A lieutenant snapped out something, a sergeant snapped it back to him, the gun crew jumped aside, balancing themselves on tiptoe with their mouths all agape, and the gun-firer either pulled a lever out or else pushed one home, I couldn't tell which. Then everything—sky and woods and field and all—fused and ran together in a great spatter of red flame and white smoke, and the earth beneath our feet shivered and shook as the twenty-one-centimeter spat out its twenty-one-centimeter mouthful. A vast obscenity of sound beat upon us, making us reel backward, and for just the one-thousandth part of a second I saw a round white spot, like a new baseball, against a cloud background. The poplars, which had bent forward as if before a quick wind-squall, stood up, trembling in their tops, and we dared to breathe again. Then each in its turn the other four guns spoke, profaning the welkin, and we rocked on our heels like drunken men, and I remember there was a queer taste, as of something burned, in my mouth. All of which was very fine, no doubt, and very inspiring, too, if one cared deeply for that sort of thing; but to myself, when the hemisphere had ceased from its quiverings, I said:
"It isn't true—this isn't war; it's just a costly, useless game of playing at war. Behold, now, these guns did not fire at anybody visible or anything tangible. They merely elevated their muzzles into the sky and fired into the sky to make a great tumult and spoil the good air with a bad-tasting smoke. No enemy is in sight and no enemy will answer back; therefore no enemy exists. It is all a useless and a fussy business, signifying nothing."
Nor did any enemy answer back. The guns having been fired with due pomp and circumstance, the gunners went back to those pipe-smoking and postcard-writing pursuits of theirs and everything was as before— peaceful and entirely serene. Only the telephone man remained in his bed in the straw with his ear at his telephone. He was still couched there, spraddling ridiculously on his stomach, with his legs outstretched in a sawbuck pattern, as we came away.
"It isn't always quite so quiet hereabouts," said the lieutenant. "The commander of this battery tells me that yesterday the French dropped some shrapnel among his guns and killed a man or two. Perhaps things will be brisker at the ten-centimeter-gun battery." He spoke as one who regretted that the show which he offered was not more exciting.
The twenty-one-centimeters, as I have told you, were in the edge of the woods, with leafy ambushes about them, but the little ten-centimeter guns ranged themselves quite boldly in a meadow of rank long grass just under the weather-rim of a small hill. They were buried to their haunches—if a field gun may be said to have haunches—in depressions gouged out by their own frequent recoils; otherwise they were without concealment of any sort. To reach them we rode a mile or two and then walked a quarter of a mile through a series of chalky bare gullies, and our escorts made us stoop low and hurry fast wherever the path wound up to the crest of the bank, lest our figures, being outlined against the sky, should betray our whereabouts and, what was more important, the whereabouts of the battery to the sharpshooters in the French rifle pits forward of the French infantry trenches and not exceeding a mile from us.
We stopped first at an observation station cunningly hidden in a haw thicket on the brow of a steep and heavily wooded defile overlooking the right side of the river valley—-the river, however, being entirely out of sight. Standing here we heard the guns speak apparently from almost beneath our feet, and three or four seconds thereafter we saw five little puffballs of white smoke uncurling above a line of trees across the valley. Somebody said this was our battery shelling the French and English in those woods yonder, but you could hardly be expected to believe that, since no reply came back and no French or English whatsoever showed themselves. Altogether it seemed a most impotent and impersonal proceeding; and when the novelty of waiting for the blast of sound and then watching for the smoke plumes to appear had worn off, as it very soon did, we visited the guns themselves. They were not under our feet at all. They were some two hundred yards away, across a field where the telephone wires stretched over the old plow furrows and through the rank meadow grass, like springs to catch woodcock.
Here again the trick of taking a message off the telephone and shouting it forth from the mouth of a fox burrow was repeated. Whenever this procedure came to pass a sergeant who had strained his vocal cords from much giving of orders would swell out his chest and throw back his head and shriek hoarsely with what was left of his voice, which wasn't much. This meant a fury of noise resulting instantly and much white smoke to follow. For a while the guns were fired singly and then they were fired in salvos; and you might mark how the grass for fifty yards in front of the muzzles would lie on the earth quite flat and then stand erect, and how the guns, like shying bronchos, would leap backward upon their carriages and then slide forward again as the air in the air cushions took up the kick. Also we took note that the crews of the ten- centimeters had built for themselves dugouts to sleep in and to live in, and had covered the sod roofs over with straw and broken tree limbs. We judged they would be very glad indeed to crawl into those same shelters when night came, for they had been serving the guns all day and plainly were about as weary as men could be. To burn powder hour after hour and day after day and week after week at a foe who never sees you and whom you never see; to go at this dreary, heavy trade of war with the sober, uninspired earnestness of convicts building a prison wall about themselves—the ghastly unreality of the proposition left me mentally numbed.
Howsoever, we arrived not long after that at a field hospital—namely, Field Hospital Number 36, and here was realism enough to satisfy the lexicographer who first coined the word. This field hospital was established in eight abandoned houses of the abandoned small French village of Colligis, and all eight houses were crowded with wounded men lying as closely as they could lie upon mattresses placed side by side on the floors, with just room to step between the mattresses. Be it remembered also that these were all men too seriously wounded to be moved even to a point as close as Laon; those more lightly injured than these were already carried back to the main hospitals.
We went into one room containing only men suffering from chest wounds, who coughed and wheezed and constantly fought off the swarming flies that assailed them, and into another room given over entirely to brutally abbreviated human fragments—fractional parts of men who had lost their arms or legs. On the far mattress against the wall lay a little pale German with his legs gone below the knees, who smiled upward at the ceiling and was quite chipper.
"A wonderful man, that little chap," said one of the surgeons to me. "When they first brought him here two weeks ago I said to him: 'It's hard on you that you should lose both your feet,' and he looked up at me and grinned and said: 'Herr Doctor, it might have been worse. It might have been my hands—and me a tailor by trade!'"
This surgeon told us he had an American wife, and he asked me to bear a message for him to his wife's people in the States. So if these lines should come to the notice of Mrs. Rosamond Harris, who lives at Hinesburg, Vermont, she may know that her son-in-law, Doctor Schilling, was at last accounts very busy and very well, although coated with white dust—face, head and eyebrows—so that he reminded me of a clown in a pantomime, and dyed as to his hands with iodine to an extent that made his fingers look like pieces of well-cured meerschaum.
They were bringing in more men, newly wounded that day, as we came out of Doctor Schilling's improvised operating room in the little village schoolhouse, and one of the litter bearers was a smart-faced little London Cockney, a captured English ambulance-hand, who wore a German soldier's cap to save him from possible annoyance as he went about his work. Not very many wounded had arrived since the morning—it was a dull day for them, the surgeons said—but I took note that, when the Red Cross men put down a canvas stretcher upon the courtyard flags and shortly thereafter took it up again, it left a broad red smear where it rested against the flat stones. Also this stretcher and all the other stretchers had been so sagged by the weight of bodies that they threatened to rip from the frames, and so stained by that which had stained them that the canvas was as stiff as though it had been varnished and revarnished with many coats of brown shellac. But it wasn't shellac. There is just one fluid which leaves that brown, hard coating when it dries upon woven cloth.
As I recall now we had come through the gate of the schoolhouse to where the automobiles stood when a puff of wind, blowing to us from the left, which meant from across the battlefront, brought to our noses a certain smell which we already knew full well.
"You get it, I see," said the German officer who stood alongside me. "It comes from three miles off, but you can get it five miles distant when the wind is strong. That"—and he waved his left arm toward it as though the stench had been a visible thing—"that explains why tobacco is so scarce with us among the staff back yonder in Laon. All the tobacco which can be spared is sent to the men in the front trenches. As long as they smoke and keep on smoking they can stand—that!
"You see," he went on painstakingly, "the situation out there at Cerny is like this: The French and English, but mainly the English, held the ground firSt. We drove them back and they lost very heavily. In places their trenches were actually full of dead and dying men when we took those trenches.
"You could have buried them merely by filling up the trenches with earth. And that old beet-sugar factory which you saw this noon when we were at field headquarters—it was crowded with badly wounded Englishmen.
"At once they rallied and forced us back, and now it was our turn to lose heavily. That was nearly three weeks ago, and since then the ground over which we fought has been debatable ground, lying between our lines and the enemy's lines—a stretch four miles long and half a mile wide that is literally carpeted with bodies of dead men. They weren't all dead at first. For two days and nights our men in the earthworks heard the cries of those who still lived, and the sound of them almost drove them mad. There was no reaching the wounded, though, either from our lines or from the Allies' lines. Those who tried to reach them were themselves killed. Now there are only dead out there—thousands of dead, I think. And they have been there twenty days. Once in a while a shell strikes that old sugar mill or falls into one of those trenches. Then—well, then, it is worse for those who serve in the front lines."
