- From the book
- 'Over There'
- by Arnold Bennett
- Methuen & Co. Ltd. London 1915
an American Journalist in the French Trenches
I have before referred to the apparent vagueness and casualness of war on its present scarcely conceivable scale. When you are with a Staff officer, you see almost everything. I doubt not that certain matters are hidden from you; but, broadly speaking, you do see all that is to be seen. Into the mind of the General, which conceals the strategy that is to make history, of course you cannot peer. The General is full of interesting talk about the past and about the present, but about the future he breathes no word. If he is near the centre of the front he will tell you blandly, in answer to your question, that a great movement may not improbably be expected at the wings. If he is at either of the wings he will tell you blandly that a great movement may not improbably be expected at the centre. You are not disappointed at his attitude, because you feel when putting them that such questions as yours deserve such answers as his. But you are assuredly disappointed at not being able to comprehend even the present what is going on around you, under your eyes, deafening your ears.
For example, I hear the sound of guns. I do not mean the general sound of guns, which is practically continuous round the horizon, but the particular sound of some specific group of guns. I ask about them. Sometimes even Staff officers may hesitate before deciding whether they are enemy guns or French guns. As a rule, the civilian distinguishes an enemy shot by the sizzling, a frightening sound of the projectile as it rushes through the air towards him; whereas the French projectile, rushing away from him, is out of hearing before the noise of the gun's explosion has left his ears. But I may be almost equidistant between a group of German and a group of French guns.
When I have learnt what the guns are and their calibre, and, perhaps, even their approximate situation on the large-scale Staff map, I am not much nearer the realisation of them. Actually to find them might be half a day's work, and when I have found them I have simply found several pieces of mechanism each hidden in a kind of hut, functioning quite privately and disconnectedly by the aid of a few perspiring men. The affair is not like shooting at anything. A polished missile is shoved into the gun. A horrid bang - the missile has disappeared, has simply gone. Where it has gone, what it has done, nobody in the hut seems to care. There is a telephone close by, but only numbers and formula-and perhaps an occasional rebuke - come out of the telephone, in response to which the perspiring men make minute adjustments in the gun or in the next missile.
Of the target I am absolutely ignorant, and so are the perspiring men. I am free to go forth and look for the target. It is pointed out to me. It may be a building or a group of buildings; it may be something else. At best, it is nothing but a distant spot on a highly complex countryside. I see a faint puff of smoke, seemingly as harmless as a feather momentarily floating. And I think: Can any reasonable person expect that those men with that noisy contrivance in the enclosed hut away back shall plant a mass of metal into that far-off tiny red patch of masonry lost in the vast landscape? And, even if by chance they do, for what reason has that particular patch been selected? What influence could its destruction have on the mighty course of the struggle ?
Thus it is that war seems vague and casual, because a mere fragment of it defeats the imagination, and the bits of even the fragment cannot be fitted together. Why, I have stood in the first-line trench itself and heard a fusillade all round me, and yet have seen nothing and understood nothing of the action!
It is the same with the movements of troops. For example, I slept in a small town behind the front, and I was wakened up - not, as often, by an aeroplane - but by a tremendous shaking and throbbing of the hotel. This went on for a long time, from just after dawn till about six o'clock, when it stopped, only to recommence after a few minutes. I got up, and found that, in addition to the hotel, the whole town was shaking and throbbing. A regiment was passing through it in auto-buses. Each auto-bus held about thirty men, and the vehicles rattled after one another at a distance of at most thirty yards. The auto-buses were painted the colour of battleships, and were absolutely uniform except that some had permanent and some only temporary roofs, and some had mica windows and some only holes in the sides. All carried the same number of soldiers, and in all the rifles were stacked in precisely the same fashion. When one auto-bus stopped, all stopped, and the soldiers waved and smiled to girls at windows and in the street. The entire town had begun its day. No matter how early you arise in these towns, the town has always begun its day.
