NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
by Philip Gibbs
Part One OBSERVERS AND COMMANDERS
Part Two THE SCHOOL OF COURAGE
Part Three THE NATURE OF A BATTLE
Part Four A WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Part Five THE HEART OF A CITY
Part Six PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
Part Seven THE FIELDS OF ARMAGEDDON
Part Eight FOR WHAT MEN DIED
In this book I have written about some aspects of the war which, I believe, the world must know and remember, not only as a memorial of men's courage in tragic years, but as a warning of what will happen again—surely—if a heritage of evil and of folly is not cut out of the hearts of peoples. Here it is the reality of modern warfare not only as it appears to British soldiers, of whom I can tell, but to soldiers on all the fronts where conditions were the same.
What I have written here does not cancel, nor alter, nor deny anything in my daily narratives of events on the western front as they are now published in book form. They stand, I may claim sincerely and humbly, as a truthful, accurate, and tragic record of the battles in France and Belgium during the years of war, broadly pictured out as far as I could see and know. My duty, then, was that of a chronicler, not arguing why things should have happened so nor giving reasons why they should not happen so, but describing faithfully many of the things I saw, and narrating the facts as I found them, as far as the censorship would allow. After early, hostile days it allowed nearly all but criticism, protest, and of the figures of loss.
The purpose of this book is to get deeper into the truth of this war and of all war—not by a more detailed narrative of events, but rather as the truth was revealed to the minds of men, in many aspects, out of their experience; and by a plain statement of realities, however painful, to add something to the world's knowledge out of which men of good-will may try to shape some new system of relationship between one people and another, some new code of international morality, preventing or at least postponing another massacre of youth like that five years' sacrifice of boys of which I was a witness.
PART ONE. OBSERVERS AND COMMANDERS
When Germany threw down her challenge to Russia and France, and England knew that her Imperial power would be one of the prizes of German victory (the common people did not think this, at first, but saw only the outrage to Belgium, a brutal attack on civilization, and a glorious adventure), some newspaper correspondents were sent out from London to report the proceedings, and I was one of them.
We went in civilian clothes without military passports—the War Office was not giving any—with bags of money which might be necessary for the hire of motor-cars, hotel life, and the bribery of doorkeepers in the antechambers of war, as some of us had gone to the Balkan War, and others. The Old Guard of war correspondents besieged the War Office for official recognition and were insulted day after day by junior staff-officers who knew that "K" hated these men and thought the press ought to be throttled in time of war; or they were beguiled into false hopes by officials who hoped to go in charge of them and were told to buy horses and sleeping-bags and be ready to start at a moment's notice for the front.
The moment's notice was postponed for months....
The younger ones did not wait for it. They took their chance of "seeing something," without authority, and made wild, desperate efforts to break through the barrier that had been put up against them by French and British staffs in the zone of war. Many of them were arrested, put into prison, let out, caught again in forbidden places, rearrested, and expelled from France. That was after fantastic adventures in which they saw what war meant in civilized countries where vast populations were made fugitives of fear, where millions of women and children and old people became wanderers along the roads in a tide of human misery, with the red flame of war behind them and following them, and where the first battalions of youth, so gay in their approach to war, so confident of victory, so careless of the dangers (which they did not know), came back maimed and mangled and blinded and wrecked, in the backwash of retreat, which presently became a spate through Belgium and the north of France, swamping over many cities and thousands of villages and many fields. Those young writing-men who had set out in a spirit of adventure went back to Fleet Street with a queer look in their eyes, unable to write the things they had seen, unable to tell them to people who had not seen and could not understand. Because there was no code of words which would convey the picture of that wild agony of peoples, that smashing of all civilized laws, to men and women who still thought of war in terms of heroic pageantry.
"Had a good time?" asked a colleague along the corridor, hardly waiting for an answer.
"A good time!"... God!... Did people think it was amusing to be an onlooker of world-tragedy?... One of them remembered a lady of France with a small boy who had fled from Charleville, which was in flames and smoke. She was weak with hunger, with dirty and bedraggled skirts on her flight, and she had heard that her husband was in the battle that was now being fought round their own town. She was brave—pointed out the line of the German advance on the map—and it was in a troop-train crowded with French soldiers—and then burst into wild weeping, clasping the hand of an English writing-man so that her nails dug into his flesh. I remember her still.
"Courage, maman! Courage, p'tite maman!" said the boy of eight.
Through Amiens at night had come a French army in retreat. There were dead and wounded on their wagons. Cuirassiers stumbled as they led their tired horses. Crowds of people with white faces, like ghosts in the darkness, stared at their men retreating like this through their city, and knew that the enemy was close behind.
"Nous sommes perdus!" whispered a woman, and gave a wailing cry.
People were fighting their way into railway trucks at every station for hundreds of miles across northern France. Women were beseeching a place for the sake of their babes. There was no food for them on journeys of nineteen hours or more; they fainted with heat and hunger. An old woman died, and her corpse blocked up the lavatory. At night they slept on the pavements in cities invaded by fugitives.
At Furnes in Belgium, and at Dunkirk on the coast of France, there were columns of ambulances bringing in an endless tide of wounded. They were laid out stretcher by stretcher in station-yards, five hundred at a time. Some of their faces were masks of clotted blood. Some of their bodies were horribly torn. They breathed with a hard snuffle. A foul smell came from them.
At Chartres they were swilling over the station hall with disinfecting fluid after getting through with one day's wounded. The French doctor in charge had received a telegram from the director of medical services: "Make ready for forty thousand wounded." It was during the first battle of the Marne.
"It is impossible!" said the French doctor....
Four hundred thousand people were in flight from Antwerp, into which big shells were falling, as English correspondents flattened themselves against the walls and said, "God in heaven!" Two hundred and fifty thousand people coming across the Scheldt in rowing-boats, sailing-craft, rafts, invaded one village in Holland. They had no food. Children were mad with fright. Young mothers had no milk in their breasts. It was cold at night and there were only a few canal-boats and fishermen's cottages, and in them were crowds of fugitives. The odor of human filth exuded from them, as I smell it now, and sicken in remembrance....
Then Dixmude was in flames, and Pervyse, and many other towns from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. In Dixmude young boys of France—fusiliers marins—lay dead about the Grande Place. In the Town Hall, falling to bits under shell-fire, a colonel stood dazed and waiting for death amid the dead bodies of his men—one so young, so handsome, lying there on his back, with a waxen face, staring steadily at the sky through the broken roof....
At Nieuport-les-Bains one dead soldier lay at the end of the esplanade, and a little group of living were huddled under the wall of a red-brick villa, watching other villas falling like card houses in a town that had been built for love and pretty women and the lucky people of the world. British monitors lying close into shore were answering the German bombardment, firing over Nieuport to the dunes by Ostend. From one monitor came a group of figures with white masks of cotton-wool tipped with wet blood. British seamen, and all blind, with the dead body of an officer tied up in a sack....
"O Jesu!... O maman!... O ma pauvre p'tite femme!... O Jesu! O Jesu!"
From thousands of French soldiers lying wounded or parched in the burning sun before the battle of the Marne these cries went up to the blue sky of France in August of '14. They were the cries of youth's agony in war. Afterward I went across the fields where they fought and saw their bodies and their graves, and the proof of the victory that saved France and us. The German dead had been gathered into heaps like autumn leaves. They were soaked in petrol and oily smoke was rising from them....
That was after the retreat from Mons, and the French retreat along all their line, and the thrust that drew very close to Paris, when I saw our little Regular Army, the "Old Contemptibles," on their way back, with the German hordes following close. Sir John French had his headquarters for the night in Creil. English, Irish, Scottish soldiers, stragglers from units still keeping some kind of order, were coming in, bronzed, dusty, parched with thirst, with light wounds tied round with rags, with blistered feet. French soldiers, bearded, dirty, thirsty as dogs, crowded the station platforms. They, too, had been retreating and retreating. A company of sappers had blown up forty bridges of France. Under a gas-lamp in a foul-smelling urinal I copied out the diary of their officer. Some spiritual faith upheld these men. "Wait," they said. "In a few days we shall give them a hard knock. They will never get Paris. Jamais de la vie!"...
