[Sidenote: The Thetis shows the road to all the ships.]
Thetis came first, steaming into a tornado of shell from the great batteries ashore. All her crew, save a remnant who remained to steam her in and sink her, had already been taken off by the ubiquitous motor launches, but the remnant spared hands enough to keep her four guns going. It was hers to show the road to Intrepid and Iphigenia, who followed.
[Sidenote: The Thetis is sunk.]
She cleared the string of armed barges which defends the channel from the tip of the Mole, but had the ill-fortune to foul one of her propellers upon the net defence which flanks it on the shore side. The propeller gathered in the net and rendered her practically unmanageable; the shore batteries found her and pounded her unremittingly; she bumped into a bank, edged off, and found herself in the channel again, still some hundreds of yards from the mouth of the canal, in a practically sinking condition. As she lay she signalled invaluable directions to the others, and here Commander R.S. Sneyd, D.S.O., accordingly blew the charges and sank her. A motor launch, under Lieutenant H. Littleton, R.N.V.R., raced alongside and took off her crew. Her losses were five killed and five wounded.
[Sidenote: The Intrepid follows.]
Intrepid, smoking like a volcano and with all her guns blazing, followed; her motor launch had failed to get alongside outside the harbor, and she had men enough for anything. Straight into the canal she steered, her smoke blowing back from her into Iphigenia's eyes, so that the latter, blinded and going a little wild, rammed a dredger with a barge moored beside it, which lay at the western arm of the canal. She got clear though, and entered the canal pushing the barge before her. It was then that a shell hit the steam connections of her whistle, and the escape of steam which followed drove off some of the smoke and let her see what she was doing.
[Sidenote: Sinking of the Intrepid and the Iphigenia.]
Lieutenant Stuart Bonham-Carter, commanding the Intrepid, placed the nose of his ship neatly on the mud of the western bank, ordered his crew away, and blew up his ship by the switches in the chart-room. Four dull bumps was all that could be heard; and immediately afterwards there arrived on deck the engineer, who had been in the engine-room during the explosion and reported that all was as it should be.
[Sidenote: Probable that the canal is effectively blocked.]
Lieutenant E.W. Billyard-Leake, commanding Iphigenia, beached her according to arrangement on the eastern side, blew her up, saw her drop nicely across the canal, and left her with her engines still going to hold her in position till she should have bedded well down on the bottom. According to latest reports from air observation, the two old ships with their holds full of concrete are lying across the canal in a V position; and it is probable that the work they set out to do has been accomplished and that the canal is effectively blocked.
A motor launch, under Lieutenant P.T. Deane, R.N.V.R., had followed them in to bring away the crews, and waited further up the canal towards the mouth against the western bank. Lieutenant Bonham-Carter, having sent away his boats, was reduced to a Carley float, an apparatus like an exaggerated lifebuoy with a floor of grating. Upon contact with the water it ignited a calcium flare, and he was adrift in the uncanny illumination with a German machine-gun a few hundred yards away giving him its undivided attention.
What saved him was possibly the fact that the defunct Intrepid was still emitting huge clouds of smoke, which it had been worth nobody's while to turn off. He managed to catch a rope as the motor launch started, and was towed for a while till he was observed and taken on board. Another officer jumped ashore and ran along the bank to the launch. A bullet from the machine-gun stung him as he ran, and when he arrived, charging down the bank out of the dark, he was received by a number of the launch's crew who attacked him with a hammer.
[Sidenote: Shells make incessant geysers in the harbor.]
The whole harbor was alive with small craft. As the motor launch cleared the canal, and came forth to the incessant geysers thrown up by the shells, rescuers and rescued had a view of yet another phase of the attack. The shore end of the Mole consists of a jetty, and here an old submarine, commanded by Lieutenant R.D. Sandford, R.N., loaded with explosives, was run into the piles and touched off, her crew getting away in a boat to where the usual launch awaited them.
[Sidenote: An old submarine is blown up.]
Officers describe the explosion as the greatest they ever witnessed—a huge roaring spout of flame that tore the jetty in half and left a gap of over 100 feet. The claim of another launch to have sunk a torpedo-boat alongside the jetty is supported by many observers, including officers of the Vindictive, who had seen her mast and funnel across the Mole and noticed them disappear.
[Sidenote: The splendid heroism of men and officers.]
Where every moment had its deed and every deed its hero, a recital of acts of valor becomes a mere catalogue. "The men were magnificent," say the officers; the men's opinion of their leaders expresses itself in the manner in which they followed them, in their cheers, in their demeanor to-day while they tidy up their battered ships, setting aside the inevitable souvenirs, from the bullet-torn engines to great chunks of Zeebrugge Mole dragged down and still hanging in the fenders of the Vindictive. The motor launch from the canal cleared the end of the Mole and there beheld, trim and ready, the shape of the Warwick, with the great silk flag presented to the Admiral by the officers of his old ship, the Centurion. They stood up on the crowded decks of the little craft and cheered it again and again.
[Sidenote: The Warwick takes off the men from the canal.]
While the Warwick took them on board, they saw Vindictive, towed loose from the Mole by Daffodil, turn and make for home—a great black shape, with funnels gapped and leaning out of the true, flying a vast streamer of flame as her stokers worked her up—her, the almost wreck—to a final display of seventeen knots. Her forward funnel was a sieve; her decks were a dazzle of sparks; but she brought back intact the horseshoe nailed to it, which Sir Roger Keyes had presented to her commander.
[Sidenote: One destroyer, the North Star, is sunk.]
[Sidenote: Monitors and siege guns bombard the enemy.]
Meantime the destroyers North Star, Phoebe, and Warwick, which guarded the Vindictive from action by enemy destroyers while she lay beside the Mole, had their share in the battle. North Star, losing her way in the smoke, emerged to the light of the star-shells, and was sunk. The German communique, which states that only a few members of the crew could be saved by them, is in this detail of an unusual accuracy, for the Phoebe came up under a heavy fire in time to rescue nearly all. Throughout the operations monitors and the siege guns in Flanders, manned by the Royal Marine Artillery, heavily bombarded the enemy's batteries.
[Sidenote: The attack on Ostend.]
The wind that blew back the smoke-screen at Zeebrugge served us even worse off Ostend, where that and nothing else prevented the success of an operation ably directed by Commodore Hubert Lynes, C.M.G. The coastal motor boats had lit the approaches and the ends of the piers with calcium flares and made a smoke-cloud which effectually hid the fact from the enemy. Sirius and Brilliant were already past the Stroom Bank buoy when the wind changed, revealing the arrangements to the enemy, who extinguished the flares with gunfire.
[Sidenote: The Sirius runs aground.]
The Sirius was already in a sinking condition when at length the two ships, having failed to find the entrance, grounded, and were forced therefore to sink themselves at a point about four hundred yards east of the piers, and their crews were taken off by motor launches.
[Sidenote: Operations cannot be rehearsed.]
The difficulty of the operation is to be gauged from the fact that from Zeebrugge to Ostend the enemy batteries number not less than 120 heavy guns, which can concentrate on retiring ships, during daylight, up to a distance of about sixteen miles. This imposes as a condition of success that the operation must be carried out at night, and not late in the night. It must take place at high water, with the wind from the right quarter, and with a calm sea for the small craft. The operation cannot be rehearsed beforehand, since the essence of it is secrecy, and though one might have to wait a long time to realize all the essential conditions of wind and weather, secrecy wears badly when large numbers of men are brought together in readiness for the attack.
[Sidenote: The Vindictive makes for Ostend.]
The Sirius lies in the surf some two thousand yards east of the entrance to Ostend Harbor, which she failed so gallantly to block; and when, in the early hours of yesterday morning, the Vindictive groped her way through the smoke-screen and headed for the entrance, it was as though the old fighting-ship awoke and looked on. A coastal motor-boat had visited her and hung a flare in her slack and rusty rigging; and that eye of unsteady fire, paling in the blaze of the star-shells or reddening through the drift of the smoke, watched the whole great enterprise, from the moment when it hung in doubt to its ultimate triumphant success.
[Sidenote: Unforeseen conditions add to the difficulties.]
[Sidenote: German destroyers guard the coast.]
The planning and execution of that success had been entrusted by the Vice-Admiral, Sir Roger Keyes, to Commodore Hubert Lynes, C.M.G., who directed the previous attempt to block the harbor with Sirius and Brilliant. Upon that occasion, a combination of unforeseen, and unforeseeable, conditions had fought against him; upon this, the main problem was to secure the effect of a surprise attack upon an enemy who was clearly, from his ascertained dispositions, expecting him. Sirius and Brilliant had been baffled by the displacement of the Stroom Bank buoy, which marks the channel to the harbor entrance, but since then aerial reconnaissance had established that the Germans had removed the buoy altogether and that there were now no guiding marks of any kind. They had also cut gaps in the piers as a precaution against a landing; and, further, when towards midnight on Thursday the ships moved from their anchorage, it was known that some nine German destroyers were out and at large upon the coast. The solution of the problem is best indicated by the chronicle of the event.
[Sidenote: A still sea and no moon.]
