Under the Eyes of the Enemy
The greatest credit for courage in the face of shell fire rests with the man of nerves and imagination, for it is he whose will-power must dominate the instinct of fear, and keep him steadfast to duty when he is naturally tempted to desert his post. Many articles have been written on what it feels like to be under fire, but few leave so real and dramatic an impression as that published beneath a study by Mr. Basil Clarke, one of the best-known and most widely experienced war correspondents of the day. This contribution forms the first of a unique series of thrilling stories by Mr. Clarke of his adventures on the various European fronts, which will appear week by week in the War Illustrated.
"If a man tells you he does not fear shell fire," said a rather outspoken artillery major to me once, "you may safely put that man down as either a fool, devoid of imagination and the natural instinct of self preservation, or a braggart liar trying to pose as a brave man. He must be one or the other; for good hot shell fire at close quarters will scare anyone. The brave man is the man who, though thoroughly scared, goes on with his job."
This little dictum, which I have since come to see is very true, comforted me not a little at the time, for I had just come through an escapade which, in spite of all my efforts to feel cool as well as to look cool, had made my hair stand on end and I was feeling a little disappointed with myself. But I was rather new to shell fire then.
It was not far from Ypres, late in 1914, I had left Dunkirk by motor-car that morning with a Belgian official who had some work to do at the front and who kindly took me along in his car. We visited trenches and gun posts, both French and Belgian, at several points, but things were fairly quiet that day save for an odd shell or two which landed at safe distances from us. In the afternoon, as we were returning to Dunkirk along the main road from Ypres, our work for the day being done, my companion looked up through the trees on the roadside at the sun shining still high in the sky and said: "It seems a pity to go home so early. How would you like to turn aside and see a bit of the Boches' dirty work in one of the ruined villages about here ?"
I agreed gladly. My host reached forward in the car and touched the right arm of his soldier driver in front. The driver nodded. We sped along the muddy road, past soldiers, guns, bread-carts, motor supply waggons, ambulances, steam tramway-cars and all the hundred other kinds of war vehicle that crowd the Ypres Dunkirk road, and then our driver without a word switched the car from the main road and up a little lane to the right. It was the very poorest of roads, no more than a rough cart-track between fields. It began just near the village of Elverdinge (which you will find on any war map on the main road between Ypres and Furnes), and led with several twists and rises to a still tinier village called Zuydschoote.
Clearly Visible to Enemy Observers
In the distance on our left were woods, but for the rest the country was treeless and bare ; there was not a bit of cover for man or beast. And as the ground over which we passed was slightly higher than the surrounding country our car was clearly visible for some distance. Had we known just what distance, we might have been tempted to return at once to some safer spot. But in all ignorance of pending danger we passed on and into the village of Zuydschoote.
Zuydschoote was a sad example of that grim German quality, which they proudly call "Rucksichtloskeit" and we "savagery." The village comprised no more than one little row of houses with another row at right angles, and a church at the corner between them. The Germans, beginning as is their inglorious custom with the church, had systematically shelled and smashed up the place till now it stood a jagged wreck of a village. We went into the roofless old church and my companion stood transfixed for a moment before a crucifix. The figure of Christ had been damaged by shell and torn away from the nails in hands and feet which had held it to the Cross. "Mon. Dieu," he exclaimed. "They have even added wounds to Christ."
There was riot a soul in the village, everyone had fled. I went into several ruined houses. French soldiers had evidently bivouacked in some of them, and lying about the floors were curious souvenirs that told curious tales. I found one old rifle with its stock blown clean away and examined it, wondering whether the owner had been holding it at the time. If so, he must surely now be sleeping his long sleep.
There was a bayonet, still, blood-stained. There was another bayonet which had on its point a piece of bread partly toasted. It lay near the fireplace, now cold and one could picture some soldier jumping up at the sounding of an alarm and leaving his bread half toasted. Or had that jagged shell-hole in the wall near by any association with the soldier's sudden ceasing to toast his bread ? Perhaps the same German shell that pierced it had caught him too as he sat there quietly toasting by the fire - seeing in its glowing embers, no doubt, the face of someone left at home.
Arrival of the First Shell
I was standing with the bayonet and the bread in my hand and trying to piece together from these queer and disjointed fragments of evidence the story of that Flemish cottage kitchen, when above the curious stillness of the village came a faint, whining noise. It lasted only a second or two, risiing and growing nearer and then - crash ! A shell. burst with a deafening split somewhere outside. I looked out of the hole in the cottage wall just in time to see the fall of an avalanche of earth, stones and bricks which the shell had hurled into the air. It had struck the village at a point about sixty yards from the cottage. The Germans had evidently seen us enter the village and had begun to shell us - on their general principle that people who travel in motor-cars must be worth hitting.
I hurried into the street. My companion, who had remained looking over the church, was already there.
"The Boches have found us, monsieur," he said with a cheery grin,
Evidently," I replied, hoping that I looked as cool as he.
"Perhaps it was just a stray one," he said; but as he spoke he put his hollowed hand behind his car and exclaimed, No, no; listen !"
A faint whine, like the whimpering drone of some distant dragon-fly was again clearly audible. It grew, rising in pitch as it came, and a second later - crash ! Down came a chimney-stack from the cottage thirty yards on our right and with it a cloud of faintly pink brick dust which began to settle over us.
