E-text prepared by A. Langley
War Scenes on the Western Front
By ARNOLD BENNETT
I The Zone Of Paris
From the balcony you look down upon massed and variegated tree- tops as though you were looking down upon a valley forest from a mountain height. Those trees, whose hidden trunks make alleys and squares, are rooted in the history of France. On the dusty gravel of the promenade which runs between the garden and the street a very young man and a girl, tiny figures, are playing with rackets at one of those second-rate ball games beloved by the French petite bourgeoisie. Their jackets and hats are hung on the corner of the fancy wooden case in which an orange-tree is planted. They are certainly perspiring in the heavy heat of the early morning. They are also certainly in love. This lively dalliance is the preliminary to a day's desk-work. It seems ill-chosen, silly, futile. The couple have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they are playing at a terrific and long-drawn moment of crisis in a spot sacred to the finest civilisation.
From the balcony you can see, close by, the Louvre, with its sculptures extending from Jean Goujon to Carpeaux; the Church of St. Clotilde, where Cesar Franck for forty years hid his genius away from popularity; the railway station of the Quai d'Orsay, which first proved that a terminus may excite sensations as fine as those excited by a palace or a temple; the dome of the Invalides; the unique facades, equal to any architecture of modern times, to the north of the Place de la Concorde, where the Ministry of Marine has its home. Nobody who knows Paris, and understands what Paris has meant and still means to humanity, can regard the scene without the most exquisite sentiments of humility, affection, and gratitude. It is impossible to look at the plinths, the mouldings, the carving of the Ministry of Marine and not be thrilled by that supreme expression of national art.
And all this escaped! That is the feeling which one has. All this beauty was menaced with disaster at the hands of beings who comprehended it even less than the simple couple playing ball, beings who have scarcely reached the beginnings of comprehension, and who joined a barbaric ingenuousness to a savage cruelty. It was menaced, but it escaped. Perhaps no city was ever in acuter peril; it escaped by a miracle, but it did escape. It escaped because tens of thousands of soldiers in thousands of taxi- cabs advanced more rapidly than any soldiers could be expected to advance. "The population of Paris has revolted and is hurrying to ask mercy from us!" thought the reconnoitring simpletons in Taubes, when they noted beneath them the incredible processions of taxi- cabs going north. But what they saw was the Sixth Army, whose movement changed the campaign, and perhaps the whole course of history.
"A great misfortune has overtaken us," said a German officer the next day. It was true. Greater than he suspected.
The horror of what might have happened, the splendour of what did happen, mingle in the awed mind as you look over the city from the balcony. The city escaped. And the event seems vaster and more sublime than the mind can bear.
The streets of Paris have now a perpetual aspect of Sunday morning; only the sound of church-bells is lacking. A few of the taxi- cabs have come back; but all the auto-buses without exception are away behind the front. So that the traffic is forced underground, where the railways are manned by women. A horse-bus, dug up out of the past, jogs along the most famous boulevard in the world like a country diligence, with a fat, laughing peasant-woman clinging to its back-step and collecting fare-moneys into the immense pocket of her black apron. Many of the most expensive and unnecessary shops are shut; the others wait with strange meekness for custom. But the provision shops and all the sturdy cheap shops of the poor go on naturally, without any self-consciousness, just as usual. The pavements show chiefly soldiers in a wild, new variety of uniforms, from pale blue to black, imitated and adapted from all sources, and especially from England—and widows and orphans. The number of young girls and women in mourning, in the heavy mourning affected by the Latin race, is enormous. This crape is the sole casualty list permitted by the French War Office. It suffices. Supreme grief is omnipresent; but it is calm, cheerful, smiling. Widows glance at each other with understanding, like initiates of a secret and powerful society.
Never was Paris so disconcertingly odd. And yet never was it more profoundly itself. Between the slow realisation of a monstrous peril escaped and the equally slow realisation of its power to punish, the French spirit, angered and cold, knows at last what the French spirit is. And to watch and share its mood is positively ennobling to the stranger. Paris is revealed under an enchantment, On the surface of the enchantment the pettinesses of daily existence persist queerly.
Two small rooms and a kitchen on a sixth floor. You could put the kitchen, of which the cooking apparatus consists of two gas-rings, in the roots of the orange-tree in the Tuileries gardens. Everything is plain, and stringently tidy; everything is a special item, separately acquired, treasured. I see again a water-colour that I did years ago and had forgotten; it lives, protected by a glazed frame and by the pride of possession. The solitary mistress of this immaculate home is a spinster sempstress in the thirties. She earns three francs a day, and is rich because she does not spend it all, and has never spent it all. Inexpressibly neat, smiling, philosophic, helpful, she has within her a contentious and formidable tiger which two contingencies, and two only, will arouse. The first contingency springs from any threat of marriage. You must not seek a husband for her; she is alone in the world, and she wants to be. The second springs from any attempt to alter her habits, which in her sight are as sacredly immutable as the ritual of an Asiatic pagoda.
Last summer she went to a small town, to which is attached a very large military camp, to help her sister-in-law in the running of a cafe. The excursion was to be partly in the nature of a holiday; but, indefatigable on a chair with a needle, she could not stand for hours on her feet, ministering to a sex of which she knew almost nothing. She had the nostalgia of the Parisian garret. She must go home to her neglected habits. The war was waging. She delayed, from a sense of duty. But at last her habits were irresistible. Officers had said lightly that there was no danger, that the Germans could not possibly reach that small town. Nevertheless, the train that the spinster-sempstress took was the last train to leave. And as the spinster-sempstress departed by the train, so the sister-in-law departed in a pony-cart, with a son and a grandmother in the pony- cart, together with such goods as the cart would hold; and, through staggering adventures, reached safety at Troyes.
"And how did you yourself get on?" I asked the spinster-sempstress.
"It was terrible. Ordinarily it is a journey of three or four hours. But that time it lasted three days and two nights. The train was crammed with refugees and with wounded. One was obliged to stand up. One could not move."
"But where did you sleep?"
"I did not sleep. Do I not tell you one was obliged to stand up? I stood up all the first night. The floor was thirty centimetres deep in filth. The second night one had settled down somewhat. I could sit."
"But about eating?"
"I had a little food that I brought with me."
"Nothing, till the second day. One could not move. But in the end we arrived. I was broken with fatigue. I was very ill. But I was home. The Boches drank everything in the cafe, everything; but the building was spared—it stood away from the firing. How long do you think the war will last?"
"I'm beginning to think it will last a long time."
"So they say," she murmured, glancing through the window at the prospect of roofs and chimney-cowls. "Provided that it finishes well..."
Except by the look in her eyes, and by the destruction of her once good complexion, it was impossible to divine that this woman's habits had ever been disturbed in the slightest detail. But the gaze and the complexion told the tale.
Next: the Boulevard St. Germain. A majestic flat, heavily and sombrely furnished. The great drawing-room is shut and sheeted with holland. It has been shut for twenty years. The mistress of this home is an aged widow of inflexible will and astounding activity. She gets up at five a.m., and no cook has ever yet satisfied her. The master is her son, a bachelor of fifty. He is paralysed, and always perfectly dressed in the English taste, he passes his life in a wheeled chair. The home is centred in his study, full of books, engravings, a large safe, telephone, theatrophone, newspapers, cigarettes, easy-chairs. When I go in, an old friend, a stockbroker, is there, and "thees" and "thous" abound in the conversation, which runs on investments, the new English loan, banking accounts in London, the rent moratorium in Paris, and the war. It is said that every German is a critic of war. But so is every Frenchman a critic of war. The criticism I now hear is the best spoken criticism, utterly impartial, that I have heard.
"In sum," says the grey-headed stockbroker, "there disengages itself from the totality of the facts an impression, tolerably clear, that all goes very well on the West front."
Which is reassuring. But the old lady, invincible after seven-and-a- half decades spent in the hard acquirement of wisdom, will not be reassured. She is not alarmed, but she will not be reassured. She treats the two men with affectionate malice as children. She knows that "those birds"—that is to say, the Germans—will never be beaten, because they are for ever capable of inventing some new trick.
She will not sit still. A bit of talk, and she runs off with the agility of a girl to survey her household; then returns and cuts into the discussion.
