'An American Journalist Visits Maubeuge'
by Irwin S. Cobb
from his book - 'Paths of Glory' 1915


The Rut of Big Guns in France

map showing the ring of forts around Maubeuge


Let me say at the outset of this chapter that I do not set up as one professing to have any knowledge whatsoever of so-called military science. The more I have seen of the carrying-on of the actual business of war, the less able do I seem to be to understand the meanings of the business. For me strategy remains a closed book. Even the simplest primary lessons of it, the A B C's of it, continue to impress me as being stupid, but none the less unplumbable mysteries.

The physical aspects of campaigning I can in a way grasp. At least I flatter myself that I can. A man would have to be deaf and dumb and blind not to grasp them, did they reveal themselves before him as they have revealed themselves before me. Indeed, if he preserved only the faculty of scent unimpaired he might still be able to comprehend the thing, since, as I have said before, war in its commoner phases is not so much a sight as a great bad smell. As for the rudiments of the system which dictates the movements of troops in large masses or in small, which sacrifices thousands of men to take a town or hold a river when that town and that river, physically considered, appear to be of no consequence whatsoever, those elements I have not been able to sense, even though I studied the matter most diligently. So after sundry months of first-hand observation in one of the theaters of hostilities, I tell myself that the trade of fighting is a trade to be learned by slow and laborious degrees, and even then may be learned with thoroughness only by one who has a natural aptitude for it. Either that, or else I am most extraordinarily thick-headed, for I own that I am still as complete a greenhorn now as I was at the beginning.

Having made the confession which is said to be good for the soul, and which in any event has the merit of blunting in advance the critical judgments of the expert, since he must pity my ignorance and my innocence even though he quarrel with my conclusions, I now assume the role of prophet long enough to venture to say that the day of the modern walled fort is over and done with. I do not presume to speak regarding coast defenses maintained for the purposes of repelling attacks or invasions from the sea. I am speaking with regard to land defenses which are assailable by land forces. I believe in the future great wars — if indeed there are to be any more great wars following after this one — that the nations involved, instead of buttoning their frontiers down with great fortresses and ringing their principal cities about with circles of protecting works, will put their trust more and more in transportable cannon of a caliber and a projecting force greater than any yet built or planned. I make this assertion after viewing the visible results of the operations of the German 42-centimeter guns in Belgium and France, notably at Liege in the former country and at Maubeuge in the latter.

Except for purposes of frightening non-combatants the Zeppelins apparently have proved of most dubious value; nor, barring its value as a scout — a field in which it is of marvelous efficiency — does the aeroplane appear to have been of much consequence in inflicting loss upon the enemy. Of the comparatively new devices for waging war, the submarine and the great gun alone seem to have justified in any great degree the hopes of their sponsors.


two general officers responsible for the capture of Maubeuge

left - general von Zwehl
right - lieutenant general Steinmetz


Since I came back out of the war zone I have met persons who questioned the existence of a 42-centimeter gun, they holding it to be a nightmare created out of the German imagination with intent to break the confidence of the enemies of Germany. I did not see a 42-centimeter gun with my own eyes, and personally I doubt whether the Germans had as many of them as they claimed to have; but I talked with one entirely reliable witness, an American consular officer, who saw a 42-centimeter gun as it was being transported to the front in the opening week of the war, and with another American, a diplomat of high rank, who interviewed a man who saw one of these guns, and who in detailing the conversation to me said the spectator had been literally stunned by the size and length and the whole terrific contour of the monster.

Finally, I know from personal experience that these guns have been employed, and employed with a result that goes past adequate description; but if I hadn't seen the effect of their fire I wouldn't have believed it were true. I wouldn't have believed anything evolved out of the brains of men and put together by the fingers of men could operate with such devilish accuracy to compass such utter destruction. I would have said it was some planetic force, some convulsion of natural forces, and not an agency of human devisement, that turned Fort Loncin inside out, and transformed it within a space of hours from a supposedly impregnable stronghold into a hodgepodge of complete and hideous ruination. And what befell Fort Loncin on the hills behind Liege befell Fort Des Sarts outside of Maubeuge, as I have reason to know. When the first of the 42- centimeters emerged from Essen it took a team of thirty horses to haul it; and with it out of that nest of the Prussian war eagle came also a force of mechanics and engineers to set it up and aim it and fire it.