"But in the name of God, man," I said, "why don't they call a truce— both sides—and put that horror underground?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"War is different now," he said. "Truces are out of fashion."
I stood there and I smelled that smell. And I thought of all those flies, and those blood-stiffened stretchers, and those little inch-long figures which I myself, looking through that telescope, had seen lying on the green hill, and those automobiles loaded with mangled men, and War de Luxe betrayed itself to me. Beneath its bogus glamour I saw war for what it is—the next morning of drunken glory.
The Rut of Big Guns in France
Let me say at the outset of this chapter that I do not set up as one professing to have any knowledge whatsoever of so-called military science. The more I have seen of the carrying-on of the actual business of war, the less able do I seem to be to understand the meanings of the business. For me strategy remains a closed book. Even the simplest primary lessons of it, the A B C's of it, continue to impress me as being stupid, but none the less unplumbable mysteries.
The physical aspects of campaigning I can in a way grasp. At least I flatter myself that I can. A man would have to be deaf and dumb and blind not to grasp them, did they reveal themselves before him as they have revealed themselves before me. Indeed, if he preserved only the faculty of scent unimpaired he might still be able to comprehend the thing, since, as I have said before, war in its commoner phases is not so much a sight as a great bad smell. As for the rudiments of the system which dictates the movements of troops in large masses or in small, which sacrifices thousands of men to take a town or hold a river when that town and that river, physically considered, appear to be of no consequence whatsoever, those elements I have not been able to sense, even though I studied the matter most diligently. So after sundry months of first-hand observation in one of the theaters of hostilities, I tell myself that the trade of fighting is a trade to be learned by slow and laborious degrees, and even then may be learned with thoroughness only by one who has a natural aptitude for it. Either that, or else I am most extraordinarily thick-headed, for I own that I am still as complete a greenhorn now as I was at the beginning.
Having made the confession which is said to be good for the soul, and which in any event has the merit of blunting in advance the critical judgments of the expert, since he must pity my ignorance and my innocence even though he quarrel with my conclusions, I now assume the role of prophet long enough to venture to say that the day of the modern walled fort is over and done with. I do not presume to speak regarding coast defenses maintained for the purposes of repelling attacks or invasions from the sea. I am speaking with regard to land defenses which are assailable by land forces. I believe in the future great wars—if indeed there are to be any more great wars following after this one—that the nations involved, instead of buttoning their frontiers down with great fortresses and ringing their principal cities about with circles of protecting works, will put their trust more and more in transportable cannon of a caliber and a projecting force greater than any yet built or planned. I make this assertion after viewing the visible results of the operations of the German 42-centimeter guns in Belgium and France, notably at Liege in the former country and at Maubeuge in the latter.
Except for purposes of frightening non-combatants the Zeppelins apparently have proved of most dubious value; nor, barring its value as a scout—a field in which it is of marvelous efficiency—does the aeroplane appear to have been of much consequence in inflicting loss upon the enemy. Of the comparatively new devices for waging war, the submarine and the great gun alone seem to have justified in any great degree the hopes of their sponsors.
Since I came back out of the war zone I have met persons who questioned the existence of a 42-centimeter gun, they holding it to be a nightmare created out of the German imagination with intent to break the confidence of the enemies of Germany. I did not see a 42-centimeter gun with my own eyes, and personally I doubt whether the Germans had as many of them as they claimed to have; but I talked with one entirely reliable witness, an American consular officer, who saw a 42-centimeter gun as it was being transported to the front in the opening week of the war, and with another American, a diplomat of high rank, who interviewed a man who saw one of these guns, and who in detailing the conversation to me said the spectator had been literally stunned by the size and length and the whole terrific contour of the monster.
Finally, I know from personal experience that these guns have been employed, and employed with a result that goes past adequate description; but if I hadn't seen the effect of their fire I wouldn't have believed it were true. I wouldn't have believed anything evolved out of the brains of men and put together by the fingers of men could operate with such devilish accuracy to compass such utter destruction. I would have said it was some planetic force, some convulsion of natural forces, and not an agency of human devisement, that turned Fort Loncin inside out, and transformed it within a space of hours from a supposedly impregnable stronghold into a hodgepodge of complete and hideous ruination. And what befell Fort Loncin on the hills behind Liege befell Fort Des Sarts outside of Maubeuge, as I have reason to know. When the first of the 42-centimeters emerged from Essen it took a team of thirty horses to haul it; and with it out of that nest of the Prussian war eagle came also a force of mechanics and engineers to set it up and aim it and fire it.
Here, too, is an interesting fact that I have not seen printed anywhere, though I heard it often enough in Germany: by reason of its bulk the 42- centimeter must be mounted upon a concrete base before it can be used. Heretofore the concrete which was available for this purpose required at least a fortnight of exposure before it was sufficiently firm and hardened; but when Fraulein Bertha Krupp's engineers escorted the Fraulein's newest and most impressive steel masterpiece to the war, they brought along with them the ingredients for a new kind of concrete; and those who claim to have been present on the occasion declare that within forty-eight hours after they had mixed and molded it, it was ready to bear the weight of the guns and withstand the shock of their recoil.
This having been done, I conceive of the operators as hoisting their guns into position, and posting up a set of rules—even in time of war it is impossible to imagine the Germans doing anything of importance without a set of rules to go by—and working out the distance by mathematics, and then turning loose their potential cataclysms upon the stubborn forts which opposed their further progress. From the viewpoint of the Germans the consequences to the foe must amply have justified the trouble and the cost. For where a 42-centimeter shell falls it does more than merely alter landscape; almost you might say it alters geography.
In the open field, where he must aim his gun with his own eye and discharge it with his own finger, I take it the Kaiser's private soldier is no great shakes as a marksman. The Germans themselves begrudgingly admitted the French excelled them in the use of light artillery. There was wonderment as well as reluctance in this concession. To them it seemed well-nigh incredible that any nation should be their superiors in any department pertaining to the practice of war. They could not bring themselves fully to understand it. It remained as much a puzzle to them as the unaccountable obstinacy of the English in refusing to be budged out of their position by displays of cold steel, or to be shaken by the volleying, bull-like roar of the German charging cry, which at first the Germans counted upon as being almost as efficacious as the bayonet for instilling a wholesome fear of the German war god into the souls of their foes.
While giving the Frenchmen credit for knowing how to handle and serve small field-pieces, the Germans nevertheless insisted that their infantry fire or their skirmish fire was as deadly as that of the Allies, or even deadlier. This I was not prepared to believe. I do not think the German is a good rifle shot by instinct, as the American often is, and in a lesser degree, perhaps, the Englishman is, too. But where he can work the range out on paper, where he has to do with mechanics instead of a shifting mark, where he can apply to the details of gun firing the exact principles of arithmetic, I am pretty sure the German is as good a gunner as may be found on the Continent of Europe to-day. This may not apply to him at sea, for he has neither the sailor traditions nor the inherited naval craftsmanship of the English; but judging by what I have seen I am quite certain that with the solid earth beneath him and a set of figures before him and an enemy out of sight of him to be damaged he is in a class all by himself.
A German staff officer, who professed to have been present, told me that at Manonvilla—so he spelled the name—a 42-centimeter gun was fired one hundred and forty-seven times from a distance of 14,000 meters at a fort measuring 600 meters in length by 400 meters in breadth—a very small target, indeed, considering the range—and that investigation after the capture of the fort showed not a single one of the one hundred and forty-seven shots had been an outright miss. Some few, he said, hit the walls or at the bases of the walls, but all the others, he claimed, had bull's-eyed into the fort itself.
Subsequently, on subjecting this tale to the acid test of second thought I was compelled to doubt what the staff officer had said. To begin with, I didn't understand how a 42-centimeter gun could be fired one hundred and forty-seven times without its wearing out, for I have often heard that the larger the bore of your gun and the heavier the charge of explosives which it carries, the shorter is its period of efficiency.. In the second place, it didn't seem possible after being hit one hundred and forty-seven times with 42-centimeter bombs that enough of any fort of whatsoever size would be left to permit of a tallying-up of separate shots. Ten shots properly placed should have razed it; twenty more should have blown its leveled remainder to powder and scattered the powder.
Be the facts what they may with regard to this case of the fort of Manonvilla—if that be its proper name—I am prepared to speak with the assurance of an eyewitness concerning the effect of the German fire upon the defenses of Maubeuge. What I saw at Liege I have described in a previous chapter of this volume. What I saw at Maubeuge was even more convincing testimony, had I needed it, that the Germans had a 42- centimeter gun, and that, given certain favored conditions, they knew how to handle it effectively.