"If you are coming to lunch, Bennett," she says, "come before Monday, because on Monday my cook takes herself away, and as for the new one, I should dare to say nothing. . . . You don't know, Bennett, you don't know, that at a given moment it was impossible to buy salt. I mean, they sold it to you unwillingly, in little screws of paper. It was impossible to get enough. Figure that to yourself, you from London! As for chicory for the morning cafe-au-lait, it existed not. Gold could not buy it."
And again she said, speaking of the fearful days in September 1914:
"What would you? We waited. My little coco is nailed there. He cannot move without a furniture-van filled with things essential to his existence. I did not wish to move. We waited, quite simply. We waited for them to come. They did not come. So much the better That is all."
I have never encountered anything more radically French than the temperament of this aged woman.
Next: the luxury quarter—the establishment of one of those fashionable dressmakers whom you patronise, and whose bills startle all save the most hardened. She is a very handsome woman. She has a husband and two little boys. They are all there. The husband is a retired professional soldier. He has a small and easy post in a civil administration, but his real work is to keep his wife's books. In August he was re-engaged, and ready to lead soldiers under fire in the fortified camp which Gallieni has evolved out of the environs of Paris; but the need passed, and the uniform was laid aside. The two little boys are combed and dressed as only French and American children are combed and dressed, and with a more economical ingenuity than American children. Each has a beautiful purple silk necktie and a beautiful silk handkerchief to match. You may notice that the purple silk is exactly the same purple silk as the lining of their mother's rich mantle hanging over a chair back.
"I had to dismiss my last few work-girls on Saturday," said the dressmaker. It was no longer possible to keep them. "I had seventy, you know. Now—not one. For a time we made considerably less than the rent. Now we make nothing. Nevertheless, some American clients have been very kind."
Her glance went round the empty white salons with their mirrors in sculptured frames. Naught of her stock was left except one or two fragile blouses and a few original drawings.
Said the husband:
"We are eating our resources. I will tell you what this war means to us. It means that we shall have to work seven or eight years longer than we had the intention to work. What would you?"
He lifted his arms and lowered the corners of his mouth. Then he turned again to the military aspect of things, elaborating it.
The soldier in him finished:
"It is necessary, all the same, to admire these cursed Germans."
"Admire them!" said his wife sharply. "I do not appreciate the necessity. When I think of that day and that night we spent at home!" They live in the eastern suburbs of the city. "When I think of that day and that night! The cannon thundering at a distance of ten kilometres!"
"Thirty kilometres, almost thirty, my friend," the husband corrected.
"Ten kilometres. I am sure it was not more than ten kilometres, my friend."
"But see, my little one. It was at Meaux. Forty kilometres to Meaux. We are at thirteen. That makes twenty-seven, at least."
"It sounded like ten."
"That is true."
"It sounded like ten, my dear Arnold. All day, and all night. We could not go to bed. Had one any desire to go to bed? It was anguish. The mere souvenir is anguish."
She kissed her youngest boy, who had long hair.
"Come, come!" the soldier calmed her.
Lastly: an interior dans le monde; a home illustrious in Paris for the richness of its collections—bric-a-brac, fans, porcelain, furniture, modern pictures; the walls frescoed by Pierre Bonnard and his compeers; a black marble balcony with an incomparable view in the very middle of the city. Here several worlds encountered each other: authors, painters, musicians, dilettanti, administrators. The hostess had good-naturedly invited a high official of the Foreign Office, whom I had not seen for many years; she did not say so, but her aim therein was to expedite the arrangements for my pilgrimages in the war-zone. Sundry of my old friends were present. It was wonderful how many had escaped active service, either because they were necessary to central administration, or because they were neutrals, or because they were too old, or because they had been declined on account of physical unfitness, reformes. One or two who might have come failed to do so because they had perished.
Amid the abounding, dazzling confusion of objects which it was a duty to admire, people talked cautiously of the war. With tranquillity and exactness and finality the high official, clad in pale alpaca and yellow boots, explained the secret significance of Yellow Books, White Books, Orange Books, Blue Books. The ultimate issues were never touched. New, yet unprinted, music was played; Schumann, though German enough, was played. Then literature came to the top. A novelist wanted to know what I thought of a book called "The Way of All Flesh," which he had just read. It is singular how that ruthless book makes its way across all frontiers. He also wanted to know about Gissing, a name new to him. And then a voice from the obscurity of the balcony came startlingly to me in the music-room:
"Tell me! Sincerely—do they hate the Germans in England? Do they hate them, veritably? Tell me. I doubt it. I doubt strongly."
I laughed, rather awkwardly, as any Englishman would.
The transient episode was very detrimental to literary talk.
Negotiations for a private visit to the front languished. The thing was arranged right enough, but it seemed impossible to fix a day actually starting. So I went to Meaux. Meaux had stuck in my ears. Meaux was in history and in romances; it is in Dumas. It was burnt by the Normans in the tenth century, and terrific massacres occurred outside its walls in the fourteenth century, massacres in which the English aristocracy took their full share of the killing. Also, in the seventeenth century, Bossuet was Bishop of Meaux. Finally, in the twentieth century, the Germans just got to Meaux, and they got no further. It was, so far as I can make out, the nearest point to Paris which they soiled.
I could not go even to Meaux without formalities, but the formalities were simple. The dilatory train took seventy minutes, dawdling along the banks of the notorious Marne. In an automobile one could have done the journey in half the time. An automobile, however, would have seriously complicated the formalities. Meaux contains about fourteen thousand inhabitants. Yet it seems, when you are in it, to' consist chiefly of cathedral. When you are at a little distance away from it, it seems to consist of nothing but cathedral. In this it resembles Chartres, and many another city in France.
We obtained a respectable carriage, with a melancholy, resigned old driver, who said:
"For fifteen francs, plus always the pourboire, I will take you to Barcy, which was bombarded and burnt. I will show you all the battlefield."
With those few words he thrilled me.
The road rose slowly from the canal of the Ourcq; it was lined with the most beautiful acacia trees, and through the screen of the acacias one had glimpses of the town, diminishing, and of the cathedral, growing larger and larger. The driver talked to us in faint murmurs over his shoulder, indicating the positions of various villages such as Penchard, Poincy, Crecy, Monthyon, Chambry, Varreddes, all of which will be found, in the future detailed histories of the great locust-advance.
"Did you yourself see any Germans?"
He smiled. "About a dozen." He underestimated the number, and the length of the stay, but no matter. "They were scouts. They came into the town for a few hours—and left it. The Germans were deceived. They might have got to Paris if they had liked. But they were deceived."
"How were they deceived?"
"They thought there were more English in front of them than actually there were. The head-quarters of the English were over there, at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. The English blew up our bridge, as a measure of precaution."
We drove on.
"The first tomb," said the driver, nonchalantly, in his weak voice, lifting an elbow.
There it was, close by the roadside, and a little higher than ourselves. The grave was marked by four short, rough posts on which was strung barbed wire; a white flag; a white cross of painted wood, very simply but neatly made; a faded wreath. We could distinguish a few words of an inscription. "Comrades, 66th Territorials..." Soldiers were buried where they fell, and this was the tomb of him who fell nearest to Paris. It marked the last homicidal effort of the Germans before their advance in this region curved eastwards into a retreat. This tomb was a very impressive thing. The driver had thrilled me again.
We drove on. We were now in a large rolling plain that sloped gradually behind us southwards towards the Marne. It had many little woods and spinneys, and no watercourses. To the civilian it ap- peared an ideal theatre for a glorious sanguinary battle in which thousands of fathers, sons, and brothers should die violently because some hierarchy in a distant capital was suffering from an acute attack of swelled head. A few trenches here and there could still be descried, but the whole land was in an advanced state of cultivation. Wheat and oats and flaming poppies had now conquered the land, had overrun and possessed it as no Germans could ever do. The raw earth of the trenches struggled vainly against the tide of germination. The harvest was going to be good. This plain, with its little woods and little villages, glittered with a careless and vast satisfaction in the sheets of sunshine that fell out of a blue too intense for the gaze.