"Parbleu !" said the officer. "This is not agreeable." And he calmly began to flick the pink dust from the breast and sleeves of his tunic. (I wondered whether it was the shell fire or merely the dust on his tunic he found disagreeable.)
"What do you suggest, monsieur ?I said is calmly as I could. Had we better take cover or make a bolt for the motor-car ?" (Owing to the old shell-holes in the village street, we had left the car in the lane outside in charge of the soldier chauffeur.)
"Better take cover for a while, monsieur," he said. Perhaps they are only seeing whether there is anyone in the village or not and will drop their tricks after this."
We chose the most substantial looking of the remaining cottages for a shelter, and entered its front room. The Germans were shelling us from the farther side - that is to say, from the land facing the backs of the cottages. Here we stood for a minute or two. Quite absently I picked up a picture-postcard album from the table and began to look at its postcards. A third shell came along and hit the ruined church once more, just opposite our front door. A fourth ploughed up the street. Then there was a pause.
"Ha !" said the officer. "One battery of four guns. They have all fired. Now, perhaps they will finish." He paused again. "Yes, it's all over," he said, "They will not shell a deserted village any more. We can go."
But as we reached the door of the cottage - whiz, Crash ! A shell brought down an avalanche of slates ten yards from us ; a second shell followed it, then a third which struck the next cottage to ours, and would have buried us in bricks had we not leapt clear of the building and into the street.
"Mon Dieu !" he exclaimed. "We will bolt for the motor-car. Come !"
A Blow on the Neck
A fat old sow, with swaying paunch, was waddling down the street towards us. She must have been the sole occupant of the village save ourselves, and the shells had no doubt disturbed her placid slumbers and set her travelling.
Come," said my companion laughing. "Here comes the first Boche. We will get the car and bolt." Shells were now striking the village in quick succession. Big round shrapnel bullets splashed in the soft earth of the street, quite near us.
"Right," I said. " Go first and I'll follow."
And at that very moment a shelf tore through the air overhead and split with a report that seemed right against my very ear-drums. Arid then I felt a sharp smack on my neck. My heart seemed to leap up. I put up my hand to the place. My hand came back covered with blood.
The Belgian, turning to see if I was all right, saw me regarding (woefully, I don't doubt) my blood-stained fingers.
"Oh, you are wounded; you are wounded !" he exclaimed in greatest agitation.
My first thoughts on seeing the blood were that I had received my death-blow from that shell. Grim thoughts of wounds I had heard of which cause no real pain but only quick death flashed through my brain. Yet I wondered that I did not feel wounded. My hand went to my neck again and felt around, and finally convinced me that in spite of the blood there was no wound at all. I looked round and there saw the explanation. For on the ground lay the old sow, bleeding, wounded, and breathing her last It was a fragment of her honest old carcasse, torn off by the shell, that had struck me in the neck and marked me with her poor old gore.
All the time that it took me to realise these things - which was not very long - my colleague was exclaiming: "Oh, monsieur, vous etes blessé, vous etes blessé (you are wounded)."
Happiness at my discovery that I was unhurt perhaps reflected itself in my face, as I replied: "No, monsieur. I thank you. It is not I who am wounded, but poor old madame la Pig!" And I pointed to the pig lying in the roadway.
He laughed there in the village even while further shells whistled over and near us he seemed to think I had made a priceless jest. " Madame la Pig !', he kept exclaiming to himself as together we ran for the motor-car.
Speedy Retreat after Difficulties
The driver, who was quite as anxious to get out of shell fire as we were, had the engine running. We leapt into our seats and off we started. But no sooner had we got, clear of the village and right into the open, where we must have been clearly visible from the German lines (on our side of Bixschoote), when a back wheel of the car ran into a deep rut. We got a jolt that nearly threw us out of our seats, and both car and engine stopped. Out jumped the driver to restart it, we sitting in the car as patiently as we could. A few minutes here and the Germans would soon have their guns on us again. And sure enough, before a minute had passed, in which. time the driver was twisting heroically at the starting-handle of the car, a shell whizzed overhead and buried itself in a field forty yards beyond us. I had an excellent chance to observe its effect.
Up went earth and stones in one vast big cauliflower shape, which seemed to grow and grow, ever rising and spreading in the air, till finally it burst and fell outwards to earth in a shower, like black water from an overhanging storm cloud of smoke.
"High explosive," I said quietly, but with inward sinkings of the most sickening sort.
Three more shells came at us before we got free. The driver had started the engine again, but the back wheels of the car were spinning round profitlessly in the mud when the third shell came and seemed literally to hurl us out of the rut. We sped down that lane, bad as it was, as though I had been the Brooklands track.
A week later I discovered that my Belgian companion, whose coolness I had admired so much, was retailing stories about me to his colleagues as the "phlegmatic Englishman who could examine picture-postcards under shell fire, make jokes about pigs, and study shell effects even though they were on top of him, while he himself, as he expressed it, had been fremissant " (shivering with fright).
Which shows how appearances may he deceptive. For I know quite well that, whatever I may have said or done during those moments of stress, I too, was as "fremissant" as he, and as ever I care to be.
- during and after the bombardment of a Belgian village
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