from the book 'Field Notes from the Russian Front' 1915
'On the Warsaw Front in 1914'
by Stanley Washburn
Special War Correspondent of the ‘Timesl’

On the Russian Front

photos by Georges H. Mewes


Warsaw During the Second German Advance

Warsaw, Poland

December 15, 1914

When the Germans left this region in October and we had accompanied them in their retirement as far west as Skierniewice and as far south as Kielce, there were many of us who were so ignorant of the German determination to keep everlastingly at the game over here as to believe that they had abandoned Poland for good. True, as I have already stated, I was in Kielce on November 3, the very day that the enemy retired before our advance, a number of the inhabitants entertained me with the remarks of the German soldiers to the effect that the Germans were only leaving to suit their own convenience and would be back when the cold weather with frozen roads and rivers would make campaigning easier for them. But I put this down at the time as stories told by the German officers to their men to keep them from being discouraged.

In the light of what followed, and the much greater scale of the second invasion, we can only conclude that what we took to be heavy fighting in October was in comparison but a mere reconnaissance. Even when the second movement started, many in Russia felt that it was only a demonstration to relieve the pressure on Cracow and the ever impending menace of the Silesian invasion; but after Lodz was abandoned and we heard reports of many army corps pouring in on this front from Germany, we began to realize that the Polish theatre was at last to be the big news centre for some months to come. The likelihood of this was increased by the fact that the fighting in the West had settled down to trench warfare, and had come to an approximate deadlock, calculated to last at least till the spring.

One by one the correspondents who had been marking time in Petrograd, began to slip quietly away, and by the middle of December the lobby of the Bristol Hotel here had become the rendezvous of all the lost journalists in Russia. Percival Gibbon, the correspondent of the Daily Chronicle, has likened Warsaw in 1914 to Brussels in 1815, and his comparison is not inapt.

Here in a first-class hotel, which is as fine as any in Europe, one finds the great news centre of this whole war. I am told that when the war started, the proprietors of this establishment thought of closing it up for fear of lack of trade; but as a matter of fact, from the day of the first German advance it has been difficult to get a room here at all, so full is the town of officers and those whose business is ever upon the threshold of war. In the great luxurious lobby that six months ago was given over almost entirely to groups of tourists and pleasure seekers, one sees now hardly a civilian all day long. All day long the hotel is filled with a moving throng of officers representing every branch of the Russian service. Since the fighting has settled down to prolonged operations west of us, hundreds of the wives and women relatives of the officers have come down here, and one can go a long way and find no gayer scene of brightness and life than the lobby and corridors of the hotel. It is hard to realize that the front where hundreds of thousands of men are facing each other in desperate fighting is only thirty miles away.

But to understand that war is a reality, one has only to step out into the street. For there, from morning until night, is the constant evidence that Warsaw is the base, and also the great artery through which flows the transport of the enormous army that is just to the west of us. All day and all night the interminable line of transport carts drags past the hotel on its way to the front. Batteries, hundreds upon hundreds of caissons, bearing shrapnel and ammunition, move slowly through the streets. A dozen times a day one meets battalions and regiments of new units of troops plodding steadily through the town, the great patient soldiers trudging along through the snow towards the trenches where they, too, are going to take up their place in Russia's greatest war.

In spite of the fact that the front is so near, it is very difficult to gather direct information of what is going on from day to day. I have never, in a somewhat varied experience, found any place where more false reports and misinformation circulated at par than here in Warsaw. Even Chefoo in the Manchurian campaign, which up to that time had the record for inaccuracies, must take second place to Warsaw. Hardly a day passes in which one is not told with the greatest conviction by one and another stories to the effect that the Germans have broken our line, are already at Blonie (eighteen miles away), that Warsaw will be evacuated instantly, and I know not what other wild tales. There is little doubt that the enormous population of Jews here is for the most part German in its sympathies, and that probably these falsehoods started from Hebrew sources.