We saw a few more tombs, and a great general monument or cenotaph to the dead, constructed at cross-roads by military engineers. The driver pointed to the village of Penchard, which had been pillaged and burnt by the enemy. It was only about a mile off, but in the strong, dazzling light we could distinguish not the least sign of damage. Then we came to a farm-house by the roadside. It was empty; it was a shell, and its roof was damaged. The Germans had gutted it. They had taken away its furniture as booty. (What they intended to do with furniture out of a perfectly mediocre farm-house, hundreds of miles from home, it is difficult to imagine.) Articles which it did not suit them to carry off they destroyed. Wine-casks of which they could not drink the wine, they stove in. ... And then they retreated.
This farm-house was somebody's house, just as your home is yours, and mine mine. To some woman or other every object in it was familiar. She glanced at the canister on the mantelpiece and said to herself: "I really must clean that canister to-morrow." There the house stood, with holes in its roof, empty. And if there are half a million similarly tragic houses in Europe to-day, as probably there are, such frequency does not in the slightest degree diminish the forlorn tragedy of that particular house which I have beheld.
At last Barcy came into view—the pierced remains of its church tower over the brow of a rise in the plain. Barcy is our driver's show- place. Barcy was in the middle of things. The fighting round Barcy lasted a night and a day, and Barcy was taken and retaken twice.
"You see the new red roofs," said the driver as we approached. "By those new red roofs you are in a state to judge a little what the damage was."
Some of the newly made roofs, however, were of tarred paper.
The street by which we entered had a small-pox of shrapnel and bullet-marks. The post office had particularly suffered: its bones were laid bare. It had not been restored, but it was ready to do any business that fell to be done, though closed on that afternoon. We turned a corner, and came upon the church. The work on the church was well up to the reported Teutonic average. Of its roof only the rafters were left. The windows were all smashed, and their lead fantastically twisted. The west door was entirely gone; a rough grille of strips of wood served in its stead. Through this grille one could see the nave and altar, in a miraculous and horrible confusion. It was as if house-breakers had spent days in doing their best to produce a professional effect. The oak pews were almost unharmed. Immediately behind the grille lay a great bronze bell, about three feet high, covered with beautifully incised inscriptions; it was unhurt.
Apparently nothing had been accomplished, in ten months, towards the restoration of the church. But something was contemplated, perhaps already started. A polished steel saw lay on one of the pews, but there was no workman attached to it.
While I was writing some notes in the porch three little boys came up and diligently stared at me.
"What dost thou want?" I said sharply to the tallest.
"Nothing," he replied.
Then three widows came up, one young, one young and beautiful, one middle-aged.
We got back into the carriage.
"The village seems very deserted," I said to the driver.
"What would you?" he answered. "Many went. They had no home. Few have returned."
All around were houses of which nothing remained but the stone walls.
The Germans had shown great prowess here, and the French still greater. It was a village upon which rival commanders could gaze with pride. It will remember the fourth and the fifth of September 1914.
We made towards Chambry. Chambry is a village which, like Meaux, lies below the plain. Chambry escaped glory; but between it and Barcy, on the intervening slope through which a good road runs, a battle was fought. You know what kind of a battle it was by the tombs. These tombs were very like the others—an oblong of barbed wire, a white flag, a white cross, sometimes a name, more often only a number, rarely a wreath. You see first one, then another, then two, then a sprinkling; and gradually you perceive that the whole plain is dotted with gleams of white flags and white crosses, so that graves seem to extend right away to the horizon marked by lines of trees. Then you see a huge general grave. Much glory about that spot!
And then a tomb with a black cross. Very disconcerting, that black cross! It is different not only in colour, but in shape, from the other crosses. Sinister! You need not to be told that the body of a German lies beneath it. The whole devilishness of the Prussian ideal is expressed in that black cross. Then, as the road curves, you see more black crosses, many black crosses, very many. No flags, no names, no wreaths on these tombs. Just a white stencilled number in the centre of each cross. Women in Germany are still lying awake at nights and wondering what those tombs look like.
Watching over all the tombs, white and black without distinction, are notices: "Respect the Tombs." But the wheat and the oats are not respecting the tombs. Everywhere the crops have encroached on them, half-hiding them, smothering them, climbing right over them. In one place wheat is ripening out of the very body of a German soldier.
Such is the nearest battlefield to Paris. Corporate excursions to it are forbidden, and wisely. For the attraction of the place, were it given play, would completely demoralise Meaux and the entire district.
In half an hour we were back at an utterly matter-of-fact railway station, in whose cafe an utterly matter-of-fact and capable Frenchwoman gave us tea. And when we reached Paris we had the news that a Staff Captain of the French Army had been detailed to escort us to the front and to show us all that could safely be seen. Nevertheless, whatever I may experience, I shall not experience again the thrill which I had when the weak and melancholy old driver pointed out the first tomb. That which we had just seen was the front once.
II On The French Front
We were met at a poste de commandement by the officers in charge, who were waiting for us. And later we found that we were always thus met. The highest officer present—General, Colonel, or Commandant—was at every place at our disposition to explain things—and to explain them with that clarity of which the French alone have the secret and of which a superlative example exists in the official report of the earlier phases of the war, offered to the Anglo-Saxon public through Reuter. Automobiles and chauffeurs abounded for our small party of four. Never once at any moment of the day, whether driving furiously along somewhat deteriorated roads in the car, or walking about the land, did I lack a Staff officer who produced in me the illusion that he was living solely in order to be of use to me. All details of the excursions were elaborately organised; never once did the organisation break down. No pre- Lusitania American correspondent could have been more spoiled by Germans desperately anxious for his goodwill than I was spoiled by these French who could not gain my goodwill because they had the whole of it already. After the rites of greeting, we walked up to the high terrace of a considerable chateau close by, and France lay before us in a shimmering vast semicircle. In the distance, a low range of hills, irregularly wooded; then a river; then woods and spinneys; then vineyards—boundless vineyards which climbed in varying slopes out of the valley almost to our feet. Far to the left was a town with lofty factory chimneys, smokeless.
Peasant women were stooping in the vineyards; the whole of the earth seemed to be cultivated and to be yielding bounteously. It was a magnificent summer afternoon. The sun was high and a few huge purple shadows moved with august deliberation across the brilliant greens. An impression of peace, majesty, grandeur; and of the mild, splendid richness of the soil of France.
"You see that white line on the hills opposite," said an officer, opening a large-scale map.
I guessed it was a level road.
"That is the German trenches," said he. "They are five miles away. Their gun-positions are in the woods. Our own trenches are invisible from here."
It constituted a great moment, this first vision of the German trenches. With the thrill came the lancinating thought: "All of France that lies beyond that line, land just like the land on which I am standing, inhabited by people just like the people who are talking to me, is under the insulting tyranny of the invader." And I also thought, as the sense of distance quickened my imagination to realise that these trenches stretched from Ostend to Switzerland, and that the creators of them were prosecuting similar enterprises as far north- east as Riga, and as far southeast as the confines of Roumania: "The brigands are mad, but they are mad in the grand manner."
We were at the front.
We had driven for twenty miles along a very busy road which was closed to civilians, and along which even Staff officers could not travel without murmuring the password to placate the hostile vigilance of sentries. The civil life of the district was in abeyance, proceeding precariously from meal to meal. Aeroplanes woke the sleep. No letter could leave a post office without a precautionary delay of three days.
Telegrams were suspect. To get into a railway station was almost as difficult as to get into paradise. A passport or a safe-conduct was the sine qua non of even the restricted liberty which had survived. And yet nowhere did I see a frown nor hear a complaint. Everybody comprehended that the exigencies of the terrific military machine were necessary exigencies. Everybody waited, waited, in confidence and with tranquil smiles. Also it is misleading to say that civil life was in abeyance. For the elemental basis of its prosperity and its amenities continued just as though the lunatic bullies of Potsdam had never dictated to Vienna the ultimatum for Serbia. The earth was yielding, fabulously. It was yielding up to within a mile and a half of the German wire entanglements. The peasants would not neglect the earth. Officers remonstrated with them upon their perilous rashness. They replied: "The land must be tilled."
When the German artillery begins to fire, the blue-clad women sink out of sight amid the foliage. Half an hour after it has ceased they cautiously emerge, and resume. One peasant put up an umbrella, but he was a man.
