- 'Dispatches from 1914'
- by Philip Gibbs
The First Year of the War
French troops embarking on trains headed towards the German frontier
The call to arms came without any loud clamour of bugles or orations.
The quietness of Paris was astounding, and the first mobilization orders were issued with no more publicity than attends the delivery of a trade circular through the halfpenny post. Yet in hundreds of thousands of houses through France and in all the blocks and tenements of Paris there was a drama of tragic quietude when the cards were delivered to young men in civilian clothes.
Fate had come with that little card summoning each man to join his depot, and tapped him on the shoulder with just a finger touch. It was no more than that a touch on the shoulder. Yet I know that for many of those young men it seemed a strangle-grip as icy cold as though Death's fingers were already closing round their throats.
In the streets of Paris I saw many scenes of farewell. All day long one saw them, so that at last one watched them without emotion, because the pathos of them became monotonous. It was curious how men said good-bye, often, to their wives and children and comrades at a street corner, or in the middle of the boulevards. A hundred times or more I saw one of these conscript soldiers who had put on his uniform again after years of civilian life, turn suddenly to the woman trudging by his side or to a group of people standing around him and say: "Alors, il faut dire 'Adieu' et 'Au revoir!"
a scene in Paris
I went down to the East frontier on the first day of mobilization. It was in the evening when I went to take the train from the Gare de l'Est. The station was filled with a seething crowd of civilians and soldiers, struggling to get to the booking-offices, vainly seeking information as to the times of departure to distant towns of France. The railway officials were bewildered and could give no certain information. The line was under military control. Many trains had been suppressed and the others had no fixed time-table. I could only guess at the purpose animating the individuals in these crowds. Many of them, perhaps, were provincials, caught in Paris by the declaration of war
»nd desperately anxious to get back to their homes before the lines were utterly choked by troop trains. Others belonged to neutral countries and were trying to escape across the frontier before the gates were closed. One of the "neutrals" spoke to me in German, which was a dangerous tongue in Paris. He was a Swiss who had come to Paris on business for a few days, leaving his wife in a village near Basle. It was of his wife that he kept talking.
"Ach, mein armes Wieb! Sie hat Angst fur mich."
I pitied this little man in a shoddy suit and limp straw hat who had no courage to make enquiries of station officials because he spoke no word of French. I asked on his behalf, and after jostling porters had shrugged their shoulders and said, "Je n'en sais rien!" came back with the certain and doleful news that the last train had left that night for Basle. The little Swiss was standing between his packages with his back to the wall, searching for me with anxious eyes, and when I gave him the bad news tears trickled down his face.
There was nothing he could do that night, however anxious his poor wife might be, but I did not have any further conversation with him, for my bad German had already attracted the notice of the people standing near, and they were glowering at me suspiciously, as though I were a spy.
It was an hour later that I found a train leaving for Nancy, though even then I was assured by railway officials that there was no such train. I had faith, however, in a young French officer who pledged his word to me that I should get to Nancy if I took my place in the carriage before which he stood.
As our train passed through France on its way to Nancy, we heard and saw the tumult of a nation arming itself for war and pouring down to its frontiers to meet the enemy. All through the night, as we passed through towns and villages and under railway bridges, the song of the Marseillaise rose up to the carriage windows and then wailed away like a sad plaint as our engine shrieked and raced on.
In the dawn and pallid sunlight of the morning I saw the soldiers of France assembling. They came across the bridges with glinting rifles, and the blue coats and red trousers of the infantry made them look, in the distance, like tin soldiers from a children's playbox. But there were battalions of them close to the railway lines, waiting at level crossings, and with stacked
arms on the platforms, so that I could look into their eyes and watch their faces. They stood waiting for their trains in a quiet, patient way, chatting among themselves, smiling, smoking cigarettes, like soldiers on their way to sham fights in the ordinary summer manoeuvres. The town and village folk who crowded about them and leaned over the gates at the level crossings to watch our train, were more demonstrative. They waved hands to us and cried out "Bonne chance!" and the boys and girls chanted the Marseillaise again in shrill voices. At every station where we halted and we never let one of them go by without a stop some of the girls came along the platform with baskets of fruit, of which they made free gifts to our trainload of men. Sometimes they took payment in kisses, quite simply and without any bashfulness, lifting their faces to the lips of bronzed young men who thrust their kepis back and leaned out of the carriage windows.
"Come back safe and sound, my little one," said a girl. "Fight well for France ! "
"I do not hope to come back," said a soldier, "but I shall die fighting."
The fields were swept with the golden light of the sun, and the heavy foliage of the trees sang through every note of green. The white roads of France stretched away straight between the fields and the hills, with endless lines of poplars as their sentinels, and in clouds of greyish dust, rising like smoke, the regiments marched with a steady tramp. Gun carriages moved slowly down the roads in a glare of sun which sparkled upon the steel tubes of the field artillery and made a silver bar of every wheel-spoke. I heard the creak of the wheels and the rattle of the limber and the shouts of the drivers to their teams; and I thrilled a little every time we passed one of these batteries, because I knew that in a day or two these machines, which were being carried along the highways of France, would be wreathed with smoke denser than the dust about them now, while they vomited forth shells at the unseen enemy, whose guns would answer with the roar of death.
Guns and men, horses and wagons, interminable convoys of munitions, great armies on the march, trainloads of soldiers on all the branch lines, soldiers bivouacked in the roadways and in market places, long processions of young civilians carrying bundles to military depots, where they would change their clothes and all their way of life these pictures of preparation for war flashed through the carriage windows into my brain,
mile after mile, through the country of France, until sometimes I closed my eyes to shut out the glare and glitter of this kaleidoscope, the blood-red colour of all those French trousers tramping through the dust, the lurid blue of all those soldiers' overcoats, the sparkle of all those gunwheels. What does it all mean, this surging tide of armed men? What would it mean in a day or two, when another tide of men had swept up against it, with a roar of conflict, striving to overwhelm this France and to swamp over its barriers in waves of blood? How senseless it seemed that those mild-eyed fellows outside my carriage windows, chatting with the girls while we waited for the signals to fall, should be on their way to kill other mild-eyed men, who perhaps, away in Germany, were kissing other girls, for gifts of fruit and flowers.