It was a night that promised well for the enterprise—nearly windless, and what little breeze stirred came from a point or so west of north; a sky of lead-blue, faintly star-dotted, and no moon; a still sea for the small craft, the motor-launches and the coastal motor-boats, whose work is done close in shore. From the destroyer which served the Commodore for flagship, the remainder of the force was visible only as swift silhouettes of blackness, destroyers bulking like cruisers in the darkness, motor-launches like destroyers, and coastal motor-boats showing themselves as racing hillocks of foam. From Dunkirk, a sudden and brief flurry of gunfire announced that German aeroplanes were about—they were actually on their way to visit Calais; and over the invisible coast of Flanders the summer-lightning of the restless artillery rose and fell monotonously.
[Sidenote: Vindictive passes.]
"There's Vindictive!" The muffled seamen and marines standing by the torpedo-tubes and the guns turned at that name to gaze at the great black ship, seen mistily through the streaming smoke from the destroyer's funnels, plodding silently to her goal and her end. Photographs have made familiar that high-sided profile and the tall funnels, with their Zeebrugge scars, always with a background of the pier at Dover against which she lay to be fitted for her last task; now there was added to her the environment of the night and the sea and the greatness and tragedy of her mission.
[Sidenote: Small craft guide the Vindictive.]
She receded into the night astern as the destroyer raced on to lay the light buoy that was to be her guide, and those on board saw her no more. She passed thence into the hands of the small craft, whose mission it was to guide her, light her, and hide her in the clouds of the smoke-screen.
[Sidenote: Precise orders are planned for each stage of operation.]
There was no preliminary bombardment of the harbor and the batteries as before the previous attempt; that was to be the first element in the surprise. A time-table had been laid down for every stage of the operation; and the staff work beforehand had even included precise orders for the laying of the smoke barrage, with plans calculated for every direction of wind. The monitors, anchored in their firing-positions far to seaward, awaited their signal; the great siege batteries of the Royal Marine Artillery in Flanders—among the largest guns that have ever been placed on land-mountings—stood by likewise to neutralize the big German artillery along the coast; and the airmen who were to collaborate with an aerial bombardment of the town waited somewhere in the darkness overhead. The destroyers patrolled to seaward of the small craft.
[Sidenote: The signal is given for the guns to open.]
The Vindictive, always at that solemn gait of hers, found the flagship's light-buoy and bore up for where a coastal motor-boat, commanded by Lieutenant William R. Slayter, R.N., was waiting by a calcium flare upon the old position of the Stroom Bank buoy. Four minutes before she arrived there, and fifteen minutes only before she was due at the harbor mouth, the signal for the guns to open was given. Two motor-boats dashed in towards the ends of the high wooden piers and torpedoed them. There was a machine-gun on the end of the western pier, and that vanished in the roar and the leap of flame and debris which called to the guns. Over the town a flame suddenly appeared high in air, and sank slowly earthwards—the signal that the aeroplanes had seen and understood; and almost coincident with their first bombs came the first shells whooping up from the monitors at sea. The surprise part of the attack was sprung.
[Sidenote: The attack is a complete surprise.]
The surprise, despite the German's watchfulness, seems to have been complete. Up till the moment when the torpedoes of the motor-boats exploded, there had not been a shot from the land—only occasional routine star-shells. The motor-launches were doing their work magnificently. These pocket-warships, manned by officers and men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, are specialists at smoke-production; they built to either hand of the Vindictive's course the likeness of a dense sea-mist driving landward with the wind. The star-shells paled and were lost as they sank in it; the beams of the searchlights seemed to break off short upon its front. It blinded the observers of the great batteries when suddenly, upon the warning of the explosions, the guns roared into action.
[Sidenote: Heavy batteries on the Ostend coast open fire.]
There was a while of tremendous uproar. The coast about Ostend is ponderously equipped with batteries, each with its name known and identified: Tirpitz, Hindenburg, Deutschland, Cecilia, and the rest; they register from six inches up to monsters of fifteen-inch naval pieces in land-turrets, and the Royal Marine Artillery fights a war-long duel with them. These now opened fire into the smoke and over it at the monitors; the Marines and the monitors replied; and, meanwhile, the aeroplanes were bombing methodically and the anti-craft guns were searching the skies for them, Star-shells spouted up and floated down, lighting the smoke banks with spreading green fires; and those strings of luminous green balls, which airmen call "flaming onions," soared up up to lose themselves in the clouds. Through all this stridency and blaze of conflict, the old Vindictive, still unhurrying, was walking the lighted waters towards the entrance.
It was then that those on the destroyers became aware that what had seemed to be merely smoke was wet and cold, that the rigging was beginning to drip, that there were no longer stars—a sea-fog had come on.
[Sidenote: Destroyers keep in touch by lights and sirens.]
The destroyers had to turn on their lights and use their sirens to keep in touch with each other; the air attack was suspended, and Vindictive, with some distance yet to go, found herself in gross darkness.
[Sidenote: The fog and smoke are dense.]
[Sidenote: A motor-boat leads the way for Vindictive.]
There were motor-boats to either side of her, escorting her to the entrance, and these were supplied with what are called Dover flares—enormous lights capable of illuminating square miles of sea at once. A "Very" pistol was fired as a signal to light these; but the fog and the smoke together were too dense for even the flares. Vindictive then put her helm over and started to cruise to find the entrance. Twice in her wanderings she must have passed across it, and at her third turn, upon reaching the position at which she had first lost her way, there came a rift in the mist, and she saw the entrance clear, the piers to either side and the opening dead ahead. The inevitable motor-boat dashed up, raced on into the opening under a heavy and momentarily growing fire, and planted a flare on the water between the piers. Vindictive steamed over it and on. She was in.
[Sidenote: A hail of lead falls upon the Vindictive.]
The guns found her at once. She was hit every few seconds after she entered, her scarred hull broken afresh in a score of places and her decks and upper works swept. The machine-gun on the end of the western pier had been put out of action by the motor-boat's torpedo, but from other machine-guns at the inshore ends of the pier, from a position on the front, and from machine-guns apparently firing over the eastern pier, there converged upon her a hail of lead. The after-control was demolished by a shell which killed all its occupants. Upper and lower bridges and chart-room were swept by bullets, and Commander Godsal, R.N., ordered his officers to go with him to the conning-tower.
[Sidenote: The Vindictive prepares to turn.]
They observed through the observation slit in the steel wall of the conning-tower that the eastern pier was breached some two hundred yards from its seaward end, as though at some time a ship had been in collision with it. They saw the front of the town silhouetted again and again in the light of the guns that blazed at them; the night was a patchwork of fire and darkness. Immediately after passing the breach in the pier. Commander Godsal left the conning-tower and went out on deck, the better to watch the ship's movements; he chose his position, and called in through the slit of the conning-tower his order to starboard the helm. The Vindictive responded; she laid her battered nose to the eastern pier and prepared to swing her 320 feet of length across the channel.
[Sidenote: A shell strikes the conning-tower.]
It was at that moment that a shell from the shore batteries struck the conning-tower. Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne and Lieutenant V.A.C. Crutchley, R.N., were still within; Commander Godsal was close to the tower outside. Lieutenant Alleyne was stunned by the shock; Lieutenant Crutchley shouted through the slit to the Commander, and, receiving no answer, rang the port engine full speed astern to help in swinging the ship. By this time she was lying at an angle of about forty degrees to the pier, and seemed to be hard and fast, so that it was impossible to bring her further round.
[Sidenote: The order is given to abandon ship and the Vindictive sinks in the channel.]
After working the engines for some minutes to no effect, Lieutenant Crutchley gave the order to clear the engine-room and abandon ship, according to the programme previously laid down. Engineer Lieutenant-Commander Wm. A. Bury, who was the last to leave the engine-room, blew the main charges by the switch installed aft; Lieutenant Crutchley blew the auxiliary charges in the forward six-inch magazine from the conning-tower. Those on board felt the old ship shrug as the explosive tore the bottom plates and the bulk-heads from her; she sank about six feet and lay upon the bottom of the channel. Her work was done.
It is to be presumed that Commander Godsal was killed by the shell which struck the conning-tower. Lieutenant Crutchley, searching the ship before he left her, failed to find his body, or that of Sub-Lieutenant MacLachlan, in that wilderness of splintered wood and shattered steel. In the previous attempt to block the port, Commander Godsal had commanded Brilliant, and, together with all the officers of that ship and of Sirius, had volunteered at once for a further operation.
Most of the casualties were incurred while the ship was being abandoned. The men behaved with just that cheery discipline and courage which distinguished them in the Zeebrugge raid.
[Sidenote: Recall rockets are fired from the flagship.]
Always according to programme, the recall rockets for the small craft were fired from the flagship at 2.30 a.m. The great red rockets whizzed up to lose themselves in the fog; they cannot have been visible half a mile away; but the work was done, and one by one the launches and motor-boats commenced to appear from the fog, stopped their engines alongside the destroyers and exchanged news with them. There were wounded men to be transferred and dead men to be reported—their names called briefly across the water from the little swaying deck to the crowded rail above. But no one had seen a single enemy craft; the nine German destroyers who were out and free to fight had chosen the discreeter part.