But even the best informed and the most serious minded are more than half the time misled as to what is actually going on. Though the news from almost every front is actually in this hotel within twenty-four hours of its occurrence, it is all but impossible to get it pieced together so as to make a consistent whole. The younger officers who will talk, know nothing about the situation save in the immediate vicinity in which they have themselves been engaged. The front is so extended, and there are so many thousand details, that the report of a single individual who has come from the front line is about as informing as to the whole perspective as the view-point of a man whose nose is two feet from a stone wall. I find that even some of the officers are not informed as to which corps flank their own organizations, while the lower generals have only the vaguest ideas as to operations that are going on ten miles away. The man who comes in from a position where there has been a snappy action during the day can see only the results that took place in his particular trench. If his battalion repulsed the Germans, he brings in word that the Germans made a general assault all along the line; and in his heart he believes that his regiment has been the centre of one of the greatest actions in the world's history.

It is hard for any who go through an action where half their neighbours are killed or wounded, to realize that even the wiping out of his whole regiment or brigade is but a detail of the war, and that the fight which he took to be on so gigantic a scale was in reality, but a skirmish relatively. Thus it is that we get from day to day reports of great victories and great defeats from men who are absolutely sincere and intelligent as well. It is all but impossible in operations so large to get a perspective at all, and it is doubtful if even the staff gets more than a very vague idea of what has happened. The inaccuracies as to actual events are, however, small in comparison with unfounded general information. Reports of losses are wide of the truth by hundreds per cent. A hundred dead have easily been increased to a thousand by the time the report gets here, and probably more when it gets to Petrograd. If the Germans get a new army corps over here, we hear at once that they are withdrawing the bulk of their troops from the West front, and I sincerely believe that the majority of the plain soldiers over here think that they are fighting the greater part of the German army. If the Germans had here half what they are credited with, they would long since have had Warsaw, and by this time have been well on their way towards Petrograd, if they had coveted that city.

As for the number and the size of guns credited to the Germans, there is no limit to the imagination which describes them. If a shrapnel bursts near one of the Red Cross assistants, he immediately concludes that it is at least a 10-inch projectile; and if he sees a lot of them burst, the story circulates here next day that more than half of the German guns are of the largest type. Even the younger Russian officers delight in magnifying the artillery of the enemy. One told me the other day that a certain shell hole that we were examining was made by a 42-centimetre shell, when it certainly was nothing more important than the projectile from a 47. It may be imagined, then, how difficult it becomes for the correspondent to piece together the thousand fragments of news and get anything like a true estimate of the situation taken as a whole. If one stays in Warsaw, one runs the risk of being absolutely led astray; and when one manages to get out to the front itself, all perspective is entirely lost.

It is possible, however, to keep a rough check on troops moving through, and the numbers of wounded that are coming back, and one can obtain by diligent research from many quarters an approximation of the Russian line as it varies from day to day. From the wounded it is difficult to get very much, for almost without exception they are so confused with the details of their own experiences, that they know nothing at all of the general action, and many are not clear as to whether they won or lost it.

Correspondents are still unrecognized officially, but there seems to be no objection to individuals slipping out on their own account. The front is so near, and there are so many persons connected with the Red Cross motoring out every day, that it has become a very simple matter to get out every few days and have a peep at the position. It is certainly an extremely comfortable way in which to do a war. Here one puts on one's old clothes and goes out and spends the day at the front and returns in time to have a clean-up and dinner at a fashionable restaurant. The nearness of the positions makes it possible for many officers to get in, but considering the size of the army before Warsaw, the numbers that one sees here are relatively few. Most vigorous rules have been laid down about officers here off duty, and this hotel, as well as all the others, undergoes a checking process twice daily to see if any officers are shirking their duties at the front in order to have a little amusement in the big hotels at the base.


Inspecting the Warsaw Front

Warsaw, Poland

January 12, 1915

After travelling about in Poland for hundreds of kilometres in a motor-car and a fair distance on horseback, one comes to view the so-called " front " as a good deal of an abstraction. Here we have a nearly flat country covered with great patches of timber, and in every way adapted to getting lost in. From the plain one sees no landmarks whatsoever, and in the patches of woodland one can wander about for hours within a few miles of the firing line, and see no more signs of war than in the heart of British Columbia. Yet in odd patches it is all soaked in war. If one took an automobile and spent an unmolested month on the job, travelling every day, it might be possible to visit perhaps half of the positions and batteries; but I doubt if even that much could be seen in so short an interval. So, a trip of inspection to the front is like taking a sample of grain out of a goods-wagon. It is at best a mere cross-section of the situation at one point, and it is only by visiting a number of isolated and different points which are said to be typical, that one gets even a vague idea as to what the war is really like.

