FRANCE AT WAR
On the Frontier of Civilization
I. On the Frontier of Civilization
II. The Nation's Spirit and a New Inheritance
III. Battle Spectacle and a Review
IV. The Spirit of the People
V. Life in Trenches on the Mountain Side
VI. The Common Task of a Great People
FRANCE AT WAR
On the Frontier of Civilization
BY RUDYARD KIPLING
Broke to every known mischance, lifted over
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength that draws from her
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of
First to follow truth and last to leave old
France beloved of every soul that loves its
Ere our birth (rememberest thou?) side
by side we lay
Fretting in the womb of Rome to begin
Ere men knew our tongues apart, our one
taste was known—
Each must mould the other's fate as he
wrought his own.
To this end we stirred mankind till all
earth was ours,
Till our world-end strifes began wayside
thrones and powers,
Puppets that we made or broke to bar
the other's path—
Necessary, outpost folk, hirelings of our
To this end we stormed the seas, tack for
tack, and burst
Through the doorways of new worlds,
doubtful which was first.
Hand on hilt (rememberest thou?), ready
for the blow.
Sure whatever else we met we should
meet our foe.
Spurred or baulked at ev'ry stride by the
So we rode the ages down and every ocean's
Where did you refrain from us or we
refrain from you?
Ask the wave that has not watched war
between us two.
Others held us for a while, but with
These we quitted at the call for each
Eager toward the known delight, equally
Each the other's mystery, terror, need,
To each other's open court with our
proofs we came,
Where could we find honour else or men
to test the claim?
From each other's throat we wrenched
valour's last reward,
That extorted word of praise gasped
'twixt lunge and guard.
In each other's cup we poured mingled
blood and tears,
Brutal joys, unmeasured hopes,
All that soiled or salted life for a thousand
Proved beyond the need of proof, matched
in every clime,
O companion, we have lived greatly
through all time:
Yoked in knowledge and remorse now we
come to rest,
Laughing at old villainies that time has
turned to jest,
Pardoning old necessity no pardon can
That undying sin we shared in Rouen
Now we watch the new years shape,
wondering if they hold
Fiercer lighting in their hearts than we
launched of old.
Now we hear new voices rise, question,
boast or gird,
As we raged (rememberest thou?) when
our crowds were stirred.
Now we count new keels afloat, and new
hosts on land,
Massed liked ours (rememberest thou?)
when our strokes were planned.
We were schooled for dear life sake, to
know each other's blade:
What can blood and iron make more than
we have made?
We have learned by keenest use to know
each other's mind:
What shall blood and iron loose that we
We who swept each other's coast, sacked
each other's home,
Since the sword of Brennus clashed on
the scales at Rome,
Listen, court and close again, wheeling
girth to girth,
In the strained and bloodless guard set
for peace on earth.
Broke to every known mischance, lifted over
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength renewed from a
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of
First to follow truth and last to leave old
France beloved of every soul that loves or
serves its kind.
*First published June 24, 1913.
ON THE FRONTIER OF CIVILIZATION
"It's a pretty park," said the French artillery officer.
"We've done a lot for it since the owner left. I hope he'll
appreciate it when he comes back."
The car traversed a winding drive through woods, between banks
embellished with little chalets of a rustic nature. At first,
the chalets stood their full height above ground, suggesting
tea-gardens in England. Further on they sank into the earth
till, at the top of the ascent, only their solid brown roofs
showed. Torn branches drooping across the driveway, with here
and there a scorched patch of undergrowth, explained the
reason of their modesty.
The chateau that commanded these glories of forest and park
sat boldly on a terrace. There was nothing wrong with it
except, if one looked closely, a few scratches or dints on its
white stone walls, or a neatly drilled hole under a flight of
steps. One such hole ended in an unexploded shell. "Yes,"
said the officer. "They arrive here occasionally."
Something bellowed across the folds of the wooded hills;
something grunted in reply. Something passed overhead,
querulously but not without dignity. Two clear fresh barks
joined the chorus, and a man moved lazily in the direction of
"Well. Suppose we come and look at things a little," said the
AN OBSERVATION POST
There was a specimen tree—a tree worthy of such a park—the
sort of tree visitors are always taken to admire. A ladder
ran up it to a platform. What little wind there was swayed
the tall top, and the ladder creaked like a ship's gangway. A
telephone bell tinkled 50 foot overhead. Two invisible guns
spoke fervently for half a minute, and broke off like terriers
choked on a leash. We climbed till the topmost platform
swayed sicklily beneath us. Here one found a rustic shelter,
always of the tea-garden pattern, a table, a map, and a little
window wreathed with living branches that gave one the first
view of the Devil and all his works. It was a stretch of open
country, with a few sticks like old tooth-brushes which had
once been trees round a farm. The rest was yellow grass,
barren to all appearance as the veldt.
"The grass is yellow because they have used gas here," said an
officer. "Their trenches are———. You can see for
The guns in the woods began again. They seemed to have no
relation to the regularly spaced bursts of smoke along a
little smear in the desert earth two thousand yards away—no
connection at all with the strong voices overhead coming and
going. It was as impersonal as the drive of the sea along a
Thus it went: a pause—a gathering of sound like the race of
an incoming wave; then the high-flung heads of breakers
spouting white up the face of a groyne. Suddenly, a seventh
wave broke and spread the shape of its foam like a plume
overtopping all the others.
"That's one of our torpilleurs—what you call
trench-sweepers," said the observer among the whispering leaves.
Some one crossed the platform to consult the map with its
ranges. A blistering outbreak of white smokes rose a little
beyond the large plume. It was as though the tide had struck
a reef out yonder.
Then a new voice of tremendous volume lifted itself out of a
lull that followed. Somebody laughed. Evidently the voice
"That is not for us," a gunner said. "They are being waked up
from———" he named a distant French position. "So and so is
attending to them there. We go on with our usual work. Look!
Again a big plume rose; and again the lighter shells broke at
their appointed distance beyond it. The smoke died away on
that stretch of trench, as the foam of a swell dies in the
angle of a harbour wall, and broke out afresh half a mile
lower down. In its apparent laziness, in its awful
deliberation, and its quick spasms of wrath, it was more like
the work of waves than of men; and our high platform's gentle
sway and glide was exactly the motion of a ship drifting with
us toward that shore.
"The usual work. Only the usual work," the officer explained.
"Sometimes it is here. Sometimes above or below us. I have
been here since May."
A little sunshine flooded the stricken landscape and made its
chemical yellow look more foul. A detachment of men moved out
on a road which ran toward the French trenches, and then
vanished at the foot of a little rise. Other men appeared
moving toward us with that concentration of purpose and
bearing shown in both Armies when—dinner is at hand. They
looked like people who had been digging hard.
"The same work. Always the same work!" the officer said.
"And you could walk from here to the sea or to Switzerland in
that ditch—and you'll find the same work going on everywhere.
It isn't war."
"It's better than that," said another. "It's the eating-up of
a people. They come and they fill the trenches and they die,
and they die; and they send more and those die. We do the
same, of course, but—look!"
He pointed to the large deliberate smoke-heads renewing
themselves along that yellowed beach. "That is the frontier
of civilization. They have all civilization against them
—those brutes yonder. It's not the local victories of the old
wars that we're after. It's the barbarian—all the barbarian.
Now, you've seen the whole thing in little. Come and look at
SOLDIERS IN CAVES
We left that tall tree whose fruits are death ripened and
distributed at the tingle of small bells. The observer
returned to his maps and calculations; the telephone-boy
stiffened up beside his exchange as the amateurs went out of
his life. Some one called down through the branches to ask
who was attending to—Belial, let us say, for I could not
catch the gun's name. It seemed to belong to that terrific
new voice which had lifted itself for the second or third
time. It appeared from the reply that if Belial talked too
long he would be dealt with from another point miles away.
The troops we came down to see were at rest in a chain of
caves which had begun life as quarries and had been fitted up
by the army for its own uses. There were underground
corridors, ante-chambers, rotundas, and ventilating shafts
with a bewildering play of cross lights, so that wherever you
looked you saw Goya's pictures of men-at-arms.
Every soldier has some of the old maid in him, and rejoices in
all the gadgets and devices of his own invention. Death and
wounding come by nature, but to lie dry, sleep soft, and keep
yourself clean by forethought and contrivance is art, and in
all things the Frenchman is gloriously an artist.
Moreover, the French officers seem as mother-keen on their men
as their men are brother-fond of them. Maybe the possessive
form of address: "Mon general," "mon capitaine," helps the
idea, which our men cloke in other and curter phrases. And
those soldiers, like ours, had been welded for months in one
furnace. As an officer said: "Half our orders now need not
be given. Experience makes us think together." I believe,
too, that if a French private has an idea—and they are full
of ideas—it reaches his C. 0. quicker than it does with us.