In Beauvais there was hardly a living soul when three English correspondents went there, after escape from Amiens, now in German hands. A tall cuirassier stood by some bags of gunpowder, ready to blow up the bridge. The streets were strewn with barbed wire and broken bottles... In Paris there was a great fear and solitude, except where grief-stricken crowds stormed the railway stations for escape and where French and British soldiers—stragglers all—drank together, and sang above their broken glasses, and cursed the war and the Germans.
And down all the roads from the front, on every day in every month of that first six months of war—as afterward—came back the tide of wounded; wounded everywhere, maimed men at every junction; hospitals crowded with blind and dying and moaning men....
"Had an interesting time?" asked a man I wanted to kill because of his smug ignorance, his damnable indifference, his impregnable stupidity of cheerfulness in this world of agony. I had changed the clothes which were smeared with blood of French and Belgian soldiers whom I had helped, in a week of strange adventure, to carry to the surgeons. As an onlooker of war I hated the people who had not seen, because they could not understand. All these things I had seen in the first nine months I put down in a book called The Soul of the War, so that some might know; but it was only a few who understood....
In 1915 the War Office at last moved in the matter of war correspondents. Lord Kitchener, prejudiced against them, was being broken down a little by the pressure of public opinion (mentioned from time to time by members of the government), which demanded more news of their men in the field than was given by bald communiques from General Headquarters and by an "eye-witness" who, as one paper had the audacity to say, wrote nothing but "eye-wash." Even the enormous, impregnable stupidity of our High Command on all matters of psychology was penetrated by a vague notion that a few "writing fellows" might be sent out with permission to follow the armies in the field, under the strictest censorship, in order to silence the popular clamor for more news. Dimly and nervously they apprehended that in order to stimulate the recruiting of the New Army now being called to the colors by vulgar appeals to sentiment and passion, it might be well to "write up" the glorious side of war as it could be seen at the base and in the organization of transport, without, of course, any allusion to dead or dying men, to the ghastly failures of distinguished generals, or to the filth and horror of the battlefields. They could not understand, nor did they ever understand (these soldiers of the old school) that a nation which was sending all its sons to the field of honor desired with a deep and poignant craving to know how those boys of theirs were living and how they were dying, and what suffering was theirs, and what chances they had against their enemy, and how it was going with the war which was absorbing all the energy and wealth of the people at home.
"Why don't they trust their leaders?" asked the army chiefs. "Why don't they leave it to us?"
"We do trust you—with some misgivings," thought the people, "and we do leave it to you—though you seem to be making a mess of things—but we want to know what we have a right to know, and that is the life and progress of this war in which our men are engaged. We want to know more about their heroism, so that it shall be remembered by their people and known by the world; about their agony, so that we may share it in our hearts; and about the way of their death, so that our grief may be softened by the thought of their courage. We will not stand for this anonymous war; and you are wasting time by keeping it secret, because the imagination of those who have not joined cannot be fired by cold lines which say, 'There is nothing to report on the western front.'"
In March of 1915 I went out with the first body of accredited war correspondents, and we saw some of the bad places where our men lived and died, and the traffic to the lines, and the mechanism of war in fixed positions as were then established after the battle of the Marne and the first battle of Ypres. Even then it was only an experimental visit. It was not until June of that year, after an adventure on the French front in the Champagne, that I received full credentials as a war correspondent with the British armies on the western front, and joined four other men who had been selected for this service, and began that long innings as an authorized onlooker of war which ended, after long and dreadful years, with the Army of Occupation beyond the Rhine.
In the very early days we lived in a small old house, called by courtesy a chateau, in the village of Tatinghem, near General Headquarters at St.-Omer. (Afterward we shifted our quarters from time to time, according to the drift of battle and our convenience.) It was very peaceful there amid fields of standing corn, where peasant women worked while their men were fighting, but in the motor-cars supplied us by the army (with military drivers, all complete) it was a quick ride over Cassel Hill to the edge of the Ypres salient and the farthest point where any car could go without being seen by a watchful enemy and blown to bits at a signal to the guns. Then we walked, up sinister roads, or along communication trenches, to the fire-step in the front line, or into places like "Plug Street" wood and Kemmel village, and the ruins of Vermelles, and the lines by Neuve Chapelle—the training-schools of British armies—where always birds of death were on the wing, screaming with high and rising notes before coming to earth with the cough that killed... After hours in those hiding-places where boys of the New Army were learning the lessons of war in dugouts and ditches under the range of German guns, back again to the little white chateau at Tatinghem, with a sweet scent of flowers from the fields, and nightingales singing in the woods and a bell tinkling for Benediction in the old church tower beyond our gate.
"To-morrow," said the colonel—our first chief—before driving in for a late visit to G. H. Q., "we will go to Armentieres and see how the 'Kitchener' boys are shaping in the line up there. It ought to be interesting."
The colonel was profoundly interested in the technic of war, in its organization of supplies and transport, and methods of command. He was a Regular of the Indian Army, a soldier by blood and caste and training, and the noblest type of the old school of Imperial officer, with obedience to command as a religious instinct; of stainless honor, I think, in small things as well as great, with a deep love of England, and a belief and pride in her Imperial destiny to govern many peoples for their own good, and with the narrowness of such belief. His imagination was limited to the boundaries of his professional interests, though now and then his humanity made him realize in a perplexed way greater issues at stake in this war than the challenge to British Empiry.
One day, when we were walking through the desolation of a battlefield, with the smell of human corruption about us, and men crouched in chalky ditches below their breastworks of sand-bags, he turned to a colleague of mine and said in a startled way:
"This must never happen again! Never!"
It will never happen again for him, as for many others. He was too tall for the trenches, and one day a German sniper saw the red glint of his hat-band—he was on the staff of the 11th Corps—and thought, "a gay bird"! So he fell; and in our mess, when the news came, we were sad at his going, and one of our orderlies, who had been his body-servant, wept as he waited on us.
Late at night the colonel—that first chief of ours—used to come home from G. H. Q., as all men called General Headquarters with a sense of mystery, power, and inexplicable industry accomplishing—what?—in those initials. He came back with a cheery shout of, "Fine weather to-morrow!" or, "A starry night and all's well!" looking fine and soldierly as the glare of his headlights shone on his tall figure with red tabs and a colored armlet. But that cheeriness covered secret worries. Night after night, in those early weeks of our service, he sat in his little office, talking earnestly with the press officers—our censors. They seemed to be arguing, debating, protesting, about secret influences and hostilities surrounding us and them. I could only guess what it was all about. It all seemed to make no difference to me when I sat down before pieces of blank paper to get down some kind of picture, some kind of impression, of a long day in place where I had been scared awhile because death was on the prowl in a noisy way and I had seen it pounce on human bodies. I knew that tomorrow I was going to another little peep-show of war, where I should hear the same noises. That talk downstairs, that worry about some mystery at G. H. Q. would make no difference to the life or death of men, nor get rid of that coldness which came to me when men were being killed nearby. Why all that argument?
It seemed that G. H. Q.—mysterious people in a mysterious place—were drawing up rules for war correspondence and censorship; altering rules made the day before, formulating new rules for to-morrow, establishing precedents, writing minutes, initialing reports with, "Passed to you," or, "I agree," written on the margin. The censors who lived with us and traveled with us and were our friends, and read what we wrote before the ink was dry, had to examine our screeds with microscopic eyes and with infinite remembrance of the thousand and one rules. Was it safe to mention the weather? Would that give any information to the enemy? Was it permissible to describe the smell of chloride-of-lime in the trenches, or would that discourage recruiting? That description of the traffic on the roads of war, with transport wagons, gun-limbers, lorries, mules—how did that conflict with Rule No. 17a (or whatever it was) prohibiting all mention of movements of troops?
One of the censors working late at night, with lines of worry on his forehead and little puckers about his eyes, turned to me with a queer laugh, one night in the early days. He was an Indian Civil Servant, and therefore, by every rule, a gentleman and a charming fellow.
"You don't know what I am risking in passing your despatch! It's too good to spoil, but G. H. Q. will probably find that it conveys accurate information to the enemy about the offensive in 1925. I shall get the sack—and oh, the difference to me!"
