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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"Thirty kilometres, almost thirty, my friend," the husband corrected.
"Ten kilometres. I am sure it was not more than ten kilometres, my
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
IV At Grips
I have before referred to the apparent vagueness and casualness
of war on its present scarcely conceivable scale. When you are with
a Staff officer, you see almost everything. I doubt not that certain
matters are hidden from you; but, broadly speaking, you do see all
that is to be seen. Into the mind of the General, which conceals the
strategy that is to make history, of course you cannot peer. The
General is full of interesting talk about the past and about the
present, but about the future he breathes no word. If he is near the
centre of the front he will tell you blandly, in answer to your question,
that a great movement may not improbably be expected at the
wings. If he is at either of the wings he will tell you blandly that a
great movement may not improbably be expected at the centre. You
are not disappointed at his attitude, because you feel when putting
them that such questions as yours deserve such answers as his.
But you are assuredly disappointed at not being able to
comprehend even the present--what is going on around you, under
your eyes, deafening your ears.
For example, I hear the sound of guns. I do not mean the general
sound of guns, which is practically continuous round the horizon, but
the particular sound of some specific group of guns. I ask about
them. Sometimes even Staff officers may hesitate before deciding
whether they are enemy guns or French guns. As a rule, the civilian
distinguishes an enemy shot by the sizzling, affrighting sound of the
projectile as it rushes through the air towards him; whereas the
French projectile, rushing away from him, is out of hearing before
the noise of the gun's explosion has left his ears. But I may be
almost equidistant between a group of German and a group of
When I have learnt what the guns are and their calibre, and,
perhaps, even their approximate situation on the large-scale Staff
map, I am not much nearer the realisation of them. Actually to find
them might be half a day's work, and when I have found them I
have simply found several pieces of mechanism each hidden in a
kind of hut, functioning quite privately and disconnectedly by the aid
of a few perspiring men. The affair is not like shooting at anything. A
polished missile is shoved into the gun. A horrid bang--the missile
has disappeared, has simply gone. Where it has gone, what it has
done, nobody in the hut seems to care. There is a telephone close
by, but only numbers and formulae--and perhaps an occasional
rebuke--come out of the telephone, in response to which the
perspiring men make minute adjustments in the gun or in the next
Of the target I am absolutely ignorant, and so are the perspiring
men. I am free to go forth and look for the target. It is pointed out to
me. It may be a building or a group of buildings; it may be
something else. At best, it is nothing but a distant spot on a highly
complex countryside. I see a faint puff of smoke, seemingly as
harmless as a feather momentarily floating. And I think: Can any
reasonable person expect that those men with that noisy
contrivance in the enclosed hut away back shall plant a mass of
metal into that far-off tiny red patch of masonry lost in the vast
landscape? And, even if by chance they do, for what reason has
that particular patch been selected? What influence could its
destruction have on the mighty course of the struggle? . . . Thus it is
that war seems vague and casual, because a mere fragment of it
defeats the imagination, and the bits of even the fragment cannot
be fitted together. Why, I have stood in the first-line trench itself and
heard a fusillade all round me, and yet have seen nothing and
understood nothing of the action!
It is the same with the movements of troops. For example, I slept in
a town behind the front, IN and I was wakened up--not, as often, by
an aeroplane--but by a tremendous shaking and throbbing of the
hotel. This went on for a long time, from just after dawn till about six
o'clock, when it stopped, only to recommence after a few minutes. I
got up, and found that, in addition to the hotel, the whole town was
shaking and throbbing. A regiment was passing through it in auto-
buses. Each auto-bus held about thirty men, and the vehicles rattled
after one another at a distance of at most thirty yards. The auto-
buses were painted the colour of battleships, and were absolutely
uniform except that some had permanent and some only temporary
roofs, and some had mica windows and some only holes in the
sides. All carried the same number of soldiers, and in all the rifles
were stacked in precisely the same fashion. When one auto-bus
stopped, all stopped, and the soldiers waved and smiled to girls at
windows and in the street. The entire town had begun its day. No
matter how early you arise in these towns, the town has always
begun its day.
The soldiers in their pale-blue uniforms were young, lively, high-
spirited, and very dusty; their moustaches, hair, and ears were
noticeably coated with dust. Evidently they had been travelling for
hours. The auto-buses kept appearing out of the sun-shot dust-
cloud at the end of the town, and disappearing round the curve by
the Town Hall. Occasionally an officer's automobile, or a car with a
couple of nurses, would intervene momentarily; and then more and
more and more auto-buses, and still more. The impression given is
that the entire French Army is passing through the town. The rattle
and the throbbing and the shaking get on my nerves. At last come
two breakdown-vans, and the procession is finished. I cannot believe
that it is really finished, but it is; and the silence is incredible.
Well, I have seen only a couple of regiments go by. Out of the
hundreds of regiments in the French Army, just two! But whence
they had come, what they had done, whither they were travelling,
what they were intended to do--nobody could tell me. They had an
air as casual and vague and aimless as a flight of birds across a
There were more picturesque pilgrimages than that. One of the
most picturesque and touching spectacles I saw at the front was the
march of a regiment of the line into another little country town on a
very fine summer morning. First came the regimental band. The
brass instruments were tarnished; the musicians had all sorts of
paper packages tied to their knapsacks. Besides being musicians
they were real soldiers, in war-stained uniforms. They marched with
an air of fatigue. But the tune they played was bright enough.
Followed some cyclists, keeping pace with the marchers. Then an
officer on a horse. Then companies of the regiment. The stocks of
many of the rifles were wrapped in dirty rags. Every man carried all
that was his in the campaign, including a pair of field-glasses. Every
man was piled up with impedimenta--broken, torn, soiled and
cobbled impedimenta. And every man was very, very tired.
A young officer on foot could scarcely walk. He moved in a kind of
trance, and each step was difficult. He may have been half asleep.
At intervals a triangular sign was borne aloft--red, blue, or some
other tint. These signs indicated the positions of the different
companies in the trenches. (Needless to say that the regiment had
come during the night from a long spell of the trenches--but what
trenches?) Then came the gorgeous regimental colours, and every
soldier in the street saluted them, and every civilian raised his hat.
I noticed more and more that the men were exhausted, were at the
limit of their endurance. Then passed a group which was quite fresh.
A Red Cross detachment! No doubt they had had very little to do.
After them a few horses, grey and white; and then field-kitchens
and equipment-carts. And then a machine-gun on a horse's back;
others in carts; pack-mules with ammunition-boxes; several more
machine-gun sections. And then more field-kitchens. In one of these
the next meal was actually preparing, and steam rose from under a
great iron lid. On every cart was a spare wheel for emergencies;
the hub of every wheel was plaited round with straw; the harness
was partly of leather and partly of rope ending in iron hooks. Later
came a long Red Cross van, and after it another field-kitchen
encumbered with bags and raw meat and strange oddments, and
through the interstices of the pile, creeping among bags and raw
meat, steam gently mounted, for a meal was maturing in that
perambulating kitchen also. Lastly, came a cart full of stretchers and
field-hospital apparatus. The regiment, its music still faintly audible,
had gone by--self-contained, self-supporting. There was no
showiness of a review, but the normal functioning, the actual
dailiness, of a line regiment as it lives strenuously in the midst of
My desire was that the young officer in a trance should find a good
bed instantly. The whole thing was fine; it was pathetic; and, above
all, it was mysterious. What was the part of that regiment in the
gigantic tactics of Joffre?
However, after a short experience at the front one realises that
though the conduct of the campaign may be mysterious, it is neither
vague nor casual. I remember penetrating through a large factory
into a small village which constituted one of the latest French
conquests. An officer who had seen the spot just after it was taken,
and before it was "organised," described to me the appearance of
the men with their sunken eyes and blackened skins on the day of
victory. They were all very cheerful when I saw them; but how alert,
how apprehensive, how watchful! I felt that I was in a place where
anything might happen at any moment. The village and the factory
were a maze of trenches, redoubts, caves, stairs up and stairs
down, machine-guns, barbed wire, enfilading devices were all ready.
