LETTERS FROM FRANCE
C. E. W. BEAN
War Correspondent for the Commonwealth of Australia
With a Map and Eight Plates
Cassell and Company, Ltd London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne
To those other Australians who fell in the Sharpest Action their Force has known, on July 19, 1916, before Fromelles, these Memories of a Greater, but not a Braver, Battle are herewith Dedicated
These letters are in no sense a history—except that they contain the truth. They were written at the time and within close range of the events they describe. Half of the fighting, including the brave attack before Fromelles, is left untouched on, for these pages do not attempt to narrate the full story of the Australian Imperial Force in France. They were written to depict the surroundings in which, and the spirit with which, that history has been made; first in the quiet green Flemish lowlands, then with a swift, sudden plunge into the grim, reeking, naked desolation of the Somme. The record of the A.I.F., and its now historical units in their full action, will be painted upon that background some day. If these letters convey some reflection of the spirit which fought at Pozieres, their object is well fulfilled. The author's profits are devoted to the fund for nursing back to useful citizenship Australians blinded or maimed in the war.
C. E. W. Bean.
1. A Padre who said the Right Thing
2. To the Front
3. The First Impression—A Country with Eyes
4. The Road to Lille
5. The Differences
6. The Germans
7. The Planes
8. The Coming Struggle: Our Task
9. In a Forest of France
11. The Great Battle Begins
12. The British—Fricourt and La Boiselle
13. The Dug-outs of Fricourt
14. The Raid
16. An Abysm of Desolation
17. Pozieres Ridge
18. The Green Country
20. The New Fighting
21. Angels' Work
22. Our Neighbour
23. Mouquet Farm
24. How the Australians were Relieved
25. On Leave to a New England
26. The New Entry
27. A Hard Time
28. The Winter of 1916
29. As in the World's Dawn
30. The Grass Bank
31. In the Mud of Le Barque
32. The New Draft
33. Why He is not "The Anzac"
LIST OF PLATES
Australians Watching the Bombardment of Pozieres
"Talking with the Kiddies in the Street"
"An Occasional Broken Tree-Trunk"
No Man's Land
Along the Road to Lille
The Trenches here have to be Built Above the Ground in Breastwork
A Main Street of Pozieres
The Church Pozieres
The Windmill of Pozieres
The Barely Recognisable Remains of a Trench
The Tumbled Heap of Bricks and Timber which the World Knows as Mouquet Farm
"Past the Mud-Heaps Scraped by the Road Gangs"
LETTERS FROM FRANCE
A PADRE WHO SAID THE RIGHT THING
France, April 8th, 1916.
The sun glared from a Mediterranean sky and from the surface of the Mediterranean sea. The liner heaved easily to a slow swell. In the waist of the ship a densely packed crowd of sunburnt faces upturned towards a speaker who leaned over the rail of the promenade deck above. Beside the speaker was a slight figure with three long rows of ribbons across the left breast. Every man in the Australian Imperial Force is as proud of those ribbons as the leader who wears them so modestly.
Australian ships had been moving through those waters for days. High over one's head, as one listened to that speaker, there sawed the wireless aerial backwards and forwards across the silver sky. Only yesterday that aerial had intercepted a stammering signal from far, far away over the brim of the world. "S.O.S.," it ran, "S.O.S." There followed half inarticulate fragments of a latitude. That evening about sundown we ran into the shreds of some ocean conversation about boats' crews, and about someone who was still absent—just that broken fragment in the buzz of the wireless conversation which runs around the world. A big Australian transport, we knew, was some twelve hours away from us upon the waters. Could it be about her that these personages of the ocean were calling one to another? Days afterwards we heard that it had not been an Australian or any other transport.
Somewhere in those dazzling seas there was an eye watching for us too, just above the water, and always waiting—waiting—waiting—. It would have been a rich harvest, that crowded deck below one. If the monster struck just there he could not fail to kill many with the mere explosion. But I don't believe a man in the crowd gave it a thought. The strong, tanned, clean-shaven faces under the old slouch hats were all gazing up in rapt attention at the speaker. For he was telling them the right thing.
He was not a regular chaplain—there was no regular padre in that ship, and we were likely to have no church parade until there was discovered amongst the reinforcement officers one little subaltern who was a padre in Tasmania, but who was going to the front as a fighting man. We had heard other padres speak to troops on the eve of their plunging into a great enterprise, when the sermon had made some of us wish that we only had the power and gift to seize that wonderful opportunity as it might be seized, and have done with texts and doctrines and speak to the men as men. Every man there had his ideals—he was giving his life, as like as not, because, however crude the exterior, there was an eye within which saw truly and surely through the mists. And now when they stood on the brink of the last great sacrifice, could he not seize upon those truths—?
But this time we simply stood and wondered. For that slip of a figure in khaki, high up there with one hand on the stanchion and the other tapping the rail, was telling them a thousand times better than any of us could ever have put it to himself exactly the things one would have longed to say.
He told them first, his voice firm with conviction, that God had not populated this world with saints, but with ordinary human men; and that they need not fear that, simply because they might not have been churchgoers or lived what the world calls religious lives, therefore God would desert them in the danger and trials and perhaps the death to which they went. "If I thought that God wished any man to be tortured eternally," he said, "to be tortured for all time and not to have any hope of heaven, then I would go down to Hell cheerfully with a smile on my lips rather than worship such a being. I don't know whether a man may put it beyond the power of God to help him. But I know this, that whether you are bad or good, or religious or not religious, God is with you all the time trying to help you.
"And what have we to fear now?" he went on, raising his eyes for a moment from the puckered, interested brown foreheads below him and looking out over the shimmering distant silver of the horizon, as if away over there, over the edge of the world, he could read what the next few months had in store for them. "We know what we have come for, and we know that it is right. We have all read of the things which have happened in Belgium and in France. We know that the Germans invaded a peaceful country and brought these horrors into it, we know how they tore up treaties like so much paper; how they sank the Lusitania and showered their bombs on harmless women and children in London and in the villages of England. We came of our own free wills—we came to say that this sort of thing shall not happen in the world so long as we are in it. We know that we are doing right, and I tell you that on this mission on which we have come, so long as every man plays the game and plays it cleanly, he need not fear about his religion—for what else is his religion than that? Play the game and God will be with you—never fear.
"And what if some of us do pass over before this struggle is ended—what is there in that? If it were not for the dear ones whom he leaves behind him, mightn't a man almost pray for a death like that? The newspapers too often call us heroes, but we know we are not heroes for having come, and we do not want to be called heroes. We should have been less than men if we hadn't."
The rapt, unconscious approval in those weather-scarred upturned faces made it quite obvious that they were with him in every word. In those simple sentences this man was speaking the whole soul of Australia. He looked up for a second to the wide sky as clear as his own conscience, and then looked down at them again. "Isn't it the most wonderful thing that could ever have happened?" he went on. "Didn't everyone of us as a boy long to go about the world as they did in the days of Drake and Raleigh, and didn't it seem almost beyond hope that that adventure would ever come to us? And isn't that the very thing that has happened? And here we are on that great enterprise going out across the world, and with no thought of gain or conquest, but to help to right a great wrong. What else do we wish except to go straight forward at the enemy—with our dear ones far behind us and God above us, and our friends on each side of us and only the enemy in front of us—what more do we wish than that?"
There were tears in many men's eyes when he finished—and that does not often happen with Australians. But it happened this time—far out there on a distant sea. And that was because he had put his finger, just for one moment, straight on to the heart of his nation.
TO THE FRONT
France, April 8th.
So the Australians are in France. A great reception at the port of landing, so we hear. A long, weary train journey in a troop train which never alters its pace, but moves steadily on, halts for meals, jogs on again, waits interminably outside strange junctions. Some days ago it landed the first units, somewhere behind the front.
We reached France some time after the first units. The excitement of seeing an Australian hat had long since evaporated. A few troops had been left in camp near the port, and we met some of those on leave in the big town. They might have been there since their babyhood for all they or the big town cared.
And there we first heard mentioned the name of a town to which our troops were supposed to have gone. It was quite a different town from the one which we had heard of on board ship. It was snowing up there where our men were, they said.
The train took us through beautiful country not yet touched by the spring of the year. There were magnificent horses in the rich brown fields—great draught horses such as I have never seen in any country yet. But the figure that drove the harrow was always that of an old man or a young boy; or, once or twice, of a woman. There were women digging in the fields everywhere; or trudging back along the roads under great bundles of firewood. The country was almost all cultivated land, one vast farming industry. And they had managed to get through the whole year's work exactly as if the men were there. As far as we could see every field was ploughed, every green crop springing. It is a wonderful performance.
We had not the least idea where we were going until in the end we actually got there. Travelling in France is quite different from travelling in Egypt or England. In Egypt you still exercise your brain as to which train you shall travel by and where you will stay and where you will change. But in France there is no need for you to think out your own journey—it is useless for you to do so. The moment you reach France the big hand of General Headquarters takes hold of you; and from that instant it picks you up and puts you down as if you were a pawn on a chessboard. Whatever the railway station, there is always a big British policeman. The policeman directs you to the Railway Transport Officer and the Railway Transport Officer tells you how long you will stay and when you will leave and where you will go to next. And when you get to the next place there is another policeman who sends you to another Railway Transport Officer; until you finally come to a policeman who directs you from the station and up the street of a little French town, where, standing on the wet cobbles at the corner of the old city square, under dripping stage scenery gables, you find another British policeman who passes you to another policeman at another corner who directs you under the very archway and into the very office which you are intended by General Headquarters to reach.