The soldiers in their pale-blue uniforms were young, very, high-spirited, and very dusty; their moustaches, hair, and ears were noticeably coated with dust. Evidently they had been travelling for hours. The auto-buses kept appearing out of the sun-shot dust-cloud at the end of the town, and disappearing round the curve by the Town Hall. Occasionally an officer's automobile, or a car with a couple of nurses, would intervene momentarily; and then more and more and more auto- buses, and still more. The impression given is that the entire French Army is passing through the town. The rattle and the throbbing and the shaking get on my nerves. At last come two breakdown-vans, and the pro-cession is finished. I cannot believe that it is really finished, but it is; and the silence is incredible.
Well, I have seen only a couple of regiments go by. Out of the hundreds of regiments in the French Army, just two! But whence they had come, what they had done, whither they were travelling, what they were intended to do-nobody could tell me. They had an air as casual and vague and aimless as a flight of birds across a landscape.
There were more picturesque pilgrim-ages than that. One of the most picturesque and touching spectacles I saw at the front was the march of a regiment of the line into another little country town on a very fine summer morning. First came the regimental band The brass instruments were tarnished; the musicians had all sorts of paper packages tied to their knapsacks. Besides being musicians they were real soldiers, in war-stained uniforms. They marched with an air of fatigue. But the tune they played was bright enough. Followed some cyclists, keeping pace with the marchers. Then an officer on a horse. Then companies of the regiment. The stocks of many of the rifles were wrapped in dirty rags. Every man carried all that was his in the campaign, including a pair of field-glasses. Every man was piled up with impedimenta- broken, torn, soiled and cobbled impedimenta. And every man was very, very tired.
A young officer on foot could scarcely walk. He moved in a kind of trance, and each step was difficult. He may have been half asleep. At intervals a triangular sign was borne aloft, red, blue, or some other tint. These signs indicated the positions of the different companies in the trenches. Needless to say that the regiment had come during the night from a long spell of the trenches - but what trenches? Then came the gorgeous regimental colours, and every soldier in the street saluted them, and every civilian raised his hat.
I noticed more and more that the men were exhausted, were at the limit of their endurance. Then passed a group which was quite fresh. A Red Cross detachment! No doubt they had had very little to do. After them a few horses, grey and white; and then field-kitchens and equipment-carts. And then a machine-gun on a horse's back; others in carts; pack- mules with ammunition-boxes; several more machine-gun sections. And then more field-kitchens. In one of these the next meal was actually preparing, and steam rose from under a great iron lid. On every cart was a spare wheel for emergencies; the hub of every wheel was plaited round with straw; the harness was partly of leather and partly of rope ending in iron hooks. Later came a long Red Cross van, and after it another field-kitchen encumbered with bags and raw meat and strange oddments, and through the interstices of the pile, creeping among bags and raw meat, steam gently mounted, for a meal was maturing in that perambulating kitchen also. Lastly, came a cart full of stretchers and field- hospital apparatus. The regiment, its music still faintly audible, had gone by-self-contained, self-supporting. There was no showiness of a review, but the normal functioning, the actual dailiness, of a line regiment as it lives strenuously in the midst of war.
My desire was that the young officer in a trance should find a good bed instantly. The whole thing was fine; it was pathetic; and, above all, it was mysterious. What was the part of that regiment in the gigantic tactics of Joffre ?
However, after a short experience at the front one realises that though the conduct of the campaign may be mysterious, it is neither vague nor casual. I remember penetrating through a large factory into a small village which constituted one of the latest French conquests. An officer who had seen the spot just after it was taken, and before it was "organised," described to me the appearance of the men with their sunken eyes and blackened skins on the day of victory. They were all very cheerful when I saw them; but how alert, how apprehensive, how watchful ! I felt that I was in a place where anything might happen at any moment. The village and the factory were a maze of trenches, redoubts, caves, stairs up and stairs down, machine-guns, barbed wire, enfilading devices were all ready. When we climbed to an attic-floor to look at the German positions, which were not fifty yards away, the Commandant was in a fever till we came down again, lest the Germans might spy us and shell his soldiers. He did not so much mind them shelling us, but he objected to them shelling his men. We came down the damaged stairs in safety.