When we climbed to an attic-floor to look at the German positions,
which were not fifty yards away, the Commandant was in a fever till
we came down again, lest the Germans might spy us and shell his
soldiers. He did not so much mind them shelling us, but he objected
to them shelling his men. We came down the damaged stairs in
A way had been knocked longitudinally through a whole row of
cottages. We went along this--it was a lane of watchful figures--and
then it was whispered to us not to talk, for the Germans might
hear! And we peered into mines and burrowed and crawled. We
disappeared into long subterranean passages and emerged among
a lot of soldiers gaily eating as they stood. Close by were a group of
men practising with hand-grenades made harmless for the
occasion. I followed the Commandant round a corner, and we
gazed at I forget what. "Don't stay here," said the Commandant. I
moved away. A second after I had moved a bullet struck the wall
where I had been standing. The entire atmosphere of the place, with
its imminent sense of danger from an invisible enemy and fierce
expectation of damaging that enemy, brought home to me the
grand essential truth of the front, namely, that the antagonists are
continually at grips, like wrestlers, and straining every muscle to
obtain the slightest advantage. ''Casual'' would be the very last
adjective to apply to those activities.
Once, after a roundabout tour on foot, one of the Staff Captains
ordered an automobile to meet us at the end of a certain road. Part
of this road was exposed to German artillery four or five miles off.
No sooner had the car come down the road than we heard the
fearsome sizzling of an approaching shell. We saw the shell burst
before the sound of the sizzling had ceased. Then came the roar of
the explosion. The shell was a 77-mm. high-explosive. It fell out of
nowhere on the road. The German artillery methodically searched
the exposed portion of the road for about half an hour. The shells
dropped on it or close by it at intervals of two minutes, and they
were planted at even distances of about a hundred yards up and
down the slope. I watched the operation from a dug-out close by. It
was an exact and a rather terrifying operation. It showed that the
invisible Germans were letting nothing whatever go by; but it did
seem to me to be a fine waste of ammunition, and a very stupid
application of a scientific ideal; for while shelling it the Germans
must have noticed that there was nothing at all on the road. We
naturally decided not to go up that road in the car, but to skulk
through a wood and meet the car in a place of safety. The car had,
sooner or later, to go up the road, because there was not another
road. The Commandant who was with us was a very seasoned
officer, and he regarded all military duties as absolute duties. The
car must return along that road. Therefore, let it go. The fact that it
was a car serving solely for the convenience of civilians did not
influence him. It was a military car, driven by a soldier.
"You may as well go at once," he said to the chauffeur. "We will
assist at your agony. What do you say?" he laughingly questioned a
"Ah! My Commandant," said the junior officer cautiously, "when it is
a question of the service------"
We should naturally have protested against the chauffeur
adventuring upon the shell-swept road for our convenience; but he
was diplomatic enough to postpone the journey. After a time the
shelling ceased, and he passed in safety. He told us when we met
him later for the drive home that there were five large holes in the
On another occasion, when we were tramping through interminable
communication-trenches on a slope, a single rash exposure of two
of our figures above the parapet of the trench drew down upon us a
bombardment of high-explosive. For myself, I was completely
exhausted by the excursion, which was nearing its end, and also I
was faint from hunger. But immediately the horrible sizzling sound
overhead and an explosion just in front made it plain to me that we
were to suffer for a moment's indiscretion, I felt neither fatigue nor
hunger. The searching shells fell nearer to us. We ran in couples,
with a fair distance between each couple, according to instructions,
along the rough, sinuous inequalities of the deep trench. After each
visitation we had to lie still and count five till all the fragments of
shell had come to rest. At last a shell seemed to drop right upon me.
The earth shook under me. My eyes and nose were affected by the
fumes of the explosion. But the shell had not dropped right upon
me. It had dropped a few yards to the left. A trench is a wonderful
contrivance. Immediately afterwards, a friend picked up in the trench
one of the warm shots of the charge. It was a many-facetted ball,
beautifully made, and calculated to produce the maximum wound.
This was the last shell to fall. We were safe. But we realised once
again, and more profoundly, that there is nothing casual in the
conduct of war.
At no place was the continuously intense character of the struggle--
like that of two leviathan wrestlers ever straining their hardest at
grips--more effectually brought home to me than in the region
known now familiarly to the whole world as Notre Dame de Lorette,
from the little chapel that stood on one part of it. An exceedingly ugly
little chapel it was, according to the picture postcards. There are
thousands of widows and orphans wearing black and regretting the
past and trembling about the future to-day simply because the
invaders had to be made to give up that religious edifice which they
had turned to other uses.
The high, thickly wooded land behind the front was very elaborately
organised for living either above ground or underground, according
to the circumstances of the day. To describe the organisation would
be impolitic. But it included every dodge. And the stores, entombed
in safety, comprised all things. I remember, for example, stacks of
hundreds of lamp-chimneys. Naught lacked to the completeness of
the scene of war. There were even prisoners. I saw two young
Germans under guard in a cabin. They said that they had got lost in
the labyrinth of trenches, and taken a wrong turning. And I believe
they had. One was a Red Cross man--probably a medical student
before, with wine and song and boastings, he joined his Gott, his
Kaiser, and his comrades in the great mission of civilisation across
Belgium. He was dusty and tired, and he looked gloomily at the
earthen floor of the cabin. Nevertheless, he had a good carriage
and a passably intelligent face, and he was rather handsome. I
sympathised with this youth, and I do not think that he was glad to
be a prisoner. Some people can go and stare at prisoners, and
wreak an idle curiosity upon them. I cannot. A glance, rather
surreptitious, and I must walk away. Their humiliation humiliates me,
even be they Prussians of the most offensive variety.
A little later we saw another prisoner being brought in--a miserable,
tuberculous youth with a nervous trick of the face, thin, very dirty,
enfeebled, worn out; his uniform torn, stained, bullet-pierced, and
threadbare. Somebody had given him a large hunk of bread, which
he had put within the lining of his tunic; it bulged out in front like a
paunch. An officer stopped to question him, and while the cross-
examination was proceeding a curio-hunting soldier came up behind
and cut a button off the tunic. We learnt that the lad was twenty-one
years of age, and that he had been called up in December 1914.
Before assisting in the conquest of France he was employed in a
paper factory. He tried to exhibit gloom, but it was impossible for him
quite to conceal his satisfaction in the fact that for him the fighting
was over. The wretched boy had had just about enough of world-
dominion, and he was ready to let the Hohenzollerns and Junkers
finish up the enterprise as best they could without his aid. No doubt,
some woman was his mother. It appeared to me that he could not
live long, and that the woman in question might never see him
again. But every ideal must have its victims; and bereavement,
which counts chief among the well-known advantageous moral
disciplines of war, is, of course, good for a woman's soul. Besides,
that woman would be convinced that her son died gloriously in
defence of an attacked Fatherland.
When we had got clear of prisoners and of the innumerable minor
tools of war, we came to something essential--namely, a map. This
map, which was shown to us rather casually in the middle of a
wood, was a very big map, and by means of different coloured
chalks it displayed the ground taken from the Germans month by
month. The yellow line showed the advance up to May; the blue line
showed the further advance up to June; and fresh marks in red
showed graphically a further wresting which had occurred only in the
previous night. The blue line was like the mark of a tide on a chart;
in certain places it had nearly surrounded a German position, and
shortly the Germans would have to retire from that position or be cut
off. Famous names abounded on that map--such as Souchez,
Ablain St. Nazaire, St. Eloi, Fonds de Buval. Being on a very large
scale, the map covered a comparatively small section of the front;
but, so far as it went, it was a map to be gazed upon with legitimate
The officers regarded it proudly. Eagerly they indicated where the
main pressures were, and where new pressures would come later.
Their very muscles seemed to be strained in the ardour of their
terrific intention to push out and destroy the invader. While
admitting, as all the officers I met admitted, the great military
qualities of the enemy, they held towards him a more definitely
contemptuous attitude than I could discover elsewhere. "When the
Boches attack us," said one of them, "we drive them back to their
trench, and we take that trench. Thus we advance." But, for them,
there was Boche and Boche. It was the Bavarians whom they most
respected. They deemed the Prussians markedly inferior as fighters
to the Bavarians. The Prussians would not hold firm when seriously
menaced. The Prussians, in a word, would not "stick it." Such was
the unanimous verdict here.