[Sidenote: Ostend Harbor is thus made impracticable.]
It is not claimed by the officers who carried out the operation that Ostend Harbor is completely blocked; but its purpose—to embarrass the enemy and make the harbor impracticable to any but small craft and dredging operations difficult—has been fully accomplished.
* * * * *
Too little was heard during the war of the work of the American submarines, but they performed most efficient and useful service. A sketch of the life aboard one of these little vessels follows.
WITH THE AMERICAN SUBMARINES
HENRY B. BESTON
[Sidenote: A view of the Embankment.]
A London day of soft and smoky skies, darkened every now and then by capricious and intrusive little showers, was drawing to a close in a twilight of gold and gray. Our table stood in a bay of plate-glass windows overlooking the Embankment close by Cleopatra's Needle. We watched the little double-decked tram-cars gliding by, the opposing, interthreading streams of pedestrians, and a fleet of coal barges coming up the river, solemn as a cloud.
[Sidenote: Submarine folk are a people apart.]
Behind us lay, splendid and somewhat theatric, the mottled marble, stiff white napery, and bright silver of a fashionable dining-hall. Only a few guests were at hand. At our little table sat the captain of a submarine who was then in London for a few days on richly merited leave, a distinguished young officer of the "mother ship" accompanying our underwater craft, and myself. It is impossible to be long with submarine folk without realizing that they are a people apart, differing from the rest of the naval personnel even as their vessels differ. A man must have something individual to his character to volunteer for the service, and every officer is a volunteer. An extraordinary power of quick decision, a certain keen, resolute look, a certain carriage; submarine folk are such men as all of us like to have by our side in any great trial or crisis of our life.
Guests began to come by twos and threes—pretty girls in shimmering dresses, young army officers with wound-stripes and clumsy limps. A faint murmur of conversation rose, faint and continuous as the murmur of a distant stream.
Because I requested him, the captain told me of the crossing of the submarines. It was the epic of an heroic journey.
[Sidenote: How the submarines crossed the Atlantic.]
[Sidenote: The mother-ship and submarines leave.]
"After each boat had been examined in detail, we began to fill them with supplies for the voyage. The crew spent days manoeuvring cases of condensed milk, cans of butter, meat, and chocolate, down the hatchways—food which the boat swallowed up as if she had been a kind of steel stomach. Until we had it all neatly and tightly stowed away, the Z looked like a corner grocery store. Then, early one December morning, we pulled out of the harbor. It wasn't very cold, merely raw and damp, and it was misty dark. I remember looking at the winter stars riding high just over the meridian. The port behind us was still and dead, but a handful of navy-folk had come to one of the wharves to see us off. Yes, there was something of a stir—you know, the kind of stir that's made when boats go to sea: shouted orders, the plash of dropped cables, vagrant noises. It didn't take a great time to get under way; we were ready, waiting for the word to go. The flotilla—mother-ship, tugs and all—was out to sea long before the dawn. You would have liked the picture: the immense stretch of the grayish, winter-stricken sea, the little covey of submarines running awash, the gray mother-ship going ahead, as casually as an excursion steamer, into the featureless dawn.
"The weather was wonderful for two days,—a touch of Indian summer on December's ocean; then, on the night of the third day, we ran into a blow, the worst I ever saw in my life. A storm—oh, boy!"
He paused for an instant. One could see memories living in the fine, resolute eyes. The broken noises of the restaurant, which had seemingly died away while he spoke, crept back again to one's ears. A waiter dropped a clanging fork—
[Sidenote: A terrific storm comes on toward night.]
"A storm. Never remember anything like it. A perfect terror. Everybody realized that any attempt to keep together would be hopeless. And night was coming on. One by one the submarines disappeared into that fury of wind and driving water, the mother-ship, because she was the largest vessel in the flotilla, being the last we saw. We snatched her last signal out of the teeth of the gale, and then she was gone, swallowed up in the storm. So we were alone.
[Sidenote: Rough water the next day.]
"We got through the night somehow or other. The next morning the ocean was a dirty brown-gray, and knots and wisps of cloud were tearing by close over the water. Every once in a while a great hollow-bellied wave would come rolling out of the hullabaloo and break thundering over us. On all the boats the lookout on the bridge had to be lashed in place, and every once in a while a couple of tons of water would come tumbling past him. Nobody at the job stayed dry for more than three minutes; a bathing-suit would have been more to the point than oilers.
[Sidenote: The boat registers a roll of seventy degrees.]
[Sidenote: The cook provides food after a fashion.]
"Shaken, you ask? No, not very bad: a few assorted bruises and a wrenched thumb; though poor Jonesy on the Z-3 had a wave knock him up against the rail and smash in a couple of ribs. But no being sick for him; he kept to his feet and carried on in spite of the pain, in spite of being in a boat which registered a roll of seventy degrees. I used to watch the old hooker rolling under me. You've never been on a submarine when she's rolling,—talk about rolling—oh, boy! We all say seventy degrees, because that's as far as our instruments register. There were times when I almost thought she was on her way to make a complete revolution. You can imagine what it was like inside. To begin with, the oily air was none too sweet, because every time we opened a hatch we shipped enough water to make the old hooker look like a start at a swimming tank; and then she was lurching so continuously and violently that to move six feet was an expedition. The men were wonderful—wonderful! Each man at his allotted task, and—what's that English word?—carrying on. Our little cook couldn't do a thing with the stove, might as well have tried to cook on a miniature earthquake; but he saw that all of us had something to eat—doing his bit, game as could be."
He paused again. The Embankment was fading away in the dark. A waiter appeared, and drew down the thick, light-proof curtains.
"Yes, the men were wonderful—wonderful. And there wasn't very much sickness. Let's see, how far had I got?—Since it was impossible to make any headway, we lay to for forty-eight hours. The deck began to go the second morning, some of the plates being ripped right off. And blow—well, as I told you in the beginning, I never saw anything like it. The disk of the sea was just one great ragged mass of foam being hurled through space by a wind screaming past with the voice and force of a million express trains.
[Sidenote: The submarines run on the surface to save electricity.]
"Perhaps you are wondering why we didn't submerge. We simply couldn't use up our electricity. It takes oil and running on the surface to create the electric power, and we had a long, long journey ahead. Then ice began to form on the superstructure, and we had to get out a crew to chop it off. It was something of a job; there wasn't much to hang on to, and the waves were still breaking over us. But we freed her of the danger, and she went on—
"We used to wonder where the other boys were, in the midst of all the racket. One ship was drifting toward the New England coast, her compass smashed to flinders; others had run for Bermuda, others were still at sea.
[Sidenote: Good weather at last.]
"Then we had three days of good easterly wind. By jingo, but the good weather was great! Were we glad to have it?—oh, boy! We had just got things shipshape again when we had another blow, but this second one was by no means as bad as the first. And after that we had another spell of decent weather. The crew used to start the phonograph and keep it going all day.
[Sidenote: Reaching a friendly coast.]
"The weather was so good that I decided to keep right on to the harbor which was to be our base over here. I had enough oil, plenty of water; the only possible danger was a shortage of provisions. So I put us all on a ration, arranging to have the last grand meal on Christmas day. Can you imagine Christmas on a little storm-bumped submarine some hundred miles off the coast? A day or two more and we ran calmly into—shall we say, 'deleted' harbor?
[Sidenote: The men rejoice at food and baths.]
"Hungry, dirty; oh, so dirty! We hadn't had any sort of bath or wash for about three weeks; we all were green-looking from having been cooped up so long, and our unshaven grease-streaked faces would have upset a dinosaur. The authorities were wonderfully kind, and looked after us and our men in the very best style. I thought we could never stop eating, and a real sleep—oh, boy!"
"Did you fly the flag as you came in?" I asked.
"You bet we did!" answered the captain, his keen, handsome face lighting at the memory. "You see," he continued in a practical spirit, "they would probably have pumped us full of holes if we hadn't."
And that is the way the American submarines crossed the Atlantic to do their share for the Great Cause.
[Sidenote: A guest on the mother-ship.]
I got to the port of the submarines just as an uncertain and rainy afternoon had finally decided to turn into a wild and disagreeable night. Short, drenching showers of rain fell, one after the other, like the strokes of a lash; a wind came up out of the sea, and one could hear the thunder of surf on the headlands. The mother-ship lay moored in a wild, desolate, and indescribably romantic bay; she floated in a sheltered pool, a very oasis of modernity, a marvelous creature of another world and another time. There was just light enough for me to see that her lines were those of a giant yacht. Then a curtain of rain beat hissing down on the sea, and the ship and the vague darkening landscape disappeared—disappeared as if they had melted away in the shower. Presently the bulk of the vessel appeared again. At once we drew alongside, and from that moment on, I was the guest of the vessel, recipient of a hospitality and courtesy for which I here make grateful acknowledgment to my friends and hosts.
[Sidenote: The ship is most skillfully handled.]