We spent the better part of a day in two of the forts which were fondly presumed to guard Maubeuge toward the north—Fort Des Sarts and Fort Boussois; but Fort Des Sarts was the one where the 42-centimeter gun gave the first exhibition of its powers upon French soil in this war, so we went there first. To reach it we ran a matter of seven kilometers through a succession of villages, each with its mutely eloquent tale of devastation and general smash to tell; each with its group of contemptuously tolerant German soldiers on guard and its handful of natives, striving feebly to piece together the broken and bankrupt fragments of their worldly affairs.
Approaching Des Sarts more nearly we came to a longish stretch of highway, which the French had cleared of visual obstructions in anticipation of resistance by infantry in the event that the outer ring of defenses gave way before the German bombardment. It had all been labor in vain, for the town capitulated after the outposts fell; but it must have been very great labor. Any number of fine elm trees had been felled and their boughs, stripped now of leaves, stuck up like bare bones. There were holes in the metaled road where misaimed shells had descended, and in any one of these holes you might have buried a horse. A little gray church stood off by itself upon the plain. It had been homely enough to start with. Now with its steeple shorn away and one of its two belfry windows obliterated by a straying shot it had a rakish, cock-eyed look to it.
Just beyond where the church was our chauffeur halted the car in obedience to an order from the staff officer who had been detailed by Major von Abercron, commandant of Maubeuge, to accompany us on this particular excursion. Our guide pointed off to the right. "There," he said, "is where we dropped the first of our big ones when we were trying to get the range of the fort. You see our guns were posted at a point between eight and nine kilometers away and at the start we overshot a trifle. Still to the garrison yonder it must have been an unhappy foretaste of what they might shortly expect, when they saw the forty- twos striking here in this field and saw what execution they did among the cabbage and the beet patches."
We left the car and, following our guide, went to look. Spaced very neatly at intervals apart of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards a series of craters broke the surface of the earth. Considering the tools which dug them they were rather symmetrical craters, not jagged and gouged, but with smooth walls and each in shape a perfect funnel. We measured roughly a typical specimen. Across the top it was between fifty and sixty feet in diameter, and it sloped down evenly for a depth of eighteen feet in the chalky soil to a pointed bottom, where two men would have difficulty standing together without treading upon each other's toes. Its sides were lined with loose pellets of earth of the average size of a tennis ball, and when we slid down into the hole these rounded clods accompanied us in small avalanches.
We were filled with astonishment, first, that an explosive grenade, weighing upward of a ton, could be so constructed that it would penetrate thus far into firm and solid earth before it exploded; and, second, that it could make such a neat saucer of a hole when it did explode. But there was a still more amazing thing to be pondered. Of the earth which had been dispossessed from the crevasse, amounting to a great many wagonloads, no sign remained. It was not heaped up about the lips of the funnel; it was not visibly scattered over the nearermost furrows of that truck field. So far as we might tell it was utterly gone; and from that we deduced that the force of the explosion had been sufficient to pulverize the clay so finely and cast it so far and so wide that it fell upon the surface in a fine shower, leaving no traces unless one made a minute search for it. Noting the wonder upon our faces, the officer was moved to speak further in a tone of sincere admiration, touching on the capabilities of the crowning achievement of the Krupp works:
"Pretty strong medicine, eh? Well, wait until I have shown you American gentlemen what remains of the fort; then you will better understand. Even here, out in the open, for a radius of a hundred and fifty meters, any man, conceding he wasn't killed outright, would be knocked senseless and after that for hours, even for days, perhaps, he would be entirely unnerved. The force of the concussion appears to have that effect upon persons who are at a considerable distance—it rips their nerves to tatters. Some seem numbed and dazed; others develop an acute hysteria.
"Highly interesting, is it not? Listen then; here is something even more interesting: Within an inclosed space, where there is a roof to hold in the gas generated by the explosion or where there are reasonably high walls, the man who escapes being torn apart in the instant of impact, or who escapes being crushed to death by collapsing masonry, or killed by flying fragments, is exceedingly likely to choke to death as he lies temporarily paralyzed and helpless from the shock. I was at Liege and again here, and I know from my own observations that this is true. At Liege particularly many of the garrison were caught and penned up in underground casements, and there we found them afterward dead, but with no marks of wounds upon them—they had been asphyxiated."
I suppose in times of peace the speaker was a reasonably kind man and reasonably regardful of the rights of his fellowmen. Certainly he was most courteous to us and most considerate; but he described this slaughter-pit scene with the enthusiasm of one who was a partner in a most creditable and worthy enterprise.
Immediately about Des Sarts stood many telegraph poles in a row, for here the road, which was the main road from Paris to Brussels, curved close up under the grass-covered bastions. All the telegraph wires had been cut, and they dangled about the bases of the poles in snarled tangles like love vines. The ditches paralleling the road were choked with felled trees, and, what with the naked limbs, were as spiky as shad spines. Of the small cottages which once had stood in the vicinity of the fort not one remained standing. Their sites were marked by flattened heaps of brick and plaster from which charred ends of rafters protruded. It was as though a giant had sat himself down upon each little house in turn and squashed it to the foundation stones.
As a fort Des Sarts dated back to 1883. I speak of it in the past tense, because the Germans had put it in that tense. As a fort, or as anything resembling a fort, it had ceased to be, absolutely. The inner works of it—the redan and the underground barracks, and the magazines, and all—were built after the style .followed by military engineers back in 1883, having revetments faced up with brick and stone; but only a little while ago—in the summer of 1913, to be exact—the job of inclosing the original works with a glacis of a newer type had been completed. So when the Germans came along in the first week of September it was in most respects made over into a modern fort. No doubt the re-enforcements of reserves that hurried into it to strengthen the regular garrison counted themselves lucky men to have so massive and stout a shelter from which to fight an enemy who must work in the open against them. Poor devils, their hopes crumbled along with their walls when the Germans brought up the forty-twos.
We entered in through a breach in the first parapet and crossed, one at a time, on a tottery wooden bridge which was propped across a fosse half full of rubble, and so came to what had been the heart of the fort of Des Sarts. Had I not already gathered some notion of the powers for destruction of those one-ton, four-foot-long shells, I should have said that the spot where we halted had been battered and crashed at for hours; that scores and perhaps hundreds of bombs had been plumped into it. Now, though, I was prepared to believe the German captain when he said probably not more than five or six of the devil devices had struck this target. Make it six for good measure. Conceive each of the six as having been dammed by a hurricane and sired by an earthquake, and as being related to an active volcano on one side of the family and to a flaming meteor on the other. Conceive it as falling upon a man-made, masonry-walled burrow in the earth and being followed in rapid succession by five of its blood brethren; then you will begin to get some fashion of mental photograph of the result. I confess myself as unable to supply any better suggestion for a comparison. Nor shall I attempt to describe the picture in any considerable detail. I only know that for the first time in my life I realized the full and adequate meaning of the word chaos. The proper definition of it was spread broadcast before my eyes.
Appreciating the impossibility of comprehending the full scope of the disaster which here had befallen, or of putting it concretely into words if I did comprehend it, I sought to pick out small individual details, which was hard to do, too, seeing that all things were jumbled together so. This had been a series of cunningly buried tunnels and arcades, with cozy subterranean dormitories opening off of side passages, and still farther down there had been magazines and storage spaces. Now it was all a hole in the ground, and the force which blasted it out had then pulled the hole in behind itself. We stood on the verge, looking downward into a chasm which seemed to split its way to infinite depths, although in fact it was probably not nearly so deep as it appeared. If we looked upward there, forty feet above our heads, was a wide riven gap in the earth crust.
Near me I discerned a litter of metal fragments. From such of the scraps as retained any shape at all, I figured that they had been part of the protective casing of a gun mounted somewhere above. The missile which wrecked the gun flung its armor down here. I searched my brain for a simile which might serve to give a notion of the present state of that steel jacket. I didn't find the one I wanted, but if you will think of an earthenware pot which has been thrown from a very high building upon a brick sidewalk you may have some idea of what I saw.
At that, it was no completer a ruin than any of the surrounding debris. Indeed, in the whole vista of annihilation but two objects remained recognizably intact, and these, strange to say, were two iron bed frames bolted to the back wall of what I think must have been a barrack room for officers. The room itself was no longer there. Brick, mortar, stone, concrete, steel reinforcements, iron props, the hard-packed earth, had been ripped out and churned into indistinguishable bits, but those two iron beds hung fast to a discolored patch of plastering, though the floor was gone from beneath them. Seemingly they were hardly damaged. One gathered that a 42-centimeter shell possessed in some degree the freakishness which we associate with the behavior of cyclones.
We were told that at the last, when the guns had been silenced and dismounted and the walls had been pierced and the embrasures blown bodily away, the garrison, or what was left of it, fled to these lowermost shelters. But the burrowing bombs found the refugees out and killed them, nearly all, and those of them who died were still buried beneath our feet in as hideous a sepulcher as ever was digged. There was no getting them out from that tomb. The Crack of Doom will find them still there, I guess.