Out beyond the wood, on the hillside, in the communication-
trenches and other trenches, we were enabled to comprehend the
true significance of that phrase uttered so carelessly by newspaper-
readers--Notre Dame de Lorette. The whole of the ground was in
heaps. There was no spot, literally, on which a shell had not burst.
Vegetation was quite at an end. The shells seemed to have
sterilised the earth. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of
any sort, not a root. Even the rankest weeds refused to sprout in the
perfect desolation. And this was the incomparable soil of France.
The trenches meandered for miles through the pitted brown slopes,
and nothing could be seen from them but vast encumbrances of
barbed wire. Knotted metal heaped on the unyielding earth!
The solitude of the communication-trenches was appalling, and the
continuous roar of the French seventy-fives over our heads did not
alleviate it. In the other trenches, however, was much humanity,
some of it sleeping in deep, obscure retreats, but most of it acutely
alive and interested in everything. A Captain with a shabby uniform
and a strong Southern accent told us how on March 9th he and his
men defended their trench in water up to the waist and lumps of ice
in it knocking against their bodies.
"I was summoned to surrender," he laughed. "I did not surrender.
We had twenty killed and twenty-four with frostbitten feet as a result
of that affair. Yes--March 9th."
March 9th, 1915, obviously divided that officer's life into two parts,
and not unnaturally!
A little further on we might hear an officer speaking somewhat
ardently into a telephone:
"What are they doing with that gun? They are shooting all over the
shop. Tell them exactly------"
Still a little further on, and another officer would lead us to a spot
where we could get glimpses of the plain. What a plain! Pit-heads,
superb vegetation, and ruined villages--tragic villages illustrating the
glories and the transcendent common-sense of war and invasion.
That place over there is Souchez--familiar in all mouths from
Arkansas to Moscow for six months past. What an object! Look at
St. Eloi! Look at Angres! Look at Neuville St. Vaast! And look at
Ablain St. Nazaire, the nearest of all! The village of Ablain St.
Nazaire seems to consist now chiefly of exposed and blackened
rafters; what is left of the church sticks up precisely like a little
bleached bone. A vision horrible and incredible in the immense
luxuriance of the plain! The French have got Ablain St. Nazaire. We
may go to Ablain St. Nazaire ourselves if we will accept the risks of
shelling. Soldiers were seriously wounded there on that very day, for
we saw them being carried therefrom on stretchers towards the
motor-ambulance and the hospital.
After more walking of a very circuitous nature, I noticed a few bricks
in the monotonous expanse of dwarf earth-mounds made by shells.
"Hello!" I said. "Was there a cottage here?"
No! What I had discovered was the illustrious chapel of Notre Dame
Then we were in a German trench which the French had taken and
transformed into one of their own trenches by turning its face. It had
a more massive air than the average French trench, and its
cellarage, if I may use this civilian word, was deeper than that of any
French trench. The officers said that often a German trench was
taken before the men resting in those profound sleeping-holes could
get to the surface, and that therefore they only emerged in order to
be killed or captured.
After more heavy trudging we came to trenches abandoned by the
Germans and not employed by the French, as the front had moved
far beyond them. The sides were dilapidated. Old shirts, bits of
uniform, ends of straps, damaged field-glass cases, broken rifles,
useless grenades lay all about. Here and there was a puddle of
greenish water. Millions of flies, many of a sinister bright burnished
green, were busily swarming. The forlornness of these trenches was
heartrending. It was the most dreadful thing that I saw at the front,
surpassing the forlornness of any destroyed village whatsoever.
And at intervals in the ghastly residue of war arose a smell unlike
any other smell. ... A leg could be seen sticking out of the side of the
trench. We smelt a number of these smells, and saw a number of
these legs. Each leg was a fine leg, well-clad, and superbly shod in
almost new boots with nail-protected soles. Each leg was a human
leg attached to a human body, and at the other end of the body was
presumably a face crushed in the earth. Two strokes with a pick,
and the corpses might have been excavated and decently interred.
But not one had been touched. Buried in frenzied haste by amateur,
imperilled grave-diggers with a military purpose, these dead men
decayed at leisure amid the scrap-heap, the cess-pit, the infernal
squalor which once had been a neat, clean, scientific German
earthwork, and which still earlier had been part of a fair countryside.
The French had more urgent jobs on hand than the sepulture of
these victims of a caste and an ambition. So they liquefied into
corruption in their everlasting boots, proving that there is nothing like
leather. They were a symbol. With alacrity we left them to get
forward to the alert, straining life of war.
V The British Lines
You should imagine a large plain, but not an empty plain, nor a plain
entirely without hills. There are a few hills, including at least one very
fine eminence (an agreeable old town on the top), with excellent
views of the expanse. The expanse is considerably diversified. In
the first place it is very well wooded; in the second place it is very
well cultivated; and in the third place it is by no means uninhabited.
Villages abound in it; and small market towns are not far off each
other. These places are connected by plenty of roads (often paved)
and canals, and by quite an average mileage of railways. See the
plain from above, and the chief effect is one of trees. The rounded
tops of trees everywhere obscure the view, and out of them church-
towers stick up; other architecture is only glimpsed. The general
tints are green and grey, and the sky as a rule is grey to match.
Finally, the difference between Northern France and Southern
Belgium is marked only by the language of shop and cafe signs; in
most respects the two sections of the Front resemble each other
with extraordinary exactitude.
The British occupation--which is marked of course by high and
impressive cordiality--is at once superficially striking and subtly
"What do you call your dog?" I asked a ragamuffin who was playing
with a nice little terrier in a village street where we ate an at fresco
meal of jam-sandwiches with a motor-car for a buffet.
He answered shyly, but with pride:
The whole countryside is criss-crossed with field telegraph and
telephone wires. Still more spectacular, everywhere there are traffic
directions. And these directions are very large and very curt. "Motor-
lorries dead slow," you see in immense characters in the midst of
the foreign scene. And at all the awkward street corners in the
towns a soldier directs the traffic. Not merely in the towns, but in
many and many a rural road you come across a rival of the Strand.
For the traffic is tremendous, and it is almost all mechanical
transport. You cannot go far without encountering, not one or two,
but dozens and scores of motor-lorries, which, after the leviathan
manner of motor-lorries, occupy as much of the road as they can.
When a string of these gets mixed up with motor-cars, a few
despatch-riders on motor-cycles, a peasant's cart, and a company
on the march, the result easily surpasses Piccadilly Circus just
before the curtains are rising in West End theatres. Blocks may and
do occur at any moment. Out of a peaceful rustic solitude you may
run round a curve straight into a block. The motor-lorries constitute
the difficulty, not always because they are a size too large for the
country, but sometimes because of the human nature of Tommies.
The rule is that on each motor-lorry two Tommies shall ride in front
and one behind. The solitary one behind is cut off from mankind,
and accordingly his gregarious instinct not infrequently makes him
nip on to the front seat in search of companionship. When he is
established there impatient traffic in the rear may screech and roar
in vain for a pathway; nothing is so deaf as a motor-lorry. The
situation has no disadvantage for the trio in front of the motor-lorry
until a Staff officer's car happens to be inconvenienced. Then, when
the Staff officer does get level, there is a short, sharp scene, a dead
silence, and the offender creeps back, a stricken sinner, to his
The encumbered and busy roads, and the towns crammed with
vehicles and vibrating with military activity, produce upon you such
an overwhelming impression of a vast and complex organisation
that your thought rushes instantly to the supreme controller of that
organisation, the man ultimately responsible for all of it. He does not
make himself invisible. It becomes known that he will see you at a
certain hour. You arrive a few minutes before that hour. The building
is spacious, and its Gallic aspect is intensified by the pure Anglo-
Saxonism of its terrific inhabitants. In a large outer office you are
presented to the various brains of the Expeditionary Force, all
members of the General Staff--famous names among them, celebrities,
specialists, illustrious with long renown. They walk in and out,
and they sit smoking and chatting, as if none of them was anybody
in particular. And as a fact, you find it a little difficult to
appreciate them at their lawful worth, because you are aware that in
the next room, behind those double doors, is he at whose nod the
greatest among them tremble.
"The Commander-in-Chief will see you." You go forward, and I defy
you not to be daunted.
The inner chamber has been a drawing-room. It still is partially a
drawing-room. The silk panels on the walls have remained, and in
one corner a grand piano lingers. In the middle is a plain table
bearing a map on a huge scale. There he is, the legendary figure.