The mother-ship of the submarines was a combination of flagship, supply-station, repair-shop, and hotel. The officers of the submarines had rooms aboard her, which they occupied when off patrol, and the crews off duty slung their hammocks 'tween decks. The boat was pretty well crowded, having more submarines to look after than she had been built to care for; but thanks to the skill of her officers, everything was going as smoothly as could be. The vessel had, so to speak, a submarine atmosphere. Everybody aboard lived, worked, and would have died for the submarine. They believed in the submarine, believed in it with an enthusiasm which rested on pillars of practical fact.
[Sidenote: The heroism of the men who tried the first submarine.]
The chief of staff was the youngest captain in our navy; a man of hard energy and keen insight; one to whom our submarine service owes a very genuine debt. His officers were specialists: the surgeon of the vessel had been for years engaged in studying the hygiene of submarines, and was constantly working to free the atmosphere of the vessels from deleterious gases and to improve the living conditions of the crews. I remember listening one night to a history of the submarine, told by one of the officers of the staff; and for the first time in my life I came to appreciate at its full value the heroism of the men who risked their lives in the first cranky, clumsy, uncertain little vessels, and the imagination and the faith of the men who believed in the type. Ten years ago, a descent in a sub was an adventure to be prefaced by tears and making of wills; to-day submarines are chasing submarines hundreds of miles at sea, are crossing the ocean, and have grown from a tube of steel not much larger than a lifeboat, to underwater cruisers which carry six-inch guns.
Said an officer to me, "The future of the submarine? Why, sir, the submarine is the only war vessel that's going to have a future!"
[Sidenote: The submarines are moved alongside.]
On the night of my arrival, once dinner was over, I went on deck and looked down through the rain at the submarines moored alongside. They lay close by, one beside the other, in a pool of radiance cast by a number of electric lights hanging over each open hatchway. Beyond this pool lay the rain and the dark; within it, their sides awash in the clear green water of the bay, their gray bridges and rust-stained superstructures shining in the rain, lay the strange, bulging, crocodilian shapes of steel. There was something unearthly, something not of this world or time, in the picture; I might have been looking at invaders of the sleeping earth. The wind swept past in great booming salvoes; rain fell in sloping, liquid rods through the brilliancy of electric lamps burning with a steadiness that had something in it strange, incomprehensible, and out of place in the motion of the storm.
And then a hand appeared on the topmost rung of the nearer ladder, and a bulky sailor, a very human sailor in very human dungarees, poked his head out of the aperture, surveyed the inhospitable night, and disappeared.
[Sidenote: Submarines are going out to-night.]
"He's on Branch's boat. They're going out to-night," said the officer who was guiding me about.
"To-night? How on earth will he ever find his way to the open sea?"
"Knows the bay like a book. However, if the weather gets any worse, I doubt if the captain will let him go. Branch will be wild if they don't let him out. Somebody has just reported wreckage off the coast, so there must be a Hun round."
"But aren't our subs sometimes mistaken for Germans?"
"Oh, yes," was the calm answer.
[Sidenote: The boats may never come back.]
I thought of that ominous phrase I had noted in the British records,—"failed to report,"—and I remembered the stolid British captain who had said to me, speaking of submarines, "Sometimes nobody knows just what happened. Out there in the deep water, whatever happens, happens in a hurry."
My guide and I went below to the officers' corridor. Now and then, through the quiet, a mandolin or guitar could be heard far off twanging some sentimental island ditty; and beneath these sweeter sounds lay a monotonous mechanical humming.
"What's that sound?" I asked.
"That's the Filipino mess-boys having a little festino in their quarters. The humming? Oh, that's the mother-ship's dynamos charging the batteries of Branch's boat. Saves running on the surface."
[Sidenote: The captain of the patrol cheerful.]
My guide knocked at a door. Within his tidy little room, the captain who was to go out on patrol was packing the personal belongings he needed on the trip.
"Hello!" he cried cheerily when he saw us; "come on in. I'm only doing a little packing up. What's it like outside?"
"Raining same as ever, but I don't think it's blowing up any harder."
[Sidenote: Reading matter is in demand.]
"Hooray!" cried the young captain with heartfelt sincerity; "then I'll get out to-night. You know the captain told me that if it got any worse, he'd hold me till to-morrow morning. I told him I'd rather go out to-night. Perfect cinch once you get to the mouth of the bay; all you have to do is submerge and take it easy. What do you think of the news? Smithie thinks he saw a Hun yesterday. Got anything good to read? Somebody's pinched that magazine I was reading. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—that ought to be enough handkerchiefs. Hello, there goes the juice!"
The humming of the dynamo was dying away slowly, fading with an effect of lengthening distance. The guitar orchestra, as if to celebrate its deliverance, burst into a triumphant rendering of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes."
My guide and I waited till after midnight to watch the going of Branch's Z-5. Branch and his second, stuffed into black oilskins down whose gleaming surface ran beaded drops of rain, stood on the bridge; a number of sailors were busy doing various things along the deck. The electric lights shone in all their calm unearthly brilliance. Then slowly, very slowly, the Z-5 began to gather headway, the clear water seemed to flow past her green sides, and she rode out of the pool of light into the darkness waiting close at hand.
"Good-bye! Good luck!" we cried.
A vagrant shower came roaring down into the shining pool.
"Good-bye!" cried voices through the night.
[Sidenote: The submarines disappear in the dark.]
Three minutes later all trace of the Z-5 had disappeared in the dark.
[Sidenote: Night and day are the same on a submarine.]
Captain Bill of the Z-3 was out on patrol. His vessel was running submerged. The air within—they had but recently dived—was new and sweet; and that raw cold which eats into submerged submarines had not begun to take the joy out of life. It was the third day out; the time, five o'clock in the afternoon. The outer world, however, did not penetrate into the submarine. Night or day, on the surface or submerged, only one time, a kind of motionless electric high noon, existed within those concave walls of gleaming cream-white enamel.
Those of the crew not on watch were taking it easy. Like unto their officers, submarine sailors are an unusual lot. They are real sailors, or machinist sailors—boys for whose quality the navy has a flattering, picturesque, and quite unprintable adjective. A submarine man, mind you, works harder than perhaps any other man of his grade in the navy, because the vessel in which he lives is nothing but a tremendously intricate machine.
[Sidenote: Life on board.]
In one of the compartments the phonograph, the eternal, ubiquitous phonograph of the navy, was bawling its raucous rags and mechano-nasal songs, and in the pauses between records, one could just hear the low hum of the distant dynamos. A little group in blue dungarees held a conversation in a corner; a petty officer, blue cap tilted back on his head, was at work on a letter; the cook, whose genial art was customarily under an interdict while the vessel was running submerged, was reading an ancient paper from his own home town.
[Sidenote: News of a German submarine.]
Captain Bill sat in a retired nook, if a submarine can possibly be said to have a retired nook, with a chart spread open on his knees. The night before, he had picked up a wireless message saying that a German had been seen at sundown in a certain spot on the edge of his patrol. So Captain Bill had planned to run submerged to the spot in question, and then pop up suddenly in the hope of potting the Hun. Some fifteen minutes before sundown, therefore, the Z-3 arrived at the place where the Fritz had been observed.
"I wish I knew just where the bird was," said an intent voice; "I'd drop a can right on his neck."
[Sidenote: The sentiments of the captain of a destroyer.]
These sentiments were not those of anybody aboard the Z-3. An American destroyer had also come to the spot looking for the German, and the gentle thought recorded above was that of her captain. It was just sundown; a level train of splendor burned on the ruffled waters to the west; a light, cheerful breeze was blowing. The destroyer, ready for anything, was hurrying along at a smart clip.
"This is the place all right, all right," said the navigator of the destroyer. "Come to think of it, that chap's been reported from here twice."
Keen eyes swept the shining uneasy plain.
[Sidenote: How a submarine crew takes orders.]
Meanwhile, some seventy feet below, the Z-3 manoeuvred, killing time. The phonograph had been hushed, and every man was ready at his post. The prospect of a go with the enemy had brought with it a keen thrill of anticipation. Now, a submarine crew is a well-trained machine. There are no shouted orders. If a submarine captain wants to send his boat under quickly, he simply touches the button of a Klaxon; the horn gives a demoniac yell throughout the ship, and each man does what he ought to do at once. Such a performance is called a "crash dive."
"I'd like to see him come up so near that we could ram him," said the captain, gazing almost directly into the sun. "Find out what she's making."
[Sidenote: Getting up speed.]
The engineer lieutenant stooped to a voice-tube that almost swallowed up his face, and yelled a question to the engine-room. An answer came, quite unheard by the others.
"Twenty-four, sir," said the engineer lieutenant.
"Get her up to twenty-six."
The engineer cried again through the voice-tube. The wake of the vessel roared like a mill-race, the white foam tumbling rosily in the setting sun.
[Sidenote: Seventy feet below the surface.]
Seventy feet below, Captain Bill was arranging the last little details with the second in command.
[Sidenote: The plan of attack.]
"In about five minutes we'll come up and take a look-see [stick up the periscope], and if we see the bird, and we're in a good position to send him a fish [torpedo], we'll let him have one. If there is something there, and we're not in a good position, we'll manoeuvre till we get into one, and then let him have it. If there isn't anything to be seen, we'll go under again and take another look-see in half an hour. Reilly has his instructions." (Reilly was chief of the torpedo-room.)