They are here. We heard quite suddenly the familiar accents of English Tommies in provincial towns of France, and came unexpectedly upon khaki-clad battalions marching and singing along the country roads. For the first time there rang out in France the ballad which has become by a queer freak the war song of the British Army It's a long way to Tipperary, learnt with comical accent by French peasants and French girls, who in the first fine thrill of enthusiasm, sang it emotionally as though it were a hymn, holding all their love for England, all their hope for England's help, all their admiration of these boys going to war in France in a sporting spirit as though it were a great game. I went back to Paris for a day when General French arrived, and even now I hear those shouts of "Vive l'Angleterre!" which followed the motor-car in which our General made his triumphant progress. The shopgirls of Paris threw flowers from the windows as the car passed. Dense crowds of citizens thronged the narrow street of Faubourg St. Honoré, and waited patiently for hours outside the Embassy to catch one glimpse of the strong, stern, thoughtful face of the man who had come with his legions to assist France in the great hour of need. They talked to each other about the inflexibility of his character, about the massive jaw, which, they said, would bite off Germany's head. They cheered in the English manner, with a "Heep ! heep ! hooray ! " when they caught sight for the first time of the khaki uniforms of English officers on the steps of the Ministry of War. The arrival of English troops here was red wine to the hearts of the French people. It seemed to them the great guarantee of victory. "With England marching side by side with us," they said, "we shall soon be in Berlin!"
A train-load of Royal Engineers came into one of the stations where I happened to be waiting.
"Funny lingo, Bill!" said one of the men. "Can't make out a bit of it. But they mean well, I guess!"
So the British Army has come to France, and a strange chapter is being written in the history of the world, contrasting amazingly with former chronicles. English battalions bivouacked by old French houses which had looked down upon scenes of revolution in 1789, and in the shadow of its churches which rang for French victories or tolled for French defeats when Napoleon's generals were fighting English regiments exactly one hundred years ago. In seaport villages and towns, which smell of tar and nets and absinthe and stale wine, I saw horses stabled in every inn-yard; streets were littered with straw, and English soldiers sauntered about within certain strict boundaries, studying picture postcards and giving the "glad eye" to any little French girl who peeped at them through barred windows. Only officers of high rank knew where they were bound. The men, devoid of all curiosity, were satisfied with the general knowledge that they were "on the continong," and well on the way to "have a smack at the Germans." There was the rattle and rumble of English guns down country highways. Long lines of khaki-clad men, like a writhing brown snake when seen from afar, moved slowly along winding roads, through cornfields where the harvest was cut and stacked, or down long avenues of poplars, interminably straight, or through quaint old towns and villages with whitewashed houses and overhanging gables, and high stone steps leading to barns and dormer-chambers.
Before this war is finished, these soldiers of ours, who are singing on their way, in dapper suits of khaki, will be all tattered and torn, with straw tied round their feet, with stubby beards on their chins, with the grime of gunpowder and dust and grease and mud and blood upon their hands and faces.
After these words were written, I came upon a scene which fulfilled them, too quickly. At a French junction there was a shout of command in English, and I saw a body of men in khaki, with Red Cross armlets, run across a platform to an incoming train from the north, with stretchers and drinking bottles. A party of English soldiers had arrived from a battle at a place called Mons. With French passengers from another train, I was kept back by soldiers with fixed bayonets, but through the hedge of steel I saw a number of "Tommies" with bandaged heads and limbs descending from the troop train. Some of them hung limp between their nurses. Their faces, so fresh when I had first seen them on. the way out, had become grey and muddy, and were streaked with blood. Their khaki uniforms were torn and cut. One poor boy moaned pitifully as they carried him away on a stretcher. They were the first fruits of this unnatural harvesting, lopped and maimed by a cruel reaper. I stared at them with a kind of sickness. It came as a queer, silly shock to me then to realize that in this secret war for which I was searching, men were really being smashed and killed, and that out of the mystery of it, out of the distant terror from which great multitudes were fleeing, out of the black shadow creeping across the sunlit hills of France, where the enemy, whom no fugitives had seen, was advancing like a moving tide, there should come these English boys, crippled and broken, from an unknown battle. I was able to speak to one of them, wounded only in the hand, but there was no time for more than a question or two and an answer which hardly gave me definite knowledge.
"We got it in the neck!" said the sergeant of the R.F.A. He repeated the words as if they held all truth. "We got it in the neck!"
"Where?" I asked.
He waved his wounded hand northwards, and said: "Mons."
"Do you mean we were beaten? In retreat?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"We gave 'em what for. Oh, yes, they had to pay right enough. But they were too much for us. Came on like lice . . . swarming ... Couldn't kill enough ... then we got it in the neck .. . Lost a good few men . . . Gord, I've never seen such work! South Africa? No more than child's play to this 'ere game!"
He gave a queer kind of grin, with no mirth in his eyes, and went away with the other wounded men.
Mons? It was the first I had heard of a battle there. And our men were having a hard time. The enemy were too much for us. Was it a retreat? Perhaps a rout?
It was some time before we heard the guns, but not long before we saw the effects of war, in blood, anguish, and tears. The enemy was doing frightful damage, with a rapidity and ruthlessness which, after the check at Liege, was a tremendous menace to the Allied armies.
From that day I have been seldom out of sight of this ruin of Belgium. I went into the heart of it, into the welter of blood and wreckage, and stood, expecting death, in the very process of its deadly torture. I walked and talked with Belgian fugitives, and drifted in that stream of exiled people, and watched them in the far places of their flight, where they were encamped in settled hopelessness, asking nothing of the fate which had dealt them such foul blows, expecting nothing.
I think it is impossible to convey to those who did not see this exodus of the Belgian people the meaning and misery of it. Even in the midst of it, I had a strange idea at first that it was only a fantasy and that such things do not happen.
On the railway sidings near Calais there was one sight that revealed the defeat of a nation more even than these crowds of refugees. Hundreds of Belgian engines had been rushed over the frontier to France to escape from being used in the enemy's service. These derelict things stood there in long rows with a dismal look of lifelessness and abandonment, and as I looked at them I knew that though the remnants of the Belgian army might be fighting in its last ditch and holding out at Antwerp against the siege guns of the Germans, there could be no hope of prolonged resistance against overwhelming armies. These engines, which should have been used for Belgian transport, for men and food and guns, were out of action, and dead symbols of a nation's ruin.
For the first time, I saw Belgian soldiers in France, and although they were in small number compared with the great army of retreat which, after the fall of Antwerp, I saw marching into Dunkirk, their weariness and listlessness told a tale of woe. At first sight there was something comical in the aspect of these top-hatted soldiers. They reminded me of battalions of London cabbies who had ravaged the dustbins for discarded "toppers." Their double-breasted coats had just the cut of those of the ancient jehus who used to sit aloft on decrepit "growlers." Other bodies of Belgian soldiers wore ludicrous little kepis with immense eye-shades, mostly broken or hanging limp in a dejected way. In times of peace I should have laughed at the look of them. But now there was nothing humorous about these haggard, dirty men from Ghent who had borne the first shock of the German attack. They seemed stupefied for lack of sleep, or dazed after the noise of battle. I asked some of them where they were going, but they shook their heads and answered gloomily: "We don't know. We know nothing, except that our Belgium is destroyed. What is the news?"
