Outside, at the top of the tunnel, was another group of officers, who seemed to me cheery men in spite of all the hardships of their winter in a subterranean world. The spring had warmed their spirits, and they laughed under the blue sky. But one of them, who stood chatting with me, had a sudden thrill in his voice as he said, "How is Paris?" He spoke the word again and said, "Paris!" as though it held all his soul.
There was the real spirit of old-world chivalry in a chateau of France which I visited two days ago. This old building, with its high gables and pointed roofs, holds the memory of many great chapters in French history. Attila the Hun came this way with his hordes, checked and broken at last, as centuries later, not far away, 100,000 Germans were checked and broken by Dumouriez and the French army of 1792 on the plain of Valmy.
A French officer pointed to a tablet on the wall of the chateau commemorating that victory, and said: "Perhaps history will be repeated here by the general whom you will see later on." He stooped down and rubbed some dust off a stone, revealing a tracing of the footprint of Henri IV, who once crossed this threshold, and on the way upstairs pointed to other memorial tablets of kings and princes, statesmen and soldiers, who had received the hospitality of this old house.
There are many chateaux of this kind in Champagne, and in one of them we entered a long, bare room, where a French general stood with some of his officers, and I knew that the old spirit of France and its traditions of chivalry have not died. This general, with a silver star on his breast, seemed to me like one of those nobles who fought in the wars of the sixteenth century under the Duc de Guise.
He is a man of less than fifty years of age, with a black beard and steel-blue eyes, extraordinarily keen and piercing, and a fine poise of the head, which gives him an air of dignity and pride, in spite of the simplicity and charm of his manners. I sat opposite to him at table, and in this old room, with stone walls, he seemed to me like the central figure of some mediaeval painting. Yet there was nothing mediaeval except the touch of chivalry and the faith of France in the character of this general and his officers. Men of modern science and trained in a modern school of thought, their conversation ranged over many subjects both grave and gay, and, listening to them, I saw the secret of Germany's failure to strike France to her knees.
With such men as these in command, with that steel-eyed general on the watch—energy and intellectual force personified in his keen, vivacious face—the old faults of 1870 could not happen so easily again, and Germany counted without this renaissance of France. These men do not minimize the strength of the German defensive, but there is no fear in their hearts about the final issue of the war, and they are sure of their own position along this front in Champagne.
It was to the first lines of defence along that front that I went in the afternoon with other officers. Our way was through a wood famous in this war because it has been the scene of heavy fighting, ending in its brilliant capture by the French. It has another interest, because it is one of the few places along the front—as far as I know the only place- where troops have not entrenched themselves.
This was an impossibility, because the ground is so moist that water is reached a few feet down. It was necessary to build shell-proof shelters above-ground, and this was done by turning the troops into an army of wood-cutters.
This sylvan life of the French troops here is not without its charm, apart from the marmites which come crashing through the trees, and shrapnel bullets which whip through the branches. The ground has dried up during recent days, so that the long boarded paths leading to the first lines are no longer the only way of escape from bogs and swamps.
It might have been the scene of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as I made my way through thickets all aglint with the first green of the spring's foliage, treading on a carpet of white and yellow flowers and accompanied on my way by butterflies and flying beetles.
But a tremendous noise beyond the stage would have spoilt the play. French batteries were hard at work and their shells came rushing like fierce birds above the trees. The sharp "tang" of the French "Soixante-quinze" cracked out between the duller thuds of the "Cent- vingt" and other heavy guns, and there were only brief moments of silence between those violent explosions and the long-drawn sighs of wind as the shells passed overhead and then burst with that final crash which scatters death.
In one of the silences, when the wood was very still and murmurous with humming insects, I heard a voice call. It was not a challenge of "Qui va la?" or "Garde a vous," but the voice of spring. It called "Cuckoo! Cuckoo!" and mocked at war.
A young officer with me was more interested in the voices of the guns. He knew them all, even when they spoke from the enemy's batteries, and as we walked he said alternately, "Depart.. Arrive... Depart... Arrive..." as one of the French shells left and one of the German shells arrived.
The enemy's shells came shattering across the French lines very frequently, and sometimes as I made my way through the trees towards the outer bastions I heard the splintering of wood not far away.
But the soldiers near me seemed quite unconscious of any peril overhead. Some of them were gardening and making little bowers about their huts. Only a few sentinels were at their posts, along the bastions built of logs and clay, behind a fringe of brushwood which screened them from the first line of German trenches outside this boundary of the wood.
"Don't show your head round that corner," said an officer, touching me on the sleeve, as I caught a glimpse of bare fields and, a thousand yards away, a red-roofed house. There was nothing much to see—although the enemies of France were there with watchful eyes for any movement behind our screen.
"A second is long enough for a shot in the forehead," said the officer, "and if I were you I would take that other path. The screen has worn a bit thin just there."
It was curious. I found it absolutely impossible to realize, without an intellectual effort, that out of the silence of those flat fields death would come instantly if I showed my head. But I did not try the experiment to settle all doubts.
In the heart of the wood was a small house, spared by some freak of chance by the German shells which came dropping on every side of it. Here I took tea with the officers, who used it as their headquarters, and never did tea taste better than on that warm spring day, though it was served with a ladle out of a tin bowl to the music of many guns. The officers were a cheery set who had become quite accustomed to the menace of death which at any moment might shatter this place and make a wreckage of its peasant furniture. The colonel sat back in a wooden armchair, asking for news about the outer world as though he were a shipwrecked mariner on a desert isle; but every now and then he would listen to the sound of the shells and say, "Depart! ... Arrive!" just like the officer who had walked with me through the wood.
Two of the younger officers sat on the edge of a truckle-bed beneath the portrait of a buxom peasant woman, who was obviously the wife of the late proprietor. Two other officers lounged against the door- posts, entertaining the guests of the day with droll stories of death. Another came in with the latest communique received by the wireless station outside, and there was a "Bravo! bravo!" from all of us because it had been a good day for France. They were simple fellows, these men, and they had the manners of fine gentlemen in spite of their mud-stained uniforms and the poverty of the cottage in which they lived. Hardly a day passed without one of their comrades being killed or wounded, but some officer came to take his place and his risk, and they made him welcome to the wooden chair and his turn of the truckle-bed. I think in that peasant's hut I saw the whole spirit of the French army in its surrender of self-interest and its good- humoured gallantry.
The guns were still thundering as I drove back from the wood. The driver of the car turned to me for a moment with a smile and pointed a few yards away.
"Did you see that shell burst then? It was pretty close."
Death was always pretty close when one reached the fighting-lines of France.
Soldiers of France, for nearly a year of war I have been walking among you with watchful eyes, seeing you in all your moods, of gaiety and depression, of youthful spirits and middle-aged fatigues, and listening to your tales of war along the roads of France, where you have gone marching to the zone of death valiantly. I know some of your weaknesses and the strength of the spirit that is in you, and the sentiment that lies deep and pure in your hearts in spite of the common clay of your peasant life or the cynical wit you learnt in Paris. Sons of a great race, you have not forgotten the traditions of a thousand years, which makes your history glorious with the spirit of a keen and flashing people, which century after century has renewed its youth out of the weariness of old vices and reached forward to new beauties of science and art with quick intelligence.
This monstrous war has been your greatest test, straining your moral fibre beyond even the ordeal of those days when your Republican armies fought in rags and tatters on the frontiers and swept across Europe to victories which drained your manhood. The debacle of 1870 was not your fault, for not all your courage could save you from corruption and treachery, and in this new war you have risen above your frailties with a strength and faith that have wiped out all those memories of failure. It is good to have made friends among you, to have clasped some of your brown hands, to have walked a little along the roads with you. Always now the name of France will be like a song in my heart, stirring a thousand memories of valour and fine endurance, and of patience in this senseless business of slaughter, which made you unwilling butchers and victims of a bloody sacrifice. Bonne chance, soldats de France!