Here, too, is an interesting fact that I have not seen printed anywhere, though I heard it often enough in Germany: by reason of its bulk the 42-centimeter must be mounted upon a concrete base before it can be used. Heretofore the concrete which was available for this purpose required at least a fortnight of exposure before it was sufficiently firm and hardened; but when Fraulein Bertha Krupp's engineers escorted the Fraulein's newest and most impressive steel masterpiece to the war, they brought along with them the ingredients for a new kind of concrete; and those who claim to have been present on the occasion declare that within forty-eight hours after they had mixed and molded it, it was ready to bear the weight of the guns and withstand the shock of their recoil.

This having been done, I conceive of the operators as hoisting their guns into position, and posting up a set of rules — even in time of war it is impossible to imagine the Germans doing anything of importance without a set of rules to go by — and working out the distance by mathematics, and then turning loose their potential cataclysms upon the stubborn forts which opposed their further progress. From the viewpoint of the Germans the consequences to the foe must amply have justified the trouble and the cost. For where a 42-centimeter shell falls it does more than merely alter landscape; almost you might say it alters geography.


left - from a Belgian magazine
right - from a British magazine


In the open field, where he must aim his gun with his own eye and discharge it with his own finger, I take it the Kaiser's private soldier is no great shakes as a marksman. The Germans themselves begrudgingly admitted the French excelled them in the use of light artillery. There was wonderment as well as reluctance in this concession. To them it seemed well-nigh incredible that any nation should be their superiors in any department pertaining to the practice of war. They could not bring themselves fully to understand it. It remained as much a puzzle to them as the unaccountable obstinacy of the English in refusing to be budged out of their position by displays of cold steel, or to be shaken by the volleying, bull-like roar of the German charging cry, which at first the Germans counted upon as being almost as efficacious as the bayonet for instilling a wholesome fear of the German war god into the souls of their foes.

While giving the Frenchmen credit for knowing how to handle and serve small field- pieces, the Germans nevertheless insisted that their infantry fire or their skirmish fire was as deadly as that of the Allies, or even deadlier. This I was not prepared to believe. I do not think the German is a good rifle shot by instinct, as the American often is, and in a lesser degree, perhaps, the Englishman is, too. But where he can work the range out on paper, where he has to do with mechanics instead of a shifting mark, where he can apply to the details of gun firing the exact principles of arithmetic, I am pretty sure the German is as good a gunner as may be found on the Continent of Europe to-day. This may not apply to him at sea, for he has neither the sailor traditions nor the inherited naval craftsmanship of the English; but judging by what I have seen I am quite certain that with the solid earth beneath him and a set of figures before him and an enemy out of sight of him to be damaged he is in a class all by himself.

A German staff officer, who professed to have been present, told me that at Manonvilla — so he spelled the name — a 42-centimeter gun was fired one hundred and forty- seven times from a distance of 14,000 meters at a fort measuring 600 meters in length by 400 meters in breadth — a very small target, indeed, considering the range — and that investigation after the capture of the fort showed not a single one of the one hundred and forty-seven shots had been an outright miss. Some few, he said, hit the walls or at the bases of the walls, but all the others, he claimed, had bull's-eyed into the fort itself.

Subsequently, on subjecting this tale to the acid test of second thought I was compelled to doubt what the staff officer had said. To begin with, I didn't understand how a 42- centimeter gun could be fired one hundred and forty-seven times without its wearing out, for I have often heard that the larger the bore of your gun and the heavier the charge of explosives which it carries, the shorter is its period of efficiency.. In the second place, it didn't seem possible after being hit one hundred and forty-seven times with 42- centimeter bombs that enough of any fort of whatsoever size would be left to permit of a tallying-up of separate shots. Ten shots properly placed should have razed it; twenty more should have blown its leveled remainder to powder and scattered the powder.

Be the facts what they may with regard to this case of the fort of Manonvilla — if that be its proper name — I am prepared to speak with the assurance of an eyewitness concerning the effect of the German fire upon the defenses of Maubeuge. What I saw at Liege I have described in a previous chapter of this volume. What I saw at Maubeuge was even more convincing testimony, had I needed it, that the Germans had a 42- centimeter gun, and that, given certain favored conditions, they knew how to handle it effectively.


entrance to the Fort des Boussois


We spent the better part of a day in two of the forts which were fondly presumed to guard Maubeuge toward the north — Fort Des Sarts and Fort Boussois; but Fort Des Sarts was the one where the 42-centimeter gun gave the first exhibition of its powers upon French soil in this war, so we went there first. To reach it we ran a matter of seven kilometers through a succession of villages, each with its mutely eloquent tale of devastation and general smash to tell; each with its group of contemptuously tolerant German soldiers on guard and its handful of natives, striving feebly to piece together the broken and bankrupt fragments of their worldly affairs.