We were veritably at the front. There was, however, not a whisper of war, nor anything visible except the thin, pale line like a striation on the distant hills. Then a far-off sound of thunder is heard. It is a gun. A faint puff of smoke is pointed out to us. Neither the rumble nor the transient cloudlet makes any apparent impression on the placid and wide dignity of the scene. Nevertheless, this is war. And war seems a very vague, casual, and negligible thing. We are led about fifty feet to the left, where in a previous phase a shell has indented a huge hole in the earth. The sight of this hole renders war rather less vague and rather less negligible.
"There are eighty thousand men in front of us," says an officer, indicating the benign shimmering, empty landscape.
"Interred—in the trenches."
It is incredible.
"And the other interred—the dead?"
"We never speak of them. But we think of them a good deal."
Still a little closer to war. The parc du genie—engineers park. BEHIND We inspected hills of coils, formidable barbed wire, far surpassing that of farmers, well contrived to tear to pieces any human being who, having got into its entanglement, should try to get out again. One thought that nothing but steam-chisels would be capable of cutting it. Also stacks of timber for shoring up mines which sappers would dig beneath the enemy trenches. Also sacks to be filled with earth for improvised entrenching. Also the four-pointed contraptions called chevaux de frise, which—however you throw them—will always stick a fatal point upwards, to impale the horse or man who cannot or will not look where he is going. Even tarred paper, for keeping the weather out of trenches or anything else. And all these things in unimagined quantities.
Close by, a few German prisoners performing sanitary duties under a guard. They were men in God's image, and they went about on the assumption that all the rest of the war lay before them and that there was a lot of it. A General told us that he had mentioned to them the possibility of an exchange of prisoners, whereupon they had gloomily and pathetically protested. They very sincerely did not want to go back whence they had come, preferring captivity, humiliation, and the basest tasks to a share in the great glory of German arms. To me they had a brutalised air, no doubt one minor consequence of military ambition in high places.
Not many minutes away was a hospital—what the French call an ambulance de premiere ligne, contrived out of a factory. This was the hospital nearest to the trenches in that region, and the wounded come to it direct from the dressing-stations which lie immediately behind the trenches. When a man falls, or men fall, the automobile is telephoned for, and it arrives at the appointed rendezvous generally before the stretcher-bearers, who may have to walk for twenty or thirty minutes over rough ground. A wounded man may be, and has been, operated upon in this hospital within an hour of his wounding. It is organised on a permanent basis, for cases too serious for removal have, of course, to remain there. Nevertheless, these establishments are, as regards their staff, patients, and material, highly mobile.
One hospital of two hundred beds was once entirely evacuated within sixty minutes upon a sudden order. We walked through small ward after small ward, store-room after store-room, aseptic operating-room and septic operating-room, all odorous with ether, and saw little but resignation, and not much of that, for patients happened to be few. Yet the worn face of the doctor in charge showed that vast labours must have been accomplished in those sombre chambers.
In the very large courtyard a tent operating-hospital was established. The white attendants were waiting within in the pallid obscurity, among tables, glass jars, and instruments. The surgeon's wagon, with hot-water and sterilising apparatus, was waiting without. The canvas organism was a real hospital, and the point about it was that it could move off complete at twenty-five minutes' notice and set itself up again in any other ordained location in another twenty-five minutes.
Another short ride, and we were in an aviation park, likewise tented, in the midst of an immense wheatfield on the lofty side of a hill. There were six hangars of canvas, each containing an aeroplane and serving as a dormitory; and for each aeroplane a carriage and a motor—for sometimes aeroplanes are wounded and have to travel by road; it takes ninety minutes to dismount an aeroplane. Each corps of an army has one of these escadrilles or teams of aeroplanes, and the army as a whole has an extra one, so that, if an army consists of eight corps, it possesses fifty-four aeroplanes. I am speaking now of the particular type of aeroplane employed for regulating artillery fire. It was a young non-commissioned officer with a marked Southern accent who explained to us the secret nature of things. He was wearing both the Military Medal and the Legion of Honour, for he had done wondrous feats in the way of shooting the occupants of Taubes in mid-air. He got out one of the machines, and exhibited its tricks and its wireless apparatus, and invited us to sit in the seat of the flier. The weather was quite unsuitable for flying, but, setting four men to hold the machine in place, he started the Gnome motor and ran it up to two thousand revolutions a minute, creating a draught which bowed the fluttered wheat for many yards behind and blew hats off. And in the middle of this pother he continued to offer lucid and surprising explanations to deafened ears until his superior officer, excessively smart and looking like a cross between a cavalryman and a yachtsman, arrived on the scene swinging a cane.
It was natural that after this we should visit some auto-cannons expressly constructed for bringing down aeroplanes. In front of these marvels it was suggested to us that we should neither take photographs nor write down exact descriptions. As regards the latter, the Staff officers had reason to be reassured. No living journalist could have reproduced the scientific account of the sighting arrangements given to us in an esoteric yet quite comprehensible language by the high priest of these guns, who was a middle-aged artillery Captain. It lasted about twenty minutes. It was complete, final, unchallengeable. At intervals the artillery Captain himself admitted that such-and-such a part of the device was tres beau. It was. There was only one word of which I could not grasp the significance in that connection. It recurred. Several times I determined to ask the Captain what he meant us to understand by that word; but I lacked moral courage. I doubt whether in all the lethal apparatus that I saw in France I saw anything quite equal to the demoniac ingenuity of these massive guns. The proof of guns is in the shooting. These guns do not merely aim at Taubes: they hit them.
I will not, however, derogate from the importance of the illustrious "seventy-five." We saw one of these on an afternoon of much marching up and down hills and among woods, gazing at horses and hot-water douches, baths, and barbers' shops, and deep dug- outs called "Tipperary," and guns of various calibre, including the "seventy-five." The "seventy-five" is a very sympathetic creature, in blue-grey with metallic glints. He is perfectly easy to see when you approach him from behind, but get twenty yards in front of him and he is absolutely undiscoverable. Viewed from the sky, he is part of the forest. Viewed from behind, he is perceived to be in a wooden hut with rafters, in which you can just stand upright. We beheld the working of the gun, by two men, and we beheld the different sorts of shell in their delved compartments. But this was not enough for us. We ventured to suggest that it would be proper to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement. The request was instantly granted.
"Time for 4,300 metres," said the Lieutenant quickly and sternly, and a soldier manipulated the obus.
It was done. It was done with disconcerting rapidity. The shell was put into its place. A soldier pulled a string. Bang! A neat, clean, not too loud bang! The messenger had gone invisibly forth. The prettiest part of the affair was the recoil and automatic swinging back of the gun. Lest the first shell should have failed in its mission, the Commandant ordered a second one to be sent, and this time the two artillerymen sat in seats attached on either side to the gun itself. The "seventy-five" was enthusiastically praised by every officer present. He is beloved like a favourite sporting dog, and with cause.
At the side of the village street there was a bit of sharply sloping ground, with a ladder thrown on it to make descent easier. "This way," said one of the officers.
We followed him, and in an instant were in the communication trench. The change was magical in its quickness. At one moment we were on the earth; at the next we were in it. The trench was so narrow that I had to hold my stick in front of me, as there was no room to swing the arms; the chalky sides left traces on the elbows. The floor was for the most part quite dry, but at intervals there were muddy pools nearly ankle-deep. The top of the trench was about level with the top of my head, and long grasses or chance cereals, bending down, continually brushed the face. An officer was uplifted for the rest of the day by finding a four-leaved clover at the edge of the trench. The day was warm, and the trench was still warmer. Its direction never ceased to change, generally in curves, but now and then by a sharp corner. We walked what seemed to be an immense distance, and then came out on to a road, which we were instructed to cross two by two, as, like the whole of the region, it was subject to German artillery. Far down this road we could see the outlying village for which we were bound. . . .
A new descent into the earth. We proceed a few yards, and the trench suddenly divides into three. We do not know which to take. An officer following us does not know which to take. The guiding officer is perhaps thirty yards in front! We call. No answer. We climb out of the trench on to the surface desolation; we can see nothing, nothing whatever, but land that is running horribly to waste. Our friends are as invisible as moles. There is not a trace even of their track. This is a fine object-lesson in the efficacy of trenches. At length an officer returns and saves us. We have to take the trench on the extreme right. Much more hot walking, and a complete loss of the notion of direction.