[Sidenote: Wreckage all about.]
"Something round here must have got it in the neck recently," said the destroyer captain, breaking a silence which had hung over the bridge. "Didn't you think that wreckage a couple of miles back looked pretty fresh? Wonder if the boy we're after had anything to do with it. Keep an eye on that sun-streak."
[Sidenote: A crash dive to avoid a destroyer.]
An order was given in the Z-3. It was followed instantly by a kind of commotion—sailors opened valves, compressed air ran down pipes, the ratchets of the wheel clattered noisily. On the moon-faced depth-gauge, with its shining brazen rim, the recording arrow fled swiftly, counter clockwise, from seventy to twenty, to fifteen feet. Captain Bill stood crouching at the periscope, and when it broke the surface, a greenish light poured down it and focused in his eyes. He gazed keenly for a few seconds, and then reached for the horizontal wheel which turns the periscope round the horizon. He turned—gazed, jumped back, and pushed the button for a crash dive.
"She was almost on top of me," he explained afterwards, "coming like hell! I had to choose between being rammed or depth-bombed."
There was another swift commotion, another opening and closing of valves, and the arrow on the depth-gauge leaped forward. Captain Bill was sending her down as far as he could, as fast as he dared. Fifty feet, seventy feet—ninety feet. Hoping to throw the destroyer off, the Z-3 doubled on her track. A hundred feet.
Crash! Depth-charge number one.
[Sidenote: Depth bombs explode near by.]
[Sidenote: The submarine's peril.]
According to Captain Bill, who is good at similes, it was as if a giant, wading along through the sea, had given the boat a vast and violent kick, and then, leaning down, had shaken her as a terrier shakes a rat. The Z-3 rocked, lay on her side, and fell through the water. A number of lights went out. Men picked themselves out of corners, one with the blood streaming down his face from a bad gash over his eye. Many of them told later of "seeing stars" when the vibration of the depth-charge traveled through the hull and their own bodies; some averred that "white light" seemed to shoot out of the Z-3's walls. Each man stood at his post waiting for the next charge.
Crash! A second depth-charge. To everyone's relief, it was less violent than the first. A few more lights went out. Meanwhile the Z-3 continued to sink and was rapidly nearing the danger-point. Having escaped the first two depth-charges, Captain Bill hastened to bring the boat up to a higher level. Then, to make things cheerful, it was discovered that the Z-3 showed absolutely no inclination to obey her controls.
[Sidenote: Anxious moments before the submarine rises again.]
"At first," said Captain Bill, "I thought that the first depth-bomb must have jammed all the external machinery; then I decided that our measures to rise had not yet overcome the impetus of our forced descent. Meanwhile the old hooker was heading for the bottom of the Irish Sea, though I'd blown out every bit of water in her tanks. Had to—fifty feet more, and she would have crushed in like an egg-shell under the wheel of a touring-car. But she kept on going down. The distance of the third, fourth, and fifth depth-bombs, however, put cheer in our hearts. Then, presently, she began to rise; the old girl came up like an elevator in a New York business block. I knew that the minute I came to the surface those destroyer brutes would try to fill me full of holes, so I had a man with a flag ready to jump on deck the minute we emerged. He was pretty damn spry about it, too. I took another look through the periscope, and saw that the destroyer lay about two miles away, and as I looked she came for me again. Meanwhile, my signal-man was hauling himself out of the hatchway as if his legs were in boiling water."
[Sidenote: The Stars and Stripes signal to the destroyer.]
"We've got her!" cried somebody aboard the destroyer, in a deep American voice full of the exultation of battle. The lean rifles swung, lowered. "Point one, lower." They were about to hear "Fire!" when the Stars and Stripes and sundry other signals burst from the deck of the misused Z-3.
"Well, what do you think of that!" said the gunner. "If it ain't one of our own gang. Say, we must have given it to 'em hard."
"We'll go over and see who it is," said the captain of the destroyer. "The signals are O.K., but it may be a dodge of the Huns. Ask 'em who they are."
In obedience to the order, a sailor on the destroyer's bridge wigwagged the message.
"Z-3," answered one of the dungaree-clad figures on the submarine's deck.
[Sidenote: No resentment of the adventure.]
Captain Bill came up himself, as the destroyer drew alongside, to see his would-be assassin. There was no resentment in his heart. The adventure was only part of the day's work. The destroyer neared; her bow overlooked them. The two captains looked at each other. The dialogue was laconic.
"Hello, Bill," said the destroyer captain. "All right?"
"Sure," answered Captain Bill, to one who had been his friend and classmate.
"Ta-ta, then," said he of the destroyer; and the lean vessel swept away in the twilight.
[Sidenote: The cook's opinion of the destroyers.]
Captain Bill decided to stay on the surface for a while. Then he went below to look over things. The cook, standing over some unlovely slop which marked the end of a half a dozen eggs broken by the concussion, was giving his opinion on destroyers. The cook was a child of Brooklyn, and could talk. The opinion was not a nice opinion.
"Give it to 'em, cooko," said one of the crew, patting the orator affectionately on the shoulder. "We're with you."
And Captain Bill laughed to himself.
The breakfast-hour was drawing to its end, and the very last straggler sat alone at the ward-room table. Presently an officer of the mother-ship, passing through, called to the lingering group of submarine officers.
[Sidenote: The first of the flotilla to return.]
"The X-4 is coming up the bay, and the X-12 has been reported from signal station."
The news was received with a little hum of friendly interest. "Wonder what Ned will have to say for himself this time." "Must have struck pretty good weather." "Bet you John has been looking for another chance at that Hun of his."
[Sidenote: The appearance of the crew.]
The talk drifted away into other channels. A little time passed. Then suddenly a door opened, and, one after the other, entered the three officers of the first home-coming submarine. They were clad in various ancient uniforms which might have been worn by an apprentice lad in a garage: old gray flannel shirts, and stout grease-stained shoes; several days had passed since their faces had felt a razor, and all were a little pale from their cruise. But the liveliest of keen eyes burned in each resolute young face, eyes smiling and glad.
A friendly hullabaloo broke forth. Chairs scraped, one fell with a crash.
"For the love of Pete, Joe, shave off those whiskers of yours; they make you look like Trotzky."
"See any Germans?"
"What's the news?"
"Hi, Manuelo"—this to a Filipino mess-boy who stood looking on with impassive curiosity—"serve three more breakfasts."
"Anything go for you?"
"Well, if here isn't our old Bump!"
[Sidenote: Captain Ned begins his story.]
The crowd gathered round Captain Ned, who had established contact (this is a military term quite out of place in a work on the navy) with the eagerly sought, horribly elusive German.
"Go on, Ned, give us an earful. What time did you say it was?"
[Sidenote: An enemy submarine that escaped.]
"About 5 a.m." answered the captain. He stood leaning against a door, and the fine head, the pallor, the touch of fatigue, all made a very striking and appealing picture. "Say about eight minutes after five. I'd just come up to take a look-see, and saw him just about two miles away, on the surface, and moving right along. So I went under to get into a good position, came up again, and let him have one. Well, he saw it just as it was almost on him, swung her round, and dived like a ton of lead."
The audience listened in silent sympathy. One could see the disappointment on the captain's face.
"Where was he?"
"That's the jinx that got after the convoy sure as you live."
[Sidenote: Two blind ships that tried to find each other under water.]
The speaker had had his own adventures with the Germans. A month or so before, he had shoved up his periscope and spotted a Fritz on the surface in full noonday. The watchful Fritz, however, had been lucky enough to see the enemy almost at once, and had dived. The American followed suit. The eyeless submarine manoeuvred about, some eighty feet under, the German evidently "making his getaway," the American hoping to be lucky enough to pick up Fritz's trail, and get a shot at him when he rose again to the top. And while the two blind ships manoeuvred there in the dark of the abyss, the keel of the fleeing German had actually, by a curious chance, scraped along the top of the American vessel and carried away the wireless aerials!
All were silent for a few seconds, thinking over the affair. It was not difficult to read the thought in every mind, the thought of getting at the Germans. The characteristic aggressiveness of the American mind, heritage of a people compelled to subdue a vast, wild continent, is a wonderful military attribute. The idea of our navy is, "Get after 'em, keep after 'em, stay after 'em, don't give 'em an instant of security or rest." And none have this fighting spirit deeper in their hearts than our gallant boys of the submarine patrol.
"That's all," said Captain Ned. "I'm going to have a wash-up." He lifted a grease-stained hand to his cheek, rubbed his unshaven beard, and grinned. "Any letters?"
"Whole bag of stuff. Smithie put it on your desk."
[Sidenote: "Trotzky" and "Rasputin."]
Captain Ned wandered off. Presently, the door opened again, and three more veterans of the patrol cruised in, also in ancient uniforms. There were more cheers; more friendly cries. It was unanimously decided that the "Trotzky" of the first lot had better take a back seat, since the second in command of the newcomers was "a perfect ringer for Rasputin."
[Sidenote: A British patrol hunts a lost torpedo.]
