- from the book 'The Scene of the War'
- 'The French Front on the Somme'
- by V.C. Scott O'Connor, 1917
On the Somme
all photos from 'Image de la Guerre'
"Allons-y! c'est pour la patrie."
I had seen the mighty effort of our people on the Somme, and had witnessed the battle for Morval and Lesboeufs from a point very near the left wing of our gallant allies; but I had not yet seen the French in action. I was therefore glad to know that an opportunity was now to be given me of doing so.
Our headquarters were in an old Cathedral town, in whose streets and squares there were almost as many Englishmen as Frenchmen; while at our hotel the khaki and the grey-blue were closely intermingled. It was the meeting-point here, a little in the rear, of the two armies.
The early morning found us on one of those straight, logical roads-unlike our own- that run with their French directness and singleness of purpose from one considered point to another. It was a road animated by all the stir and preparation of organised war; which, as it is developed by the patient and strenuous industry of her people throughout France, comes slowly, like the shaft of a lance to its blade-point, to its final conclusion here upon the Front. So overwhelming is the interest of the Fighting Line - that strange, shifting, and tragic area, where the thoughts and ideals of men are brought to the anvil of war-that one is prone to neglect these mighty preparations, this patient and faithful toil that is the prelude to victory.
As we swept along the straight white road, it was thronged with these symbols of the will and tenacity of France.
"Under the light, sparkling surface of this people," said my companion, "there resides a core of indestructible granite, and the Boche is up against it now."
So he is; and the granite is legible upon the faces of all those men who toil upon these long white roads that are the arteries of war.
Gone for the moment are the vivacity and the joy; but the infinite patience, the undying valour, these remain; and let us bow to them when we meet them on the road.
Here are the menders restoring to the road its traditional perfection; reclaiming it foot by foot from the indignity that has been put upon it. Here are the drivers of the waggons, carrying to their brethren the provender of battle; the food and the fuel they need for their sustenance, the shells and cartridges they claim for the intruder upon their ancient soil. White with the dust, seamed with the sweat and the stress of theif traffic, hard and enduring, these men have but one purpose at heart, one end in view; and to this their strength is uncomplainingly directed.
Beside them, along the Light Railway that cleaves the fields, there move the great guns, the armoured cars and gallant engines, the steel waggons full of shells.
The Light Railways converge at the temporary terminus a little behind the battle-line, and a great activity is concentrated here at the base of supply. Here are planks by the million for huts and trenches; hurdles upon which in the approaching winter the tired soldier may sleep without becoming imbedded in the slough and mud; lines upon lines and masses of shells, like a vast army waiting to go up and slay the enemy; sidings and platforms for each variety of goods; shining rails of steel as complex as the network of Clapham Junction; stores of every imaginable kind.
Side by side with the Poilus works the captive Boche.
"I ask from him nothing more than I do from my own people," says the Colonel in command, "and if he would work nearly as well as my own Pères de famille of forty-five I should be content."
He doesn't, of course; but then the Father of Forty-five is a freeman, working of his own will for the good of his country; the other is a captive.
It is a busy scene, interrupted from time to time by the thrust of war. The German aero-plane, when it can get so far, drops its bombs under cover of the night, upon the little colony, killing friend and foe alike; and Fritz and François lie beside each other stricken by the same missile. The sound of the battle is heard in the distance, and the shadows of evening are lit with the summer lightning of the guns.
Farther upon the road are the great guns that travel by rail, and heave their shells a distance of twenty kilometres. You can see them in the autumn mists like mammoths pointing their trunks towards the invader, and from time to time you can see the flame as it issues from their lips; you can hear the thunder of their voices as the gros obus go hurtling through the sky. If you go up to them you will find them like Leviathan at home in a field, and behind each gun the waggon of steel in which his provender is laid.
When the door of the waggon is opened, one of the sleeping creatures is nipped by the claws of a travelling-crane and deposited like a puppy in a cradle that moves along an aerial line of rail, until it is arrived at the mighty breach, its last resting-place, before it fulfils its destiny.
