From the book
'Over There'
by Arnold Bennett
Methuen & Co. Ltd. London 1915

an American Journalist in the French Trenches

from a German magazine : a view into French trenches early in the war



We were met at a poste de commandement by the officers in charge, who were waiting for us. And later we found that we were always thus met. The highest officer present - general, Colonel, or Commandant - was at every place at our disposition to explain things - and to explain them with that clarity of which the French alone have the secret and of which a superlative example exists in the official report of the earlier phases of the war, offered to the Anglo-Saxon public through Reuter. Automobiles and chauffeurs abounded for our small party of four. Never once at any moment of the day, whether driving furiously along somewhat deteriorated roads in the car, or walking about the land, did I lack a Staff officer who produced in me the illusion that he was living solely in order to be of use to me. All details of the excursions were elaborately organised; never once did the organisation break down. No pre-Lusilania American correspondent could have been more spoiled by Germans desperately anxious for his goodwill than I was spoiled by these French who could not gain my goodwill because they had the whole of it already.

After the rites of greeting, we walked up to the high terrace of a considerable chateau close by, and France lay before us in a shimmering vast semicircle. In the distance, a low range of hills, irregularly wooded; then a river; then woods and spinneys; then vineyards-boundless vineyards which climbed in varying slopes out 9f the valley almost to our feet. Far to the left was a town with lofty factory chimneys, smokeless.

Peasant women were stooping in the vineyards; the whole of the earth seemed to be cultivated and to be yielding bounteously. It was a magnificent summer afternoon. The sun was high and a few huge purple shadows moved with august deliberation across the brilliant greens. An impression of peace, majesty, grandeur; and of the mild, splendid richness of the soil of France.

"You see that white line on the hills opposite," said an officer, opening a large-scale map.

I guessed it was a level road.

"That is the German trenches," said he. "They are five miles away. Their gun-positions are in the woods. Our own trenches are invisible from here."

It constituted a great moment, this first vision of the German trenches. With the thrill came the fascinating thought: "All of France that lies beyond that line, land just like the land on which I am standing, inhabited by people just like the people who are talking to me, is under the insulting tyranny of the invader." And I also thought, as the sense of distance quickened my imagination to realise that these trenches stretched from Ostend to Switzerland, and that the creators of them were prosecuting similar enterprises as far north-east as Riga, and as far southeast as the confines of Roumania: The brigands are mad, but they are mad in the grand manner.

We were at the front.

We had driven for twenty miles along a very busy road which was closed to civilians, and along which even Staff officers could not travel without murmuring the password to placate the hostile vigilance of sentries. The civil life of the district was in abeyance, proceeding precariously from meal to meal. Aeroplanes woke the sleep. No letter could leave a post office without a precautionary delay of three days.

Telegrams were suspect. To get into a railway station was almost as difficult as to get into paradise. A passport or a safe- conduct was the sine qua non of even the restricted liberty which had survived. And yet nowhere did I see a frown nor hear a complaint; Everybody comprehended that the exigencies of the terrific military machine were necessary exigencies. Everybody waited, waited, in confidence and with tranquil smiles.

Also it is misleading to say that civil life was in abeyance. For the elemental basis of its prosperity and its amenities continued just as though the lunatic bullies of Potsdam had never dictated to Vienna the ultimatum for Serbia. The earth was yielding, fabulously. It was yielding up to within a mile and a half of the German wire entanglements. The peasants would not neglect the earth. Officers remonstrated with them upon their perilous rashness. They replied: 'The land must be tilled.

When the German artillery begins to fire, the blue-clad women sink out of sight amid the foliage. Half an hour after it has ceased they cautiously emerge, and resume. One peasant put up an umbrella, but he was a man.

We were veritably at the front. There was, however, not a whisper of war, nor anything visible except the thin, pale line like a striation on the distant hills. Then a far-off sound of thunder is heard. It is a gun. A faint puff of smoke is pointed out to us. Neither the rumble nor the transient cloudlet makes any apparent impression on the placid and wide dignity of the scene. Nevertheless, this is war. And war seems a very vague, casual, and negligible thing. We are led about fifty feet to the left, where in a previous phase a shell has indented a huge hole in the earth. The sight of this hole renders war rather less vague and rather less negligible.

"There are eighty thousand men in front of us," says an officer, indicating the benign shimmering, empty landscape.

"But where? "

"Interred - in the trenches."

It is incredible.

"And the other interred - the dead? I ask.