Chapter X The Men In Khaki
When our little professional army landed on the coast of Prance there was not one in a thousand soldiers who had more than the vaguest idea as to why he was coming to fight the Germans or as to the character of the fighting in which he was to be engaged. If one asked him "Why are we at war with Germany" this regular soldier would scratch his head, struggle to find a reasonable answer, and mutter something about "them bloody Germans," and "giving a hand to the Froggies." Of international politics, world-problems, Teutonic ambitions, Slav perils, White Papers or Yellow Papers, he knew nothing and cared nothing. As a professional soldier it was his duty to fight anybody he was told to fight, of whatever colour he might be, or of whatever country. For some months it had been in his mind that he might have to do a bit of shooting in Ireland, and on the whole he was glad that this enemy was to speak a foreign language. It made the game seem more as it should be. What was it Blatchford had said about the Germans? He couldn't quite remember the drift of it, except that they had been preparing for years to have a smack at England. Wanted to capture all our Colonies, and were building ships like blazes. Of course our Government had been asleep as usual, and didn't care a damn. No British Government ever did, as far as he could remember. Anyhow, the Germans were his enemy, and the French were our friends—which was queer—and the British army was going to save Europe again according to its glorious traditions as mentioned more than once by the Colonel. It had been a fine time before saying good-bye to the wife and kids. Every man had been a hero to his fellow citizens, who had clapped him on the back and stood free drinks in great style. "Bring us back some German helmets, Jock!" the girls had shouted out, "And mind your P's and Q's with them French hussies."
It would be a bit of a change to see the Continental way of doing things. They spoke a queer lingo, the French, but were all right. Quite all right, judging from the newspapers, and a fellow who had gone out as a chauffeur and had come back with fancy manners. "After you, Monsieur. Pardonney-more." There would be some great adventures to tell the lads when the business was over. Of course there would be hot work, and some of the boys would never come back at all— accidents did happen even in the best regulated wars—but with a bit of luck there would be a great home-coming with all the bells ringing, and crowds in the streets, and the band playing "See the conquering hero comes," or "when Tommy comes marching home." We had learnt a thing or two since South Africa, and the army was up to scratch. These Germans would have to look out for themselves.
I think that represents fairly enough the mental attitude of the average British soldier who came out to France into an unknown land in which he was to do "his bit." The younger men knew nothing of the psychological effect of shell-fire, and their imagination was not haunted by any fear. The older men, brought back to the Colours after a spell of civil life, judged of war according to the standards of the South African campaign or Omdurman, and did not guess that this war was to be a more monstrous thing, which would make that little affair in the Transvaal seem a picnic for boys playing at the game. Not yet had they heard the roar of Germany's massed artillery or seen the heavens open and rain down death.
The British officer was more thoughtful, and did not reveal his thoughts to the men. Only in quiet conversation in his own mess did he reveal the forebodings which made his soul gloomy.
"There is no doubt the German army is the greatest fighting machine in Europe. We might dislike some of their methods, their cast-iron system and all that—oh, I know what the Times man said about their last manoeuvres—but they have been preparing for this war for years, and their organization is all cut and dried. How about the French? Yes, they have plenty of pluck, and I've seen something of their gunners—quite marvellous!—but have they got any staying power? Are they ready? How about their politicians? I don't like the look of things, altogether. We have joined in this infernal war—had to, of course—but if things go wrong in France we haven't anything like an army to tackle a job like this. . . . Not that I'm a pessimist, mind you."
No, they were not pessimists, these British officers, when they first came out to France; and the younger men, all those lieutenants who had come quite recently from Sandhurst and Stonyhurst, and public schools in England, with the fine imperturbable manner of their class and caste, hiding their boyishness under a mask of gravity, and not giving themselves away by the slightest exuberance of speech or gesture, but maintaining stiff upper lips under a square quarter of an inch of fair bristles, went into this war with unemotional and unconscious heroism. Unlike the French officer, who had just that touch of emotionalism and self-consciousness which delights in the hero-worship in the streets, the cheers of great crowds, the fluttering of women's handkerchiefs, and the showering of flowers from high balconies, these English boys had packed up their traps and gone away from homes just as they had got back to school after the holidays, a little glum, and serious, at the thought of work. "Good-bye, mother."
The embrace had lasted a few seconds longer than usual. This mother had held her son tight, and had turned a little pale. But her voice had been steady and she had spoken familiar words of affection and advice, just as if her boy were off to the hunting-fields, or a polo match.
"Good-bye, darling. Do be careful, won't you? Don't take unnecessary risks."
"Right-o! ... Back soon, I hope." That was all, in most cases. No sobs or heartbreaks. No fine words about patriotism, and the sweetness of death for the Mother Country, and the duty of upholding the old traditions of the Flag. All that was taken for granted, as it had been taken for granted when this tall fellow in brand new khaki with nice- smelling belts of brown leather, was a bald-headed baby on a lace pillow in a cradle, or an obstreperous boy in a big nursery. The word patriotism is never spoken in an English household of this boy's class. There are no solemn discourses about duty to the Mother Country. Those things have always been taken for granted, like the bread and butter at the breakfast table, and the common decencies of life, and the good manners of well-bred people. When his mother had brought a man-child into the world she knew that this first-born would be a soldier, at some time of his life. In thousands of families it is still the tradition. She knew also that if it were necessary, according to the code of England, to send a punitive expedition against some native race, or to capture a new piece of the earth for the British Empire, this child of hers would play his part, and take the risks, just as his father had done, and his grandfather. The boy knew also, though he was never told. The usual thing had happened at the usual age.
"I suppose you will soon be ready for Sandhurst, Dick?" "Yes, I suppose so, father."
So when the war came these young men who had been gazetted six months or so before went out to France as most men go to do their job, without enthusiasm, but without faltering, in the same matter-of- fact way as a bank clerk catches the 9.15 train to the city. But death might be at the end of the journey? Yes. Quite likely. They would die in the same quiet way. It was a natural incident of the job. A horrid nuisance, of course, quite rotten, and all that, but no more to be shirked than the risk of taking a toss over an ugly fence. It was what this young man had been born for. It was the price he paid for his caste.
There were some undercurrents of emotion in the British army not to be seen on the surface. There had been private dramas in private drawing-rooms. Some of the older men had been "churned up," as they would say, because this sudden war had meant a leave-taking from women, who would be in a deuce of a fix if anything happened to certain captains and certain majors. Love affairs which had been somewhat complicated were simplified too abruptly by a rapid farewell, and a "God bless you, old girl. ... I hate to leave you with such ragged ends to the whole business. But perhaps after all it's a way out—for both of us. Eh?" The war offered a way out for all sorts of men with complicated lives, with debts that had been rather a worry, and with bills of folly that could not be paid at sight, and with skeletons in the cupboard rattling their bones too loudly behind the panels. Well, it was a case of cut and run. Between the new life and the old there would be no bridge, across which a woman or a ghost could walk. War is always a way of escape even though it be through the dark valley of death.
Nothing of this private melodrama was visible among those men who came to France. When they landed at Boulogne there was no visible expression on faces which have' been trained to be expressionless. At Rouen, at Le Mans, at St. Omer, and many other towns in France I watched our British officers and tried to read their character after getting a different point of view among the French troops. Certainly in their way they were magnificent—the first gentlemen in the world, the most perfect type of aristocratic manhood. Their quietude and their coldness struck me as remarkable, because of the great contrast in the character of the people around them. For the first time I saw the qualities of my own race, with something like a foreigner's eyes, and realized the strength of our racial character. It was good to see the physique of these men, with their clear-cut English faces, and their fine easy swagger, utterly unconscious and unaffected, due to having played all manner of games since early boyhood, so that their athletic build was not spoilt by deliberate development.
And I gave homage to them because of the perfect cut and equipment of their uniforms, so neat and simple, and workmanlike for the job of war. Only Englishmen could look so well in these clothes. And even in these French towns I saw the influence of English school life and of all our social traditions standing clear-cut against the temperament of another nation with different habits and ideals. They were confident without any demonstrative sign that they were superior beings destined by God, or the force of fate, to hold the fullest meaning of civilization. They were splendidly secure in this faith, not making a brag of it, not alluding to it, but taking it for granted, just as they had taken for granted their duty to come out to France and die if that were destined.