The little party of Generals with whom I have had the privilege of travelling, have been given every opportunity to view these typical situations, and if I describe what we saw, I am giving the reader the situation as accurately as it can be seen by any single person in a trip of a few days.

We spent the night, as has already been told, at the headquarters of the Army Corps Staff. The Chief of Staff, whose name I do not know and which I should not be allowed to mention if I did, is one of the most efficient men I have met in Russia. This admirable soldier gave up his entire day to our party, and under his direction we were up and away by nine in the morning, which is an early start in this country. In our great grey motor-cars we sped over the lovely Polish plain which in this direction tends to roll a little. It reminds one not a little of the Red River Valley in North Dakota, where it begins to slope toward the westward; only here we have patches of forest, which are not found in North Dakota.

For an hour or two our great snorting cars ploughed through the mud, passing through village after village whose Polish names are difficult to spell, and I believe impossible to pronounce. The natives pronounce them apparently without difficulty, but to a foreigner they are absolutely unpronounceable. We are running in the rear of the lines for the most part, and all the morning the air has been punctured with the occasional deep boom of a big gun. The roads, as usual, are crowded with caissons and transport and battalions of troops or batteries of artillery. A little before noon our cars sped past a sentry and turned into one of those lovely Polish summer places, so beautiful that any millionaire would wish to possess it. A great white villa at the end of an avenue through snow-clad trees is our destination.

This we learn is the Brigade Headquarters of Artillery.

The Colonel in command meets us on the steps as we get out of our cars, with the inevitable clicking of spurs and saluting of salutes. The beautiful old house is upside down with war now. In the front hall are a lot of blood-stained stretchers standing up against the wall. At a table is a telegraph operator. In the background there are mud- stained orderlies and Cossack despatch riders. They have taken up the carpets here, and the hardwood floors are stained with mud and dirt. A sweet-faced elderly woman with a Red Cross on her breast meets us, and I gather that she was the mistress of the house before the war broke out.

We stopped here but a few minutes to pick up the artillery Colonel and some of his staff, and then started out on foot to have a look at his positions. Behind the house was a lovely terrace, and below that an artificial lake which, overflowing a little dam at the foot of the beautiful garden, ran out in a little stream that rippled beneath the ice as it wended its way through a patch of pine trees in the corner of the garden. We strolled down a woody path of the estate and suddenly halted in a little clearing. For a moment we saw nothing, and then suddenly realized that we were in one of the Russian big gun positions. But these were so cleverly constructed by Christmas trees studded about the guns that it was impossible to see them until one was almost on them. Before each a space had been made so that the fire just cleared the tops of the trees on the other side of the small clearing. The guns themselves were set back under the pines. These were the big 15-centimetre guns with an 8-verst range. There they sat, their great throats open wide, with their muzzles pointed just enough in elevation to clear the tree tops a few yards in front of them. Beside each, the caisson with its shells and charges of powder in brass cartridges were shrouded in trees that had been stuck in the ground all around, leaving only the business side exposed. Behind each gun were little trapdoors in the earth, each of which led down a flight of stairs to a submerged hut beneath the floor of the forest that towered majestically above.

Our friend the Chief of Staff chuckled with glee as he explained to us the difficulty the Germans had had in finding these guns at all. For nearly four weeks they had been in position in this grove, throwing their great shells into the German lines. Again and again the German aeroplanes had hung like hawks above the forest trying to discover the nest of wasps that were stinging them day after day. What information they gained is best indicated from the fact that in four weeks but seven casualties have occurred in this battery, while the German shells that came to search them out were bursting fully a thousand yards from the place where the big guns were placed.