You at last have proof that he exists. He comes towards the door to
meet you. A thick-set man, not tall, with small hands and feet, and
finger-nails full of character. He has a short white moustache, and
very light-coloured eyes set in a ruddy complexion. His chin is
noticeable. He is not a bit dandiacal. He speaks quietly and grimly
and reflectively. He is a preoccupied man. He walks a little to and
fro, pausing between his short, sparse sentences. When he talks of
the Germans he has a way of settling his head and neck with a
slight defiant shake well between his shoulders. I have seen the
gesture in experienced boxers and in men of business when openly
or implicitly challenged. It is just as if he had said: "Wait a bit! I
shall get even with that lot--and let no one imagine the contrary!"
From the personality of the man there emanates all the time a
pugnacious and fierce doggedness. After he has formally welcomed
you into the meshes of his intimidating organisation, and made a
few general observations, he says, in a new tone: "Well------,"
and you depart. And as you pass out of the building the thought
in your mind is:
"I have seen him!" After the Commander-in-Chief there are two
other outstanding and separately existing notabilities in connection
with the General Staff. One is the Quartermaster-General, who
superintends the supply of all material; and the other is the Adjutant-
General, who superintends the supply of men. With the latter is that
formidable instrument of authority, the Grand Provost Marshal, who
superintends behaviour and has the power of life and death. Each
of these has his Staff, and each is housed similarly to the
Commander-in-Chief. Then each Army (for there is more than one
army functioning as a distinct entity)--each Army has its
Commander with his Staff. And each Corps of each Army has its
Commander with his Staff. And each Division of each Corps of each
Army has its Commander with his Staff. And each Brigade of each
Division of each Corps of each Army has its Commander with his
Staff; but though I met several Brigadier-Generals, I never saw one
at his head-quarters with his Staff. I somehow could not penetrate
lower than the entity of a Division. I lunched, had tea, and dined at
the headquarters of various of these Staffs, with a General as host.
They were all admirably housed, and their outward circumstances
showed a marked similarity. The most memorable thing about them
was their unending industry.
"You have a beautiful garden," I said to one General.
"Yes," he said. "I have never been into it."
He told me that he rose at six and went to bed at midnight.
As soon as coffee is over after dinner, and before cigars are over,
the General will say:
"I don't wish to seem inhospitable, but------"
And a few minutes later you may see a large lighted limousine
moving off into the night, bearing Staff officers to their offices
for the evening seance of work which ends at twelve o'clock or
The complexity and volume of work which goes on at even a
Divisional Headquarters, having dominion over about twenty
thousand full-grown males, may be imagined; and that the bulk of
such work is of a business nature, including much tiresome routine,
is certain. Of the strictly military labours of Headquarters, that which
most agreeably strikes the civilian is the photography and the map-
work. I saw thousands of maps. I inspected thick files of maps all
showing the same square of country under different military
conditions at different dates. And I learnt that special maps are
regularly circulated among all field officers.
The fitting-out and repairing sheds of the Royal Flying Corps were
superb and complete constructions, at once practical and very
elegant. I visited them in the midst of a storm. The equipment was
prodigious; the output was prodigious; the organisation was
scientific; and the staff was both congenial and impressive. When
one sees these birdcages full of birds and comprehends the spirit of
flight, one is less surprised at the unimaginable feats which are daily
performed over there in the sky northwards and eastwards. I saw a
man who flew over Ghent twice a week with the regularity of a train.
He had never been seriously hit. These airmen have a curious
physical advantage. The noise of their own engine, it is said,
prevents them from hearing the explosions of the shrapnel aimed at
The British soldier in France and Flanders is not a self-supporting
He needs support, and a great deal of support. I once saw his day's
rations set forth on a tray, and it seemed to me that I could not have
consumed them in a week of good appetite. The round of meat is
flanked by plenteous bacon, jam, cheese, and bread. In addition
there are vegetables, tea, sugar, salt, and condiments, with
occasional butter; and once a week come two ounces of tobacco
and a box of matches for each ounce. But the formidable item is the
meat. And then the British soldier wants more than food; he wants,
for instance, fuel, letters, cleanliness; he wants clothing, and all the
innumerable instruments and implements of war. He wants
regularly, and all the time.
Hence you have to imagine wide steady streams of all manner of
things converging upon Northern France not only from Britain but
from round about the globe. The force of an imperative demand
draws them powerfully in, night and day, as a magnet might. It is
impossible to trace exactly either the direction or the separate
constituents of these great streams of necessaries. But it is possible
to catch them, or at any rate one of them, at the most interesting
point of its course: the point at which the stream, made up of many
converging streams, divides suddenly and becomes many streams
That point is the rail-head.
Now, a military rail-head is merely an ordinary average little railway
station, with a spacious yard. There is nothing superficially romantic
about it. It does not even mark the end of a line of railway. I have in
mind one which served as the Head-quarters of a Divisional Supply
Column. The organism served just one division--out of the very
many divisions in France and Flanders. It was under the command
of a Major. This Major, though of course in khaki and employing the
same language and general code as a regimental Major, was not a
bit like a regimental Major. He was no more like a regimental Major
than I am myself. He had a different mentality, outlook,
preoccupation. He was a man in business. He received orders--I
use the word in the business sense--from the Brigades of the
Division; and those orders, ever varying, had to be executed and
delivered within thirty-six hours. Quite probably he had never seen a
trench; I should be neither surprised nor pained to learn that he
could only hit a haystack with a revolver by throwing the revolver at
the haystack. His subordinates resembled him. Strategy, artillery-
mathematics, the dash of infantry charges--these matters were not
a bit in their line. Nevertheless, when you read in a despatch that
during a prolonged action supplies went regularly up to the Front
under heavy fire, you may guess that fortitude and courage are
considerably in their line. These officers think about their arriving
trains, and about emptying them in the shortest space of time; and
they think about their motor-lorries and the condition thereof; and
they pass their lives in checking lists and in giving receipts for things
and taking receipts for things. Their honour may be in a receipt. And
all this is the very basis of war.
My Major handled everything required for his division except water
and ammunition. He would have a train full of multifarious
provender, and another train full of miscellanies--from field-guns to
field-kitchens--with letters from wives and sweethearts in between.
And all these things came to him up the line of railway out of the sea
simply because he asked for them and was ready to give a receipt
for them. He was not concerned with the magic underlying their
appearance at his little rail-head; he only cared about the train being
on time, and the lorries being in first-class running order. He
sprayed out in beneficent streams from his rail-head tons of stuff
every day. Every day he sent out two hundred and eighty bags of
postal matter to the men beyond. The polish on the metallic portions
of his numerous motor-lorries was uncanny. You might lift a bonnet
and see the bright parts of the engine glittering like the brass of a
yacht. Dandyism of the Army Service Corps!
An important part of the organism of the rail-head is the Railway
Construction Section Train. Lines may have to be doubled. The
Railway Construction Section Train doubles them; it will make new
railways at the rate of several miles a day; it is self-contained, being
simultaneously a depot, a workshop, and a barracks.
Driving along a road you are liable to see rough signs nailed to
trees, with such words on them as "Forage," "Groceries," "Meat,"
"Bread," etc. Wait a little, and you may watch the Divisional Supply
at a further stage. A stream of motor-lorries--one of the streams
sprayed out from the rail-head--will halt at those trees and unload,
and the stuff which they unload will disappear like a dream and an
illusion. One moment the meat and the bread and all the
succulences are there by the roadside, each by its proper tree, and
the next they are gone, spirited away to camps and billets and
trenches. Proceed further, and you may have the luck to see the
mutton which was frozen in New Zealand sizzling in an earth-oven
in a field christened by the soldiers with some such name as
Hampstead Heath. The roasted mutton is a very fine and a very
appetising sight. But what quantities of it! And what an antique way
As regards the non-edible supplies, the engineer's park will stir
your imagination. You can discern every device in connection with
warfare. (To describe them might be indiscreet--it would assuredly
be too lengthy.) . . . Telephones such as certainly you have never
seen! And helmets such as you have never seen! Indeed, everything
that a soldier in full work can require, except ammunition.