And studying them, at cafe tables, at the base, or in their depots, I acknowledged that, broadly, they were right. In spite of an extraordinary ignorance of art and letters (speaking of the great majority), in spite of ideas stereotyped by the machinery of their schools and universities, so that one might know precisely their attitude to such questions as social reform, internationalism, Home Rule for Ireland, or the Suffragettes—any big problem demanding freedom of thought and un-conventionality of discussion—it was impossible to resist the conviction that these officers of the British army have qualities, supreme of their kind, which give a mastery to men. Their courage was not a passion, demanding rage or religious fervour, or patriotic enthusiasm, for its inspiration. It was the very law of their life, the essential spirit in them. They were unconscious of it as a man is unconscious of breathing, unless diseased. Their honour was not a thing to talk about. To prate about the honour of the army or the honour of England was like talking about the honour of their mother. It is not done. And yet, as Mark Antony said, "They were all honourable men," and there seemed an austerity of virtue in them which no temptation would betray—the virtue of men who have a code admitting of certain easy vices, but not of treachery, or cowardice, or corruption.
They had such good form, these young men who had come out to a dirty devilish war. It was enormously good to hear them talking to each other in just the same civil, disinterested, casual way which belongs to the conversational range of St. James's Street clubs. Not once—like French soldiers—did they plunge into heated discussions on the ethics of war, or the philosophy of life, or the progress of civilization, or the rights of democracies. Never did they reveal to casual strangers like myself—and hundreds of French soldiers did— the secret affections of their hearts, flowing back to the women they had left, or their fears of death and disablement, or their sense of the mystery of God. Not even war, with its unloosing of old restraints, its smashing of conventionalities, could break down the code of these young English gentlemen whose first and last lessons had been those of self-concealment and self-control.
In England these characteristics are accepted, and one hardly thinks of them. It is the foreigner's point of view of us. But in France, in war time, in a country all vibrant with emotionalism, this restraint of manner and speech and utter disregard of all "problems" and mysteries of life, and quiet, cheerful acceptation of the job in hand, startled the imagination of Englishmen who had been long enough away from home to stand aloof and to study those officers with a fresh vision. There was something superb in those simple, self- confident, normal men, who made no fuss, but obeyed orders, or gave them, with a spirit of discipline which belonged to their own souls and was not imposed by a self-conscious philosophy. And yet I could understand why certain Frenchmen, in spite of their admiration, were sometimes irritated by these British officers. There were times when the similarity between them, the uniformity of that ridiculous little moustache on the upper lip, the intonation of voices with the peculiar timbre of the public school drawl, sound to them rather tiresome. They had the manners of a caste, the touch of arrogance which belongs to a caste, in power. Every idea they had was a caste idea, contemptuous in a civil way of poor devils who had other ideas and who were therefore guilty—not by their own fault of course—of shocking bad form. To be a Socialist in such company would be worse than being drunk. To express a belief in democratic liberty would cause a silence to fall upon a group of them as though some obscenity beyond the limits allowed in an officers' mess-room had been uttered by a man without manners.
Their attitude to French officers was, in the beginning of the war, calculated to put a little strain upon the Entente Cordiale. It was an attitude of polite but haughty condescension. A number of young Frenchmen of the best families had been appointed as interpreters to the British Expedition. There were aristocrats among them whose names run like golden threads through the pages of French history. It was therefore disconcerting when the young Viscomte de Chose and a certain Marquis de Machin found that their knowledge of English was used for the purpose of buying a packet of cigarettes for a lieutenant who knew no French, and of running errands for British officers who accepted such services as a matter of course. The rank- and-file of the British army which first came into France was also a little careless of French susceptibilities. After the first rapture of that welcome which was extended to anyone in khaki, French citizens began to look a little askance at the regiments from the Highlands and Lowlands, some of whose men demanded free gifts in the shops, and, when a little drunk, were rather crude in their amorous advances to girls of decent up-bringing. These things were inevitable. In our regular army there were the sweepings of many slums, as well as the best blood of our peasantry and our good old families. Tough and hardened fellows called to the Colours again from Glasgow and Liverpool, Cardiff and Limehouse, had none of the refinements of the younger generation of soldiers who prefer lemonade to whisky, and sweetmeats to shag. It was these who in the first Expeditionary Force gave most trouble to the military police and found themselves under the iron heel of a discipline which is very hard and very necessary in time of war.
These men were heroic soldiers, yet our hero-worship need not blind us to the truth of things. There is nothing more utterly false than to imagine that war purges human nature of all its frailties and vices, and that under the shadow of death a great body of men gathered like this from many classes and cities, become suddenly white knights, sans-peur et sans reproche, inspired by the highest ideals of faith and chivalry. If only some new Shakespeare would come out of the ranks after this war to give us immortal portraits of a twentieth- century Falstaff, with a modern Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph—what a human comedy would be there in the midst of all this tragedy in France and Flanders, setting off the fine exalted heroism of all those noble and excellent men who, like the knights and men-at-arms of Henry at Agincourt, thought that "the fewer men the greater share of honour," and fought for England with a devotion that was careless of death.
After the British retreat from Mons, when our regular troops realized very rapidly the real meaning of modern warfare, knowing now that it was to be no "picnic," but a deadly struggle against great odds, and a fight of men powerless against infernal engines, there came out to France by every ship the oddest types of men who had been called out to fill up the gaps and take a share in the deadly business. These "dug-outs" were strange fellows, some of them. Territorial officers who had held commissions in the Yeomanry, old soldiers who had served in India, Egypt, and South Africa, before playing interminable games of chess in St. James's Street, or taking tea in country rectories and croquet mallets on country lawns; provincial schoolmasters who had commanded an O.T.C. with high-toned voices which could recite a passage from Ovid with cultured diction; purple-faced old fellows who for years had tempted Providence and apoplexy by violence to their valets; and young bloods who had once "gone through the Guards," before spending their week-ends at Brighton with little ladies from the Gaiety chorus, came to Boulogne or Havre by every boatload and astonished the natives of those ports by their martial manners.
The Red Cross was responsible for many astounding representatives of the British race in France, and there were other crosses—purple, green, blue, and black—who contributed to this melodrama of mixed classes and types. Benevolent old gentlemen, garbed like second- hand Field Marshals, tottered down the quaysides and took the salutes of startled French soldiers with bland but dignified benevolence. The Jewish people were not only generous to the Red Cross work with unstinted wealth which they poured into its coffers, but with rich young men who offered their lives and their motor-cars in this good service—though the greater part of them never went nearer to the front (through no fault of their own) than Rouen or Paris, where they spent enormous sums of money at the best hotels, and took lady friends for joy rides in ambulances of magnificent design. Boulogne became overcrowded with men and women wearing military uniforms of no known design with badges of mysterious import.
Even the Scotland Yard detectives were bewildered by some of these people whose passports were thoroughly sound, but whose costumes aroused deep suspicion. What could they do, for instance, with a young Hindu, dressed as a boy-scout, wearing tortoise-shell spectacles, and a field kit of dangling bags, water-bottles, maps, cooking utensils, and other material suitable for life on a desert isle? Or what could they say to a lady in breeches and top-boots, with a revolver stuck through her belt, and a sou'wester on her head, who was going to nurse the wounded in a voluntary hospital at Nice? Contingents of remarkable women invaded the chief tea-shops in Boulogne and caused a panic among the waitresses. They wore Buffalo Bill hats and blue uniforms with heavy blue coats, which were literally spangled with brass buttons. Upon their stalwart bosoms were four rows of buttons, and there was a row of brass on each side of their top-coats, on their shoulders, and at the back of their waist-belts. In the light of the tea-shop, where they consumed innumerable buns, one's eyes became dizzy with all these bits of shining metal. To a wounded man the sight of one of these ladies must have been frightening, as though a shell had burst near his bedside, with the glint of broken steel. Young officers just drafted out with commissions on which the ink was hardly dry, plucked at their budding moustaches and said "War is hell."