THE SENTINEL HOUNDS
The overwhelming impression was the brilliant health and
vitality of these men and the quality of their breeding. They
bore themselves with swing and rampant delight in life, while
their voices as they talked in the side-caverns among the
stands of arms were the controlled voices of civilization.
Yet, as the lights pierced the gloom they looked like bandits
dividing the spoil. One picture, though far from war, stays
with me. A perfectly built, dark-skinned young giant had
peeled himself out of his blue coat and had brought it down
with a swish upon the shoulder of a half-stripped comrade who
was kneeling at his feet with some footgear. They stood
against a background of semi-luminous blue haze, through which
glimmered a pile of coppery straw half covered by a red
blanket. By divine accident of light and pose it St. Martin
giving his cloak to the beggar. There were scores of pictures
in these galleries—notably a rock-hewn chapel where the red
of the cross on the rough canvas altar-cloth glowed like a
ruby. Further inside the caves we found a row of little
rock-cut kennels, each inhabited by one wise, silent dog.
Their duties begin in at night with the sentinels and
listening-posts. "And believe me," a proud instructor, "my
fellow here knows the difference between the noise of our shells
and the Boche shells."
When we came out into the open again there were good
opportunities for this study. Voices and wings met and passed
in the air, and, perhaps, one strong young tree had not been
bending quite so far across the picturesque park-drive when we
first went that way.
"Oh, yes," said an officer, "shells have to fall somewhere,
and," he added with fine toleration, "it is, after all,
against us that the Boche directs them. But come you and look
at my dug-out. It's the most superior of all possible
"No. Come and look at our mess. It's the Ritz of these
parts." And they joyously told how they had got, or procured,
the various fittings and elegancies, while hands stretched out
of the gloom to shake, and men nodded welcome and greeting all
through that cheery brotherhood in the woods.
WORK IN THE FIELDS
The voices and the wings were still busy after lunch, when the
car slipped past the tea-houses in the drive, and came into a
country where women and children worked among the crops.
There were large raw shell holes by the wayside or in the
midst of fields, and often a cottage or a villa had been
smashed as a bonnet-box is smashed by an umbrella. That must
be part of Belial's work when he bellows so truculently among
the hills to the north.
We were looking for a town that lives under shell-fire. The
regular road to it was reported unhealthy—not that the women
and children seemed to care. We took byways of which certain
exposed heights and corners were lightly blinded by
wind-brakes of dried tree-tops. Here the shell holes were rather
thick on the ground. But the women and the children and the
old men went on with their work with the cattle and the crops;
and where a house had been broken by shells the rubbish was
collected in a neat pile, and where a room or two still
remained usable, it was inhabited, and the tattered
window-curtains fluttered as proudly as any flag. And time was
when I used to denounce young France because it tried to kill
itself beneath my car wheels; and the fat old women who
crossed roads without warning; and the specially deaf old men
who slept in carts on the wrong side of the road! Now, I
could take off my hat to every single soul of them, but that
one cannot traverse a whole land bareheaded. The nearer we
came to our town the fewer were the people, till at last we
halted in a well-built suburb of paved streets where there was
no life at all. . . .
A WRECKED TOWN
The stillness was as terrible as the spread of the quick busy
weeds between the paving-stones; the air smelt of pounded
mortar and crushed stone; the sound of a footfall echoed like
the drop of a pebble in a well. At first the horror of
wrecked apartment-houses and big shops laid open makes one
waste energy in anger. It is not seemly that rooms should be
torn out of the sides of buildings as one tears the soft heart
out of English bread; that villa roofs should lie across iron
gates of private garages, or that drawing-room doors should
flap alone and disconnected between two emptinesses of twisted
girders. The eye wearies of the repeated pattern that burst
shells make on stone walls, as the mouth sickens of the taste
of mortar and charred timber. One quarter of the place had
been shelled nearly level; the facades of the houses stood
doorless, roofless, and windowless like stage scenery. This
was near the cathedral, which is always a favourite mark for
the heathen. They had gashed and ripped the sides of the
cathedral itself, so that the birds flew in and out at will;
they had smashed holes in the roof; knocked huge cantles out
of the buttresses, and pitted and starred the paved square
outside. They were at work, too, that very afternoon, though
I do not think the cathedral was their objective for the
moment. We walked to and fro in the silence of the streets
and beneath the whirring wings overhead. Presently, a young
woman, keeping to the wall, crossed a corner. An old woman
opened a shutter (how it jarred!), and spoke to her. The
silence closed again, but it seemed to me that I heard a sound
of singing—the sort of chant one hears in nightmare-cities of
voices crying from underground.
IN THE CATHEDRAL
"Nonsense," said an officer. "Who should be singing here?"
We circled the cathedral again, and saw what pavement-stones
can do against their own city, when the shell jerks them
upward. But there was singing after all—on the other side
of a little door in the flank of the cathedral. We looked in,
doubting, and saw at least a hundred folk, mostly women, who
knelt before the altar of an unwrecked chapel. We withdrew
quietly from that holy ground, and it was not only the eyes of
the French officers that filled with tears. Then there came
an old, old thing with a prayer-book in her hand, pattering
across the square, evidently late for service.
"And who are those women?" I asked.
"Some are caretakers; people who have still little shops here.
(There is one quarter where you can buy things.) There are
many old people, too, who will not go away. They are of the
place, you see."
"And this bombardment happens often?" I said.
"It happens always. Would you like to look at the railway
station? Of course, it has not been so bombarded as the
We went through the gross nakedness of streets without people,
till we reached the railway station, which was very fairly
knocked about, but, as my friends said, nothing like as much
as the cathedral. Then we had to cross the end of a long
street down which the Boche could see clearly. As one glanced
up it, one perceived how the weeds, to whom men's war is the
truce of God, had come back and were well established the
whole length of it, watched by the long perspective of open,
THE NATION'S SPIRIT AND A NEW INHERITANCE
We left that stricken but undefeated town, dodged a few miles
down the roads beside which the women tended their cows, and
dropped into a place on a hill where a Moroccan regiment of
many experiences was in billets.
They were Mohammedans bafflingly like half a dozen of our
Indian frontier types, though they spoke no accessible tongue.
They had, of course, turned the farm buildings where they lay
into a little bit of Africa in colour and smell. They had
been gassed in the north; shot over and shot down, and set up
to be shelled again; and their officers talked of North
African wars that we had never heard of—sultry days against
long odds in the desert years ago. "Afterward—is it not so
with you also?—we get our best recruits from the tribes we
have fought. These men are children. They make no trouble.
They only want to go where cartridges are burnt. They are of
the few races to whom fighting is a pleasure."
"And how long have you dealt with them?"
"A long time—a long time. I helped to organize the corps. I
am one of those whose heart is in Africa." He spoke slowly,
almost feeling for his French words, and gave some order. I
shall not forget his eyes as he turned to a huge, brown,
Afreedee-like Mussulman hunkering down beside his
accoutrements. He had two sides to his head, that bearded,
burned, slow-spoken officer, met and parted with in an hour.
The day closed—(after an amazing interlude in the chateau of
a dream, which was all glassy ponds, stately trees, and vistas
of white and gold saloons. The proprietor was somebody's
chauffeur at the front, and we drank to his excellent health)
—at a little village in a twilight full of the petrol of many
cars and the wholesome flavour of healthy troops. There is no
better guide to camp than one's own thoughtful nose; and
though I poked mine everywhere, in no place then or later did
it strike that vile betraying taint of underfed, unclean men.
And the same with the horses.
THE LINE THAT NEVER SLEEPS
It is difficult to keep an edge after hours of fresh air and
experiences; so one does not get the most from the most
interesting part of the day—the dinner with the local
headquarters. Here the professionals meet—the Line, the
Gunners, the Intelligence with stupefying photo-plans of the
enemy's trenches; the Supply; the Staff, who collect and note
all things, and are very properly chaffed; and, be sure, the
Interpreter, who, by force of questioning prisoners, naturally
develops into a Sadducee. It is their little asides to each
other, the slang, and the half-words which, if one understood,
instead of blinking drowsily at one's plate, would give the
day's history in little. But tire and the difficulties of a
sister (not a foreign) tongue cloud everything, and one goes
to billets amid a murmur of voices, the rush of single cars
through the night, the passage of battalions, and behind it
all, the echo of the deep voices calling one to the other,
along the line that never sleeps.
. . . . . . .