And if you go on right up to the very trenches themselves you will find that British policeman all the way; directing the traffic at every country cross-road where there is likely to be a congestion of the great lumbering motor-lorries; standing outside the ruined village church which the long-range guns have knocked to pieces in trying to get at a supply dump or a headquarters; waiting at the fork-roads where you finally have to leave your motor-car and walk only in small parties if you wish to avoid sudden death; on point duty at the ruined farmhouses which it is unhealthy at certain hours of the day to pass. At the corner where you finally turn off the road into the long, deepening communication trench; even at the point where the second line trenches cross the communication trench to the front trenches—in some cases you find that policeman there also, faithfully telling you the way, incidentally with a very close and critical eye upon you at the same time.
He is simply the British policeman doing his famous old job in his famous old way. He is mostly the London policeman, but there are policemen from Burnley, from Manchester, from Glasgow amongst them. And up near the lines you find the policeman from Sydney and Melbourne waving the traffic along with a flag just as he used to do at the corner of Pitt and King Streets. Just as he used to see that the by-laws of the local council were carried out, so he now has to see to the rules and orders made by the local general. It is a thankless job generally; but when they get as far as this most people begin to be a little grateful to the policeman.
Our railway train and the policeman had carried us over endless farmlands, through forests, beside rivers, before we noticed, drawn up along the side of a quarter of a mile of road, an endless procession of big grey motor-lorries. Every one was exactly like the next—a tall grey hood in front and a long grey tarpaulin behind. It was the first sign of the front. Presently a French regiment went by along a country road—not at all unlike our Australian troops in some ways—biggish fellows in grey-blue overcoats, all singing a jolly song. They waved to us in the same light-hearted way Australians have. There were more fair-haired men, among some of the French troops we have seen, than there would be in one of our own battalions.
After this there came great stores at intervals, and timber yards—hour after hour of farmhouses and villages where there was a Tommy in every doorway, Tommies in every barn, a Tommy's khaki jacket showing through every kitchen window; until at last towards evening we reached a country populated by the familiar old pea-soup overcoats and high-necked jackets and slouch hats of Australians.
There they were, the men whom we had last seen on the Suez Canal—here they were, already, in the orchard alongside of the old lichened, steep-roofed barn—four or five of them squatting round a fire of sticks, one stuffing his pipe and talking, talking, talking all the while. I knew that they were happy there before ever they said it. A track led across a big field—there were two Australians walking along it. A road crossed the railway—two Australians were standing at the open door of the house, and another talking to the kiddies in the street. There was a platoon of them drilling behind a long barn.
A long way ahead of that, still going through an Australian country, we stopped; and a policeman showed us to the station entrance where there was a motor-car which took us and our baggage to the little house where we were billeted. On the green door of the house next to it, behind the pretty garden, was scrawled in chalk, "Mess—five officers." That was where we were to feed.
It was as we came back from tea that I first noticed a distant sound—ever so familiar—the far-off heavy roar of the big guns at Cape Helles. It was guns firing along the lines away to the east of us.
And as we walked back after dinner that night from the little mess-room, across the garden hedge and over the country beyond, there flashed ever and anon hither and thither a distant halo of light. It was the field guns firing, and the searchlights flashing over a German parapet.
Yesterday for the first time an Anzac unit entered the trenches in France.
THE FIRST IMPRESSION—A COUNTRY WITH EYES
France, April, 1916.
Rich green meadows. Rows of tall, slender elm trees along the hedges. Low, stunted and pollarded willows lining some distant ditch, with their thick trunks showing notched against a distant blue hill-side like a row of soldiers. Here and there a red roof nestled among the hawthorn under the tall trees just bursting into green. Violets—great bunches of them—in the patches of scrub between the tall trunks and yellow cowslips and white and pink anemones and primroses. You see the flaxen-haired children out in the woods and along the roadside gathering them. A rosy-cheeked woman stands in the doorway of a farm at the cross-roads, and a golden-haired youngster, scarce able to run as yet, totters across the road to her, laughing.
Only this morning, as we passed that same house, there was the low whine of a shell, and a metallic bang like the sound of a dented kerosene tin when you try to straighten the bend in it. Then another and another and another. We could see the white smoke of the shells floating past behind the spring greenery of a hedgerow only a few fields away. It drifted slowly through the trees and then came another salvo. There were some red roofs near—those of a neighbouring farm—but we could not see whether they were firing at them, or at some sign of moving troops, or at a working party if there were any; and I do not know now. As we came back that way in the afternoon there was more shelling farther along. The woman in the doorway simply turned her head in its direction for a moment, and so did a younger woman who came to the doorway behind her. Then they turned to the baby again.
Through the trees one could see that the farmhouses and cottages farther on had mostly been battered and broken. There was a road running at a little distance, and every roof and wall in it had been shattered. There was a feverish, insane disorder about the little groups of buildings there, all shattered, burnt and gaping, like the tangled nightmare of desolation on the morning after a great city fire. Farther still was open country again, where long communication trenches began to run through the fields—but you could see none of this from where we stood. Only in the distant hedgerows, perhaps, we might have noticed, if we had looked for it, an occasional broken tree trunk—snapped off short or broken down at a sharp angle by shell fire.
Those distant trees would be growing over our firing line—or the German.
It is a more beautiful country than any we saw in Gallipoli, in spite of its waterlogged ditches and the rain which had fallen miserably almost every day since we arrived. There is green grass up to within a few yards of the filthy mud of the front trenches; and not a hinterland of powdered white earth which was all we had at Anzac or at Helles. Here you have hedgerows just bursting into spring, and green grass, which on a fine day fairly tempts you to lie on it if you are far enough away from the lines. The country is flat and you see no sign of the enemy's trenches, or your own—the hedgerows shut them out at half a mile as completely as if they did not exist.
But you realise, when you have been in that country for a little while, that you have eyes upon you all the time—you are being watched as you have never been watched in your life before. You move along the country road as you would walk along the roads about your own home, until, sooner or later, things happen which make you think suddenly and think hard. You are passing, a dozen of you together instead of the usual two or three, through those green fields by those green hedgerows when there is a sharp whiz and a crash, and a shrapnel shell from a German seventy-seven (their field gun) bursts ten yards behind you. You are standing at a corner studying a map, and you notice that a working party is passing the corner frequently on some duty or another. You were barely aware that there was a house near you.
Twenty-four hours later you hear that that house was levelled to the ground next morning—a shrapnel shell on each side of it to get the range—a high explosive into it to burst it up—and an incendiary shell to burn the rubbish; and one more French family is homeless.
It takes you some time to realise that it was you who burnt that house—you and that working party which moved past the cross-roads so often. Somebody must have seen you when the shell burst alongside that hedge. Somebody must have been watching you all the time when you were loitering with your map at that corner. Somebody, at any rate, must have been marking down from the distance everything that happened at those cross-roads. Somebody in the landscape is clearly watching you all the while. And then for the first time you recall that those grey trees in the distance must be behind the German lines; that distant roof and chimney notched against a background of scrub is in German ground; the pretty blue hill against which the willows in the plain show out like a row of railway sleepers is cut off from you by a barrier deeper than the Atlantic—the German trenches; and that from all yonder landscape, which moves behind the screen of nearer trees as you walk, eyes are watching for you all day long; telescopes are glaring at you; brains behind the telescopes are patiently reconstructing, from every movement in our roads or on our fields, the method of our life, studying us as a naturalist watches his ants under a glass case.
Long before you get near the lines, away over the horizon before you, there is floating what looks most like a flat white garden grub—small because of its distance. Look to the south and to the north and you will see at wide intervals others, one after the other until they fade into the distance. Every fine day brings them out as regularly as the worms rise after rain; they sit there all day long in the sky, each one apparently drowsing over his own stretch of country. But they are anything but drowsy. Each one contains his own quick eyes, keen brain, his telescope, his telephone, and heaven knows what instruments. And out on every beautiful fresh morning of spring come the butterflies of modern warfare—two or three of our own planes, low down; and then a white insect very, very high—now hidden behind a cloud, now appearing again across the rift. It is delightful to stand there and watch it all like a play. The bombs, if they drop 'em, are worth risking any day.
But it isn't the bombs that matter, and it isn't you who run the risk. The observer is not there to drop bombs, in most cases, but to watch, watch, watch. A motor standing by the roadside, a body of men about some work, extra traffic along a road—and a red tick goes down on a map; that is all. You go away. But next day, or sometimes much sooner, that red tick comes up for shelling as part of the normal day's routine of some German battery.
So if these letters from France ever seem thin, remember that the war correspondent does not wish to give to the enemy for a penny what he would gladly give a regiment to get. On our way back is a field pock-marked by a hundred ancient shell-holes around a few deserted earthworks. On some bygone afternoon it must have been wild, raging, reeking hell there for half an hour or so. Somebody in this landscape put a red tick once against that long-forgotten corner.