Some of the older officers, who had been called out after many years of civilian ease, found the spirit of youth again as soon as they set foot on the soil of France, and indulged in I the follies of youth as when they had been sub-lieutenants in the Indian hills. I remember one of these old gentlemen who refused to go to bed in the Hotel Tortoni at Havre, though the call was for six o'clock next morning with quite a chance of death before the week was out. Some younger officers with him coaxed him to his room just before midnight, but he came down again, condemning their impudence, and went out into the great silent square, shouting for a taxi. It seemed to me pitiful that a man with so many ribbons on his breast, showing distinguished service, should be wandering about a place where many queer characters roam in the darkness of night. I asked him if I could show him the way back to the Hotel Tortoni. "Sir," he said, "I desire to go to Piccadilly Circus, and if I have any of your impertinence I will break your head." Two apaches lurched up to him, a few minutes later, and he went off with them into a dark ally, speaking French with great deliberation and a Mayfair accent. He was a twentieth century Falstaff, and the playwright might find his low comedy in a character like this thrust into the grim horror of the war.
One's imagination must try to disintegrate that great collective thing called an army and see it as much as possible as a number of separate individualities, with their differences of temperament and ideals and habits of mind. There has been too much of the impersonal way of writing of our British Expeditionary Force as though it were a great human machine impelled with one idea and moving with one purpose. In its ranks was the coster with his cockney speech and cockney wit, his fear of great silences and his sense of loneliness and desolation away from the flare of gas-lights and the raucous shouts of the crowds in Petticoat Lane—so that when I met him in a field of Flanders with the mist and the long, flat marshlands about him he confessed to the almighty Hump. And there was the Irish peasant who heard the voice of the Banshee calling through that mist, and heard other queer voices of supernatural beings whispering to the melancholy which had been bred in his brain in the wilds of Connemara. Here was the English mechanic, matter-of-fact, keen on his job, with an alert brain and steady nerves; and with him was the Lowland Scot, hard as nails, with uncouth speech and a savage fighting instinct. Soldiers who had been through several battles and knew the tricks of old campaigners were the stiffening in regiments of younger men whose first experience of shell-fire was soul-shattering, so that some of them whimpered and were blanched with fear.
In the ranks were men who had been mob-orators, and who had once been those worst of pests, "barrack-room lawyers." They talked Socialism and revolution in the trenches to comrades who saw no use to alter the good old ways of England and "could find no manner of use" for political balderdash. Can you not see all these men, made up of every type in the life of the British Isles, suddenly transported to the Continent and thence into the zone of fire of massed artillery which put each man to the supreme test of courage, demanding the last strength of his soul? Some of them had been slackers, rebels against discipline, "hard cases." Some of them were sensitive fellows with imaginations over-developed by cinematograph shows and the unhealthiness of life in cities. Some of them were no braver than you or I, my readers. And yet out of all this mass of manhood, with all their faults, vices, coward instincts, pride of courage, unexpressed ideals, unconscious patriotism, old traditions of pluck, untutored faith in things more precious than self-interest—the mixture that one finds in any great body of men—there was made an army, that "contemptible little army" of ours which has added a deathless story of human valour to the chronicles of our race.
These men who came out with the first Expeditionary Force had to endure a mode of warfare more terrible than anything the world has known before, and for week after week, month after month, they were called upon to stand firm under storms of shells which seemed to come from no human agency, but to be devilish in intensity and frightfulness of destruction. Whole companies of them were annihilated, whole battalions decimated, yet the survivors were led to the shambles again. Great gaps were torn out of famous regiments and filled up with new men, so often that the old regiment was but a name and the last remaining officers and men were almost lost among the new-comers. Yet by a miracle in the blood of the British race, in humanity itself, if it is not decadent beyond the point of renaissance, these cockneys and peasants, Scotsmen and Irishmen, and men from the Midlands, the North, and the Home Counties of this little England faced that ordeal, held on, and did not utter aloud (though sometimes secretly) one wailing cry to God for mercy in all this hell. With a pride of manhood beyond one's imagination, with a stern and bitter contempt for all this devilish torture, loathing it but "sticking" it, very much afraid yet refusing to surrender to the coward in their souls (the coward in our souls which tempts all of us), sick of the blood and the beastliness, yet keeping sane (for the most part) with the health of normal minds and bodies in spite of all this wear and tear upon the nerves, the rank-and-file of that British Expedition in France and Flanders, under the leadership of young men who gave their lives, with the largess of great prodigals, to the monstrous appetite of Death, fought with something like superhuman qualities.
Although I spent most of my time on the Belgian and French side of the war, I had many glimpses of the British troops who were enduring these things, and many conversations with officers and men who had come, but a few hours ago, from the line of fire. I went through British hospitals and British ambulance trains where thousands of them lay with new wounds, and I dined with them when after a few weeks of convalescence they returned to the front to undergo the same ordeal. Always I felt myself touched with a kind of wonderment at these men. After many months of war the unwounded men were still unchanged, to all outward appearance, though something had altered in their souls. They were still quiet, self-controlled, unemotional. Only by a slight nervousness of their hands, a slightly fidgety way so that they could not sit still for very long, and by sudden lapses into silence, did some of them show the signs of the strain upon them. Even the lightly wounded men were astoundingly cheerful, resolute, and unbroken. There were times when I used to think that my imagination exaggerated the things I had seen and heard, and that after all war was not so terrible, but a rather hard game with heavy risks. It was only when I walked among the wounded who had been more than "touched," and who were the shattered wrecks of men, that I realized again the immensity of the horror through which these other men had passed and to which some of them were going back. When the shrieks of poor tortured boys rang in my ears, when one day I passed an officer sitting up in his cot and laughing with insane mirth at his own image in a mirror, and when I saw men with both legs amputated up to the thighs, or with one leg torn to ribbons, and another already sawn away, lying among blinded and paralysed men, and men smashed out of human recognition but still alive, that I knew the courage of those others, who having seen and known, went back to risk the same frightfulness.
There was always a drama worth watching at the British base, for it was the gate of those who came in and of those who went out, "the halfway house" as a friend of mine called another place in France, between the front and home.
Everything came here first—the food for guns and men, new boots for soldiers who had marched the leather off their feet; the comforters and body-belts knitted by nimble-fingered girls, who in suburban houses and country factories had put a little bit of love into every stitch; chloroform and morphia for army doctors who have moments of despair when their bottles get empty; ambulances, instruments, uniforms, motor lorries; all the letters which came to France full of prayers and hopes; and all the men who came to fill up the places of those for whom there are still prayers, but no more hope on this side of the river. It was the base of the British Expeditionary Force, and the Army in the field would be starved in less than a week if it were cut off from this port of supplies.
There was a hangar here, down by the docks, half a mile long. I suppose it was the largest shed in the world, and it was certainly the biggest store-cupboard ever kept under lock and key by a Mother Hubbard with a lot of hungry boys to feed. Their appetites were prodigious, so that every day thousands of cases were shifted out of this cupboard and sent by train and motor-car to the front. But always new cases were arriving in boats that are piloted into harbour across a sea where strange fish came up from the deeps at times. So the hangar was never empty, and on the signature of a British officer the British soldiers might be sure of their bully beef, and fairly sure of a clean shirt or two when the old ones had been burnt by the order of a medical officer with a delicate nose and high ideals in a trench.
New men as well as new stores came in the boats to this harbour, which was already crowded with craft not venturesome in a sea where one day huge submarine creatures lurked about. I watched some Tommies arrive. They had had a nasty "dusting" on the voyage, and as they marched through the streets of the port some of them looked rather washed out. They carried their rifles upside down as though that might ease the burden of them, and they had that bluish look of men who have suffered a bad bout of sea-sickness. But they pulled themselves up when they came into the chief square where the French girls at the flower stalls, and ladies at the hotel windows, and a group of French and Belgian soldiers under the shelter of an arcade, watched them pass through the rain.