Again we walked on through the woodlands. Our guide, the Chief of Staff, seemed to know the trail as well as the commander of the battery himself. Suddenly he turned off sharply from the trail; we moved through the peaceful woods, and in a few hundred yards came on another similar battery, similarly concealed. Here again four great guns sat, their muzzles peering just above the opposite line of tree tops. Certainly the operations of these big guns present the most extraordinary aspect of modern war. Here they sit day after day, miles and miles away from an enemy and from their target. When they are not in action it is as quiet and peaceful in this grove as in a primitive wilderness. No enemy will probably ever actually see them, but if, through misadventure, some skilled and sharp-eyed scout once locates this hidden group of monsters, this bit of woodland will in a few minutes be transferred into a perfect hell of bursting shell and flying splinters of steel. These guns will be overturned and the patient men who work them will be blown to atoms. But as long as they are undiscovered they go quietly about their tasks.

Slipping in their big shells and with nothing visible to the gunners but the row of tree tops across the clearing, the gunners send the projectiles screaming miles and miles away. In a few minutes a telephone tinkles from an observation point, maybe two miles away, and advises the commander of the battery where his shell burst. The gun is altered a little in elevation, and in a few minutes another projectile hurtles out of the grove and over the tree tops to burst miles away on the German position. At last the range is discovered accurately and the soldiers at the guns are told that their work is excellent. Probably nothing in the world can be more impersonal than the operation of these big guns. Unless by misfortune their position is flanked and they are enveloped and captured, it is doubtful if half of the soldiers ever see an enemy during the war at all.

From these guns we pushed forward to the positions where the light guns of the field artillery were crouching in hidden alcoves. After seeing the big howitzers these slim creatures seem as greyhounds compared to mastiffs. These also are all in positions of indirect fire, and, from where we saw them, their target was quite invisible. But for the 'phone message from the observation point, they would never know after their shell left their gun whether it was making good practice or falling miles beyond or short of the enemy. From the field gun positions we trailed off through woodland paths to a slight elevation on the very crest of which the woods ceased and an open rolling country lay spread out before us. Back in the woods were a number of shelters dug out of the forest floor, and, just on the fringe of the wood itself, two tripods standing in the brush held aloft the hyperscopes of the artillerist. These with their high-power lenses brought the German line, several miles away, almost to our feet.

Dug in between the hyperscopes was a sunken shelter in which the field wires converged. These linked up all the guns that were directed from this unobtrusive spot on the ^fringe of wood which certainly could not have been visible from a hun- dred yards away.

Our Chief of Staff, who loved every detail of his position, was as pleased as a child with the whole arrangement and showed us on a map where all the guns that we had been looking at ,during the morning were located relative to this position. "I will bring a battery into action," he said casually, "and you shall see our big gun practise at 6,500 yards. Our target is the German gun position. You can see it through the hyperscope." An obliging subaltern focussed the instrument and by the cross hairs in the field located the exact point that was to be aimed at. When all was adjusted the Chief of Staff spoke quietly to a man at the telephone. A second later there came a great crash from a mile in our rear and then the melancholy whine of a big shell over our heads as with a diminishing wail it hurtled to its destination. A second later a great black spout of earth rose from the German line, and then came the dull thud of the explosion drifting back across the valley. Another crash and another shell passed over our heads and another cloud of earth and flying debris could be seen through the glasses. From a mile to our east and rear came another peal of thunder and again the wail of shells. The second battery that we had seen was in action.

The few German shells that came back in response to the salutation of our guns were not within a thousand yards of their target. For perhaps half an hour the bombardment went on, the Germans who were stung by the shells responding to our challenge, but gradually the fire on both sides slackened and at last subsided. These spasms of firing back and forth break out every few hours, day in and day out, along the entire line of the trenches.

We visited other positions and batteries, and in the afternoon we came back to the villa by the lake. Here there occurred a rather dramatic incident.

As we turned into the great carriage drive we came upon a whole regiment of Russian troops that had been drawn up two ranks deep on each side of the drive for perhaps half a mile. General Williams and Marquis De La Guiche passed down the cheering line, first recognizing with salutes the military honours accorded to them. About a hundred yards behind came the little Japanese, General Oba. Spick and span as though he had stepped out of a bandbox, with his trim uniform and gold aigrettes and gold-spurred boots, he looked as chic and smart an officer as one could see in a voyage round the world. As he 'passed up the line, saluting right and left, the great Russian moujiks cheered themselves hoarse.