There was no news beyond what one could glean from the incoherent tales of Belgian refugees.
After the struggling tides of fugitive tourists, and overlapping the waves of Belgian refugees, there came new streams of panic-stricken people, and this time they were French. They came from the northern towns Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Armen-tières, and from scores of villages further south which had seemed utterly safe and aloof from hostile armies which, with faith in official communiqués issued by the French Ministry of War, we believed to be still checked beyond the French frontier in Belgium. Lille? Was Lillie threatened by the Kaiser's troops? It had been evacuated? No, that could not be true, unless treachery had been at work. Lille could hold out, surely, at leart as long as Liege ! Had we not read long articles by the military experts of the French Press describing the strength of that town and the impregnable position of its forts? Yet here were refugees from Lille who had heard the roar of German guns, and brought incredible stories of French troops in retreat, and spoke the name of a French general with bitter scorn, and the old cry of "Nous sommes trahis!"
The refugees from the north were in as pitiable a state as those who had preceded them from Belgium. More pitiable, because when they reached such ports as Calais or Boulogne or Havre, the hotels and lodging houses were overcrowded from attic to cellars, the buffets had been swept clear of food, and committees of relief were already distracted with the overwhelming needs of a Belgian invasion.
The narrow streets evil with odours brought forth by a hot sun, were filled with surging crowds which became denser as new trains arrived from Calais and Dunkirk and junctions on northern lines. The people carried with them the salvage of their homes, wrapped up in blankets, sheets, towels and bits of ragged paper. Parcels of grotesque shapes, containing copper pots, frying pans, clocks, crockery and all kinds of domestic utensils or treasured ornaments, bulged on the pavements and quaysides, where whole families sat encamped. Stalwart mothers of Normandy and Picardy trudged through the streets with children clinging to their skirts, with babies in their arms and with big French loaves the commissariat of these journeys of despair cuddled to their bosoms with the babes. Old grandfathers and grandmothers, who looked as though they had never left their native villages before, came hand in hand, with shaking heads and watery eyes, bewildered by all this turmoil of humanity which had been thrust out, like themselves, from its familiar ways of life. Well-to-do-bourgeois, hot, with frayed nerves, exhausted by an excess of emotion and fatigue, searched for lodgings, anywhere and at any price, jostled by armies of peasants, shaggy- haired, in clumping sabots, with bundles on their backs, who were wandering on the same quest for the sake of the women and children dragging wearily in their wake. I heard a woman cry out words of surrender: "Je n'en peux plus!" She was spent and could go no further, but halted suddenly, dumped down her bundles and her babies and, leaning against a sunbaked wall, thrust the back of a rough hand across her forehead, with a moan of spiritual pain.
"Ciel!. .. C'est trop! c'est trop!"
All day long these scenes went on, until I could bear them no longer, but went indoors to the room which made me feel a selfish monster because I shared it with only two friends. Boulogne became quiet in the darkness. Perhaps by some miracle all those homeless ones had found a shelter. ... I awakened out of a drowsy sleep to hear the tramp of innumerable feet. A new army of fugitives had come into the town. I heard voices murmuring below my window, arguing, pleading. There was a banging at doors down the street.
"C'est impossible! Il n'y a pas de place! Il y a une foule qui dort en plein air. Voyez! voyez!"
The night porter slammed his own door in a rage. Perhaps there was pity in his heart as well as rage, but what can a man do when people demand admittance to an hotel where there are already six people in the bathroom and sixty on the floor of the salon, and stiff bodies wrapped in blankets, like corpses in eternal sleep, lying about in the corridors?
"There are crowds of people sleeping in the open air," he said, and when I leaned out of the window, staring into the darkness of the night, and breathing in the cool air which had .in autumn touch, I saw dimly on the pavement below huddled figures in the doorways and under the shelter of the eaves. A baby wailed with a thin cry. A woman's voice whimpered just below my window, and a man spoke to her.
"C'est la guerre!"
The words came up to me as though to answer the question in my own mind as to why such things should be.
There was an extraordinary quietude in some of the port towns of northern France. At first I could not understand the meaning of it when I went from Calais to Boulogne, and then to Havre. In Calais I saw small bodies of troops moving out of the town early in the morning, so that afterwards there was not a soldier to be seen about the streets. In Boulogne the same thing happened, quietly, and without any bugle calls or demonstrations. Not only had all the soldiers gone, but they were followed by the police, whom I saw marching away in battalions, each man carrying a little bundle, like the refugees who carried all their worldly goods with them, wrapped in a blanket or a pocket-handkerchief, according to the haste of their flight. Down on the quay there were no custom-house officers to inspect the baggage of the few travellers who had come across the Channel and now landed on the deserted siding, bewildered because there were no porters to clamour for their trunks and no douane to utter the familiar ritual of "Avez-vous quelque-chose a declarer? Tabac? Cigarettes? . . ." For the first time in living memory perhaps in the history of the port, the Douane of Boulogne had abandoned its office. What did it all mean? Why were the streets so deserted as though the town had been stricken with the plague?
There was a look of plague in the faces of the few fishermen and harbour folk who stood in groups at the street corners. There was a haggard fear in their eyes and they talked in low voices, as though discussing some doom that had come upon them. Even the houses had a plaguy aspect, with shuttered windows and barred doors. The town, which had resounded to the tramp of British regiments and to the tune of Tipperary, these streets through which had surged a tide of fugitives, with wave after wave of struggling crowds, had become a silent place, with only a few shadows creeping through the darkness of that evening in war, and whispering a fear.
The truth came to me as a shock. The ports of France had been abandoned. They lay open to the enemy, and if any Uhlans came riding in, or a German officer in a motorcar with three soldiers to represent an army, Calais and Boulogne would be surrendered without a shot.
Even Havre was to be abandoned as the British base. It was only a little while since enormous stores had been dumped here for the provisioning and equipment of our Expeditionary Force. Now I saw a great packing up. "K" had issued an amazing order which made certain young gentlemen of the A.S.C. whistle between their teeth. The new base was to be much further south, at St. Nazaire, to which the last tin of bully beef or Machonochie was to be consigned without delay.
By a series of strange adventures, which took me into the vortex of the French retreat, into the midst of confused movements of troops rushed up to various points of menace and into the tide of wounded which came streaming back from the fighting lines, I am able to write the first account which gives any clear idea of the general situation.
French officers and soldiers with bandaged heads and limbs told me their stories, while their wounds were still wet, and while their clothes still reeked of the smoke of battle. Women who had fled with empty hands from little chateaux on the hillsides of France, with empty hearts too because they had no hope for husbands still fighting in the inferno, described to me the scenes which still made them pant like wild animals caught after a chase. And with my own eyes I saw the unforgettable drama of the French army in retreat, blowing up bridges on its way, shifting to new lines of defence, awaiting with its guns ready for a new stage of the enemy's advance.