The slow twisting of a screw behind it sends it forth with a persuasive impulse into the open breach; the door is closed upon its mystery; and then with a mighty music it sweeps upon the world, a living thing.
Beside this portent the quiet cattle pasture, indifferent even to its voice; the women toil with bent shoulders in the fields they love, and the life of the hamlet moves upon its ancient course.
When evening comes, the people of the gun gather together like factory - workers after the day's toil, and you can see them in a dark silhouette against the reddening sky, as a truck carries them away to their billets. One of the last to leave is the Battery Commander, a man who is the human equivalent of his charge; solid and direct; a hard and determined hitter.
And here in another corner of the world, upon the fringe of the Fighting Line, is the Aviators' home. The place pulses with the very Spirit of Attack. The French airmen, like our men, hold the initiative, and seek out and destroy the enemy wherever he is to be found. As we stand here upon the wood's edge, facing the open plain, the Aeroplanes come home from their raids across the frontier, and the still country air resounds to their flight. The music of their pinions is like the sound of the sea afar off; or, as they come near, like the vibration of a great beetle homing in Brobdingnag.
First there is one, and then another, until the host is assembled and dormant upon the grass. But there is one that has not come back. Has he fought his fight for the last time, and will his comrades see him no more? We search the sky with a sharp inquiry, but there is no reply.
Inside the hangars there are some new models - French and English. These are the fighting planes, for one man only. You can see where he sits with his eye upon the world, his timepiece before him, his feet upon the pedal, his hand upon the machine, the trigger of his gun apt for his instant use, the long roll of cartridges gleaming on the tape below, the engine upon which his life depends, the linen wings of flight, the slender wires of steel that stand between him and sudden death.
High up there, 10,000 feet above the earth, the solitary flier fights and makes his battle alone. In a world that is drilled and driven as if the human entity were nothing, here is a corner in which the individual attains once more his right to exist. And it is here where you might look to find this - that the Briton and the Frenchman are supreme. The man triumphs over the machine. You can see it in the faces of those men who ride the air. Youth and gaiety revive here in the hearts of our friends. It is no longer endurance but victory that meets us in their eyes. These are the men of the new generation that will transform France in the coming years.
"You wish to know something of the mechanism of our latest machines," says the Commandant; "well, you cannot do better than have P------, he will tell you all about them;" and with this he turns towards a bright-faced boy and puts his arm affectionately about his shoulder.
"Sub-Lieutenant P------," he says, "has brought down six of the enemy's planes."
The Sub-Lieutenant is as cherubic and serene as a midshipman. His manner is cheery and confident, his brain as clear as crystal.
We learn from him all about the new machine that there is to tell; and one of us is so impressed that he murmurs something about the airman's superhuman task. " Oh! nous," replies the Superman, "on ne fait pas de gros travail. On nous dit: 'II y a la ou Ia, trois Boches, qu'il faut tuer.' Alors nous, on y va, et on les abat si l'on peut. C'est tout."
It was Boelcke, one of the bravest of the German airmen, who could not fathom the in- explicable British spirit of sport. The French, he said, take their flying fatalistically, with the grimmest earnestness.
But he reckoned perhaps without the rising generation.
In one of the tents in the bosom of the wood there is gathered together each day the harvest the aviators bring home. Here are photographs of the most wonderful description, showing with the accuracy of a Recording Angel every detail of the German lines; and from these there is prepared from day to day - one might almost say from hour to hour - a map, showing the development of the enemy's trenches as he is driven from point to point, the emplacements of his guns, his captive balloons, the point at which his aeroplanes were brought down. You are seized, as you look at these, with a sense of the painstaking science of war.
It is in a place like this that you learn once for all what Air Supremacy means, - its part in the coming Victory.