A way had been knocked longitudinally through a whole row of cottages. We went along this-it was a lane of watchful figures-and then it was whispered to us not to talk, for the Germans might hear! And we peered into mines and burrowed and crawled. We disappeared into long subterranean passages and emerged among a lot of soldiers gaily eating as they stood. Close by were a group of men practising with hand-grenades made harmless for the occasion. I followed the Commandant round a corner, and we gazed at I forget what. "Don't stay here," said the Commandant. I moved away. A second after I had moved a bullet struck the wall where I had been standing. The entire atmosphere of the place, with its imminent sense of danger from an invisible enemy and fierce expectation of damaging that enemy, brought home to me the grand essential truth of the front, namely, that the antagonists are continually at grips, like wrestlers, and straining every muscle to obtain the slightest advantage. "Casual" would be the very last adjective to apply to those activities.
Once, after a roundabout tour on foot, one of the Staff Captains ordered an automobile to meet us at the end of a certain road. Part of this road was exposed to German artillery four or five miles off. No sooner had the car come down the road than we heard the fearsome sizzling of an approaching shell. We saw the shell burst before the sound of the sizzling had ceased. Then came the roar of the explosion. The shell was a 77-mm. high-explosive. It fell out of nowhere on the road. The German artillery methodically searched the exposed portion of the road for about half an hour. The shells dropped on it or close by it at intervals of two minutes, and they were planted at even distances of about a hundred yards up and down the slope. I watched the operation from a dug-out close by. It was an exact and a rather terrifying operation. It showed that the invisible Germans were letting nothing whatever go by; but it did seem to me to be a fine waste of ammunition, and a very stupid application of a scientific ideal ; for while shelling it the Germans must have noticed that there was nothing at all on the road. We naturally decided not to go up that road in the car, but to skulk through a wood and meet the car in a place of safety. The car had, sooner or later, to go up the road, because there was not another road. The Commandant who was with us was a very seasoned officer, and he regarded all military duties as absolute duties. The car must return along that road. Therefore, let it go. The fact that it was a car serving solely for the convenience of civilians did not influence him. It was a military car, driven by a soldier.
"You may as well go at once," he said to the chauffeur. "We will assist at your agony. What do you say?" he laughingly questioned a subordinate.
"Ah! My Commandant," said the junior officer cautiously, "when it is a question of the service
We should naturally have protested against the chauffeur adventuring upon the shell-swept road for our convenience; but he was diplomatic enough to postpone the journey. After a time the shelling ceased, and he passed in safety. He told us when we met him later for the drive home that there were five large holes in the road.
On another occasion, when we were tramping through interminable communication-trenches on a slope, a single rash exposure of two of our figures above the parapet of the trench drew down upon us a bombardment of high-explosive. For myself, I was completely exhausted by the excursion, which was nearing its end, and also I was faint from hunger. But immediately the horrible sizzling sound overhead and an explosion just in front made it plain to me that we were to suffer for a moment's indiscretion, I felt neither fatigue nor hunger. The searching shells fell nearer to us. We ran in couples, with a fair distance between each couple, according to instructions, along the rough, sinuous inequalities of the deep trench. After each visitation we had to lie still and count five till all the fragments of shell had come to rest. At last a shell seemed to drop right upon me. The earth shook under me. My eyes and nose were affected by the fumes of the explosion. But the shell had not dropped right upon me. It had dropped a few yards to the left. A trench is a wonderful contrivance. Immediately afterwards, a friend picked up in the trench one of the warm shots of the charge. It was a many- facetted ball, beautifully made, and calculated to produce the maximum wound. This was the last shell to fall. We were safe. But we realised once again, and more profoundly, that there is nothing casual in the conduct of war.
At no place was the continuously intense character of the struggle - like that of two leviathan wrestlers ever straining their hardest at grips-more effectually brought home to me than in the region known now familiarly to the whole world as Notre Dame de Lorette, from the little chapel that stood on one part of it. An exceedingly ugly little chapel it was, according to the picture postcards. There are thousands of widows and orphans wearing black and regretting the past and trembling about the future to-day simply because the invaders had to be made to give up that religious edifice which they had turned to other uses.