As I watched this scene my mind ran back ten years. I was with this little General Oba, then a Colonel on Nogi's staff, before the bloodstained slopes of Port Arthur. In those days we were watching Japanese big guns hurling huge shells into Russian positions and congratulating our Japanese friends when a lucky shot was visible. I think even the little Japanese, the last word in intelligence and efficiency, felt the contrast.

A few minutes later we sat at the table in the great dining-room, having luncheon with the Staff. "Who," I said to him in an undertone, "would have believed, if it had been said to your people in Port Arthur, that in ten years' time you would pass up an avenue in Poland madly cheered as an ally by Russian troops?"

His intelligent eyes flashed, and with the quick intaking of breath with which the Japanese signify pleasure, he replied, "Ah, yes. Who indeed?" And as he finished there came a crash from the corner of the garden. The windows shook in their frames. The battery of howitzers was just coming into action once more.


The North Bzura Front

Warsaw, Poland

January 15, 1915

This war is primarily a motor-car war, and it is difficult to imagine what the staff, the Red Cross and the journalists over here would do on this extended front without this conveyance. From Warsaw as a base one can get out to almost any of the positions in a few hours' drive in one of the big high-speed touring cars that are employed by the army.

For the past two days we have been inspecting positions and batteries south of the Skierniewice-Warsaw line of railroad. The last day we put in on the north of that line in the territory lying between the Vistula and the Lowiecz-Warsaw line of the railroad. Familiarity makes unusual things common. Nevertheless in the back of my head I do realize that the sights on this road would be really extraordinary if one were not so accustomed to them.

It would not be inapt to call this highway an ethnological museum of all the race products of the Russian Empire. I think I never began to realize what an enormous number of diverse peoples come under the heading of "All the Russias." On this road you see them all. In the first place there is the constant stream of officers and Red Cross officials in motor-cars, the type that we associate with Petrograd, Paris or London, or indeed wherever one sees Russians at all. Then of course there are thousands and thousands of the peasant soldiers of European Russia. Just now the roads are blocked with Siberian troops with their heavy faces and their woolly caps. Everywhere between and around are little bunches of Cossacks of all kinds, from South-Eastern Russia, from the Caucasus and from Siberia.

Last but not least we have just got in great bunches of the most extraordinary creatures from some of the Russian dominions in Turkestan. There seem to be two groups of these, each equally undesirable in appearance, and none of them, as far as one can learn, speaking any known language. They are almost as much strangers to the ordinary Russians as they are to us. One group of these gentlemen, who, like all the mounted troops of Russia, go under the name of Cossacks, is clad in untanned sheepskin coats dyed a brilliant orange. They wear on their heads a bushel or more of black wool, in which there is a hole in which the head seems to be inserted. They seem a cross between a Chinaman and a Mongol, with deep red complexions and expressions which do not encourage familiarity.

From somewhere in the same distant region comes another group of gentlemen similarly clad except as to the colour of their sheepskins, which are a deep claret colour. Both ride the most exquisite-looking thoroughbred horses, with long thin legs, and delicate thin faces. When not on the road these men seem to be always engaged in caring for their horses. I have never seen them mingling with any of the other troops at all.

The transport is about equally divided in numbers between the regular Russian carts and the peasant cart of the Pole which, though small, seems well suited for the bad roads of the country. Each month of the war brings us more and more of the Siberian ponies, and practically all the artillery and a great deal of the transport is now equipped with these strong little animals. The more one sees of them the more one comes to realize their value. They certainly do not average over 800 lbs. in weight and are not much bigger than a cow. But when you get six of these sturdy little brutes all pulling at once it is surprising how they will drag a gun or an ammunition caisson out of the mud. They are equally happy and contented in wind, snow or rain. They sleep contentedly, their lower lips wabbling in absolute peace in a pouring rain or a driving snow-storm. I have seen them standing serenely covered with three inches of snow and apparently as undisturbed as a cow in the sunshine of a hay meadow in summer time.

