The Note-Book of an Attache - Seven Months in the War Zone
by Eric Fisher Wood
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The French tactical unit is the battalion of 1000 men, divided into four companies, nominally of 250 men each but with an effective battle strength of slightly over 200. These companies are commanded by a captain with four or five lieutenants under him. Two of these lieutenants are regular officers and the other two or three are reserve officers. Each platoon is commanded by a lieutenant and a sergeant. An infantry brigade in the French army is made up of six battalions. In case of heavy casualties the number of battalions is reduced, the idea being to keep battalions as near normal strength as possible. Thus if the regiment loses 30 per cent. it is reduced from a regiment of three battalions to a regiment of two battalions, and if it loses 60 or 70 per cent. it is reduced to a regiment of one battalion.

The French, German, Russian, Austrian, and Hungarian infantry are all armed with long, heavy, and ill-balanced rifles carrying detachable bayonets. These rifles are very poorly sighted in comparison with our new Springfield. It would be very difficult or impossible to do good shooting with them, as measured from an American standpoint. In my personal experience there have been numberless cases where dispatch bearers, automobiles, scouts, pickets, and patrols were exposed at very short range to the fire of bodies of French or German troops without any casualties whatsoever occurring.

The one idea of the German infantry seems to be to shoot as much and as rapidly as possible. I have several times observed where German infantry have taken up a position in the open, and fired 120 rounds a man, more or less, as a matter of course.

I have nowhere observed the use of any semi-automatic rifles, nor of either silencers or special sights for sharpshooters.


In October I was in the neighborhood of Lassigny and Roye where heavy fighting was and had been going on. There was a little village called Erches to the northwest of these places. Here were the French advance trenches. I was in this village during the height of operations and was told that we were then only 150 or 200 yards from the German trenches. Standing behind a house corner in this village of Erches, I could see nothing unusual in any direction. I could see no signs of French or German activity nor of life of any kind, although the French infantry trenches extended to our right and left and the Germans were directly in front of us. The landscape which spread away in all directions looked perfectly normal and unbroken except for a few shell craters. The only manifestations of activity were the distant rumbling of guns, and the shrapnel bursting over our heads. Although I stayed there for more than an hour, the only Frenchmen I saw were a few who joined me behind the house; they came from trenches hidden within it, or from an underground trench, the opening of which was behind the house. I recount this to accent the concealment of all troops in this war. Trenches are made to resemble the landscape in which they are placed. If they are in a brown mowed field, hay is scattered over all fresh earth, and if they are made in pasture land all the earth is carefully carried away or is spread out and sodded over.


The Austrian cavalry unit is the division, which is accompanied by the horse artillery in considerable strength. They are not accompanied by cyclists or armored automobiles.

During the first six months of the war, at least, in the Austrian, Hungarian, British, and French armies no newspaper or war correspondents were allowed to view the actual operations on any condition whatsoever. No press representative saw any battle with the Austrian, Hungarian, British, or French armies, with one single exception which took place in France, when one day during September certain press representatives managed to see the bombardment along the Aisne. I make this statement with the full knowledge that many correspondents state they have seen battle actions. I have been able to investigate such statements on numerous occasions, and invariably found them to be fabrications, usually without even a foundation of truth. Reporters frequently left the intrenched camp at Paris, were arrested before traveling any great distance, and confined for days and weeks. They then returned to the city and told hair-raising stories of their experiences at the front.

The only war news published in France, England, Austria, and Hungary, is that of the official communiques, which usually suppress all essentials, minimize or omit all reverses, and convert all drawn actions or slight gains into victories.

The Austrian and Hungarian horse artillery were in such close relation with the cavalry that their support was very good. In fact, the artillery get into position as quickly as the cavalry. The chief function which cavalry have performed successfully in this war has been that of reconnoissance. The French and German armies use aeroplanes and cavalry patrols as their principal means of reconnoissance; the latter scout in parties of from six to fifteen men commanded by an officer. The British do the same work with two motor-cycle riders. The transmission of dispatches by cavalry has become virtually nil in France because of the extensive use for this purpose of telephones, automobiles, and motor-cycles. It is very doubtful, however, if automobiles and motor-cycles could successfully be used for dispatch-bearing and reconnoissance in any country except France. On the Russian frontier the poorness and scarcity of roads make the use of automobiles difficult and the use of wheels and motor-cycles impossible. It would, therefore, seem that for reconnoissance and dispatch-bearing, cavalry will usually be the means employed.