The ridge with the scattered pines might have hidden children
at play. Certainly a horse would have been quite visible, but
there was no hint of guns, except a semaphore which announced
it was forbidden to pass that way, as the battery was firing.
The Boches must have looked for that battery, too. The ground
was pitted with shell holes of all calibres—some of them as
fresh as mole-casts in the misty damp morning; others where
the poppies had grown from seed to flower all through the
"And where are the guns?" I demanded at last.
They were almost under one's hand, their ammunition in cellars
and dug-outs beside them. As far as one can make out, the 75
gun has no pet name. The bayonet is Rosalie the virgin of
Bayonne, but the 75, the watchful nurse of the trenches and
little sister of the Line, seems to be always "soixante-
quinze." Even those who love her best do not insist that she
is beautiful. Her merits are French—logic, directness,
simplicity, and the supreme gift of "occasionality." She is
equal to everything on the spur of the moment. One sees and
studies the few appliances which make her do what she does,
and one feels that any one could have invented her.
FAMOUS FRENCH 75's
"As a matter of fact," says a commandant, "anybody—or,
rather, everybody did. The general idea is after such-and-such
system, the patent of which had expired, and we improved
it; the breech action, with slight modification, is somebody
else's; the sighting is perhaps a little special; and so is
the traversing, but, at bottom, it is only an assembly of
variations and arrangements."
That, of course, is all that Shakespeare ever got out of the
alphabet. The French Artillery make their own guns as he made
his plays. It is just as simple as that.
"There is nothing going on for the moment; it's too misty,"
said the Commandant. (I fancy that the Boche, being, as a
rule methodical, amateurs are introduced to batteries in the
Boche's intervals. At least, there are hours healthy and
unhealthy which vary with each position.) "But," the
Commandant reflected a moment, "there is a place—and a
distance. Let us say . . . " He gave a range.
The gun-servers stood back with the bored contempt of the
professional for the layman who intrudes on his mysteries.
Other civilians had come that way before—had seen, and
grinned, and complimented and gone their way, leaving the
gunners high up on the bleak hillside to grill or mildew or
freeze for weeks and months. Then she spoke. Her voice was
higher pitched, it seemed, than ours—with a more shrewish
tang to the speeding shell. Her recoil was as swift and as
graceful as the shrug of a French-woman's shoulders; the empty
case leaped forth and clanged against the trail; the tops of
two or three pines fifty yards away nodded knowingly to each
other, though there was no wind.
"They'll be bothered down below to know the meaning of our
single shot. We don't give them one dose at a time as a
rule," somebody laughed.
We waited in the fragrant silence. Nothing came back from the
mist that clogged the lower grounds, though no shell of this
war was ever launched with more earnest prayers that it might
Then they talked about the lives of guns; what number of
rounds some will stand and others will not; how soon one can
make two good guns out of three spoilt ones, and what crazy
luck sometimes goes with a single shot or a blind salvo.
LESSON FROM THE "BOCHE"
A shell must fall somewhere, and by the law of averages
occasionally lights straight as a homing pigeon on the one
spot where it can wreck most. Then earth opens for yards
around, and men must be dug out,—some merely breathless, who
shake their ears, swear, and carry on, and others whose souls
have gone loose among terrors. These have to be dealt with as
their psychology demands, and the French officer is a good
psychologist. One of them said: "Our national psychology has
changed. I do not recognize it myself."
"What made the change?"
"The Boche. If he had been quiet for another twenty years the
world must have been his—rotten, but all his. Now he is
saving the world."
"Because he has shown us what Evil is. We—you and I, England
and the rest—had begun to doubt the existence of Evil. The
Boche is saving us."
Then we had another look at the animal in its trench—a little
nearer this time than before, and quieter on account of the
mist. Pick up the chain anywhere you please, you shall find
the same observation-post, table, map, observer, and
telephonist; the same always-hidden, always-ready guns; and
same vexed foreshore of trenches, smoking and shaking from
Switzerland to the sea. The handling of the war varies with
the nature of the country, but the tools are unaltered. One
looks upon them at last with the same weariness of wonder as
the eye receives from endless repetitions of Egyptian
hieroglyphics. A long, low profile, with a lump to one side,
means the field-gun and its attendant ammunition-case; a
circle and slot stand for an observation-post; the trench is a
bent line, studded with vertical plumes of explosion; the
great guns of position, coming and going on their motors,
repeat themselves as scarabs; and man himself is a small blue
smudge, no larger than a foresight, crawling and creeping or
watching and running among all these terrific symbols.
TRAGEDY OF RHEIMS
But there is no hieroglyphic for Rheims, no blunting of the
mind at the abominations committed on the cathedral there.
The thing peers upward, maimed and blinded, from out of the
utter wreckage of the Archbishop's palace on the one side and
dust-heaps of crumbled houses on the other. They shelled, as
they still shell it, with high explosives and with incendiary
shells, so that the statues and the stonework in places are
burned the colour of raw flesh. The gargoyles are smashed;
statues, crockets, and spires tumbled; walls split and torn;
windows thrust out and tracery obliterated. Wherever one
looks at the tortured pile there is mutilation and defilement,
and yet it had never more of a soul than it has to-day.
Inside—("Cover yourselves, gentlemen," said the sacristan,
"this place is no longer consecrated")—everything is swept
clear or burned out from end to end, except two candlesticks
in front of the niche where Joan of Arc's image used to stand.
There is a French flag there now. [And the last time I saw
Rheims Cathedral was in a spring twilight, when the great west
window glowed, and the only lights within were those of
candles which some penitent English had lit in Joan's honour
on those same candlesticks.] The high altar was covered with
floor-carpets; the pavement tiles were cracked and jarred out
by the rubbish that had fallen from above, the floor was
gritty with dust of glass and powdered stone, little twists of
leading from the windows, and iron fragments. Two great doors
had been blown inwards by the blast of a shell in the
Archbishop's garden, till they had bent grotesquely to the
curve of a cask. There they had jammed. The windows—but the
record has been made, and will be kept by better hands than
mine. It will last through the generation in which the Teuton
is cut off from the fellowship of mankind—all the long, still
years when this war of the body is at an end, and the real war
begins. Rheims is but one of the altars which the heathen
have put up to commemorate their own death throughout all the
world. It will serve. There is a mark, well known by now,
which they have left for a visible seal of their doom. When
they first set the place alight some hundreds of their wounded
were being tended in the Cathedral. The French saved as many
as they could, but some had to be left. Among them was a
major, who lay with his back against a pillar. It has been
ordained that the signs of his torments should remain—an
outline of both legs and half a body, printed in greasy black
upon the stones. There are very many people who hope and pray
that the sign will be respected at least by our children's
IRON NERVE AND FAITH
And, in the meantime, Rheims goes about what business it may
have with that iron nerve and endurance and faith which is the
new inheritance of France. There is agony enough when the big
shells come in; there is pain and terror among the people; and
always fresh desecration to watch and suffer. The old men and
the women and the children drink of that cup daily, and yet
the bitterness does not enter into their souls. Mere words of
admiration are impertinent, but the exquisite quality of the
French soul has been the marvel to me throughout. They say
themselves, when they talk: "We did not know what our nation
was. Frankly, we did not expect it ourselves. But the thing
came, and—you see, we go on."
Or as a woman put it more logically, "What else can we do?
Remember, we knew the Boche in '70 when you did not. We
know what he has done in the last year. This is not war. It
is against wild beasts that we fight. There is no arrangement
possible with wild beasts." This is the one vital point which
we in England must realize. We are dealing with animals who
have scientifically and philosophically removed themselves
inconceivably outside civilization. When you have heard a
few—only a few—tales of their doings, you begin to
understand a little. When you have seen Rheims, you
understand a little more. When you have looked long enough at
the faces of the women, you are inclined to think that the
women will have a large say in the final judgment. They have
earned it a thousand times.
BATTLE SPECTACLE AND A REVIEW
Travelling with two chauffeurs is not the luxury it looks;
since there is only one of you and there is always another of
those iron men to relieve the wheel. Nor can I decide whether
an ex-professor of the German tongue, or an ex-roadracer who
has lived six years abroad, or a Marechal des Logis, or a
Brigadier makes the most thrusting driver through three-mile
stretches of military traffic repeated at half-hour intervals.