"We never speak of them. But we think of them a good deal."

Still a little closer to war.

The parc du genie - engineers' park. Behind we inspected hills of coils of the most formidable barbed wire, far surpassing that of farmers, well contrived to tear to pieces any human being who, having got into its entanglement, should try to get out again. One thought that nothing but steam-chisels would be capable of cutting it. Also stacks of timber for shoring up mines which sappers would dig beneath the enemy trenches. Also sacks to be filled with earth for improvised entrenching. Also the four-pointed contraptions called chevaux de frise, which-however you throw them-will always stick a fatal point upwards, to impale the horse or man who cannot or will not look where he is going. Even tarred paper, for keeping the weather out of trenches or anything else. And all these things in unimagined quantities.

Close by, a few German prisoners performing sanitary duties under a guard. They were men in God's image, and they went about on the assumption that all the rest of the war lay before them and that there was a lot of it. A general told us that he had mentioned to them the possibility of an exchange of prisoners, whereupon they had gloomily and pathetically protested. They very sincerely did not want to go back whence they had come, preferring captivity, humiliation, and the basest tasks to a share in the great glory of German arms. To me they had a brutalised air, no doubt one - or consequence of military ambition in high places.

Not many minutes away was a hospital - what the French call an ambulance de premiere ligne, contrived out of a factory. This was the hospital nearest to the trenches in that region, and the wounded come to it direct from the dressing-stations which lie immediately behind the trenches. When a man fails, or men fall, the automobile is telephoned for, and it arrives at the appointed rendezvous generally before the stretcher-bearers, who may have to walk for twenty or thirty minutes over rough ground. A wounded man may be, and has been, operated upon in this hospital within an hour of his wounding. It is organised on a permanent basis, for cases too serious for removal have, of course, to remain there. Nevertheless1 these establishments are, as regards their staff, patients, and material, highly mobile.

One hospital of two hundred beds was once entirely evacuated within sixty minutes upon a sudden order. We walked through small ward after small ward, store-room after store-room, aseptic operating-room and septic operating-room, all odorous with ether, and saw little but resignation, and not much of that, for patients happened to be few. Yet the worn face of the doctor in charge showed that vast labours must have been accomplished in those sombre chambers.

In the very large courtyard a tent operating-hospital was established. The white attendants were waiting within in the pallid obscurity, among tables, glass jars, and instruments. The surgeon’s wagon, with hot-water and sterilising apparatus, was waiting without. The canvas organism was a real hospital, and the point about it was that it could move off complete at twenty-five minutes' notice and set itself up again in any other ordained location in another twenty-five minutes.

Another short ride, and we were in an aviation park, likewise tented, in the midst of an immense wheatfield on the lofty side of a hill. There were six hangars of canvas, each containing an aeroplane and serving as a dormitory; and for each aeroplane a carriage and a motor-for sometimes aeroplanes are wounded and have to travel by road; it takes ninety minutes to dismount an aeroplane. Each corps of an army has one of these escadrilles or teams of aeroplanes, and the army as a whole has an extra one, so that, if an army consists of eight corps, it possesses fifty-four aeroplanes. I am speaking now of the particular type of aeroplane employed for regulating artillery fire. It was a young non-commissioned officer with a marked Southern accent who explained to us the secret nature of things. lie was wearing both the Military Medal and the Legion of Honour, for he had done wondrous feats in the way of shooting the occupants of Taubes in mid- air. He got out one of the machines, and exhibited its tricks and its wireless apparatus, and invited us to sit in the seat of the flier. The weather was quite unsuitable for flying, but, setting four men to hold the machine in place, he started the Gnome motor and ran it up to two thousand revolutions a minute, creating a draught which bowed the fluttered wheat for many yards behind and blew hats off. And in the middle of this bother he continued to offer lucid and surprising explanations to deafened ears until his superior officer, excessively smart and looking like a cross between a cavalryman and a yachtsman, arrived on the scene swinging a cane.

It was natural that after this we should visit some auto-cannons expressly constructed for bringing down aeroplanes. 1In front of these marvels it was suggested to us that we should neither take photographs nor write down exact descriptions. As regards the latter, the Staff officers had reason to be reassured. No living journalist could have reproduced the scientific account of the sighting arrangements given to us in an esoteric yet quite comprehensible language by the high priest of these guns, who was a middle-aged artillery Captain. It lasted about twenty minutes. It was complete, final, unchallengeable. At intervals the artillery Captain himself admitted that such-and-such a part of the device was tres beau. It was. There was only one word of which I could not grasp the significance in that connection. It recurred. Several times I determined to ask the Captain what he meant us to understand by that word; but I lacked moral courage. I doubt whether in all the lethal apparatus that I saw in France I saw anything quite equal to the demoniac ingenuity of these massive guns. The proof of guns is in the shooting. These guns do not merely aim at Taubes: they hit them.