To reach a portion of Des Sarts, as yet un-visited, we skirted the gape of the crater, climbing over craggy accumulations of wreckage, and traversed a tunnel with an arched roof and mildewed brick walls, like a wine vault. The floor of it was littered with the knapsacks and water bottles of dead or captured men, with useless rifles broken at the stocks and bent in the barrels, and with suchlike riffle. At the far end of the passage we came out into the open at the back side of the fort.
"Right here," said the officer who was piloting us, "I witnessed a sight which made a deeper impression upon me than anything I have seen in this campaign. After the white flag had been hoisted by the survivors and we had marched in, I halted my men just here at the entrance to this arcade. We didn't dare venture into the redan, for sporadic explosions were still occurring in the ammunition stores. Also there were fires raging. Smoke was pouring thickly out of the mouth of the tunnel. It didn't seem possible that there could be anyone alive back yonder.
"All of a sudden, men began to come out of the tunnel. They came and came until there were nearly two hundred of them—French reservists mostly. They were crazy men—crazy for the time being, and still crazy, I expect, some of them. They came out staggering, choking, falling down and getting up again. You see, their nerves were gone. The fumes, the gases, the shock, the fire, what they had endured and what they had escaped—all these had distracted them. They danced, sang, wept, laughed, shouted in a sort of maudlin frenzy, spun about deliriously until they dropped. They were deafened, and some of them could not see but had to grope their way. I remember one man who sat down and pulled off his boots and socks and threw them away and then hobbled on in his bare feet until he cut the bottoms of them to pieces. I don't care to see anything like that again—even if it is my enemies that suffer it."
He told it so vividly, that standing alongside of him before the tunnel opening I could see the procession myself—those two hundred men who had drained horror to its lees and were drunk on it.
We went to Fort Boussois, some four miles away. It was another of the keys to the town. It was taken on September sixth; on the next day, September seventh, the citadel surrendered. Here, in lieu of the 42- centimeter, which was otherwise engaged for the moment, the attacking forces brought into play an Austrian battery of 30-centimeter guns. So far as I have been able to ascertain this was the only Austrian command which had any part in the western campaigns. The Austrian gunners shelled the fort until the German infantry had been massed in a forest to the northward. Late in the afternoon the infantry charged across a succession of cleared fields and captured the outer slopes. With these in their possession it didn't take them very long to compel the surrender of Fort Boussois, especially as the defenders had already been terribly cut up by the artillery fire.
The Austrians must have been first-rate marksmen. One of their shells fell squarely upon the rounded dome of a big armored turret which was sunk in the earth and chipped off the top of it as you would chip your breakfast egg. The men who manned the guns in that revolving turret must all have died in a flash of time. The impact of the blow was such that the leaden solder which filled the interstices of the segments of the turret was squeezed out from between the plates in curly strips, like icing from between the layers of a misused birthday cake.
Back within the main works we saw where a shell had bored a smooth, round orifice through eight meters of earth and a meter and a half of concrete and steel plates. Peering into the shaft we could make out the floor of a tunnel some thirty feet down. To judge by its effects, this shell had been of a different type from any others whose work we had witnessed. Apparently it had been devised to excavate holes rather than to explode, and when we asked questions about it we speedily ascertained that our guide did not care to discuss the gun which had inflicted this particular bit of damage.
"It is not permitted to speak of this matter," he said in explanation of his attitude. "It is a military secret, this invention. We call it a mine gun."
Every man to his taste. I should have called it a well-digger.
Erect upon the highest stretch of riddled walls, with his legs spraddled far apart and his arms jerking in expressive gestures, he told us how the German infantry had advanced across the open ground. It had been hard, he said, to hold the men back until the order for the charge was given, and then they burst from their cover and came on at a dead run, cheering.
"It was very fine," he added. "Very glorious."
"Did you have any losses in the charge?" asked one of our party.
"Oh, yes," he answered, as though that part of the proceeding was purely an incidental detail and of no great consequence. "We lost many men here—very many—several thousands, I think. Most of them are buried where you see those long ridges in the second field beyond."
In a sheltered corner of a redoubt, close up under a parapet and sheathed on its inner side with masonry, was a single grave. The pounding feet of many fighting men had beaten the mound flat, but a small wooden cross still stood in the soil, and on it in French were penciled the words:
"Here lies Lieutenant Verner, killed in the charge of battle."
His men must have thought well of the lieutenant to take the time, in the midst of the defense, to bury him in the place where he fell, for there were no other graves to be seen within the fort.
Those Yellow Pine Boxes
It was late in the short afternoon, and getting close on to twilight, when we got back into the town. Except for the soldiers there was little life stirring in the twisting streets. There was a funeral or so in progress. It seemed to us that always, no matter where we stopped, in whatsoever town or at whatsoever hour, some dead soldier was being put away. Still, I suppose we shouldn't have felt any surprise at that. By now half of Europe was one great funeral. Part of it was on crutches and part of it was in the graveyard and the rest of it was in the field.
Daily in these towns back behind the firing lines a certain percentage of the invalided and the injured, who had been brought thus far before their condition became actually serious, would die; and twice daily, or oftener, the dead would be buried with military honors.
So naturally we were eyewitnesses to a great many of these funerals. Somehow they impressed me more than the sight of dead men being hurriedly shoveled under ground on the battle front where they had fallen. Perhaps it was the consciousness that those who had these formal, separate burials were men who came alive out of the fighting, and who, even after being stricken, had a chance for life and then lost it. Perhaps it was the small show of ceremony and ritual which marked each one—the firing squad, the clergyman in his robes, the tramping escort—that left so enduring an impress upon my mind. I did not try to analyze the reasons; but I know my companions felt as I did.
I remember quite distinctly the very first of these funerals that I witnessed. Possibly I remember it with such distinctness because it was the firSt. On our way to the advance positions of the Germans we had come as far as Chimay, which is an old Belgian town just over the frontier from France. I was sitting on a bench just outside the doorway of a parochial school conducted by nuns, which had been taken over by the conquerors and converted into a temporary receiving hospital for men who were too seriously wounded to stand the journey up into Germany. All the surgeons on duty here were Germans, but the nursing force was about equally divided between nuns and Lutheran deaconesses who had been brought overland for this duty. Also there were several volunteer nurses—the wife of an officer, a wealthy widow from Dusseldorf and a school-teacher from Coblenz among them. Catholic and Protestant, Belgian and French and German, they all labored together, cheerfully and earnestly doing drudgery of the most exacting, the most unpleasant sorts.
One of the patronesses of the hospital, who was also its manager ex officio, had just left with a soldier chauffeur for a guard and a slightly wounded major for an escort. She was starting on a three- hundred-mile automobile run through a half subdued and dangerous country, meaning to visit base hospitals along the German frontier until she found a supply of anti-tetanus serum. Lockjaw, developing from seemingly trivial wounds in foot or hand, had already killed six men at Chimay within a week. Four more were dying of the same disease. So, since no able-bodied men could be spared from the overworked staffs of the lazarets, she was going for a stock of the serum which might save still other victims. She meant to travel day and night, and if a bullet didn't stop her and if the automobile didn't go through a temporary bridge she would be back, she thought, within forty-eight hours. She had already made several trips of the sort upon similar missions. Once her car had been fired at and once it had been wrecked, but she was going again. She was from near Cologne, the wife of a rich manufacturer now serving as a captain of reserves. She hadn't heard from him in four weeks. She didn't know whether he still lived. She hoped he lived, she told us with simple fortitude, but of course these times one never knew.
It was just before sundown. The nuns had gone upstairs to their little chapel for evening services. Through an open window of the chapel just above my head their voices, as they chanted the responses between the sonorous Latin phrases of the priest who had come to lead them in their devotions, floated out in clear sweet snatches, like the songs of vesper sparrows. Behind me, in a paved courtyard, were perhaps twenty wounded men lying on cots. They had been brought out of the building and put in the sunshine. They were on the way to recovery; at least most of them were. I sat facing a triangular-shaped square, which was flanked on one of its faces by a row of shuttered private houses and on another by the principal church of the town, a fifteenth-century structure with outdoor shrines snuggled up under its eaves. Except for the chanting of the nuns and the braggadocio booming of a big cock-pigeon, which had flown down from the church tower to forage for spilt grain almost under my feet, the place was quiet. It was so quiet that when a little column of men turned into the head of the street which wound past the front of the church and off to the left, I heard the measured tramping of their feet upon the stony roadway fully a minute before they came in sight. I was wondering what that rhythmic thumping meant, when one of the nursing sisters came and closed the high wooden door at my back, shutting off the view of the wounded men.
There appeared a little procession, headed by a priest in his robes and two altar-boys. At the heels of these three were six soldiers bearing upon their shoulders a wooden box painted a glaring yellow; and so narrow was the box and so shallow-looking, that on the instant the thought came to me that the poor clay inclosed therein must feel cramped in such scant quarters. Upon the top of the box, at its widest, highest point, rested a wreath of red flowers, a clumsy, spraddly wreath from which the red blossoms threatened to shake loose. Even at a distance of some rods I could tell that a man's inexpert fingers must have fashioned it.
