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

an American Journalist in the British Trenches



You should imagine a large plain - but not an empty plain, nor a plain entirely without hills. There are a few hills, including at least one very fine eminence (an agreeable old town on the top), with excellent views of the expanse. The expanse is considerably diversified. In the first place it is very well wooded; in the second place it is very well cultivated; and in the third place it is by no means uninhabited. Villages abound in it; and small market towns are not far off each other. These places are connected by plenty of roads (often paved) and canals, and by quite an average mileage of railways. See the plain from above, and the chief effect is one of trees. The rounded tops of trees everywhere obscure the view, and out of them church-towers stick up; other architecture is only glimpsed. The general tints are green and grey, and the sky as a rule is grey to match. Finally, the difference between Northern France and Southern Belgium is marked only by the language of shop and cafe' signs; in most respects the two sections of the Front resemble each other with extraordinary exactitude.

The British occupation - which is marked of course by high and impressive cordiality - is at once superficially striking and subtly profound.

"What do you call your dog ?" I asked a ragamuffin who was playing with a nice little terrier in a village street where we ate an al fresco meal of jam-sandwiches with a motor-car for a buffet.

He answered shyly, but with pride: "Tommy."

The whole countryside is criss-crossed with field telegraph and telephone wires. Still more spectacular, everywhere there are traffic directions. And these directions are very large and very curt. "Motor-lorries dead slow," you see in immense characters in the midst of the foreign scene. And at all the awkward street corners in the towns a soldier directs the traffic. Not merely in the towns, but in many and many a rural road you come across a rival of the Strand. For the traffic is tremendous, and it is almost all mechanical transport. You cannot go far without encountering, not one or two, but dozens and scores of motor-lorries, which, after the leviathan manner of motor-lorries, occupy as much of the road as they can. When a string of these gets mixed up with motor-cars, a few despatch-riders on motor-cycles, a peasant's cart, and a company on the march, the result easily surpasses Piccadilly Circus just before the curtains are rising in West End theatres. Blocks may and do occur at any moment. Out of a peaceful rustic solitude you may run round a curve straight into a block. The motor-lorries constitute the difficulty, not always because they are a size too large for the country, but sometimes because of the human nature of Tommies. The rule is that on each motor-lorry two Tommies shall ride in front and one behind. The solitary one behind is cut off from mankind, and accordingly his gregarious instinct not infrequently makes him nip on to the front seat in search of companionship. When he is established there impatient traffic in the rear may screech and roar in vain for a pathway; nothing is so deaf as a motor-lorry. The situation has no disadvantage for the trio in front of the motor-lorry until a Staff officer's car happens to be inconvenienced. Then, when the Staff officer does get level, there is a short, sharp scene, a dead silence, and the offender creeps back, a stricken sinner, to his proper post.

The encumbered and busy roads, and the towns crammed with vehicles and vibrating with military activity, produce upon you such an overwhelming impression of a vast and complex organisation that your thought rushes instantly to the supreme controller of that organisation, the man ultimately responsible for all of it. He does not make himself invisible. It becomes known that he will see you at a certain hour. You arrive a few minutes before that hour. The building is spacious, and its Gallic aspect is intensified by the pure Anglo-Saxonism of its terrific inhabitants. In a large outer office you are presented to the various brains of the Expeditionary Force, all members of the General Staff-famous names among them, celebrities, specialists, illustrious with long renown. They walk in and out, and they sit smoking and chatting, as if none of them was anybody in particular. And as a fact, you find it a little difficult to appreciate them at their lawful worth, because you are aware that in the next room, behind th6se double doors, is he at whose nod the greatest among them tremble.

"The Commander-in-Chief will see you." You go forward, and I defy you not to be daunted.

The inner chamber has been a drawing-room. It still is partially a drawing-room. The silk panels on the walls have remained, and in one corner a grand piano hngers. In the middle is a plain table bearing a map on a huge scale. There he is, the legendary figure. You at last have proof that he exists. He comes towards the door to meet you. A thick-set man, not tall, with small hands and feet, and finger-nails full of character. He has a short white moustache, and very light- coloured eyes set in a ruddy complexion. His chin is noticeable. He is not a bit dandiacal. He speaks quietly and grimly and reflectively. He is a preoccupied man. He walks a little to and fro, pausing between his short, sparse sentences. When he talks of the Germans he has a way of settling his head and neck with: a slight defiant shake well between his shoulders. I have seen the gesture in experienced boxers and in men of business when openly or implicitly challenged. It is just as if he had said: "Wait a bit! I shall get even with that lot-and let no one imagine the contrary! " From the personality of the man there emanates all the time a pugnacious and fierce doggedness. After he has formally welcomed you into the meshes of his intimidating organisation, and made a few general observations, he says, in a new tone: "Well," and you depart. And as you pass out of the building the thought in your mind is: I have seen him !