I have claimed for these our people that they surpass in their individuality the enemy; so do the French machines. The Boche has made the mistake that you would expect of him- of trusting to a standardised type, produced in large numbers in factories. The Frenchman, with a finer instinct, has allowed for a diversity of type. For the functions of air-machines in war are of many kinds. To record a few of the most obvious: there is the Plane that takes photographs; the Fighting Plane, with a superb turn of speed; the Bomb-Thrower; the Artillery Plane, that guides the fire of the guns; the Infantry Plane, that helps to keep the advancing troops in touch. An expert could no doubt explain all this in a more intimate way.
The photographs are taken from a height of from between three to four thousand feet; and as soon as they are handed in they are put rapidly through the developer, and printed so swiftly that within a day thousands of them are ready for distribution.
Each of these photographs is examined with a searching eye, with magnifying glasses or stereoscopes, by men specially trained for this job.
Inferences are drawn from pin - points that could mean nothing to the casual observer; and a marvellous array of facts is placed at the disposal of the attacking troops. Thousands of lives are saved by this agency alone.
Later, when the attack has been launched and the fight is at its fiercest; when the telephone wires have been snapped and uprooted from the earth; when the Barrage fire makes a deadly wall which even the gallant Liaison messengers, the bravest of the brave, can scarcely penetrate- it is again the aeroplane, with its wireless apparatus, that comes to the help of the soldier, and enables the Army Commander to control and direct the movements of his force. It is the aeroplane that saves men from that most bitter of all inflictions-the fire of their own guns. The task of the aviator, as he flies low over the deadly mélée, is full of peril; and it calls for a mind that will work at its finest under a hail of fire, indifferent to all personal risks. You must be a brave man, with nerves of steel, to play that game.
Take the record of but one of these heroes-
"Lieutenant-----. He fought six combats in the air, forcing two of the enemy's planes to the ground within their own lines. He showed in these circumstances the most absolute contempt for death, paying not the slightest attention to the fact that in four of these fights his plane was repeatedly hit by the machine - gun fire of the enemy. On the 15th of March 1916, although his mitrailleuse had jammed, he carried out the task assigned to him, scattering the enemy's planes by a series of. audacious manoeuvres, and returned to headquarters with his machine riddled with bullets."
But the number of such episodes is legion.
Beyond the great guns and the Aviation Camp, the road now carries us into the dread Land of War. You cannot mistake it if you have once seen it here in France, for it is the negation of all that you have held most dear upon this earth. In this land Ruin walks hand in hand with Death. The green meadows and the russet orchards, the lovely woods that should be turning to gold and amber and cinnabar; the creepers that should be climbing in crimson upon the cottage walls; the old people at their doors, the children at the gate, the rose - cheeked maidens blushing with the sap and flow of life; the blue smoke of each homestead curling into the quiet sky; the lights at the windows; the stir and music of the street,-all these have gone.
Aceldama, it has become a place of woe; and Golgotha, a place of skulls.
One cannot convey to another, who has not seen it, the desolation and horror of the scene. The fields are of a melancholy brown, where dying weeds hang their dejected and tattered heads; the woods are ghostly remnants of what once were trees, but are now misshapen and tortured forms that grieve the open sky; the houses where they retain any form at all are ruined beyond the semblance of human habitations, with roofs that grin at one like the teeth of a skull, and walls that look as if a leprosy had fastened upon their tottering remains. The white highway that was once so superb and finished a thing, the lineal heir of Rome, is now as weary and as broken as if it led to Hell.
A side-road from it-one of those familiar and domestic things we love-leads to the hamlet and Chateau of D------, and it is the most pitiful semblance of a road upon which human footsteps ever echoed since man began to call himself civilised. In its earlier part we can still discover the alignment of its avenue, its outline of what once were trees. Some, hit in the middle by a furious shell, lift the dark fragments of their trunks a few feet above the soil; others stand like shivered masts against the grey weeping sky. Upon none is there any sign or tremor of life, save where the bark flaps with a melancholy insistence as if it wished to speak. The fields upon either side of it are completely bereft of everything that grows, and so pitted with the accuracy of the shells that they are like a smallpox that has fastened upon the face of the earth. Its surface is littered with the dSris of battle; with helmets and water-bottles riddled, like those who owned them, with bullet-holes; with bombs and hand-grenades and unexploded shells and unused cartridges; and fragments of men's clothes and accoutrements. Even to walk here you need to exercise a vigilant discretion, for a touch of the foot might stir any one of these sinister things that look like rattles and fir-cones into violent life; and it is well not to look too closely into the pits where the remnants of human creatures protrude from the sheltering earth.