Upon the shoulders of the bearers the box swayed and jolted.
Following it came, first, three uniformed officers, two German nurses and two surgeons from another hospital, as I subsequently learned; and following them half a company of soldiers bearing their rifles and wearing side arms. As the small cortege reached a point opposite us an officer snapped an order and everybody halted, and the gun-butts of the company came down with a smashing abruptness upon the cobbles. At that moment two or three roughly clad civilians issued from a doorway near by. Being Belgians they had small cause to love the Germans, but they stopped in their tracks and pulled off their caps. To pay the tribute of a bared head to the dead, even to the unknown dead, is in these Catholic countries of Europe as much a part of a man's rule of conduct as his religion is.
The priest who led the line turned my way inquiringly. He did not have to wait long for what was to come, nor did I. Another gate farther along in the nunnery wall opened and out came six more soldiers, bearing another of these narrow-shouldered coffins, and accompanied by a couple of nurses, an officer and an assistant surgeon. At sight of them the soldiers brought their pieces up to a salute, and held the posture rigidly until the second dead man in his yellow box had joined the company of the first dead man in his.
Just before this happened, though, one of the nurses of the nunnery hospital did a thing which I shall never forget. She must have seen that the first coffin had flowers upon it, and in the same instant realized that the coffin in whose occupant she had a more direct interest was bare. So she left the straggling line and came running back. The wall streamed with woodbine, very glorious in its autumnal flamings. She snatched a trailer of the red and yellow leaves down from where it clung, and as she hurried back her hands worked with magic haste, making it into a wreath. She reached the second squad of bearers and put her wreath upon the lid of the box, and then sought her place with the other nurses. The guns went up with a snap upon the shoulders of the company. The soldiers' feet thudded down all together upon the stones, and with the priest reciting his office the procession passed out of sight, going toward the burial ground at the back of the town. Presently, when the shadows were thickening into gloom and the angelus bells were ringing in the church, I heard, a long way off, the rattle of the rifles as the soldiers fired goodnight volleys over the graves of their dead comrades.
On the next day, at Hirson, which was another of our stopping points on the journey to the front, we saw the joint funeral of seven men leaving the hospital where they had died during the preceding twelve hours, and I shan't forget that picture either. There was a vista bounded by a stretch of one of those unutterably bleak backways of a small and shabby French town. The rutted street twisted along between small gray plaster houses, with ugly, unnecessary gable-ends, which faced the road at wrong angles. Small groups of towns-people stood against the walls to watch.
There was also a handful of idling soldiers who watched from the gateway of the house where they were billeted.
Seven times the bearers entered the hospital door, and each time as they reappeared, bringing one of the narrow, gaudy, yellow boxes, the officers lined up at the door would salute and the soldiers in double lines at the opposite side of the road would present arms, and then, as the box was lifted upon the wagon waiting to receive it, would smash their guns down on the bouldered road with a crash. When the job of bringing forth the dead was done the wagon stood loaded pretty nearly to capacity. Four of the boxes rested crosswise upon the flat wagon-bed and the other three were racked lengthwise on top of them. Here, too, was a priest in his robes, and here were two altar boys who straggled, so that as the procession started the priest was moved to break off his chanting long enough to chide his small attendants and wave them back into proper alignment. With the officers, the nurses and the surgeons all marching afoot marched also three bearded civilians in frock coats, having the air about them of village dignitaries. From their presence in such company we deduced that one of the seven silent travelers on the wagon must be a French soldier, or else that the Germans had seen fit to require the attendance of local functionaries at the burial of dead Germans.
As the cortege—I suppose you might call it that—went by where I stood with my friends, I saw that upon the sides of the coffins names were lettered in big, straggly black letters. I read two of the names— Werner was one, Vogel was the other. Somehow I felt an acuter personal interest in Vogel and Werner than in the other five whose names I could not read.
Wherever we stopped in Belgium or in France or in Germany these soldiers' funerals were things of daily, almost of hourly occurrence. And in Maubeuge on this evening, even though dusk had fallen, two of the inevitable yellow boxes, mounted upon a two-wheeled cart, were going to the burying ground. We figured the cemetery men would fill the graves by lantern light; and knowing something of their hours of employment we imagined that with this job disposed of they would probably turn to and dig graves by night, making them ready against the needs of the following morning. The new graves always were ready. They were made in advance, and still there were rarely enough of them, no matter how long or how hard the diggers kept at their work. At Aix-la-Chapelle, for example, in the principal cemetery the sexton's men dug twenty new graves every morning. By evening there would be twenty shaped mounds of clay where the twenty holes had been. The crop of the dead was the one sure crop upon which embattled Europe might count. That harvest could not fail the warring nations, however scanty other yields might be.
In the towns in occupied territory the cemeteries were the only actively and constantly busy spots to be found, except the hospitals. Every schoolhouse was a hospital; indeed I think there can be no schoolhouse in the zone of actual hostilities that has not served such a purpose. In their altered aspects we came to know these schoolhouses mighty well. We would see the wounded going in on stretchers and the dead coming out in boxes. We would see how the blackboards, still scrawled over perhaps with the chalked sums of lessons which never were finished, now bore pasted-on charts dealing in nurses' and surgeons' cipher-manual, with the bodily plights of the men in the cots and on the mattresses beneath. We would see classrooms where plaster casts and globe maps and dusty textbooks had been cast aside in heaps to make room on desktops and shelves for drugs and bandages and surgical appliances. We would see the rows of hooks intended originally for the caps and umbrellas of little people; but now from each hook dangled the ripped, bloodied garments of a soldier—gray for a German, brown-tan for an Englishman, blue-and-red for a Frenchman or a Belgian. By the German rule a wounded man's uniform must be brought back with him from the place where he fell and kept handily near him, with tags on it, to prove its proper identity, and there it must stay until its owner needs it again—if ever he needs it again.
We would see these things, and we would wonder if these schoolhouses could ever shake off the scents and the stains and the memories of these present grim visitations—wonder if children would ever frolic any more in the courtyards where the ambulances stood now with red drops trickling down from their beds upon the gravel. But that, on our part, was mere morbidness born of the sights we saw. Children forget even more quickly than their elders forget, and we knew, from our own experience, how quickly the populace of a French or Flemish community could rally back to a colorable counterfeit of their old sprightliness, once the immediate burdens of affliction and captivity had been lifted from off them.
From a jumbled confusion of recollection of these schoolhouse-hospitals sundry incidental pictures stick out in my mind as I write this article. I can shut my eyes and visualize the German I saw in the little parish school building in the abandoned hamlet of Colligis near by the River Aisne. He was in a room with a dozen others, all suffering from chest wounds. He had been pierced through both lungs with a bullet, and to keep him from choking to death the attendants had tied him in a half erect posture. A sort of hammock-like sling passed under his arms, and a rope ran from it to a hook in a wall and was knotted fast to the hook. He swung there, neither sitting nor lying, fighting for the breath of life, with an unspeakable misery looking out from his eyes; and he was too far spent to lift a hand to brush away the flies that swarmed upon his face and his lips and upon his bare, throbbing throat. The flies dappled the faces of his fellow sufferers with loathsome black dots; they literally masked his. I preserve a memory which is just as vivid of certain things I saw in a big institution in Laon. Although in German hands, and nominally under German control, the building was given over entirely to crippled and ailing French prisoners. These patients were minded and fed by their own people and attended by captured French surgeons. In our tour of the place I saw only two men wearing the German gray. One was the armed sentry who stood at the gate to see that no recovering inmate slipped out, and the other was a German surgeon- general who was making his daily round of inspection of the hospitals and had brought us along with him. Of the native contingent the person who appeared to be in direct charge was a handsome, elderly lady, tenderly solicitous of the frowziest Turco in the wards and exquisitely polite, with a frozen politeness, to the German officer. When he saluted her she bowed to him deeply and ceremoniously and silently. I never thought until then that a bow could be so profoundly executed and yet so icily cold. It was a lesson in congealed manners.
As we were leaving the room a nun serving as a nurse hailed the German and told him one of her charges was threatening to die, not because of his wound, but because he had lost heart and believed himself to be dying.
"Where is he?" asked the German.
"Yonder," she said, indicating a bundled-up figure on a pallet near the door. A drawn, hopeless face of a half-grown boy showed from the huddle of blankets. The surgeon-general cast a quick look at the swathed form and then spoke in an undertone to a French regimental surgeon on duty in the room. Together the two approached the lad.
"My son," said the German to him in French, "I am told you do not feel so well to-day."
The boy-soldier whispered an answer and waggled his head despondently. The German put his hand on the youth's forehead.