Sometimes it was motor-ambulances strung all along a level; or
supply; or those eternal big guns coming round corners with
trees chained on their long backs to puzzle aeroplanes, and
their leafy, big-shell limbers snorting behind them. In the
rare breathing-spaces men with rollers and road metal attacked
the road. In peace the roads of France, thanks to the motor,
were none too good. In war they stand the incessant traffic
far better than they did with the tourist. My impression
—after some seven hundred miles printed off on me at between 60
and 70 kilometres—was of uniform excellence. Nor did I come
upon any smashes or breakdowns in that distance, and they were
certainly trying them hard. Nor, which is the greater marvel,
did we kill anybody; though we did miracles down the streets
to avoid babes, kittens, and chickens. The land is used to
every detail of war, and to its grime and horror and
make-shifts, but also to war's unbounded courtesy, kindness,
and long-suffering, and the gaiety that comes, thank God, to
balance overwhelming material loss.
FARM LIFE AMIDST WAR
There was a village that had been stamped flat, till it looked
older than Pompeii. There were not three roofs left, nor one
whole house. In most places you saw straight into the
cellars. The hops were ripe in the grave-dotted fields round
about. They had been brought in and piled in the nearest
outline of a dwelling. Women sat on chairs on the pavement,
picking the good-smelling bundles. When they had finished
one, they reached back and pulled out another through the
window-hole behind them, talking and laughing the while. A
cart had to be maneuvered out of what had been a farmyard, to
take the hops to market. A thick, broad, fair-haired wench,
of the sort that Millet drew, flung all her weight on a spoke
and brought the cart forward into the street. Then she shook
herself, and, hands on hips, danced a little defiant jig in
her sabots as she went back to get the horse. Another girl
came across a bridge. She was precisely of the opposite type,
slender, creamy-skinned, and delicate-featured. She carried a
brand-new broom over her shoulder through that desolation, and
bore herself with the pride and grace of Queen Iseult.
The farm-girl came out leading the horse, and as the two young
things passed they nodded and smiled at each other, with the
delicate tangle of the hop-vines at their feet.
The guns spoke earnestly in the north. That was the Argonne,
where the Crown Prince was busily getting rid of a few
thousands of his father's faithful subjects in order to secure
himself the reversion of his father's throne. No man likes
losing his job, and when at long last the inner history of
this war comes to be written, we may find that the people we
mistook for principals and prime agents were only average
incompetents moving all Hell to avoid dismissal. (For it is
absolutely true that when a man sells his soul to the devil he
does it for the price of half nothing.)
WATCHING THE GUN-FIRE
It must have been a hot fight. A village, wrecked as is usual
along this line, opened on it from a hillside that overlooked
an Italian landscape of carefully drawn hills studded with
small villages—a plain with a road and a river in the
foreground, and an all-revealing afternoon light upon
everything. The hills smoked and shook and bellowed. An
observation-balloon climbed up to see; while an aeroplane
which had nothing to do with the strife, but was merely
training a beginner, ducked and swooped on the edge of the
plain. Two rose-pink pillars of crumbled masonry, guarding
some carefully trimmed evergreens on a lawn half buried in
rubbish, represented an hotel where the Crown Prince had once
stayed. All up the hillside to our right the foundations of
houses lay out, like a bit of tripe, with the sunshine in
their square hollows. Suddenly a band began to play up the
hill among some trees; and an officer of local Guards in the
new steel anti-shrapnel helmet, which is like the seventeenth
century sallet, suggested that we should climb and get a
better view. He was a kindly man, and in speaking English had
discovered (as I do when speaking French) that it is simpler
to stick to one gender. His choice was the feminine, and the
Boche described as "she" throughout made me think better of
myself, which is the essence of friendship. We climbed a
flight of old stone steps, for generations the playground of
little children, and found a ruined church, and a battalion in
billets, recreating themselves with excellent music and a
little horseplay on the outer edge of the crowd. The trouble
in the hills was none of their business for that day.
Still higher up, on a narrow path among the trees, stood a
priest and three or four officers. They watched the battle
and claimed the great bursts of smoke for one side or the
other, at the same time as they kept an eye on the flickering
aeroplane. "Ours," they said, half under their breath.
"Theirs." "No, not ours that one—theirs! . . . That fool
is banking too steep . . . That's Boche shrapnel. They
always burst it high. That's our big gun behind that outer
hill . . . He'll drop his machine in the street if he
doesn't take care . . . There goes a trench-sweeper.
Those last two were theirs, but that"—it was a full roar
BEHIND THE GERMAN LINES
The valley held and increased the sounds till they seemed to
hit our hillside like a sea.
A change of light showed a village, exquisitely pencilled atop
of a hill, with reddish haze at its feet.
"What is that place?" I asked.
The priest replied in a voice as deep as an organ: "That is
Saint——— It is in the Boche lines. Its condition is
The thunders and the smokes rolled up and diminished and
renewed themselves, but the small children romped up and down
the old stone steps; the beginner's aeroplane unsteadily
chased its own shadow over the fields; and the soldiers in
billet asked the band for their favourite tunes.
Said the lieutenant of local Guards as the cars went on:
And she did—to an accompaniment of heavy pieces in the hills,
which followed us into a town all ringed with enormous
searchlights, French and Boche together, scowling at each
other beneath the stars.
. . . .
It happened about that time that Lord Kitchener with General
Joffre reviewed a French Army Corps.
We came on it in a vast dip of ground under grey clouds, as
one comes suddenly on water; for it lay out in misty blue
lakes of men mixed with darker patches, like osiers and
undergrowth, of guns, horses, and wagons. A straight road cut
the landscape in two along its murmuring front.
VETERANS OF THE WAR
It was as though Cadmus had sown the dragon's teeth, not in
orderly furrows but broadcast, till, horrified by what arose,
he had emptied out the whole bag and fled. But these were no
new warriors. The record of their mere pitched battles would
have satiated a Napoleon. Their regiments and batteries had
learnt to achieve the impossible as a matter of routine, and
in twelve months they had scarcely for a week lost direct
contact with death. We went down the line and looked into the
eyes of those men with the used bayonets and rifles; the packs
that could almost stow themselves on the shoulders that would
be strange without them; at the splashed guns on their
repaired wheels, and the easy-working limbers. One could feel
the strength and power of the mass as one feels the flush of
heat from off a sunbaked wall. When the Generals' cars
arrived there, there was no loud word or galloping about. The
lakes of men gathered into straight-edged battalions; the
batteries aligned a little; a squadron reined back or spurred
up; but it was all as swiftly smooth as the certainty with
which a man used to the pistol draws and levels it at the
required moment. A few peasant women saw the Generals alight.
The aeroplanes, which had been skimming low as swallows along
the front of the line (theirs must have been a superb view)
ascended leisurely, and "waited on" like hawks. Then followed
the inspection, and one saw the two figures, tall and short,
growing smaller side by side along the white road, till far
off among the cavalry they entered their cars again, and moved
along the horizon to another rise of grey-green plain.
"The army will move across where you are standing. Get to a
flank," some one said.
AN ARMY IN MOTION
We were no more than well clear of that immobile host when it
all surged forward, headed by massed bands playing a tune that
sounded like the very pulse of France.
The two Generals, with their Staff, and the French Minister
for War, were on foot near a patch of very green lucerne.
They made about twenty figures in all. The cars were little
grey blocks against the grey skyline. There was nothing else
in all that great plain except the army; no sound but the
changing notes of the aeroplanes and the blunted impression,
rather than noise, of feet of men on soft ground. They came
over a slight ridge, so that one saw the curve of it first
furred, then grassed, with the tips of bayonets, which
immediately grew to full height, and then, beneath them,
poured the wonderful infantry. The speed, the thrust, the
drive of that broad blue mass was like a tide-race up an arm
of the sea; and how such speed could go with such weight, and
how such weight could be in itself so absolutely under
control, filled one with terror. All the while, the band, on
a far headland, was telling them and telling them (as if they
did not know!) of the passion and gaiety and high heart of
their own land in the speech that only they could fully
understand. (To hear the music of a country is like hearing a
woman think aloud.)
"What is the tune?" I asked of an officer beside me.
"My faith, I can't recall for the moment. I've marched to it
often enough, though. 'Sambre-et-Meuse,' perhaps. Look!
There goes my battalion! Those Chasseurs yonder."
He knew, of course; but what could a stranger identify in
that earth-shaking passage of thirty thousand?
ARTILLERY AND CAVALRY
The note behind the ridge changed to something deeper.
"Ah! Our guns," said an artillery officer, and smiled
tolerantly on the last blue waves of the Line already beating
toward the horizon.
They came twelve abreast—one hundred and fifty guns free for
the moment to take the air in company, behind their teams.
And next week would see them, hidden singly or in lurking
confederacies, by mountain and marsh and forest, or the
wrecked habitations of men—where?
The big guns followed them, with that long-nosed air of
detachment peculiar to the breed. The Gunner at my side made
no comment. He was content to let his Arm speak for itself,
but when one big gun in a sticky place fell out of alignment
for an instant I saw his eyebrows contract. The artillery
passed on with the same inhuman speed and silence as the Line;
and the Cavalry's shattering trumpets closed it all.
