from the book 'Antwerp to Gallipoli'
'In the German Trenches at la Bassée'
by Arthur Ruhl, American journalist

Visiting Front-Line Trenches in 1915

from a German magazine 'Die Wochenschau' : soldiers preparing to go into the trenches


WE had come down from Berlin on-one of those excursions which the German General Staff arranges for the military observers and correspondents of neutral countries. You go out, a sort of zoo — our party included four or five Americans, a Greek, an Italian, a diminutive Spaniard, and a tall, preoccupied Swede — under the direction of some hapless officer of the General Staff. For a week, perhaps, you go hurtling through a closely articulated programme almost as personally helpless as a package in a pneumatic tube — night expresses, racing military motors, snap- shots at this and that, down a bewildering vista of long gray capes, heel clickings, stiff bows from the waist, and military salutes. You are under fire one minute, the next shooting through some captured palace or barracks or museum of antiques. At noon the guard is turned out in your honor; at four you are watching distant shell-fire from the Belgian dunes; at eleven, crawling under a down quilt in some French hotel, where the prices of food and wines are fixed by the local German commandant. Everything is done for you — more, of course, than one would wish — the gifted young captain-conductor speaks English one minute, French or Italian the next, gets you up in the morning, to bed at night, past countless sentries and thick-headed guards demanding an Ausweis, contrives never to cease looking as if he had stepped from a band-box, and presently pops you into your hotel in Berlin with the curious feeling of never having been away at all.

It isn't, of course, an ideal way of working — not like putting on a hat and strolling out to war, as one sometimes could do in the early weeks in Belgium and France. The front is a big and rather accidental place, however — you can scarcely touch it anywhere without bringing back something to help complete the civilian's puzzle picture of the war. Our moment came in the German trenches before La Bassée, when, with the English so near that you could have thrown a baseball into their trenches, both sides began to toss dynamite bombs at each other.

We had come across to Cologne on the regular night express, shifted to a military train, and so on through Aix, Louvain, Brussels, and by the next morning's train down to Lille. Armentieres was only eight miles away, Ypres fifteen, and a little way to the south Neuve Chapelle, where the English offensive had first succeeded, then been thrown back only a few days before.

Spring had come over night, the country was green, sparkling with canals and little streams, and the few Belgian peasants left were trying to put it in shape for summer. A few were ploughing with horses, others laboriously going over their fields, foot by foot, with a spade; once we passed half a dozen men dragging a harrow. Every tree in this country, where wood is grown like any other crop, was speckled with white spots where branches had been trimmed away, and below the timber was piled — heavy logs for lumber, smaller ones cut into firewood — the very twigs piled as carefully as so many stacks of celery.

So fresh and neat and clean-swept did it seem in that soft sunshine that one forgot how empty it was — so empty and repressed that one awoke startled to see three shaggy farm horses galloping off as the train rolled by, kicking up their heels as if they never had heard of war. It seemed frivolous, almost impertinent, and the landsturm officer, leaning in the open window beside me in the passageway, thinking perhaps of his own home across the Rhine, laughed and breathed a deep-chested "Kolossal!" We passed Enghien, Leuze, Tournai, all with that curious look of a run-down clock. On the outskirts of one town, half a dozen little children stopped spinning tops in the road to demand tribute from the train. They were pinched little children, with the worried, prematurely old faces of factory children, and they begged insistently, almost irritably, as if payment was long overdue. Good-natured soldiers tossed them chocolate and sausage and slices of buttered Kriegsbrod, which they took without thanks, still repeating in a curious jumble of German and French, "Pfennig venir! Pfennig — Pfennig — Pfennig venir!"'

Two officers from division headquarters were waiting for us in the station at Lille — one, a tall, easy-going young fellow in black motor-gauntlets, who looked as if he might, a few years before, have rowed on some American college crew; the other, in the officers' gray-blue frock overcoat with fur collar, a softer type, with quick, dark eyes and smile, and the pleasant, slightly languid manners of a young legation secretary.