It appeared that G. H. Q. was nervous of us. They suggested that our private letters should be tested for writing in invisible ink between the lines. They were afraid that, either deliberately for some journalistic advantage, or in sheer ignorance as "outsiders," we might hand information to the enemy about important secrets. Belonging to the old caste of army mind, they believed that war was the special prerogative of professional soldiers, of which politicians and people should have no knowledge. Therefore as civilians in khaki we were hardly better than spies.
The Indian Civil Servant went for a stroll with me in the moonlight, after a day up the line, where young men were living and dying in dirty ditches. I could see that he was worried, even angry.
"Those people!" he said.
"G. H. Q."
"Oh, Lord!" I groaned. "Again?" and looked across the fields of corn to the dark outline of a convent on the hill where young officers were learning the gentle art of killing by machine-guns before their turn came to be killed or crippled. I thought of a dead boy I had seen that day—or yesterday was it?—kneeling on the fire-step of a trench, with his forehead against the parapet as though in prayer... How sweet was the scent of the clover to-night! And how that star twinkled above the low flashes of gun-fire away there in the salient.
"They want us to waste your time," said the officer. "Those were the very words used by the Chief of Intelligence—in writing which I have kept. 'Waste their time!'... I'll be damned if I consider my work is to waste the time of war correspondents. Don't those good fools see that this is not a professional adventure, like their other little wars; that the whole nation is in it, and that the nation demands to know what its men are doing? They have a right to know."
Just at first—though not for long—there was a touch of hostility against us among divisional and brigade staffs, of the Regulars, but not of the New Army. They, too, suspected our motive in going to their quarters, wondered why we should come "spying around," trying to "see things." I was faintly conscious of this one day in those very early times, when with the officer who had been a ruler in India I went to a brigade headquarters of the 1st Division near Vermelles. It was not easy nor pleasant to get there, though it was a summer day with fleecy clouds in a blue sky. There was a long straight road leading to the village of Vermelles, with a crisscross of communication trenches on one side, and, on the other, fields where corn and grass grew rankly in abandoned fields. Some lean sheep were browsing there as though this were Arcady in days of peace. It was not. The red ruins of Vermelles, a mile or so away, were sharply defined, as through stereoscopic lenses, in the quiver of sunlight, and had the sinister look of a death-haunted place. It was where the French had fought their way through gardens, walls, and houses in murderous battle, before leaving it for British troops to hold. Across it now came the whine of shells, and I saw that shrapnel bullets were kicking up the dust of a thousand yards down the straight road, following a small body of brown men whose tramp of feet raised another cloud of dust, like smoke. They were the only representatives of human life—besides ourselves—in this loneliness, though many men must have been in hiding somewhere. Then heavy "crumps" burst in the fields where the sheep were browsing, across the way we had to go to the brigade headquarters.
"How about it?" asked the captain with me. "I don't like crossing that field, in spite of the buttercups and daisies and the little frisky lambs."
"I hate the idea of it," I said.
Then we looked down the road at the little body of brown men. They were nearer now, and I could see the face of the officer leading them—a boy subaltern, rather pale though the sun was hot. He halted and saluted my companion.
"The enemy seems to have sighted our dust, sir. His shrapnel is following up pretty closely. Would you advise me to put my men under cover, or carry on?"
The captain hesitated. This was rather outside his sphere of influence. But the boyishness of the other officer asked for help.
"My advice is to put your men into that ditch and keep them there until the strafe is over." Some shrapnel bullets whipped the sun-baked road as he spoke.
"Very good, sir."
The men sat in the ditch, with their packs against the bank, and wiped the sweat off their faces. They looked tired and dispirited, but not alarmed.
In the fields behind them—our way—the 4.2's (four—point-twos) were busy plugging holes in the grass and flowers, rather deep holes, from which white smoke-clouds rose after explosive noises.
"With a little careful strategy we might get through," said the captain. "There's a general waiting for us, and I have noticed that generals are impatient fellows. Let's try our luck."
We walked across the wild flowers, past the sheep, who only raised their heads in meek surprise when shells came with a shrill, intensifying snarl and burrowed up the earth about them. I noticed how loudly and sweetly the larks were singing up in the blue. Several horses lay dead, newly killed, with blood oozing about them, and their entrails smoking. We made a half-loop around them and then struck straight for the chateau which was the brigade headquarters. Neither of us spoke now. We were thoughtful, calculating the chance of getting to that red-brick house between the shells. It was just dependent on the coincidence of time and place.
Three men jumped up from a ditch below a brown wall round the chateau garden and ran hard for the gateway. A shell had pitched quite close to them. One man laughed as though at a grotesque joke, and fell as he reached the courtyard. Smoke was rising from the outhouses, and there was a clatter of tiles and timbers, after an explosive crash.
"It rather looks," said my companion, "as though the Germans knew there is a party on in that charming house."
It was as good to go on as to go back, and it was never good to go back before reaching one's objective. That was bad for the discipline of the courage that is just beyond fear.
Two gunners were killed in the back yard of the chateau, and as we went in through the gateway a sergeant made a quick jump for a barn as a shell burst somewhere close. As visitors we hesitated between two ways into the chateau, and chose the easier; and it was then that I became dimly aware of hostility against me on the part of a number of officers in the front hall. The brigade staff was there, grouped under the banisters. I wondered why, and guessed (rightly, as I found) that the center of the house might have a better chance of escape than the rooms on either side, in case of direct hits from those things falling outside.
It was the brigade major who asked our business. He was a tall, handsome young man of something over thirty, with the arrogance of a Christ Church blood.
"Oh, he has come out to see something in Vermelles? A pleasant place for sightseeing! Meanwhile the Hun is ranging on this house, so he may see more than he wants."
He turned on his heel and rejoined his group. They all stared in my direction as though at a curious animal. A very young gentleman—the general's A. D. C.—made a funny remark at my expense and the others laughed. Then they ignored me, and I was glad, and made a little study in the psychology of men awaiting a close call of death. I was perfectly conscious myself that in a moment or two some of us, perhaps all of us, might be in a pulp of mangled flesh beneath the ruins of a red-brick villa—the shells were crashing among the outhouses and in the courtyard, and the enemy was making good shooting—and the idea did not please me at all. At the back of my brain was Fear, and there was a cold sweat in the palms of my hands; but I was master of myself, and I remember having a sense of satisfaction because I had answered the brigade major in a level voice, with a touch of his own arrogance. I saw that these officers were afraid; that they, too, had Fear at the back of the brain, and that their conversation and laughter were the camouflage of the soul. The face of the young A. D. C. was flushed and he laughed too much at his own jokes, and his laughter was just a tone too shrill. An officer came into the hall, carrying two Mills bombs—new toys in those days—and the others fell back from him, and one said:
"For Christ's sake don't bring them here—in the middle of a bombardment!"
"Where's the general?" asked the newcomer.
"Down in the cellar with the other brigadier. They don't ask us down to tea, I notice."
Those last words caused all the officers to laugh—almost excessively. But their laughter ended sharply, and they listened intently as there was a heavy crash outside.
Another officer came up the steps and made a rapid entry into the hall.
"I understand there is to be a conference of battalion commanders," he said, with a queer catch in his breath. "In view of this—er—bombardment, I had better come in later, perhaps?"
"You had better wait," said the brigade major, rather grimly.
A sergeant-major was pacing up and down the passage by the back door. He was calm and stolid. I liked the look of him and found something comforting in his presence, so that I went to have a few words with him.
"How long is this likely to last, Sergeant-major"
"There's no saying, sir. They may be searching for the chateau to pass the time, so to speak, or they may go on till they get it. I'm sorry they caught those gunners. Nice lads, both of them."
He did not seem to be worrying about his own chance.
Then suddenly there was silence. The German guns had switched off. I heard the larks singing through the open doorway, and all the little sounds of a summer day. The group of officers in the hall started chatting more quietly. There was no more need of finding jokes and laughter. They had been reprieved, and could be serious.
"We'd better get forward to Vermelles," said my companion.
As we walked away from the chateau, the brigade major passed us on his horse. He leaned over his saddle toward me and said, "Good day to you, and I hope you'll like Vermelles."
The words were civil, but there was an underlying meaning in them.
"I hope to do so, sir."
We walked down the long straight road toward the ruins of Vermelles with a young soldier-guide who on the outskirts of the village remarked in a casual way:
"No one is allowed along this road in daylight, as a rule. It's under hobservation of the henemy."