I will not, however, derogate from the importance of the illustrious "seventy-five." We saw one of these on an afternoon of much marching up and down hills and among woods, gazing at horses and hot-water douches, baths, and barbers' shops, and deep dug-outs called "Tipperary," and guns of various calibre, including the "seventy-five." The "seventy-five" is a very sympathetic creature, in blue-grey with metallic glints.

He is perfectly easy to see when you approach him from behind, but get twenty yards in front of him and he is absolutely undiscoverable. Viewed from the sky, he is part of the forest. Viewed from behind, he is perceived to be in a wooden hut with rafters, in which you can just stand upright. We beheld the working of the gun, by two men, and we beheld the different sorts of shell in their delved compartments. But this was not enough for us. We ventured to suggest that it would be proper to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement. The request was instantly granted.

"Time for 4,300 metres," said the Lieutenant quickly and sternly, and a soldier manipulated the obus.

It was done. It was done with disconcerting rapidity. The shell was put into its place. A soldier pulled a string. Bang! A neat, clean, not too loud bang! The messenger had gone invisibly forth. The prettiest part of the affair was the recoil and automatic swinging back of the gun. Lest the first shell should have failed in its mission, the Commandant ordered a second one to be sent, and this time the two artillerymen sat in seats attached on either side to the gun itself. The "seventy-five" was enthusiastically praised by every officer present. He is beloved like a favourite sporting dog, and with cause.

At the side of the village street there was a bit of sharply sloping ground, with a ladder thrown on it to make descent easier.

"This way," said one of the officers.

We followed him, and in an instant were in the communication trench. The change was magical in its quickness. At one moment we were on the earth; at the next we were in it. The trench was so narrow that I had to hold my stick in front of me, as there was no room to swing the arms; the chalky sides left traces on the elbows. The floor was for the most part quite dry, but at intervals there were muddy pools nearly ankle-deep. The top of the trench was about level with the top of my head, and long grasses or chance cereals, bending down, continually brushed the face. An officer was uplifted for the rest of the day by finding a four-leaved clover at the edge of the trench. The day was warm, and the trench was still warmer. Its direction never ceased to change, generally in curves, but now and then by a sharp corner. We walked what seemed to be an immense distance, and then came out on to a road, which we were instructed to cross two by two, as, like the whole of the region, it was subject to German artillery. Far down this road we could see the outlying village for which we were bound.

A new descent into the earth. We proceed a few yards, and the trench suddenly divides into three. We do not know which to take. An officer following us does not know which to take. The guiding officer is perhaps thirty yards in front! We call. No answer. We climb out of the trench on to the surface desolation; we can see nothing, nothing whatever, but land that is running horribly to waste. Our friends are as invisible. as moles. There is not a trace even of their track. This is a fine object-lesson in the efficacy of trenches. At length an officer returns and saves us. We have to take the trench on the extreme right. Much more hot walking, and a complete loss of the notion of direction.

Then we come out on to another portion of the same road at the point where a main line of railway crosses it. We are told to run to shelter. In the near distance a German captive balloon sticks up moveless against the sky. The main line of railway is a sorrowful sight. Its signal-wires hang in festoons. Its rails are rusting. The abandonment of a main line in a civilised country is a thing unknown, a thing contrary to sense, an impossible thing, so that one wonders whether one is not visiting the remains of a civilisation dead and definitely closed. Very strange thoughts pass through the mind.

That portion of the main line cannot be used by the Germans because it is within the French positions, and it cannot be used by the French because it is utterly exposed to German artillery. Thus, perhaps ten kilometres of it are left forlorn to illustrate the imbecile brutality of an invasion.

There is a good deal more trench before we reach the village which forms the head of a salient in the French line. This village is knocked all to pieces. It is a fearful spectacle. We see a Teddy bear left on what remains of a flight of stairs, a bedstead buried to the knobs in débris, skeletons of birds in a cage hanging under an eave. The entire place is in the zone of fire, and it has been tremendously bombarded throughout the war. Nevertheless, some houses still stand, and seventeen civilians-seven men and ten women-insist on remaining there. I talked to one fat old woman, who contended that there was no danger. A few minutes later a shell fell within a hundred yards of her, and it might just as well have fallen on the top Of her coiffe, to prove finally to her the noble reasonableness of war and the reality of the German necessity for expansion.