They are like our Cavalry in that their horses are in high
condition, and they talk hopefully of getting past the barbed
wire one of these days and coming into their own. Meantime,
they are employed on "various work as requisite," and they all
sympathize with our rough-rider of Dragoons who flatly refused
to take off his spurs in the trenches. If he had to die as a
damned infantryman, he wasn't going to be buried as such. A
troop-horse of a flanking squadron decided that he had had
enough of war, and jibbed like Lot's wife. His rider (we all
watched him) ranged about till he found a stick, which he
used, but without effect. Then he got off and led the horse,
which was evidently what the brute wanted, for when the man
remounted the jibbing began again. The last we saw of him was
one immensely lonely figure leading one bad but happy horse
across an absolutely empty world. Think of his reception—the
sole man of 40,000 who had fallen out!
THE BOCHE AS MR. SMITH
The Commander of that Army Corps came up to salute. The cars
went away with the Generals and the Minister for War; the Army
passed out of sight over the ridges to the north; the peasant
women stooped again to their work in the fields, and wet mist
shut down on all the plain; but one tingled with the
electricity that had passed. Now one knows what the
solidarity of civilization means. Later on the civilized
nations will know more, and will wonder and laugh together at
their old blindness. When Lord Kitchener went down the line,
before the march past, they say that he stopped to speak to a
General who had been Marchand's Chief of Staff at the time of
Fashoda. And Fashoda was one of several cases when
civilization was very nearly maneuvered into fighting with
itself "for the King of Prussia," as the saying goes. The
all-embracing vileness of the Boche is best realized from
French soil, where they have had large experience of it. "And
yet," as some one observed, "we ought to have known that a
race who have brought anonymous letter-writing to its highest
pitch in their own dirty Court affairs would certainly use the
same methods in their foreign politics. Why didn't we
"For the same reason," another responded, "that society did
not realize that the late Mr. Smith, of your England, who
married three wives, bought baths in advance for each of them,
and, when they had left him all their money, drowned them one
"And were the baths by any chance called Denmark, Austria, and
France in 1870?" a third asked.
"No, they were respectable British tubs. But until Mr. Smith
had drowned his third wife people didn't get suspicious. They
argued that 'men don't do such things.' That sentiment is the
criminal's best protection."
THE SPIRIT OF THE PEOPLE
We passed into the zone of another army and a hillier country,
where the border villages lay more sheltered. Here and there
a town and the fields round it gave us a glimpse of the
furious industry with which France makes and handles material
and troops. With her, as with us, the wounded officer of
experience goes back to the drill-ground to train the new
levies. But it was always the little crowded, defiant
villages, and the civil population waiting unweariedly and
cheerfully on the unwearied, cheerful army, that went closest
to the heart. Take these pictures, caught almost anywhere
during a journey: A knot of little children in difficulties
with the village water-tap or high-handled pump. A soldier,
bearded and fatherly, or young and slim and therefore rather
shy of the big girls' chaff, comes forward and lifts the pail
or swings the handle. His reward, from the smallest babe
swung high in air, or, if he is an older man, pressed against
his knees, is a kiss. Then nobody laughs.
Or a fat old lady making oration against some wicked young
soldiers who, she says, know what has happened to a certain
bottle of wine. "And I meant it for all—yes, for all of you
—this evening, instead of the thieves who stole it. Yes, I
tell you—stole it!" The whole street hears her; so does the
officer, who pretends not to, and the amused half-battalion up
the road. The young men express penitence; she growls like a
thunderstorm, but, softening at last, cuffs and drives them
affectionately before her. They are all one family.
Or a girl at work with horses in a ploughed field that is
dotted with graves. The machine must avoid each sacred plot.
So, hands on the plough-stilts, her hair flying forward, she
shouts and wrenches till her little brother runs up and swings
the team out of the furrow. Every aspect and detail of life
in France seems overlaid with a smooth patina of
long-continued war—everything except the spirit of the people,
and that is as fresh and glorious as the sight of their own land
A CITY AND WOMAN
We found a city among hills which knew itself to be a prize
greatly coveted by the Kaiser. For, truly, it was a pleasant,
a desirable, and an insolent city. Its streets were full of
life; it boasted an establishment almost as big as Harrod's
and full of buyers, and its women dressed and shod themselves
with care and grace, as befits ladies who, at any time, may be
ripped into rags by bombs from aeroplanes. And there was
another city whose population seemed to be all soldiers in
training; and yet another given up to big guns and ammunition
—an extraordinary sight.
After that, we came to a little town of pale stone which an
Army had made its headquarters. It looked like a plain woman
who had fainted in public. It had rejoiced in many public
institutions that were turned into hospitals and offices; the
wounded limped its wide, dusty streets, detachments of
Infantry went through it swiftly; and utterly bored
motor-lorries cruised up and down roaring, I suppose, for
something to look at or to talk to. In the centre of it I found
one Janny, or rather his marble bust, brooding over a minute
iron-railed garden of half-dried asters opposite a shut-up
school, which it appeared from the inscription Janny had founded
somewhere in the arid Thirties. It was precisely the sort of
school that Janny, by the look of him, would have invented. Not
even French adaptability could make anything of it. So Janny
had his school, with a faint perfume of varnish, all to himself
in a hot stillness of used-up air and little whirls of dust.
And because that town seemed so barren, I met there a French
General whom I would have gone very far to have encountered.
He, like the others, had created and tempered an army for
certain work in a certain place, and its hand had been heavy on
the Boche. We talked of what the French woman was, and had
done, and was doing, and extolled her for her goodness and her
faith and her splendid courage. When we parted, I went back and
made my profoundest apologies to Janny, who must have had a
mother. The pale, overwhelmed town did not now any longer
resemble a woman who had fainted, but one who must endure in
public all manner of private woe and still, with hands that
never cease working, keeps her soul and is cleanly strong for
herself and for her men.
The guns began to speak again among the hills that we dived
into; the air grew chillier as we climbed; forest and wet
rocks closed round us in the mist, to the sound of waters
trickling alongside; there was a tang of wet fern, cut pine,
and the first breath of autumn when the road entered a tunnel
and a new world—Alsace.
Said the Governor of those parts thoughtfully: "The main
thing was to get those factory chimneys smoking again." (They
were doing so in little flats and villages all along.) "You
won't see any girls, because they're at work in the textile
factories. Yes, it isn't a bad country for summer hotels, but
I'm afraid it won't do for winter sports. We've only a metre
of snow, and it doesn't lie, except when you are hauling guns
up mountains. Then, of course, it drifts and freezes like
Davos. That's our new railway below there. Pity it's too
misty to see the view."
But for his medals, there was nothing in the Governor to show
that he was not English. He might have come straight from an
Indian frontier command.
One notices this approximation of type in the higher ranks,
and many of the juniors are cut out of the very same cloth as
ours. They get whatever fun may be going: their performances
are as incredible and outrageous as the language in which they
describe them afterward is bald, but convincing, and—I
overheard the tail-end of a yarn told by a child of twenty to
some other babes. It was veiled in the obscurity of the
French tongue, and the points were lost in shouts of laughter
—but I imagine the subaltern among his equals displays just as
much reverence for his elders and betters as our own boys do.
The epilogue, at least, was as old as both Armies:
"And what did he say then?"
"Oh, the usual thing. He held his breath till I thought he'd
burst. Then he damned me in heaps, and I took good care to
keep out of his sight till next day."
But officially and in the high social atmosphere of
Headquarters their manners and their meekness are of the most
admirable. There they attend devoutly on the wisdom of their
seniors, who treat them, so it seemed, with affectionate
FRONT THAT NEVER SLEEPS
When the day's reports are in, all along the front, there is a
man, expert in the meaning of things, who boils them down for
that cold official digest which tells us that "There was the
usual grenade fighting at———. We made appreciable advance
at———," &c. The original material comes in sheaves and
sheaves, where individual character and temperament have full
and amusing play. It is reduced for domestic consumption like
an overwhelming electric current. Otherwise we could not take
it in. But at closer range one realizes that the Front never
sleeps; never ceases from trying new ideas and weapons which,
so soon as the Boche thinks he has mastered them, are
discarded for newer annoyances and bewilderments.
"The Boche is above all things observant and imitative," said
one who counted quite a few Boches dead on the front of his
sector. "When you present him with a new idea, he thinks it
over for a day or two. Then he presents his riposte."