"My son," he said, "listen to me. You are not going to die—I promise you that you shall not die. My colleague here"—he indicated the French doctor—"stands ready to make you the same promise. If you won't believe a German, surely you will take your own countryman's professional word for it," and he smiled a little smile under his gray mustache. "Between us we are going to make you well and send you, when this war is over, back to your mother. But you must help us; you must help us by being brave and confident. Is it not so, doctor?" he added, again addressing the French physician, and the Frenchman nodded to show it was so and sat down alongside the youngster to comfort him further.
As we left the room the German surgeon turned, and looking round I saw that once again he saluted the patrician French lady, and this time as she bowed the ice was all melted from her bearing. She must have witnessed the little byplay; perhaps she had a son of her own in service. There were mighty few mothers in France last fall who did not have sons in service.
Yet one of the few really humorous recollections of this war that I preserve had to do with a hospital too; but this hospital was in England and we visited it on our way home to America. We went—two of us—in the company of Lord Northcliffe, down into Surrey, to spend a day with old Lord Roberts. Within three weeks thereafter Lord Roberts was dead where no doubt he would have willed to die—at the front in France, with the sound of the guns in his ears, guarded in his last moments by the Ghurkas and the Sikhs of his beloved Indian contingent. But on this day of our visit to him we found him a hale, kindly gentleman of eighty-two who showed us his marvelous collection of firearms and Oriental relics and the field guns, all historic guns by the way, which he kept upon the terraces of his mansion house, and who told us, among other things, that in his opinion our own Stonewall Jackson was perhaps the greatest natural military genius the world had ever produced. Leaving his house we stopped, on our return to London, at a hospital for soldiers in the grounds of Ascot Race Course scarcely two miles from Lord Roberts' place. The refreshment booths and the other rooms at the back and underside of the five-shilling stand had been thrown together, except the barber's shop, which was being converted into an operating chamber; and, what with its tiled walls and high sloped ceiling and glass front, the place made a first-rate hospital.
It contained beds for fifty men; but on this day there were less than twenty sick and crippled Tommies convalescing here. They had been brought out of France, out of wet and cold and filth, with hurried dressings on their hurts; and now they were in this bright, sweet, wholesome place, with soft beds under them and clean linen on their bodies, and flowers and dainties on the tables that stood alongside them, and the gentlefolk of the neighborhood to mind them as volunteer nurses.
There were professional nurses, of course; but, under them, the younger women of the wealthy families of this corner of Surrey were serving; and mighty pretty they all looked, too, in their crisp blue-and-white uniforms, with their arm badges and their caps, and their big aprons buttoned round their slim, athletic young bodies. I judge there were about three amateur nurses to each patient. Yet you could not rightly call them amateurs either; each of them had taken a short course in nursing, it seemed, and was amply competent to perform many of the duties a regular nurse must know. Lady Aileen Roberts was with us during our tour of the hospital. As a daily visitor and patroness she spent much of her time here and she knew most of the inmates by name. She halted alongside one bed to ask its occupant how he felt. He had been returned from the front suffering from pneumonia.
He was an Irishman. Before he answered her he cast a quick look about the long hall. Afternoon tea was just being served, consisting, besides tea, of homemade strawberry jam and lettuce sandwiches made of crisp fresh bread, with plenty of butter; and certain elderly ladies had just arrived, bringing with them, among other contributions, sheaves of flowers and a dogcart loaded with hothouse fruit and a dozen loaves of plumcake, which last were still hot from the oven and which radiated a mouth-watering aroma as a footman bore them in behind his mistress. The patient looked at all these and he sniffed; and a grin split his face and an Irish twinkle came into his eyes.
"Thank you, me lady, for askin'," he said; "but I'm very much afeared I'm gettin' better."
We might safely assume that the hospitals and the graveyard of Maubeuge would be busy places that evening, thereby offering strong contrasts to the rest of the town. But I should add that we found two other busy spots, too: the railroad station—where the trains bringing wounded men continually shuttled past—and the house where the commandant of the garrison had his headquarters. In the latter place, as guests of Major von Abercron, we met at dinner that night and again after dinner a strangely mixed company. We met many officers and the pretty American wife of an officer, Frau Elsie von, Heinrich, late of Jersey City, who had made an adventurous trip in a motor ambulance from Germany to see her husband before he went to the front, and who sent regards by us to scores of people in her old home whose names I have forgotten. We met also a civilian guest of the commandant, who introduced himself as August Blankhertz and who turned out to be a distinguished big-game hunter and gentleman aeronaut. With Major von Abercron for a mate he sailed from St. Louis in the great balloon race for the James Gordon Bennett Cup. They came down in the Canadian woods and nearly died of hunger and exposure before they found a lumber camp. Their balloon was called the Germania. There was another civilian, a member of the German secret-service staff, wearing the Norfolk jacket and the green Alpine hat and on a cord about his neck the big gold token of authority which invariably mark a representative of this branch of the German espionage bureau; and he was wearing likewise that transparent air of mystery which seemed always to go with the followers of his ingenious profession.
During the evening the mayor of Maubeuge came, a bearded, melancholy gentleman, to confer with the commandant regarding a clash between a German under-officer and a household of his constituents. Orderlies and attendants bustled in and out, and somebody played Viennese waltz songs on a piano, and altogether there was quite a gay little party in the parlor of this handsome house which the Germans had commandeered for the use of their garrison staff.
At early bedtime, when we stepped out of the door of the lit-up mansion into the street, it was as though we had stepped into a far-off country. Except for the tramp of a sentry's hobbed boots over the sidewalks and the challenging call of another sentry round the corner the town was as silent as a town of tombs. All the people who remained in this place had closed their forlorn shops where barren shelves and emptied showcases testified to the state of trade; and they had shut themselves up in their houses away from sight of the invaders. We could guess what their thoughts must be. Their industries were paralyzed, and their liberties were curtailed, and every other house was a breached and worthless shell. Among ourselves we debated as we walked along to the squalid tavern where we had been quartered, which of the spectacles we had that day seen most fitly typified the fruitage of war—the shattered, haunted forts lying now in the moonlight beyond the town, or the brooding conquered, half-destroyed town itself. I guess, if it comes to that, they both typified it.
The Red Glutton
As we went along next day through the town of Maubeuge we heard singing; and singing was a most rare thing to be hearing in this town. In a country where no one smiles any more who belongs in that country, singing is not a thing which you would naturally expect to hear. So we turned off of our appointed route.
There was a small wine shop at the prow of a triangle of narrow streets. It had been a wine shop. It was now a beer shop. There had been a French proprietor; he had a German partner now. It had been only a few weeks—you could not as yet measure the interval of time in terms of months—since the Germans came and sat themselves down before Maubeuge and blew its defenses flat with their 42-centimeter earthquakes and marched in and took it. It had been only these few weeks; but already the Germanizing brand of the conqueror was seared deep in the galled flanks of this typically French community. The town-hall clock was made to tick German time, which varied by an even hour from French time. Tacked upon the door of the little cafe where we ate our meals was a card setting forth, with painful German particularity, the tariff which might properly be charged for food and for lodging and drink and what not; and it was done in German-Gothic script, all very angular and precise; and it was signed by His Excellency, the German commandant; and its prices were predicated on German logic and the estimated depth of a German wallet. You might read a newspaper printed in German characters, if so minded; but none printed in French, whether so minded or not.
So when we entered in at the door of the little French wine shop where the three streets met, to find out who within had heart of grace to sing 'O Strassburg, O Strassburg', so lustily, lo and behold, it had been magically transformed into a German beer shop. It was, as we presently learned, the only beer shop in all of Maubeuge, and the reason for that was this: No sooner had the Germans cleared and opened the roads back across Belgium to their own frontiers than an enterprising tradesman of the Rhein country, who somehow had escaped military service, loaded many kegs of good German beer upon trucks and brought his precious cargoes overland a hundred miles and more southward. Certainly he could not have moved the lager caravan without the consent and aid of the Berlin war office. For all I know to the contrary he may have been financed in that competent quarter. That same morning I had seen a field weather station, mounted on an automobile, standing in front of our lodging place just off the square. It was going to the front to make and compile meteorological reports. A general staff who provided weather offices on wheels and printing offices on wheels—this last for the setting up and striking off of small proclamations and orders—might very well have bethought themselves that the soldier in the field would be all the fitter for the job before him if stayed with the familiar malts of the Vaterland. Believe me, I wouldn't put it past them.
Anyway, having safely reached Maubeuge, the far-seeing Rheinishman effected a working understanding with a native publican, which was probably a good thing for both, seeing that one had a stock of goods and a ready-made trade but no place to set up business, and that the other owned a shop, but had lost his trade and his stock-in-trade likewise. These two, the little, affable German and the tall, grave Frenchman, stood now behind their counter drawing off mugs of Pilsener as fast as their four hands could move. Their patrons, their most vocal and boisterous patrons, were a company of musketeers who had marched in from the north that afternoon. As a rule the new levies went down into France on troop trains, but this company was part of a draft which for some reason came afoot.