It was nearly a fortnight ago that the Germans concentrated their heaviest forces upon Namur, and began to press southwards and over the Meuse Valley. After the battle of Dinant the French army, among whom, at this point, were the 2nd and the 7th Corps, were heavily outnumbered at the time, and had to fall back gradually in order to gain time for reinforcements to come up to their support. The French artillery was up on the wooded heights above the river, and swept the German regiments with a storm of fire as they advanced. On the right bank the French infantry was entrenched, supported by field guns and mitrailleuses, and did very deadly work before leaping from the trenches which they occupied and taking up positions in new trenches further back, which they held with great tenacity. In justice to the Germans, it must be said that they were heroic in their courage. They were reckless of their lives, and the valley of the Meuse was choked with their corpses. The river itself was strewn with dead bodies of men and horses, and literally ran red with blood. The most tremendous fighting took place for the possession of the bridges, but the French engineers blew them up one after the other as they retired southwards. No fewer than thirty-three bridges were destroyed in this way before they could be seized by the German advance guard. The fighting was extended for a considerable distance on either side of the Meuse, and many engagements took place between the French and German cavalry and regiments working away from the main armies.
There was, for instance, a memorable encounter at Merville which is one of the most heroic episodes of the war. Five thousand French soldiers of all arms, with quick-firers, engaged twenty thousand German infantry. In spite of being outnumbered in this way, the French dash and "bite," as they call it, was so splendid that they beat back the enemy from point to point in a fight lasting for twelve hours, inflicting a tremendous punishment, and suffering very few losses on their own side. A German officer captured in this engagement expressed his unbounded admiration for the valour of the French troops, which he described as "superb." It was only fear of getting too far out of touch with the main forces that the gallant five thousand desisted from their irresistible attack, and retired, with a large number of German helmets as trophies of their victorious action. Nevertheless, in accordance with the general plan which had been decided upon by the French generals in view of the superior numbers pressing upon them, the French troops retreated and the Germans succeeded in forcing their way steadily down the Meuse as far as Mezières, divided by a bridge from Charleville on the other side of the river. This is in the neighbourhood of Sedan, and in the hollow or trou as it is called which led to the great disaster of 1870, when the French army was caught in a trap, and threatened with annihilation by the Germans, who had taken possession of the surrounding heights. There was to be no repetition of that tragedy. The French were determined that this time the position would be reversed.
On Monday, August 24th, the town of Charleville was evacuated, most of its civilians were sent away to join the wanderers who had to leave their homes, and the French troops took up magnificent positions commanding the town and the three bridges dividing it from Mezières. Mitrailleuses were hidden in the abandoned houses, and as a disagreeable shock to any German who might escape their fire was a number of the enemy's guns no fewer than ninety-five of them which had been captured and disabled by the French troops in the series of battles down the river from Namur. The German outposts reached Charleville on Tuesday, August 25th. They were allowed to ride quietly across the bridges into the apparently deserted town. Then suddenly their line of retreat was cut off. The three bridges were blown up by contact mines, and the mitrailleuses hidden in the houses were played on to the German cavalry across the streets, killing them in a frightful slaughter. It was for a little while a sheer massacre in that town of white houses with pretty gardens where flowers were blooming under the brilliant sunshine of a glorious summer day. But the Germans fought with extraordinary tenacity, regardless of the heaped bodies of their comrades, and utterly reckless of their own lives. They, too, had brought quick-firers across the bridges and, taking cover behind some of the houses, trained their guns upon those from whom the French gunners were firing their last shots. There was no way of escape for those heroic men who voluntarily sacrificed themselves in the service of their country, and it is probable that every man died, because at such a time the Germans are not in the habit of giving quarter. When the main German advance came down the valley the French artillery on the heights raked them with a terrific fire in which they suffered heavy losses, the forefront of the column being mowed down. But under this storm of fire they proceeded with incredible coolness to their pontoon bridges across the river, and although hundreds of men died on the banks they succeeded in their endeavour while their guns searched the hills with shells and forced the French gunners to retire from their positions. The occupation of Charleville was a German victory, but it was also a German graveyard.
After this historic episode in what had been an unending battle, the main body of the French troops withdrew before the Germans, who were now pouring down the valley, and retired to new ground.
Meanwhile, on the western side of the battle line, the French army was holding a crescent from Abbeville, round the south of Amiens, and the situation was not a happy one in view of the rapid advance of the enemy under General Von Kluck, before whom the British troops were already in continual battle.
I shall not soon forget a dreadful night near Amiens, when I saw beaten and broken men coming back from the firing lines, and the death-carts passing down the roads. The whole day had been exciting and unnerving. The roads along which I had passed were filled with soldiers marching towards an enemy which was rapidly drawing close upon them, for whom they seemed but ill-prepared and by civilians stampeding with wild rumours that the Uhlans were close upon them.
They were not very far wrong. At Picquigny they were less than four miles distant a small patrol of outposts belonging to the squadrons which were sweeping out in a fan through the northern towns and villages of France.
There was une affaire des patrouilles what the British soldier calls a "scrap" along the road at Albert, between Amiens and Cambrai. A party of German Uhlans, spreading out from a strong force at Cambrai itself, had been engaged by the French Territorials, and after some sharp fighting had retired, leaving several dead horses in the dust and a few huddled forms from which the French soldiers had taken burnished helmets and trophies to their women folk.
That was on Friday night of August 28th. The real fighting was taking place fifteen kilometres further along the road, at a place called Bapaume. All day on Friday there was very heavy fighting here on the left centre, and a victory was announced by the French Ministry of War.
I did not see the victory. I saw only the retreat of some of the French forces engaged in the battle.
On September 2nd, the Germans had reached Creil and Senlis staining their honour in these two places by unnecessary cruelty and were no further than thirty miles from Paris, so that the shock of their guns might be heard as vague vibrations in the capital.
To the population of Paris, and to all civilians in France, it seemed a stupendous disaster, this rapid incredible advance of that great military machine of death which nothing, so far, had been able to stop not even the unflinching courage and utter recklessness of life with which the Allies flung themselves against it. Yet with an optimism which I could hardly justify, I, who have seen the soldiers of France, am still confident that, so far from all being lost, there is hope of victory which might turn the German advance.
I had seen the superb courage of French regiments rushing up to support their left wing, and the magnificent confidence of men who after the horrors of the battlefields, and with the full consciousness that they were always retiring, still said: "We shall win. We are leading the enemy to its destruction. In a little while they will be in a death-trap from which there is no escape for them."
"This spirit," I wrote in my last dispatch, "must win in the end. It is impossible that it should be beaten in the long run. And the splendour of this French courage, in the face of what looks liked defeat, is equalled at least by the calm and dogged assurance of our English troops."