"Yes, my General. That was exactly what he did to me when I
—did so and so. He was quite silent for a day. Then—he stole
"I had a notion that he'd do that, so I had changed the
Thus spoke the Staff, and so it is among the junior commands,
down to the semi-isolated posts where boy-Napoleons live on
their own, through unbelievable adventures. They are
inventive young devils, these veterans of 21, possessed of the
single ideal—to kill—which they follow with men as
single-minded as themselves. Battlefield tactics do not exist;
when a whole nation goes to ground there can be none of the
"victories" of the old bookish days. But there is always the
killing—the well-schemed smashing of a full trench, the rushing
out and the mowing down of its occupants; the unsuspicious
battalion far in the rear, located after two nights' extreme
risk alone among rubbish of masonry, and wiped out as it eats or
washes itself; and, more rarely, the body to body encounter with
animals removed from the protection of their machinery, when the
bayonets get their chance. The Boche does not at all like
meeting men whose womenfolk he has dishonoured or mutilated, or
used as a protection against bullets. It is not that these men
are angry or violent. They do not waste time in that way. They
THE BUSINESS OF WAR
The French are less reticent than we about atrocities
committed by the Boche, because those atrocities form part of
their lives. They are not tucked away in reports of
Commissions, and vaguely referred to as "too awful." Later
on, perhaps, we shall be unreserved in our turn. But they do
not talk of them with any babbling heat or bleat or make funny
little appeals to a "public opinion" that, like the Boche, has
gone underground. It occurs to me that this must be because
every Frenchman has his place and his chance, direct or
indirect, to diminish the number of Boches still alive.
Whether he lies out in a sandwich of damp earth, or sweats the
big guns up the crests behind the trees, or brings the fat,
loaded barges into the very heart of the city, where the
shell-wagons wait, or spends his last crippled years at the
harvest, he is doing his work to that end.
If he is a civilian he may—as he does—say things about his
Government, which, after all, is very like other popular
governments. (A lifetime spent in watching how the cat jumps
does not make lion-tamers.) But there is very little human
rubbish knocking about France to hinder work or darken
counsel. Above all, there is a thing called the Honour of
Civilization, to which France is attached. The meanest man
feels that he, in his place, is permitted to help uphold it,
and, I think, bears himself, therefore, with new dignity.
A CONTRAST IN TYPES
This is written in a garden of smooth turf, under a copper
beech, beside a glassy mill-stream, where soldiers of Alpine
regiments are writing letters home, while the guns shout up
and down the narrow valleys.
A great wolf-hound, who considers himself in charge of the
old-fashioned farmhouse, cannot understand why his master,
aged six, should be sitting on the knees of the Marechal des
Logis, the iron man who drives the big car.
"But you are French, little one?" says the giant, with a
yearning arm round the child.
"Yes," very slowly mouthing the French words; "I—can't
The small face disappears in the big beard.
Somehow, I can't imagine the Marechal des Logis killing
babies—even if his superior officer, now sketching the scene,
were to order him!
. . . . . . .
The great building must once have been a monastery. Twilight
softened its gaunt wings, in an angle of which were collected
fifty prisoners, picked up among the hills behind the mists.
They stood in some sort of military formation preparatory to
being marched off. They were dressed in khaki, the colour of
gassed grass, that might have belonged to any army. Two wore
spectacles, and I counted eight faces of the fifty which were
asymmetrical—out of drawing on one side.
"Some of their later drafts give us that type," said the
Interpreter. One of them had been wounded in the head and
roughly bandaged. The others seemed all sound. Most of them
looked at nothing, but several were vividly alive with terror
that cannot keep the eyelids still, and a few wavered on the
grey edge of collapse.
They were the breed which, at the word of command, had stolen
out to drown women and children; had raped women in the
streets at the word of command; and, always at the word of
command, had sprayed petrol, or squirted flame; or defiled the
property and persons of their captives. They stood there
outside all humanity. Yet they were made in the likeness of
humanity. One realized it with a shock when the bandaged
creature began to shiver, and they shuffled off in response to
the orders of civilized men.
LIFE IN TRENCHES ON THE MOUNTAIN SIDE
Very early in the morning I met Alan Breck, with a half-healed
bullet-scrape across the bridge of his nose, and an Alpine cap
over one ear. His people a few hundred years ago had been
Scotch. He bore a Scotch name, and still recognized the head
of his clan, but his French occasionally ran into German
words, for he was an Alsatian on one side.
"This," he explained, "is the very best country in the world
to fight in. It's picturesque and full of cover. I'm a
gunner. I've been here for months. It's lovely."
It might have been the hills under Mussoorie, and what our
cars expected to do in it I could not understand. But the
demon-driver who had been a road-racer took the 70 h.p.
Mercedes and threaded the narrow valleys, as well as
occasional half-Swiss villages full of Alpine troops, at a
restrained thirty miles an hour. He shot up a new-made road,
more like Mussoorie than ever, and did not fall down the
hillside even once. An ammunition-mule of a mountain-battery
met him at a tight corner, and began to climb a tree.
"See! There isn't another place in France where that could
happen," said Alan. "I tell you, this is a magnificent
The mule was hauled down by his tail before he had reached the
lower branches, and went on through the woods, his
ammunition-boxes jinking on his back, for all the world as
though he were rejoining his battery at Jutogh. One expected to
meet the little Hill people bent under their loads under the
forest gloom. The light, the colour, the smell of wood smoke,
pine-needles, wet earth, and warm mule were all Himalayan. Only
the Mercedes was violently and loudly a stranger.
"Halt!" said Alan at last, when she had done everything except
imitate the mule.
"The road continues," said the demon-driver seductively.
"Yes, but they will hear you if you go on. Stop and wait.
We've a mountain battery to look at."
They were not at work for the moment, and the Commandant, a
grim and forceful man, showed me some details of their
construction. When we left them in their bower—it looked
like a Hill priest's wayside shrine—we heard them singing
through the steep-descending pines. They, too, like the 75's,
seem to have no pet name in the service.
It was a poisonously blind country. The woods blocked all
sense of direction above and around. The ground was at any
angle you please, and all sounds were split up and muddled by
the tree-trunks, which acted as silencers. High above us the
respectable, all-concealing forest had turned into sparse,
ghastly blue sticks of timber—an assembly of leper-trees
round a bald mountain top. "That's where we're going," said
Alan. "Isn't it an adorable country?"
A machine-gun loosed a few shots in the fumbling style of her
kind when they feel for an opening. A couple of rifle shots
answered. They might have been half a mile away or a hundred
yards below. An adorable country! We climbed up till we
found once again a complete tea-garden of little sunk houses,
almost invisible in the brown-pink recesses of the thick
forest. Here the trenches began, and with them for the next
few hours life in two dimensions—length and breadth. You
could have eaten your dinner almost anywhere off the swept dry
ground, for the steep slopes favoured draining, there was no
lack of timber, and there was unlimited labour. It had made
neat double-length dug-outs where the wounded could be laid in
during their passage down the mountain side; well-tended
occasional latrines properly limed; dug-outs for sleeping and
eating; overhead protections and tool-sheds where needed, and,
as one came nearer the working face, very clever cellars
against trench-sweepers. Men passed on their business; a
squad with a captured machine-gun which they tested in a
sheltered dip; armourers at their benches busy with sick
rifles; fatigue-parties for straw, rations, and ammunition;
long processions of single blue figures turned sideways
between the brown sunless walls. One understood after a while
the nightmare that lays hold of trench-stale men, when the
dreamer wanders for ever in those blind mazes till, after
centuries of agonizing flight, he finds himself stumbling out
again into the white blaze and horror of the mined front—he
who thought he had almost reached home!
IN THE FRONT LINE
There were no trees above us now. Their trunks lay along the
edge of the trench, built in with stones, where necessary, or
sometimes overhanging it in ragged splinters or bushy tops.
Bits of cloth, not French, showed, too, in the uneven lines of
debris at the trench lip, and some thoughtful soul had marked
an unexploded Boche trench-sweeper as "not to be touched." It
was a young lawyer from Paris who pointed that out to me.
We met the Colonel at the head of an indescribable pit of
ruin, full of sunshine, whose steps ran down a very steep
hillside under the lee of an almost vertically plunging
parapet. To the left of that parapet the whole hillside was
one gruel of smashed trees, split stones, and powdered soil.
It might have been a rag-picker's dump-heap on a colossal
Alan looked at it critically. I think he had helped to make
it not long before.
"We're on the top of the hill now, and the Boches are below
us," said he. "We gave them a very fair sickener lately."
"This," said the Colonel, "is the front line."
