovsk, and there was scarce a moment when, if we were not in the thick of them, we were not at least in sight of wagons, motors, horses, and men. And, of course, this was but the rear of the army; the fighting men proper were up in front. The dust hung like fog in the autumn sunshine. Drivers were black with it; in the distance, on parallel roads, it climbed high in the still air like smoke from burning villages. And out of this dust, as we whizzed on, our soldier chauffeur, whistle in mouth, shrieking for room, appeared pontoon trains big steel scows on top, beams underneath, cut, numbered, and ready to put together; trains of light farm wagons, wide at the top, slanting toward the middle, commandeered from all over Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war and driven, some by soldiers, but oftener by civilians with the yellow Austrian bands on their arms; heavy ammunition wagons drawn by four horse;; with a soldier outrider astride one of the leaders, and from time to time columns of reserves, older men for the most part, bound for guard duty, probably, shuffling along in loose order. Round and through these wagon-trains, in a swirl of dust, rumbled and swayed big motor-trucks, and once or twice, scattering everything with a lilting "Ta-te . . . Ta-da" the gray motor, the flash of scarlet, pale blue, and gold, and the bronzed, begoggled, imperial visage of some one high in command.
Once we passed a big Austrian mortar, covered with tarpaulin, by the side of the road, and again two big 20-centimetre guns, which had not had time to get up to Brest-Litovsk. This is where you find the heavy artillery nowadays, quite as likely as in a fort, on some hard highway, where it can easily be moved and sheltered, not behind concrete, but some innocent-looking apple-tree. Each fence corner was chalked with letters and numbers intelligible to the drivers, who passed that way; each bridge, down to the few boards across a ditch, had been examined by the pioneers, rebuilt if necessary, and a neat little sign set up on it, telling whether or not the heavy artillery could safely cross. Flowing back toward this huge, confident, onrushing organism, the peasants timid, halting, weary, and dust-covered, with wagons heaped with furniture, beds, hay for the horses, with the littlest children and those too old to walk were returning to the charred ruins of their homes. They, too like the grass had their unconquerable strength.
The same patience and quiet courage which had struck me in Antwerp as peculiarly Belgian, was here again in these Poles, Slovaks, and Ruthenians, whose boys, perhaps, were fighting with the armies which had driven the Belgians out. You would see peasant mothers with their children hanging from their shoulders women who had been tramping for days, perhaps, and might have days yet to tramp before they reached the heap of charred bricks that had once been a home. Nearly all had a cow, sometimes pulling back on its halter and filling the air with lamentation, sometimes harnessed with the horse to the family wagon. They had their pet dogs and birds, the little girls their kittens; from the front of one wagon poked the foolish head of a colt. Babies scarcely big enough to sit up crammed their little fingers into their eyes to shut out the dust; bigger children, to whom the ride would be, no doubt, the event of their lives, laughed and clapped their hands, and old men on foot took off their caps, after the fashion of the country, and bowed gravely as we whirled past. It seemed as if it were we who should do the saluting.
From the fields, as we whirled into and out of layers of air, sharply, as one does in a motor, came now the odor of ripe straw, now a whiff of coffee from a "goulash cannon," steaming away behind its troop like the calliope in the old-fashioned circus, and now and then, from some thicket or across a clover field, the sharp, dismaying smell of rotting flesh. The countryside lay so tranquil under the August sun that it was only when one saw a dead animal lying in an open field that one recalled the fire that, a few days before, must have crisscrossed this whole country, as now, doubtless, in constant cavalry fights and rear-guard skirmishes, it was crisscrossing the country up ahead.
Half an hour short of Brest-Litovsk an unfinished bridge turned us off into a potato field. The soft ground had long since been pounded flat, as the army, swinging round to the north, had crossed on a pontoon a mile or two lower down. The motor plunged, snarled, and stopped, and again, as we shovelled in front and pushed behind, we knew why armies burn bridges behind them.
Past us, as we sweated there, the slow but surer wagon-trains ploughed forward. One, a German train, stopped beside us to bait their horses officers of the Landwehr or Landsturm type, who looked as if they might be, as doubtless they were, lawyers, professors, or successful business men at home. They were from a class who, with us, would generally be helpless in the field, yet these bronzed, bearded, thoughtful-looking men seemed just as familiar with the details of their present job as with the work they had left behind.