They repeated the same words to me over and over again those wounded men, those outposts at points of peril, those battalions who went marching on to another fight, without sleep, without rest, knowing the foe they had to meet.
"We are all right. You can call it a retreat if you like. But we are retreating in good order and keeping our end up."
Retiring in good order! It has been more than that. They have retired before a million of men swarming across the country like a vast ant- heap on the move, with a valour that had gained for the British and French forces a deathless glory. Such a thing has never been done before in the history of warfare. It would have seemed incredible and impossible to military experts, who know the meaning of such fighting, and the frightful difficulty of keeping an army together in such circumstances.
When I escaped from Amiens before the tunnel was broken up and the Germans entered into possession of the town on August 28th the front of the allied armies was in a crescent from Abbeville by the wooded heights south of Amiens, and thence in an irregular line to the south of Mezières. The British forces under Sir John French were on the left centre, opposing the heavy thrust forward of the German right wing.
On Saturday afternoon fighting was resumed along the whole line. The German vanguard had by this time been supported by fresh army corps, which had been brought from Belgium. At least a million men were on the move, pressing upon the allied forces with a ferocity of attack which has never been equalled. Their cavalry swept across a great tract of country, squadron by squadron, like the mounted hordes of Attila, but armed with the deadly weapons of modern warfare. Their artillery was in enormous numbers, and their columns advanced under the cover of it, not like an army but rather like a moving nation. It did not move, however, with equal pressure at all parts of the line. It formed itself into a battering ram with a pointed end, and this point was thrust at the heart of the English wing with its base at St. Quentin, and advanced divisions at Peronne and Ham. It was impossible to resist this onslaught. If the British forces had stood against it they would have been crushed and broken. Our gunners were magnificent, and shelled the advancing German columns so that the dead lay heaped up along the way which was leading down to Paris. But, as one of them told me, "It made no manner of difference. As soon as we had smashed one lot another followed, column after column, and by sheer weight of numbers we could do nothing to check them."
The railway was destroyed and the bridges blown up on the main line from Amiens to Paris, and on the branch lines from Dieppe. After this precaution the British forces fell back, fighting all the time, as far as Compiègne. The line of the Allies was now in the shape of a V, the Germans thrusting their main attack deep into the angle.
General d'Amade, the most popular of French generals owing to his exploits in Morocco, had established his staff at Aumale, holding the extreme left of the allied armies. Some of his reserves held the hills running east and west at Beauvais, and they were in touch with Sir John French's cavalry along the road to Amiens.
This position remained until Monday, or rather had completed itself by that date, the retirement of the troops being maintained with masterly skill and without any undue haste.
Meanwhile the French troops were sustaining a terrific attack on their centre by the German left centre, which culminated at Guise, on the River Oise, to the north-east of St. Quentin, where the river, which runs between beautiful meadows, was choked with corpses and red with blood.
From an eye-witness of this great battle who escaped with a slight wound an officer of an infantry regiment I learned that the German onslaught had been repelled by the work of the French gunners, followed by a series of bayonet and cavalry charges.
"The Germans," he said "had the élite of their army engaged against us, including the ioth Army Corps and the Imperial Guard. But the heroism of our troops was sublime. Every man knew that the safety of France depended upon him, and was ready to sacrifice his life, if need be, with a joyful enthusiasm. They not only resisted the enemy's attack but took the offensive, and, in spite of their overpowering numbers, gave them a tremendous punishment. They had to recoil before our guns, which swept their ranks, and their columns were broken and routed. Hundreds of them were bayoneted, and hundreds more hurled into the river, while the whole front of battle was outlined by the dead and dying men whom they had to abandon. Certainly their losses were enormous, and when I fell the German retreat was in full swing, and for the time being we could claim a real victory." Nevertheless the inevitable happened. Owing to the vast reserves the enemy brought up fresh divisions, and the French were compelled to fall back upon Laon and La Fère.
On Tuesday the German skirmishers with light artillery were coming southwards to Beauvais, and the sound of their field guns greeted my ears in this town, which I shall always rememer with unpleasant recollections, in spite of its old-world beauty and the loveliness of the scene in which it is set.
Beauvais lies directly between Amiens and Paris, and it seemed to me that it was the right place to be in order to get into touch with the French army barring the way to the capital. As a matter of fact it seemed to be the wrong place from all points of view.
I might have suspected that something was wrong by the strange look on the face of a friendly French peasant whom I met at Gournay. He had described to me in a very vivid way the disposition of the French troops on the neighbouring hills who had disappeared in the undulation below the skyline, but when I mentioned that I was on the way to Beauvais he suddenly raised his head and looked at me in a queer, startled way which puzzled me. I remembered that look when I began to approach the town. Down the road came small parties of peasants with fear in their eyes. Some of them were in farm carts, and they shouted to tired horses and put them to a stumbling gallop. Women with blanched faces, carrying children in their arms, trudged along the dusty highway, and it was clear that these people were afraid of something behind them something in the direction of Beauvais. There were not many of them, and when they had passed the countryside was strangely and uncannily quiet. There was only the sound of singing birds above the fields which were flooded with the golden light of the setting sun.
Then I came into the town. An intense silence brooded there, among the narrow little streets below the old Norman church a white jewel on the rising ground beyond. Almost every house was shuttered, with blind eyes, but here and there I looked through an open window into deserted rooms. No human face returned my gaze. It was an abandoned town, emptied of all its people, who had fled with fear in their eyes like those peasants along the roadway.
But presently I saw a human form. It was the figure of a French dragoon, with his carbine slung behind his back. He was standing by the side of a number of gunpowder bags. A little further away were groups of soldiers at work by two bridges one over a stream and one over a road. They were working very calmly, and I could see what they were doing. They were mining the bridges to blow them up at a given signal. As I went further I saw that the streets were strewn with broken bottles and littered with wire entanglements, very artfully and carefully made.
It was a queer experience. It was obvious that there was a very grim business being done in Beauvais, and that the soldiers were waiting for something to happen. At the railway station I quickly learnt the truth. The Germans were only a few miles away in great force. At any moment they might come down, smashing everything in their way, and killing every human being along that road. The stationrrçaster, a brave old type, and one or two porters, had determined to stay on to the last. "Nous sommes ici," he said, as though the Germans would have to reckon with him. But he was emphatic in his request for me to leave Beauvais if another train could be got away, which was very uncertain. As a matter of fact, after a mauvais quart d'heure I was put into a train which had been shunted into a siding and left Beauvais with the sound of the German guns in my ears.
Sitting in darkness and shaken like peas in a pod because of defective brakes, we skirted the German army, and by a twist in the line almost ran into the enemy's country; but we rushed through the night, and the engine-driver laughed and put his oily hand up to the salute when I stepped out to the platform of an unknown station.