"Then why the devil did you come this way?" asked my companion.
"I thought you might prefer the short cut, sir."
We explored the ruins of Vermelles, where many young Frenchmen had fallen in fighting through the walls and gardens. One could see the track of their strife, in trampled bushes and broken walls. Bits of red rag—the red pantaloons of the first French soldiers—were still fastened to brambles and barbed wire. Broken rifles, cartouches, water-bottles, torn letters, twisted bayonets, and German stick-bombs littered the ditches which had been dug as trenches across streets of burned-out houses.
A young gunner officer whom we met was very civil, and stopped in front of the chateau of Vermelles, a big red villa with the outer walls still standing, and told us the story of its capture.
"It was a wild scrap. I was told all about it by a French sergeant who was in it. They were under the cover of that wall over there, about a hundred yards away, and fixing up a charge of high explosives to knock a breach in the wall. The chateau was a machine-gun fortress, with the Germans on the top floor, the ground floor, and in the basement, protected by sand-bags, through which they fired. A German officer made a bad mistake. He opened the front door and came out with some of his machine-gunners from the ground floor to hold a trench across the square in front of the house. Instantly a French lieutenant called to his men. They climbed over the wall and made a dash for the chateau, bayoneting the Germans who tried to stop them. Then they swarmed into the chateau—a platoon of them with the lieutenant. They were in the drawing-room, quite an elegant place, you know, with the usual gilt furniture and long mirrors. In one corner was a pedestal, with a statue of Venus standing on it. Rather charming, I expect. A few Germans were killed in the room, easily. But upstairs there was a mob who fired down through the ceiling when they found what had happened. The French soldiers prodded the ceiling with their bayonets, and all the plaster broke, falling on them. A German, fat and heavy, fell half-way through the rafters, and a bayonet was poked into him as he stuck there. The whole ceiling gave way, and the Germans upstairs came downstairs, in a heap. They fought like wolves—wild beasts—with fear and rage. French and Germans clawed at one another's throats, grabbed hold of noses, rolled over each other. The French sergeant told me he had his teeth into a German's neck. The man was all over him, pinning his arms, trying to choke him. It was the French lieutenant who did most damage. He fired his last shot and smashed a German's face with his empty revolver. Then he caught hold of the marble Venus by the legs and swung it above his head, in the old Berserker style, and laid out Germans like ninepins... The fellows in the basement surrendered."
The chateau of Vermelles, where that had happened, was an empty ruin, and there was no sign of the gilt furniture, or the long mirrors, or the marble Venus when I looked through the charred window-frames upon piles of bricks and timber churned up by shell-fire. The gunner officer took us to the cemetery, to meet some friends of his who had their battery nearby. We stumbled over broken walls and pushed through undergrowth to get to the graveyard, where some broken crosses and wire frames with immortelles remained as relics of that garden where the people of Vermelles had laid their dead to rest. New dead had followed old dead. I stumbled over something soft, like a ball of clay, and saw that it was the head of a faceless man, in a battered kepi. From a ditch close by came a sickly stench of half-buried flesh.
"The whole place is a pest-house," said the gunner.
Another voice spoke from some hiding-place.
The earth shook and there was a flash of red flame, and a shock of noise which hurt one's ear-drums.
"That's my battery," said the gunner officer. "It's the very devil when one doesn't expect it."
I was introduced to the gentleman who had said "Salvo!" He was the gunner-major, and a charming fellow, recently from civil life. All the battery was made up of New Army men learning their job, and learning it very well, I should say. There was no arrogance about them.
"It's sporting of you to come along to a spot like this," said one of them. "I wouldn't unless I had to. Of course you'll take tea in our mess?"
I was glad to take tea—in a little house at the end of the ruined high-street of Vermelles which had by some miracle escaped destruction, though a shell had pierced through the brick wall of the parlor and had failed to burst. It was there still, firmly wedged, like a huge nail. The tea was good, in tin mugs. Better still was the company of the gunner officers. They told me how often they were "scared stiff." They had been very frightened an hour before I came, when the German gunners had ranged up and down the street, smashing up ruined houses into greater ruin.
"They're so methodical!" said one of the officers.
"Wonderful shooting!" said another.
"I will say they're topping gunners," said the major. "But we're learning; my men are very keen. Put in a good word for the new artillery. It would buck them up no end."
We went back before sunset, down the long straight road, and past the chateau which we had visited in the afternoon. It looked very peaceful there among the trees.
It is curious that I remember the details of that day so vividly, as though they happened yesterday. On hundreds of other days I had adventures like that, which I remember more dimly.
"That brigade major was a trifle haughty, don't you think?" said my companion. "And the others didn't seem very friendly. Not like those gunner boys."
"We called at an awkward time. They were rather fussed."
"One expects good manners. Especially from Regulars who pride themselves on being different in that way from the New Army."
"It's the difference between the professional and the amateur soldier. The Regular crowd think the war belongs to them... But I liked their pluck. They're arrogant to Death himself when he comes knocking at the door."
It was not long before we broke down the prejudice against us among the fighting units. The new armies were our friends from the first, and liked us to visit them in their trenches and their dugouts, their camps and their billets. Every young officer was keen to show us his particular "peep-show" or to tell us his latest "stunt." We made many friends among them, and it was our grief that as the war went on so many of them disappeared from their battalions, and old faces were replaced by new faces, and those again by others when they had become familiar. Again and again, after battle, twenty-two officers in a battalion mess were reduced to two or three, and the gaps were filled up from the reserve depots. I was afraid to ask, "Where is So-and-so?" because I knew that the best answer would be, "A Blighty wound," and the worst was more likely.
It was the duration of all the drama of death that seared one's soul as an onlooker; the frightful sum of sacrifice that we were recording day by day. There were times when it became intolerable and agonizing, and when I at least desired peace-at-almost-any-price, peace by negotiation, by compromise, that the river of blood might cease to flow. The men looked so splendid as they marched up to the lines, singing, whistling, with an easy swing. They looked so different when thousands came down again, to field dressing-stations—the walking wounded and the stretcher cases, the blind and the gassed—as we saw them on the mornings of battle, month after month, year after year.
Our work as chroniclers of their acts was not altogether "soft," though we did not go "over the top" or live in the dirty ditches with them. We had to travel prodigiously to cover the ground between one division and another along a hundred miles of front, with long walks often at the journey's end and a wet way back. Sometimes we were soaked to the skin on the journey home. Often we were so cold and numbed in those long wild drives up desolate roads that our limbs lost consciousness and the wind cut into us like knives. We were working against time, always against time, and another tire-burst would mean that no despatch could be written of a great battle on the British front, or only a short record written in the wildest haste when there was so much to tell, so much to describe, such unforgetable pictures in one's brain of another day's impressions in the fields and on the roads.
There were five English correspondents and, two years later, two Americans. On mornings of big battle we divided up the line of front and drew lots for the particular section which each man would cover. Then before the dawn, or in the murk of winter mornings, or the first glimmer of a summer day, our cars would pull out and we would go off separately to the part of the line allotted to us by the number drawn, to see the preliminary bombardment, to walk over newly captured ground, to get into the backwash of prisoners and walking wounded, amid batteries firing a new barrage, guns moving forward on days of good advance, artillery transport bringing up new stores of ammunition, troops in support marching to repel a counter-attack or follow through the new objectives, ambulances threading their way back through the traffic, with loads of prostrate men, mules, gunhorses, lorries churning up the mud in Flanders.
So we gained a personal view of all this activity of strife, and from many men in its whirlpool details of their own adventure and of general progress or disaster on one sector of the battle-front. Then in divisional headquarters we saw the reports of the battle as they came in by telephone, or aircraft, or pigeon-post, from half-hour to half-hour, or ten minutes by ten minutes. Three divisions widely separated provided all the work one war correspondent could do on one day of action, and later news on a broader scale, could be obtained from corps headquarters farther back. Tired, hungry, nerve-racked, splashed to the eyes in mud, or covered in a mask of dust, we started for the journey back to our own quarters, which we shifted from time to time in order to get as near as we could to the latest battle-front without getting beyond reach of the telegraph instruments—by relays of despatch-riders—at "Signals," G. H. Q., which remained immovably fixed in the rear.