Ever since we had crossed into Poland this sober, steel-gray stream had been mingling with and stiffening our lighter-hearted, more boyish, blue-gray stream of Austrians and Hungarians. Here were men who knew what they were doing, believed in it, and had the will to put it through. One thought of Emerson's "Earnest of the North Wind" whenever they came in sight.
Those who talk of "frightfulness" and get their notions of German soldiers from the vaporings of sedentary publicists, who know no more of them than may be seen through the pipe smoke of their own editorial rooms, are destined to a melancholy awakening. You may prefer your own ways, but you cannot make them prevail by blackguarding the other man's weaknesses; you must beat him where he is strong.
Lies and the snobbish ridicule with which our magazines and papers have been full, run off men like these like water off a duck. These men are in earnest. They have work to do. No one who has heard them singing the "Wacht am Rhein" through the starlight of garrisoned towns all the way from the Channel to the Carpathians, will talk of their being "stolid"; but they have, it is true, no coltishness. They are grown up. And this discipline of theirs does not mean, as so many people seem to think it does, being compelled to do what you don't want to do. It means doing what you are told to do as well as it possibly can be done, no matter how small it is nor who is looking on a sense of duty which makes every switchman behind the lines act as if he were Von Hindenburg. The thing of theirs, this will-power and moral earnestness, is one of the things that last something before which the merely frivolous has always gone down and always will.
The road down which we were going was, in a general way, the path already taken by the Austrian and Hungarian troops which had stormed the outer works at Kobilany two days before and been the first to enter the town. What happened was much like what had happened at Ivangorod. A German corps crossed the Bug to north and south and closed in on the rail-road, the Sixth Austro-Hungarian Corps under Corps General of Infantry Arz attacked the centre. The Russians sent the entire civil population eastward, removed their artillery and everything of value they could take, and set fire to the city. There was a brief artillery preparation to which the Russians, who all through this retreat appeared to be short in ammunition and artillery, replied for a time; then the outer forts were stormed, and when the Sixth Corps entered the burning city the Russians, except for the rear-guard prisoners, were gone.
We swung past a freight yard littered with over-turned cars, through a tangle of wagons army wagons pushing one way and distracted peasants the other over a pontoon across the narrow Bug and on into the town.
A city of sixty-five thousand people, with the exception of a church or two and houses that could almost be counted on one's fingers, was a waste of gaping windows and blackened chimneys. The Russians' purpose was not altogether clear, for the town was their town, and its destruction at this time of the year could not seriously embarrass a well-provisioned, confident enemy, but they had, at any rate, wiped it off the map. Not a woman, a child, a glimmer of peaceful life; only smouldering ruins, the occasional abandoned rifles and cartridge-boxes of the army that had retired, and the endless wagon-trains of the army pursuing them.
All the dust through which we had ridden since morning seemed to have gathered over that dismal wreck. It was a fog in the streets, on which darkness was already settling streets without a lamp or a sound except that from the onflowing trains. Through this dust we tried to find the headquarters of the Sixth Army Corps. To its commander our passes took us and without him we had no reason for being in Brest-Litovsk. Nobody knew where the Sixth was. Two Hungarian officers, hurrying by in a commandeered carriage, shouted back something about the "church with a blue cupola"; somebody else said "near the schnapps factory"; a beaming young lieutenant, helping to disentangle wagon-trains at the main street comers, said that the Sixth had marched at three that morning. We had driven all day with nothing to eat but a bit of war bread and chocolate, we were black with dust, there was not a crumb in the place that did not belong to the army, and we sat there in the thickening dusk, almost as much adrift as a raft in mid-ocean,
The two armies wagon-trains, that is to say were crossing each other at that comer. The Germans were going one way, the Austro-Hungarians the other tired, dust-covered horses and men, anonymous cogs in the vast machine, which had been following the man ahead since the day before, like enough, and might go on into another day before they could make camp.
Young Hungarian officers greeted one another gayly, and exchanged the day's adventures and news; young Germans rode by, slim, serious, and self-contained. Now the stream would stop as one line tried to break through the other, puzzled drivers would yank their horses back, then some determined section commander would come charging back, fling his horse into the tangle wagon tongues jammed into the canopy in front, protestations in German, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, goodness knows what, until at last one line gave way and the other shot forward through the dust again.