"Nothing much. There's a bit of wreckage just off shore. Saw a British patrol boat early Tuesday morning. I was on the surface, lying between her and the sunrise; she was hidden by a low-lying swirl of fog; she saw us first. When we saw her, I made signals, and over she came. Guess what the old bird wanted—wanted to know if I'd seen a torpedo he'd fired at me! An old scout with white whiskers; one of those retired captains, I suppose, who has gone back on the job. He admitted he had received the Admiralty notes about us, but thought we acted suspicious. Did you ever hear of such nerve?"
[Sidenote: Courage of the submarine patrol.]
When the war was young, I served on land with messieurs les poilus. I have seen the contests of aviators, also trench-raids and the fighting for Verdun. Since then I have seen the war at sea. To my mind, if there is one service of this war which more than any other requires those qualities of endurance, skill, and courage whose blend the fighting men call—Elizabethanly, but oh, so truly—"guts," it is the submarine patrol.
Copyright, Atlantic Monthly, October, 1918.
* * * * *
France took tender care of her wounded heroes, and the following narrative gives a number of touching incidents observed by one who visited several of the French hospitals and received stories and experiences from the wounded soldiers.
WOUNDED HEROES OF FRANCE
ABBE FELIX KLEIN
The descriptions which are to follow belong to history already ancient; to the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. So rapid is the march of events with us now!
[Sidenote: The enthusiasm of a wounded soldier in 1914.]
The soldier wounded during the first months of the War came to us overflowing with enthusiasm, eager to express himself. His mind was full of picturesque and varied impressions and he asked for nothing better than to tell about them. Willingly he described the emotions and spirit of the moment of departure; his curiosity in the presence of the unknown, the shock of the first contact with the enemy, the dizzy joy of initial successes. He confessed the amazement and pain of the first checks and the headlong retreat which followed them. He spoke of the famous Joffre's "ordre du jour" when, in the battle of the Marne, the men were told to take the offensive. They stopped the enemy. They pursued him. They experienced the intoxication of a victory that gave back to France her old prestige and felt with certainty, although at first confusedly, that their battle was a decisive event in human history.
[Sidenote: The wounded of 1918 reflect the long tragedy.]
[Sidenote: They have faced terrible new weapons.]
To this brilliant and epic beginning succeeded a long and sombre tragedy, to this Iliad worthy of a Homer an Inferno worthy of a Dante. So we cannot wonder that the wounded of 1918 differed from those of 1914, and that their faces, like the face of the Florentine poet returning from hell, reflected the terrible things through which they had passed. The suffering of years, the eternal waiting for a decision of arms that did not come, the increasing horror of confronting weapons unknown in the early months—heavy artillery, gas, liquid fire, aeroplane attacks—left their mark upon our soldiers.
Dante imagines the terrible things he recounts. Our soldiers have seen them face to face. New Year after New Year has come and gone, and found them living underground, in constant danger of unseen and unavoidable forms of death, huddled together in damp, dark holes, exposed to rain and snow and shell fire. Rarely was there fighting—as we used to understand the term—but daily death took its toll, and ill and wounded were evacuated to the rear.
[Sidenote: Modern battle has become a scientific operation.]
Ardor they certainly retained for the assault, and heroism for confronting sheets of fire, or clouds of asphyxiating gas; but in the scientific operation which the modern battle has become, most things that are purely personal are more to be dreaded than desired, a fiery temper counts for much less than coolness, discipline, mastery of self, the spirit of abnegation and self-sacrifice. And when the battle was won, that is to say, when they had taken, not a town with a resounding name, but the ruins of a village, a treeless forest, a dismantled fort, a hill thirty metres high, the survivors still had a task before them which had lost none of its roughness or austerity. They had to organize the new position in haste, dig other shelters, undergo bombardments and reject counter-attacks, all the more violent because the enemy, supported in the rear by positions prepared in advance, was more furious than ever after defeat. Thus it continued—until now, even now, when under the irresistible pressure of the French, the English and the Americans, the German wall is crumbling. At last it will be broken, and the victorious flood of the armies of democracy will pass through. Then our invaded provinces and the sacred soil of Belgium will be freed; then the conditions of just and honorable peace among all the nations of the earth may be dictated on the banks of the Rhine—or farther, if necessary.
[Sidenote: Patience and tenacity are necessary.]
But to support, while we waited, the monotonous trench-life to accomplish the rapid nocturnal raids or the formidable exploits of the great days and weeks of offensive, required more than that brilliant quality of our fathers, the furia francese that was the synonym of overwhelming courage and the ardor which commands victory. Patience to wait, resignation to accept, tenacity to prolong efforts, deliberate and indomitable will to overcome trials, within and without and to press on to the distant goal of final victory were above all things necessary.
[Sidenote: "To the end!"]
These qualities, summed up in one expression: "To the end!" so profoundly different from those which hitherto have passed as characteristic of our race, were the ones most noticeable in our combatant of the fourth year of the War. Youthful enthusiasm was no more; each man numbered the dangers run, each man took clear account of those to come.
[Sidenote: Patriotism becomes a passion.]
Only austere love of duty can sustain a man at such a height. A schoolmaster-sergeant of Lyon, Philippe Gonnard, voices it to a friend inclined to pity him: he was ill enough to get his freedom, but wished, nevertheless, to keep at his post until he was killed: "I intend to stay at the front.... Patriotism for me is a passion. Does that mean that I am happy here far from all I love? You do not think that and I have often said I am not, in prose and verse. But from now until peace, no man of heart can be happy. If I came back, I should be still less happy, because instead of being dissatisfied with my lot, I should be dissatisfied with myself."
[Sidenote: Strong will and nobility of soul.]
More or less consciously, this was the rock bottom of the character of the soldier of France after three and a half years of war: "Will always on the stretch, anguish conquered, melancholy transformed into nobility of soul—as long as literature does not portray these essential traits of the soldier," says one of our best author-combatants, "all it creates will only be artificial and bear no relation to reality."
[Sidenote: "No matter, it is for France."]
"No matter, it is for France!" says the wounded soldier to the comrades bending over him, and if it is during an attack he tells them not to stop, not to carry him away "because it is no longer worth while," but to continue without him the noble work for which he is offering his life. Let a chaplain bring him divine help in time and he will die more than resigned, joyous and radiant in the faith of his childhood, bewailing his sins and kissing the crucifix like the French of the Middle Ages. How many times, in the horrible frame of modern war, have words been uttered, scenes enacted, agonies suffered which echoed the most sublime passages of the Chanson de Roland!
[Sidenote: Most of the wounded recover.]
[Sidenote: Many times wounded.]
But, thank God, among those who fall without being killed outright, the minority are mortally wounded. Most of them are destined to get well or at least to survive: they know it, and are glad. As soon as they regain consciousness after the shock, the first idea is: "Am I really not dead?" To be wounded does not disconcert them at all. "We are here for that!" said, the other day, one of my young friends of the class 1915, who by exception has been preserved until now. The alternative, in this present War, is not to come out of it wounded, or unwounded, but wounded or dead: to escape death is all that one can reasonably ask. Men who have only been wounded once, are more and more scarce, some have returned to the front four or five times. We had at the hospital a year ago an American sergeant of the Foreign Legion, engaged at Orleans in August, 1914, who having fought in Champagne, on the Somme and in Alsace, had received three wounds, the last at the end of 1915, at Belloy-en-Santerre, when a German bomb had badly damaged his left thigh: "the last" up to that time, for he had to go back under fire and will in all probability receive a fourth wound.
[Sidenote: The slightly wounded are lucky.]
[Sidenote: The most unfortunate.]
Those slightly wounded have not much merit, it must be confessed, in being resigned or even joyful. After a rapid dressing at the first station they will rest several days at the hospital at the front, and then get leave of convalescence which they will pass with their families. A wound for them, who can bear a little suffering, means an unexpected holiday and supplementary permission. They are only sorry if they are hit stupidly, out of action or at the beginning of a well-prepared attack, and prevented from going on with it. Let us leave them to their good luck, and stay longer with the severely wounded, those, for instance, who have a leg or arm broken, a fractured jaw, vertebra or ribs bruised, or are deprived of one of their senses—blind, deaf, paralyzed. We unhesitatingly acknowledge that these three last categories of wounded feel their misery profoundly, and need time to get used to it. Those, happily much more numerous, who have only temporarily or permanently lost the use of one of their limbs, generally consider themselves very fortunate. "I have the good wound!" they affect to say, meaning that the War is over for them. So at least they express themselves, not at all wishing to be admired, and trying as it were, to minimize their courage in bearing their trial.
[Sidenote: Self-sacrifice of the wounded.]
[Sidenote: "Arise, ye dead!"]
But aside from this paradoxical attitude, they frequently speak and act in the most simple, touching way! It is common to hear one say to the stretcher-bearer who comes to fetch him: "Take my comrade here first; he is much more wounded than I; I can wait...." And that when it means lying on the ground under the bombardment, thirsty, feverish, feeling his strength ebb with his blood. Before any one comes back to get him, often he will try again, if he has a sound arm left, to fire his rifle or his machine-gun once more. Glory surrounds the epic incident of the trench where the only unwounded soldier, seeing the enemy arrive, cried out as if in delirium: "Arise, ye dead!" and the dying really rose, and succeeded, some of them, in firing once more before they fell again, and the assailants fled. A more recent and simpler deed is also worth recording.