THE ROAD TO LILLE
There is a house at a certain corner I passed of late. On it, in big white letters on a blue ground, is written "To Lille." Every township for a hundred miles has that same signpost, showing you the way to the great city of Northern France. But Rockefeller himself with all his motor-cars could not follow its direction to-day. For the city to which it points is six miles behind the German lines. You can get from our lines the edge of some outlying suburb overlapping a distant hill-top.
And that is all that the French people can see of the second city of their State. The distant roofs, the smoke rising from some great centre of human activity nestled in a depression into which you cannot look; you can peer at them all day long through a telescope and wonder why it is they are stoking their chimneys, or what it is that causes the haze to hang deeply on such and such a day over this or that corner—you can study the place as an astronomer studies the faint markings upon the surface of Mars. But to all intents and purposes that country is as much cut off from you as is the farthest star.
For the war in which we are engaged means this—that you may travel from any part of the world with the freedom of this twentieth century and all its conveniences, until you come to the place where we are to-day. But, when you come thus far, there is a line in front of you which no power that has yet been produced in this world, from its creation to the present day—not all the money nor all the invention—not all the parliamentarians nor the philosophers—not all the socialism nor the autocracy, the capital, nor the labour, the brain, nor the physical power in the whole world has yet been able to pass. The German nation, for reasons of its own, has put this line across another people's country and made a fool of all the progress and civilisation on which we relied so confidently up to a couple of years ago. I suppose it will all grow unbelievable again some day—two hundred years hence they will smile at such talk just as we did two years ago. But it will be as true then as it is to-day—that a nation of officials and philosophers gone mad has been able to place across the world a line which no man can at present move.
I have seen that line at a fair number of places—since writing these words, many miles away in my billet, working in the brick-floored cottage bedroom by the light of an oil lamp, I have stepped to the door, and there I can see it now, always flickering and flashing like faint summer lightning under the clouds on the horizon. When you come to the very limit—to the farthest point which you or any man on earth can possibly reach by yourself—it is just a strip of green grass from twenty to four hundred yards wide, straggling across France and Belgium from the sea to the Swiss border. I suppose that French and English men have sanctified every part of that narrow ribbon by dying there. But the grass of those old paddocks grows unkempt like a shock head of hair. And it has covered with a kindly mantle most of the terrible relics of the past. A tuft, perhaps thicker than the rest, is all that marks where last year lay a British soldier whose death represented the latest effort of the world to cross the line the Germans laid.
You cannot even know what is going on in the country beyond that line. You have to build up a science for deducing it from little signs, as a naturalist might study the habits of a nest of ants. The Germans are probably much more successful at that than we are.
It is strange to us that there are towns and cities over there only a few miles away from us, and for a hundred miles back from that, of whose life we know nothing except that they have been ravished and ruined by the heavy hand of Prussian militarism. But, for the people who live around us here, it is a tragedy of which I had not the least conception until I actually saw it.
We had a cup of coffee the other day in the house of an old lady whose husband had been called out two years ago, a few days after the war began.
"All my own people are over there, monsieur," she said, nodding her head towards the lines. "They were all living in the invaded country, and I have not heard of them for eighteen months. I do not know whether they are alive or dead. I only know that they are all ruined. They were farmers, monsieur, comfortably off on a big farm. But consider the fines that the Boches have put upon the country.
"The only thing we know, monsieur, it was from a cousin who was taken prisoner by the Boches. You know we are allowed to write to the prisoners, and they have the privilege to write to people in the invaded country. So my family wrote to my cousin to ask news of my mother, who was a very old woman. And after weeks and weeks the answer came back—'Mother dead.'
"It was not so terrible that, monsieur, because my mother was old. But then—he who was my dear friend," she always referred to her husband by this term, "my dear friend used to write to us every day in those times. He was fighting in Alsace, monsieur, and for his bravery he had been promoted upon the field of battle to be an officer. He wrote every single day to me and the children. We were always so united—never a harsh word between us during all the years we were married—he was always gentle and tender and affectionate—a good husband and father, monsieur, and he sent the letter every day to my brother-in-law, who is a soldier in Paris, and my brother-in-law sent it on to us.
"There came one day when he wrote to us saying that he was out behind the trenches waiting for an attack which they were to make in two hours' time. He had had his breakfast, and was smoking his pipe quite content. There the letter ended, and for three days no letter came from my dear friend. And then my brother-in-law wrote to his officer, and the answer arrived—this, monsieur," she said, fumbling with shaking fingers in a drawer where all her treasures were, and trying to hide her tears; and handed me a folded piece of paper written on the battlefield.
It was from his captain, and it spoke of the death of as loyal and brave a soldier as ever breathed. He was killed, the letter said, ten yards from the enemy's trenches.
And it is so in every house that you go into in these villages. When the billeting officer goes round to ask what rooms they have, it is continually the same story. "Room, monsieur—yes, there is the room of my son who was killed in Argonne—of my husband who was killed at Verdun. He is killed, and my father and mother they are in the invaded country, and I know nothing of them since the war."
But the road to the invaded country will be opened some day. These people have not a doubt of it. If one thing has struck us more than any other since we came to France, it is the spirit of the French. We came here when the battle at Verdun was at its height; and yet from the hour of landing I have not heard a single French man or woman that was not utterly confident. There is a quiet resolution over this people at present which makes a most impressive contrast to the jabber of the world outside. Whatever may be the case with Paris, these country people of France are one of the freshest and strongest nations on earth.
They are living their ordinary lives right up under the burst of the German shells. Three of them were killed here the other day—three children, playing about one minute at a street corner in front of their own homes before Australian eyes, were lying dead there the next. Yet the people are still there—it is their home, and why should they leave it? An autocracy has no chance against a convinced, united, determined democracy like this. More than anything I have seen it is this surprising quiet resolution of the French which has made one confident beyond a doubt that Frenchmen will pass some day again, by no man's leave except their own, along the road to Lille.
France, April 25th.
The cottage door is open to the night. The soft air of a beautiful evening following on a glorious day brushes past one into the room. As I stand here the nightingale from a neighbouring garden is piping his long, exquisite, repeated note till the air seems full of it. Far away over the horizon is an incessant flicker like summer lightning, very faint but quite continuous. Under the nightingale's note comes always a dull grumble, throbbing and bumping occasionally, but seldom quite ceasing. Someone is getting it heavily down there—it is not our Australians; I think I know their direction.
It was just such a glorious day as this one has been, a year ago, when this corps of untried soldiers suddenly rushed into the nightmare of a desperate fight. At this moment of the night the rattle of rifle fire was incessant all round the hills. Men were digging and firing and digging in a dream which had continued since early dawn and had to continue for two more days and nights before there was the first chance of rest. They were old soldiers within twenty-four hours, as their leader told them in an order which was circulated at the time. Only a sprinkling of the men who were there are in the Anzac units to-day. But they are the officers and the N.C.O.'s, and that means a great deal.
We have been here long enough now to discover the differences between this front and the old fighting-line in Gallipoli. The rain has been heavier in March than for thirty-five years, and April until yesterday seemed almost as bad. The trenches are made passable by being floored with a wooden pathway which runs on piles—underneath which is the gutter of water and mud which is the real floor of the trench. Sometimes the water rises in the communication trenches so that the boards float or disappear, and if you happen to step into an interval between them you may quite well sink to your waist in thin clay mud. The actual firing trenches and the dug-outs there are mostly dry by comparison, except where the accumulated task of draining them has been gaining on some regiment which garrisons them, and the rear of the line is a morass of foul-smelling clay.
This difficulty never really reached us in Gallipoli, though we might possibly have found the trenches falling in upon us in the rains of winter if we had stayed. The trenches in France are full of traces of old dug-outs and mouldering sandbags, collapsed through rain in the dim past before the timbering of all works was looked on as a necessity. In Anzac we never had the timber for this, and one doubts if we ever could have had it had we stayed. The soil there was dry and held well, and the trenches were deep and very elaborate to a degree which one has not seen approached in France. There may be some parts here where such trenches are possible, and where they exist; but I have not seen them. It must be remembered that in many places in France there are stretches of line where it is impossible to dig a trench at all in winter, because you meet water as soon as you scratch the surface; and therefore both our line and the German are a breastwork built up instead of a trench dug down. The curious thing is that in the trenches themselves you scarcely realise the difference. Your outlook there is bounded in either case by two muddy walls over which you cannot wisely put your head in the daylight. The place may be a glorious green field, with flowers and birds and little reedy pools, if you are two feet over the parapet. But you see nothing from week-end to week-end except two muddy walls and the damp, dark interior of a small dug-out. You see no more of the country than you would in a city street. Trench life is always a city life.
The trench routine is much the same as it was in Gallipoli, except that in no part which I have seen is the tension anything like so great. At Anzac you were hanging on to the edge of a valley by your finger-nails, and had to steal every yard that you could in order to have room to build up a second line, and if possible a third line beyond that. Here both you and the enemy have scores of miles behind you, and two or three hundred yards more or less makes no difference worth mentioning.