We had just time to glance at the broken windows in the station roof, the two or three smashed blocks around it, and be hurried to that most empty of places — a modern city hotel without any guests — when three gray military motor-cars, with the imperial double eagle in black on their sides, whirled up. The officers took the lead, our happy family distributed itself in the others, and with cut-outs drumming, a soldier beside each chauffeur blowing a warning, and an occasional gay "Ta-ta ta-ta!" on a silver horn, we whirled out into the open country.


from a German magazine 'Die Wochenschau' : a French village near the front-line


We passed a church with a roof smashed by an aeroplane a few days before — and caught at the same time the first "B-r-r-rurm!" from the cannonading to the west — a supply-train, an overturned motor-van, and here and there packed ammunition wagons and guns. Presently, in the lee of a little brick farmhouse a short distance from the village of Aubers, we alighted, and, with warnings that it was better not to keep too close together, walked a little farther down the road. Not a man was in sight, nor a house, nor gun, not even a trench, yet we were, as a matter of fact, in the middle of a battle-field. From where we stood it was not more than a mile to the English trenches and only two miles to Neuve Chapelle; and even as we stood there, from behind us, from a battery we had passed without seeing, came a crash and then the long spinning roar of something milling down aisles of air, and a far-off detonation from the direction of Neuve Chapelle.

Tssee-ee-rr . . . Bong! over our heads from the British lines came an answering wail, and in the field, a quarter of a mile beyond us, there was a geyser of earth, and slowly floating away a greenish-yellow cloud of smoke. From all over the horizon came the wail and crash of shells — an "artillery duel," as the official reports call it, the sort of thing that goes on day after day.

Somebody wanted to walk on to the desolate village which raised its smashed walls a few hundred yards down the road. The tall young officer said that this might not be done — it would draw the enemy's fire, and as if to accent this advice there was a sudden Bang ! and the corner of one of the houses we were looking at collapsed in a cloud of dust.

Under these wailing parabolas, swinging invisibly across from horizon to horizon, we withdrew behind the farmhouse for lunch — sandwiches, frankfurters kept hot in a fireless cooker, and red wine — when far overhead a double-decker English aeroplane suddenly sailed over us. It seemed to be about six thousand feet above us, so high that the sound of its motors was lost, and its speed seemed but a lazy, level drifting across the blue. Did it take those three motor-cars and those little dots for some reconnoitring division commander and his staff? Aeroplanes not only drop bombs, but signal to their friends; there was an uncomfortable amount of artillery scattered about the country, and we watched with peculiar interest the movements of this tiny hawk.

But already other guns, as hidden as those that might be threatening us, had come, as it were, to the rescue. A little ball of black smoke suddenly puffed out behind that sailing bird, and presently a sharp crack of a bursting shrapnel shell came down to our ears. Another puff of smoke, closer, one in front, above, below. They chased round him like swallows. In all the drab hideousness of modern warfare there is nothing so airy, so piquant, so pretty as this.

Our bird and his pursuers disappeared in the north; over the level country to the south floated a German observation balloon, and presently we rumbled over a canal and through the shattered village of La Bassée. La Bassée had been in the war despatches for months, and looked it. Its church, used as a range-finder, apparently, was a gray honeycomb from which each day a few shells took another bite. Roofs were torn off, streets strewn with broken glass and brick; yet it is in such houses and their cellars that soldiers fighting in the trenches in a neighborhood like this come back for a rest, dismal little islands which mask the armies one does not see at the front.

The custom of billeting soldiers in houses — possible in territory so closely built up — adds to the vagueness of modern warfare. Americans associate armies with tents. When we mobilized ten thousand men at San Antonio, you were in a city of soldiers. Ten thousand men in this war disappear like water in sand. Some of them are in the trenches, some in villages like this, out of the zone of heavier fire, but within a few minutes' walk of their work, so to speak. Others are distributed farther back, over a zone perhaps ten miles deep, crisscrossed with telephone-wires, and so arranged with assembling stations, reserves, and sub-reserves that the whole is a closely knit organism all the way up to the front. There is continual movement in this body — the men in the trenches go back after forty-eight hours to the near-by village, after days or weeks of this service, back clear out of the zone of fire; fresh men come up to take their places, and so on. All you see as you whirl through is a sentry here, a soldier's head there at a second-story window, a company shuffling along a country road.

Women watched us from the doors of La Bassée — still going on living here, somehow, as human beings will on the volcano's very edge — and children were playing in the street. Husbands gone,, food gone, the country swept bare — why did they not go, too? But where ? Here, at any rate, there was a roof overhead — until a shell smashed it — and food soldiers were glad to share. There must be strange stories to tell of these little islands on the edge of the battle, where the soldiers who are going out to be killed, and the women whose husbands, perhaps, are going to help kill them, huddle together for a time, victims of a common storm.

We whirled past them down the road a bit, then walked up a gentle slope to the right. Over this low ridge, from the English trenches, rifle-bullets whistled above our heads. In the shelter of a brick farmhouse a dozen or so German soldiers were waiting, after trench service, to go back to La Bassée. They were smallish, mild-looking men, dusted with the yellow clay in which they had burrowed — clothes, boots, faces, and hands — - until they looked like millers.