[Sidenote: A dead observer protects his pilot.]
Returning from a bombardment of the enemy's factories in broad daylight, a French machine conducted by two men was attacked by several aviators. The observer, hit by a ball in the chest, dropped down into the carlingue. The pilot seeing this prepared to turn back. But hearing his machine-gun firing again, he concluded that the observer was not seriously hurt. As soon as he landed in France: "Well, what about that wound?" he asked. No answer. He bent down and saw that his companion was dead. Even in his agony he had continued to protect his comrade.
In the beginning of the War the wounded stayed a long, a very long time without being rescued, at the place where they fell, or in the shelter to which they had been able to crawl. Our stretcher-bearers of the American Ambulance found, after the battle of the Marne, many who had lain for days and nights in shell holes, at the foot of trees, in ruined barns or churches! One may guess what the mortality might be! Today, happily, it is no longer so. The field of action is more restricted and the aid is better organized.
[Sidenote: Transportation is painful and dangerous.]
[Sidenote: Relief at the first dressing station.]
[Sidenote: The nurses devoted and the sufferers resigned.]
If transportation, however, is less retarded than three years ago, it is still painful and rather dangerous. Even when a special passage has been dug before the attack for the evacuation of the wounded, all jolts are not avoided in this dark and narrow way; but in going through the ordinary passage-ways, dangerous and unseen obstacles are often encountered—crumbling earth, perhaps, or convoys going in the opposite direction. If they heeded the wounded soldier, the stretcher-bearers would go on open ground. This he frequently does, if he is at all able to get on without aid; once hit he thinks himself invulnerable—a singular illusion which has brought about many catastrophes. At the first dressing-station and at the front hospital, relief begins. In ordinary times, this will be quite complete, and the wounded will not be carried to the rear until they are really able to stand the journey. But while the battle is on, they must go in the greatest haste: the worst cases are thoroughly cared for; the badly hurt who can be moved receive the attention which enables them to depart speedily; the slight cases have to be content with summary consideration. Here one sees the devotion of the nurses and the resignation of the sufferers, and better than resignation: the noble effort not to moan, the murmured prayer, the forgetfulness of self, eagerness to ask news of the fight. Among the falsities of a book a thousand times too vaunted (falsities due not so much to the lie direct as to the constant dwelling on odious details, and the suppression of admirable facts), nothing is farther from the truth than the picture of a hospital at the front where one hears and sees only blaspheming and rebellious men. With most of the wounded who have spoken to me about it in our hospital, and who certainly had the right to bear witness, we proclaim loudly that if the French army had been such as the work in question paints it in this passage and in many others, the War would have ended long ago, and history would never have known the names of the Marne, nor the Yser, nor Verdun, nor the Chemin-des-Dames.
[Sidenote: A true picture of our Ambulance at the front.]
A true picture of an Ambulance at the front, overflowing with wounded the evening of a battle, I find in these lines by an eyewitness: "Some moderate complaints among the crowded stretchers: one asks for a drink, one wants relief for pain, a bed, a dressing, to be quickly attended. But let some story be told in the group, some incident come out like a trumpet-call, all faces brighten, the men lift themselves a little, the mirage of glory gives them heart again. I commemorate with piety the anonymous example of a little Zouave, doubled over on himself, holding his bullet-pierced abdomen in both hands, whom I heard gently asked: 'Well, little one, how goes it?' Oh, very well, mon Lieutenant, our company has passed the road from B—— to the south; we had gotten there when I was knocked out. It's all right; we are smashing them!"
[Sidenote: Their first thought for victory.]
I, personally, received such answers from wounded who came to us from the Chemin-des-Dames, or from the fort of Malmaison. When I asked for news, my mind preoccupied with their individual sufferings, their first thought was to tell me of the victory. The ordinary French phrase for "How are you? Comment ca va-t-il?" (literally: How goes it?) may apply to an event or to a person. This being so, it is never of himself that the newly-wounded soldier thinks, but of what is interesting to everybody—the common success. I went to welcome a patient brought in October 26th and asked: "You came tonight?"
"Not too tired by the journey?"
"No, not too much."
"Jaw pierced by a bullet, arm broken, wound in the thigh."
"How goes it?"
[Sidenote: The wounded are delighted with the success of the attack.]
"Very well! The wounded who came to the hospital at the front were delighted, we had gotten everything we were trying for!"
"You were in the attack?"
"Unfortunately no, I was wounded the day before."
"In the bombardment?"
"Yes, while we were filling up the trenches to make a way for the tanks toward the fort of Malmaison."
"That must have been pretty constant thundering?"
"Yes, but very soon we did not think of it. In the little bombardments you hear the shells coming and try to get to shelter, but, in those great days, when it is going on all the time, you can no longer distinguish anything, it is a continual noise, a kind of huge snoring. Then you are quite calm."
[Sidenote: They do not speak of what they have done or seen.]
These are a few illustrations, a few rays of light, such as one still gets sometimes. I do not know if they will become more frequent with the new evolution of the War. They have been rare, and never followed by long expansiveness. Our wounded soldier of the fourth year of the War did not like to speak of what he had done nor of what he had seen. What may be the reasons for his silence? In seeking to interpret them we penetrate a little into the psychology of this taciturn man.
[Sidenote: The soldier plays an impersonal part.]
First, his impressions of the War are no longer fresh and now he would have some difficulty in analyzing them. It is as with ourselves in a new country: at first we have a thousand things to describe in our letters; after that nothing strikes us any longer. This passage to a sort of unconsciousness is the easier for the soldier as he plays a more impersonal part in the War; a simple cell in a great organism, a simple wheel in an enormous machine, quite beyond his comprehension in its learned complication. Catastrophes happen to him but no adventures: he may be wounded, he may be killed, nothing else. This is no material for fine stories.
A deeper reason for the silence of the witness, or rather the actor, in the great drama of the War, is a very just realization of the impossibility of conveying any idea of it to those who have never been there. It is so very different from anything they know; so out of proportion to the normal life of human beings.
[Sidenote: The wounded man does not like to think of war.]
To these intellectual motives may be added one of feeling. The wounded soldier does not like to speak of the War because he does not like to think of it: there are too many horrors; he has had to bear too many privations, too much suffering. As soon as he finds himself out of it, he tries to turn his mind away from it as much as possible, and to shake off the impression of it, as the sick man in the morning shakes off his fevered nightmare. Later on, doubtless, when his memories have lost their keen edge, they may attract him again. All he asks for the moment is to forget. One thing especially afflicts his heart and tightens his lips: it is the thought of the comrades he has lost.
Such are the reasons why the later wounded, differing from those at the beginning of the War, shut themselves up in a silence full of gravity.
[Sidenote: The men in hospital are grateful.]
[Sidenote: Infirmities are less felt.]
In spite of this, however, you would have a false idea of the military hospital if you thought of it as a place of mournful desolation. Doubtless our earlier patients regained their spirits more quickly, having no years of suffering behind them. But the quiet and serious resignation which reigns in the hospital of to-day does not exclude a certain sweetness; the wounded man appreciates the intelligent and devoted care lavished upon him, he congratulates himself and thanks God for having escaped from mortal peril, for not having fallen to the bottom of the abyss, for remounting now the slope at the summit of which he has a glimpse of the recovery of his strength and activity. If his wound leaves no serious traces, he rejoices to live again as he did before; if it has deprived him of the use of his limbs or of some necessary organ, he consoles himself by the thought that the War is over for him and that soon he will take his place at home. His infirmities, which perhaps will weigh more heavily upon him later, he feels less here, where they are the normal thing and where it is the exception to appear intact.
It is a rest for him not to hear the voice of the cannon. And he likes the moral peace with which the wise kindness of the doctors, the devotion of the nurses, the friendship of the chaplain, surround him; he especially enjoys the many letters he receives from his family, and those which he slowly writes himself, or dictates to an amiable neighbor. Often he has friends and relatives in the neighborhood who come to see him, but what he likes best of all is the visit from his family, his mother, father, wife, his young children.
[Sidenote: A dying man is decorated.]
[Sidenote: A legacy of honor for his family.]
Another joy in the life of our wounded is the announcement and then the presentation of his decoration. Once, however, I saw the Cross of Honor received with no sign of satisfaction at all, but that was because it came too late, and its recipient, one of my friends, a brave officer, was about to receive another recompense in heaven. It was very affecting to see the decoration laid on that already gasping breast, without any consciousness on the part of the poor hero. His mother and wife, at least, before they buried him, could take the glorious emblem to hand down as heirloom and as instruction to his three little ones. It is a noble idea of the French Government, to give the decorations of soldiers killed by the enemy to their families—their widows, their orphans, or, if they are not married, to their old parents. During these years filled with emotion, few spectacles have impressed me so deeply as the ceremony of "taking arms" in the court of honor of the Invalides, when in this historic monument, built by Louis XIV. and now the tomb of Napoleon, a General of the Third Republic gave the emblem of the brave to women and children dressed in mourning, at the same time as to rough soldiers newly healed of their wounds and ready to return to the front.
[Sidenote: The return to the front.]