For this reason you would almost say that the German line in this country was asleep compared with the line we used to know. A hundred and fifty yards of green grass, with the skeleton that was once some old hay wagon up-ended in the middle of it, and sky-blue water showing through the grass blades in the depressions; a brown mud wall straggling along the other side of the green—more or less parallel to your breastwork, with white sandbags crowning it like an irregular coping; the inevitable stumpy stakes and masses of rusted barbed wire in front. You might watch it for an hour and the only sign of life you would see would be a blue whiff of smoke from some black tin chimney stuck up behind it. If you fire at the chimney probably it will be taken down. The other day, chancing to look into a periscope, I happened for a moment to see the top of a dark object moving along half hidden by the opposing parapet. Some earth was being thrown up over the breastwork just there, and probably the man had to step round the work which was going on. It was the first and only time I have seen a German in his own lines.
The German here really snipes much more with his field gun than with his rifle. He does use his rifle, too, and is a good shot, but slow. A spout of dust on the parapet—and a periscope has been shattered in the observer's hand within a few yards of us. But it is generally the German field gun that does his real sniping for him, shooting at any small body of men behind the lines. Half a dozen are quite enough to make a target, if he sees them.
The Turks used to snipe us at times with their field guns and mountain guns, but generally at certain fixed places—down near the mouth of the Aghyl Dere, for example. The German snipes with them more generally. There is no place that I have visited which can compare for perpetual "unhealthiness" to Anzac Beach, but it is quite possible that such places do exist.
The German gives you the impression of being a keener observer than the Turk. The hills and trees behind his lines are really within view of you over miles of your own country, though you scarcely realise it at first, and they are full of eyes. Also every fine day brings out his balloons like a crop of fat grubs—and also our own. In Gallipoli our ships had the only balloons—the Turks had all the hill-tops.
The aeroplane here affords so big a part of the hourly spectacle of warfare, and makes so great a difference in the obvious conditions of the fight, that he deserves a letter to himself. But of all the differences, by far the greatest is that our troops here have a beautiful country and a civilised, enlightened population at the back of them, which they are defending against the invading enemy whom they have always hoped to meet. They are amongst a people like their own, living in villages and cottages and paddocks not so different from those of their own childhood. Right up into the very zone of the trenches there are houses still inhabited by their owners. As we were entering a communication trench a few days ago we noticed four or five British soldiers walking across the open from a cottage. The officer with me asked them what they were doing. "We've just been to the inn there," they said.
The people of that house were still living in it, with our trenches wandering through their orchard.
In Gallipoli there were brigade headquarters in the actual fire trenches. From the headquarters of the division or the corps you could reach the line by ten minutes' hard walking, any time. It is a Sabbath day's journey here—indeed, the only possible way of covering the longer distances regularly is by motor-car or motor-cycle, and no one dreams of using any other means. Nearly the whole army, except the troops in the actual firing-line, lives in a country which is populated by its normal inhabitants.
And—wherein lies the greatest change of all—the troops in the trenches themselves can be brought back every few days into more or less normal country, and have always the prospect before them at the end of a few months of a stay in surroundings that are completely free from shell or rifle fire, and within reach of village shops and the normal comforts of civilisation. And throwing the weather and wet trenches and the rest all in, that difference more than makes up for all of them.
"You see, a fellow must look after himself a bit," one of them said to me the other day. "A man didn't take any care how he looked in Gallipoli; but here with these young ladies about, you can't go around like what we used to there."
Through one's mind there flashed well-remembered figures, mostly old slouch hat and sunburnt muscle—the lightest uniform I can recollect was an arrangement of a shirt secured by safety pins. Here they go more carefully dressed than if they were on leave in Melbourne or Sydney.
Yesterday the country was en fete, the roads swarming with young and old, and the fields with children picking flowers. The guns were bumping a few miles away—mostly at aeroplanes. I went to the trenches with a friend. Our last sight, as we came away from the region of them, was of a group of French boys and girls and a few elders around a haystack; and half a dozen big Australians, with rolled shirtsleeves, up on the farming machinery helping them to do the work of the year.
That is the difference.
The night air on every side of us was full of strange sound. It was not loud nor near, but it was there all the time. We could hear it even while we talked and above the sound of our footsteps on the cobbles of the long French highway. Ahead of us, and far on either side, came this continuous distant rattle. It was the sound of innumerable wagons carrying up over endless cobble stones the food and ammunition for another day.
A cart clattered past from the front with the jingle of trace chains and hammer of metal tyres upon stones. So one driver had finished his job for the night. Farther on was a sound of voices and a chink of spades; some way to our left across a field we can make out dark figures—they may be stunted willows along the far hedge, or they may be a working party going up, with their spades and picks over their shoulders, to one of those jobs which in this flat country can only be done by night.
Twenty miles behind the lines, or more, you can see every night along the horizon in front of you a constant low flicker of light—the flares thrown up by both sides over the long ribbon of No Man's Land—the ribbon which straggles without a break from one end of France to the other. We were getting very close to that barrier now—within a couple of miles of it; and the pure white stars of these glorified Roman candles were describing graceful curves behind a fretwork of trees an inch or two above the horizon. Every five or six seconds a rifle cracked somewhere along the line—very different from the ceaseless pecking of Gallipoli. Then a distant German machine-gun started its sprint, stumbled, went on again, tripped again. A second machine-gun farther down the line caught it up, and the two ran along in perfect step for a while. Then a third joined in, like some distant canary answering its mates. The first two stopped and left it trilling along by itself, catching occasionally like a motor-car engine that misfires, until it, too, stuttered into silence. "Some poor devils being killed, I suppose," you think to yourself, "suppose they've seen a patrol out in front of the lines, or a party digging in the open somewhere behind the trenches." You can't help crediting the Germans—at first, when you come to this place as a stranger—with being much more deadly than the Turks both with their machine-guns and their artillery. But you soon learn that it is by no means necessary that anyone is dying when you hear their machine-guns sing a chorus. They may chatter away for a whole night and nobody be in the least the worse for it. Their artillery can throw two or three hundred shells, or even more, into one of its various targets, not once but many times, and only a man or two be wounded; sometimes no one at all. War is alike in that respect all the world over, apparently; which is comforting.
Presently the road ends and the long sap begins. You plunge into the dark winding alley much as into some old city's ugly by-lane. It is Centennial Avenue. There is room in it to pass another man even when he is carrying a shoulderful of timber. But you must be careful when you do pass him, or one of you will find yourself waist deep in mud. I have said before that you do not walk on the bottom of the trench as you did in Gallipoli, but on a narrow wooden causeway not unlike the bridge on which ducks wander down from the henhouse to the yard—colloquially known as the "duck-boards." The days have probably passed when a man could be drowned in the mud of a communication trench. But it is always unpleasant to step off the duck-boards in wet weather. Seeing that the enemy may have fixed rifles trained on you at any bend of the trench, it is unwise to carry a light; and in a dark night and an unaccustomed trench you are almost sure to flounder.
A party of men loaded with new duck-boards is blocked ahead of you. As you stand there talking to another wayfarer and waiting for the unknown obstacle to move, a bullet flicks off the parapet a few feet away. It was at least a foot above the man's head and was clearly fired from some rifle laid on the trench during the daytime. Every now and then the parapet on one side becomes dense black against a dazzling white sky, and the trench wall on the other side becomes a glaring white background on which the shadow of your own head and shoulders sail slowly past you in inky black silhouette. The sharp-cut shadow gradually rises up the white trench wall, and all is black again until the enemy throws another flare.
As you talk there comes suddenly over the flats on your left a brilliant yellow flicker and a musical whine: "Whine—bang, whine—bang, whine—bang, whine—bang," just like that spoken very quickly.
"That's right over the working party in Westminster Abbey," says the last man in the procession. "Some bally fool lit a pipe, I suppose."
The man next him reckons it was about Lower George Street that got it that time. "They been registerin' that place all day on an' off," he says.
There was just that one swift salvo, and nothing more. Presently, when the procession moved on, we came across men who had a shower of earth thrown down their backs by the burst of those shells. Just one isolated salvo in the night on one particular spot. Goodness knows what the Germans saw or thought they saw. No one was hit, nothing was interfered with. But it is a great mistake to think it all foolishness. The most methodical soldier in the world is behind those other sandbags, and he doesn't do things without reason.
Farther on we came through a series of hovels, more like dog kennels than the shelters of men, to the dark parapet where men are always watching, watching, across a hundred yards or so of green pasture, the dark mud parapet on the other side. Here and there over a dug-out there fidgets a tiny toy aeroplane such as children make, or a miniature windmill. The aeroplane propeller is revolving slowly, tail away from the enemy, clicking and rattling as it turns. "Just-a-perfect-night-for-gas"—that is what the aeroplane propeller is saying.
Once only in the night there is a clatter opposite—one machine-gun started it, then two together, then forty or fifty rifles. Perhaps they think they saw a patrol. The Turks used to get precisely similar nerve-storms on Russell's Top. Nobody even troubles to remark it. Dawn breaks over the watching figures without one incident to report.
It is after the light has grown and become fixed that you will notice, if you look carefully for it, a thin film of blue smoke floating upwards from behind the sandbags on the other side of No Man's Land. Only a hundred and fifty yards away from you the German cook must be fitting his old browned and burned dixies and kerosene tins over their early morning fire.
We had our early morning coffee, too. And as we walked homewards we found that from a particular point we were looking straight at a distant barn roof which is in German territory. Near it, towards his trenches, ran a road. Of curiosity we turned our telescopes on to that path, and while we watched there strolled along it two figures in grey—grey tunics, grey loose trousers, little grey buttony caps, walking down the path towards us, talking, at their ease. Twenty seconds later along came another pair.