After the Commander-in-Chief there are two other outstanding and separately existing notabilities in connection with the General Staff. One is the Quarter-master-General, who superintends the supply of all material; and the other is the Adjutant-General, who superintends the supply of men. With the latter is that formidable instrument of authority, the Grand Provost Marshal, who super-intends behaviour and has the power of life and death. Each of these has his Staff, and each is housed similarly to the Commander-in-Chief. Then each Army (for there is more than one army functioning as a distinct entity) each Army has its Commander with his Staff. And each Corps of each Army has its Commander with his Staff. And each Division of each Corps of each Army has its Commander with his Staff. And each Brigade of each Division of each Corps of each Army has its Commander with his Staff; but though I met several Brigadier-Generals, I never saw one at his head-quarters with his Staff. I somehow could not penetrate lower than the entity of a Division. I lunched, had tea, and dined at the headquarters of various of these Staffs, with a General as host. They were all admirably housed, their outward circumstances showed a marked similarity. The most memorable thing about them was their unending industry.

"You have a beautiful garden," I said to one General.

"Yes," he said. "I have never been into it."

He told me that he rose at six and went to bed at midnight.

As soon as coffee is over after dinner, and before cigars are over, the General will say: "I don't wish to seem inhospitable, but…"

And a few minutes later you may see a large lighted limousine moving off into the night, bearing Staff officers to their offices for the evening Sťance of work which ends at twelve o'clock or thereabouts.

The complexity and volume of work which goes on at even a Divisional Headquarters, having dominion over about twenty thousand full-grown males, may be imagined; and that the bulk of such work is of a business nature, including much tiresome routine, is certain. Of the strictly military labours of Headquarters, that which most agreeably strikes the civilian is the photography and the map-work. I saw thousands of maps. I inspected thick files of maps all showing the same square of country under different military conditions at different dates. And I learnt that special maps are regularly circulated among all field officers.

The fitting-out and repairing sheds of the Royal Flying Corps were superb and complete constructions, at once practical and very elegant. I visited them in the midst of a storm. The equipment was prodigious; the output was prodigious; the organisation was scientific; and the staff was both congenial and impressive.

When one sees these birdcages full of birds and comprehends the spirit of one is less surprised at the unimaginable feats which are daily performed over there in the sky northwards and eastwards. I saw a man who flew over Ghent twice a week with the regularity of a train. He had never been seriously hit. These airmen have a curious physical advantage. The noise of their own engine, it is said, prevents them from hearing the explosions of the shrapnel aimed at them.

The British soldier in France and Flanders is not a self-supporting body. He needs support, and a great deal of support. I once saw his day's rations set forth on a tray, and it seemed to me that I could not have consumed them in a week of good appetite. The round of meat is flanked by plenteous bacon, jam, cheese, and bread. In addition there are vegetables, tea, sugar, salt, and condiments, with occasional butter; and once a week come two ounces of tobacco and a box of matches for each ounce. But the formidable item is the meat. And then the British soldier wants more than food; he wants, for instance, fuel, letters, cleanliness; he wants clothing, and all the innumerable instruments and implements of war. He wants regularly, and all the time.

Hence you have to imagine wide steady streams of all manner of things converging upon Northern France not only from Britain but from round about the globe. The force of an imperative demand draws them powerfully in, night and day, as a magnet might. It is impossible to trace exactly either the direction or the separate constituents of these great streams of necessaries. But it is possible to catch them, or at any rate one of them, at the most interesting point of its course : the point at which the stream, made up of many diverging streams, divides suddenly and becomes many streams again.

That point is the rail-head. A military rail-head is merely an ordinary average little railway station, with a spacious yard. There is nothing superficially romantic about it. It does not even mark the end of a line of railway. I have in mind one which served as the Head-quarters of a Divisional Supply Column. The organism served just one of the very many divisions in France and Flanders. It was under the command of' a Major. This Major, though of course in khaki and employing the same language and general code as a regimental Major, was not a bit like a regimental Major. He was no more like a regimental Major than I am myself. He had a different mentality, outlook and preoccupation. He was a man in business. He received orders - I use the word in the business sense - from the Brigades of the Division; and those orders, ever varying, had to be executed and delivered within thirty-six hours. Quite probably he had never seen a trench; I should be neither surprised nor pained to learn that he could only hit a haystack with a revolver by throwing the revolver at the haystack. His subordinates resembled him. Strategy, artillery-mathematics, the dash of infantry charges- these matters were not a bit in their line. Nevertheless, when you read in a despatch that during a prolonged action supplies went regularly up to the Front under heavy fire, you may guess that fortitude and courage are considerably in their line. These officers think about their arriving trains, and about emptying them in the shortest space of time; and they think about their motor-lorries and the condition thereof; and they pass their lives in checking lists and in giving receipts for things and taking receipts for things. Their honour lay in a receipt. And all this is the very basis of war.