Approaching Des Sarts more nearly we came to a longish stretch of highway, which the French had cleared of visual obstructions in anticipation of resistance by infantry in the event that the outer ring of defenses gave way before the German bombardment. It had all been labor in vain, for the town capitulated after the outposts fell; but it must have been very great labor. Any number of fine elm trees had been felled and their boughs, stripped now of leaves, stuck up like bare bones. There were holes in the metaled road where misaimed shells had descended, and in any one of these holes you might have buried a horse. A little gray church stood off by itself upon the plain. It had been homely enough to start with. Now with its steeple shorn away and one of its two belfry windows obliterated by a straying shot it had a rakish, cock-eyed look to it.


a French or British field-gun in a prepared position near Maubeuge


Just beyond where the church was our chauffeur halted the car in obedience to an order from the staff officer who had been detailed by Major von Abercron, commandant of Maubeuge, to accompany us on this particular excursion. Our guide pointed off to the right. "There," he said, "is where we dropped the first of our big ones when we were trying to get the range of the fort. You see our guns were posted at a point between eight and nine kilometers away and at the start we overshot a trifle. Still to the garrison yonder it must have been an unhappy foretaste of what they might shortly expect, when they saw the forty-twos striking here in this field and saw what execution they did among the cabbage and the beet patches."


views inside one of the Maubeuge forts


We left the car and, following our guide, went to look. Spaced very neatly at intervals apart of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards a series of craters broke the surface of the earth. Considering the tools which dug them they were rather symmetrical craters, not jagged and gouged, but with smooth walls and each in shape a perfect funnel. We measured roughly a typical specimen. Across the top it was between fifty and sixty feet in diameter, and it sloped down evenly for a depth of eighteen feet in the chalky soil to a pointed bottom, where two men would have difficulty standing together without treading upon each other's toes. Its sides were lined with loose pellets of earth of the average size of a tennis ball, and when we slid down into the hole these rounded clods accompanied us in small avalanches.

We were filled with astonishment, first, that an explosive grenade, weighing upward of a ton, could be so constructed that it would penetrate thus far into firm and solid earth before it exploded; and, second, that it could make such a neat saucer of a hole when it did explode. But there was a still more amazing thing to be pondered. Of the earth which had been dispossessed from the crevasse, amounting to a great many wagonloads, no sign remained. It was not heaped up about the lips of the funnel; it was not visibly scattered over the nearermost furrows of that truck field. So far as we might tell it was utterly gone; and from that we deduced that the force of the explosion had been sufficient to pulverize the clay so finely and cast it so far and so wide that it fell upon the surface in a fine shower, leaving no traces unless one made a minute search for it. Noting the wonder upon our faces, the officer was moved to speak further in a tone of sincere admiration, touching on the capabilities of the crowning achievement of the Krupp works:

"Pretty strong medicine, eh? Well, wait until I have shown you American gentlemen what remains of the fort; then you will better understand. Even here, out in the open, for a radius of a hundred and fifty meters, any man, conceding he wasn't killed outright, would be knocked senseless and after that for hours, even for days, perhaps, he would be entirely unnerved. The force of the concussion appears to have that effect upon persons who are at a considerable distance — it rips their nerves to tatters. ' Some seem numbed and dazed; others develop an acute hysteria.

"Highly interesting, is it not? Listen then; here is something even more interesting: Within an inclosed space, where there is a roof to hold in the gas generated by the explosion or where there are reasonably high walls, the man who escapes being torn apart in the instant of impact, or who escapes being crushed to death by collapsing masonry, or killed by flying fragments, is exceedingly likely to choke to death as he lies temporarily paralyzed and helpless from the shock. I was at Liege and again here, and I know from my own observations that this is true. At Liege particularly many of the garrison were caught and penned up in underground casements, and there we found them afterward dead, but with no marks of wounds upon them — they had been asphyxiated."

I suppose in times of peace the speaker was a reasonably kind man and reasonably regardful of the rights of his fellowmen. Certainly he was most courteous to us and most considerate; but he described this slaughter-pit scene with the enthusiasm of one who was a partner in a most creditable and worthy enterprise.


a French battery near the Fort des Sarts

inside the Fort des Sarts


Immediately about Des Sarts stood many telegraph poles in a row, for here the road, which was the main road from Paris to Brussels, curved close up under the grass- covered bastions. All the telegraph wires had been cut, and they dangled about the bases of the poles in snarled tangles like love vines. The ditches paralleling the road were choked with felled trees, and, what with the naked limbs, were as spiky as shad spines. Of the small cottages which once had stood in the vicinity of the fort not one remained standing. Their sites were marked by flattened heaps of brick and plaster from which charred ends of rafters protruded. It was as though a giant had sat himself down upon each little house in turn and squashed it to the foundation stones.