Clearly they had said to themselves, "We must not walk about here except in twos or threes or we shall draw a shell from one of those Verfluchte British whizz-bangs."
And so those Germans strolled—as we did—from their breakfast to their daily work.
Gallipoli had its own special difficulties for aeroplanes. There was no open space on which they could dream of alighting at Anzac; and one machine which had to come down at Suvla was shelled to pieces as soon as it landed. So planes had to live at Imbros, and there were ten miles of sea to be crossed before work began and after it finished, and some planes, which went out and were never heard of, were probably lost in that sea. There were brave flights far over the enemy's country. But, until the very last days at Helles, there was scarcely ever an enemy's plane which put up a successful fight against our own.
In France the enemy is almost as much in the air as we are. He has to be reckoned with all the time, and fierce fighting in the air, either against German machines or in face of German shell-fire such as we scarcely even imagined in watching the air-fighting of Gallipoli, is the daily spectacle of the trenches. We have seen a brave flight by a German low down within rifle-shot. But never anything to compare with the indifference to danger of the British pilots.
I was in the lines the other day when there sounded close at hand salvo after salvo so fast that I took it for a bombardment. The Germans were firing at one of our aeroplanes. It was flying as low as I ever saw a plane fly in Gallipoli—you could make out quite clearly the rings painted on the planes, which meant a British machine. A sputtering rifle fire broke out from the German trenches opposite—their infantry were firing at him. Then came that salvo again—twelve reports in quick succession—a sheaf of shells whining overhead like so many puppies—burst after burst in the sky, some short, some far past him—you would swear they must have gone through him—one right over him.
The hearts of our men were in their mouths as they watched. He sailed straight through the shrapnel puffs, turned sharply, and steered away. A new salvo broke out over the sky where he should have been. He immediately swerved into it like a footballer making a dodging run, then turned away again. A minute later a third sheaf of shells burst behind him, following him up. "He ought to be safe now," one thought to oneself, "but my word, they nearly got him—"
And then, as we were congratulating him on having escaped with a whole skin, and breathing more freely at the thought—he turned slowly and came straight up towards those guns again.
The Australians holding the trenches were delighted. "My word, he's got more guts than what I have," said one. Sheaf after sheaf of shells burst in the air all about him; but he steered straight up the middle of them till he reached the point he wanted to make, and then wheeled and made his patrol up and down over the trenches. He was flying higher but still low, and the crackle of rifles again broke out from the German lines. He was within the range of the feeblest "Archie" even at his highest. They were literally just so many big shot-guns, firing at a great bird; only this bird came up time and again to be shot at, simply trusting to the chance that they would not hit him.
"The rest may take their luck, but I should be dead sick if they was to get him," grunted a big Australian as he tugged a pull-through out of his rifle.
Of course they will get him if he does that often—you only need two eyes to know that. The communiques tell of it every week. As you scurry past the hinterland of the lines in your motor-car you will sometimes see two or three aeroplanes flying like great herons overhead. They seem to be in company, keeping station almost, and holding on the same course, all mates together—until you catch the cough of a machine-gun, and realise that they are actually engaged in the deadliest sort of duel which can possibly be fought in these days. In a battle of infantry you are mostly hit by an unaimed shot, or a shot aimed into a mass of men. Even if a man fires at you once, it is probably someone else whom he aims at next time. But in the air the man who shoots at you is coming after you, and intends to go on shooting at you until he kills. The moment when you see an enemy's plane, and realise that you have to fight it, must be one to set even the strongest nerves tingling.
Generally the aeroplane with the black crosses on its wings is very high—barely visible. Sometimes, when the other planes are near it, it swoops steeply to earth behind the German lines. Or it may be that, far behind our own lines, you see a plane diving to earth at an angle which makes you wonder whether it is falling or being steered. It straightens out suddenly, and lands a few fields away. By the time you are there, a cluster of khaki is already round it. An English boy steps out of it, flushed and excited, and with intense strain written in his eyes and in every jerk of his head. Out of the seat just behind him they are lifting a man with a terrible wound in his side. In the arms of the seat from which they lift him are two holes as big as a shell would make—but they were not made by a shell. A cluster of bullets from the machine-gun of a German plane at close range has passed in at one side of the seat and out at the other. The rifle which the observer was carrying dropped from his hands out into space, and the pilot saw it fall just before he dived.
The German pilots are sometimes youngsters too—not very unlike our own. Our first sight of active war in France was when the train stopped at a country siding many miles behind the lines, and two British soldiers with fixed bayonets marched a third man—a youngster with a slight fair moustache—over the level crossing in front of us. He wore a grey peaked cap and a short overcoat jacket with a warm collar and tall, tight-fitting boots—very much like those of our own officers; and he walked with a big, swift stride, looking straight ahead of him. Somewhere, far over behind the German lines, they were probably expecting him at that moment. His servant would be getting ready his room. He had left the aerodrome only an hour before, and flown over strange lines which we have never seen, but which had become as familiar as his home to him, with no idea than to be back, as he always was before, within an hour or so. And then something seems to be wrong with the plane—he has to come down in a strange country; and within an hour he is out of the war for good and all. He strides along biting his lip. His comrades will expect him for an hour or so. By dinner-time they will realise that there is another member gone from their mess.
While I am writing these words someone runs in to say that a German aeroplane has been shot down—came down in flames, they say, and tore a great hole in the roadside. There seems to be some such news every day, now it is one of ours, now one of theirs. It is a brave game.
I suppose it needs a sportsman, even if he is a German, to fight in a service like that. The pity of it that he is fighting for such an ugly cause.
THE COMING STRUGGLE: OUR TASK
[Up to this time the Australians had been in quiet trenches in the green lowlands near Armentieres. From this time the coming struggle began to loom ahead.]
France, May 23rd.
I sat down to write an article about a log-chopping competition. But the irony of writing such things with other things on one's mind is too much even for a war correspondent. One's pen goes on strike. One impression above all has been brought home in the two months we have spent in France. For some reason, people at home are colossally ignorant of the task now in front of them. We have now seen three theatres of war, and it was the same everywhere. Indeed, in Gallipoli we ourselves were just as ignorant of the state of affairs elsewhere. All the news we had of Salonica came from the English newspapers. We thought, "However difficult things may be here, at any rate the Salonica army is only waiting for a few more men before it cuts the railway to Constantinople." Then somebody came from Salonica, and we found that the army there was comforting itself with exactly the same reflections about us. As for England, everyone who reached us from there arrived with the conviction that we needed only a few more men to push through.
When the attempt to get through from Suvla failed the public turned to Bulgaria, and, on the strength of what they read, many of those on the Peninsula could not help doing the same. Now that we see with our eyes the nature of Britain's task in France, there is only one depressing thing about it, and that is that one doubts if the British people have any more idea of its magnitude than it had of the difficulties of Gallipoli.
The world hears from the British public vague talk of some future offensive. It goes without saying that we hear nothing of any plans here. If there were any, it would be in London that they would first become common knowledge. But if such an offensive ever does happen, have the British people any idea of its difficulties? In this warfare, when you have brought up such artillery as was unbelievable even in the first year of the war, and reduced miles of trenches to powder, and have walked over the line of the works in front of you, a handful of batmen and Headquarters' cooks may still hold up the greatest attack yet delivered, and you may spend the next month dashing your strength away against a barrier of ever-increasing toughness.
If an offensive ever is made, we know it will not be made without good reason for its success. But everything which one has seen points to the conclusion that a vague belief in the success of such an offensive ought not to be the sole mental effort that a great part of the nation makes towards winning the war. And yet, from what I saw lately during a recent visit to Great Britain, I should say that such was the case. "If we fail to break through," the public says, "surely the Russians will manage it, or the French will succeed this time." Wherever we have seen the war there is always this tendency to look elsewhere for success. There is not the slightest doubt we have success in our power. The game is in our hands if we will only play it. The talk about our resources and staying power is not all "hot air," as the Americans say. The resources were there, and it was always known that in the later stages of the war, when Germany and our Allies who entered the war at final strength, had used most of their resources, then those of Britain would become decisive because she had not yet used them. That stage we are reaching now—Britain's resources measured against those of Germany. We have the advantage in entering it. The danger is that while we squander our wealth without organisation, the German, by bringing all his brains and resolution to bear on the problem, may so eke out his strained resources as to outstay our rich ones.
One sees not the least sign that the British people understand this. I do not know how it is in Australia, but in Britain life runs its normal course. Gigantic sums flow away daily, and the only efforts at economy one hears of are a Daylight Saving Act adopted only because Germany adopted it first; a list of prohibited imports and petty economies, which we mistook when first we read it for an elaborate satire; and a pious hope, in the true voluntary and official British style, that meat would be shunned on two days in the week.
By way of contrast there are dished out for our encouragement reports of all the pains which the Germans are put to to economise food in their country. Potatoes instead of flour, meat twice a week, food strictly regulated by ticket, children taught to count between each mouthful in order to avoid over-eating. We are supposed to draw comfort from this contrast.