Then we come out on to another portion of the same road at the point where a main line of railway crosses it. We are told to run to shelter. In the near distance a German captive balloon sticks up moveless against the sky. The main line of railway is a sorrowful sight. Its signal-wires hang in festoons. Its rails are rusting. The abandonment of a main line in a civilised country is a thing unknown, a thing contrary to sense, an impossible thing, so that one wonders whether one is not visiting the remains of a civilisation dead and definitely closed. Very strange thoughts pass through the mind. That portion of the main line cannot be used by the Germans because it is within the French positions, and it cannot be used by the French because it is utterly exposed to German artillery. Thus, perhaps ten kilometres of it are left forlorn to illustrate the imbecile brutality of an invasion. There is a good deal more trench before we reach the village which forms the head of a salient in the French line. This village is knocked all to pieces. It is a fearful spectacle. We see a Teddy-bear left on what remains of a flight of stairs, a bedstead buried to the knobs in debris, skeletons of birds in a cage hanging under an eave. The entire place is in the zone of fire, and it has been tremendously bombarded throughout the war. Nevertheless, some houses still stand, and seventeen civilians— seven men and ten women—insist on remaining there. I talked to one fat old woman, who contended that there was no danger. A few minutes later a shell fell within a hundred yards of her, and it might just as well have fallen on the top of her coiffe, to prove finally to her the noble reasonableness of war and the reality of the German necessity for expansion.
The village church was laid low. In the roof two thin arches of the groining remain, marvellously. One remembers this freak of balance—and a few poor flowers on the altar. Mass is celebrated in that church every Sunday morning. We spoke with the cure, an extremely emaciated priest of middle age; he wore the Legion of Honour. We took to the trenches again, having in the interval been protected by several acres of ruined masonry. About this point geography seemed to end for me. I was in a maze of burrowing, from which the hot sun could be felt but not seen. I saw stencilled signs, such as "Tranchee de repli," and signs containing numbers. I saw a sign over a door: "Guetteur de jour et de nuit"—watcher by day and by night.
"Anybody in there?"
The door was opened. In the gloom a pale man stood rather like a ghost, almost as disconcerting as a ghost, watching. He ignored us, and kept on watching.
Then through a hole I had a glimpse of an abandoned road, where no man might live, and beyond it a vast wire entanglement. Then we curved, and I was in an open place, a sort of redoubt contrived out of little homes and cattle-stables. I heard irregular rifle-fire close by, but I could not see who was firing I was shown the machine-gun chamber, and the blind which hides the aperture for the muzzle was lifted, but only momentarily. I was shown, too, the deep underground refuges to which every body takes in case of a heavy bombardment. Then we were in the men's quarters, in houses very well protected by advance walls to the north, and at length we saw some groups of men.
"Bonjour, les poilus!"
This from the Commandant himself, with jollity. The Commandant had a wonderful smile, which showed bright teeth, and his gestures were almost as quick as those of his Lieutenant, whom the regiment had christened "The Electric Man."
The soldiers saluted. This salute was so proud, so eager, that it might have brought tears to the eyes. The soldiers stood up very straight, but not at all stiffly. I noticed one man, because I could not notice them all. He threw his head back, and slightly to one side, and his brown beard stuck out. His eyes sparkled. Every muscle was taut. He seemed to be saying, "My Commandant, I know my worth; I am utterly yours—you won't get anything better." A young officer said to me that these men had in them a wild beast and an angel. It was a good saying, and I wished I had thought of it myself. This regiment had been in this village since the autumn. It had declined to be relieved. It seemed absolutely fresh.
One hears that individual valour is about the same in all armies— everywhere very high. Events appear to have justified the assertion. German valour is astounding. I have not seen any German regiment, but I do not believe that there are in any German regiment any men equal to these men. After all, ideas must count, and these men know that they are defending an outraged country, while the finest German soldier knows that he is outraging it.
The regiment was relatively very comfortable. It had plenty of room. It had made a little garden, with little terra-cotta statues. It possessed also a gymnasium ground, where we witnessed some excellent high jumping; and—more surprising—a theatre, with stage, dressing-room, and women's costumes.
The summit of our excitement was attained when we were led into the first-line trench.
"Is this really the first-line trench?"
Well, the first-line trench, very remarkably swept and dusted and spotless—as were all the trenches beyond the communication trench—was not much like a trench. It was like a long wooden gallery. Its sides were of wood, its ceiling was of wood, its floor was of wood. The carpentry, though not expert, was quite neat; and we were told that not a single engineer had ever been in the position, which, nevertheless, is reckoned to be one of the most ingenious on the whole front. The gallery is rather dark, because it is lighted only by the loop-holes. These loop-holes are about eight inches square, and more than eight inches deep, because they must, of course, penetrate the outer earthwork. A couple of inches from the bottom a strong wire is fixed across them. At night the soldier puts his gun under this wire, so that he may not fire too high.
The loop-holes are probably less than a yard apart, allowing enough space in front of each for a man to move comfortably. Beneath the loop-holes runs a wooden platform for the men to stand on. Behind the loop-holes, in the ceiling, are large hooks to hang guns on. Many of the loop-holes are labelled with men's names, written in a good engrossing hand; and between the loop-holes, and level with them, are pinned coloured postcards and photographs of women, girls, and children. Tucked conveniently away in zinc cases underground are found zinc receptacles for stores of cartridges, powders to be used against gas, grenades, and matches.
One gazes through a loop-hole. Occasional firing can be heard, but it is not in the immediate vicinity. Indeed, all the men we can see have stepped down from the platform in order to allow us to pass freely along it and inspect. Through the loop-hole can be distinguished a barbed-wire entanglement, then a little waste ground, then more barbed-wire entanglement (German), and then the German trenches, which are less than half a mile away, and which stretch round behind us in a semicircle.
"Do not look too long. They have very good glasses."
The hint is taken. It is singular to reflect that just as we are gazing privily at the Germans, so the Germans are gazing privily at us. A mere strip of level earth separates them from us, but that strip is impassable, save at night, when the Frenchmen often creep up to the German wire. There is a terrible air of permanency about the whole affair. Not only the passage of time produces this effect; the telephone-wire running along miles of communication-trench, the elaborateness of the fighting trenches, the established routine and regularity of existence—all these also contribute to it. But the air of permanency is fallacious. The Germans are in France.
Every day of slow preparation brings nearer the day when the Germans will not be in France. That is certain. An immense expectancy hangs over the land, enchanting it.
We leave the first-line trench, with regret. But we have been in it!
In the quarters of the Commandant, a farm-house at the back end of the village, champagne was served, admirable champagne. We stood round a long table, waiting till the dilatory should have arrived. The party had somehow grown. For example, the cure came, amid acclamations. He related how a Lieutenant had accosted him in front of some altar and asked whether he might be allowed to celebrate the Mass. "That depends," said the cure. "You cannot celebrate if you are not a priest. If you are, you can." "I am a priest," said the Lieutenant. And he celebrated the Mass. Also the Intendant came, a grey-haired, dour, kind-faced man. The Intendant has charge of supplies, and he is cherished accordingly. And in addition to the Commandant, and the Electric Man, and our Staff Captains, there were sundry non-commissioned officers, and even privates.
We were all equal. The French Army is by far the most democratic institution I have ever seen. On our journeys the Staff Captains and ourselves habitually ate with a sergeant and a corporal. The corporal was the son of a General. The sergeant was a man of business and a writer. His first words when he met me were in English: "Monsieur Bennett, I have read your books." One of our chauffeurs was a well-known printer who employs three hundred and fifty men—when there is peace. The relations between officers and men are simply unique. I never saw a greeting that was not exquisite. The officers w ere full of knowledge, decision, and appreciative kindliness. The men were bursting with eager devotion. This must count, perhaps even more than big guns.
The Commandant, of course, presided at the vin d'honneur. His glance and his smile, his latent energy, would have inspired devotion in a wooden block. Every glass touched every glass, an operation which entailed some threescore clinkings. And while we were drinking, one of the Staff Captains—the one whose English was the less perfect of the two—began to tell me of the career of the Commandant, in Algeria and elsewhere. Among other things, he had carried his wounded men on his own shoulders under fire from the field of battle to a place of safety. He was certainly under forty; he might have been under thirty-five.