"The Germans won't have us for dinner after all," he said. "It was a little risky all the same ! "
The retreat of the British army it is amazing to think that there were only 45,000 men who had tried to stem the German avalanche was developing into a run. Only some wild fluke of chance (the pious patriot sees God's hand at work, while the cynic sees only the inefficiency of the German Staff) saved it from becoming a bloody rout. It is too soon now to write the details of it. Only when scores of officers have written their reminiscences shall we have the full story of those last days of August, when a little army which was exhausted after many battles staggered hard away from the menace of enormous odds seeking to envelop it. It was called "a retirement in good order."
It was hardly that, when the Commander-in-Chief had to make a hurried flight with a mounted escort, when the Adjutant-General's department, busy in the chateau of a French village, suddenly awakened to the knowledge that it had been forgotten and left behind (I heard a personal story of the escape that followed the awakening), and when companies, battalions, and regiments lost touch with each other, were bewildered in dark woods and unknown roads, and were shelled unexpectedly by an enemy of whose whereabouts they had no definite knowledge. The German net of iron was drawing tighter. In a few hours it might close round and make escape impossible. General Allenby's division of cavalry had a gallop for life, when the outposts came in with reports of a great encircling movement of German horse, so that there was not a moment to lose if a great disaster were to be averted. It was Allenby himself who led his retreat at the head of his division by the side of a French guide carrying a lantern. For twenty miles our cavalry urged on their tired horses through the night, and along the sides of the roads came a struggling mass of automobiles, motor-cycles and motor-wagons, carrying engineers, telegraphists and men of the Army Service Corps. Ambulances crammed with wounded who had been picked up hurriedly from the churches and barns which had been used as hospitals, joined the stampede, and for many poor lads whose heads had been broken by the German shells and whose flesh was on fire with frightful wounds, this night-ride was a highway of torture which ended in eternal rest.
All the way, the cavalry and the convoys were followed by the enemy, and there were moments when it seemed inevitable that the strength of the horses would give out and that the retreating force would be surrounded. But as we know now, the enemy was exhausted also. Their pursuit was a chase by blown horses and puffed men. They called a halt and breathed heavily, at the very time when a last gallop and a hard fight would have given them their prize the flower of the British army.
On that last stage of the retreat we lost less men than any textbook of war would have given as a credible number in such conditions. Many who were wounded as they tramped through woods splintered by bursting shells and ripped with bullets, bandaged themselves as best they could and limped on, or were carried by loyal comrades who would not leave a pal in the lurch. Others who lost their way or lay down in sheer exhaustion, cursing the Germans and not caring if they came, straggled back later weeks later by devious routes to Rouen or Paris, after a wandering life in French villages, where the peasants fed them and nursed them so that they were in no hurry to leave. It was the time when the temptation to desert seized men with a devilish attraction. They had escaped from such hells as Charleroi and Cambrai and Le Cateau. Boys who had never heard the roar of guns before except in mimic warfare had crouched and cowered beneath a tempest of shells, waiting, terrified, for death. Death had not touched them. By some miracle they had dodged it, so that blood had slopped about their feet and they had jerked back from shapeless masses of flesh of men or horses sick with the stench of it, cold with the horror of it.
Was it any wonder that some of these young men, who had laughed on the way to Waterloo Station, and held their heads high in the admiring gaze of London crowds, sure of their own heroism, slunk now in the backyards of French farmhouses, hid behind hedges when men in khaki passed, and told wild incoherent tales, when cornered at last by some cold-eyed officer in some town of France to which they had blundered. It was the coward's chance, and I for one can hardly bring myself to blame the poor devil I met one day in Rouen, stuttering out lies to save his skin, or the two gunners, disguised in civil clothes, who begged from me near Amiens, or any of the half-starved stragglers who had "lost" their regiments and did not go to find them. Some of them were shot and deserved their fate, according to the rules of war and the stern justice of men who know no fear. But in this war there are not many men who have not known moments of cold terror, when all their pride of manhood oozed away and left them cowards, sick with horror at all the frightfulness. Out of such knowledge pity comes.
It was pity and a sense of impending tragedy which took hold of men in Creil and on the way to Paris when I was confronted with the confusion of the British retreat, and, what seemed its inevitable consequences, the siege and fall of the French capital.
I reached Paris in the middle of the night on September 2nd, and saw extraordinary scenes. It had become known during the day that German outposts had reached Senlis and Chantilly, and that Paris was no longer the seat of Government. Quietly, and without a word of warning, the French Ministry had stolen away, after a Cabinet meeting at which there had been both rage and tears, and after a frantic packing up of papers in Government offices. This abandonment came as a paralysing shock to the citizens of Paris and was an outward and visible sign that the worst thing might happen a new siege of Paris, with greater guns than those which girdled it in the terrible year.
A rumour had come that the people were to be given five days' notice to leave their houses" within the zone of fortifications, and to add to the menace of impending horrors, an aeroplane had dropped bombs upon the Gare de l'Est that afternoon. There was a wild rush to get away from the capital, and the railway stations were great camps of fugitives, in which the richest and the poorest citizens were mingled, with their women and children. The tragedy deepened when it was heard that most of the lines to the coast had been cut and that the only remaining line to Dieppe would probably be destroyed during the next few hours. From the crowds which had been waiting all day for a chance to get to the guichets in the rear of other and greater crowds, there rose a murmur which seemed to me like a great sigh from stricken hearts. There were many old men and women there who knew what a siege of Paris meant. To younger people they told the tale of it now the old, familiar tale with shaking hands and trembling forefingers. "Starvation!" "We ate rats, if we were lucky." "They would not hesitate to smash up Notre Dame." "It is not for my sake I would go. But the little ones! Those poor innocents!"
They did not make much noise in those crowds. There was no loud sound of panic. No woman's voice shrieked or wàiled above the murmur of voices. There was no fighting for the station platforms, barred against them all. A few women wept
quietly, mopping their eyes. Perhaps they wept for sheer weariness after sitting encamped for hours on their baggage. Most of the men had a haggard look and kept repeating the stale old word, "Incroyable!" in a dazed and dismal way. Sadness as well as fear was revealed in the spirit of those fugitives, a sadness that Paris, Paris the beautiful, should be in danger of destruction, and that all her hopes of victory had ended in this defeat.