"Give 'em their old tune, lads," said one of the men, and from this battalion of new-comers who had just set foot in France to fill up gaps in the ranks, out there, at the front, there came a shrill whistling chorus of La Marseillaise. Yorkshire had learnt the hymn of France, her song of victory, and I heard it on the lips of Highlanders and Welshmen, who came tramping through the British base to the camps outside the town where they waited to be sent forward to the fighting line.
"Vive les Anglais!" cried a French girl, in answer to the whistling courtesy. Then she laughed, with her arm round the waist of a girl friend, and said, "They are all the same, these English soldiers. In their khaki one cannot tell one from the other, and now that I have seen so many thousands of them—Heaven! hundreds of thousands! —I have exhausted my first enthusiasm. It is sad: the new arrivals do not get the same welcome from us."
That was true. So many of our soldiers had been through the British base that they were no longer a novelty. The French flower-girls did not empty their stalls into the arms of the regiments, as on the first days.
It was an English voice that gave the new-comers the highest praise, because professional.
"A hefty lot! ... Wish I were leading them." The praise and the wish came from a young English officer who was staying in the same hotel with me. For two days I had watched his desperate efforts to avoid death by boredom. He read every line of the Matin and Journal before luncheon, with tragic sighs, because every line repeated what had been said in the French newspapers since the early days of the war. After luncheon he made a sortie for the English newspapers, which arrived by boats. They kept him quiet until tea-time. After that he searched the cafes for any fellow officers who might be there.
"This is the most awful place in the world!" he repeated at intervals, even to the hall porter, who agreed with him. When I asked him how long he had been at the base he groaned miserably and confessed to three weeks of purgatory.
"I've been put into the wrong pigeon-hole at the War Office," he said. "I'm lost."
There were many other men at the British base who seemed to have been put into the wrong pigeon-holes. Among them were about two hundred French interpreters who were awaiting orders to proceed with a certain division. But they were not so restless as my friend in the hotel. Was it not enough for them that they had been put into English khaki—supplied from the store-cupboard—and that every morning they had to practise the art of putting on a puttee? In order to be perfectly English they also practised the art of smoking a briar pipe—it was astoundingly difficult to keep it alight—and indulged in the habit of five o'clock tea (with boiled eggs, ye gods!), and braved all the horrors of indigestion, because they are not used to these things, with heroic fortitude. At any cost they were determined to do honour to le khaki, in spite of the arrogance of certain British officers who treated them de haut en bas.
The Base Commandant's office was the sorting-house of the Expeditionary Force. The relays of officers who had just come off the boats came here to report themselves. They had sailed as it were under sealed orders and did not know their destination until they were enlightened by the Commandant, who received instructions from the headquarters in the field. They waited about in groups outside his door, slapping their riding-boots or twisting neat little moustaches, which were the envy of subalterns just out of Sandhurst.
Through another door was the registry office through which all the Army's letters passed inwards and outwards. The military censors were there reading the letters of Private Atkins to his best girl, and to his second best. They shook their heads over military strategy written in the trenches, and laughed quietly at the humour of men who looked on the best side of things, even if they were German shells or French fleas. It was astonishing what a lot of humour passed through this central registry from men who were having a tragic time for England's sake; but sometimes the military Censor had to blow his nose with violence because Private Atkins lapsed into pathos, and wrote of tragedy with a too poignant truth.
The Base Commandant was here at all hours. Even two hours after midnight he sat in the inner room with tired secretaries who marvelled at the physical and mental strength of a man who at that hour could still dictate letters full of important detail without missing a point or a comma; though he came down early in the morning. But he was responsible for the guarding of the Army's store-cupboard—that great hangar, half a mile long—and for the discipline of a town full of soldiers who, without discipline, would make a merry hell of it, and for the orderly disposition of all the supplies at the base upon which the army in the field depends for its welfare. It was not what men call a soft job.
Through the hotel where I stayed there was a continual flow of officers who came for one night only. Their kit-bags and sleeping- bags were dumped into the hall, and these young gentlemen, some of whom had been gazetted only a few months ago, crowded into the little drawing-room to write their letters home before going to the front, and to inquire of each other what on earth there was to do in a town where lights are out at ten o'clock, where the theatres were all closed, and where rain was beating down on the pavements outside.
"How about a bath?" said one of them. "It is about the last chance, I reckon."
They took turns to the bathroom, thinking of the mud and vermin of the trenches which would soon be their home. Among those who stayed in the sitting-room until the patron turned out the lights were several officers who had been on forty-eight hours' leave from the front. They had made a dash to London and back, they had seen the lights of Piccadilly again, and the crowds in the streets of a city which seemed to know nothing of war, they had dined with women in evening-dress who had asked innocent questions about the way of a modern battlefield, and they had said good-bye again to those who clung to them a little too long outside a carriage window.
"Worth it, do you think?" asked one of them.
"Enormously so. But it's a bit of a pull—going back to that— beastliness. After one knows the meaning of it."
"It's because I know that I want to go back," said another man who had sat very quietly looking at the toe of one of his riding-boots. "I had a good time in town—it seemed too good to be true—but, after all, one has to finish one's job before one can sit around with an easy mind. We've got to finish our job out there in the stinking trenches."
I suppose even now after all that has been written it is difficult for the imagination of "the man who stayed at home" to realize the life and conditions of the soldiers abroad. So many phrases which appeared day by day in the newspapers conveyed no more than a vague, uncertain meaning.
"The Front"—how did it look, that place which was drawn in a jagged black line across the map on the wall? "General Headquarters"—what sort of a place was that in which the Commander-in-Chief lived with his staff, directing the operations in the fighting lines? "An attack was made yesterday upon the enemy's position at——-. A line of trenches was carried by assault." So ran the officiai bulletin, but the wife of a soldier abroad could not fill in the picture, the father of a young Territorial could not get enough detail upon which his imagination might build. For all those at home, whose spirits came out to Flanders seeking to get into touch with young men who were fighting for honour's sake, it was difficult to form any kind of mental vision, giving a clear and true picture of this great adventure in "foreign parts."
They would have been surprised at the reality, it was to different from all their previous imaginings. General Headquarters, for instance, was a surprise to those who came to such a place for the first time. It was not, when I went there some months ago, a very long distance from the fighting lines in these days of long-range guns, but it was a place of strange quietude in which it was easy to forget the actuality of war— until one was reminded by sullen far-off rumblings which made the windows tremble, and made men lift their heads a moment to say: "They are busy out there to-day." There were no great movements of troops in the streets. Most of the soldiers one saw were staff officers, who walked briskly from one building to another with no more than a word and a smile to any friend they met on the way. Sentries stood outside the doorways of big houses.
Here and there at the street comers was a military policeman, scrutinizing any new-comer in civilian clothes with watchful eyes. Church bells tinkled for early morning Mass or Benediction. Through an open window looking out upon a broad courtyard the voices of school children came chanting their A B C in French, as though no war had taken away their fathers. There was an air of profound peace here.
At night, when I stood at an open window listening to the silence of the place it was hard, even though I knew, to think that here in this town was the Headquarters Staff of the greatest army England has ever sent abroad, and that the greatest war in history was being fought out only a few miles away. The raucous horn of a motor-car, the panting of a motor-cycle, the rumble of a convoy of ambulances, the shock of a solitary gun, came as the only reminders of the great horror away there through the darkness. A dispatch rider was coming back from a night ride on a machine which had side-slipped all the way from Ypres. An officer was motoring back to a divisional headquarters after a late interview with the chief... The work went on, though it was very quiet in General Headquarters.
But the brains of the Army were not asleep. Behind those doors, guarded by sentries, men in khaki uniforms, with just a touch of red about the collar, were bending over maps and documents—studying the lines of German trenches as they had been sketched out by aviators flying above German shrapnel, writing out orders for ammunition to be sent in a hurry to a certain point on the fighting line where things were very "busy" in the afternoon, ordering the food- supplies wanted by a division of hungry men whose lorries are waiting at the rail-head for bread and meat and a new day's rations.