"How are the English?" some one asked. "Do. they know how to shoot?" A weary sort of hoot chorused out from the dust-covered men.

"Gut genug!" they said. The house was strewn with rusty cartridge clips and smashed brick. We waited while our chaperon brought the battalion commander — a mild-faced little man, more like a school-teacher than a soldier — and it was decided that, as the trenches were not under fire at the moment, we might go into them. He led the way into the communication trench — a straight- sided winding ditch, shoulder-deep, and just wide enough to walk in comfortably. Yellow clay was piled up overhead on either side, and there was a wooden sidewalk. The ditch twisted constantly as the trenches themselves do, so as not to be swept by enfilading fire, and after some hundreds of yards of this twisting, we came to the: first-line trench and the men's dugouts.


from a German magazine 'des deutschen Volkes Kriegstagebuch' : in the front-line German trenches


It was really a series of little caves, with walls of solid earth and roofs of timber and sand-bags, proof against almost anything but the plunging flight of heavy high-explosive shells. The floors of these caves were higher than the bottom of the trench, so that an ordinary rain would not flood them, and covered with straw. And they were full of men, asleep, working over this and that — from one came the smell of frying ham. The trench twisted snakelike in a general north and south direction, and was fitted every few feet with metal firing-shields, loopholed for rifles and machine guns. In each outer curve facing the enemy a firing platform, about waist-high, had been cut in the earth, with similar armored port-holes.

The Germans had been holding this trench for three months, and its whole outer surface was frosted a sulphurous yellow from the smoke of exploded shells. Shrapnel-casings and rusted shell-noses were sticking everywhere in the clay, and each curve exposing a bit of surface to the enemy was honeycombed with bullet holes. In one or two places sand-bags, caves, and all. had been torn out.

Except for an occasional far-off detonation and the more or less constant and, so to speak, absent-minded cracking of rifles, a mere keeping awake, apparently, and letting the men in the opposite trenches know you are awake, the afternoon was peaceful. Pink-cheeked youngsters in dusty Feldgrau, stiffened and clapped their hands to their sides as officers came in sight, heard English with an amazement not difficult to imagine, and doubtless were as anxious to talk to these strange beings from a world they'd said good-by to, as we were to talk to them.

At one of the salient angles, where a platform had been cut, we stopped to look through a periscope: one cannot show head or hand above the trench, of course, without drawing fire, and looks out of this curious shut-in world as men do in a submarine — just as the lady in the old- fashioned house across from us in New York sits at her front window and sees in a slanting mirror everything that happens between her and the Avenue.

We had not been told just where we were going (in that shut-in ditch one had no idea), and there in the mirror, beyond some straggling barbed wire and perhaps seventy-five yards of ordinary grass, was another clay bank — the trenches of the enemy! Highlanders, Gurkhas, Heaven knows what — you could see nothing — but — over there was England !

So this was what these young soldiers had come to — here was the real thing. Drums beat, trumpets blare, the Klingelspiel jingles at the regiment's head, and with flowers in your helmet, and your wife or sweetheart shouldering your rifle as far as the station — and you should see these German women marching out with their men! — you go marching out to war. You look out of the windows of various railway trains, then they lead you through a ditch into another ditch, and there, across a stretch of mud which might be your own back yard, is a clay bank, which is your enemy. And one morning at dawn you climb over your ditch and run forward until you are cut down. And when you have, so to speak, been thrown in the stream for the others to cross over, and the trench is taken, and you are put out of the way under a few inches of French earth, then, perhaps, inasmuch as experience shows that it isn't worth while to try to keep a trench unless you have captured more than three hundred yards of it, the battalion retires and starts all over again.

We had walked on down the trenches, turned a bend where two trees had been blown up and flung across it, when there was a dull report near by, followed a moment later by a tremendous explosion out toward the enemy's trench. "Unsere Minen!" ("One of our bombs!") laughed a young soldier beside me, and a crackle of excitement ran along the trench. These bombs were cylinders, about the size of two baking-powder tins joined together, filled with dynamite and exploded by a fuse. They were thrown from a small mortar with a light charge of powder, just sufficient to toss them over into the opposite trench. The Germans knew what was coming, and they were laughing and watching in the direction of the English trenches.

"Vorsicht! Vorsicht!"

There was a dull report and at the same moment something shot up from the English trenches and, very clear against the western sky, came flopping over and over toward us like a bottle thrown over a barn.


from a German magazine 'Die Wochenschau' : view from the front-line trenches


"Vorsicht! Vorsicht!" It sailed over our heads behind the trench, there was an instant's silence, and then "Whong!" and a pile of dirt and black smoke was flung in the air. Again there was a dull report, and we sent a second back — this time behind their trench — and again — "Vorsicht! Vorsicht!" — they sent an answer back. Four times this was repeated. A quainter way of making war it would be hard to imagine. They might have been boys playing "anty-over" over the old house at home.