As a fort Des Sarts dated back to 1883. I speak of it in the past tense, because the Germans had put it in that tense. As a fort, or as anything resembling a fort, it had ceased to be, absolutely. The inner works of it — the redan and the underground barracks, and the magazines, and all — were built after the style .followed by military engineers back in 1883, having revetments faced up with brick and stone; but only a little while ago — in the summer of 1913, to be exact — the job of inclosing the original works with a glacis of a newer type had been completed. So when the Germans came along in the first week of September it was in most respects made over into a modern fort. No doubt the re-enforcements of reserves that hurried into it to strengthen the regular garrison counted themselves lucky men to have so massive and stout a shelter from which to fight an enemy who must work in the open against them. Poor devils, their hopes crumbled along with their walls when the Germans brought up the forty-twos.


a wooden bridge across a moat of one of the Maubeuge forts


We entered in through a breach in the first parapet and crossed, one at a time, on a tottery wooden bridge which was propped across a fossé half full of rubble, and so came to what had been the heart of the fort of Des Sarts. Had I not already gathered some notion of the powers for destruction of those one-ton, four-foot-long shells, I should have said that the spot where we halted had been battered and crashed at for hours; that scores and perhaps hundreds of bombs had been plumped into it. Now, though, I was prepared to believe the German captain when he said probably not more than five or six of the devil devices had struck this target. Make it six for good measure. Conceive each of the six as having been dammed by a hurricane and sired by an earthquake, and as being related to an active volcano on one side of the family and to a flaming meteor on the other. Conceive it as falling upon a man-made, masonry-walled burrow in the earth and being followed in rapid succession by five of its blood brethren; then you will begin to get some fashion of mental photograph of the result. I confess myself as unable to supply any better suggestion for a comparison. Nor shall I attempt to describe the picture in any considerable detail. I only know that for the first time in my life I realized the full and adequate meaning of the word chaos. The proper definition of it was spread broadcast before my eyes.

Appreciating the impossibility of comprehending the full scope of the disaster which here had befallen, or of putting it concretely into words if I did comprehend it, I sought to pick out small individual details, which was hard to do, too, seeing that all things were jumbled together so. This had been a series of cunningly buried tunnels and arcades, with cozy subterranean dormitories opening off of side passages, and still farther down there had been magazines and storage spaces. Now it was all a hole in the ground, and the force which blasted it out had then pulled the hole in behind itself. We stood on the verge, looking downward into a chasm which seemed to split its way to infinite depths, although in fact it was probably not nearly so deep as it appeared. If we looked upward there, forty feet above our heads, was a wide riven gap in the earth crust.

Near me I discerned a litter of metal fragments. From such of the scraps as retained any shape at all, I figured that they had been part of the protective casing of a gun mounted somewhere above. The missile which wrecked the gun flung its armor down here. I searched my brain for a simile which might serve to give a notion of the present state of that steel jacket. I didn't find the one I wanted, but if you will think of an earthenware pot which has been thrown from a very high building upon a brick sidewalk you may have some idea of what I saw.


an iron turret knocked out of its socket


At that, it was no completer a ruin than any of the surrounding debris. Indeed, in the whole vista of annihilation but two objects remained recognizably intact, and these, strange to say, were two iron bed frames bolted to the back wall of what I think must have been a barrack room for officers. The room itself was no longer there. Brick, mortar, stone, concrete, steel reinforcements, iron props, the hard-packed earth, had been ripped out and churned into indistinguishable bits, but those two iron beds hung fast to a discolored patch of plastering, though the floor was gone from beneath them. Seemingly they were hardly damaged. One gathered that a 42-centimeter shell possessed in some degree the freakishness which we associate with the behavior of cyclones.

We were told that at the last, when the guns had been silenced and dismounted and the walls had been pierced and the embrasures blown bodily away, the garrison, or what was left of it, fled to these lowermost shelters. But the burrowing bombs found the refugees out and killed them, nearly all, and those of them who died were still buried beneath our feet in as hideous a sepulcher as ever was digged. There was no getting them out from that tomb. The Crack of Doom will find them still there, I guess.


inside the fort and casemates


To reach a portion of Des Sarts, as yet un-visited, we skirted the gape of the crater, climbing over craggy accumulations of wreckage, and traversed a tunnel with an arched roof and mildewed brick walls, like a wine vault. The floor of it was littered with the knapsacks and water bottles of dead or captured men, with useless rifles broken at the stocks and bent in the barrels, and with suchlike riffle. At the far end of the passage we came out into the open at the back side of the fort.