Without exception they were young men, husky and hearty and inspired with a beefish joviality at having found a place where they could ease their feet, and rest their legs, and slake their week-old thirst upon their own soothing brews. Being German they expressed their gratefulness in song. We had difficulty getting into the place, so completely was it filled. Men sat in the window ledges, and in the few chairs that were available, and even in the fireplace, and on the ends of the bar, clunking their heels against the wooden baseboards. The others stood in such close order they could hardly clear their elbows to lift their glasses. The air was choky with a blended smell derived from dust and worn boot leather and spilt essences of hops and healthy, unwashed, sweaty bodies. On a chair in a corner stood a tall, tired and happy youth who beat time for the singing with an empty mug and between beats nourished himself on drafts from a filled mug which he held in his other hand. With us was a German officer. He was a captain of reserves and a person of considerable wealth. He shoved his way to the bar and laid down upon its sloppy surface two gold coins and said something to a petty officer who was directing the distribution of the refreshments.
The noncom. hammered for silence and, when he got it, announced that the Herr Hauptmann had donated twenty marks' worth of beer, all present being invited to cooperate in drinking it up, which they did, but first gave three cheers for the captain and three more for his American friends and afterward, while the replenished mugs radiated in crockery waves from the bar to the back walls, sang for us a song which, so far as the air was concerned, sounded amazingly like unto Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own. Their weariness was quite fallen away from them; they were like schoolboys on a frolic. Indeed, I think a good many of them were schoolboys.
As we came out a private who stood in the doorway spoke to us in fair English. He had never been in America, but he had a brother living in East St. Louis and he wanted to know if any of us knew his brother. This was a common experience with us. Every third German soldier we met had a brother or a sister or somebody in America. This soldier could not have been more than eighteen years; the down on his cheeks was like corn silk. He told us he and his comrades were very glad to be going forward where there would be fighting. They had had no luck yet. There had been no fighting where they had been. I remembered afterward that luck was the word he used.
We went back to the main street and for a distance the roar of their volleying chorus followed us. Men and women stood at the doors of the houses along the way. They were silent and idle. Idleness and silence seemed always to have fallen as grim legacies upon the civilian populace of these captured towns; but the look upon their faces as they listened to the soldiers' voices was not hard to read. Their town was pierced by cannonballs where it was not scarified with fire; there was sorrow and the abundant cause for sorrow in every house; commerce was dead and credit was killed; and round the next turning their enemy sang his drinking song. I judge that the thrifty Frenchman who went partner with the German stranger in the beer traffic lost popularity that day among his fellow townsmen.
We were bound for the railway station, which the Germans already had rechristened Bahnhof. Word had been brought to us that trains of wounded men and prisoners were due in the course of the afternoon from the front, and more especially from the right wing; and in this prospect we scented a story to be written. To reach the station we crossed the river Sambre, over a damaged bridge, and passed beneath the arched passageway of the citadel which the great Vauban built for the still greater Louis XIV, thinking, no doubt, when he built it, that it would always be potent to keep out any foe, however strong. Next to its stupid massiveness what most impressed us this day was its utter uselessness as a protection. The station stood just beyond the walls, with a park at one side of it, but the park had become a timber deadfall. At the approach of the enemy hundreds of splendid trees had been felled to clear the way for gunfire from the inner defenses in the event that the Germans got by the outer circle of fortresses. After the Germans took the forts, though, the town surrendered, so all this destruction had been futile. There were acres of ragged stumps and, between the stumps, jungles of overlapping trunks and interlacing boughs from which the dead and dying leaves shook off in showers. One of our party, who knew something of forestry, estimated that these trees were about forty years old.
"I suppose," he added speculatively, "that when this war ends these people will replant their trees. Then in another forty years or so another war will come and they will chop them all down again. On the whole I'm rather glad I don't live on this continent."
The trains which were expected had not begun to arrive yet, so with two companions I sat on a bench at the back of the station, waiting. Facing us was a line of houses. One, the corner house, was a big black char. It had caught fire during the shelling and burned quite down. Its neighbors were intact, except for shattered chimneys and smashed doors and riddled windows. The concussion of a big gunfire had shivered every window in this quarter of town. There being no sufficient stock of glass with which to replace the broken panes, and no way of bringing in fresh supplies, the owners of the damaged buildings had patched the holes with bits of planking filched from more complete ruins near by. Of course there were other reasons, too, if one stopped to sum them up: Few would have the money to buy fresh glass, even if there was any fresh glass to buy, and the local glaziers—such of them as survived—would be serving the colors. All France had gone to war and at this time of writing had not come back, except in dribbling streams of wounded and prisoners.
These ragged boards, sparingly nailed across the window sockets, gave the houses the air of wearing masks and of squinting at us through narrow eye slits. The railroad station was windowless, too, like all the buildings round about, but nobody had closed the openings here, and it gaped emptily in fifty places, and the raw, gusty winds of a North European fall searched through it.
In this immediate neighborhood few of the citizens were to be seen. Even those houses which still were humanly habitable appeared to be untenanted; only soldiers were about, and not so very many of them. A hundred yards up the tracks, on a siding, a squad of men with a derrick and crane were hoisting captured French field guns upon flat cars to be taken to Berlin and exhibited as spoils of conquest for the benefit of the stay-at-homes. A row of these cannons, perhaps fifty in all, were ranked alongside awaiting loading and transportation. Except for the agonized whine of the tackle-blocks and the buzzing of the flies the place where we sat was pretty quiet. There were a million flies, and there seemed to be a billion. You wouldn't have thought, unless you had been there to see for yourself, that there were so many flies in the world. By the time this was printed the cold weather had cured Europe of its fly plague, but during the first three months I know that the track of war was absolutely sown with these vermin. Even after a night of hard frost they would be as thick as ever at midday—as thick and as clinging and as nasty. Go into any close, ill-aired place and no matter what else you might smell, you smelled flies too.
As I sit and look back on what I myself have seen of it, this war seems to me to have been not so much a sight as a stench. Everything which makes for human happiness and human usefulness it has destroyed. What it has bred, along with misery and pain and fatted burying grounds, is a vast and loathsome stench and a universe of flies.
The smells and the flies; they were here in this railroad station in sickening profusion.
I call it a railroad station, although it had lost its functions as such weeks before. The only trains which ran now were run by the Germans for strictly German purposes, and so the station had become a victualing point for troops going south to the fighting and a way hospital for sick and wounded coming back from the fighting. What, in better days than these, had been the lunch room was a place for the redressing of hurts. Its high counters, which once held sandwiches and tarts and wine bottles, were piled with snowdrifts of medicated cotton and rolls of lint and buckets of antiseptic washes and drug vials. The ticket booth was an improvised pharmacy. Spare medical supplies filled the room where formerly fussy customs officers examined the luggage of travelers coming out of Belgium into France. Just beyond the platform a wooden booth, with no front to it, had been knocked together out of rough planking, and relays of cooks, with greasy aprons over their soiled gray uniforms, made vast caldrons of stews—always stews—and brewed so-called coffee by the gallon against the coming of those who would need it. The stuff was sure to be needed, all of it and more too. So they cooked and cooked unceasingly and never stopped to wipe a pan or clean a spoon.
At our backs was the waiting room for first-class passengers, but no passengers of any class came to it any more, and so by common consent it was a sort of rest room for the Red Cross men, who mostly were Germans, but with a few captured Frenchmen among them, still wearing their French uniforms. There were three or four French military surgeons—prisoners, to be sure, but going and coming pretty much as they pleased. The tacit arrangement was that the Germans should succor Germans and that the Frenchmen should minister to their own disabled countrymen among the prisoners going north, but in a time of stress—and that meant every time a train came in from the south or west—both nationalities mingled together and served, without regard for the color of the coat worn by those whom they served.
Probably from the day it was put up this station had never been really and entirely clean. Judged by American standards Continental railway stations are rarely ever clean, even when conditions are normal. Now that conditions were anything but normal, this Maubeuge station was incredibly and incurably filthy. No doubt the German nursing sisters who were brought here tried at first, with their German love for orderliness, to keep the interior reasonably tidy; but they had been swamped by more important tasks. For two weeks now the wounded had been passing through by the thousands and the tens of thousands daily. So between trains the women dropped into chairs or down upon cots and took their rest in snatches. But their fingers didn't reSt. Always their hands were busy with the making of bandages and the fluffing of lint.