The ammunition-train in process of being unloaded is a fearsome
affair. You may see all conceivable ammunition, from rifle cartridges
to a shell whose weight is liable to break through the floors of lorries,
all on one train. And not merely ammunition, but a thousand
pyrotechnical and other devices; and varied bombs. An officer
unscrews a cap on a metal contraption, and throws it down, and it
begins to fizz away in the most disconcerting manner. And you feel
that all these shells, all these other devices, are simply straining to
go off. They are like things secretly and terribly alive, waiting the tiny
gesture which will set them free. Officers, handling destruction with
the nonchalance of a woman handling a hat, may say what they
like--the ammunition train is to my mind an unsafe neighbour. And
the thought of all the sheer brain-power which has gone to the
invention and perfecting of those propulsive and explosive
machines causes you to wonder whether you yourself possess a
brain at all.
You can find everything in the British lines except the British Army.
The same is to be said of the French lines; but the in discoverability
of the British Army is relatively much more striking, by reason of the
greater richness and complexity of the British auxiliary services. You
see soldiers--you see soldiers everywhere; but the immense
majority of them are obviously engaged in attending to the material
needs of other soldiers, which other soldiers, the fighters, you do not
see--or see only in tiny detachments or in single units.
Thus I went for a very long walk, up such hills and down such dales
as the country can show, tramping with a General through
exhausting communication-trenches, in order to discover two
soldiers, an officer and his man; and even they were not actual
fighters. The officer lived in a dug-out with a very fine telescope for
sole companion. I was told that none but the General commanding
had the right to take me to that dug-out. It contained the officer's
bed, the day's newspapers, the telescope, a few oddments hung on
pegs pushed into the earthen walls, and, of equal importance with
the telescope, a telephone. Occasionally the telephone faintly
buzzed, and a very faint, indistinguishable murmur came out of it.
But the orderly ignored this symptom, explaining that it only meant
that somebody else was talking to somebody else. I had the
impression of a mysterious underground life going on all around me.
The officer's telescopic business was to keep an eye on a particular
section of the German front, and report everything. The section of
front comprised sundry features extremely well known by reputation
to British newspaper readers. I must say that the reality of them was
disappointing. The inevitable thought was: "Is it possible that so
much killing has been done for such trifling specks of earth?"
The officer made clear all details to us; he described minutely the
habits of the Germans as he knew them. But about his own habits
not a word was said. He was not a human being--he was an
observer, eternally spying through a small slit in the wall of the dug-
out. What he thought about when he was not observing, whether his
bed was hard, how he got his meals, whether he was bored,
whether his letters came regularly, what his moods were, what was
his real opinion of that dug-out as a regular home--these very
interesting matters were not even approached by us. He was a
short, mild officer, with a quiet voice. Still, after we had shaken
hands on parting, the General, who had gone first, turned his bent
head under the concealing leafage, and nodded and smiled with a
quite particular cordial friendliness. "Good-afternoon, Blank," said
the General to the officer, and the warm tone of his voice said: "You
know--don't you, Blank?--how much I appreciate you." It was a
transient revelation. As, swallowed up in trenches, I trudged away
from the lonely officer, the General, resuming his ordinary worldly
tone, began to talk about London music-halls and Wish Wynne and
Then on another occasion I actually saw at least twenty fighting
men! They were not fighting, but they were pretending, under
dangerous conditions, to fight. They had to practise the bombing of
a German trench--with real bombs. The young officer in charge
explained to us the different kinds of bombs. "It's all quite safe," he
said casually, "until I take this pin out." And he took the pin out. We
saw the little procession of men that were to do the bombing. We
saw the trench, with its traverses, and we were shown just how it
would be bombed, traverse by traverse. We saw also a "crater"
which was to be bombed and stormed. And that was about all we
did see. The rest was chiefly hearing, because we had to take
shelter behind such slight eminences as a piece of ordinary waste
ground can offer. Common wayfarers were kept out of harm by
sentries. We were instructed to duck. We ducked. Bang! Bang!
Bang! Bang! Bang!--Bang! Then the mosquito-like whine of bits of
projectile above our heads! Then we ventured to look over, and
amid wisps of smoke the bombers were rushing a traverse. Strange
to say, none of them was killed, or even wounded.
On still another occasion I saw a whole brigade, five or six thousand
men, with their first-line transport, and two Generals with implacable
eyes watching them for faults. It was a fine, very picturesque display
of Imperial militancy, but too marvellously spick-and-span to
produce any illusion of war. So far as I was concerned, its chief use
was to furnish a real conception of numbers. I calculated that if the
whole British Army passed before my eyes at the same brisk rate as
that solitary and splendid brigade, I should have to stare at it night
and day for about three weeks, without surcease for meals. This
calculation only increased my astonishment at the obstinate in-
discoverability of the Army.
Once I did get the sensation of fighting men existing in bulk. It was
at the baths of a new division--the New Army. I will mention in
passing that the real enthusiasm of Generals concerning the
qualities of the New Army was most moving--and enheartening.
The baths establishment was very British--much more British than
any of those operating it perhaps imagined. Such a phenomenon
could probably be seen on no other front. It had been contrived out
of a fairly large factory. It was in charge of a quite young subaltern,
no doubt anxious to go and fight, but condemned indefinitely to the
functions of baths-keeper. In addition to being a baths-keeper this
young subaltern was a laundry-manager; for when bathing the
soldiers left their underclothing and took fresh. The laundry was very
large; it employed numerous local women and girls at four francs a
day. It had huge hot drying-rooms where the women and girls
moved as though the temperature was sixty degrees instead of
being over a hundred. All these women and girls were beautiful, all
had charm, all were more or less ravishing--simply because for days
we had been living in a harsh masculine world--a world of motor-
lorries, razors, trousers, hob-nailed boots, maps, discipline, pure
reason, and excessively few mirrors. An interesting item of the
laundry was a glass-covered museum of lousy shirts, product of
prolonged trench-life in the earlier part of the war, and held by
experts to surpass all records of the kind!
The baths themselves were huge and simple--a series of gigantic
steaming vats in which possibly a dozen men lathered themselves
at once. Here was fighting humanity; you could see it in every
gesture. The bathers, indeed, appeared to be more numerous than
they in fact were. Two hundred and fifty could undress, bathe, and
re-clothe themselves in an hour, and twelve hundred in a morning.
Each man of course would be free to take as many unofficial baths,
in tin receptacles and so on, as he could privately arrange for and
as he felt inclined for. Companies of dirty men marching to the
baths, and companies of conceitedly clean men marching from the
baths, helped to strengthen the ever-growing suspicion that a great
Army must be hidden somewhere in the neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, I still saw not the ultimate destination of all those
streams of supply which I have described.
I had, however, noted a stream in the contrary direction--that is,
westwards and southwards towards the Channel and England. You
can first trace the beginnings of this stream under the sound of the
guns (which you never see). A stretcher brought to a temporary
shelter by men whose other profession is to play regimental music;
a group of men bending over a form in the shelter; a glimpse of
dressings and the appliances necessary for tying up an artery or
some other absolutely urgent job. That shelter is called the Aid Post.
From it the horizontal form goes to (2) the Advanced Dressing
Station, where more attention is given to it; and thence to (3) the
Field Ambulance proper, where the case is really diagnosed and
provisionally classed. By this time motor-ambulances have been
much used; and the stream, which was a trickle at the Aid Post,
has grown wider. The next point (4) is the Casualty Clearing Station.
Casualty Clearing Stations are imposing affairs. Not until the
horizontal form reaches them can an operation in the full sense of
the word be performed upon it. The Clearing Station that I saw could
accommodate seven hundred cases, and had held nearer eight
hundred. It was housed in an extensive public building. It employed
seven surgeons, and I forget how many dressers. It had an
abdominal ward, where cases were kept until they could take solid
food; and a head ward; and an officers' ward; immense stores; a
Church of England chapel; and a shoot down which mattresses with
patients thereon could be slid in case of fire.
Nearly seven hundred operations had been performed in it during
the war. Nevertheless, as the young Colonel in charge said to me:
"The function of a Clearing Station is to clear. We keep the majority
of the cases only a few hours." Thence the horizontal forms pass
into (5) Ambulance Trains. But besides Ambulance trains there are
Ambulance barges, grand vessels flying the Union Jack and the
Red Cross, with lifts, electric light, and an operating-table. They are
towed by a tug to the coast through convenient canals.