Among all these civilians were soldiers of many regiments and of two nations Turcos and Zouaves, chasseurs and infantry, regulars and Highland British. Many of these were wounded and lay on the floor among the crying babies and weary-eyed women. Many of them were drinking and drunk. They clinked glasses and pledged each other in French and English and broadest Scotch, with a "Hell to the Kaiser!" and "à bas, Guillaume!" A Tommy with the accent of the Fulham Road stood on a chair steadying himself by a firm grasp on the shoulder of a French dragon, and made an incoherent speech in which he reviled the French troops as dirty dogs who ran away like mongrels, vowed that he would never have left England for such a bloody game if he had known the rights of it, and hoped Kitchener would break his blooming neck down the area of Buckingham Palace. The French soldier greeted these sentiments with a "Bravo, mon vieux!" not understanding a word of them, and the drunkard swayed and fell across the marble-topped table, amid a crash of broken glass.
"Serve him damn well right!" said a sergeant to whom I had been talking. Like many other English soldiers here who had been fighting for ten days in retreat, he had kept his head, and his heart.
"We've been at it night and day," he said. "The only rest from fighting was when we were marching with the beggars after us."
He spoke of the German army as "a blighted nation on the move."
"You can't mow that down. We kill 'em and kill 'em, and still they come on. They seem to have an endless line of fresh men. Directly we check 'em in one attack a fresh attack develops. It's impossible to hold up such a mass of men."
French dragoons waiting a the Gare du Nord
In the stations about Paris I saw regiment after regiment entraining men from the southern provinces speaking the patois of the south, men from the eastern departments whom I had seen a month before, at the beginning of the war, at Chalons, and Epernay and Nancy, and men from the south-west and centre of France in the garrisons along the Loire.
They were all in splendid spirits, strangely undaunted by the rapidity of the German advance. "Fear nothing, my little one," said a dirty, unshaven gentleman with the laughing eyes of d'Artagnan, 'we shall bite their heads off. These brutal Boches are going to put themselves in a veritable death-trap. We shall have them at last."
The railways carriages were garlanded with flowers of the fields. The men wore posies in their kepis. In white chalk they had scrawled legends upon the cattle-trucks in which they travelled. "A mort Guillaume!" "Vive la Gloire!" "Les Français ne se rendent jamais!" Many of them had fought at Longwy and along the heights of the Vosges. The youngest of them had bristling beards. Their blue coats with the turned-back flaps were war-worn and flaked with the dust of the long marches. Their red trousers were sloppy and stained.
They were very proud, those French soldiers, of fighting side by side with their old foes, the British, now after long centuries of strife, from Edward the Black Prince to Wellington, their brothers-in-arms upon the battlefields; and because I am English they offered me their cigarettes and made me one of them.
In modern war it is only masses of men that matter, moved by a common obedience at the dictation of mysterious, far-off powers, and I thanked Heaven that masses of men were on the move, rapidly, in vast numbers, and in the right direction to support the French lines which had fallen back from Amiens a few hours before I left that town, whom I had followed in their retirement back and back, with the British always strengthening their left, but retiring with them almost to the outskirts of Paris itself.
Only this could save Paris the rapid strengthening of the Allied front by enormous reserves strong enough to hold back the arrow- shaped battering-ram of the enemy's right.
All our British reserves had been rushed up to the front from Havre and Rouen. There was only one deduction to be drawn from this great, swift movement. The French and British lines had been supported by every available battalion to save Paris from its menace of destruction, to meet the weight of the enemy's metal by a force strong enough to resist its mass. One of the most dramatic incidents of the war was the transport of the army of Paris to the fighting line in taxi-cabs. There were two thousand of these cabs in Paris, and on this day of September 1st they disappeared as though the earth had swallowed them, just as the earth had swallowed one of them not long before when the floods had sapped the streets. A sudden order from General Gallieni, the Military Governor of Paris, had been issued to each driver, who immediately ignored the upraised hands of would- be passengers and the shouts of people desperate to get to one of the railway stations with household goods and a hope of escape. At the depots, the drivers knew that upon the strength of their tyres and the power of their engines depended the safety of Paris, and perhaps the life of France. It was an extraordinary incident in the history of modern war. Five soldiers were loaded into each cab, four inside and one next to the driver, with their rifles and kit crammed in between them. In one journey, twenty thousand men were taken on the road to Meaux. It was a triumph of mobility, and when in future the Parisian is tempted to curse those red vehicles which dash about the streets to the danger of all pedestrians who forget that death has to be dodged by never-failing vigilance, his righteous wrath will be softened, perhaps, by the remembrance that these were the chariots of General Manoury's army before the battle of Meaux, which turned the tide of war, and flung back the enemy from the very gates of Paris.
I came closer to the soul of war on a certain Sunday in September. By that time, the enemy's retreat had finished, and the German army under General von Kluck was at last on the other side of the Aisne, in the strongholds of the hills at which the French and British guns were vainly battering at the beginning of a long and dreary siege against entrenched positions.
All day long, on this Sunday in September, I trudged over battle- fields, still littered with the horrors of recent fighting, towards the lines, stretching northwards and eastwards from Vic-sur-Aisne to Noyon and Soissons.
Never for more than a minute or two did those thunderclaps cease. In those intervals the silence was intense, as though nature the spirit of these woods and hills listened with strained ears and a frightened hush for the next report. It came louder as I advanced near the firing line, with startling crashes, as though the summits of the hills were falling into the deepest valleys. They were answered by vague, distant, murmurous echoes, which I knew to be the voice of the enemy's guns, six miles further away, but not so far away that they could not find the range of our own artillery.
Presently, as I tramped on, splashing through waterpools and along rutty tracks ploughed up by the wheels of gun-carriages, I heard the deeper, more sonorous booming of different guns, followed by a percussion of the air as though great winds were rushing into void spaces. These strange, ominous sounds were caused by the heavy pieces which the enemy had brought up to the heights above the marshlands of the Aisne the terrible eleven-inch guns which outranged all pieces in the French or British lines. With that marvellous foresight which the Germans had shown in all their plans, these had been embedded in cement two weeks before in high emplacements, while their advance columns were threatening down to Paris. The Germans even then were preparing a safe place of retreat for themselves in case their grand coup should fail, and our British troops had to suffer from this organization on the part of an enemy which was confident of victory but remembered the need of a safe way back.
I have been for many strange walks in my life with strange companions, up and down the world, but never have I gone for such a tramp with such a guide as on this Sunday within sound of the guns. My comrade of this day was a grave-digger. His ordinary profession is that of a garde champêtre, or village policeman, but during the past three weeks he had been busy with the spade, which he carried across his shoulder by my side. With other peasants enrolled for the same tragic task, he had followed the line of battle for twenty kilometres from his own village, Rouville, near Levignen, helping to bury the French and British dead, and helping to burn the German corpses.
His work was not nearly done when I met him, for during the fighting in the region round the forest of Villers-Cotterets, twice a battlefield, as the Germans advanced and then retreated, first pursuing and then pursued by the French and British 3,000 German dead had been left upon the way, and 1,000 of our Allied troops.