The high, thickly wooded land behind the front was very elaborately organised for living either above ground or underground, according to the circumstances of the day. To describe the organisation would be impolitic. But it included every dodge. And the stores, entombed in safety, comprised all things. I remember, for example, stacks of hundreds of lamp-chimneys. Naught lacked to the completeness of the scene of war. There were even prisoners. I saw two young Germans under guard in a cabin. They said that they had got lost in the labyrinth of trenches, and taken a wrong turning. And I believe they had. One was a Red Cross man-probably a medical student before, with wine and song and boastings, he joined his Gott, his Kaiser, and his comrades in the great mission of civilisation across Belgium. He was dusty and tired, and he looked gloomily at the earthen floor of the cabin. Nevertheless, he had a good carriage and a passably intelligent face, and he was rather handsome. I sympathised with this youth, and I do not think that he was glad to be a prisoner. Some people can go and stare at prisoners, and wreak an idle curiosity upon them. I cannot. A glance, rather surreptitious, and I must walk away. Their humiliation humiliates me, even be they Prussians of the most offensive variety.
A little later we saw another prisoner being brought in-a miserable, tuberculous youth with a nervous trick of the face, thin, very dirty, enfeebled, worn out; his uniform torn, stained, bullet-pierced, and threadbare. Somebody had given him a large hunk of bread, which he had put within the lining of his tunic; it bulged out in front like a paunch. An officer stopped to question him, and while the cross-examination was proceeding a curio-hunting soldier came up behind and Cut a button off the tunic. We learnt that the lad was twenty-one years of age, and that he had been called up in December 1914. Before assisting in the conquest of France he was employed in a paper factory. He tried to exhibit gloom, but it was impossible for him quite to conceal his satisfaction in the fact that for him the fighting was over. The wretched boy had had just about enough of world-dominion, and he was ready to let the Hohenzollerns and Junkers finish up the enterprise as best they could without his aid. No doubt, some woman was his mother. It appeared to me that he could not live long, and that the woman in question might never see him again. But every ideal must have its victims; and bereavement, which counts chief among the well-known advantageous moral disciplines of war, is, of course, good for a woman's soul. Besides, that woman would be convinced that her son died gloriously in defence of an attacked Fatherland.
When we had got clear of prisoners and of the innumerable minor tools of war, we Came to something essential - namely, a map. This map, which was shown to us rather casually in the middle of a wood, was a very big map, and by means of different coloured chalks it displayed the ground taken from the Germans month by month. The yellow line showed the advance up to May; the blue line showed the further advance up to June; and fresh marks in red showed graphically a further wresting which had occurred only in the previous night. The blue line was like the mark of a tide on a chart; in certain places it had nearly surrounded a German position, and shortly the Germans would have to retire from that position or be cut off. Famous names abounded on that map-such as Souchez, Ablain St.. Nazaire, St. Ebi, Fonds de Buval. Being on a very large scale, the map covered a comparatively small section of the front; but, so far as it went, it was a map to be gazed upon with legitimate pride.
The officers regarded it proudly. Eagerly they indicated where the main pressures were, and where new pressures would come later. Their very muscles seemed to be strained in the ardour of their terrific intention to push out and destroy the invader. While admitting, as all the officers I met admitted, the great military qualities of the enemy, they held towards him a more definitely contemptuous attitude than I could discover elsewhere. " When the Boches attack us," said one of them, " we drive them back to their trench, and we take that trench. Thus we advance." But, for them, there was Boche and Boche. It was the Bavarians whom they most respected. They deemed the Prussians markedly inferior as fighters to the Bavarians. The Prussians would not hold firm when seriously menaced. The Prussians, in a word, would not "stick it." Such was the unanimous verdict here.