There was a rendezvous in one of our rooms, and each man outlined the historical narrative of the day upon the front he had covered, reserving for himself his own adventures, impressions, and emotions.
Time slipped away, and time was short, while the despatch-riders waited for our unwritten despatches, and censors who had been our fellow-travelers washed themselves cleaner and kept an eye on the clock.
Time was short while the world waited for our tales of tragedy or victory... and tempers were frayed, and nerves on edge, among five men who hated one another, sometimes, with a murderous hatred (though, otherwise, good comrades) and desired one another's death by slow torture or poison-gas when they fumbled over notes, written in a jolting car, or on a battlefield walk, and went into past history in order to explain present happenings, or became tangled in the numbers of battalions and divisions.
Percival Phillips turned pink-and-white under the hideous strain of nervous control, with an hour and a half for two columns in The Morning Post. A little pulse throbbed in his forehead. His lips were tightly pressed. His oaths and his anguish were in his soul, but unuttered. Beach Thomas, the most amiable of men, the Peter Pan who went a bird-nesting on battlefields, a lover of beauty and games and old poems and Greek and Latin tags, and all joy in life—what had he to do with war?—looked bored with an infinite boredom, irritable with a scornful impatience of unnecessary detail, gazed through his gold-rimmed spectacles with an air of extreme detachment (when Percy Robinson rebuilt the map with dabs and dashes on a blank sheet of paper), and said, "I've got more than I can write, and The Daily Mail goes early to press."
"Thanks very much... It's very kind of you."
We gathered up our note-books and were punctiliously polite. (Afterward we were the best of friends.) Thomas was first out of the room, with short, quick little steps in spite of his long legs. His door banged. Phillips was first at his typewriter, working it like a machine-gun, in short, furious spasms of word-fire. I sat down to my typewriter—a new instrument of torture to me—and coaxed its evil genius with conciliatory prayers.
"For dear God's sake," I said, "don't go twisting that blasted ribbon of yours to-day. I must write this despatch, and I've just an hour when I want five."
Sometimes that Corona was a mechanism of singular sweetness, and I blessed it with a benediction. But often there was a devil in it which mocked at me. After the first sentence or two it twisted the ribbon; at the end of twenty sentences the ribbon was like an angry snake, writhing and coiling hideously.
I shouted for Mackenzie, the American, a master of these things.
He came in and saw my blanched face, my sweat of anguish, my crise de nerfs. I could see by his eyes that he understood my stress and had pity on me.
"That's all right," he said. "A little patience—"
By a touch or two he exorcised the devil, laughed, and said: "Go easy. You've just about reached breaking—point."
I wrote, as we all wrote, fast and furiously, to get down something of enormous history, word-pictures of things seen, heroic anecdotes, the underlying meaning of this new slaughter. There was never time to think out a sentence or a phrase, to touch up a clumsy paragraph, to go back on a false start, to annihilate a vulgar adjective, to put a touch of style into one's narrative. One wrote instinctively, blindly, feverishly... And downstairs were the censors, sending up messages by orderlies to say "half-time," or "ten minutes more," and cutting out sometimes the things one wanted most to say, modifying a direct statement of fact into a vague surmise, taking away the honor due to the heroic men who had fought and died to-day... Who would be a war correspondent, or a censor?
So it happened day by day, for five months at a stretch, when big battles were in progress. It was not an easy life. There were times when I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I could hardly rouse myself to a new day's effort. There were times when I was faint and sick and weak; and my colleagues were like me. But we struggled on to tell the daily history of the war and the public cursed us because we did not tell more, or sneered at us because they thought we were "spoon-fed" by G. H. Q.—who never gave us any news and who were far from our way of life, except when they thwarted us, by petty restrictions and foolish rules.
The Commander-in-Chief—Sir John French—received us when we were first attached to the British armies in the field—a lifetime ago, as it seems to me now. It was a formal ceremony in the chateau near St.-Omer, which he used as his own headquarters, with his A. D. C.'s in attendance, though the main general headquarters were in the town. Our first colonel gathered us like a shepherd with his flock, counting us twice over before we passed in. A tall, dark young man, whom I knew afterward to be Sir Philip Sassoon, received us and chatted pleasantly in a French salon with folding-doors which shut off an inner room. There were a few portraits of ladies and gentlemen of France in the days before the Revolution, like those belonging to that old aristocracy which still existed, in poverty and pride, in other chateaus in this French Flanders. There was a bouquet of flowers on the table, giving a sweet scent to the room, and sunlight streamed through the shutters... I thought for a moment of the men living in ditches in the salient, under harassing fire by day and night. Their actions and their encounters with death were being arranged, without their knowledge, in this sunny little chateau....
The folding-doors opened and Sir John French came in. He wore top-boots and spurs, and after saying, "Good day, gentlemen," stood with his legs apart, a stocky, soldierly figure, with a square head and heavy jaw. I wondered whether there were any light of genius in him—any inspiration, any force which would break the awful strength of the enemy against us, any cunning in modern warfare.
He coughed a little, and made us a speech. I forget his words, but remember the gist of them. He was pleased to welcome us within his army, and trusted to our honor and loyalty. He made an allusion to the power of the press, and promised us facilities for seeing and writing, within the bounds of censorship. I noticed that he pronounced St.-Omer, St.-Omar, as though Omar Khayyam had been canonized. He said, "Good day, gentlemen," again, and coughed huskily again to clear his throat, and then went back through the folding-doors.
I saw him later, during the battle of Loos, after its ghastly failure. He was riding a white horse in the villages of Heuchin and Houdain, through which lightly wounded Scots of the 1st and 15th Divisions were making their way back. He leaned over his saddle, questioning the men and thanking them for their gallantry. I thought he looked grayer and older than when he had addressed us.
"Who mun that old geezer be, Jock?" asked a Highlander when he had passed.
"I dinna ken," said the other Scot. "An' I dinna care."
"It's the Commander-in-Chief," I said. "Sir John French."
"Eh?" said the younger man, of the 8th Gordons. He did not seem thrilled by the knowledge I had given him, but turned his head and stared after the figure on the white horse. Then he said: "Well, he's made a mess o' the battle. We could've held Hill 70 against all the di'els o' hell if there had bin supports behind us."
"Ay," said his comrade, "an' there's few o' the laddies'll come back fra Cite St.-Auguste."
It was another commander-in-chief who received us some months after the battle of Loos, in a chateau near Montreuil, to which G. H. Q. had then removed. Our only knowledge of Sir Douglas Haig before that day was of a hostile influence against us in the First Army, which he commanded. He had drawn a line through his area beyond which we might not pass. He did not desire our presence among his troops nor in his neighborhood. That line had been broken by the protests of our commandant, and now as Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig had realized dimly that he might be helped by our services.
It was in another French salon that we waited for the man who controlled the British armies in the field—those armies which we now knew in some intimacy, whom we had seen in the front-line trenches and rest-camps and billets, hearing their point of view, knowing their suffering and their patience, and their impatience—and their deadly hatred of G. H. Q.
He was very handsome as he sat behind a Louis XIV table, with General Charteris—his Chief of Intelligence, who was our chief, too—behind him at one side, for prompting and advice. He received us with fine courtesy and said:
"Pray be seated, gentlemen."
There had been many troubles over censorship, of which he knew but vaguely through General Charteris, who looked upon us as his special "cross." We had fought hard for liberty in mentioning units, to give the honor to the troops, and for other concessions which would free our pens.
The Commander-in-Chief was sympathetic, but his sympathy was expressed in words which revealed a complete misunderstanding of our purpose and of our work, and was indeed no less than an insult, unconscious but very hurtful.
"I think I understand fairly well what you gentlemen want," he said. "You want to get hold of little stories of heroism, and so forth, and to write them up in a bright way to make good reading for Mary Ann in the kitchen, and the Man in the Street." The quiet passion with which those words were resented by us, the quick repudiation of this slur upon our purpose by a charming man perfectly ignorant at that time of the new psychology of nations in a war which was no longer a professional adventure, surprised him. We took occasion to point out to him that the British Empire, which had sent its men into this war, yearned to know what they were doing and how they were doing, and that their patience and loyalty depended upon closer knowledge of what was happening than was told them in the communiques issued by the Commander-in-Chief himself. We urged him to let us mention more frequently the names of the troops engaged—especially English troops—for the sake of the soldiers themselves, who were discouraged by this lack of recognition, and for the sake of the people behind them... It was to the pressure of the war correspondents, very largely, that the troops owed the mention and world-wide honor which came to them, more generously, in the later phases of the war.