Out on this front as on others I have observed the prevailing Russian custom of keeping horses in harness all night. The lead team are tied up to a cross rope, and then each team is bedded down with straw, and they stand just as though in a stable, with the caissons containing the reserve ammunition all hooked up. One will often see sixteen or twenty such teams standing contentedly in one place day after day. If there comes a sudden call from the front for ammunition there is no hooking up to do at all. The drivers climb into their saddles, untie their lead teams, and in a moment are off at a gallop down the road or across the fields to relieve the guns that are pumping shrapnel over into the German lines. The first ammunition caissons other than the limber with the battery seem to average about 2,000 yards behind the gun positions; the reserves perhaps six versts behind them and the supports perhaps another six, making all told not over fifteen versts for the entire distance between the guns and the ammunition column available for a single day's work.

On the north front our line is now on the edge of the Bzura river and runs through the town of Sochaczew. Just across the river are the German trenches; and here day by day the interminable firing back and forward between pickets and trenches, and between German guns and Russian guns, goes on. Sochaczew has been an object of the Germans' greatest desire, and scores of attacks have been made on this position. Several times to my certain knowledge, the enemy have gained a foothold on our side of the river, but have within a few hours been dislodged and driven back. Fighting of a similar sort went on for thirty-four days around Lowiecz, which is some eighteen or twenty versts to the south and west. We went out and had a look at the position here, but did not get nearer than several thousand yards to the town, because the Germans had chosen this particular time to throw shells into it. It was burning in three or four places, but the officers of the Russian battery which we were visiting regarded the occurrence as a casual one, and said that the Germans lighted up a few fires with their shells every evening at dusk to keep the town illuminated so that they could see what was going on in that direction.

Hardly a day passes when one has not an opportunity of seeing German prisoners, and in these one finds unmistakable proof that the armies of the Kaiser are becoming worn and weaker every day. I met a dozen on a certain railway platform the other day, and though my sympathies are not with the German armies, my heart pitied the miserable and pathetic-looking objects in German uniform which stood shivering in the rain waiting for a train to take them to Siberia. Nearly all were undersized, weakly, and haggard. I learned from one of them that they were Ersatz reservists and had been with the colours since August. The strain of constant fighting had told on them severely, and they looked ready to drop with fatigue. But whether one is in sympathy with Germany or not one must accord every respect to these soldiers of the Kaiser. No troops in the world have a better spirit. I got into conversation with these pitiable objects and inquired of one of them if the German army still thought they had a chance of taking Warsaw. Almost before the words were out of my mouth three replied at once. "Certainly," said one. "Without doubt," said the second, and "There is not a question of it," echoed the third. Though all looked pitiably lean and haggard, each insisted that they had more food than they could eat, that every company was absolutely at full strength, and in a word that they were in every way satisfied with their cause. The more one sees of the Germans, and these are far below the average in type, the more one begins to feel that there is a long, long road ahead of the Allies before these determined people are broken. They will take a lot of licking, and he is indeed an extraordinary optimist who can question the truth of this statement.

One of the Germans whom I drew aside and questioned sympathetically in his own language, unbent a little and confided to me that as a matter of fact the troops knew nothing whatever about their own movements, and did not even know that an attack was in contemplation until a few minutes before they were ordered out of the trenches. He also informed me that the losses on this front since the last invasion began had been perfectly terrible, a statement by the way which was in absolute contradiction to his previous replies to the Russian officer who questioned him on the same topic.

One phase of the war which is constantly being borne in upon me is that Germany is losing now in personnel that which a generation cannot replace. I am increasingly surprised at the standard of men that one finds in the ranks of the reservists. Mechanics, artisans, students and even professional men abound, all serving as common soldiers. Every attack now, with its ghastly losses to the Germans, represents a subtraction from the very best economic and industrial assets that the German Empire has at its disposal. In every group of prisoners one discovers men of the upper middle class who have been withdrawn from productive occupations of every sort. In one of the advance field hospitals last week a young attorney who was serving in the German reserves was brought in with such a hideous wound that his arm had to be taken off at the shoulder.

I am of the opinion that even if Germany could secure peace to-day on highly advantageous terms, she would still find that she has crippled her national life for generations to come. For in these days she is pouring out wantonly and with incredible disregard for the sacrifice she is making, the very blood and brains that has enabled her to build up the great commercial and industrial enterprises which have made her the great power in the world that she is to-day-or was before the British fleet bottled up her vast merchant marine.


photos by Georges H. Mewes


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