Dig as hard as he could, my friendly grave-digger had been unable to cover up all those brothers-in-arms who lay out in the wind and the rain.
I walked among the fields where they lay, and among their roughly- piled graves, and not far from the heaps of the enemy's dead who were awaiting their funeral pyres.
My guide grasped my arm and pointed to a dip in the ground beyond the abandoned village of Levignen.
"See there," he said, "they take some time to burn."
He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, like a gardener pointing to a bonfire of autumn leaves.
But there, in line with his forefinger, rose a heavy, rolling smoke, sluggish in the rain under a leaden sky, and I knew that those leaves yonder had fallen from the great tree of human life, and this bonfire was made from an unnatural harvesting.
The French and British dead were laid in the same graves. "Are they not brothers?" asked the man with the spade and as soon as the peasants had courage to creep back to their villages and their woods they gathered leaves and strewed them upon those mounds of earth among which I wandered, as heroes' wreaths. But not such honour was paid to the enemy, with a little petrol and straw they were put to the flames until only their charred ashes, windswept and wet with heavy rain, marked the place of their death.
It is the justice of men. It makes no difference. But as I stood and watched these smoky fires, between the beauty of great woods stretching away to the far hills, and close to the village which seemed a picture of human peace, with its old church-tower and red-brown roofs, I was filled with pity at all the misery and needless death which has flung its horror across the fair fields of France.
What was the sense of it? Why, in God's name, or the devil's, were men killing each other like this on the fields of France, so that human life was of no more value than that of vermin slaughtered ruthlessly? Each one of the German corpses whose flesh was roasting under those oily clouds of smoke had been a young man with bright hopes, and a gift of laughter, and some instincts of love in his heart. At least he had two eyes and a nose, and other features common to the brotherhood of man. Was there really the mark of the beast upon him so that he should be killed at sight without pity?
My guide had no such sentiment. As he led me through a fringe of forest land he told me his own adventures, and heaped curses upon the enemy.
He had killed one of them with his own hand. As he was walking on the edge of a wood a solitary Uhlan came riding over the fields, below the crest of a little hill. He was one of the outposts of the strong force in Crepy-en-Valois and had lost his way to that town. He demanded guidance, and to point his remarks pricked his lance at the chest of the garde champêtre.
But the peasant had been a soldier, and he held a revolver in the side pocket of his jacket. He answered civilly, but shot through his pocket and killed the man at the end of the lance. The Uhlan fell from his horse, and the peasant seized his lance and carbine as souvenirs of a happy moment.
It is these isolated episodes among the homesteads of France, and in quiet villages girdled by silent woods, which seem to reveal the spirit of war more even than the ceaseless fighting on the battle front with its long list of casualties.
On that Sunday I saw the trail of this great spirit of evil down many roads.
I walked not only among the dead, but, what affected me with a more curious emotion, through villages where a few living people wrung their hands amidst the ruins of their homes.
Even in Crépy-en-Valois, which had suffered less than other towns through which the enemy had passed, I saw a wilful, wanton, stupid destruction of men no worse I think than other men, but with their passions let loose and unrestrained. They had entered all the abandoned houses, and had found some evil pleasure in smashing chairs and tables and lampshades and babies' perambulators, and the cheap but precious ornaments of little homes. They had made a pigsty of many a neat little cottage, and it seemed as though an earthquake had heaped everything together into a shapeless, senseless litter. They entered a musical instrument shop, and diverted themselves, naturally enough, with gramophones and mouth-organs and trumpets and violins. But, unnaturally, with just a devilish mirth, they had then smashed all these things into twisted metal and broken strings. In one cottage an old man and woman, among the few inhabitants who remained, told me their story.
They are Alsatians, and speak German, and with the craftiness which accompanies the simplicity of the French peasant, made the most of this lucky chance. Nine German soldiers were quartered upon them and each man demanded and obtained, nine eggs for the meal, which he washed down with the peasant's wine. Afterwards, they stole everything they could find, and with their comrades swept the shops clean of shirts, boots, groceries, and everything they could lay their hands on. They even took the hearses out of an undertaker's yard and filled them with loot. Before they left Crépy-en-Valois, they fired deliberately, I was told, upon Red Cross ambulances containing French wounded.
Yet it was curious that the old Alsatian husband who told me some of these things had amusement rather than hatred in his voice when he described the German visit before their quick retreat from the advancing British. He cackled with laughter at the remembrance of a moment of craftiness when he crept out of his back door and wrote a German sentence on his front door in white chalk. It was to the effect that the inhabitants of his house were honest folk gute leute who were to be left in peace.... He laughed in a high old man's treble at this wily trick. He laughed again, until the tears came into his eyes, when he took me to a field where the French and British had blown up 3,000 German shells abandoned by the enemy at the time of their retreat. The field was strewn with great jagged pieces of metal, and to the old Alsatian it seemed a huge joke that the Germans had had to leave behind so much "food for the guns." After all it was not a bad joke as far as we are concerned.
On that Sunday in September I saw many things which helped me to understand the meaning of war. I saw the movements of regiments moving up to support the lines of the Allies, and the carrying up of heavy guns for the great battle which had now reached its sixth day, and the passing, passing, of Red Cross trains bringing back the wounded from that terrible front between Vic and Noyon, where the trenches were being filled and refilled with dead and wounded, and regiments of tired men struggled forward with heroic endurance to take their place under the fire of those shells which had already put their souls to the test of courage beyond anything that might be demanded, in reason, from the strongest heart.
And through the mud and the water-pools, through the wet bracken and undergrowth, in a countryside swept by heavy rainstorms, I went tramping with the gravedigger, along the way of the German retreat, seeing almost in its nakedness the black ravage of war and its foul litter.
Here and there the highway was lined with snapped and twisted telegraph wires. At various places great water-tanks and reservoirs had been toppled over and smashed as though some diabolical power had made cockshies of them. I peered down upon the broken bridge of a railway line, and stumbled across uprooted rails torn from their sleepers and hurled about the track.
My gravedigger plucked my sleeve and showed me where he had buried a French cuirassier who had been shot as he kept a lonely guard at the edge of a wood.
He pointed with his spade again at newly-made graves of French and British. The graves were everywhere mile after mile, on the slopes of the hills and in the fields and the valleys, though still on the battleground my friend had Work to do.
I picked up bullets from shrapnel. They are scattered like peas for fifteen miles between Metz and Mortefontaine, and thicker still along the road to Vic. The jagged pieces of shell cut my boots. I carried one of the German helmets for which the peasants were searching among cabbages and turnips. And always in my ears was the deep rumble of the guns, those great booming thunder-blows, speaking from afar and with awful significance of the great battle, which seemed to be deciding the destiny of our civilization, between two armies now so firmly entrenched that I sometimes wonder at the cost in blood of ever moving them again.
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