It is the most depressing literature we have. The obvious comment is, "Well, there is a nation organised to win a war—that is the sort of nation which the men in the opposite trenches have behind them. A nation which has organised itself for war, and is already organising itself for peace after the war"; and all that we, who are organised neither for war nor peace, have, in answer to a national effort like that, is an ignorant jeer at what is really the most formidable of the dangers threatening us.
If the British Empire took the war as business, were ready to disturb its daily life, alter its daily habits, to throw on the scrap-heap its sacred individualism, and do and live for the national cause, no one doubts but we could win this war so as to avoid an inconclusive peace. Some of us were talking to a middle-aged British merchant. We had left our fellows in France cheerfully facing unaccustomed mud and frosts, cheerfully accepting the chance of being blown into undiscoverable atoms or living horribly maimed in mind or body, cheerfully accepting all this with the set, deliberate purpose of fighting on for a conclusive settlement—one which put out of question for the future the rule of brute force, or tearing up of treaties, or renewal of the present war. We had left those fellows fighting for an ideal they perfectly well realised, and cheerful in the belief that they would attain it.
The merchant was dressed in black morning coat and black tie, and looked in every way a very respectable merchant. He was full of respectable hopes. But when we spoke of a long war he drew a long face and talked lugubriously of dislocated trade and strain upon capital—doubted how long the industry could stand it, and shook his head.
Whenever one thinks of that worthy man one is overcome with a great anger. What he meant was that if the war went on he might be broken, and that was a calamity which he could not be expected to face. We thought of all those fellows in France—British, Australians, Canadians—cheerfully offering their lives for an ideal at which this worthy citizen shied because it might cost him his fortune. Suppose it did, suppose he had to leave his fine home and end his days in a villa, suppose he had to start as a clerk in someone else's counting-house, what was it beside what these boys were offering? I think of a fair head which I had seen matted in red mud, of young nerves of steel shattered beyond repair, of a wild night at Helles, when I found, stumbling beside me in the first bitterness of realisation, a young officer who a few yards back had been shot through both eyes. And here was this worthy man shaking his head for fear that their ideals might interfere with his business.
As to which, one can only say that, if the British nation, or the Australian nation, because it shirks interference with its normal life, because it is afraid of State enterprise, because of any personal or individual consideration whatever, lets this struggle go by default, and by inconclusive peace, to the people which is organised body and soul in support of the grey tunics behind the opposite parapet, then it is a betrayal of every gallant heart now sleeping under the crosses on Gallipoli, and of every boyish head that has reddened the furrows of France.
There are good reasons for saying that the struggle is now with the British Empire. With your staying power you can win. But in Heaven's name, if you wish to win, if you have in you any of the ideals for which those boys have died, cast your old prejudices to the winds and organise your staying power. Organise! Organise! Organise!
IN A FOREST OF FRANCE
France, May 26th.
It was in "A forest of France," as the programme had it. The road ran down a great aisle with the tall elm trees reaching to the sky, and stretching their long green fingers far above, like the slender pillars of a Gothic cathedral. Down the narrow road below sagged a big motor-bus, painted grey, like a battleship; and, after it, a huge grey motor-lorry; and, in front and behind them, an odd procession of motor-cars of all sizes, bouncing awkwardly from one hollow in the road to another.
Out of the dark interior of the motor-bus, as we passed it, there groped a head with a grey slouch hat. It came slowly round on its long, brown, wrinkled neck until it looked into our car. "Hey, mate," it said, "is this the track to the races?" Then it smiled at the landscape in general and withdrew into the interior like a snail into its shell. In this bus was an Australian Brass Band.
We drew up where there was a collection of motor-cars, lorries, and odd riding horses along the roadside, exactly as you might see at the picnic races. We struck inland up one of those glades which the French foresters leave at intervals running from side to side of their well-managed forests. The green moss sank like a soft carpet beneath our feet. The little watergutters bubbled beneath the twigs as we trod across them. The cowslips and anemones nodded as our boots brushed them. Hundreds of birds sang in the branches, and the sunlight came down in shafts from the lacework patches of sky far above, and lit up patches of grass, and fallen leaves, and moss-covered tree trunks, on which sat a crowd chiefly of Australians and New Zealanders. As one of the English correspondents said, "It was just such a forest as Shakespeare wrote about." Who would have thought that scene believable two years before?
A contest had been arranged between Australasians and Canadians in France to decide which could fell trees in the quickest time. It began really with the French forest authorities, who insisted on the well-known forest rule that no young trees under one metre twenty in girth must be felled after the middle of May, because if you cut the young tree after the sap begins to rise it will not grow again. The British officer in control of the forest had obtained an extension until the end of May, but he had to get felled by then all the young timber that he wanted before September. He had borrowed some Maoris to help, and he noticed how they cut and the sort of sportsmen they were. He was struck with an idea. A French forest officer was with him. "How long do you think it would take a New Zealander to chop down a tree like that?" asked the Frenchman. "A minute," was the answer. "Unbelievable," exclaimed the Frenchman. A Maori was called up, and the tree was down in forty seconds.
After that a contest was arranged between Maoris and French wood-cutters. Trees had to be cut in the French style, which, it must be admitted, is much neater and more economical, and about five times as laborious. The trees are cut off at ground level, and so straightly that the stump would not trip you if it were in the middle of the road. Each team consisted of six men, and felled twelve small trees, using its own accustomed axes. The Maoris won by four minutes.
It was out of this that the big contest sprang. The Canadians and Australasians challenged one another. This time the teams were to be of three men. Each team was to cut three trees—only service axes to be used; but otherwise each man could cut in any style he wished. The trees averaged about two feet thick—hard wood. The teams started to practise. And the forest officers' problem was solved.
The teams tossed for trees, and tossed for the order in which they were to cut. I believe that when some question arose out of this toss, the Maoris immediately offered to toss again, in order to have no advantage from the result.
It was interesting to see the difference of style. All three types of colonial woodsmen cut the tree almost breast high, but the Australian seemed to be the only one that took advantage of that understroke, with a hiss through the clenched teeth, which looks so formidable when you watch our timber-getters. It was a Canadian team which started. They cut coolly, and the one whom I watched struck one by his splendid condition. A wiry man, not thick-set, but well built and athletic, who never turned a hair. I think he was perhaps too cool to win. His comrades were not quite so fast as he. They cut the tree with a fairly narrow scarf, the top cut coming down at a steep angle, and the lower cut coming straight in to meet it, so that the upper end of the stump, when the tree falls, is left cut off as straight as a table top. Their first tree crashed in fourteen minutes, the next in fifteen, and then they all three tackled the last and toughest, which fell in twenty-one; fifty minutes altogether when the three times were added.
The next team was Australian. From the first rapid swing one's anxiety was whether they could possibly stand the pace. They tackled the job so much more fiercely than the Canadians. I watched a young Tasmanian, his whole soul in it, brow wrinkled, and sweat pouring from his face. You would have thought that he was cutting almost wildly, till you noticed how every cut went home exactly on top of the cut before. These Australians—they were Western Australians mostly—made a wide scarf, the top cut coming down at an angle, and the lower cut coming up at a similar angle to meet it, making a wide open angle between the two. The odds would, I think, have been taken by most of those who went there as being in favour of the Canadians; and it was a great surprise when the three Australian trees were all down in thirty-one minutes and eight seconds.
The New Zealanders cut third. Their team consisted of Maoris. They did not seem to be cutting with the fire of the Australians. There was not the visible energy; their actions struck one as easier, and one doubted if their great, lithe, brown muscles were carrying them so fast.
Yet the time told the truth. Their three trees were down in twenty-two minutes and forty seconds, and no one else approached them. One Canadian team improved the Canadian time to forty-five minutes twenty-two seconds. The Maoris seemed mostly to cut with a narrower scarf even than the Canadians, both upper and lower cuts sloping downward at a narrow angle. In fairness it must be said that the Maoris had practised about six weeks, the Canadians and Australians about one week.
An Australian won the log-chopping competition; and the Canadians won with the crosscut saw. A New Zealander won the competition for style.
Later the men were mostly sitting watching the Frenchmen, workers in the forest, giving an exhibition cut. Two of a Canadian team were sitting on a log next to me, yarning in the slow, quizzical drawl of the Canadian countryman, when some of their mates sat down beside them. The man next me turned to them, and the next instant they were all talking French among themselves, talking it as their native tongue. Their officer, a handsome youngster, spoke it too. It was not till that moment that I realised that most of these Canadian woodsmen here were French.
Meanwhile the exhibition chop went on. The French woodsmen were digging at the roots of their trees with long, ancient axes, more like a cold chisel than a modern axe. "I think I could do as well with a knife and fork," said one great kindly Australian as he watched with a smile.
But, to my mind, that exhibition was the most impressive of all. For every one of those who took part in it was either an old man or a slip of a slender boy.
France, June 28th.
It was about three months ago, more or less. The German observer, crouched up in the platform behind the trunk of a tree, or in a chimney with a loose brick in it—in a part of the world where the country cottages, peeping over the dog-rose hedges, have more broken bricks in them than whole ones—saw down a distant lane several men in strange hats. The telescope wobbled a bit, and in the early light all objects in the landscape took on much the same grey colour.