My Major handled everything required for his division except water and ammunition. He would have a train full of mutifarious provender, and another train full of miscellanies-from field-guns to field-kitchens - with letters from wives and sweethearts in between. And all these things came to him up the line of rail way out of the sea simply because he asked for them and was ready to give a receipt for them. He was not concerned with the magic underlying their appearance at his little rail-head; he only cared about the train being on time, and the lorries being in first-class running order.

He sprayed out in beneficent streams from his rail-head tons of stuff every day. Every day he sent out two hundred and eighty bags of postal matter to the men beyond. The polish on the metallic portions of his numerous motor-lorries was uncanny. You might lift a bonnet and see the bright parts of the engine glittering like the brass of a yacht. Dandyism of the Army Service Corps!

An important part of the organism of the rail-head is the Railway Construction Section Train. Lines may have to be doubled. The Railway Construction Section Train doubles them; it will make new railways at the rate of several miles a day; it is self-contained, being simultaneously a depot, a workshop, and a barracks.

Driving along a road you are liable to see rough signs nailed to trees, with such words on them as "Forage", "Groceries”, "Meat", 'Bread" etc. Wait a little, and you may watch the Divisional Supply at a further stage. A stream of motor-lorries- one of the streams sprayed out from the rail-head - will halt at those trees and unload, and the stuff which they unload will disappear like a dream and an illusion. One moment the meat and the bread and all the succulences are there by the roadside, each by its proper tree, and The next they are gone, spirited away to camps and billets and trenches. Proceed further, and you may have the luck to see the mutton which was frozen in New Zealand sizzling in an earth-oven in a field christened by the soldiers with some such name as Hampstead Heath. The roasted mutton is a very fine and a very appetising sight. But what quantities of it! And what an antique way of cooking!

As regards the non-edible supplies, the engineer's park will stir your imagination. You can discern every device in connection with warfare. (To describe them might be indiscreet - it would assuredly be too lengthy). Telephones such as certainly you have never seen! And helmets such as you have never seen! Indeed, everything that a soldier in full work can require, except ammunition.

The ammunition-train in process of being unloaded is a fearsome affair. You may see all conceivable ammunition, from rifle cartridges to a shell whose weight is liable to break through the floors of lorries, all on one train. And not merely ammunition, but a thousand pyrotechnical and other devices; and varied bombs. An officer unscrews a cap on a metal contraption, and throws it down, and it begins to fizz away in the most disconcerting manner. And you feel that all these shells, all these other devices, are simply straining to go off. They are like things secretly and terribly alive, waiting the tiny gesture which will set them free. Officers, handling destruction with the nonchalance of a woman handling a hat, may say what they like - the ammunition train is to my mind an unsafe neighbour. And the thought of all the sheer brain-power which has gone to the invention and perfecting of those propulsive and explosive machines causes you to wonder whether you yourself possess a brain at all.

You can find everything in the British lines except the British Army. The same is to be said of the French lines; but the in- discoverability of the British Army is relatively much more striking, by reason of the greater richness and complexity of the British auxiliary services. You see soldiers-you see soldiers everywhere; but the immense majority of them are obviously engaged in attending to the material needs of other soldiers, which other soldiers, the fighters, you do not see-or see only in tiny detachments or in single units.

Thus I went for a very long walk, up such hills and down such dales as the country can show, tramping with a General through exhausting communication-trenches, in order to discover two soldiers, an officer and his man; and even they were not actual fighters. The officer lived in a dug-out with a very fine telescope for sole companion. I was told that none but the General commanding had the right to take me to that dugout. It contained the officer's bed, the day's newspapers, the telescope, a few oddments hung on pegs pushed into the earthen walls, and, of equal importance with the telescope, a telephone. Occasionally the telephone faintly buzzed, and a very faint, indistinguishable murmur came out of it. But the orderly ignored this symptom, explaining that it only meant that somebody else was talking to somebody else. I had the impression of a mysterious underground life going on all around me. The officer's telescopic business was to keep an eye on a particular section of the German front, and report everything. The section of front comprised sundry features extremely well known by reputation to British newspaper readers. I must say that the reality of them was disappointing. The inevitable thought was : Is it possible that so much killing has been done for such trifling specks of earth?