[Sidenote: Often impatient to rejoin his comrades.]
Return to the front!... This is the almost invariable ending of the history of our wounded soldier of the fourth year of the War. Return to the front! Never will the heroism required for the acceptance of such a duty be sufficiently admired! After three years of fatigue, privations, of unheard-of dangers, after one or several wounds which brought him within an inch of death, this man who has for long months felt the sweetness, the care, the calm of a comfortable hospital; has had a taste of the charms of family life once more; has little by little turned his thought away from the horrors of war, now he is sent back, to the depot, from which he knows that before long he will be called again to the front! And he submits, resigns himself: what do I say? Often impatient of inaction, of the little rules which annoy his independent temper, he asks to go in advance of the call, to rejoin as a volunteer and without further delay his comrades of Champagne, Lorraine, Flanders or Picardy. He reenters his regiment as the traveler reenters his own country, and his only sadness is to find that during his absence so many old comrades have fallen, so many newcomers have filled the gaps. But the welcome of the survivors warms his heart.
[Sidenote: He goes into the trenches at night.]
Although it is night—for only at night do they go into the trenches—the sky is ploughed with illuminating fireworks, with projections and projectiles, of various kinds which bursting sow quick flashes of light, and a death often as prompt. In a maze of narrow and complicated paths our friend advances without knowing where and feeling his way: nearer and nearer he approaches to enemies whose sleepless hate growls menacingly below his feet in the ground, around him on the earth, above him in the sky filled with sinister gleams. He goes his way without enthusiasm, but without hesitation, without boasting, but without fear, knowing by long experience what peril he runs, but offering himself calmly to his formidable destiny, ready to answer: "Present!" if God and his country demand his life.
[Sidenote: There are no heroes in past history so grand.]
What hero in all the centuries of history attains to the grandeur of our hero? Who ever defended, in a war so terrible, a cause so important to the future of the world? Who has striven so hard, suffered so much, so often passed through death? To prove himself equal to his high mission, he has had to rid himself of all egoism, renounce lucre and vain honors, sacrifice family joys; many times he has known the worst extremes of weariness, thirst, hunger and cold; he equals and surpasses in austerity the severest of monks; he practices an obedience and humility that monasteries and Thebaides know nothing of, constantly ready to expose himself, as soon as he receives the order, to a terrible and invisible death. No one ever more completely obeyed the counsels of Christ: "If you will be perfect, leave your father and mother, your wife, forsake your possessions, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Me."
[Sidenote: Humanity has never shown such moral grandeur.]
Those among these brave men who have faith, are conscious of such supernatural life and their letters—admirable collections have been published—reflect a light of authentic saintliness. The others, too, without knowing it, walk in the footsteps of Christ; at the moment of supreme sacrifice He will enlighten them with the brightness of His grace and will admit them, like their believing brothers, into the heaven promised to those who suffer for righteousness. Humanity which has never known horrors like those it is enduring now, has also never shown such moral grandeur, and it is not astonishing that in face of such great crimes and such great virtues, our soul should pause, breathless, incapable of expressing the excess of its emotion.
[Sidenote: The devoted war of the American public for the wounded.]
I cannot speak to the great American public about our wounded, without saying how much we appreciate the fact that it has followed them, with admirable solicitude, all the length of their hard Calvary. Its stretcher-bearers have helped us rescue them at the front, its ambulances have carried them to our hospitals, where they have found its doctors, its nurses to tend their wounds, its offerings of all kinds to assure their material well-being and their moral comfort. And in after-care it has not been less solicitous: teaching the blind, reeducating the maimed and giving them the costly apparatus which take the place of their lost limbs. When they could not survive, despite efforts of science and devotion, it contributed toward assuring the future of their widows and orphans.
America to-day gives us even her blood; she has from the first given us her gold, given her heart!
Copyright, Catholic World, October, 1918.
* * * * *
The great series of battles, known in general as the Battle of Picardy, formed a prelude to the final acts of the war. A stirring account of these battles is given in the narrative which follows.
THE BATTLE OF PICARDY
[Sidenote: Possibly the decisive battle of the war.]
[Sidenote: Germany will emerge victor or vanquished.]
On March 21st, 1918, Germany opened the great engagement which will probably prove to be the decisive battle of the war. This designation has already, but not altogether correctly, been given to the Battle of the Marne. The Marne did decide that the Germans were not to capture Paris in their first great rush through Belgium and France. It did not only halt the German advance, but threw it back behind the Aisne, thus preventing Germany from winning the war in 1914. But it did not defeat the German army decisively. Nor did it make an ultimate German victory impossible. It left the German army still in the field, its strength practically unimpaired, still capable of strong defense, still with great striking power in attack. It made possible for the future a decisive Allied victory, but it did not achieve it. The German defeat at Verdun, indeed, did more harm to the German army, lessened to a greater extent its power of defense and its strength to attack than did the Marne, because through the French defense and counter-efforts, the German army lost nearly half a million men. But the battle now raging, which for convenience of reference is called the Battle of Picardy (although it embraces Picardy, Artois, and Flanders), will do more than did either the Marne or Verdun. It will place irrevocably and unmistakably upon Germany the laurel of victory or the thorny crown of defeat. It is, therefore, the decisive battle of the war. It is the final struggle of the civilized world against the domination of the beast. It is Germany's final effort, and, in order that this may be appreciated, it is necessary only to recount the conditions which impelled Germany to take the offensive at this time.
[Sidenote: Germany's eastern ambitions attained.]
[Sidenote: A peace by compromise would be a German victory.]
The developments in Russia, so entirely favorable to Germany, led many to believe that, having attained so completely their eastern ambitions, the German leaders would rest content with what they had, and, strengthening their lines in the west through reinforcements drawn from the Russian front, remain on the defensive on the western front until a peace could be arranged. With the German talons firmly fixed in the throat of Ukraine; with Poland, Courland, and Lithuania practically annexed, there was a certain element of reason in this contention. It was entirely conceivable that with such strength in the west, Germany could set in motion the machinery of a peace propaganda, and obtain a peace conference which would enable her to work out a programme of concessions in the west for concessions in the east—a peace by compromise which would answer present needs while furnishing all future requirements in case she decided to provoke another war. Thus Germany would end the war with a victory just as truly as if she had won it on the field of battle, and without the terrific loss in man power that an offensive on the western front would entail.
[Sidenote: The Allies refuse a peace by compromise.]
In constructing this theory, however, certain essentials were ignored. German voraciousness can never be satisfied. It is a bottomless pit which can be filled only by pouring into it the world. When there is nothing more to be had, Germany would perforce rest content. The possession of Russia only whetted her appetite for France and Belgium and the life of England. Moreover, the Allies, having now learned Germany, and having acquired a sense of their own safety and of the future peace of the world, had no thought of permitting Germany to remain in possession of western Russia, of Serbia, and of Rumania, and thereby not only perpetuating but actually aggravating the condition out of which grew the present war. They had, therefore, notified Germany that they would lay down arms only when she was willing to disgorge what she and her allies had swallowed, and had rectified their frontiers in accordance with President Wilson's fourteen conditions and with Lloyd George's statement on the same subject.
In other words, Germany was to be permitted to emerge from the war with a profit only through military victory; she would have to defend her conquests. This negatived the idea of a peace through negotiation.
[Sidenote: The German people equally to blame with their government.]
[Sidenote: The letter to Prince Sixtus.]
[Sidenote: Austria might make a separate peace.]
[Sidenote: There is suspicion among thieves.]
Having absorbed the fundamental fact that the Allies proposed to continue the fight to the end, what then was Germany's position? I am not one of those who cherish the fatuous delusion that this is a war in which the German people are not equally involved with their government. At the same time, it is undeniable that there existed in both the German and the Austrian empires a considerable internal pressure, induced by hunger and by privations (but not by any moral or ethical considerations), to bring the war to a close. The cupboards of Russia were neither so full nor so readily available as had been anticipated. Suffering was general, and, with the scarcity not only of food but of wool and of cotton, made the prospect of going through another winter of war a gloomy contemplation. In Austria the situation was worse than in Germany. The letter of the Austrian Emperor to his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, which the French Government published in April, gives sufficient indication of the Austrian need for peace. It shows also that Germany must have had doubt of the loyalty of her ally, and German knowledge that conditions had come to such a pass in Austria that a separate peace would be more welcome to Austria than no peace at all, regardless of the sacrifices which had to be made to obtain it. How long Austria could be held Germany did not know, but it was evident that she was not to be trusted too far. Austria is as unscrupulous, as hypocritical as is Germany, and Germany knows it. And while there may be honor among thieves, there is also suspicion.
[Sidenote: Germany must resume the offensive.]
But, aside from internal and political considerations, the military situation itself was one which demanded immediate action or none at all. It is an elemental military fact that a war cannot be won by defensive action alone. Defeat may be averted by such means; but victory cannot be achieved. Germany, with the exception of a single incident south of Cambrai, had been on the defensive since the close of the battle of Verdun early in the summer of 1916. The necessity for offensive action at some time was therefore absolute if Germany was to win. But there were many considerations which made that time the present. Germany could not afford to wait.