The Commander-in-Chief made a note of our grievances, turning now and again to General Charteris, who was extremely nervous at our frankness of speech, and telling him to relax the rules of censorship as far as possible. That was done, and in later stages of the war I personally had no great complaint against the censorship, and wrote all that was possible to write of the actions day by day, though I had to leave out something of the underlying horror of them all, in spite of my continual emphasis, by temperament and by conviction, on the tragedy of all this sacrifice of youth. The only alternative to what we wrote would have been a passionate denunciation of all this ghastly slaughter and violent attacks on British generalship. Even now I do not think that would have been justified. As Bernard Shaw told me, "while the war lasts one must put one's own soul under censorship."
After many bloody battles had been fought we were received again by the Commander-in-Chief, and this time his cordiality was not marred by any slighting touch.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you have played the game like men!"
When victory came at last—at last!—after the years of slaughter, it was the little band of war correspondents on the British front, our foreign comrades included, whom the Field-Marshal addressed on his first visit to the Rhine. We stood on the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, watched by groups of Germans peering through the escort of Lancers. It was a dank and foul day, but to us beautiful, because this was the end of the long journey—four-and—a-half years long, which had been filled with slaughter all the way, so that we were tired of its backwash of agony, which had overwhelmed our souls—mine, certainly. The Commander-in-Chief read out a speech to us, thanking us for our services, which, he said, had helped him to victory, because we had heartened the troops and the people by our work. It was a recognition by the leader of our armies that, as chroniclers of war, we had been a spiritual force behind his arms. It was a reward for many mournful days, for much agony of spirit, for hours of danger—some of us had walked often in the ways of death—and for exhausting labors which we did so that the world might know what British soldiers had been doing and suffering.
I came to know General Headquarters more closely when it removed, for fresher air, to Montreuil, a fine old walled town, once within sight of the sea, which ebbed over the low-lying ground below its hill, but now looking across a wide vista of richly cultivated fields where many hamlets are scattered among clumps of trees. One came to G. H. Q. from journeys over the wild desert of the battlefields, where men lived in ditches and "pill-boxes," muddy, miserable in all things but spirit, as to a place where the pageantry of war still maintained its old and dead tradition. It was like one of those pageants which used to be played in England before the war—picturesque, romantic, utterly unreal. It was as though men were playing at war here, while others sixty miles away were fighting and dying, in mud and gas-waves and explosive barrages.
An "open sesame," by means of a special pass, was needed to enter this City of Beautiful Nonsense. Below the gateway, up the steep hillside, sentries stood at a white post across the road, which lifted up on pulleys when the pass had been examined by a military policeman in a red cap. Then the sentries slapped their hands on their rifles to the occupants of any motor-car, sure that more staff-officers were going in to perform those duties which no private soldier could attempt to understand, believing they belonged to such mysteries as those of God. Through the narrow streets walked elderly generals, middle-aged colonels and majors, youthful subalterns all wearing red hat-bands, red tabs, and the blue-and-red armlet of G. H. Q., so that color went with them on their way.
Often one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride, a fine figure, nobly mounted, with two A. D. C.'s and an escort of Lancers. A pretty sight, with fluttering pennons on all their lances, and horses groomed to the last hair. It was prettier than the real thing up in the salient or beyond the Somme, where dead bodies lay in upheaved earth among ruins and slaughtered trees. War at Montreuil was quite a pleasant occupation for elderly generals who liked their little stroll after lunch, and for young Regular officers, released from the painful necessity of dying for their country, who were glad to get a game of tennis, down below the walls there, after strenuous office-work in which they had written "Passed to you" on many "minutes," or had drawn the most comical caricatures of their immediate chief, and of his immediate chief, on blotting-pads and writing-blocks.
It seemed, at a mere glance, that all these military inhabitants of G. H. Q. were great and glorious soldiers. Some of the youngest of them had a row of decorations from Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, Rumania, and other states, as recognition of gallant service in translating German letters (found in dugouts by the fighting-men), or arranging for visits of political personages to the back areas of war, or initialing requisitions for pink, blue, green, and yellow forms, which in due course would find their way to battalion adjutants for immediate filling-up in the middle of an action. The oldest of them, those white-haired, bronze-faced, gray-eyed generals in the administrative side of war, had started their third row of ribbons well before the end of the Somme battles, and had flower-borders on their breasts by the time the massacres had been accomplished in the fields of Flanders. I know an officer who was awarded the D. S. O. because he had hindered the work of war correspondents with the zeal of a hedge-sparrow in search of worms, and another who was the best-decorated man in the army because he had presided over a visitors' chateau and entertained Royalties, Members of Parliament, Mrs. Humphry Ward, miners, Japanese, Russian revolutionaries, Portuguese ministers, Harry Lauder, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, clergymen, Montenegrins, and the Editor of John Bull, at the government's expense—and I am bound to say he deserved them all, being a man of infinite tact, many languages, and a devastating sense of humor. There was always a Charlie Chaplin film between moving pictures of the battles of the Somme. He brought the actualities of war to the visitors' chateau by sentry-boxes outside the door, a toy "tank" in the front garden, and a collection of war trophies in the hall. He spoke to High Personages with less deference than he showed to miners from Durham and Wales, and was master of them always, ordering them sternly to bed at ten o'clock (when he sat down to bridge with his junior officers), and with strict military discipline insisting upon their inspection of the bakeries at Boulogne, and boot-mending factories at Calais, as part of the glory of war which they had come out for to see.
So it was that there were brilliant colors in the streets of Montreuil, and at every doorway a sentry slapped his hand to his rifle, with smart and untiring iteration, as the "brains" of the army, under "brass hats" and red bands, went hither and thither in the town, looking stern, as soldiers of grave responsibility, answering salutes absent—mindedly, staring haughtily at young battalion officers who passed through Montreuil and looked meekly for a chance of a lorry-ride to Boulogne, on seven days' leave from the lines.
The smart society of G. H. Q. was best seen at the Officers' Club in Montreuil, at dinner-time. It was as much like musical comedy as any stage setting of war at the Gaiety. A band played ragtime and light music while the warriors fed, and all these generals and staff officers, with their decorations and arm-bands and polished buttons and crossed swords, were waited upon by little W. A. A. C.'s with the G. H. Q. colors tied up in bows on their hair, and khaki stockings under their short skirts and fancy aprons. Such a chatter! Such bursts of light-hearted laughter! Such whisperings of secrets and intrigues and scandals in high places! Such careless—hearted courage when British soldiers were being blown to bits, gassed, blinded, maimed, and shell-shocked in places that were far—so very far—from G. H. Q.!
There were shrill voices one morning outside the gate of our quarters—women's voices, excited, angry, passionate. An orderly came into the mess—we were at breakfast—and explained the meaning of the clamor, which by some intuition and a quick ear for French he had gathered from all this confusion of tongues.
"There's a soldier up the road, drunk or mad. He has been attacking a girl. The villagers want an officer to arrest him."
The colonel sliced off the top of his egg and then rose. "Tell three orderlies to follow me."
We went into the roadway, and twenty women crowded round us with a story of attempted violence against an innocent girl. The man had been drinking last night at the estaminet up there. Then he had followed the girl, trying to make love to her. She had barricaded herself in the room, when he tried to climb through the window.
"If you don't come out I'll get in and kill you," he said, according to the women.
But she had kept him out, though he prowled round all night. Now he was hiding in an outhouse. The brute! The pig!
When we went up the road the man was standing in the center of it, with a sullen look.
"What's the trouble?" he asked. "It looks as if all France were out to grab me."
He glanced sideways over the field, as though reckoning his chance of escape. There was no chance.
The colonel placed him under arrest and he marched back between the orderlies, with an old soldier of the Contemptibles behind him.
Later in the day he was lined up for identification by the girl, among a crowd of other men.