Bombs of this sort have little penetrating power. If thrown in the open they go off on the surface much like a gigantic firecracker. They are easy to dodge by daylight, when you can see them coming, but thrown at night as part of a general bombardment, including shrapnel and heavy explosive shells, or exploding directly in the trench, they must be decidedly unpleasant.

The bomb episode had divided us, two officers and myself waiting on one side of the bend in the trench toward which the bombs were thrown, the others going ahead. It was several minutes before I rejoined them, and I did not learn until we were outside that they had been taken to another periscope through which they saw a space covered with English dead. There were, perhaps, two hundred men in khaki lying there, they said, some hanging across the barbed-wire entanglements at the very foot of the German trench, just as they had been thrown back in the attack which had succeeded at Neuve Chapelle. Several Englishmen had got clear into the German trench before they were killed. Here was another example of the curious localness of this dug-in warfare, that one could pass within a yard or two of such a battle-field and not know even that it was there.

By another communication trench we returned to the little house. The sun was low by this time and the line of figures walking down the-road toward the automobiles in its full light. Perhaps the glasses of some British lookout picked us up — at any rate the whisper of bullets became uncomfortably frequent and near, and we had just got to the motors when — Tssee — ee — rr . . . BONG! a shell crashed into the church of La Bassée, only three hundred yards in front of us.

Before ours had started, another, flying on a lower trajectory, it seemed, shrieked over our heads and burst beside the road so close to the first motor that it threw mud into it. Apparently we were both observed and sought after, and as the range of these main highways, up and down which troops and munitions pass, is perfectly known, there was a rather uncomfortable few minutes ere we had whirled through La Bassée, with the women watching from their doors — no racing motors for them to run away in! — and down the tree-arched road to ordinary life again.

No, not exactly ordinary, though we ourselves went back to a comfortable hotel, for the big city of Lille, which had shown trolley-cars and a certain amount of animation earlier in the day, was now, at dusk, like a city of the dead. The chambermaid shrugged her shoulders with something about a "punition" and, when asked why they were punished, said that some French prisoners had been brought through Lille a week or two before, and "naturally, the people shouted 'Vive la France!'"

So the military governor, as we observed next morning in a proclamation posted on the blank wall across the street, informing the inhabitants that they "apparently did not, as yet, understand the seriousness of the situation," ordered the city to pay a 'fine of five hundred thousand francs, and the citizens for two weeks to go within doors at sundown and not stir abroad before seven next morning. Another poster warned people that two English aviators had been obliged to come down within the city, that they were still at large, and that any one who hid them or helped them escape would be punished with death, in addition to which the commune would be punished, too.

It was through black and silent streets, therefore, that our troop was led from the hotel in which we were lodged to one in which we dined. Here everything was warm and light and cheerful enough. Boyish lieutenants, with close-clipped heads after the German fashion, were telling each other their adventures, and here and there were older officers, who looked as if war had worn them a bit, and they had come here to forget for a moment over a bottle of champagne and the talk of some old friend. The bread was black and hard, but the other food as usual in France, with wine plenty and cheap, and even some of the round-shelled, coppery oysters — captured somehow, in spite of blockades and bombardments — just up from Ostend. It was bedtime when we emerged into the black streets again, to discover, with something like surprise, a sky full of stars and a pale new moon.

The rest of that civilian tour was very civil, indeed — a sort of loop-the-loop of Belgium, with scarce a pause for breath. You can imagine _that cosmopolitan menagerie trooping next morning up the stone stairs of the castle of the Counts of Flanders in Ghent; at noon inspecting old lace in Bruges, and people coming home from church, the German guard changing, and the German band playing in the central square; at two o'clock lunching in one of the Ostend summer hotels, now full of German officers; at four pausing for a tantalizing moment in Middelkerk, while the German guns we were not allowed to see on the edge of the town were banging away at the British at Nieuport down the beach. Next day Brussels — out to Waterloo, in a cloud of dust — the Congo Museum — the King's palace at Laaken, an old servitor with a beard like the tall King Leopold's leading these vandals through it, and looking unutterable things — a word with the civil governor, here — a charming lunch at a barracks, there — in short, a wild flight behind the man with the precious "Ausweis."

