from ‘the War Illustrated’ 18th November, 1916
My Adventures as a War Correspondent
Running the Gauntlet in the War Zones
How an Eye-Witness Gets to and from the Front
by Basil Clarke

The Many Woes of a war Reporter

the perils of war-reporting : a German war-correspondent stuck in Polish mud


These are the luxurious days of war correspondence. You have an official badge and a khaki uniform, and are "officially accredited." You can move about the front; you have special billets near the General Headquarters Staff provided by the Army people, and an officer is told off to keep you posted with current happenings. There is also a censor on the spot and a field telegraph office from which you may despatch your Press message immediately it is written. That is all as it should be.

But in the early days of the war there were no luxuries or even facilities of this kind. The correspondents sent over to the war fronts by the British newspapers had to fend for themselves, arrange their own billets, and find couriers to bring their messages to England. More than this, they had to get to the front as best they could without transport, without billets and food, and - greatest difficulty of all - without permits. Not only did the authorities refuse permission to correspondents to go to the front, but they put every obstacle in the way of their getting there. And if to their official knowledge you did get there, they put you politely but carefully under arrest and sent you home to England. Dozens were sent home. This practice was confined at first to the British authorities, but later they persuaded their Allies to adopt it, too and the war correspondent became a sort of outlaw. Sailors, soldiers, police, consuls, and the rest all could "bait" the luckless newspaper man if they liked. It was not an easy life. In addition to dodging the Germans, who were perhaps one's least formidable enemy, one had to dodge officious people of all kinds.

Eluding Jacks-in-Office

The newest corporal or the greenest sub-lieutenant, fresh from the "nutty” haunts of Piccadilly, could have you arrested and sent before some general and he, when appealed to in this open way, had of course no option but to obey orders and send you home on parole "not to do it again." Had he seen you in the street himself he would have looked the other way. This was the saving clause about the whole thing; for, though "officially” every man's hand was against you, in practice no one, except jacks-in-office and the authorities at home, wished you very serious harm and many a soldier and sailor, officers and men, would go out of his way to help you, or would at least be friendly enough to ignore your presence in that prohibited area - the war zone.

The first duty of a war correspondent was therefore, in those days to know where these jacks-in-office existed, and to keep clear of them. His second duty was to know how to break regulations successfully, and to dodge sentries and police and his third was to know where to find friends and helpers who could tell him things and enable him to get about and see things for himself. These good souls were to be found in all the allied armies in all walks of life, from generals to Tommies. I shall never forget my chagrin, on first getting to Calais, to find that not a single permit to get to the front or near it was to be had. Courteous but firm officialdom said, "You must stop in Calais or go back to England. Other correspondents who have failed to do that have been arrested."

Limited to Carry - Forty-one

Here was a fix. But how was one to circumvent this order ? After much anxious thought, followed by some queer researches in Calais, a little bundle of a man, a French soldier, showed me. "We entrain for Hazebrouck in twenty minutes," he said. "Our saloons will hold forty men or eight horses." (This was a little joke anent the inscription on French railway trucks: "40 Hommes, 8 Chevaux) There will surely be room enough for forty-one men, monsieur, when the forty-first is an ally of France."

The hint was taken, and after circumventing two sentries and two bayonets at Calais Station, I travelled in a railway-waggon with forty cheery souls of the -th Regiment of the Army of France. My little friend told them who I was, and my mission, adding that the authorities would give no permits to go to the front. At which all the men agreed that it was a shame, and that I was quite free to travel in their train. But they looked carefully at my passport and photograph nevertheless, and one of them, a sergeant, said to me earnestly, " Swear to me, monsieur, that you are not a Boche !"

There was some straw on the floor, but no seats. There were no windows in the truck, which was an ordinary box-truck, generally used for goods traffic and such light and air as we got came to us through the open door in the middle of one side of the truck. I forget how many hours we were in getting as far as Dunkirk. I had no food or water, but during one of our stops in sidings a girl came out of a cottage near the line with a jug of water and a cup, and most of us got a drink.

Once arrived in the town of Dunkirk - about twelve miles from the Yser and Nieuport, where fighting was very brisk at that time - I had to think out ways of avoiding the police and of getting to the front at regular intervals. Also I had to establish a courier service. The trouble was in getting out of the gates of the town - at which sentries were always posted. They held me up at my first attempt. No, I could not go to Nieuport or Furnes, or even out of the city gate. They examined my passport, and one of them spoke to me in English. Then they seemed satisfied and more friendly. After a talk, one of them said : "It is not allowed to leave the gate, monsieur, unless one wants to pay a visit to the cemetery, which you see over there, just in the turn of the road." He added with a twinkle : "The same road leads to Furnes and Ypres and all the front. If monsieur now, would say he would like to see the cemetery, I should be able to let him through the town gate."