Cavalry have to a certain extent been used as reserves. They were thus first used by the British. In recent months I have often seen large French cavalry reserves. At such times they are, in effect, mounted infantry, so that reinforcements may be transferred a greater distance in a shorter time. My personal observations have led me to believe that aside from their uses in reconnoissance, the principal value of cavalry is as mounted infantry held in reserve. When fighting, cavalry must dismount. Early in the war there were occasions when cavalry fought while mounted, and whether against artillery, infantry, or other cavalry, the chief result was the killing of nearly all the horses.

In the Austrian, Hungarian, and French armies many cavalry regiments have been converted into infantry. I do not think that this is chiefly due to lack of horses but to the fact that the opportunity for fighting while mounted no longer exists.


The only work which I observed to be done entirely and solely by engineers was the construction of bridges, of which they have had to build a great number. I was impressed by the fact that many of these bridges were quite original in conception. They are nearly always intelligent makeshifts which might truly be called inventions.

At Pont-Ste.-Maxence, a bridge capable of supporting the heaviest traffic was constructed in a few hours. Big canal boats which were lying idle in the neighborhood were requisitioned and anchored side by side, touching each other. Their decks were made flush, each with the other, by the shifting of ballast, and when this had been accomplished a roadway was laid across them. This bridge was so satisfactory that it has not yet been replaced by a permanent structure. Road building was largely carried on among the French by infantry, and it was my experience that trench building was exclusively done by the infantry as it was found necessary. The positions and traces of trenches were laid out by infantry officers. This latter conclusion is, however, based on three or four observations only.


In the French army the reserve small arms ammunition is kept behind the battle-line just out of reach of shell-fire. There are ammunition train regiments just as there are infantry or cavalry regiments. Each such regiment is composed of eighty odd ammunition wagons and some forage wagons. Two regiments generally move together, thus forming an ammunition brigade. These wagons are parked parallel to the line of battle. Supply columns are always parked vertically to the line of battle. In the Battle of the Marne I observed an ammunition brigade about every twenty kilometers. Thus on September 11th, there were brigades at Rebais (7th and 10th Regiments), at Montmirail (17th and 29th), and at Champaubert. The supplies, chiefly beef and bread, are brought up from the rear and advance directly toward the battle-line in long horse-drawn wagon trains, or in Paris auto-busses. When near the front, small numbers of wagons go up as far as they dare and supplies are distributed directly to the troops, often while they are under long-range shell-fire.


In the matter of motor transport, the practice with the French and British has become well defined. The best type of truck is one of medium weight, and of the best construction obtainable. It should be emphasized that medium-priced or inexpensive trucks are undesirable. It is very distinctly the opinion of French and British transport officers that it is better to have too few trucks, all of which are reliable, than to take "any old truck" and have it break down at critical moments during operation. Inferior trucks break down frequently, and break down at critical moments with singular regularity.

In the British army, trucks work in units of about ten, each such unit being commanded by an officer who travels in a fast automobile. Protection, when necessary, is temporarily assigned to the unit, nearly always in the shape of armored motor cars. The trucks are heavily manned, having from three to six men per truck. Every man is armed with a rifle, but no other arms are carried as an integral part of the unit. Such motor transport units are not often captured or destroyed since they seldom come in touch with anything but the enemy's cavalry which, as a rule, prefers to leave them strictly alone, as a train of motor trucks has good defensive ability and none of the vulnerability of horse-drawn wagons. In the rare cases when actions have taken place, motor trucks have become moving forts, which continue on their way at a rate of twenty or twenty-five miles an hour, while from each one three or four well-protected riflemen keep up a steady fire.

The type of automobile most desirable for army use has become well-defined. The practice in this regard is the same in the French, British, German, Austrian, and Hungarian armies. On a powerful chassis, with an engine of at least 50-horse-power, is mounted a very light body, of the "pony tonneau" type, with room for two men in front and two behind. The equipment consists of a folding top, leather or isinglass wind-shield, powerful head-lights, the noisiest horn obtainable, and racks to carry as much extra gasoline as possible. In service these automobiles have big racks full of gasoline-cans carried on the running boards and at the rear and, in addition, there are often necklaces of two-gallon cans strung wherever possible. In virtually all the armies gasoline is served out in small cans containing about two gallons each, which are easily handled and quickly stored. One or two may be put in any odd space which is not otherwise in use. This method is very effective and is one of the most important developments in military automobile practice. In none of the armies are cars used which vary greatly from the type above mentioned, except through necessity. In general, heavy cars and runabouts give very inferior service. It is the general custom for the chauffeur and an orderly to ride on the front seat, and one or two officers behind. The more speed the machine develops the better. It is not uncommon to see staff officers or generals traveling over the French roads at a speed of one hundred kilometers an hour. There is quite a well-defined tendency to have as drivers men who are well above the average. In the French army these men are usually sergeants or lieutenants; in the Austrian army many of them are lieutenants.