When you look up from these pitfalls and these gins, you see about you the torment of what is called a Reciprocal Bombardment.
From the wood you have left behind you there come the incessant flashes of the French guns; upon the pocked fields there fall from moment to moment the shells of the German howitzers, sending up columns of black cloud and geysers of mud, and the grey void over your head is peopled with the voices of invisible hosts. You cannot see them, yet you feel every time you look up that you ought to see them, so near are they, so insistent is their cry. There is the crash of the German 77, the rending tear of the soixante-quinze that almost splits your eardrums, the deep - toned cooing howl of the howitzer followed by its appalling smash, the false note of the ill-made shell that knows not whither it is bound, the sudden cry and rattle of the mitrailleuse seeking its prey.
Such is the orchestra of the battlefield; but terrifying as it is, you soon get used to it, and go plodding along the road with scarcely a touch of physical discomfort. Presently some one will know how to get a picture of these invisible agents of death, a record of their devilish voices; and then with the film of the cinema before you, showing men in the instant of death, you will have your battlefield displayed for your edification without moving from your chair. But for the moment a little effort is needed to know what these things are like.
In the midst of these surroundings, in the shelter of a cemented and bomb-proof casemate taken from the enemy, is a Poste de Secours, or advanced dressing-station for the wounded. It is so dark in here that you need a few moments to adjust your vision; but in a little while the dim crowd at the entrance resolves itself into its component units, and in the considerate shadows you can see the newly wounded, the dying, and the sufferers from shell - shock. I doubt if there is anything more pitiful than the sight of these broken men. A wound you can understand, but here is something that goes deeper. They sit here, in their grey-blue uniforms, their trench helmets still upon their heads, but bowed down and unable to speak. The fire has been stolen from their hearts.
"A couple of days' rest," says the Surgeon, "and they will be all right." So they will - but think of what they must have gone through to be here. When these men hear the sound of a gun their bodies wilt as if they had been hit.
A little way beyond stands the Chateau of D-----, a heap of rubbish; and if it be your purpose to call upon the Officer in Command, you must burrow into this rubbish - heap, and pass, like the wolf and the cony, from the light of day. There you will find him in the cellar of the Chateau, a brain at work by the light of a solitary lamp. In one dim corner there lies in a dejected pile the library of this country house, rescued and brought together by these kindly people; and if books are anything to you, if they have solaced your grief or added to your joys, you will feel as distressed by the misery and ruin that have overtaken them as by all but the human agony that meets your eyes. Some of them bear the arms of the Dukes of Chaulnes.
Bo you remember how Madame de Sévigné loved this neighbourhood, "si beau, si charmant?"
In another dim corner, with their faces turned to the wall, are the family portraits. Upon the narrow deal table that is supported at one end for want of a leg by a Louis XVI. settee upholstered in watered silk, there are the wonderful staff-maps of the advancing line of battle, showing the enemy's trenches, the emplacements of his guns, his fortified positions. All that the aeroplanes see from the heaven above is recorded here.
Here is the place they are going to take to-morrow - the Sucrerie of Genermont. "Voila un gros morceau" says the Colonel, tapping it cheerily with his finger. "We give them no rest; trench by trench, foot by foot (and a foot here is often a hundred metres), we drive them before us. Our men are simply splendid. But we do not waste them. No! In this war of Exhaustion it is our business to kill, not to be killed."
And this is the lesson that the French, with their keen intuition, their genius for war, have learnt, perhaps a little quicker than we have.
"Deux petits blessés," said the General to me this morning, "in exchange for seven hundred prisoners. We pounded them to the last fraction of a second, and when our men fell upon them it was 'Kamerad.'"