I had been in another captured city, with the besieged then, and when I think of Antwerp it is of the creepy, bright stillness during the bombardment the autumn sun, the smell of dead leaves, the shuttered streets, without a sound except when a shell came screaming in from the country or, a block or so away, there was a detonation and some facade came rumbling down. But when I think of Brest-Litovsk it will be of dust dust like fog and thickened with the smoke and twilight and that strange, wild, creaking stream of wagons fighting through it as they might have fought in the days when Europe was young and whole races of men came pouring over the frontiers.
We started off finally on foot through streets silent as the grave not a person, not a lamp, not so much as a barking dog, as queer and as creepy as some made-up thing in a theatre. Once we stumbled past a naked and dismembered trunk set up beside a doorway a physician's manikin that chance or some sinister clown had left there. Once and one of the strangest sounds I ever heard behind the closed up-stair shutters of an apothecary's shop, whose powders and poisons were strewn over the sidewalk, a piano haltingly played with one finger.
At last a light, an open door, a sentry and this was, indeed, theatrical a lighted room and a long table set with candles, flowers, and wine. The commander of the Sixth Corps had just been decorated. with the order "Pour Ie mérite" and he and his officers were dining before taking up the march. He welcomed us in the true Hungarian style, grabbed me by the arms and asked if I was hungry, apologized for their frugal war-time fare, told how splendidly his men had behaved, had a word and a place for every-body, as if we were all old friends.
There were three rooms full of officers, and every-one half rose and bowed in military fashion as we made our way between the tables to our seats at the end of the third. An amiable young signal-officer who had been at his telephone some thirty kilometres away when the city was taken and was off at three next morning, sat opposite me and told with great spirit how the only common language between him and some of his polyglot men was the English he had learned in school and they had picked up in America.
We slept on commandeered mattresses that night on the floor of a vacant house, with a few Hungarian hussars still singing over the victory in the back yard, and got up to find the crowded town of the night before as empty as the old camp-ground the day after the circus.
We strolled through some of the empty streets and into the citadel, where a handful of German soldiers were guarding a placid, tan-colored little herd of Russian prisoners; recrossed the pontoon bridge, as crowded. as it had been the afternoon before, and then stopped at Kobilany fort on the way back to Ivangorod.
The brief Austrian fire had been accurate. There were shell holes inside the fort, along the parapet, and one frightful bull's-eye, which had struck square on the inner concrete rim and blown chunks of concrete, as well as its own steel, all over the place. The rifle-men left in this embrasure were killed at a stroke, and their blood remained freshly dried on the stones. Of various uncomfortable places I have seen in the war this was one left behind in an open concrete fort to cover the retreat of artillery, and wait with a pop-gun rifle until the enemy decided that his artillery had "silenced" you and that it was time to storm.
One outer angle of the fort had been blown up and the rest was to have been dynamited, but a nimble Pole, fearing that he might be blown up, too, before the order came to retire, had, so we were told, cut the electric wire. Just why Brest-Litovsk was given up must be left for those who have had a more comprehensive view of all the causes behind the Russian retreat. It was plain to any one, however, that although this outer fortress had been taken by storm and a certain amount of damage done to the attacking force by mines laid in front of it, scarcely more than nominal resistance, considering the original preparations, had been made.
Again we whirled down the Ivangorod road, through a stream of wagons and peasants' carts almost as thick as the day before. We took a new road this time, but the deserted trenches still crossed the fields, and creeping up toward them, behind trees, through the greasy, black mud of pasture-land, were those eloquent. little shelters, scarcely more than a basketful of earth, thrown up by the skirmishers as they ran forward, dropped and dug themselves in.
We came to Radom and turned southward again. There were people, smoke coming from cottage chimneys, goose-girls with their spotless and absurdly peaceful geese, once a group of peasants young men and barefooted girls sitting on the grass resting from their work in the fields. As the train passed one of the boys flung his arm round the neck of the tanned young nymph beside him, and over they rolled, fighting like good-natured puppies. They were the very peasants we had seen dragging through the dust of the Brest-Litovsk road and this the same country, though it looked so strangely bright and warm and full of people. War had blown over it, that was all, and life, which is so much stronger than the strongest field-marshal, which can be bent, beaten down, and crushed some-times, like the grass, was growing back again.
Horse skeltons litter the battlefields in Russian-Poland
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