There were overhead guards against hand-bombs which disposed
me to believe him, but what convinced me most was a corporal
urging us in whispers not to talk so loud. The men were at
dinner, and a good smell of food filled the trench. This was
the first smell I had encountered in my long travels uphill—a
mixed, entirely wholesome flavour of stew, leather, earth, and
FRONT LINE PROFESSIONALS
A proportion of men were standing to arms while others ate;
but dinner-time is slack time, even among animals, and it was
close on noon.
"The Boches got their soup a few days ago," some one
whispered. I thought of the pulverized hillside, and hoped it
had been hot enough.
We edged along the still trench, where the soldiers stared,
with justified contempt, I thought, upon the civilian who
scuttled through their life for a few emotional minutes in
order to make words out of their blood. Somehow it reminded
me of coming in late to a play and incommoding a long line of
packed stalls. The whispered dialogue was much the same:
"Pardon!" "I beg your pardon, monsieur." "To the right,
monsieur." "If monsieur will lower his head." "One sees best
from here, monsieur," and so on. It was their day and
night-long business, carried through without display or heat, or
doubt or indecision. Those who worked, worked; those off duty,
not five feet behind them in the dug-outs, were deep in their
papers, or their meals or their letters; while death stood ready
at every minute to drop down into the narrow cut from out of the
narrow strip of unconcerned sky. And for the better part of a
week one had skirted hundreds of miles of such a frieze!
The loopholes not in use were plugged rather like
old-fashioned hives. Said the Colonel, removing a plug:
"Here are the Boches. Look, and you'll see their sandbags."
Through the jumble of riven trees and stones one saw what
might have been a bit of green sacking. "They're about seven
metres distant just here," the Colonel went on. That was
true, too. We entered a little fortalice with a cannon in it,
in an embrasure which at that moment struck me as
unnecessarily vast, even though it was partly closed by a
frail packing-case lid. The Colonel sat him down in front of
it, and explained the theory of this sort of redoubt. "By the
way," he said to the gunner at last, "can't you find something
better than that?" He twitched the lid aside. "I think
it's too light. Get a log of wood or something."
I loved that Colonel! He knew his men and he knew the Boches
—had them marked down like birds. When he said they were
beside dead trees or behind boulders, sure enough there they
were! But, as I have said, the dinner-hour is always slack,
and even when we came to a place where a section of trench had
been bashed open by trench-sweepers, and it was recommended to
duck and hurry, nothing much happened. The uncanny thing was
the absence of movement in the Boche trenches. Sometimes one
imagined that one smelt strange tobacco, or heard a rifle-bolt
working after a shot. Otherwise they were as still as pig at
We held on through the maze, past trench-sweepers of a handy
light pattern, with their screw-tailed charge all ready; and a
grave or so; and when I came on men who merely stood within
easy reach of their rifles, I knew I was in the second line.
When they lay frankly at ease in their dug-outs, I knew it was
the third. A shot-gun would have sprinkled all three.
"No flat plains," said Alan. "No hunting for gun positions
—the hills are full of them—and the trenches close together
and commanding each other. You see what a beautiful country
The Colonel confirmed this, but from another point of view.
War was his business, as the still woods could testify—but
his hobby was his trenches. He had tapped the mountain
streams and dug out a laundry where a man could wash his shirt
and go up and be killed in it, all in a morning; had drained
the trenches till a muddy stretch in them was an offence; and
at the bottom of the hill (it looked like a hydropathic
establishment on the stage) he had created baths where half a
battalion at a time could wash. He never told me how all that
country had been fought over as fiercely as Ypres in the West;
nor what blood had gone down the valleys before his trenches
pushed over the scalped mountain top. No. He sketched out
new endeavours in earth and stones and trees for the comfort
of his men on that populous mountain.
And there came a priest, who was a sub-lieutenant, out of a
wood of snuff-brown shadows and half-veiled trunks. Would it
please me to look at a chapel? It was all open to the
hillside, most tenderly and devoutly done in rustic work with
reedings of peeled branches and panels of moss and thatch—St.
Hubert's own shrine. I saw the hunters who passed before it,
going to the chase on the far side of the mountain where their
. . . . . . .
A BOMBARDED TOWN
Alan carried me off to tea the same evening in a town where he
seemed to know everybody. He had spent the afternoon on
another mountain top, inspecting gun positions; whereby he had
been shelled a little—marmite is the slang for it. There
had been no serious marmitage, and he had spotted a Boche
position which was marmitable.
"And we may get shelled now," he added, hopefully. "They
shell this town whenever they think of it. Perhaps they'll
shell us at tea."
It was a quaintly beautiful little place, with its mixture of
French and German ideas; its old bridge and gentle-minded
river, between the cultivated hills. The sand-bagged cellar
doors, the ruined houses, and the holes in the pavement looked
as unreal as the violences of a cinema against that soft and
simple setting. The people were abroad in the streets, and
the little children were playing. A big shell gives notice
enough for one to get to shelter, if the shelter is near
enough. That appears to be as much as any one expects in the
world where one is shelled, and that world has settled down to
it. People's lips are a little firmer, the modelling of the
brows is a little more pronounced, and, maybe, there is a
change in the expression of the eyes; but nothing that a
casual afternoon caller need particularly notice.
CASES FOR HOSPITAL
The house where we took tea was the "big house" of the place,
old and massive, a treasure house of ancient furniture. It
had everything that the moderate heart of man could desire
—gardens, garages, outbuildings, and the air of peace that goes
with beauty in age. It stood over a high cellarage, and
opposite the cellar door was a brand-new blindage of earth
packed between timbers. The cellar was a hospital, with its
beds and stores, and under the electric light the orderly
waited ready for the cases to be carried down out of the
"Yes, they are all civil cases," said he.
They come without much warning—a woman gashed by falling
timber; a child with its temple crushed by a flying stone; an
urgent amputation case, and so on. One never knows.
Bombardment, the Boche text-books say, "is designed to terrify
the civil population so that they may put pressure on their
politicians to conclude peace." In real life, men are very
rarely soothed by the sight of their women being tortured.
We took tea in the hall upstairs, with a propriety and an
interchange of compliments that suited the little occasion.
There was no attempt to disguise the existence of a
bombardment, but it was not allowed to overweigh talk of
lighter matters. I know one guest who sat through it as near
as might be inarticulate with wonder. But he was English, and
when Alan asked him whether he had enjoyed himself, he said:
"Oh, yes. Thank you very much."
"Nice people, aren't they?" Alan went on.
"Oh, very nice. And—and such good tea."
He managed to convey a few of his sentiments to Alan after
"But what else could the people have done?" said he. "They
THE COMMON TASK OF A GREAT PEOPLE
"This is the end of the line," said the Staff Officer, kindest
and most patient of chaperons. It buttressed itself on a
fortress among hills. Beyond that, the silence was more awful
than the mixed noise of business to the westward. In mileage
on the map the line must be between four and five hundred
miles; in actual trench-work many times that distance. It is
too much to see at full length; the mind does not readily
break away from the obsession of its entirety or the grip of
its detail. One visualizes the thing afterwards as a
white-hot gash, worming all across France between intolerable
sounds and lights, under ceaseless blasts of whirled dirt. Nor
is it any relief to lose oneself among wildernesses of piling,
stoning, timbering, concreting, and wire-work, or incalculable
quantities of soil thrown up raw to the light and cloaked by the
changing seasons—as the unburied dead are cloaked.
Yet there are no words to give the essential simplicity of it.
It is the rampart put up by Man against the Beast, precisely
as in the Stone Age. If it goes, all that keeps us from the
Beast goes with it. One sees this at the front as clearly as
one sees the French villages behind the German lines.
Sometimes people steal away from them and bring word of what
Where the rifle and the bayonet serve, men use those tools
along the front. Where the knife gives better results, they
go in behind the hand-grenades with the naked twelve-inch
knife. Each race is supposed to fight in its own way, but
this war has passed beyond all the known ways. They say that
the Belgians in the north settle accounts with a certain dry
passion which has varied very little since their agony began.
Some sections of the English line have produced a soft-voiced,
rather reserved type, which does its work with its mouth shut.
The French carry an edge to their fighting, a precision, and a
dreadful knowledge coupled with an insensibility to shock,
unlike anything one has imagined of mankind. To be sure,
there has never been like provocation, for never since the
Aesir went about to bind the Fenris Wolf has all the world
united to bind the Beast.
The last I saw of the front was Alan Breck speeding back to
his gun-positions among the mountains; and I wondered what
delight of what household the lad must have been in the old
SUPPORTS AND RESERVES
Then we had to work our way, department by department, against
the tides of men behind the line—supports and their supports,
reserves and reserves of reserves, as well as the masses in
training. They flooded towns and villages, and when we tried
short-cuts we found them in every by-lane. Have you seen
mounted men reading their home letters with the reins thrown
on the horses' necks, moving in absorbed silence through a
street which almost said "Hush!" to its dogs; or met, in a
forest, a procession of perfectly new big guns, apparently
taking themselves from the foundry to the front?