It is not always so; with the best of preparation there is often both hard and bitter fighting to be done; there is the revenge of the enemy's artillery when his ruined trenches are taken by our troops; but in the long-run this is the lesson we are learning from two years of war; and it is the gun-factories and the munition-girls who are helping us to apply it.
The Boche says, "Look at the map"; we reply, "Look at our prisoners and at your dead."
In this chamber of the Chateau the French when they advanced found six German officers killed, not by wounds but by the concussion of a shell. "It fell there," said the Colonel, pointing to the circle of light by the hole through which we had come; "and when we entered we found them with the blood oozing from their ears and noses, their blood-vessels ruptured, but otherwise intact." Their brains had been reduced to pulp.
He shrugged his shoulders, and put up the palms of his hands.
"We should do no better if one fell there now."
His manner was cheery and vital, the faces about him smiling and courteous. He might have been the Master of the House receiving us in the big drawing-room upstairs.
"Why! Yes!" he said, "I have no objection to your going up to the First Line; but be careful, I pray you. I should be desolated," and he smiled with a touch of irony, "if anything happened to you."
As we emerged into the daylight, a French plane came flying low over the ruins of the Chateau, ringed about with black puffs of shrapnel, which pursued her like hounds.
All about us lay the remnants of the Chateau. That rubbish-heap there was its farm, and that blistered spot upon which no blade of grass was visible was its lawn. Those withered trees were its sheltering wood, and here and there we could trace the fragments of its encircling wall. The whole of its area was seamed with the German trenches. An officer who was with me looked at it with a cool and deliberate air.
"Quite done for," he said, "and I happen to know that De K------spent three hundred thousand francs on it just before the war broke out."
It is thus that you realise what France has endured.
We were now obliged to enter the shelter of the long communication trench; and from time to time as we stopped to look over its walls we could see the Artillery battle progressing with an increasing fury, the flight of the German Aeroplanes, and the falling ever nearer and nearer of the shells. Here and there in the general waste there survived the fragment of a wall, a solitary tree which helped to mark the direction we were taking. All else was a void, blistered beyond all earthly semblance.
The black face of a nigger peeping out from this Inferno was a startling apparition.
We found him presently, one of a party, clearing the ruined trenches. Pipe in mouth, clad in the same blue helmet and uniform, they worked here side by side with their French brethren. Brethren they were, too, in their easy and friendly companionship. In the hospitals, also, you find them so-black face and white face near each other, bound by the tie of a common sacrifice.
Every here and there a small wooden cross, standing up from the walls of the trench with some simple inscription, " Un brave Français," showed where lay the remnants of one who had died for his country.
And then we came to a point which the diggers had not yet reached; whence the tide of battle had barely ebbed, and the trenches still lay as they had been left by the beaten enemy.
"Here, where we stand now," said one who was with us, "you see the débris of a barrage across which the Boche and our people threw hand-grenades at each other, until we broke through and drove them before us."
Every few yards there was a shaft leading down from the trench into a dug-out, and in each of these dug-outs there lay rifles and bandoliers and gas-masks, hastily abandoned by the enemy; and sometimes these dug-outs were sealed by the explosion of a shell, and in them there lay those who had been killed or buried alive.
And so we came to where the dead still lay unburied; the human creature with all his potentialities, reduced to that which had better remain undescribed.
We still went on, and as I turned to look back I found that I was alone with C------, an officer of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, who strode on before me gay and exultant.
"We are about 300 metres now from the Boche; let us see what's happening," said he, and climbing a little way up the broken wall of the trench, he looked out upon the howling waste.
It was the same tragic scene that had met our eyes since, first we embarked upon this journey- but more deadly, more intense in its mournful expression. The increasing battle, the loud explosions of the shells, the rattle of the machine-guns, the German planes venturing here and there within our reach and observing our movements, the rising columns and masses of black smoke, the dead men lying below, gave me an impression that can never fade of the hell into which the best and bravest of the world go with a smile.