To Nieuport via the Cemetery

He looked at me knowingly. I said I should just love to see the cemetery. He winked and let me through. It is true I looked over the cemetery. It was very interesting. But I did not go back again until I had been to Nieuport, fourteen miles away and seen some fighting and other interesting things. The guards of the gate said meaningly when I got back at dusk: "Monsieur has been a long time in the cemetery. It must be interesting !" Then after a look around he added : “How go things at the front today, monsieur ?"

I told him what news I had gathered. The town guards and I became quite good friends. They received any news that I collected some twelve hours or more before it got to the Daily Mail in London. Later, they saw it in print in the Daily Mail' of which I used to leave them copies.

But to do twenty-eight miles on foot four or five days a week becomes a little wearing. I must look around for 'some better means of covering that long stretch of road between Dunkirk and the front. I could not hire a motor or trip. You needed a permit for one. I must rise that of someone else. My first coachman along that road was a soldier breadman. The military bakehouses for that section of the front were in Dunkirk and every morning a long string of queer-looking French carts used to line up near the quays and4 get their bread and travel to places beyond Furnes. I made bargains, and one good soul used to pick me up at a point beyond the cemetery and trundle me along in his waggon. It was no more than a tall, two-wheeled cart, covered with a tarpaulin hood the shape of a Salvation Army bonnet. The horse plodded painfully along and sometimes one could not return the same day. Two nights I slept out in the open under the Salvation, bonnet of that cart.

With all good feeling between us I parted from my baker, after about a week, in favour of a transport driver whose waggon, being driven by petrol, was much quicker. It used to leave Dunkirk with supplies fairly regularly, and once on board there was no difficulty in getting along to some point near to the trenches. The sentries on the road had come by this time to know me, and even officers at different points of the front and the route used to collect interesting facts and information to tell me as I passed.

It was a sentry at one of these road pickets who stopped me one day with the remark, “The major wants to see you to-day."

I left my waggon, wondering whether trouble was afoot and went to the major's quarters - a cottage. Here an officer visitor of the major gave me the full story of the taking by the French early that morning of the Maison du Passeur (Fisherman's Hut) on the bank of the Yser Canal. The detailed account of this fine feat reached London before even the bald fact of the taking of the place was announced in the official communiqués.

I had many journeys in different kinds of vehicle along the Ypres road. One day it might be in a store waggon, over wherein seated on two tins of petrol, I was jolted along juts and ridges till my very bones ached ; the next day I might be in an officer's limousine, easily ensconced on cushions. On one glorious day I was driven right into the city of Ypres during the bombardment, by an officer of State -all against official orders, of course I think my description of Ypres during the first bombardment was the first eye-witness account to appear in any of the British or French papers.

Rumanian Jew who Spoke Cockney English

Another day I drove in a motor-mitrailleuse or armoured car. Sitting on the bottom of the car, under the pillar of the machine-gun, with my eye glued to the little opening just parallel to that for the driver, I could see all and be seen by none. And I don't mind confessing now that I obtained my first peep of Headquarters through that vent. In normal circumstances I gave that place the widest possible berth for in that direction lay trouble for correspondents. Most of them who entered or approached those doors went home - under escort.

But to move away from France and Flanders. It was in a sleigh pulled by three long-tailed horses and driven by a Jew coachman in a tall fur-hat that I first reached the eastern front. It was in the Bukovina.

In this turn-out, exposed to snow and wind, I covered sonic forty miles over mountains in one day. I was perished with cold, for I had ignored everyone's advice to buy furs. The possibility of getting a few hours earlier to the scene of the Bukovina fighting had tempted me to try the journey without wasting time to buy proper clothing. The Jew had actually to lift me out of the sleigh at the end of the journey that night, for I was paralysed and in a state of coma with cold. He was a nice Jew and he spoke Cockney English. He lived in Hertza in Rumania; but once he had been a tailor's presser in the Commercial Road, London. So small is the world!

Ox Waggon or Armoured Train

A Transylvanian peasant's sleigh and two oxen pulled me on another journey in the Bukovina, and this was absolutely the slowest and most primitive war conveyance I ever used. But for the fact that there was no alternative, and that I had luggage which would surely never reach me again if once I left it, I would have walked that journey and have arrived at my destination in the time. "Ma foi !" as the French say, but you need patience to ride behind an ox.

Once, in Russia - in Bessarabia near Bojau - I was taken to the front in an armoured train and this was one of the most interesting of all the ways I had tried of getting to the. front. The Austrians added to the interest by having a shot or two at us with a 3 in. gun, and one of their shells tore up our railway track : but we came through all right.

Means of travel were far fewer on the eastern front than on the western, and the snow and frozen rivers made things much more difficult. But the authorities, both police and military, were much more reasonable. Even a general would make no bones about inviting you to tea, asking you what you wanted to see, and putting facilities in your way to see it. There was none of that dodging of police and red caps (Staff officers) to do here. Still, after a time I found myself missing that subtle spice of mischief which the breaking of regulations and the invention of makeshifts added to life as a war correspondent in the west. After all, I suppose it is this queer lust for appetising adventure that leads one into these restless callings.

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