The girl looked down the line, and we watched her curiously—a slim creature with dark hair neatly coiled.
She stretched out her right hand with a pointing finger.
"Le voila!... c'est l'homme."
There was no mistake about it, and the man looked sheepishly at her, not denying. He was sent off under escort to the military prison in St. Omer for court-martial.
"What's the punishment—if guilty?" I asked.
"Death," said the colonel, resuming his egg.
He was a fine-looking fellow, the prisoner. He had answered the call for king and country without delay. In the estaminet, after coming down from the salient for a machine-gun course, he had drunk more beer than was good for him, and the face of a pretty girl had bewitched him, stirring up desire. He wanted to kiss her lips... There were no women in the Ypres salient. Nothing pretty or soft. It was hell up there, and this girl was a pretty witch, bringing back thoughts of the other side—for life, womanhood, love, caresses which were good for the souls and bodies of men. It was a starved life up there in the salient... Why shouldn't she give him her lips? Wasn't he fighting for France? Wasn't he a tall and proper lad? Curse the girl for being so sulky to an English soldier!... And now, if those other women, those old hags, were to swear against him things he had never said, things he had never done, unless drink had made him forget—by God! supposing drink had made him forget? He would be shot against a white wall. Shot dead, disgracefully, shamefully, by his own comrades! O Christ! and the little mother in a Sussex cottage!...
Going up to Kemmel one day I had to wait in battalion headquarters for the officer I had gone to see. He was attending a court martial. Presently he came into the wooden hut, with a flushed face.
"Sorry I had to keep you," he said. "Tomorrow there will be one swine less in the world."
"A death sentence?"
"A damned coward. Said he didn't mind rifle-fire, but couldn't stand shells. Admitted he left his post. He doesn't mind rifle-fire!... Well, tomorrow morning."
The officer laughed grimly, and then listened for a second.
There were some heavy crumps falling over Kemmel Hill, rather close, it seemed, to our wooden hut.
"Damn those German gunners" said the officer. "Why can't they give us a little peace?"
He turned to his papers, but several times while I talked with him he jerked his head up and listened to a heavy crash.
On the way back I saw a man on foot, walking in front of a mounted man, past the old hill of the Scherpenberg, toward the village of Locre. There was something in the way he walked, in his attitude—the head hunched forward a little, and his arms behind his back—which made me turn to look at him. He was manacled, and tied by a rope to the mounted man. I caught one glimpse of his face, and then turned away, cold and sick. There was doom written on his face, and in his eyes a captured look. He was walking to his wall.
There were other men who could not stand shell-fire. It filled them with an animal terror and took all will-power out of them. One young officer was like that man who "did not mind rifle-fire." He, by some strange freak of psychology, was brave under machine-gun fire. He had done several gallant things, and was bright and cheerful in the trenches until the enemy barraged them with high explosive. Then he was seen wandering back to the support trenches in a dazed way. It happened three times, and he was sentenced to death. Before going out at dawn to face the firing-squad he was calm. There was a lighted candle on the table, and he sorted out his personal belongings and made small packages of them as keepsakes for his family and friends. His hand did not tremble. When his time came he put out the candle, between thumb and finger, raised his hand, and said, "Right O!"
Another man, shot for cowardice in face of the enemy, was sullen and silent to one who hoped to comfort him in the last hour. The chaplain asked him whether he had any message for his relatives. He said, "I have no relatives." He was asked whether he would like to say any prayers, and he said, "I don't believe in them." The chaplain talked to him, but could get no answer—and time was creeping on. There were two guards in the room, sitting motionless, with loaded rifles between their knees. Outside it was silent in the courtyard, except for little noises of the night and the wind. The chaplain suffered, and was torn with pity for that sullen man whose life was almost at an end. He took out his hymn—book and said: "I will sing to you. It will pass the time." He sang a hymn, and once or twice his voice broke a little, but he steadied it. Then the man said, "I will sing with you." He knew all the hymns, words and music. It was an unusual, astonishing knowledge, and he went on singing, hymn after hymn, with the chaplain by his side. It was the chaplain who tired first. His voice cracked and his throat became parched. Sweat broke out on his forehead, because of the nervous strain. But the man who was going to die sang on in a clear, hard voice. A faint glimmer of coming dawn lightened the cottage window. There were not many minutes more. The two guards shifted their feet. "Now," said the man, "we'll sing 'God Save the King.'" The two guards rose and stood at attention, and the chaplain sang the national anthem with the man who was to be shot for cowardice. Then the tramp of the firing-party came across the cobblestones in the courtyard. It was dawn.
Shell-shock was the worst thing to see. There were generals who said: "There is no such thing as shell-shock. It is cowardice. I would court-martial in every case." Doctors said: "It is difficult to draw the line between shell-shock and blue funk. Both are physical as well as mental. Often it is the destruction of the nerve tissues by concussion, or actual physical damage to the brain; sometimes it is a shock of horror unbalancing the mind, but that is more rare. It is not generally the slight, nervous men who suffer worst from shell-shock. It is often the stolid fellow, one of those we describe as being utterly without nerves, who goes down badly. Something snaps in him. He has no resilience in his nervous system. He has never trained himself in nerve-control, being so stolid and self-reliant. Now, the nervous man, the cockney, for example, is always training himself in the control of his nerves, on 'buses which lurch round corners, in the traffic that bears down on him, in a thousand and one situations which demand self-control in a 'nervy' man. That helps him in war; whereas the yokel, or the sergeant—major type, is splendid until the shock comes. Then he may crack. But there is no law. Imagination—apprehension—are the devil, too, and they go with 'nerves.'"
It was a sergeant-major whom I saw stricken badly with shell-shock in Aveluy Wood near Thiepval. He was convulsed with a dreadful rigor like a man in epilepsy, and clawed at his mouth, moaning horribly, with livid terror in his eyes. He had to be strapped to a stretcher before he could be carried away. He had been a tall and splendid man, this poor, terror-stricken lunatic.
Nearer to Thiepval, during the fighting there, other men were brought down with shell-shock. I remember one of them now, though I saw many others. He was a Wiltshire lad, very young, with an apple-cheeked face and blue-gray eyes. He stood outside a dugout, shaking in every limb, in a palsied way. His steel hat was at the back of his head and his mouth slobbered, and two comrades could not hold him still.
These badly shell-shocked boys clawed their mouths ceaselessly. It was a common, dreadful action. Others sat in the field hospitals in a state of coma, dazed, as though deaf, and actually dumb. I hated to see them, turned my eyes away from them, and yet wished that they might be seen by bloody-minded men and women who, far behind the lines, still spoke of war lightly, as a kind of sport, or heroic game, which brave boys liked or ought to like, and said, "We'll fight on to the last man rather than accept anything less than absolute victory," and when victory came said: "We stopped too soon. We ought to have gone on for another three months." It was for fighting-men to say those things, because they knew the things they suffered and risked. That word "we" was not to be used by gentlemen in government offices scared of air raids, nor by women dancing in scanty frocks at war-bazaars for the "poor dear wounded," nor even by generals at G. H. Q., enjoying the thrill of war without its dirt and danger.
Seeing these shell-shock cases month after month, during years of fighting, I, as an onlooker, hated the people who had not seen, and were callous of this misery; the laughing girls in the Strand greeting the boys on seven days' leave; the newspaper editors and leader-writers whose articles on war were always "cheery"; the bishops and clergy who praised God as the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies, and had never said a word before the war to make it less inevitable; the schoolmasters who gloried in the lengthening "Roll of Honor" and said, "We're doing very well," when more boys died; the pretty woman-faces ogling in the picture-papers, as "well—known war-workers"; the munition-workers who were getting good wages out of the war; the working-women who were buying gramophones and furs while their men were in the stinking trenches; the dreadful, callous, cheerful spirit of England at war.
Often I was unfair, bitter, unbalanced, wrong. The spirit of England, taking it broad and large—with dreadful exceptions—was wonderful in its courage and patience, and ached with sympathy for its fighting sons, and was stricken with the tragedy of all this slaughter. There were many tears in English homes; many sad and lonely women. But, as an onlooker, I could not be just or fair, and hated the non-combatants who did not reveal its wound in their souls, but were placid in their belief that we should win, and pleased with themselves because of their easy optimism. So easy for those who did not see!