By bits I learned something about three of the women who served on the so-called day shift, which meant that they worked from early morning until long after midnight. One was a titled woman who had volunteered for this duty. She was beyond middle age, plainly in poor health herself and everlastingly on the verge of collapse from weakness and exhaustion. Her will kept her on her feet. The second was a professional nurse from one of the university towns—from Bonn, I think. She called herself Sister Bartholomew, for the German nurses who go to war take other names than their own, just as nuns do. She was a beautiful woman, tall and strong and round-faced, with big, fine gray eyes. Her energy had no limits. She ran rather than walked. She had a smile for every maimed man who was brought to her, but when the man had been treated, and had limped away or had been carried away, I saw her often wringing her hands and sobbing over the utter horror of it all. Then another sufferer would appear and she would wipe the tears off her cheeks and get to work again. The third—so an assistant surgeon confided to us—was the mistress of an officer at the front, a prostitute of the Berlin sidewalks, who enrolled for hospital work when her lover went to the front. She Was a tall, dark, handsome girl, who looked to be more Spaniard than German, and she was graceful and lithe even in the exceedingly shapeless costume of blue print that she wore. She was less deft than either of her associates but very willing and eager. As between the three—the noblewoman, the working woman and the woman of the street—the medical officials in charge made no distinction whatsoever. Why should they? In this sisterhood of mercy they all three stood upon the same common ground. I never knew that slop jars were noble things until I saw women in these military lazarets bearing them in their arms; then to me they became as altar vessels.
Lacking women to do it, the head surgeon had intrusted the task of clearing away the dirt to certain men. A sorry job they made of it. For accumulated nastiness that waiting room was an Augean stable and the two soldiers who dawdled about in it with brooms lacked woefully in the qualities of Hercules. Putting a broom in a man's hands is the best argument in favor of woman's suffrage that I know of, anyhow. A third man who helped at chores in the transformed lunch room had gathered up and piled together in a heap upon the ground near us a bushel or so of used bandages—grim reminders left behind after the last train went by— and he had touched a match to the heap in an effort to get rid of it by fire. By reason of what was upon them the clothes burned slowly, sending up a smudge of acrid smoke to mingle with smells of carbolic acid and iodoform, and the scent of boiling food, and of things infinitely less pleasant than these.
Presently a train rolled in and we crossed through the building to the trackside to watch what would follow. Already we had seen a sufficiency of such trains; we knew before it came what it would be like: In front the dumpy locomotive, with a soldier engineer in the cab; then two or three box cars of prisoners, with the doors locked and armed guards riding upon the roofs; then two or three shabby, misused passenger coaches, containing injured officers and sometimes injured common soldiers, too; and then, stretching off down the rails, a long string of box cars, each of which would be bedded with straw and would contain for furniture a few rough wooden benches ranging from side to side. And each car would contain ten or fifteen or twenty, or even a greater number, of sick and crippled men.
Those who could sit were upon the hard benches, elbow to elbow, packed snugly in. Those who were too weak to sit sprawled upon the straw and often had barely room in which to turn over, so closely were they bestowed. It had been days since they had started back from the field hospitals where they had had their first-aid treatment. They had moved by sluggish stages with long halts in between. Always the wounded must wait upon the sidings while the troop trains from home sped down the cleared main line to the smoking front; that was the merciless but necessary rule. The man who got himself crippled became an obstacle to further progress, a drag upon the wheels of the machine; whereas the man who was yet whole and fit was the man whom the generals wanted. So the fresh grist for the mill, the raw material, if you will, was expedited upon its way to the hoppers; that which already had been ground up was relatively of the smallest consequence.
Because of this law, which might not be broken or amended, these wounded men would, perforce, spend several days aboard train before they could expect to reach the base hospitals upon German soil, Maubeuge being at considerably less than midway of the distance between starting point and probable destination. Altogether the trip might last a week or even two weeks—a trip that ordinarily would have lasted less than twelve hours. Through it these men, who were messed and mangled in every imaginable fashion, would wallow in the dirty matted straw, with nothing except that thin layer of covering between them and the car floors that jolted and jerked beneath them. We knew it and they knew it, and there was nothing to be done. Their wounds would fester and be hot with fever. Their clotted bandages would clot still more and grow stiffer and harder with each dragging hour. Those who lacked overcoats and blankets—and some there were who lacked both—would half freeze at night. For food they would have slops dished up for them at such stopping places as this present one, and they would slake their thirst on water drawn from contaminated wayside wells and be glad of the chance. Gangrene would come, and blood poison, and all manner of corruption. Tetanus would assuredly claim its toll. Indeed, these horrors were already at work among them. I do not tell it to sicken my reader, but because I think I should tell it that he may have a fuller conception of what this fashionable institution of war means—we could smell this train as we could smell all the trains which followed after it, when it was yet fifty yards away from us.
Be it remembered, furthermore, that no surgeon accompanied this afflicted living freightage, that not even a qualified nurse traveled with it. According to the classifying processes of those in authority on the battle lines these men were lightly wounded men, and it was presumed that while en route they would be competent to minister to themselves and to one another. Under the grading system employed by the chief surgeons a man, who was still all in one piece and who probably would not break apart in transit, was designated as being lightly wounded. This statement is no attempt upon my part to indulge in levity concerning the most frightful situation I have encountered in nearly twenty years of active newspaper work; it is the sober, unexaggerated truth.
And so these lightly wounded men—men with their jaws shot away, men with holes in their breasts and their abdomens, men with their spine tips splintered, men with their arms and legs broken, men with their hands and feet shredded by shrapnel, men with their scalps ripped open, men with their noses and their ears and their fingers and toes gone, men jarred to the very marrow of their bones by explosives—these men, for whom ordinarily soft beds would have been provided and expert care and special food, came trundling up alongside that noisome station; and, through the door openings from where they were housed like dumb beasts, they looked out at us with the glazed eyes of dumb suffering beasts.
As the little toy-like European cars halted, bumping together hard, orderlies went running down the train bearing buckets of soup, and of coffee and of drinking water, and loaves of the heavy, dark German bread. Behind them went other men—bull-necked strong men picked for this job because of their strength. Their task was to bring back in their arms or upon their shoulders such men as were past walking. There were no stretchers. There was no time for stretchers. Behind this train would be another one just like it and behind that one, another, and so on down an eighty-mile stretch of dolorous way. And this, mind you, was but one of three lines carrying out of France and Belgium into Germany victims of the war to be made well again in order that they might return and once more be fed as tidbits into the maw of that war; it was but one of a dozen or more such streams, threading back from as many battle zones to the countries engaged in this wide and ardent scheme of mutual extermination.
Half a minute after the train stopped a procession was moving toward us, made up of men who had wriggled down or who had been eased down out of the cars, and who were coming to the converted buffet room for help. Mostly they came afoot, sometimes holding on to one another for mutual support. Perhaps one in five was borne bodily by an orderly. He might be hunched in the orderly's arms like a weary child, or he might be traveling upon the orderly's back, pack-fashion, with his arms gripped about the bearer's neck; and then, in such a case, the pair of them, with the white hollow face of the wounded man nodding above the sweated red face of the other, became a monstrosity with two heads and one pair of legs.
Here, advancing toward us with the gait of a doddering grandsire, would be a boy in his teens, bent double and clutching his middle with both hands. Here would be a man whose hand had been smashed, and from beyond the rude swathings of cotton his fingers protruded stiffly and were so congested and swollen they looked like fat red plantains. Here was a man whose feet were damaged. He had a crutch made of a spade handle. Next would be a man with a hole in his neck, and the bandages had pulled away from about his throat, showing the raw inflamed hole. In this parade I saw a French infantryman aided along by a captured Zouave on one side and on the other by a German sentry who swung his loaded carbine in his free hand. Behind them I saw an awful nightmare of a man—a man whose face and bare cropped head and hands and shoes were all of a livid, poisonous, green cast. A shell of some new and particularly devilish variety had burst near him and the fumes which it generated in bursting had dyed him green. Every man would have, tied about his neck or to one of his buttonholes, the German field-doctor's card telling of the nature of his hurt and the place where he had sustained it; and the uniform of nearly every one would be discolored with dried blood, and where the coat gaped open you marked that the harsh, white cambric lining was made harsher still by stiff, brownish- red streakings.
In at the door of the improvised hospital filed the parade, and the wounded men dropped on the floor or else were lowered upon chairs and tables and cots—anywhere that there was space for them to huddle up or stretch out. And then the overworked surgeons, French and German, and the German nursing sisters and certain of the orderlies would fall to. There was no time for the finer, daintier proceedings that might have spared the sufferers some measure of their agony. It was cut away the old bandage, pull off the filthy cotton, dab with antiseptics what was beneath, pour iodine or diluted acid upon the bare and shrinking tissues, perhaps do that with the knife or probe which must be done where incipient mortification had set in, clap on fresh cotton, wind a strip of cloth over it, pin it in place and send this man away to be fed—providing he could eat; then turn to the next poor wretch. The first man was out of that place almost before the last man was in; that was how fast the work went forward.