"Things are going very well," said one of the officers, with a glance at a piece of flimsy paper which had just come from the Signals Department across the street. But things would not have gone so well unless at General Headquarters every officer had done his duty to the last detail, whatever the fatigue of body or spirit. The place was quiet, because the work was done behind closed doors in these private houses of French and Flemish bourgeoisie whose family portraits hang upon the walls. Outside I could not see the spirit of war unless I searched for it.
It was after I had left "G.H.Q." that I saw something of the human side of war and all its ceaseless traffic. Yet even then, as I travelled nearer and nearer to the front, I was astounded at the silence, the peacefulness of the scenery about me, the absence of all tragic sights. That day, on the way to a place which was very close to the German lines, children were playing on the roadside, and old women in black gowns trudged down the long, straight high roads, with their endless sentinels of trees.
In a furrowed field a peasant was sowing the seed for an autumn harvesting, and I watched his swinging gestures from left to right which seem symbolical of all that peace means and of all nature's life and beauty. The seed is scattered and God does the rest, though men may kill each other and invent new ways of death...
But the roads were encumbered and the traffic of war was surging forward ceaselessly in a muddled, confused, aimless sort of way, as it seemed to me, before I knew the system and saw the working of the brain behind it all. A long train of carts without horses stood, shafts down, on the muddy side of the road. Little blue and red flags fluttered above them. A group of soldiers were lounging in their neighbourhood, waiting, it seems, for something to turn up. Perhaps that something was a distant train which came with a long trail of smoke across the distant marshlands.
At the railway crossing there was a great park of motor lorries. They, too, seemed to be waiting for new loads. Obviously this was one of the "railheads" about which I had a lecture that morning from a distinguished officer, who thinks in railheads and refilling stations and other details of transport upon which the armies in the field depend for their food and ammunition. Without that explanation all these roadside halts, all these stationary lorries and forage carts would have seemed like a temporary stagnation in the business of war, with nothing doing.
A thrill comes to every one when he sees bodies of British troops moving along the roads. He is glad when his motorcar gets held up by some old wagons slithering axle-deep in the quagmire on the side of the paved highway, so that he can put his head out and shout a "Hullo, boys! How's it going? And who are you?" After all the thrill of the recruiting days, ill the excitement of the send-off, all the enthusiasm with which they sang Tipperary through the streets of their first port of call in France, they had settled down to the real business.
Some of them had been into the trenches for the first time a night or two before. "How did you like it?" Well, it wasn't amusing to them, it seems, but they "stuck it." They were ready to go again. That was the spirit of it all. They "stuck it," gamely, without grousing, without swanking, without any other thought than suffering all the hardships and all the thrills of war like men who know the gravity of the game, and the risks, and the duty to which they have pledged themselves.
I passed thousands of these men on a long motor journey on my first day at the British front, and though I could not speak to very many of them I saw on all their faces the same hard, strong, dogged look of men who were being put through a great ordeal and who would not fail through any moral weakness. They were tired, some of them, after a long march, but they grinned back cheery answers to my greetings, and scrambled merrily for the few packets of cigarettes I tossed to them.
Thousands of these khaki-clad fellows lay along the roadsides looking in the distance as though great masses of russet leaves had fallen from autumn trees. They were having a rest on their way up to the front, and their heads were upon each other's shoulders in a comradely way, while some lay face upwards to the sky with their hands folded behind their heads, in a brown study and careless of everything that passed.
Away across marshy fields, intersected by pools and rivulets, I saw our men billeted in French and Flemish farmhouses, of the old post- and-plaster kind, like those in English villages.
They seemed thoroughly at home, and were chopping wood and drawing water and cooking stews, and arranging straw beds in the barns, and busying themselves with all the domestic side of life as quietly and cheerily as though they were on manoeuvres in Devonshire or Surrey, where war is only a game without death in the roar of a gun. Well fed and well clothed, hard as nails, in spite of all their hardships, they gave me a sense of pride as I watched them, for the spirit of the old race was in them, and they would stick it through thick and thin.
I passed that day through the shell-stricken town of. Ypres and wandered through the great tragedy of the Cloth Hall—that old splendour in stone which was now a gaunt and ghastly ruin. British soldiers were buying picture postcards at booths in the market-place, and none of them seemed to worry because at any moment another shell might come crashing across the shattered roofs with a new message of destruction.
Yet on all this journey of mine in the war zone of the British front for at least 100 kilometres or so there was no thrill or shock of war itself. A little way off, on some parts of the road men were in the trenches facing the enemy only a few yards distant from their hiding-places.
The rumble of guns rolled sullenly now and then across the marshlands, and one knew intellectually, but not instinctively, that if one's motor-car took the wrong turning and travelled a mile or two heedlessly, sudden death would call a halt.
And that was the strangeness of it all—the strangeness that startled me as I drove back to the quietude of the General Headquarters, as darkness came down upon this low-lying countryside and put its cloak about the figures of British soldiers moving to their billets, and gave a ghostliness to the tall, tufted trees, which seemed to come striding towards my headlights.
In this siege warfare of the trenches there was a deadly stillness behind the front and a queer absence of war's tumult and turmoil. Yet all the time it was going on slowly, yard by yard, trench by trench, and somewhere along the front men were always fighting and dying.
"Gentlemen," said a staff officer that night, "there has been good work to-day. We have taken several lines of trenches, and the operation is proceeding very well."
We bent over his map, following the line drawn by his finger, listening to details of a grim bit of work, glad that five hundred German prisoners had been taken that day. As he spoke the window rattled, and we heard the boom of another gun... The war was going on, though it had seemed so quiet at the front.
For several months there was comparative quietude at the British front after the tremendous attacks upon our lines at Soissons and Venizel and Vic-sur-Aisne, and the still more bloody battles round Ypres in the autumn of the first year of war. Each side settled down for the winter campaign, and killing was done by continual artillery fire with only occasional bayonet charges between trench and trench. That long period of dark wet days was the most tragic ordeal of our men, and a time when depression settled heavily upon their spirits, so that not all their courage could keep any flame of enthusiasm in their hearts for such fine words as honour and glory.
In "Plug Street" and other lines of trenches they stood in water with walls of oozy mud about them, until their legs rotted and became black with a false frostbite, until many of them were carried away with bronchitis and pneumonia, and until all of them, however many comforters they tied about their necks, or however many body-belts they used, were shivering, sodden scarecrows, plastered with slime. They crawled with lice, these decent Englishmen from good clean homes, these dandy men who once upon a time had strolled down the sweet shady side of Pall Mall, immaculate, and fragrant as their lavender kid gloves. They were eaten alive by these vermin and suffered the intolerable agony of itch. Strange and terrible diseases attacked some of them, though the poisonous microbes were checked by vigilant men in laboratories behind the front before they could spread an epidemic. For the first time men without science heard the name of cerebro-spinal meningitis and shuddered at it. The war became a hopeless, dreary thing, without a thrill to it, except when men wading in water were smashed by shell-fire and floated about in a bloody mess which ran red through all a trench. That was a thrill of beastliness, but gave no fire to men's hearts. Passion, if it had ever burnt in these British soldiers' hearts, had smouldered out into the white ash of patient misery. Certainly there was no passion of hatred against the enemy, not far away there in the trenches. These Germans were enduring the same hardships, and the same squalor. There was only pity for them and a sense of comradeship, as of men forced by the cruel gods to be tortured by fate.
This sense of comradeship reached strange lengths at Christmas, and on other days. Truces were established and men who had been engaged in trying to kill each other came out of opposite trenches and fraternized. They took photographs of mixed groups of Germans and English, arm-in-arm. They exchanged cigarettes, and patted each other on the shoulder, and cursed the war. . . . The war had become the most tragic farce in the world. The frightful senselessness of it was apparent when the enemies of two nations fighting to the death stood in the grey mist together and liked each other. They did not want to kill each other, these Saxons of the same race and blood, so like each other in physical appearance, and with the same human qualities. They were both under the spell of high, distant Powers which had decreed this warfare, and had so enslaved them that like gladiators in the Roman amphitheatres they killed men so that they should not be put to death by their task-masters. The monstrous absurdity of war, this devil's jest, stood revealed nakedly by those little groups of men standing together in the mists of Flanders. ... It became so apparent that army orders had to be issued stopping such truces. They were issued but not always obeyed. For months after German and British soldiers in neighbouring trenches fixed up secret treaties by which they fired at fixed targets at stated periods to keep up appearances, and then strolled about in safety, sure of each other's loyalty.