As war correspondents we were supposed to have honorary rank as captains, by custom and tradition—but it amounted to nothing, here or there. We were civilians in khaki, with green bands round our right arms, and uncertain status. It was better so, because we were in the peculiar and privileged position of being able to speak to Tommies and sergeants as human beings, to be on terms of comradeship with junior subalterns and battalion commanders, and to sit at the right hand of generals without embarrassment to them or to ourselves.
Physically, many of our generals were curiously alike. They were men turned fifty, with square jaws, tanned, ruddy faces, searching and rather stern gray eyes, closely cropped hair growing white, with a little white mustache, neatly trimmed, on the upper lip.
Mentally they had similar qualities. They had unfailing physical courage—though courage is not put to the test much in modern generalship, which, above the rank of brigadier, works far from the actual line of battle, unless it "slips" in the wrong direction. They were stern disciplinarians, and tested the quality of troops by their smartness in saluting and on parade, which did not account for the fighting merit of the Australians. Most of them were conservative by political tradition and hereditary instinct, and conservative also in military ideas and methods. They distrusted the "brilliant" fellow, and were inclined to think him unsafe; and they were not quick to allow young men to gain high command at the expense of their gray hair and experience. They were industrious, able, conscientious men, never sparing themselves long hours of work for a life of ease, and because they were willing to sacrifice their own lives, if need be, for their country's sake, they demanded equal willingness of sacrifice from every officer and man under their authority, having no mercy whatever for the slacker or the weakling.
Among them there was not one whose personality had that mysterious but essential quality of great generalship—inspiring large bodies of men with exalted enthusiasm, devotion, and faith. It did not matter to the men whether an army commander, a corps commander, or a divisional commander stood in the roadside to watch them march past on their way to battle or on their way back. They saw one of these sturdy men in his brass hat, with his ruddy face and white mustache, but no thrill passed down their ranks, no hoarse cheers broke from them because he was there, as when Wellington sat on his white horse in the Peninsular War, or as when Napoleon saluted his Old Guard, or even as when Lord Roberts, "Our Bob," came perched like a little old falcon on his big charger.
Nine men out of ten in the ranks did not even know the name of their army general or of the corps commander. It meant nothing to them. They did not face death with more passionate courage to win the approval of a military idol. That was due partly to the conditions of modern warfare, which make it difficult for generals of high rank to get into direct personal touch with their troops, and to the masses of men engaged. But those difficulties could have been overcome by a general of impressive personality, able to stir the imaginations of men by words of fire spoken at the right time, by deep, human sympathy, and by the luck of victory seized by daring adventure against great odds.
No such man appeared on the western front until Foch obtained the supreme command. On the British front there was no general with the gift of speech—a gift too much despised by our British men of action—or with a character and prestige which could raise him to the highest rank in popular imagination. During the retreat from Mona, Sir John French had a touch of that personal power—his presence meant something to the men because of his reputation in South Africa; but afterward, when trench warfare began, and the daily routine of slaughter under German gun-fire, when our artillery was weak, and when our infantry was ordered to attack fixed positions of terrible strength without adequate support, and not a dog's chance of luck against such odds, the prestige of the Commander-in-Chief faded from men's minds and he lost place in their admiration. It was washed out in blood and mud.
Sir Douglas Haig, who followed Sir John French, inherited the disillusionment of armies who saw now that war on the western front was to be a long struggle, with enormous slaughter, and no visible sign of the end beyond a vista of dreadful years. Sir Douglas Haig, in his general headquarters at St.-Omer, and afterward at Montreuil, near the coast, had the affection and loyalty of the staff—officers. A man of remarkably good looks, with fine, delicate features, strengthened by the firm line of his jaw, and of singular sweetness, courtesy, and simplicity in his manner toward all who approached him, he had qualities which might have raised him to the supreme height of personal influence among his armies but for lack of the magic touch and the tragic condition of his command.
He was intensely shy and reserved, shrinking from publicity and holding himself aloof from the human side of war. He was constitutionally unable to make a dramatic gesture before a multitude, or to say easy, stirring things to officers and men whom he reviewed. His shyness and reserve prevented him also from knowing as much as he ought to have known about the opinions of officers and men, and getting direct information from them. He held the supreme command of the British armies on the western front when, in the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders, of Picardy and Artois, there was not much chance for daring strategy, but only for hammer-strokes by the flesh and blood of men against fortress positions—the German trench systems, twenty-five miles deep in tunneled earthworks and machine-gun dugouts—when the immensity of casualties among British troops was out of all proportion to their gains of ground, so that our men's spirits revolted against these massacres of their youth and they were embittered against the generalship and staff-work which directed these sacrificial actions.
This sense of bitterness became intense, to the point of fury, so that a young staff officer, in his red tabs, with a jaunty manner, was like a red rag to a bull among battalion officers and men, and they desired his death exceedingly, exalting his little personality, dressed in a well-cut tunic and fawn-colored riding-breeches and highly polished top-boots, into the supreme folly of "the Staff" which made men attack impossible positions, send down conflicting orders, issued a litter of documents—called by an ugly name—containing impracticable instructions, to the torment of the adjutants and to the scorn of the troops. This hatred of the Staff was stoked high by the fires of passion and despair. Some of it was unjust, and even the jaunty young staff-officer—a G. S. O. 3, with red tabs and polished boots—was often not quite such a fool as he looked, but a fellow who had proved his pluck in the early days of the war and was now doing his duty—about equal to the work of a boy clerk—with real industry and an exaggerated sense of its importance.
Personally I can pay high tribute to some of our staff—officers at divisional, corps, and army headquarters, because of their industry, efficiency, and devotion to duty. And during the progress of battle I have seen them, hundreds of times, working desperately for long hours without much rest or sleep, so that the fighting-men should get their food and munitions, so that the artillery should support their actions, and the troops in reserve move up to their relief at the proper time and place.
Owing largely to new army brains the administrative side of our war became efficient in its method and organization, and the armies were worked like clockwork machines. The transport was good beyond all words of praise, and there was one thing which seldom failed to reach poor old Tommy Atkins, unless he was cut off by shell-fire, and that was his food. The motor-supply columns and ammunition-dumps were organized to the last item. Our map department was magnificent, and the admiration of the French. Our Intelligence branch became valuable (apart from a frequent insanity of optimism) and was sometimes uncanny in the accuracy of its information about the enemy's disposition and plans. So that the Staff was not altogether hopeless in its effect, as the young battalion officers, with sharp tongues and a sense of injustice in their hearts, made out, with pardonable blasphemy, in their dugouts.
Nevertheless the system was bad and British generalship made many mistakes, some of them, no doubt, unavoidable, because it is human to err, and some of them due to sheer, simple, impregnable stupidity.
In the early days the outstanding fault of our generals was their desire to gain ground which was utterly worthless when gained. They organized small attacks against strong positions, dreadfully costly to take, and after the desperate valor of men had seized a few yards of mangled earth, found that they had made another small salient, jutting out from their front in a V-shaped wedge, so that it was a death-trap for the men who had to hold it. This was done again and again, and I remember one distinguished officer saying, with bitter irony, remembering how many of his men had died, "Our generals must have their little V's at any price, to justify themselves at G. H. Q."
In the battles of the Somme they attacked isolated objectives on narrow fronts, so that the enemy swept our men with fire by artillery concentrated from all points, instead of having to disperse his fire during a general attack on a wide front. In the days of trench warfare, when the enemy artillery was much stronger than ours, and when his infantry strength was enormously greater, our generals insisted upon the British troops maintaining an "aggressive" attitude, with the result that they were shot to pieces, instead of adopting, like the French, a quiet and waiting attitude until the time came for a sharp and terrible blow. The battles of Neuve Chapelle, Fertubert, and Loos, in 1915, cost us thousands of dead and gave us no gain of any account; and both generalship and staff-work were, in the opinion of most officers who know anything of those battles, ghastly.
After all, our generals had to learn their lesson, like the private soldier, and the young battalion officer, in conditions of warfare which had never been seen before—and it was bad for the private soldier and the young battalion officer, who died so they might learn. As time went on staff-work improved, and British generalship was less rash in optimism and less rigid in ideas.