In spite of their love of drama, there is not much
"window-dressing" in the French character. The Boche, who is
the priest of the Higher Counter-jumpery, would have had half
the neutral Press out in cars to advertise these vast spectacles
of men and material. But the same instinct as makes their rich
farmers keep to their smocks makes the French keep quiet.
"This is our affair," they argue. "Everybody concerned is
taking part in it. Like the review you saw the other day,
there are no spectators."
"But it might be of advantage if the world knew."
Mine was a foolish remark. There is only one world to-day,
the world of the Allies. Each of them knows what the others
are doing and—the rest doesn't matter. This is a curious but
delightful fact to realize at first hand. And think what it
will be later, when we shall all circulate among each other
and open our hearts and talk it over in a brotherhood more
intimate than the ties of blood!
I lay that night at a little French town, and was kept awake
by a man, somewhere in the hot, still darkness, howling aloud
from the pain of his wounds. I was glad that he was alone,
for when one man gives way the others sometimes follow. Yet
the single note of misery was worse than the baying and
gulping of a whole ward. I wished that a delegation of
strikers could have heard it.
. . . . . . .
That a civilian should be in the war zone at all is a fair
guarantee of his good faith. It is when he is outside the
zone unchaperoned that questions begin, and the permits are
looked into. If these are irregular—but one doesn't care to
contemplate it. If regular, there are still a few
counter-checks. As the sergeant at the railway station said
when he helped us out of an impasse: "You will realize that it
is the most undesirable persons whose papers are of the most
regular. It is their business you see. The Commissary of Police
is at the Hotel de Ville, if you will come along for the little
formality. Myself, I used to keep a shop in Paris. My God,
these provincial towns are desolating!"
PARIS—AND NO FOREIGNERS
He would have loved his Paris as we found it. Life was
renewing itself in the streets, whose drawing and proportion
one could never notice before. People's eyes, and the women's
especially, seemed to be set to a longer range, a more
comprehensive gaze. One would have said they came from the
sea or the mountains, where things are few and simple, rather
than from houses. Best of all, there were no foreigners—the
beloved city for the first time was French throughout from end
to end. It felt like coming back to an old friend's house for
a quiet talk after he had got rid of a houseful of visitors.
The functionaries and police had dropped their masks of
official politeness, and were just friendly. At the hotels,
so like school two days before the term begins, the impersonal
valet, the chambermaid of the set two-franc smile, and the
unbending head-waiter had given place to one's own brothers
and sisters, full of one's own anxieties. "My son is an
aviator, monsieur. I could have claimed Italian nationality
for him at the beginning, but he would not have it." . . .
"Both my brothers, monsieur, are at the war. One is dead
already. And my fiance, I have not heard from him since
March. He is cook in a battalion." . . . "Here is the
wine-list, monsieur. Yes, both my sons and a nephew, and—I
have no news of them, not a word of news. My God, we all
suffer these days." And so, too, among the shops—the mere
statement of the loss or the grief at the heart, but never a
word of doubt, never a whimper of despair.
"Now why," asked a shopkeeper, "does not our Government, or
your Government, or both our Governments, send some of the
British Army to Paris? I assure you we should make them
"Perhaps," I began, "you might make them too welcome."
He laughed. "We should make them as welcome as our own army.
They would enjoy themselves." I had a vision of British
officers, each with ninety days' pay to his credit, and a
damsel or two at home, shopping consumedly.
"And also," said the shopkeeper, "the moral effect on Paris to
see more of your troops would be very good."
But I saw a quite English Provost-Marshal losing himself in
chase of defaulters of the New Army who knew their Paris!
Still, there is something to be said for the idea—to the
extent of a virtuous brigade or so. At present, the English
officer in Paris is a scarce bird, and he explains at once why
he is and what he is doing there. He must have good reasons.
I suggested teeth to an acquaintance. "No good," he grumbled.
"They've thought of that, too. Behind our lines is simply
crawling with dentists now!"
A PEOPLE TRANSFIGURED
If one asked after the people that gave dinners and dances
last year, where every one talked so brilliantly of such vital
things, one got in return the addresses of hospitals. Those
pleasant hostesses and maidens seemed to be in charge of
departments or on duty in wards, or kitchens, or sculleries.
Some of the hospitals were in Paris. (Their staffs might have
one hour a day in which to see visitors.) Others were up the
line, and liable to be shelled or bombed.
I recalled one Frenchwoman in particular, because she had once
explained to me the necessities of civilized life. These
included a masseuse, a manicurist, and a maid to look after
the lapdogs. She is employed now, and has been for months
past, on the disinfection and repair of soldiers' clothes.
There was no need to ask after the men one had known. Still,
there was no sense of desolation. They had gone on; the
others were getting ready.
All France works outward to the Front—precisely as an endless
chain of fire-buckets works toward the conflagration. Leave
the fire behind you and go back till you reach the source of
supplies. You will find no break, no pause, no apparent
haste, but never any slackening. Everybody has his or her
bucket, little or big, and nobody disputes how they should be
used. It is a people possessed of the precedent and tradition
of war for existence, accustomed to hard living and hard
labour, sanely economical by temperament, logical by training,
and illumined and transfigured by their resolve and endurance.
You know, when supreme trial overtakes an acquaintance whom
till then we conceived we knew, how the man's nature sometimes
changes past knowledge or belief. He who was altogether such
an one as ourselves goes forward simply, even lightly, to
heights we thought unattainable. Though he is the very same
comrade that lived our small life with us, yet in all things
he has become great. So it is with France to-day. She has
discovered the measure of her soul.
THE NEW WAR
One sees this not alone in the—it is more than contempt of
death—in the godlike preoccupation of her people under arms
which makes them put death out of the account, but in the
equal passion and fervour with which her people throughout
give themselves to the smallest as well as the greatest tasks
that may in any way serve their sword. I might tell you
something that I saw of the cleaning out of certain latrines;
of the education and antecedents of the cleaners; what they
said in the matter and how perfectly the work was done. There
was a little Rabelais in it, naturally, but the rest was pure
devotion, rejoicing to be of use.
Similarly with stables, barricades, and barbed-wire work, the
clearing and piling away of wrecked house-rubbish, the serving
of meals till the service rocks on its poor tired feet, but
keeps its temper; and all the unlovely, monotonous details
that go with war.
The women, as I have tried to show, work stride for stride
with the men, with hearts as resolute and a spirit that has
little mercy for short-comings. A woman takes her place
wherever she can relieve a man—in the shop, at the posts, on
the tramways, the hotels, and a thousand other businesses.
She is inured to field-work, and half the harvest of France
this year lies in her lap. One feels at every turn how her
men trust her. She knows, for she shares everything with her
world, what has befallen her sisters who are now in German
hands, and her soul is the undying flame behind the men's
steel. Neither men nor women have any illusion as to miracles
presently to be performed which shall "sweep out" or "drive
back" the Boche. Since the Army is the Nation, they know
much, though they are officially told little. They all
recognize that the old-fashioned "victory" of the past is
almost as obsolete as a rifle in a front-line trench. They
all accept the new war, which means grinding down and wearing
out the enemy by every means and plan and device that can be
compassed. It is slow and expensive, but as deadly sure as
the logic that leads them to make it their one work, their
sole thought, their single preoccupation.
A NATION'S CONFIDENCE
The same logic saves them a vast amount of energy. They knew
Germany in '70, when the world would not believe in their
knowledge; they knew the German mind before the war; they know
what she has done (they have photographs) during this war.
They do not fall into spasms of horror and indignation over
atrocities "that cannot be mentioned," as the English papers
say. They mention them in full and book them to the account.
They do not discuss, nor consider, nor waste an emotion over
anything that Germany says or boasts or argues or implies or
intrigues after. They have the heart's ease that comes from
all being at work for their country; the knowledge that the
burden of work is equally distributed among all; the certainty
that the women are working side by side with the men; the
assurance that when one man's task is at the moment ended,
another takes his place.
Out of these things is born their power of recuperation in
their leisure; their reasoned calm while at work; and their
superb confidence in their arms. Even if France of to-day
stood alone against the world's enemy, it would be almost
inconceivable to imagine her defeat now; wholly so to imagine
any surrender. The war will go on till the enemy is finished.
The French do not know when that hour will come; they seldom
speak of it; they do not amuse themselves with dreams of
triumphs or terms. Their business is war, and they do their