Said the Staff Captain, ingenuously translating in his mind from French to English, and speaking with slow caution, as though picking his way among the chevaux de frise of the English language:
"There are—very beautiful pages—in his—military life."
He meant: "II y a de tres belles pages dans sa carriere militaire."
Which is subtly not quite the same thing.
As we left the farm-house to regain the communication trench there was a fierce, loud noise like this: ZZZZZ ssss ZZZZ sss ZZZZ. And then an explosion. The observer in the captive balloon had noticed unaccustomed activity in our village, and the consequences were coming. We saw yellow smoke rising just beyond the wall of the farmyard, about two hundred yards away. We received instructions to hurry to the trench. We had not gone fifty yards in the trench when there was another celestial confusion of S's and Z's. Imitating the officers, we bent low in the trench. The explosion followed.
"One, two, three, four, five," said a Captain. "One should not rise till one has counted five, because all the bits have not fallen. If it is a big shell, count ten."
We tiptoed and glanced over the edge of the trench. Yellow smoke was rising at a distance of about three lawn-tennis courts.
"With some of their big shells," said the Captain, "you can hear nothing until it is too late, for the reason that the shell travels more quickly than the sound of it. The sounds reach your ears in inverse order—if you are alive."
A moment later a third shell dropped in the same plot of ground.
And even a mile and a half off, at the other end of the communication trench, when the automobiles emerged from their shelter into the view of the captive balloon, the officers feared for the automobiles, and we fled very swiftly.
We had been to the very front of the front, and it was the most cheerful, confident, high-spirited place I had seen in France, or in England either.
When you go into Rheims by the Epernay road, the life of the street seems to be proceeding as usual, except that octroi formalities have been abolished. Women, some young and beautiful, stare nonchalantly as the car passes. Children are playing and shrieking in the sunshine; the little cafes and shops keep open door; the baker is busy; middle-aged persons go their ways in meditation upon existence. It is true there are soldiers; but there are soldiers in every important French town at all seasons of the year in peace-time. In short, the spectacle is just that ordinarily presented to the poorer exterior thoroughfares leading towards the centre of a city.
And yet, in two minutes, in less than two minutes, you may be in a quarter where no life is left. This considerable quarter is not seriously damaged—it is destroyed. Not many houses, but every house in it will have to be rebuilt from the cellars. This quarter is desolation. Large shops, large houses, small shops, and small houses have all been treated alike. The facade may stand, the roof may have fallen in entirely or only partially, floors may have disappeared altogether or may still be clinging at odd angles to the walls—the middle of every building is the same: a vast heap of what once was the material of a home or a business, and what now is foul rubbish. In many instances the shells have revealed the functioning of the home at its most intimate, and that is seen which none should see. Indignation rises out of the heart. Amid stacks of refuse you may distinguish a bath, a magnificent fragment of mirror, a piece of tapestry, a saucepan. In a funeral shop wreaths still hang on their hooks for sale. Telephone and telegraph wires depend in a loose tangle from the poles. The clock of the Protestant church has stopped at a quarter to six. The shells have been freakish. In one building a shell harmlessly made a hole in the courtyard large enough to bury every commander of a German army; another shell—a 210 mm.—went through an inner wall and opened up the cellars by destroying 150 square feet of ground-floor: ten people were in the cellars, and none was hurt. Uninjured signs of cafes and shops, such as "The Good Hope," "The Success of the Day," meet your gaze with sardonic calm.
The inhabitants of this quarter, and of other quarters in Rheims, have gone. Some are dead. Others are picnicking in Epernay, Paris, elsewhere. They have left everything behind them, and yet they have left nothing. Each knows his lot in the immense tragedy. Nobody can realise the whole of the tragedy. It defies the mind; and, moreover, the horror of it is allayed somewhat by the beautiful forms which ruin—even the ruin of modern ugly architecture—occasionally takes. The effect of the pallor of a bedroom wall-paper against smoke-blackened masonry, where some corner of a house sticks up like a tall, serrated column out of the confusion, remains obstinately in the memory, symbolising, somehow, the grand German deed.
For do not forget that this quarter accurately represents what the Germans came out of Germany into France deliberately to do. This material devastation, this annihilation of effort, hope, and love, this substitution of sorrow for joy—is just what plans and guns were laid for, what the worshipped leaders of the Fatherland prepared with the most wanton and scientific solicitude. It is desperately cruel. But it is far worse than cruel—it is idiotic in its immense futility. The perfect idiocy of the thing overwhelms you. And to your reason it is monstrous that one population should overrun another with murder and destruction from political covetousness as that two populations should go to war concerning a religious creed. Indeed, it is more monstrous. It is an obscene survival, a phenomenon that has strayed through some negligence of fate, into the wrong century.
Strange, in an adjoining quarter, partly but not utterly destroyed, a man is coming home in a cab with luggage from the station, and the servant-girl waits for him at the house-door. And I heard of a case where a property-owner who had begun to build a house just before the war has lately resumed building operations. In the Esplanade Ceres the fountain is playing amid all the ravage; and the German trenches, in that direction, are not more than two miles away.
It is quite impossible for any sane man to examine the geography of the region of destruction which I have so summarily described without being convinced that the Germans, in shelling it, were simply aiming at the Cathedral. Tracing the streets affected, one can follow distinctly the process of their searching for the precise range of the Cathedral. Practically the whole of the damage is concentrated on the line of the Cathedral.
But the Cathedral stands.
Its parvis is grass-grown; the hotels on the parvis are heavily battered, and if they are not destroyed it is because the Cathedral sheltered them; the Archbishop's palace lies in fragments; all around is complete ruin. But the Cathedral stands, high above the level of disaster, a unique target, and a target successfully defiant. The outer roof is quite gone; much masonry is smashed; some of the calcined statues have exactly the appearance of tortured human flesh. But in its essence, and in its splendid outlines, the building remains—apparently unconquerable. The towers are particularly serene and impressive. The deterioration is, of course, tremendously severe. Scores, if not hundreds, of statues, each of which was a masterpiece, are spoilt; great quantities of carving are defaced; quite half the glass is irremediably broken; the whole of the interior non-structural decoration is destroyed. But the massiveness of the Cathedral has withstood German shrapnel. The place will never be the same again, or nearly the same. Nevertheless, Rheims Cathedral triumphantly exists.
The Germans use it as a vent for their irritation. When things go wrong for them at other parts of the front, they shell Rheims Cathedral. It has absolutely no military interest, but it is beloved by civilised mankind, and therefore is a means of offence. The French tried to remove some of the glass, utilising an old scaffolding. At once the German shells came. Nothing was to be saved that shrapnel could destroy. Shrapnel is futile against the body of the Cathedral, as is proved by the fact that 3,000 shells have fallen on or near it in a day and a night. If the Germans used high-explosive, one might believe that they had some deep religious aim necessitating the non-existence of the Cathedral. But they do not use high-explosive here. Shrapnel merely and uselessly torments.
When I first saw the Cathedral I was told that there had been calm for several days. I know that German agents in neutral countries constantly deny that the Cathedral is now shelled. When I saw the Cathedral again the next morning, five shells had just been aimed at it. I inspected the hole excavated by a 155-mm. shell at the foot of the eastern extremity, close to the walls. This hole was certainly not there when I made the circuit of the Cathedral on the previous evening. It came into existence at 6.40 a.m., and I inspected it at 8.20 a.m., and a newspaper boy offered me that morning's paper on the very edge of it. A fragment of shell, picked up warm by the architect in charge of the Cathedral and given to me, is now in my pocket.