Corps and army commanders usually have big, heavy limousines, with electric lighting, which they can, when necessary, use as offices, or as headquarters.


The Germans use telephones very extensively and apparently in connection with all arms of the service. Their wires are very thin and are similar to small piano wires. I saw no copper wire used by them. The wire is strung on poles about nine feet high. These poles are very carefully made of wood and are only about an inch in diameter. Every second pole is guyed with a wire and braced with a pole. The poles are painted in black and white stripes to make them conspicuous and to prevent people from running over them. The German practice is to lay these wires and abandon them when they are no longer needed. The British, on the contrary, make it a point of honor to recover all their poles and wire. In the retreat from Mons their signal corps had such heavy losses in attempting to do this that they were seriously hampered by lack of personnel.


The German soldiers and officers have a physique unapproached by any troops which I saw, except the Swiss. Their average height and weight is very much above all the others, except the Russians. The Russians are as large as the Germans but do not approach them in activity and quality. The French, although small and light, are wiry and have very good stamina, especially in the matter of marching. The Austrians are of medium size, most of them being stockily built. The Hungarians are of medium height, well-knit, possessed of good stamina, and are in every way physically fitted to be fine soldiers. Their infantry have very high physical qualities, probably being as effective in modern warfare as the heavy Germans.


I found intelligent people in Germany very broad-minded about military matters. They were pretty well agreed that General Joffre is the only general produced so far by the war who would rank in history as a great captain, and while they maintained that the German officers as a class were superior to all others, they conceded that the best troops which have so far taken part in the war were the British regulars who represented England in the early weeks of the war and retreated from Charleroi through Mons, St. Quentin, and Compiegne to the southeast of Paris.

On many different occasions I saw Russian prisoners in Germany and Austria-Hungary. They impressed me as being of a low order of intelligence. They fight well on the defense. When they are put in a position and told to stay there, they are very difficult to drive back and show the highest order of courage. When they move or advance they become less reliable.

The Hungarians have a very keen fighting instinct and are excellent infantrymen.

The Germans have a dogged courage and expose themselves with bravery and enthusiasm in any undertaking. When they are once started, they are difficult to stop. On an advance, I should say that a 50 per cent. loss is necessary to make them hesitate, and on the defense I saw at least one case where they were put out of action to the last man without giving ground.

The French are brave in a more spectacular way. They are better winners than the Germans and worse losers. Their temperament leads them to push home a success with more enthusiasm than the Germans; whereas, in defeat, they are less reliable.

The fighting qualities of the British are much higher than those of any other nation, when, as in the case of the British regulars, they have had sufficient training to teach them the technique of war. They are calm and usually cheerful under the most adverse circumstances. They do not lose control of themselves either in victory or defeat. The Germans say they fight best of all when they are hopelessly defeated or surrounded.

I have seen no body of officers which can compare in quality with those of our army who are graduates of West Point. However, we have fewer of these than Germany has generals.

It is just as strongly my opinion that the American infantryman as a type is correspondingly superior. I believe he can undoubtedly out-shoot, out-think, out-"hike," and out-game the line soldier of any other country I have seen. Here again, we have so few of him that, whereas there are more than six hundred well-trained army-corps engaged in this war, we have less than one.


I have received a letter from Mr. Herrick in which he expresses the opinion that I was too severe on the diplomatic corps for leaving Paris when the Germans threatened the city and the French government moved to Bordeaux. He states that it was the duty of the diplomatic corps to go with the government and that it was according to diplomatic precedent. His own decision to remain in Paris was the result of a special permission from the United States government, authorizing him to use his own discretion. Under the circumstances he thought it best to remain in Paris, and to be represented at Bordeaux by Mr. Garret, with whom he was able to communicate daily. With Mr. Garret he sent a number of army officers and secretaries.

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Minor changes have been made to corret typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and intent.


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