The village church was laid low. In the roof two thin arches of the groining remain, marvellously. One remembers this freak of balance - and a few poor flowers on the altar. Mass is celebrated in that church every Sunday morning. We spoke with the curé, an extremely emaciated priest of middle age; he wore the Legion of Honour. We took to the trenches again, having in the interval been protected by several acres of ruined masonry. About this point geography seemed to end for me I was in a maze of burrowing, from which the hot sun could be felt but not seen. I saw stencilled signs, such as "Tranchée de repli," and signs containing numbers. I saw a sign over a door: "Guetteur de jour et de nuit" - watcher by day and by night.

“Anybody in there?"

“Certainly." The door was opened. In the gloom a pale man stood rather like a ghost, almost as disconcerting as a ghost, watching. He ignored us, and kept on watching.

Then through a hole I had a glimpse of an abandoned road, where no man might live, and beyond it a vast wire entanglement. Then we curved, and I was in an open place, a sort of redoubt contrived out of little homes and cattle stables. I heard irregular rifle-fire close by, but I could not see who was firing I was shown the machine-gun chamber, and the blind which hides the aperture for the muzzle was lifted, but only momentarily. I was shown, too, the deep underground refuges to which every body takes in case of a heavy bombardment. Then we were in the men's quarters, in houses very well protected by advance walls to the north, and at length we saw some groups of men.

"Bon jour, Les poilus!"

This from the Commandant himself, with jolity. The Commandant had a wonderful smile, which showed bright teeth, and his gestures were almost as quick as those of his Lieutenant, whom the regiment had christened "The Electric Man."

The soldiers saluted. This salute was so proud, so eager, that it might have brought tears to the eyes. The soldiers stood up very straight, but not at all stiffly. I noticed one man, because I could not notice them all. He threw his head back, and slightly to one side, and his brown beard stuck out. His eyes sparkled. Every muscle was taut. He seemed to be saying, "My Commandant, I know my worth; I am utterly yours - you won't get anything better." A young officer said to me that these men had in them a wild beast and an angel. It was a good saying, and I wished I had thought of it myself. This regiment had been in this village since the autumn. It had declined to be relieved. It seemed absolutely fresh.

One hears that individual valour is about the same in all armies - everywhere very high. Events appear to have justified the assertion. German valour is astounding. I have not seen any German regiment, but I do not believe that there are in any German regiment any men equal to these men. After all, ideas must count, and these men know that they are defending an outraged country, while the finest German soldier knows that he is outraging it.

The regiment was relatively very comfortable. It had plenty of room. It had made a little garden, with little terra-cotta statues. It possessed also a gymnasium ground, where we witnessed some excellent high jumping; and-more surprising - a theatre, with stage, dressing-room, and women's costumes.

The summit. of our excitement was attained when we were led into the first-line trench.

"Is this really the first line trench ?”

"It is."

Well, the first-line trench, very remarkably swept and dusted and spotless - as were all the trenches beyond the communication trench-was not much like a trench. It was like a long wooden gallery. Its sides were of wood, its ceiling was of wood, its floor was of wood. The carpentry, though not expert, was quite neat; and we were told that not a single engineer had ever been in the position, which, nevertheless, is reckoned to be one of the most ingenious on the whole front. The gallery is rather dark, because it is lighted only by the loop-holes. These loop-holes are about eight inches square, and more than eight inches deep, because they must, of course, penetrate the outer earthwork. A couple of inches from the bottom a strong wire is fixed across them. At night the soldier puts his gun under this wire, so that he may not fire too high.

The loop-holes are probably less than a yard apart, allowing enough space in front of each for a man to move com- fortably. Beneath the loop-holes runs a wooden platform for the men to stand on. Behind the loop-holes, in the ceiling, are large hooks to hang guns on. Many of the loop-holes are labelled with men 5 names, written in a good engrossing hand; and between the loop-holes, and level with them, are pinned coloured postcards and photographs of women, girls, and children. Tucked conveniently away in zinc cases underground are found zinc receptacles for stores of cartridges, powders to be used against gas, grenades, and matches.