We had a luncheon party at Rheims, in a certain hotel. This hotel had been closed for a time, but the landlady had taken heart again. The personnel appeared to consist solely of the landlady and a relative. Both women were in mourning. They served us themselves, and the meal was excellent, though one could get neither soda-water nor cigars. Shells had greeted the city a few hours earlier, but their effect had been only material; they are entirely ignored by the steadfast inhabitants, who do their primitive business in the desolated, paralysed organism with an indifference which is as resigned as it is stoic. Those ladies might well have been blown to bits as they crossed the courtyard bearing a dish of cherries or a bottle of wine. The sun shone steadily on the rich foliage of the street, and dogs and children rollicked mildly beneath the branches. Several officers were with us, including two Staff officers. These officers, not belonging to the same unit, had a great deal to tell each other and us: so much, that the luncheon lasted nearly two hours. Some of them had been in the retreat, in the battles of the Marne and of the Aisne, and in the subsequent trench fighting; none had got a scratch. Of an unsurpassed urbanity and austerity themselves, forming part of the finest civilisation which this world has yet seen, thoroughly appreciative of the subtle and powerful qualities of the race to which they belong, they exhibited a chill and restrained surprise at the manners of the invaders. One had seen two thousand champagne bottles strewn around a chateau from which the invaders had decamped, and the old butler of the house going carefully through the grounds and picking up the bottles which by chance had not been opened. The method of opening champagne, by the way, was a stroke of the sabre on the neck of the bottle. The German manner was also to lay the lighted cigar on the finest table-linen, so that by the burnt holes the proprietors might count their guests. Another officer had seen a whole countryside of villages littered with orchestrions and absinthe- bottles, groundwork of an interrupted musical and bacchic fete whose details must be imagined, like many other revolting and scabrous details, which no compositor would consent to set up in type, but which, nevertheless, are known and form a striking part of the unwritten history of the attack on civilisation. You may have read hints of these things again and again, but no amount of previous preparation will soften for you the shock of getting them first-hand from eyewitnesses whose absolute reliability it would be fatuous to question.
What these men with their vivid gestures, bright eyes, and perfect phrasing most delight in is personal heroism. And be it remembered that, though they do tell a funny story about German scouts who, in order to do their work, painted themselves the green of trees—and then, to complete the illusion, when they saw a Frenchman began to tremble like leaves—they give full value to the courage of the invaders. But, of course, it is the courage of Frenchmen that inspires their narrations. I was ever so faintly surprised by their candid and enthusiastic appreciation of the heroism of the auxiliary services. They were lyrical about engine-drivers, telephone- repairers, stretcher-bearers, and so on. The story which had the most success concerned a soldier (a schoolmaster) who in an engagement got left between the opposing lines, a quite defenceless mark for German rifles. When a bullet hit him, he cried, "Vive la France!" When he was missed he kept silent. He was hit again and again, and at each wound he cried, "Vive la France!" He could not be killed. At last they turned a machine-gun on him and raked him from head to foot. "Vive la———"
It was a long, windy, dusty drive to Arras. The straight, worn roads of flinty chalk passed for many miles ARRAS through country where there was no unmilitary activity save that of the crops pushing themselves up. Everything was dedicated to the war. Only at one dirty little industrial town did we see a large crowd of men waiting after lunch to go into a factory. These male civilians had a very odd appearance; it was as though they had been left out of the war by accident, or by some surprising benevolence. One thought first, "There must be some mistake here." But there was probably no mistake. These men were doubtless in the immense machine.
After we had traversed a more attractive agricultural town, with a town hall whose architecture showed that Flanders was not very far off, the soil changed and the country grew more sylvan and delectable. And the sun shone hotly. Camps alternated with orchards, and cows roamed in the camps and also in the orchards. And among the trees could be seen the blue draperies of women at work. Then the wires of the field-telephones and telegraphs on their elegantly slim bamboos were running alongside us. And once or twice, roughly painted on a bit of bare wood, we saw the sign: "Vers le Front." Why any sign should be necessary for such a destination I could not imagine. But perhaps humour had entered into the matter. At length we perceived Arras in the distance, and at a few kilometres it looked rather like itself: it might have been a living city.
When, however, you actually reach Arras you cannot be deceived for an instant as to what has happened to the place. It offers none of the transient illusion of Rheims. The first street you see is a desolation, empty and sinister. Grimy curtains bulge out at smashed windows. Everywhere the damage of shells is visible. The roadway and the pavements are littered with bits of homes. Grass flourishes among the bits. You proceed a little further to a large, circular place, once imposing. Every house in it presents the same blighted aspect. There is no urban stir. But in the brief intervals of the deafening cannonade can be heard one sound—blinds and curtains fluttering against empty window-frames and perhaps the idle, faint banging of a loose shutter. Not even a cat walks. We are alone, we and the small group of Staff officers who are acting as our hosts. We feel like thieves, like desecrators, impiously prying. At the other side of the place a shell has dropped before a house and sliced away all its front. On the ground floor is the drawing-room. Above that is the bedroom, with the bed made and the white linen smoothly showing. The marvel is that the bed, with all the other furniture, does not slide down the sloping floor into the street. But everything remains moveless and placid. The bedroom is like a show. It might be the bedroom of some famous man exposed to worshipping tourists at sixpence a head. A few chairs have fallen out of the house, and they lie topsy-turvy in the street amid the debris; no one has thought to touch them. In all directions thoroughfares branch forth, silent, grass-grown, and ruined.
"You see the strong fortress I have!" says the Commanding Officer with genial sarcasm. "You notice its high military value. It is open at every end. You can walk into it as easily as into a windmill. And yet they bombard it. Yesterday they fired twenty projectiles a minute for an hour into the town. A performance absolutely useless! Simple destruction! But they are like that!"
So we went forward further into the city, and saw sights still stranger. Of one house nothing but the roof was left, the roof made a triumphal arch. Everywhere potted plants, boxed against walls or suspended from window-frames, were freshly blooming. All the streets were covered with powdered glass. In many streets telegraph and telephone wires hung in thick festoons like abandoned webs of spiders, or curled themselves round the feet; continually one had to be extricating oneself from them. Continually came the hollow sound of things falling and slipping within the smashed interiors behind the facades. And then came the sound of a baby crying. For this city is not, after all, uninhabited. We saw a woman coming out of her house and carefully locking the door behind her. Was she locking it against shells, or against burglars? Observe those pipes rising through gratings in the pavement, and blue smoke issuing therefrom. Those pipes are the outward sign that such inhabitants as remain have transformed their cellars into drawing-rooms and bedrooms. We descended into one such home. The real drawing-room, on the ground-floor, had been invaded by a shell. In that apartment richly-carved furniture was mixed up with pieces of wall and pieces of curtain under a thick layer of white dust. But this underground home, with its arched roof and aspect of extreme solidity, was tidy and very snugly complete in all its arrangements, and the dark entrance to it well protected against the hazards of bombardment.
"Nevertheless," said the master of the home, "a 210-mm. shell would penetrate everything. It would be the end."
He threw up his hands with a nonchalant gesture. He was a fatalist worthy of his city, which is now being besieged and ruined not for the first time. The Vandals (I mean the original Vandals) laid waste Arras again and again. Then the Franks took it. Then, in the ninth century, the Normans ravaged it; and then Charles the Simple; and then Lothair; and then Hugh Capet. In the fifteenth century Charles VI. besieged it for seven weeks, and did not take it. Under Louis XI. it was atrociously outraged. It revolted, and was retaken by assault, its walls razed, its citizens expatriated, and its name changed.
Useless! The name returned, and the citizens. At the end of the fifteenth century it fell under Spanish rule, and had no kind of peace whatever until after another siege by a large French army, it was regained by France in 1640. Fourteen years later the House of Austria had yet another try for it, and the Archduke Leopold laid siege to the city. He lost 7,000 men, 64 guns, 3,000 horses, and all his transport, and fled. (Last August was the first August in two hundred and sixty years which has not witnessed a municipal fete in celebration of this affair.) Since then Arras has had a tolerably quiet time, except during the Revolution. It suffered nothing in 1870. It now suffers. And apparently those inhabitants who have stood fast have not forgotten how to suffer; history must be in their veins.
In the street where we first noticed the stove-pipes sprouting from the pavement, we saw a postman in the regulation costume of the French postman, with the regulation black, shiny wallet-box hanging over his stomach, and the regulation pen behind his ear, smartly delivering letters from house to house. He did not knock at the doors; he just stuck the letters through the empty window-frames. He was a truly remarkable sight.