And then a little incident occurred which brought the scene to a sort of personal climax. For as I stood here, absorbed in its detail, I saw approaching me, racing across the grey waste, like some footballer dashing for his goal, a small black creature, clearly visible, swaying from side to side, yet furiously intent upon its course. I dropped into the trench to the sound of a smashing explosion; a shower of mud, and a heavy fall as de G------, who had been following us, rolled over at my feet.
"Nous I'avons échappé belle" laughed C------, brushing the mud from his tunic, and as I did the same a heated fragment of ruptured steel fell from the folds of my coat.
"It was the wind of the damned thing that knocked me over," said de G------, picking himself up, somewhat abashed.
We found the shell on the lip of the trench fuming as if with rage at having failed of its purpose.
We were evidently in luck; for Mr. Bass, of Chicago-an old campaigner who carries with him a wound from the Russian front - who should have been where it fell, had fortunately dropped a couple of yards behind. The rest of our party, farther off, seeing the shell fall, retired to a dug-out, assured that we should never meet again. A pause of a second or two-a yard this way or that,-such is the interval between all that life means to us and the bleak oblivion of death.
It is a risk that the soldier at the Front takes every day of his life.
"Don't be distressed for me if I fall," says he, writing to mother or wife, "it is a glorious death to die."
We ate our lunch in an underground mansion, which for the past two years had been the home of a German General and his Staff. It was a very elaborate piece of subterranean architecture, right under the metalled surface of the Route Nationale that runs from Amiens to St Quentin, and if you look out for it you will find a water-colour of it in the best of all the illustrated papers of the war. Its facade, to which we descended by a flight of steps, was after the style of a Bavarian chalet, with a spirited inscription in German Gothic, to the effect that, in spite of old Joffre's ugly faces, no shells could reach them there. Beside it, on the cemented side-wall, there was a neat little tablet of a later date and of a chaste simplicity:
"OFFERED TO OUR GENERAL BY HIS BRETONS."
There were sandbags and cemented works to enhance its safety; and within there was the parlour where we lunched, with a piano against the wooden walls and a frieze of vines along the cornice. Behind there was the General's bedroom, with a spring mattress stolen from the nearest chateau; a big gilt mirror in which he might survey his person; an arm-chair covered in crimson velvet, in which he might take his after-luncheon nap; and pictures of the Fatherland upon the walls to soothe his sentimental soul.
Where, I wonder, is that German General now?
The kitchen was a dream; and since the great must have the small to wait upon them, there were cabins, not quite so luxurious, for his personal attendants. There was electric light.
Clearly this warrior had an eye to the amenities of life, and it was our luck to profit by them. The fare was good, the roof shell-proof, and as we sat together here about the table in the happy fellowship that comes of association with the French, the most delightful of all people at a meal, we laughed over the incidents of the morning and forgot the roaring of the guns outside.
And when we had finished, we climbed out into the open again to find Francois Flameng, with his fresh face and cheery air, his blue trench helmet on his head, and a pipe in the corner of his mouth, painting the villa. The French officers of our party were delighted to see him. There was much handshaking and friendly chaff, and we had the honour of being introduced to the painter.
It seems that M. Flameng has permission to go where he likes and to paint whatever pleases his eye. Since the beginning of the War he has been busy in this way, and there is no one better known in trench and camp than this distinguished and joyous personage. It was a great and a very unexpected pleasure to see him at work.
The scene amidst which these events transpired was of an impressive character. Above it there rose in its tragic and misshapen lines the gaunt skeleton of a wood. At one end of it there was a cemetery of new-made graves, each with its wooden cross and simple inscription: "Guyot Pierre, Soldier of France"-"Lieutenant M------, an affectionate tribute from his Company." Beside them stood a tall man in a long buff coat with his cassock peeping from under it, a trench helmet on his head, and a face like that of Christ, with his blonde beard and gentle eyes. Next to him stood the Divisional Surgeon, a humorous character: "Un vrai type," said an officer, laughing at his singular manner and speech; about them there moved upon their varied business the French infantry, hardy and matter-of-fact.