One gazes through a loop-hole. Occasional firing can be heard, but it is not in the immediate vicinity. Indeed, all the men we can see have stepped down from the platform in order to allow us to pass freely along it and inspect. Through the loop-hole can be distinguished a barbed-wire entanglement, then a little waste ground, then more barbed-wire entanglement (German), and then the German trenches, which are less than half a mile away, and which stretch round behind us in a semicircle.

"Do not look too long. They have very good glasses."

The hint is taken. It is singular to reflect that just as we are gazing privily at the Germans, so the Germans are gazing privily at us. A mere strip of level earth separates them from us, but that strip is impassable, save at night, when the Frenchmen often creep up to the German wire. There is a terrible air of permanency about the whole affair. Not only the passage of time produces this effect; the telephone-wire running along miles of communication-trench, the elaborateness of the fighting trenches, the established routine and regularity of existence - all these also contribute to it. But the air of permanency is fallacious. The Germans are in France.

Every day of slow preparation brings nearer the day when the Germans will not be in France. That is certain. An immense expectancy hangs over the land, enchanting it.

We leave the first-line trench; with regret. But we have been in it !

In the quarters of the Commandant, a farm-house at the back end of the village, champagne was served, admirable champagne. We stood round a long table, waiting till the dilatory should have arrived. The party had somehow grown. For example, the curé came, amid acclamations. He related how a Lieutenant had accosted him in front of some altar and asked whether he might be allowed to celebrate the Mass. "That depends," said the curé. "You cannot celebrate if you are not a priest. If you are, you can."

"I am a priest," said the Lieutenant. And he celebrated the Mass. Also the Intendant came, a grey-haired, dour, kind- faced man. The Intendant has charge of supplies, and he is cherished accordingly. And in addition to the Commandant, and the Electric Man, and our Staff Captains, there were sundry non-commissioned officers, and even privates.

“We were all equal.” The French Army is by far the most democratic institution I have ever seen. On our journeys the Staff' Captains and ourselves habitually ate with a sergeant and a corporal. The corporal was the son of a General. The sergeant was a man of business and a writer. His first words when he met me were in English: "Monsieur Bennett, I have read your books." One of our chauffeurs was a well-known printer who employs three hundred and fifty men-when there is peace. The relations between officers and men are simply unique. I never saw a greeting that was not exquisite. The officers were full of knowledge, decision, and appreciative kindliness. The men were bursting with eager devotion. This must count, perhaps even more than big guns.

The Commandant, of course, presided at the vin d'honneur. His glance and his smile, his latent energy, would have inspired devotion in a wooden block. Every glass touched every glass, an operation which entailed some three-score clinkings. And while we were drinking, one of the Staff Captains-the one whose English was the less perfect of the two- began to tell me of the career of the Commandant, in Algeria and else-where. Among other things, he had carried his wounded men on his own shoulders under fire from the field of battle to a place of safety. He was certainly under forty; he might have been under thirty-five.

Said the Staff Captain, ingenuously translating in his mind from French to English, and speaking With slow caution, as though picking his way among the chevaux de frise of the English language:

"There are-very beautiful pages-in his-military life."

He meant : "Il y a de tres belles pages dans sa carriere militaire."

Which is subtly not quite the same thing.

As we left the farm-house to regain the communication trench there was a fierce, loud noise like this: ZZZZZ ssss ZZZZ sssZZZZ. And then an explosion. The observer in the captive balloon had noticed unaccustomed activity in our village, and the consequences were coming. We saw yellow smoke rising just beyond the wall of the farmyard, about two hundred yards away. We received instructions to hurry to the trench. We had not gone fifty yards in the trench when there was another celestial confusion of S's and Z's. Imitating the officers, we bent low in the trench. The explosion followed.

"One, two, three, four, five," said a Captain. "One should not rise till one has counted five, because all the bits have not fallen. If it is a big shell, count ten."

We tiptoed and glanced over the edge of the trench. Yellow smoke was rising at a distance of about three lawn-tennis courts.

“With some of their big shells," said the Captain, "You can hear nothing until it is too late, for the reason that the shell travels more quickly than the sound of it. The sounds reach your ears in inverse order - if you are alive."

A moment later a third shell dropped in the same plot of ground.

And even a mile and a half off, at the other end of the communication trench, when the automobiles emerged from their shelter into the view of the captive balloon, the officers feared for the automobiles, and we fled very swiftly.

We had been to the very front of the front, and it was the most cheerful, confident, high-spirited place I had seen in France, or in England either.


book cover

part 2