Out beyond the wood, on the hillside, in the communication-trenches and other trenches, we were enabled to comprehend the true significance of that phrase uttered so carelessly by newspaper-readers - Notre Dame de Lorette. The whole of the ground was in heaps. There was no spot, literally, on which a shell had not burst. Vegetation was quite at an end. The shells seemed to have sterilised the earth. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of any sort, not a root. Even the rankest weeds refused to sprout in the perfect desolation. And this was the incomparable soil of France. The trenches meandered for miles through the pitted brown slopes, and nothing could be seen from them but vast encumbrances of barbed wire. Knotted metal heaped on the unyielding earth!
The solitude of the communication-trenches was appalling, and the continuous roar of the French seventy-fives over our heads did not alleviate it. In the other trenches, however, was much humanity, some of it sleeping in deep, obscure retreats, but most of it acutely alive and interested in everything. A Captain with a shabby uniform and a strong Southern accent told us how on March 9th he and his men defended their trench in water up to the waist and lumps of ice in it knocking against their bodies.
"I was summoned to surrender," he laughed. "I did not surrender. We had twenty killed and twenty-four with frostbitten feet as a result of that affair. Yes - March 9th." March 9th, 1915, obviously divided that officer's life into two parts, and not unnaturally!
A little further on we might hear an officer speaking somewhat ardently into a telephone: "What are they doing with that gun? They are shooting all over the shop. Tell them exactly.
Still a little further on, and another officer would lead us to a spot where we could get glimpses of the plain. What a plain! Pit-heads, superb vegetation, and ruined villages-tragic villages illustrating the glories and the transcendent common- sense of war and invasion. That place over there is Souchez - familiar in all mouths from Arkansas to Moscow for six months past. What an object! Look at St. Ebi! Look at Angres! Look at Neuville St. Vaast! And look at Ablain St. Nazaire, the nearest of all! The village of Ablain St. Nazaire seems to consist now chiefly of exposed and blackened rafters; what is left of the church sticks up precisely like a little bleached bone. A vision horrible and incredible in the immense luxuriance of the plain! The French have got Ablain St. Nazaire. We may go to Ablain St. Nazaire ourselves if we will accept the risks of shelling. Soldiers were seriously wounded there on that very day, for we saw them being carried therefrom on stretchers towards the motor-ambulance and the hospital.
After more walking of a very circuitous nature, I noticed a few bricks in the monotonous expanse of dwarf earthmounds made by shells.
Hello !" I said. "Was there a cottage here? "
No! What I had discovered was the illustrious chapel of Notre Dame de Lorette.
Then we were in a German trench which the French had taken and transformed into one of their own trenches by turning its face. It had a more massive air than the average French trench, and its cellarage, if I may use this civilian word, was deeper than that of any French trench. The officers said that often a German trench was taken before the men resting in those profound sleeping-holes could get to the surface, and that therefore they only emerged in order to be killed or captured.
After more heavy trudging we came to trenches abandoned by the Germans and not employed by the French, as the front had moved far beyond them. The sides were dilapidated. Old shirts, bits of uniform, ends of straps, damaged field- glass cases, broken rifles, useless grenades lay all about. Here and there was a puddle of greenish water. Millions of flies, many of a sinister bright burnished green, were busily swarming. The forelornness of these trenches was heartrending. It was the most dreadful thing that I saw at the front, surpassing the forlornness of any destroyed village whatsoever. And at intervals in the ghastly residue of war arose a smell unlike any other smell. A leg could be seen sticking out of the side of the trench. We smelt a number of these smells, and saw a number of these legs. Each leg was a fine leg, well-clad, and superbly shod in almost new boots with nail-protected soles. Each leg was a human leg attached to a human body, and at the other end of the body was presumably a face crushed in the earth. Two strokes with a pick, and the corpses might have been excavated and decently interred. But not one had been touched. Buried in frenzied haste by amateur, imperilled grave-diggers with a military purpose, these dead men decayed at leisure amid the scrap-heap, the cess-pit, the infernal squalor which once had been a neat, clean, scientific German earthwork, and which still earlier had been part of a fair countryside. The French had more urgent jobs on hand than the sepulture of these victims of a caste and an ambition. So they liquefied into corruption in their everlasting boots, proving that there is nothing like leather. They were a symbol. With alacrity we left them to get forward to the alert, straining life of war.
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