With a sudden whirr an aeroplane came flying over the tree-tops, almost brushing them with its wings. And beyond these the heavy batteries roared their menace, and the ground shook with their wrath. It was a beautiful sight, too, in its way: the low concealed valley; the blue figures moving amongst the trees; the Battery Commanders, cool and icy in their places of control, their clear peremptory voices cleaving the welter of sound; the men at the guns like stokers at a furnace; the sudden flash, the bursting roar, the recoil; and in the grey sky, visible to the eye, the Messenger of Death upon his way. Over all, ceaseless in their brooding, the French aviators flying low over the field of vision, the eyes of France fixed upon the enemy.
We met the General at work in his dug-out in another part of the field. It was another habitation to that of his German rival. "Voila mon Cabinet de travail" said he, ushering me into the smallest of little rooms by the roadside, with a table in it, a chair, a telephone, and a staff-map upon the wall. Some steps cut in the mud led down to his bedroom, which was like a steamer cabin. The bulb of an electric light hung beside his bed. "A present from the Boche," he said. Next door his Staff were at work, the telephone was constantly in action, and a despatch rider occasionally came peppering up the road.
We climbed up into the field above. The same desolate waste, the same mournful void that war creates wherever it places its deadly hand. Upon the skyline I could see the faint outlines of the Trones Wood, by which I had stood on the day of the British battle. French and English, hand in hand, good friends and loyal comrades, we go forward, never doubting, to the ultimate goal, sealing our compact with the blood of our peoples.
Can we ever forget them, or they us?
And then, as I stood here with the General- a man of the old type, vivid and martial, a soldier of France-some homing pigeons came flying through the grey sky, gentle of wing and faithful to their cause; and out of the tarnished waste a lark rose singing into the heavens, above the griefs and the turmoil of men, unconscious of the tragedy about her.
The first time I saw the Sausage was at Venice. It hung there in the drowsy air over the public gardens, a blot upon the horizon of the beautiful city. It seemed to remain up there interminably, and one saw it swelling at the end of every canal, bulging over every spire and dome. It was an eyesore, and the one ugly thing in the magical perspective. It bore too familiar a resemblance to the beer-swilling Boche.
One saw it again frequently, less obtrusive in the soft misty island air, brooding over the might of London. It did not inspire respect or liking. Its amorphous lines, its very captivity, were against it. But one took it for granted, though always with a touch of resentment.
And then I saw it over the battle of the Somme, filling with wind, and seemingly moving in a crescent line, like the Armada when it came sailing up the Channel. It, the Sausage, was beautiful then, with the sun painting colours on its curves, and the shrapnel bursting about it in puffs of cloud and fire. If there was any one that one envied on that occasion, it was the man in the Drachen, at whose feet the biggest battle in history was developing in all its marvellous detail. But life, as poor Trilby might have said, is not all beer and skittles up there; the Drachen sometimes becomes excited, and, breaking its nose-string, rushes off to immolation, or the shrapnel just happens to burst inside the observer's car; and in any case one is liable to be very sea-sick up there. To be seasick at an altitude of 3000 feet, over the greatest battle in history, might be worse than death.
In the end I got my chance of going up in a Drachen and experiencing some of its emotions for myself. It was upon the great Chalons plain, looking towards the Montagne de Rheims, where the observers learn their job. It was a cold grey evening, lit with the fires of the setting sun. Upon the earth below the Drachen there was drawn up a squad of French infantry, the section attached for duty with it. In a dug-out that was open at either end there was a motor with a roll of steel - the connecting-cord-and a reel of telephone-wire. When the Drachen is stationary, the motor lives in this shelter; but when it moves the motor emerges, and noses its way steadily in pursuit. Upon the nearest road there is the equipment of the Drachen, consisting of trucks laden with shelter for the men, and a moving bureau in which there are maps and papers, and a journal that is full of striking pages. It is the record of all that the observer has seen: the march of the enemy's infantry through his trenches; the location of his guns; the damage inflicted on him by the French artillery; the lie of his country. It is the record also of the risks and dangers to which the observer has been subjected, and it tells you something of the winds and temperature up there above the scene of conflict.