The observer rubbed his red eyes and peered again. Down the white streak winding across a distant green field were coming a couple more of these same hats. I expect Fritz saw a good number of them in those days. Many of the wearers of those hats had never seen an aeroplane before; much less two aeroplanes, fighting a duel with machine-guns at close range, 10,000 feet over their heads, or being sniped at by a battery of hidden 15-pounder guns, every shot marking itself for the open-mouthed spectators by its little white cotton-wool shell burst.
The German observer spent several hours jotting painful notes into a well-thumbed pocket-book, staring in the intervals through his telescope. Then the tree shook. Something ponderous from below felt its way up the creaking ladder. A red face, like the face of the sun, peered over the platform.
"Anything new, Fritz?" it puffed.
"Ja; those new troops we have noticed yesterday—I think they were Australians."
So the observer sent it back to his officer, and his officer sent it back to the brigade, and the brigade sent it on to the division. The division was a little sceptical. "That crowd is always making these wild discoveries," grunted the divisional Intelligence Officer, but he thought it worth while passing it on to the Army Corps, who in their turn sent it to the Army; and so, in due course, it arrived in those awe-inspiring circles where lives the great German military brain.
"So that is where they have turned up," said a very big man with spectacles—a big man in more ways than one. And a note went down in red ink in a particular page of a huge index, to appear duly printed in the next edition of that portentous volume. Only, after the note, there was a query.
Far away at the front, Fritz told his mates over their evening coffee that the new regiment whose heads they had been noticing over the parapet opposite were Australians.
"Black swine dogs, one of them nearly had me as I was bringing the mail-bags," snorted a weedy youth scarcely out of his teens, looking over the top of his coffee pot. "I always said that was a dangerous gap where the communication trench crosses the ditch."
"You babies should keep your stupid heads down like your elders," retorted a grizzled reservist as he stuffed tobacco into the green china bowl of a real German pipe.
The talk gradually went along the front line for about the distance of one company's front on either side, that there had been a relief in the British trenches, and that there were Australians over there. One man had heard the sergeant saying so in the next bay of the trench; it meant exactly as much to them as it would to Australian troops to hear the corps opposite them was Bavarian or Saxon or Hanoverian. They knew the English and the French possessed some of these colonial corps. They had been opposite the Algerians in the Champagne before they came to this part of the line.
"They are ugly swine to meet in the dark," they thought. "These white and black colonial regiments."
Fritz lives very much in his dug-out—is very good at keeping his head below the parapet—and he thought very little more about it. His head was much fuller of the arrival of the weekly parcel of butter and cake from his hardworking wife at home, and of the coming days when his battalion would go out of the trenches into billets in the villages, when he might get a pass to go to a picture theatre in Lille—he had kept the old pass because a slight tear of the corner or a snick opposite the date would make it good for use on half a dozen occasions yet. He did not bother his head about what British division was holding the trenches opposite to him.
But that divisional Intelligence Officer did—he worried very much. He wanted to get a certain query removed from an index as soon as possible.
It is always best to get information for nothing. A good way to do this is to make the enemy talk; and you may be able to make him talk back if you send over a particular sort of talk to him. So a message was thrown over into our lines, "Take care"; and "You offal dogs must bleed for France."
This effort did not fetch any incriminating reply; and so, on a later night, a lantern was flashed over the parapet, "Australian, go home," it winked. "Go in the morning—you will be dead in the evening; we are good."
Later again appeared a notice-board, "Advance Australia fair—if you can."
Indeed, Fritz became quite talkative, and put up a notice-board, "English defeat at sea—seven cruisers sunk, one damaged, eleven other craft sunk. Hip! Hip! Hurrah!"
This did draw at last some of the men in the front line, and they slipped over the parapet a placard giving a British account of the losses in the North Sea fight. The putting up of notices is an irregular proceeding, and this placard had to be withdrawn at once, even before the Germans could properly read it. The result was an immediate message posted on the German trenches, "Once more would you let us see the message?" Still there was no sign from our trenches. So another plaintive request appeared on the German parapet, "We beg of you to show again the table of the fleet."
But they were Saxons. Clearly they did not believe all that their Prussian brother told them about his naval victory. Another day they hoisted a surreptitious request, "Shoot high—peace will be declared June 15." They evidently had their gossip in the German trenches just as we have it in ours—and as we had it in Sydney and Melbourne—absurd rumours which run all round the line for a week, and which no amount of experience prevents some people from believing.
"After all, these 'furphies' make life worth living in the trenches," as one of our men said to me the other day. All the Germans, in a certain part of the line opposite, now firmly believe that the war is going to end on August 17th.
But this is merely the gossip of the German trenches telegraphed across No Man's Land. I do not know how far the divisional Staff Officer satisfied himself as the result of all his messages, but he did not satisfy the gentleman with the big index.
"There is one way to find out who is there," the Big Man said, "and that is always the same—to go there and bring some of them back."
And so twice in the next three weeks the German artillery fired about L30,000 worth of shells, and a party of picked men stole across the open, and in spite of a certain loss on one occasion they took back a few prisoners. And the query went out of the index.
It would be quite easy to present to the German for a penny the facts which it cost him L60,000 and good men's lives to obtain. When you know this, you can understand why the casualties reported in the papers do not any longer state the units of the men who have suffered them.
THE GREAT BATTLE BEGINS
France, July 1st.
Below me, in the dimple beyond the hill on which I sit, is a small French town. Straight behind the town is the morning sun, only an hour risen. Between the sun and the town, and, therefore, only just to be made out through the haze of sunlight on the mists, are two lines—a nearer and a farther—of gently sloping hill-tops. On those hills is being fought one of the greatest battles in history. It is British troops who are fighting it, and French. The Canadians are in their lines in the salient. The Australians and New Zealanders—it has now been officially stated—are at Armentieres.
A few minutes ago, at half-past six by summer-time, the British bombardment, which has continued heavily for six days, suddenly came in with a crash, as an orchestra might enter on its grand finale. Last night, some of us who were out here watched the British shells playing up and down the distant skyline, running over it from end to end as a player might run the fingers of one hand lightly over the piano keys. There were three or four flashes every second, here or there in that horizon; night and day for six days that had continued. Within the last few minutes, starting with two or three big heart bangs from a battery near us, the noise suddenly expanded into a constant detonation. It was exactly as though the player began, on an instant, to use all the keys at once.
We now ought to be able to see, from where we sit with our telescopes, the bursts of our shells on those distant ridges. But I cannot swear that I see a single one. The sound of the bombarding is like the sound of some titanic iron tank which a giant has set rolling rapidly down an endless hill. We can hear the soft whine of scores of shells hurrying all together through the air. Every five minutes or so a certain howitzer, tucked into some hiding-place, vents its periodical growl, and we can hear the huge projectile climbing slowly, up his steep gradient with a hiss like that of water from a fire-hose. There is some other heavy shell which passes us also, somewhere in the middle of his flight. We cannot distinguish the report of the gun, and we do not hear the shell burst; but at regular intervals we can quite distinctly hear the monster making his way leisurely across our front.
We can distinguish in the uproar the occasional distant crash of a heavy shell-burst. But not one burst can I see. The sun upon the mist makes the distant hill crests just a vague blue screen against the sky.
There is one point on those hills where the two lines of trenches ought to be clearly visible to us. With a good glass on a clear day you should be able to distinguish anything as big as a man at that distance—much more a line of men. Within less than an hour, at half-past seven, the infantry will leave our trenches over twenty miles of front and launch a great attack. The country town below us is Albert—behind the centre of the British attack. One can see the tall, battered church tower rising against the mist, with the gilt figure of the Virgin hanging at right angles from the top like the arm of a bracket. On the hills beyond can just be made out the woods of Fricourt behind the German line. They are in the background behind Albert church tower. The white ruins of Fricourt may be the blur in the background south of them. We shall be attacking Fricourt to-day.
The Germans have not a single "sausage" in the air that I can see. The sausage is the very descriptive name for the observation balloon. We have twenty-one of them up, specking the sky as clearly as a bacteriologist's slide is specked with microbes.
The Germans used to have a whole fleet of them looking down over us. But a week ago our aeroplanes bombed all along the line, and eight of them, more or less, went down in flames within a single afternoon.
7.10 a.m.—Six of our aeroplanes are flying over, very high, in a wedge-shaped flight like that of birds. Single British aeroplanes have been coming and going since the bombardment started. I have not seen any German plane. The distant landscape is becoming fainter. The flashes of our guns can be seen at intervals all over the slopes immediately below us, and their blast is clearly shown by the film of smoke and dust which hurries into the air. The haze makes a complete screen between us and the battle.
7.15 a.m.—Our fire has become noticeably hotter. Some of us thought it had relaxed slightly after the first ten minutes. I doubt if it really did—probably we were growing accustomed to the sound. There is no doubt about its increase now. We can hear the crump, crump, crump of heavy explosives almost incessantly. I fancy our heavy trench mortars must have joined in.
7.20 a.m.—Another sound has suddenly joined in the uproar. It is the rapid detonation of our lighter trench mortars. I have never heard anything like this before—the detonation of these crowds of mortars is as rapid as if it were the rattle of musketry. Indeed, if it were not for the heavy detonation one would put it down for rifle fire. Only eight minutes now, and the infantry goes over the parapet along the whole line.