We saw and sometimes met a good many German officers in a rather familiar way. Many of the younger men reminded one of our university men at home; several of the older men resembled their well-set-up English cousins. This seemed particularly true of the navy, which has acquired a type — lean, keen, firm-lipped young men, with a sense of humor — entirely different from the German often seen in cafes, with no back to his head, and a neck overflowing his collar. Particularly interesting were those who, called back 'into uniform from responsible positions in civil life, were attacking, as if building for all time, the appallingly difficult and delicate task of improvising a government for a complex modern state, and winning the tolerance, if not the co- operation, of a conquered people confident that their subjection was but for the day.

Our progress everywhere was down a continuous aisle of heel-clickings and salutes. Sometimes, when we had to pass through three rows of passport examiners between platform and gate, these formalities seemed rather excessive. In the grenadier barracks in Brussels we had been taken through sleeping-rooms, cool storerooms with their beer barrels and loops of sausages — "all made by the regiment" — and were just entering the kitchen when a giant of a man, seeing his superior officers, snapped stiff as a ramrod and, as it is every German subordinate's duty to do, bellowed out his " Meldung" — who and what the men in his room were, and that they were going to have meat and noodle soup for dinner.

No Frenchman, Englishman, or American could be taught, let alone achieve of his own free will, the utter self-forgetfulness with which this vast creature, every muscle tense, breathing like a race-horse, roared, or rather exploded: “Herr Hauptmann! Mannschafts-Kuche-des …ten-Land- wehr-Regiments! Belegt-mit-einem- Unter-offizier-und-zehn-Mann! Wir essen heute Suppe mit Nudeln und Fleisch! Zu Befehl!

He had stepped down a century and a half from the grenadiers of the Great Frederic, and even our hosts may have smiled. It was different with the soldiers' salute, or the ordinary coming to attention, which we saw repeated scores of times a day. Whatever men might be doing, however awkward or inconvenient it might be, whether any one saw them or not, they stopped short at the sight of these long, gray-blue coats and stiffened, chin up, eyes on their superior, hands at their sides. If they were talking, they became silent; if laughing, their faces smoothed out, and into their eyes came an expression which, when you have seen it repeated hundreds of times, you will not forget. It is a look of seriousness, self-forgetfulness, of almost religious devotion, not to the individual, but to the idea for which he stands. I saw a soldier half-dressed, through a barracks window under which we passed, sending after his officer, who did not even see him, that same look, the look of a man who has just volunteered to charge the enemy's trench, or who sees nothing absurd in saying the Germans fear God and nothing else in the world!

One seemed to see the soul of Germany, at least of this "great time," in these men's eyes. The Belgian soul we did not see much of, but there came glimpses of it now and then.

In Antwerp we stopped in a little café for a cup of chocolate. It was a raw, cheerless morning, with occasional snowflakes whipping by on the damp north wind, the streets were all but deserted, and in the room that used to be full of smoke and talk there were only empty tables, and you could see your breath.

A man was scrubbing behind the bar, and a pale girl in black came out from behind the cashier's counter to make our chocolate. It was good chocolate, as Antwerp chocolate is likely to be, and as we were getting ready to go out again I asked her how things were. She glanced around the room and answered that they used to have a good business here, but the good times were gone — "les beaux jours sont partis." Two others drifted over and asked questions about the bombardment. She answered politely enough, with the air of one to whom it was an old story now — she had left on the second day, when the building across the way was smashed, and walking, catching rides, stumbling along with the other thousands, had got into Holland. As to why the city fell so quickly — she pulled her shawl about her shoulders and murmured that there were things people did not know, if they did they did not talk about them.

And the Germans — how were they? They had no complaints to make, the girl said; the Germans were well behaved — "tres correct." Possibly, then — it was our young Italian who put the question — the Belgians would just as soon ... I did not catch the whole sentence, but all at once something flashed behind that non-committal cafe proprietress's mask. "Moi, je suis fiere d'etre Belge!" said the girl, and as she spoke you could see the color slowly burning through her pale face and neck — she was proud to be a Belgian — they hoped, that one could keep, and there would come a day, we could be sure of that — "un jour de revanche !"

But business is business, and people who run cafes must, as every one knows, not long indulge in the luxury of personal feelings. The officers turned up their fur collars, and we buttoned up our coats, and she was sitting behind the counter, the usual little woman in black at the cafe desk, as we filed out. Our captain paused as we passed, gave a stiff little bow from the waist, touched his cap gallantly, and said: "Bonjour, mademoiselle!" And the girl nodded politely, as café proprietresses should, and murmured, blank as the walls in the Antwerp streets: "Bonjour, monsieur!”


from a German magazine 'Die Wochenschau' : in German occupied Antwerp 1915


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