You may catch the stream once more, and at its fullest, in (6) the
splendid hospitals at Boulogne. At Boulogne the hospital laundry
work is such that it has overpowered the town and has to be sent to
England. But even at Boulogne, where the most solid architecture,
expensively transformed, gives an air of utter permanency to the
hospitals, the watchword is still to clear, to pass the cases on. The
next stage (7) is the Hospital Ship, specially fitted out, waiting in the
harbour for its complement. When the horizontal forms leave the
ship they are in England; they are among us, and the great stream
divides into many streams, just as at the rail-head at the other end
the great stream of supply divides into many streams, and is lost.
Nor are men the only beings cared for. One of the strangest things I
saw at Boulogne was a horse-hospital, consisting of a meadow of
many acres. Those who imagine that horses are not used in
modern war should see the thousands of horses tethered in that
meadow. Many if not most of them were suffering from shell
wounds, and the sufferers were rather human. I saw a horse
operated on under chloroform. He refused to come to after the
operation was over, and as I left he was being encouraged to do so
by movements of the limbs to induce respiration. Impossible, after
that, to think of him as a mere horse!
But before I left the British lines I did manage to glimpse the British
Army, the mysterious sea into which fell and were swallowed up,
and from which trickled the hundreds of small runlets of wounded
that converged into the mighty stream of pain at Boulogne. I passed
by a number of wooden causeways over water-logged ground, and
each causeway had the name of some London street, and at last I
was stopped by a complicated wall of sandbags with many curves
and involutions. To "dig in" on this particular landscape is
impracticable, and hence the "trenches" are above ground and
sandbags are their walls. I looked through a periscope and saw
barbed wire and the German positions. I was told not to stand in
such-and-such a place because it was exposed. A long line of men
moved about at various jobs behind the rampart of sandbags; they
were cheerfully ready to shoot, but very few of them were actually in
the posture of shooting. A little further behind gay young men
seemed to be preparing food. Here and there were little reposing
A mere line, almost matching the sand-bags in colour! All the
tremendous organisation in the rear had been brought into being
solely for the material sustenance, the direction, and the protection
of this line! The guns roared solely in its aid. For this line existed the
clearing stations and hospitals in France and in Britain. I dare say I
saw about a quarter of a mile of it. The Major in command of what I
saw accompanied me some distance along the causeways into
comparative safety. As we were parting he said:
"Well, what do you think of our 'trenches'?"
In my preoccupied taciturnity I had failed to realise that, interesting
as his "trenches" were to me, they must be far more interesting to
him, and that they ought to have formed the subject of conversation.
"Fine!" I said.
And I hope my monosyllabic sincerity satisfied him.
We shook hands, and he turned silently away to the everlasting peril
of his post. His retreating figure was rather pathetic to me. Looking
at it, I understood for the first time what war in truth is. But I soon
began to wonder anxiously whether our automobile would get safely
past a certain exposed spot on the high road.
VI The Unique City
When we drew near Ypres we met a civilian wagon laden with
furniture of a lower middle-class house, and also with lengths of gilt
picture frame-moulding. There was quite a lot of gilt in the wagon. A
strong, warm wind was blowing, and the dust on the road and from
the railway track was very unpleasant. The noise of artillery
persisted. As a fact, the wagon was hurrying away with furniture and
picture-frame mouldings under fire. Several times we were told not
to linger here and not to linger there, and the automobiles, emptied
of us, received very precise instructions where to hide during our
absence. We saw a place where a shell had dropped on to waste
ground at one side of the road, and thrown up a mass of earth and
stones on to the roof of an asylum on the other side of the road. The
building was unharmed; the well-paved surface of the road was
perfect--it had received no hurt; but on the roof lay the earth and
stones. Still, we had almost no feeling of danger. The chances were
a thousand to one that the picture-frame maker would get safely
away with his goods; and he did. But it seemed odd--to an absurdly
sensitive, non-Teutonic mind it seemed somehow to lack justice--
that the picture-framer, after having been ruined, must risk his life in
order to snatch from the catastrophe the debris of his career.
Further on, within the city itself, but near the edge of it, two men
were removing uninjured planks from the upper floor of a house; the
planks were all there was in the house to salve. I saw no other
attempt to make the best of a bad job, and, after I had inspected the
bad job, these two attempts appeared heroic to the point of mere
I had not been in Ypres for nearly twenty years, and when I was last
there the work of restoring the historic buildings of the city was not
started. (These restorations, especially to the Cloth Hall and the
Cathedral of St. Martin, were just about finished in time for the
opening of hostilities, and they give yet another proof of the German
contention that Belgium, in conspiracy with Britain, had deliberately
prepared for the war--and, indeed, wanted it!) he Grande Place was
quite recognisable. It is among the largest public squares in Europe,
and one of the very few into which you could put a medium-sized
Atlantic liner. There is no square in London or (I think) New York into
which you could put a 10,000-ton boat. A 15,000-ton affair, such as
even the Arabic, could be arranged diagonally in the Grande Place
This Grande Place has seen history. In the middle of the thirteenth
century, whence its chief edifices date, it was the centre of one of
the largest and busiest towns in Europe, and a population of
200,000 weavers was apt to be uproarious in it. Within three
centuries a lack of comprehension of home politics and the simple
brigandage of foreign politics had reduced Ypres to a population of
5,000. In the seventeenth century Ypres fell four times. At the
beginning of the nineteenth century it ceased to be a bishopric. In
the middle of the nineteenth century it ceased to be fortified; and in
the second decade of the twentieth century it ceased to be
inhabited. Possessing 200,000 inhabitants in the thirteenth century,
5,000 inhabitants in the sixteenth century, 17400 inhabitants at the
end of the nineteenth century, it now possesses 0 inhabitants. It is
uninhabited. It cannot be inhabited. Scarcely two months before I
saw it, the city--I was told--had been full of life; in the long period
of calm which followed the bombardment of the railway-station
quarter in November 1914 the inhabitants had taken courage, and
many of those who had fled from the first shells had sidled back
again with the most absurd hope in their hearts. As late as the third
week in April the Grande Place was the regular scene of commerce,
and on market-days it was dotted with stalls upon which were offered
for sale such frivolous things as postcards displaying the damage
done to the railway-station quarter.
Then came the major bombardment, which is not yet over.
You may obtain a just idea of the effects of the major bombardment
by adventuring into the interior of the Cathedral of St. Martin. This
Cathedral is chiefly thirteenth-century work. Its tower, like that of the
Cathedral at Malines, had never been completed--nor will it ever be,
now--but it is still, with the exception of the tower of the Cloth Hall,
the highest thing in Ypres. The tower is a skeleton. As for the rest of
the building, it may be said that some of the walls alone substantially
remain. The choir--the earliest part of the Cathedral--is entirely
unroofed, and its south wall has vanished. The apse has been
blown clean out. The Early Gothic nave is partly unroofed. The
transepts are unroofed, and of the glass of the memorable rose
window of the south transept not a trace is left--so far as I can
In the centre of the Cathedral, where the transepts meet, is a vast
heap of bricks, stone, and powdery dirt. This heap rises irregularly
like a range of hills towards the choir; it overspreads most of the
immense interior, occupying an area of, perhaps, from 15,000 to
20,000 square feet. In the choir it rises to a height of six or seven
yards. You climb perilously over it as you might cross the Alps. This
incredible amorphous mass, made up of millions of defaced
architectural fragments of all kinds, is the shattered body of about
half the Cathedral. I suppose that the lovely carved choir-stalls are
imbedded somewhere within it. The grave of Jansen is certainly at
the bottom of it. The aspect of the scene, with the sky above, the
jagged walls, the interrupted arches, and the dusty piled mess all
around, is intolerably desolate. And it is made the more so by the
bright colours of the great altar, two-thirds of which is standing, and
the still brighter colours of the organ, which still clings, apparently
whole, to the north wall of the choir. In the sacristy are collected gilt
candelabra and other altar-furniture, turned yellow by the fumes of
picric acid. At a little distance the Cathedral, ruin though it is, seems
solid enough; but when you are in it the fear is upon you that the
inconstant and fragile remains of it may collapse about you in a gust
of wind a little rougher than usual.