The officer made clear all details to us; he described minutely the habits of the Germans as he knew them. But about his own habits not a word was said. He was not a human being-he was an observer, eternally spying through a small slit in the wall of the dug-out. What he thought about when he was not observing, whether his bed was hard, how he got his meals, whether he was bored, whether his letters came regularly, what his moods were, what was his real opinion of that dug-out as a regular home-these very interesting matters were not even approached by us. He was a short, mild officer, with a quiet voice. Still, after we had shaken hands on parting, the General, who had gone first, turned his bent head under the concealing leafage, and nodded and smiled with a quite particular cordial friendliness. "Good-afternoon, Blank," said the General to the officer, and the warm tone of his voice said: "You know don't you, - Blank - how much I appreciate you." It was a transient revelation. As, swallowed up in trenches, I trudged away from the lonely officer, the General, resuming his ordinary worldly tone, began to talk about London music-halls and Wish Wynne and other artistes.

Then on another occasion I actually saw at least twenty fighting men! They were not fighting, but they were pretending, under dangerous conditions, to fight. They had to practise the bombing of a German trench-with real bombs. The young officer in charge explained to us the different kinds of bombs. "It's all quite safe," he said casually, "until I take this pin out." And he took the pin out. We saw the little procession of men that were to do the bombing. We saw the trench, with its traverses, and we were shown just how it would be bombed, traverse by traverse. We saw also a "crater" which was to be bombed and stormed. And that was about all we did see. The rest was chiefly hearing, because we had to take shelter behind such slight eminences as a piece of ordinary waste ground can offer. Common wayfarers were kept out of harm by sentries. We were instructed to duck. We ducked. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang !-Bang! Then the mosquito-like whine of bits of projectile above our heads! Then we ventured to look over, and amid wisps of smoke the bombers were rushing a traverse. Strange to say, none of them was killed, or even wounded.

On still another occasion I saw a whole brigade, five or six thousand men, with their First Aid transport, and two Generals with implacable eyes watching them for faults. It was a fine, very picturesque display of Imperial militancy, but too marvellously spick-and-span to produce any illusion of war. So far as I was concerned, its chief use was to furnish a real conception of numbers. I calculated that if the whole British Army passed before my eyes at the same brisk rate as that solitary and splendid brigade, I should have to stare at it night and day for about three weeks, without surcease for meals. This calculation only increased my astonishment at the obstinate in-discoverability of the Army.

Once I did get the sensation of fighting men existing in bulk. It was at the baths of a new division-the New Army. I will mention in passing that the real enthusiasm of Generals concerning the qualities of the New Army was most moving-and enheartening.

The baths establishment was very British - much more British than any of those operating it perhaps imagined. Such a phenomenon could probably be seen on no other front. It had been contrived out of a fairly large factory. It was in charge of a quite young subaltern, no doubt anxious to go and fight, but condemned indefinitely to the functions of baths-keeper. In addition to being a baths-keeper this young subaltern was a laundry-manager; for when bathing the soldiers left their underclothing and took fresh. The laundry was very large; it employed numerous local women and girls at four francs a day. It had huge hot drying-rooms where the women and girls moved as though the temperature was sixty degrees instead of being over a hundred. All these women and girls were beautiful, all had charm, all were more or less ravishing- simply because for days we had been living in a harsh masculine world-a world of motor-lorries, razors, trousers, hob- nailed boots, maps, discipline, pure reason, and excessively few mirrors. An interesting item of the laundry was a glass- covered museum of lousy shirts, product of prolonged trench-life in the earlier part of the war, and held by experts to surpass all records of the kind!