The car is a wide square basket into which you climb as the Drachen sways and bulges above you, impatient for flight. A heavy fur coat, and a helmet to save your neck in case you should incontinently fall out, are part of the equipment. There is a loaded rifle, a telephone, a pair of glasses, and the parachute. The parachute lives inside a cylinder, which is fastened with cords and strapped to your back. All you have to do in case the Drachen is set on fire, or shows a disposition to go over to the enemy, is to climb on to the edge of the basket, stand there for a second, and jump over.
For a hundred feet or so you have the sensation of your life. You drop like a stone at an altitude of say 3000 feet. Then with any luck your weight pulls off the lid of the parachute- which is falling less rapidly than you are-its silken folds expand, and you ride the air with a graceful motion, till you touch the solid earth once more. The man who does this sort of thing must have a sound heart, good nerve, and abundant faith; but he must feel every time he does it that he has known the sensation of plunging into Eternity.
Nothing on the other hand is easier or more pleasant than the ascent in a Drachen, especially one of the perfected kind we owe to the genius of the French army. Compared with an aeroplane, it is like a sailing ship in calm weather. No engine throbs beside you. It is so still that you might hear the beating of your heart. You are lifted gently above the earth like a bit of thistledown. Fields, roads, villages, and trees drop away from you, as if withdrawn by an invisible hand. The earth becomes like a piece of shot silk; here and there across it you can trace the winding of a little stream, the glint of a pool touched by the rose of the sun. The squad of French infantry look like tiny little soldiers of lead, and then you forget their existence. Overhead the brown folds of the Drachen swell like the trunk of a mammoth. A wind blows through the rigging, and the suspension cords float in the air like bits of thread. The operator is busy at his telephone. There is a sudden flame showing where some gun is concealed. The news sweeps swiftly down to the Battery Commander. He trains his weapon on the enemy.
There is a spurt of dust, the flash of an exploding shell -"Fifteen yards to the right." "Right, but your shells are falling short." "Ha! very near that time." "Got him, by God!"
That is the sort of thing in outline. We are learning, remember.
This is not a battle. Still we are near the front. Up here in the still and quiet spaces of heaven we can hear very plainly the music of the guns; we can see upon the horizon their lightning-flash-and then-over the wires-
"On guard; an enemy's plane is coming towards you."
The corporal, who is eighteen, smiles indulgently-
"Je ne m'occupe pas de tout ca," he says, turning to his pencil and his bit of paper.
"Crash, crash, crash,"-we can see the aeroplane bearing down upon us like an eagle in the sky, with the puffs of red cloud bursting in a circle about him. The Drachen floats on, like a great caterpillar, squidgy, amorphous -a tempting prey. But the guns keep the Fokker at bay; his reception is too warm; he turns and sweeps back in a wide circle towards the German lines, the clouds pursuing him.
The first stars begin to shine in the sky.
The corporal laughs. "It would be chic to have one's girl up here-all to one's self!"
But again it is not all beer and skittles. It is bitter cold up here, and the night-shifts are long and lonely. Upon active service the Drachens are often hit, and the soft bulbous creature set on fire. When this happens it falls for all its bulk like a drop of flaming wax from a candle. In the aviator's record you will often see the Drachen amongst his trophies. Thus-
"Nombre de ses Victoires; 10 Avions et 2 Drackens."
It gives you an uncomfortable sensation to remember this, when you see an avion coming towards you from the enemy's lines with felonious intent. Suppose the parachute don't work? But why suppose anything? In this war it is best to smile like the corporal and go on with your job, whatever it is.
... "You have won the greatest battle in history, General."
The General was silent for a moment, and then in a quiet voice he replied-
"What I have won, I hope, is the prospect of retiring in peace to my little house in the Pyrenees Orientales."
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