From one trench a German officer signalled to one of our own lieutenants:
"I have six of your men in my trench. What shall I do with them?"
The lieutenant signalled back.
"I have two of yours. This is ridiculous."
The English officer spoke to the two Germans:
"Look here, you had better clear out. Otherwise I shall have to make you prisoners."
"We want to be prisoners," said the Germans, who spoke English with the accent of the Tottenham Court Road.
It appears that the lieutenant would not oblige them, and begged them to play the game.
So with occasional embarrassments like this to break the deadly monotony of life, and to make men think about the mystery of human nature, coerced to massacre by sovereign powers beyond their ken, the winter passed, in one long wet agony, in one great bog of misery.
It was in March, when the roads had begun to dry up, that our troops resumed the offensive at several points of the line. I was at General Headquarters when the first news of the first day's attack at Neuve Chapelle was brought in by dispatch riders.
We crowded again round a table where a staff officer had spread out his map and showed us the general disposition of the troops engaged in the operation. The vague tremor of distant guns gave a grim significance to his words, and on our own journey that day we had seen many signs of organized activity bearing upon this attack.
But we were to see a more impressive demonstration of the day's success, the human counters which had been won by our side in this game of life and death. Nearly a thousand German prisoners had been taken, and were being brought down from the front by rail. If we liked we might have a talk with these men, and see the character of the enemy which lies hidden in the trenches opposite our lines. It was nearly ten o'clock at night when we motored to the railway junction through which they were passing.
Were they glad to be out of the game, away from the shriek of shells and out of the mud? I framed the question in German as I clambered on to the footboard at a part of the train where the trucks ended and where German officers had been given the luxury of first-class carriages.
Two of them looked up with drowsy eyes, into which there came a look of surprise and then of displeasure as I spoke a few words to them. Opposite me was a fair young man, with soft blond hair and a silky moustache. He looked like a Saxon, but told me afterwards that he came from Cologne. Next to him was a typical young aristocrat of the Bavarian type, in the uniform of a Jaeger regiment In the same carriage were some other officers sleeping heavily. One of them, with a closely-cropped bullet head and the low-browed face of, a man who fights according to the philosophy of Bernhardi, without pity, sat up abruptly, swore a fierce word or two, and then fell back and snored again.
The two younger men answered some of my questions, sullenly at first, but afterwards with more friendliness, against which their pride struggled. But they had not much to say. They were tired. They had been taken by surprise. They would have time to learn English as prisoners of war. They had plenty of food and tobacco.
When the next batch of them arrived I was able to get into a closed truck, among the private soldiers. They were quite comfortable in there, and were more cheery than the officers in the other train. I was surprised by their cleanliness, by the good condition of their uniforms, and by their good health and spirits. The life of the trenches had not left its marks upon them, though mentally, perhaps, they had gone to the uttermost limit of endurance. Only one man fired up savagely when I said that they were lucky in being captured. "It is good to fight for the Fatherland," he said. The others made no secret of their satisfaction in being out of it all, and all of them described the attack on Neuve Chapelle as a hellish thing which had caught them by surprise and swept their ranks.
I went back to my billet in General Headquarters wishing that I had seen something of that affair which had netted all these men. It had been a "day out" for the British troops, and we had not yet heard of the blunders or the blood that had spoilt its success. It was hard to have seen nothing of it though so near the front. And then a promise of seeing something of the operations on the morrow came as a prospect for the next day. It would be good to see the real business again and to thrill once more to the awful music of the guns.
Along the road next day it was obvious that "things" were going to happen. As we passed through towns in our motor-cars there were signs of increased activity. Troops were being moved up. Groups of them in goatskin coats, so that English Tommies looked like their Viking ancestors, halted for a spell by the side of their stacked arms, waiting for orders. Long lines of motor-lorries, with supplies to feed the men and guns, narrowed the highway for traffic. Officers approached our cars at every halt, saluted our staff officer, and asked anxious questions: "How are things going? Is there any news?"
In the open country we could see the battle front, the low-lying marshlands with windmills waving their arms on the far horizon, the ridges and woods in which British and German batteries were concealed, and the lines of trenches in which our men lay very close to their enemy. We left the cars and, slithering in sticky mud, made our way up a hillock on which one of these innumerable windmills stood distinct. We were among the men who were in the actual fighting lines and who went into the trenches turn and turn about, so that it became the normal routine of their lives.
In the early days of the war these regiments had suffered heavy losses, so that there were new drafts in them now, but there were lads here who had fought at Mons and Charleroi and had seen their comrades fall in heaps round about Le Cateau. They told their tales, with old memories of terror, which had not made cowards of them. Their chief interest to-day was centred in a football match which was to take place about the same time as the "other business." It was not their day out in the firing line. We left them putting on their football boots and hurling chaff at each other in the dim light. Out of the way of the flying shells they forgot all about the horror of war for a little while.
Forcing our way through the brushwood on the slopes, we reached the crest of the hillock. Near by stood two generals and several staff officers—men whose names have been written many times in the Chief's dispatches and will be written for all time in the history of this war. They were at their post of observation, to watch the progress of an attack which was timed to begin shortly.
Presently two other figures came up the hillside. One of them arrested my attention. Who was that young officer, a mere boy, who came toiling up through the slime and mud, and who at the crest halted and gave a quick salute to the two generals? He turned, and I saw that it was Edward, Prince of Wales, and through the afternoon, when I glanced at him now and again as he studied his map and gazed across the fields, I thought of another Edward, Prince of Wales, who six centuries ago stood in another field of France. Out of the past came old ghosts of history, who once as English princes and knights and men-at-arms fought at St. Omer, and Ypres, Bailleul, and Bethune, and all that very ground which lay before me now...
More than an hour before the time at which the attack was to be concentrated upon the enemy's position—a line of trenches on a ridge crowned by a thin wood immediately opposite my observation point— our guns began to speak from many different places. It was a demonstration to puzzle the enemy as to the objective of our attack.
The flashes came like the flicking of heliographs signalling messages by a Morse code of death. After each flash came the thunderous report and a rushing noise as though great birds were in flight behind the veil of mist which lay on the hillsides. Puffs of woolly-white smoke showed where the shrapnel was bursting, and these were wisped away into the heavy clouds. Now and again one heard the high singing note of shells travelling towards us—the German answer to this demonstration—and one saw the puff balls resting on the hill-spur opposite our observation post.
Presently the fire became less scattered, and as the appointed hour approached our batteries aimed only in one direction. It was the ridge to the left of the hill where lines of German trenches had been dug below the fringe of wood. That place must have been a hell for half an hour or more. Through the mist and the drowsy smoke I could see the flashes of the bursting shells like twinkling stars. Those glittering jewels sparkled in constellations, six or more at a time, and there was never a minute without the glint of them. It was not hard to imagine the terror of men crouching in pits below that storm of fire, smashing down upon their trenches, cutting up their barbed wire entanglements, killing any human life that could not hide below the ground. The din of guns was unceasing, and made a great symphony of staccato notes on a thunderous instrument. I could distinguish the sharp crack of the field batteries and the deeper boom of the heavier guns. When one of these spoke there was a trembling of earth, and through the sky a great shell hurtled, with such a rush of air that it seemed like an express train dashing through an endless tunnel. The bursts were, like volcanoes above the German lines, vomiting upwards a vast column of black smoke which stood solid on the sky- line for a minute or more before being torn down by the wind. Something within me seemed to quake at these engines of destruction, these masses of explosive power sent for the killing of men, invisible there on the ridge, but cowering in fear or lying in their blood.