You leave the outraged fane with relief. And when you get outside
you have an excellent opportunity of estimating the mechanism
which brought about this admirable triumph of destruction; for there
is a hole made by a 17-inch shell; it is at a moderate estimate fifty
feet across, and it has happened to tumble into a graveyard, so that
the hole is littered with the white bones of earlier Christians.
The Cloth Hall was a more wonderful thing than the Cathedral of St.
Martin, which, after all, was no better than dozens of other
cathedrals. There was only one Cloth Hall of the rank of this one. It
is not easy to say whether or not the Cloth Hall still exists. Its
celebrated three-story facade exists, with a huge hiatus in it to the
left of the middle, and, of course, minus all glass. The entire facade
seemed to me to be leaning slightly forward; I could not decide
whether this was an optical delusion or a fact. The enormous central
tower is knocked to pieces, and yet conserves some remnant of its
original outlines; bits of scaffolding on the sides of it stick out at a
great height like damaged matches. The slim corner towers are
scarcely hurt. Everything of artistic value in the structure of the
interior has disappeared in a horrible confusion of rubble. The
eastern end of the Cloth Hall used to be terminated by a small
beautiful Renaissance edifice called the Niewwerk, dating from the
seventeenth century. What its use was I never knew; but the
Niewwerk has vanished, and the Town Hall next door has also
vanished; broken walls, a few bits of arched masonry, and heaps of
refuse alone indicate where these buildings stood in April last.
So much for the two principal buildings visible from the Grande
Place. The Cloth Hall is in the Grande Place, and the Cathedral
adjoins it. The only other fairly large building in the Place is the
Hopital de Notre Dame at the north-east end. This white-painted
erection, with its ornamental gilt sign, had continued substantially to
exist as a structural entity; it was defaced, but not seriously. Every
other building in the place was smashed up. To walk right round the
Place is to walk nearly half a mile; and along the entire length, with
the above exceptions, there was nothing but mounds of rubbish
and fragments of upstanding walls. Here and there in your
perambulation you may detect an odour with which certain trenches
have already familiarised you. Obstinate inhabitants were apt to get
buried in the cellars where they had taken refuge. In one place what
looked like a colossal sewer had been uncovered. I thought at the
time that the sewer was somewhat large for a city of the size of
Ypres, and it has since occurred to me that this sewer may have
been the ancient bed of the stream Yperlee, which in some past
period was arched over.
"I want to make a rough sketch of all this," I said to my companions
in the middle of the Grande Place, indicating the Cloth Hall, and the
Cathedral, and other grouped ruins. The spectacle was, indeed,
majestic in the extreme, and if the British Government has not had it
officially photographed in the finest possible manner, it has failed in
a very obvious duty; detailed photographs of Ypres ought to be
distributed throughout the world.
My companions left me to myself. I sat down on the edge of a small
shell-hole some distance in front of the Hospital. I had been advised
not to remain too near the building lest it might fall on me. The
paved floor of the Place stretched out around me like a tremendous
plain, seeming the vaster because my eyes were now so much
nearer to the level of it. On a bit of facade to the left the word "CYCLE
" stood out in large black letters on a white ground. This word and
myself were the sole living things in the Square. In the distance a
cloud of smoke up a street showed that a house was burning. The
other streets visible from where I sat gave no sign whatever. The
wind, strong enough throughout my visit to the Front, was now
stronger than ever. All the window-frames and doors in the Hospital
were straining and creaking in the wind. The loud sound of guns
never ceased. A large British aeroplane hummed and buzzed at a
considerable height overhead. Dust drove along.
I said to myself: "A shell might quite well fall here any moment."
I was afraid. But I was less afraid of a shell than of the intense
loneliness. Rheims was inhabited; Arras was inhabited. In both
cities there were postmen and newspapers, shops, and even cafes.
But in Ypres there was nothing. Every street was a desert; every
room in every house was empty. Not a dog roamed in search of
food. The weight upon my heart was sickening. To avoid complications
I had promised the Staff officer not to move from the Place until
he returned; neither of us had any desire to be hunting for each
other in the sinister labyrinth of the town's thoroughfares. I
was, therefore, a prisoner in the Place, condemned to solitary
confinement. I ardently wanted my companions to come back. . . .
Then I heard echoing sounds of voices and footsteps. Two British
soldiers appeared round a corner and passed slowly along the
Square. In the immensity of the Square they made very small
figures. I had a wish to accost them, but Englishmen do not do
these things, even in Ypres. They glanced casually at me; I glanced
casually at them, carefully pretending that the circumstances of my
situation were entirely ordinary.
I felt safer while they were in view; but when they had gone I was
afraid again. I was more than afraid; I was inexplicably uneasy. I
made the sketch simply because I had said that I would make it.
And as soon as it was done, I jumped up out of the hole and walked
about, peering down streets for the reappearance of my friends. I
was very depressed, very irritable; and I honestly wished that I had
never accepted any invitation to visit the Front. I somehow thought I
might never get out of Ypres alive. When at length I caught sight of
the Staff officer I felt instantly relieved. My depression, however,
remained for hours afterwards.
Perhaps the chief street in Ypres is the wide Rue de Lille, which
runs from opposite the Cloth Hall down to the Lille Gate, and over
the moat water into the Lille road and on to the German lines. The
Rue de Lille was especially famous for its fine old buildings. There
was the Hospice Belle, for old female paupers of Ypres, built in the
thirteenth century. There was the Museum, formerly the Hotel
Merghelynck, not a very striking edifice, but full of antiques of all
kinds. There was the Hospital of St. John, interesting, but less
interesting than the Hospital of St. John at Bruges. There was the
Gothic Maison de Bois, right at the end of the street, with a rather
wonderful frontage. And there was the famous fourteenth-century
Steenen, which since my previous visit had been turned into the
post office. With the exception of this last building, the whole of the
Rue de Lille, if my memory is right, lay in ruins. The shattered post
office was splendidly upright, and in appearance entire; but, for all I
know, its interior may have been destroyed by a shell through the
roof. Only the acacia-trees flourished, and the flies, and the weeds
between the stones of the paving. The wind took up the dust from
the rubbish heaps which had been houses and wreathed it against
what bits of walls still maintained the perpendicular. Here, too, was
the unforgettable odour, rising through the interstices of the
smashed masonry which hid subterranean chambers.
We turned into a side-street of small houses--probably the homes of
lace-makers. The street was too humble to be a mark for the guns
of the Germans, who, no doubt, trained their artillery by the aid of a
very large scale municipal map on which every building was
separately indicated. It would seem impossible that a map of less
than a foot to a mile could enable them to produce such wonderful
results of carefully wanton destruction. And the assumption must be
that the map was obtained from the local authorities by some agent
masquerading as a citizen. I heard, indeed, that known citizens of all
the chief towns returned to their towns or to the vicinity thereof in the
uniform and with the pleasing manners of German warriors. The
organisation for doing good to Belgium against Belgium's will was an
incomparable piece of chicane and pure rascality. Strange--Belgians
were long ago convinced that the visitation was inevitably coming,
and had fallen into the habit of discussing it placidly over their beer
To return to the side-street. So far as one could see, it had not
received a dent, not a scratch. Even the little windows of the little
red houses were by no means all broken. All the front doors stood
ajar. I hesitated to walk in, for these houses seemed to be
mysteriously protected by influences invisible. But in the end the
vulgar, yet perhaps legitimate, curiosity of the sightseer, of the
professional reporter, drove me within the doors. The houses were
so modest that they had no entrance-halls or lobbies. One passed
directly from the street into the parlour. Apparently the parlours were
completely furnished. They were in an amazing disorder, but the
furniture was there. And the furnishings of all of them were alike, as
the furnishings of all the small houses of a street in the Five Towns
or in a cheap London suburb. The ambition of these homes had
been to resemble one another. What one had all must have. Under
ordinary circumstances the powerful common instinct to resemble is
pitiable. But here it was absolutely touching.
Everything was in these parlours. The miserable, ugly ornaments,
bought and cherished and admired by the simple, were on the
mantelpieces. The drawers of the mahogany and oak furniture had
been dragged open, but not emptied. The tiled floors were littered
with clothes, with a miscellany of odd possessions, with pots and
pans out of the kitchen and the scullery, with bags and boxes. The
accumulations of lifetimes were displayed before me, and it was
almost possible to trace the slow transforming of young girls into
brides, and brides into mothers of broods.