"Right here," said the officer who was piloting us, "I witnessed a sight which made a deeper impression upon me than anything I have seen in this campaign. After the white flag had been hoisted by the survivors and we had marched in, I halted my men just here at the entrance to this arcade. We didn't dare venture into the redan, for sporadic explosions were still occurring in the ammunition stores. Also there were fires raging. Smoke was pouring thickly out of the mouth of the tunnel. It didn't seem possible that there could be anyone alive back yonder.

"All of a sudden, men began to come out of the tunnel. They came and came until there were nearly two hundred of them — French reservists mostly. They were crazy men — crazy for the time being, and still crazy, I expect, some of them. They came out staggering, choking, falling down and getting up again. You see, their nerves were gone. The fumes, the gases, the shock, the fire, what they had endured and what they had escaped — all these had distracted them. They danced, sang, wept, laughed, shouted in a sort of maudlin frenzy, spun about deliriously until they dropped. They were deafened, and some of them could not see but had to grope their way. I remember one man who sat down and pulled off his boots and socks and threw them away and then hobbled on in his bare feet until he cut the bottoms of them to pieces. I don't care to see anything like that again — even if it is my enemies that suffer it."

He told it so vividly, that standing alongside of him before the tunnel opening I could see the procession myself — those two hundred men who had drained horror to its lees and were drunk on it.


the entrance to Fort de Boussois


We went to Fort Boussois, some four miles away. It was another of the keys to the town. It was taken on September sixth; on the next day, September seventh, the citadel surrendered. Here, in lieu of the 42-centimeter, which was otherwise engaged for the moment, the attacking forces brought into play an Austrian battery of 30-centimeter guns. So far as I have been able to ascertain this was the only Austrian command which had any part in the western campaigns. The Austrian gunners shelled the fort until the German infantry had been massed in a forest to the northward. Late in the afternoon the infantry charged across a succession of cleared fields and captured the outer slopes. With these in their possession it didn't take them very long to compel the surrender of Fort Boussois, especially as the defenders had already been terribly cut up by the artillery fire.

The Austrians must have been first-rate marksmen. One of their shells fell squarely upon the rounded dome of a big armored turret which was sunk in the earth and chipped off the top of it as you would chip your breakfast egg. The men who manned the guns in that revolving turret must all have died in a flash of time. The impact of the blow was such that the leaden solder which filled the interstices of the segments of the turret was squeezed out from between the plates in curly strips, like icing from between the layers of a misused birthday cake.

Back within the main works we saw where a shell had bored a smooth, round orifice through eight meters of earth and a meter and a half of concrete and steel plates. Peering into the shaft we could make out the floor of a tunnel some thirty feet down. To judge by its effects, this shell had been of a different type from any others whose work we had witnessed. Apparently it had been devised to excavate holes rather than to explode, and when we asked questions about it we speedily ascertained that our guide did not care to discuss the gun which had inflicted this particular bit of damage.

"It is not permitted to speak of this matter," he said in explanation of his attitude. "It is a military secret, this invention. We call it a mine gun."

Every man to his taste. I should have called it a well-digger.


two pages from a Dutch newsmagazine


Erect upon the highest stretch of riddled walls, with his legs spraddled far apart and his arms jerking in expressive gestures, he told us how the German infantry had advanced across the open ground. It had been hard, he said, to hold the men back until the order for the charge was given, and then they burst from their cover and came on at a dead run, cheering.

"It was very fine," he added. "Very glorious."

"Did you have any losses in the charge?" asked one of our party.

"Oh, yes," he answered, as though that part of the proceeding was purely an incidental detail and of no great consequence. "We lost many men here — very many — several thousands, I think. Most of them are buried where you see those long ridges in the second field beyond."


German infantry charging across open field at Maubeuge


In a sheltered corner of a redoubt, close up under a parapet and sheathed on its inner side with masonry, was a single grave. The pounding feet of many fighting men had beaten the mound flat, but a small wooden cross still stood in the soil, and on it in French were penciled the words:

"Here lies Lieutenant Verner, killed in the charge of battle."

His men must have thought well of the lieutenant to take the time, in the midst of the defense, to bury him in the place where he fell, for there were no other graves to be seen within the fort.


from a British and a French newsmagazine


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