The baths themselves were huge and simple-a series of gigantic steaming vats in which possibly a dozen men lathered themselves at once. Here was fighting humanity; you could see it in every gesture. The bathers, indeed, appeared to be more numerous than they in fact were. Two hundred and fifty could undress, bathe, and re-clothe themselves in an hour, and twelve hundred in a morning. Each man of course would be free to take as many unofficial baths, in tin receptacles and so on, as he could privately arrange for and as he felt inclined for. Companies of dirty men marching to the baths, and companies of conceitedly clean men marching from the baths, helped to strengthen the ever-growing suspicion that a great Army must be hidden somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, I still saw not the ultimate destination of all those streams of supply which I have described. I had however, noted a stream in the contrary direction-that is, westwards and southwards towards the Channel and England. You can first trace the beginnings of this stream under the sound of the guns (which you never see). A stretcher brought to a temporary shelter by men whose other profession is to play regimental music; a group of men bending over a form in the shelter; a glimpse of dressings and the appliances necessary for tying up an artery or some other absolutely urgent job. That shelter is called the Aid Post. From it the horizontal form goes to the Advanced Dressing Station, where more attention is given to it ; and thence to the Field Ambulance proper, where the case is really diagnosed and provisionally classed. By this time motor-ambulances have been much used; and the stream, which was a trickle at the Aid Post, has grown wider.

The next point is the Casualty Clearing Station. Casualty Clearing Stations are imposing affairs. Not until the horizontal form reaches them can an operation in the fu]l sense of the word be performed upon it. The Clearing Station that I saw could accommodate seven hundred cases, and had held nearer eight hundred. It was housed in an extensive public building. It employed seven surgeons, and I forget how many dressers. It had an abdominal ward, where cases were kept until they could take solid food; and a head ward; and an officers' ward; immense stores; a Church of England chapel; and a shoot down which mattresses with patients thereon could be slid in case of fire.

Nearly seven hundred operations had been performed in it during the war. Nevertheless, as the young Colonel in charge said to me: "The function of a Clearing Station is to clear. We keep the majority of the cases only a few hours." Thence the horizontal forms pass into Ambulance Trains. But besides Ambulance trains there are Ambulance barges, grand vessels flying the Union Jack and the Red Cross, with lifts, electric light, and an operating-table. They are towed by a tug to the coast through convenient canals.

You may catch the stream once more, and at its fullest, in the splendid hospitals at Boulogne. At Boulogne the hospital laundry work is such that it has overpowered the town and has to be sent to England. But even at Boulogne, where the most solid architecture, expensively transformed, gives an air of utter permanency to the hospitals, the watchword is still to clear, to pass the cases on. The next stage is the Hospital Ship, specially fitted out, waiting in the harbour for its complement. When the horizontal forms leave the ship they are in England; they are among us, and the great stream divides into many streams, just as at the rail-head at the other end the great stream of supply divides into many streams, and is lost.

Nor are men the only beings cared for. One of the strangest things I saw at Boulogne was a horse-hospital, consisting of a meadow of many acres. Those who imagine that horses are not used in modern war should see the thousands of horses tethered in that meadow. Many if not most of them were suffering from shell wounds, and the sufferers were rather human. I saw a horse operated on under chloroform. He refused to come to after the operation was over, and as I left he was being encouraged to do so by movements of the limbs to induce respiration. Impossible, after that, to think of him as a mere horse!

But before I left the British lines I did manage to glimpse the British Army, the mysterious sea into which all those streams of supply fell and were swallowed up, and from which trickled the hundreds of small runlets of wounded that converged into the mighty stream of pain at Boulogne. I passed by a number of wooden causeways over water-logged ground, and each causeway had the name of some London street, and at last I was stopped by a complicated wall of sandbags with many curves and involutions. To "dig in" on this particular landscape is impracticable, and hence the "trenches" are above ground and sandbags are their walls. I looked through a periscope and saw barbed wire and the German positions. I was told not to stand in such-and-such a place because it was exposed. A long line of men moved about at various jobs behind the rampart of sandbags; they were cheerfully ready to shoot, but very few of them were actually in the posture of shooting. A little further behind gay young men seemed to be preparing food. Here and there were little reposing places.

A mere line, almost matching the sandbags in colour! All the tremendous organisation in the rear had been brought into being solely for the material sustenance, the direction, and the protection of this line ! The guns roared solely in its aid. For this line existed the clearing stations and hospitals in France and in Britain. I dare say I saw about a quarter of a mile of it. The Major in command of what I saw accompanied me some distance along the causeways into comparative safety. As we were parting he said:

"Well, what do you think of our trenches ?”

In my preoccupied taciturnity I had failed to realise that, interesting as his "trenches" were to me, they must be far more interesting to him, and that they ought to have formed the subject of conversation.

"Fine! " I said.

And I hope my monosyllabic sincerity satisfied him.

We shook hands, and he turned silently away to the everlasting peril of his post. His retreating figure was rather pathetic to me. Looking at it, I understood for the first time what war in truth is. But I soon began to wonder anxiously whether our automobile would get safely past a certain exposed spot on the high road.


from 'the Illustrated War News' - early British trenches in 1915

British troops forming up for trench duty


book cover