Within the darkness of the interiors I could discern the stairs. But I
was held back from the stairs. I could get no further than the
parlours, though the interest of the upper floors must have been
So from house to house. I handled nothing. Were not the military
laws against looting of the most drastic character! And at last I
came to the end of the little street. There are many such streets in
Ypres. In fact, the majority of the streets were like that street. I did
not visit them, but I have no doubt that they were in the same
condition. I do not say that the inhabitants fled taking naught with
them. They must obviously have taken what they could, and what
was at once most precious and most portable. But they could have
taken very little. They departed breathless without vehicles, and
probably most of the adults had children to carry or to lead. At one
moment the houses were homes, functioning as such. An alarm,
infectious like the cholera, and at the next moment the deserted
houses became spiritless, degenerated into intolerable museums
for the amazement of a representative of the American and the
British Press! Where the scurrying families went to I never even
inquired. Useless to inquire. They just lost themselves on the face of
the earth, and were henceforth known to mankind by the generic
name of "refugees"--such of them as managed to get away alive.
After this the solitude of the suburbs, with their maimed and rusting
factories, their stagnant canals, their empty lots, their high, lusty
weeds, their abolished railway and tram stations, was a secondary
matter leaving practically no impression on the exhausted
A few miles on the opposite side of the town were the German
artillery positions, with guns well calculated to destroy Cathedrals
and Cloth Halls. Around these guns were educated men who had
spent years--indeed, most of their lives--in the scientific study of
destruction. Under these men were slaves who, solely for the
purposes of destruction, had ceased to be the free citizens they
once were. These slaves were compelled to carry out any order
given to them, under pain of death. They had, indeed, been
explicitly told on the highest earthly authority that, if the order came
to destroy their fathers and their brothers, they must destroy their
fathers and their brothers: the instruction was public and historic.
The whole organism has worked, and worked well, for the
destruction of all that was beautiful in Ypres, and for the break-up of
an honourable tradition extending over at least eight centuries. The
operation was the direct result of an order. The order had been
carefully weighed and considered. The successful execution of it
brought joy into many hearts, high and low. "Another shell in the
Cathedral!" And men shook hands ecstatically around the excellent
guns. "A hole in the tower of the Cloth Hall." General rejoicing! "The
population has fled, and Ypres is a desert!" Inexpressible
enthusiasm among specially educated men, from the highest to the
lowest. So it must have been. There was no hazard about the
treatment of Ypres. The shells did not come into Ypres out of
nowhere. Each was the climax of a long, deliberate effort originating
in the brains of the responsible leaders. One is apt to forget all this.
"But," you say, "this is war, after all." After all, it just is.
The future of Ypres exercises the mind. Ypres is only one among
many martyrs. But, as matters stand at present it is undoubtedly the
chief one. In proportion to their size, scores of villages have suffered
as much as Ypres, and some have suffered more. But no city of its
mercantile, historical, and artistic importance has, up to now,
suffered in the same degree as Ypres. Ypres is entitled to rank as
the very symbol of the German achievement in Belgium. It stood
upon the path to Calais; but that was not its crime. Even if German
guns had not left one brick upon another in Ypres, the path to Calais
would not thereby have been made any easier for the well-shod feet
of the apostles of might, for Ypres never served as a military
stronghold and could not possibly have so served; and had the
Germans known how to beat the British Army in front of Ypres, they
could have marched through the city as easily as a hyena through a
rice-crop. The crime of Ypres was that it lay handy for the extreme
irritation of an army which, with three times the men and three times
the guns, and thirty times the vainglorious conceit, could not shift
the trifling force opposed to it last autumn. Quite naturally the
boasters were enraged. In the end, something had to give way. And
the Cathedral and Cloth Hall and other defenceless splendours of
Ypres gave way, not the trenches. The yearners after Calais did
themselves no good by exterminating fine architecture and breaking
up innocent homes, but they did experience the relief of smashing
something. Therein lies the psychology of the affair of Ypres, and
the reason why the Ypres of history has come to a sudden close.
In order to envisage the future of Ypres, it is necessary to get a
clear general conception of the damage done to it. Ypres is not
destroyed. I should estimate that when I saw it in July at least half
the houses in it were standing entire, and, though disfigured, were
capable of being rapidly repaired. Thousands of the humble of
Ypres could return to their dwellings and resume home-life there
with little trouble, provided that the economic situation was fairly
favourable--and, of course, sooner or later the economic situation is
bound to be favourable, for the simple reason that it must ultimately
depend upon the exertions of a people renowned throughout the
world for hard and continuous industry.
On the other hand, practically all that was spectacular in the city, all
the leading, all the centre round which civic activities had grouped
themselves for centuries, is destroyed. Take the Grande Place. If
Ypres is to persist in a future at all comparable to its immediate past
(to say nothing of its historic past), the privately owned buildings on
the Grande Place will, without exception, have to be begun all over
again, and before that task can be undertaken the foundations will
have to be cleared--a tremendous undertaking in itself. I do not
know how many privately owned buildings there were on the
Grande Place, but I will guess a hundred and fifty, probably none of
which was less than three stories in height. All these buildings
belonged to individuals, individuals who intimately possessed them
and counted on them as a source of income or well-being,
individuals who are now scattered, impoverished, and acutely
discouraged. The same is to be said of the Rue de Lille and of other
Suppose the Germans back again in the land of justice, modesty,
and unselfishness; and suppose the property-owners of Ypres
collected once more in Ypres. The enterprise of reconstruction
facing them will make such a demand of initiative force and mere
faith as must daunt the most audacious among them. And capital
dragged out of a bankrupt Germany will by no means solve the
material problem. For labour will be nearly as scarce as money; the
call for labour in every field cannot fail to surpass in its urgency any
call in history. The simple contemplation of the gigantic job will be
staggering. To begin with, the withered and corrupt dead will have to
be excavated from the cellars, and when that day comes those will
be present who can say: "This skeleton was So-and-So's child,"
"That must have been my mother." Terrific hours await Ypres. And
when (or if) the buildings have been re-erected, tenants will have to
be found for them--and then think of the wholesale refurnishing!
The deep human instinct which attaches men and women to a
particular spot of the earth's surface is so powerful that almost
certainly the second incarnation of Ypres will be initiated, but that it
will be carried very far towards completion seems to me to be
somewhat doubtful. To my mind the new Ypres cannot be more
than a kind of camp amid the dark ruins of the old, and the city must
remain for generations, if not for ever, a ghastly sign and illustration
of what cupidity and stupidity and vanity can compass together
when physical violence is their instrument.
The immediate future of Ypres, after the war, is plain. It will instantly
become one of the show-places of the world. Hotels will appear out
of the ground, guides and touts will pullulate at the railway station,
the tour of the ruins will be mapped out, and the tourists and globe-
trotters of the whole planet will follow that tour in batches like staring
sheep. Much money will be amassed by a few persons out of the
exhibition of misfortune and woe. A sinister fate for a community!
Nevertheless, the thing must come to pass, and it is well that it
should come to pass. The greater the number of people who see
Ypres for themselves, the greater the hope of progress for mankind.
If the facade of the Cloth Hall can be saved, some such inscription
as the following ought to be incised along the length of it:
"On July 31st, 1914, The German Minister At Brussels Gave A
Positive And Solemn Assurance That Germany Had No Intention Of
Violating The Neutrality Of Belgium. Four Days Later The German
Army Invaded Belgium. Look Around."
When you are walking through that which was Ypres, nothing
arouses a stronger feeling--half contempt, half anger--than the
thought of the mean, miserable, silly, childish, and grotesque
excuses which the wit of Germany has invented for her deliberately
planned crime. And nothing arouses a more grim and sweet
satisfaction than the thought that she already has the gravest
reason to regret it, and would give her head not to have committed
it. Despite all vauntings, all facile chatterings about the alleged co-
operation of an unknowable and awful God, all shriekings of unity
and power, all bellowings about the perfect assurance of victory, all
loud countings of the fruits of victory--the savage leaders of the
deluded are shaking in their shoes before the anticipated sequel of
an outrage ineffable alike in its barbarism and in its idiocy.
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