Then we arrived by a curved street at the Cathedral of St. Vaast. St. Vaast, who preached Christianity after it had been forgotten in Arras, is all over the district in the nomenclature of places. Nobody among the dilettanti has a good word to say for the Cathedral, which was built in the latter half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, and which exhibits a kind of simple baroque style, with Corinthian pillars in two storeys. But Arras Cathedral is the most majestic and striking ruin at the Front. It is superlatively well placed on an eminence by itself, and its dimensions are tremendous. It towers over the city far more imposingly than Chartres Cathedral towers over Chartres. The pale simplicity of its enormous lines and surfaces renders it better suited for the martyrdom of bombardment than any Gothic building could possibly be. The wounds are clearly visible on its flat facades, uncomplicated by much carving and statuary. They are terrible wounds, yet they do not appreciably impair the ensemble of the fane. Photographs and pictures of Arras Cathedral ought to be cherished by German commanders, for they have accomplished nothing more austerely picturesque, more religiously impressive, more idiotically sacrilegious, more exquisitely futile than their achievement here. And they are adding to it weekly. As a spectacle, the Cathedral of Rheims cannot compare with the Cathedral of Arras.
In the north transept a 325-mm. shell has knocked a clean hole through which a mastodon might wriggle. Just opposite this transept, amid universal wreckage, a cafe is miraculously preserved. Its glass, mugs, counters, chairs, and ornaments are all there, covered with white dust, exactly as they were left one night. You could put your hand through a window aperture and pick up a glass. Close by, the lovely rafter-work of an old house is exposed, and, within, a beam has fallen from the roof to the ground. This beam is burning. The flames are industriously eating away at it, like a tiger gnawing in tranquil content at its prey which it has dragged to a place of concealment. There are other fires in Arras, and have been for some days. But what are you to do? A step further on is a greengrocer's shop, open and doing business.
We gradually circled round the Cathedral until we arrived at the Town Hall, built in the sixteenth century, very carefully restored in the nineteenth, and knocked to pieces in the twentieth. We approached it from the back, and could not immediately perceive what had happened to it, for later erections have clustered round it, and some of these still existed in their main outlines. In a great courtyard stood an automobile, which certainly had not moved for months. It was a wreck, overgrown with rust and pustules. This automobile well symbolised the desolation, open and concealed, by which it was surrounded. A touchingly forlorn thing, dead and deaf to the never-ceasing, ever-reverberating chorus of the guns!
To the right of the Town Hall, looking at it from the rear, we saw a curving double row of mounds of brick, stone, and refuse. Understand: these had no resemblance to houses; they had no resemblance to anything whatever except mounds of brick, stone, and refuse. The sight of them acutely tickled my curiosity. "What is this?"
"It is the principal street in Arras." The mind could picture it at once— one of those narrow, winding streets which in ancient cities perpetuate the most ancient habits of the citizens, maintaining their commercial pre-eminence in the face of all town-planning; a street leading to the Town Hall; a dark street full of jewellers' shops and ornamented women and correctness and the triumph of correctness; a street of the "best" shops, of high rents, of famous names, of picturesque signs; a street where the wheels of traffic were continually interlocking, but a street which would not, under any consideration, have widened itself by a single foot, because its narrowness was part of its prestige. Well, German gunnery has brought that street to an end past all resuscitation. It may be rebuilt— it will never be the same street.
"What's the name of the street?" I asked.
None of the officers in the party could recall the name of the principal business street in Arras, and there was no citizen within hail. The very name had gone, like the forms of the houses. I have since searched for it in guides, encyclopaedias, and plans; but it has escaped me—withdrawn and lost, for me, in the depths of history.
The street had suffered, not at all on its own account, but because it happened to be in the line of fire of the Town Hall. It merely received some portion of the blessings which were intended for the Town Hall, but which overshot their mark. The Town Hall (like the Cathedrals here and at Rheims) had no military interest or value, but it was the finest thing in Arras, the most loved thing, an irreplaceable thing; and therefore the Germans made a set at it, as they made a set at the Cathedrals. It is just as if, having got an aim on a soldier's baby, they had started to pick off its hands and feet, saying to the soldier: "Yield, or we will finish your baby." Either the military ratiocination is thus, or the deed is simple lunacy.
When we had walked round to the front of the Town Hall we were able to judge to what extent the beautiful building had monopolised the interest of the Germans. The Town Hall stands at the head of a magnificent and enormous arcaded square, uniform in architecture, and no doubt dating from the Spanish occupation. Seeing this square, and its scarcely smaller sister a little further on, you realise that indeed you are in a noble city. The square had hardly been touched by the bombardment. There had been no shells to waste on the square while the more precious Town Hall had one stone left upon another. From the lower end of the square, sheltered from the rain by the arcade, I made a rough sketch of what remains of the Town Hall. Comparing this sketch with an engraved view taken from exactly the same spot, one can see graphically what had occurred. A few arches of the ground-floor colonnade had survived in outline. Of the upper part of the facade nothing was left save a fragment of wall showing two window-holes. The rest of the facade, and the whole of the roof, was abolished. The later building attached to the left of the facade had completely disappeared. The carved masonry of the earlier building to the right of the facade had survived in a state of severe mutilation. The belfry which, rising immediately behind the Town Hall, was once the highest belfry in France (nearly 250 feet), had vanished. The stump of it, jagged like the stump of a broken tooth, obstinately persisted, sticking itself up to a level a few feet higher than the former level of the crest of the roof. The vast ruin was heaped about with refuse.
Arras is not in Germany. It is in France. I mention this fact because it is notorious that Germany is engaged in a defensive war, and in a war for the upholding of the highest civilisation. The Germans came all the way across Belgium, and thus far into France, in order to defend themselves against attack. They defaced and destroyed all the beauties of Arras, and transformed it into a scene of desolation unsurpassed in France, so that the highest civilisation might remain secure and their own hearths intact. One wonders what the Germans would have done had they been fighting, not a war of defence and civilisation, but a war of conquest and barbarism. The conjecture may, perhaps, legitimately occupy the brains of citizens. In any case, the French Government would do well to invite to such places as Arras, Soissons, and Senlis groups of Mayors of the cities of all countries, so that these august magistrates may behold for themselves and realise in their souls what defensive war and the highest civilisation actually do mean when they come to the point.
Personally, I am against a policy of reprisals, and yet I do not see how Germany can truly appreciate what she has done unless an object-lesson is created for her out of one of her own cities. And she emphatically ought to appreciate what she has done. One city would suffice. If, at the end of the war, Cologne were left as Arras was when I visited it, a definite process of education would have been accomplished in the Teutonic mind. The event would be hard on Cologne, but not harder than the other event has been on Arras. Moreover, it is held, I believe, that the misfortunes of war bring out all that is finest in the character of a nation, and that therefore war, with its sweet accompaniments, is a good and a necessary thing. I am against a policy of reprisals, and yet—such is human nature— having seen Arras, I would honestly give a year's income to see Cologne in the same condition. And to the end of my life I shall feel cheated if Cologne or some similar German town is not in fact ultimately reduced to the same condition. This state of mind comes of seeing things with your own eyes.
Proceeding, we walked through a mile or two of streets in which not one house was inhabited nor undamaged. Some of these streets had been swept, so that at the first glance they seemed to be streets where all the citizens were indoors, reflecting behind drawn blinds and closed shutters upon some incredible happening. But there was nobody indoors. There was nobody in the whole quarter— only ourselves; and we were very unhappy and unquiet in the solitude. Almost every window was broken; every wall was chipped; chunks had been knocked out of walls, and at intervals there was no wall. One house showed the different paperings of six rooms all completely exposed to the gaze. The proprietor evidently had a passion for anthracite stoves; in each of the six fireplaces was an anthracite stove, and none had fallen. The post office was shattered.
Then the railway station of Arras! A comparatively new railway station, built by the Compagnie du Nord in 1898. A rather impressive railway station. The great paved place in front of it was pitted with shell-holes of various sizes. A shell had just grazed the elaborate facade, shaving ornaments and mouldings off it. Every pane of glass in it was smashed. All the ironwork had a rich brown rust. The indications for passengers were plainly visible. Here you must take your ticket; here you must register your baggage; here you must wait. We could look through the station as through the ribs of a skeleton. The stillness of it under the rain and under the echoes of the tireless artillery was horrible. It was the most unnatural, ghostly, ghastly railway station one could imagine. As within the station, so on the platforms. All the glass of the shelters for passengers was broken to little bits; the ironwork thickly encrusted. The signals were unutterably forlorn in their ruin. And on the lines themselves rampant vegetation had grown four feet high—a conquering jungle. The defence of German soil is a mighty and a far-reaching affair. This was on July 7th, 1915.