How queer are the battlefields of life and the minds of men! Down below me, in a field, men were playing a game of football while all this business of death was going on. Above and between the guns I heard their shouts and cheers, and the shrill whistle for "half-time," though there was no half-time in the other game so close to them. Nature, too, was playing, indifferent to this bloody business. All the time, while the batteries were at work, birds were singing the spring song in ecstatic lyrics of joyfulness, and they went on far flights across a pale blue lake which was surrounded by black mountains of cloud.
Another bird came out, but with a man above its wings. It was an English aeroplane on a journey of reconnaissance above the enemy's lines. I heard the loud hum of its engine, and watched how its white wings were made diaphanous by the glint of sun until it passed away into the cloud wrack.
It was invisible to us now, but not to the enemy. They had sighted it, and we saw their shrapnel searching the sky for it. The airman continued his journey on a wide circling flight, and we saw him coming back unscathed.
For a little while our fire slackened. It was time for our infantry attack upon the line of trenches which had sustained such a storm of shells. Owing to the mist and the smoke we could not see our men leave the trenches, nor any sign of that great test of courage when each man depends upon the strength of his own heart, and has no cover behind which to hide any fear that may possess him. What were those cheers? Still the football players, or our soldiers scaling the ridge? Was it only a freak of imagination that made us see masses of dark figures moving over that field in the mist? The guns were firing again continuously, at longer range, to check the enemy's supports.
So the battle went on till darkness began to creep up our hillside, when we made our way down to the valley road and took tea with some of the officers in a house quite close to the zone of fire. Among them were the three remaining officers of a famous regiment—all that were left out of those who had come to France in August of 1914. They were quite cheerful in their manner and made a joke or two when there was any chance. One of them was cutting up a birthday cake, highly emblazoned with sugar-plums and sent out by a pretty sister. It was quite a pleasant little party in the battle zone, and there was a discussion on the subject of temperance, led by an officer who was very keen on total prohibition. The guns did not seem to matter very much as one sat in that cosy room among those cheery men. It was only when we were leaving that one of them took a friend of mine on one side, and said in a kind of whisper, "This war! ... It's pretty rough, isn't it? I'm one of the last men out of the original lot. And, of course, I'm sure to get 'pipped' in a week or two. On the law of averages, you know."
A few days later I saw the wounded of Neuve Chapelle, which was a victory bought at a fearful price. They were streaming down to Boulogne, and the hospital ships were crowded with them. Among them were thousands of Indians who had taken a big share in that battle.
With an Oriental endurance of pain, beyond the courage of most Western men, these men made no moan. The Sikhs, with their finely chiselled features and dreamy inscrutable eyes—many of them bearded men who have served for twenty years in the Indian army— stared about them in an endless reverie as though puzzling out the meaning of this war among peoples who do not speak their tongue, for some cause they do not understand, and in a climate which makes the whole world different to them. What a strange, bewildering mystery it must have seemed to these men, who had come here in loyalty to the great Raj in whom they had faith and for whom they were glad to die. They seemed to be searching out the soul of the war, to find its secret.
The weeks have passed since then, and the war goes on, and the wounded still stream back, and white men as well as dark men ask God to tell them what all this means; and can find no answer to the problem of the horror which has engulfed humanity and made a jungle of Europe in which we fight like beasts.
In this book I have set down simply the scenes and character of this war as they have come before my own eyes and as I have studied them for nearly a year of history. If there is any purpose in what I have written beyond mere record it is to reveal the soul of war so nakedly that it cannot be glossed over by the glamour of false sentiment and false heroics. More passionate than any other emotion that has stirred me through life, is my conviction that any man who has seen these things must, if he has any gift of expression, and any human pity, dedicate his brain and heart to the sacred duty of preventing another war like this. A man with a pen in his hand, however feeble it may be, must use it to tell the truth about the monstrous horror, to etch its images of cruelty into the brains of his readers, and to tear down the veils by which the leaders of the peoples try to conceal its obscenities. The conscience of Europe must not be lulled to sleep again by the narcotics of old phrases about "the ennobling influence of war" and its "purging fires." It must be shocked by the stark reality of this crime in which all humanity is involved, so that from all the peoples of the civilized world there will be a great cry of rage and horror if the spirit of militarism raises its head again and demands new sacrifices of blood and life's beauty.
The Germans have revealed the meaning of war, the devilish soul of it, in a full and complete way, with a most ruthless logic. The chiefs of their great soldier caste have been more honest than ourselves in the business, with the honesty of men who, knowing that war is murder, have adopted the methods of murderers, whole-heartedly, with all the force of their intellect and genius, not weakened by any fear of public opinion, by any prick of conscience, or by any sentiment of compassion. Their logic seems to me flawless, though it is diabolical. If it is permissible to hurl millions of men against each other with machinery which makes a wholesale massacre of life, tearing up trenches, blowing great bodies of men to bits with the single shot of a great gun, strewing battlefields with death, and destroying defended towns so that nothing may live in their ruins, then it is foolish to make distinctions between one way of death and another, or to analyse degrees of horror. Asphyxiating gas is no worse than a storm of shells, or if worse then the more effective.
The lives of non-combatants are not to be respected any more than the lives of men in uniform, for modern war is not a military game between small bodies of professional soldiers, as in the old days, but a struggle to the death between one people and another. The blockading of the enemy's ports, the slow starvation of a besieged city, which is allowed by military purists of the old and sentimental school does not spare the non-combatant. The woman with a baby at her breast is drained of her mother's milk. There is a massacre of innocents by poisonous microbes. So why be illogical and pander to false sentiment? Why not sink the Lusitania and set the waves afloat with the little corpses of children and the beauty of dead women? It is but one more incident of horror in a war which is all horror. Its logic is unanswerable in the Euclid of Hell. ... It is war, and when millions of men set out to kill each other, to strangle the enemy's industries, to ruin, starve, and annihilate him, so that the women may not breed more children, and so that the children shall perish of wide-spread epidemics, then a few laws of chivalry, a little pity here and there, the recognition of a Hague Treaty, are but foolishness, and the weak jugglings of men who try to soothe their conscience with a few drugged tabloids. That at least is the philosophy of the German war lords, and granted the premises that war may be waged by one people against another it seems to me sound and flawless in its abomination.
Germany thrust this thing upon Europe deliberately and after careful preparation. Upon the heads of her diplomats and princes are the blood and the guilt of it, and they stand before the world as murderers with red hands and bloodshot eyes, and souls as black as hell. In this war of self-defence we are justified and need no special pleading to proclaim our cause. We did not want this war, and we went to the extreme limit of patience to avoid it. But if there is to be any hope for humanity we must go deeper into the truth than the mere analysis of White Papers and Yellow Papers with diplomatic correspondence. We must ask ourselves whether in England, France, or Russia, "the defenders of modern civilization," there was any sincerity of belief in the ideals and faith for which civilization stands. Did the leaders of modern thought do anything with their genius or their knowledge to break down old frontiers of hatred, to enlighten the ignorance between one nation and another, or to put such power into the hands of peoples that they might have strength to resist the tyranny of military castes and of military ideals? Have not our politicians and our teachers, with few exceptions, used all their influence to foster dark old superstitions which lurk in such good words as those of patriotism and honour, to keep the people blind so that they might not see the shining light of liberty, and to adulterate the doctrine of Christ which most of them profess, by a gospel of international jealousy based upon trade interests and commercial greed?
The military castes have been supported in Europe by putting the spell of old traditions upon simple peoples. The Christian Churches have bolstered them up and failed utterly to preach the words of peace because in the heart of the priest there is the patriot, so that every Christian nation claims God as a national asset leading its battalions. There will be no hope of peace until the peoples of the world recognize their brotherhood and refuse to be led to the shambles for mutual massacre. If there is no hope of that, if, as some students of life hold, war will always happen because life itself is a continual warfare, and one man lives only at the expense of another, then there is no hope, and all the ideals of men striving for the progress of mankind, all the dreams of poets and the sacrifice of scientists, are utterly vain and foolish, and pious men should pray God to touch this planet with a star and end the folly of it all.