 Note.—What I took for the sound of trench mortars was almost certainly that of the British field guns. These heavy Somme bombardments were then a novelty, and the idea that field guns could be firing like musketry did not enter one's head. What I took for the sound of heavy trench mortars was also, certainly, that of German shells.
7.27 a.m.—The heaviness of the bombardment has slightly decreased. A large number of guns must be altering range on to the German back lines in order to allow our infantry to make their attack. The hills are gradually becoming clearer as the sun gets higher, but the haze will be far too thick for us to see them go over.
7.29 a.m.—One minute to go. I have not seen a single German shell burst yet. They may be firing on our trenches; they are not on our batteries.
7.32 a.m.—Ever so distant, but quite distinctly, under the thunder of the bombardment I can hear the sound of far-off rifle firing.
So they are into it—and there are Germans still left in those trenches.
7.35 a.m.—Through the bombardment I can hear the chatter of a machine-gun. And there is a new thunder added, quite distinguishable from the previous sounds. It is only the last minute or so that one has noticed it—a low, ceaseless pulsation.
It is the drumming of the German artillery upon our charging infantry. Behind that blue screen they must be in the thick of it. God be with our men!
THE BRITISH—FRICOURT AND LA BOISELLE
France, July 3rd.
Yesterday three of us walked out from near the town of Albert to a hill-side within a few hundred yards of Fricourt. And there all day, lying amongst the poppies and cornflowers, we watched the fight of the hour—the struggle around Fricourt Wood and the attack on the village of La Boiselle.
To call these places villages conveys the idea of recognisable streets and houses. I suppose they were villages once, as pretty as the other villages of France; each with its red roofs showing out against its dark, overshadowing woodland. They are no more villages now than a dust-heap. Each is a tumbled heap of broken bricks, like the remains of a Chinese den after it has been pulled down by order of the local council. Through this heap runs a network of German trenches, here and there breaking through some still recognisable fragment of a wall.
It was by the sight of two or three English soldiers clambering up one of these jagged fragments and peering into whatever lay beyond it, that we knew, as we came in sight of Fricourt, that the village had already been taken. A string of men was winding past the end of the dust-heap into the dark wood behind it, where they became lost to view. Somewhere in the heart of the wood was the knock-knock of an occasional rifle. So the fight had gone on thither.
In front of us was a long gentle hill-slope, gridironed with trenches which broke out above the green grass like the wandering burrow of a mole. The last visible trench was in redder soil and ran along the crest of the hill. It passed through or near to several small woods and clumps of trees—the edges of them torn to shreds with shell-fire. They stood up against the skyline. In one of them, clearly visible, was a roadside crucifix.
Our men possessed the whole of that slope right into the trench at the top. We could see occasional figures strolling about the old German trenches—probably from posts established here or there behind the line of battle. All day long odd men wandered up or down some part of the hill-side—a guard with a German prisoner coming down, a messenger or stretcher-bearers going up. Now and then one could even see heads, with our flat steel helmets on them, showing out from the red trench against the skyline. So the fighting could not be severe at the moment on the crest of the hill.
Yet we were clearly not holding the whole of that skyline trench. On its southern or right-hand shoulder the hill ran into Fricourt Wood, which covered all that end of it. At the lower end of the wood, standing out against it, was the dusty yellow ruin which once was Fricourt. Behind that shoulder of the hill was a valley, of which we could see the gentle green slopes stretching away to Mametz and Montauban, both taken the day before, in the first half-day's fighting. The green slopes must have been covered with the relics of that attack. But the kindly grass, the uncut growth of two years, hid them; and the valley, except for a few thin white trench lines, might have been any other smiling summer landscape.
When the wave of our attack swept through that country the Germans in Fricourt village and wood still held on. Another promontory was left jutting out into the wave of our attack in a similar village on our left—La Boiselle, where the main road for Bapaume runs straight out from our lines through the German front. We could see this heap of yellow-brown ruins sticking up beyond the left shoulder of the opposite hill much as Fricourt did on its right. There was a valley between, but it could only be guessed. Boiselle, too, had the remains of a small wood rising behind it. The bark hung from its ragged stumps as the rigging droops from the broken masts of a wreck.
We were looking another way, watching our troops trying to creep up to the extreme right-hand end of the red trench on the top of the hill. We could see them on the centre of the crest; but here, where the trench ran into the upper end of Fricourt Wood, there was apparently a check. Men were lined up at this point, not in the trench, but lying down on the surface a little on our side of it. From beyond that corner of the wood there broke out occasionally a chatter of machine-gun fire. Evidently the Germans still hung on there. The bursts of machine-gun must have been against small rushes of our men across the open. I believe that one British unit was attacking round this left-hand corner of the wood while another was attacking around its right. The drive through the wood was going forward at the same time. Clearly they were having some effect; for out of the wood there suddenly appeared a number of figures. Someone thought they were our men coming back, until it was noticed that they were unarmed, and held their hands up. They were a party of the enemy who had surrendered, and for the next quarter of an hour we watched them being marched slowly down the hill-side opposite.
Our advance here seemed to be held up by some cause we could not see. German 5.9 shell were falling just on our side of Fricourt village, and in a line from there up the valley behind our attack. It was not a really heavy barrage—big black shell-bursts at intervals on the ground, helped by fairly constant white puffs of shrapnel in the air above them. Just then our attention was attracted in quite another direction: La Boiselle.
It had been fairly obvious for some time that La Boiselle was about to be attacked. While the rest of the landscape before us was only treated to an occasional shell-burst, heavy explosions had been taking place in this clump of ruins. Huge roan-coloured bouquets of brickdust and ashes leaped from time to time into the air and slowly dissolved into a tawny mist which floated slowly beyond the scarred edge of the hill. It must have been a big howitzer shell, or perhaps a very large trench mortar bomb, which was making them. Gradually most of our artillery in the background to the left of us seemed to be converging upon this village. Suddenly, at a little before 4 p.m., there lashed on to the place the shrapnel from three or four batteries of British field guns. They seemed to be fired as fast as they could be served. Shell after shell laid whip strokes across the dry earth as swiftly as a man could ply a lash. One knew perfectly well that our infantry must now be advancing for the attack, and that this hailstorm was to make the garrison, if any were left, keep its heads down. But the shoulder of the hill prevented us from seeing where the infantry was going to issue.
In the turmoil which covered that corner we scarcely noticed that the nature of the shelling had suddenly changed. Our shell-bursts had gone much farther up the hill—one realised that; and heavy black clouds were spurting into the air below Boiselle, just behind the hill's shoulder. The crash, crash, crash, crash of four heavy shells, one following another almost as quickly as you would read the words, focused all one's attention on that point. The fire on it was growing. The Germans were shooting down a valley, almost a funnel, invisible to us. But we could see that the fire was increasing every minute; 4.2's were joining in, and field guns; the lighter guns firing shrapnel, the heavier guns high explosive. The black smoke of German high explosive streamed up the valley like a thundercloud. La Boiselle was entirely hidden by it.
There could be no doubt now where our infantry was to attack. That cauldron was the barrier of shell fire which the German artillery was throwing in front of them.
It seemed no living thing could face it. Our fire had lengthened at about 4 o'clock. The German barrage began almost immediately after. Minute after minute passed without a sign of any troops of ours. Our spirits fell. "It is one of these fearful attacks on small objectives," one thought, "where the enemy knows exactly where you must come out, and is able to converge an impenetrable artillery fire on that one small point. If you attack on a wide front, your artillery is bound to leave some of the enemy's machine-guns unharmed. And when you have to mop up the small points that are left, and attack on a small front, he gets you with his artillery—you get it one way or the other." One took it for granted that the head of this attack had been turned.
Suddenly, out of the mist, came the sound of a few rifle shots. Then bursts of a machine-gun. It could only be the Germans firing on advancing British infantry.
And presently they came out, running just beyond the shoulder of that hill. We could only see their heads at first, tucked down into it as a man bends when he hurries into a hailstorm. Presently the track on which they were advancing—I don't know whether it was originally a road or a trench, but it is a sort of chalky sandhill now—brought them for a moment rather to our side of the hill into partial shelter. Each section that reached the place crouched down there for a moment. Spurts of shrapnel lashed past them whirling the white dust. Black rolling clouds sprang into existence on the earth beside them. Every minute one expected to see one of them obliterate the whole party. But, at the end of a minute or so, someone would pick himself up and run on—and the remainder would follow.
 What we thought was a road or sandhill I afterwards found to be the upturned edge of one of the two giant mine craters, south of La Boiselle.
Not all of them. Some there were who did not stir with the rest. Other figures came running up, heads down into it, often standing out black against white bursts of chalk dust. I saw one gallant fellow racing up quite alone, never stopping, running as a man runs a flat race. But there were an increasing number who never moved. And, though we watched them for an hour, they were still there motionless at the end of it.
For thirty minutes batches continued to come up. We could see them building up a line a little farther up the hill, where another bank gave cover. Then movement stopped and our heavy shell-bursts in La Boiselle began again. The whole affair was being repeated a step farther forward. The last we saw was the men leaping over the bank and down into the space between them and the village.
This morning we went to the same view point. The firing had gone well beyond Fricourt Wood. They were German shells which were now falling on the smoking site of La Boiselle.
On the white bank there still lay twelve dark figures.
THE DUG-OUTS OF FRICOURT
France, July 3rd.