Out With Captain Blank

“Grand Quartier Général!” The sentry barring the road jerked his rifle instantly to rigid salute.

The speaker sat beside the chauffeur of a big limousine. He wore a wonderful new horizon-blue captain’s uniform, but on his left arm was the colored silken brassard of the Great General headquarters staff. It meant that the wearer was the direct agent of Père Joffre, and though sentries dotted our route the chauffeur never once brought the car to a full halt.

Two other neutral correspondents were in the car with me. The tonneau was comfortably heated and electrically lighted. Our baggage was carried in other cars behind us, in charge of orderlies. Still other cars carried an armed escort, in case of sudden attack on the lines.

For at last we were going forth officially to the front. No sentry could stop us. No officer could “detain” us—there was no fear of prison at our journey’s end. It had been decided by Père Joffre himself; and “Himself” had appointed the Captain, whose orders were to remain with us even after our return to Paris, where he would wait to place the magic visé of the État Major upon our despatches, thus preventing any delays at the regular Bureau de Censure.

Comfortable rooms had been reserved in hotels of little villages behind the trenches. Far in advance meals had been commanded to be ready at the hours of our arrival. Every detail of each day’s program had been carefully arranged. And in case we did become accidentally separated from our Captain, each of us carried a pass issued by the Ministry of War bearing our photographs and in dramatic language fully accrediting us as correspondents to the armies of the Republic.

So we lighted our cigars and lolled at our ease, feeling our own importance just a bit as each sentry saluted respectfully the Captain’s silken brassard.

In the company of Captain Blank I have secured the greatest part of the cable copy that the war has furnished me, but on that first ride through the snow fields of Northern France, I little realized that on my return to Paris I would send America the most important cable that I had ever filed in my life: for it was the first detailed description of the French army permitted for publication after the battle of the Marne. Many times during that trip we asked each other what “news” there was in all that we saw that was worth cabling, when a five-cent postage stamp would carry it by letter. It was all interesting, some of it decidedly exciting; but not once did we witness a general engagement of the army. There was no storming of forts, no charges of the cavalry, no capitulation of troops. It was just the deadly winter waiting in the trenches, with the sentries who never slept at the port-holes and the artillery incessantly pounding away at the rear. I decided that there was nothing worth cabling in the story.

When I returned to Paris, and a steam-heated apartment, the reaction on my physical forces was so great that I went to bed for several days with the grippe. As I impatiently fumed to get to work on the story of my trip, it suddenly dawned upon me that it was a cable story after all. Why, it was one of the biggest cable stories possible—it was the story of the French army. I had just been permitted a real view of it, the first accorded any correspondent in so comprehensive a manner. I had followed a great section of the fighting line, had been in the trenches under fire, and had received scientific, detailed information regarding this least known of European forces.

True, we correspondents knew what a powerful machine it was. We knew it was getting stronger every day. But America did not, and Germany meanwhile was granting interviews, taking correspondents to the trenches and up in balloons and aeroplanes in their campaign for neutral sympathy. Now France, or rather General Joffre—for his was the first and last word on the subject of war correspondents—had decided to combat the German advertising. Captain Blank was still waiting in Paris for my copy—cable copy marked “rush”—which I dictated in bed.

“This army has nothing to hide,” said one of the greatest generals to me, during the trip. “You see what you like, go where you desire and if you cannot get there, ask.”

While our party did all the spectacular stunts the Germans had offered the correspondents in such profusion, such as visiting the trenches, where once a German shell burst thirty feet from us, splattering us with mud, where also snipers sent rifle balls hissing only a few feet away, our greatest treats were the scientific daily discourses given by Captain Blank, touching the entire history of the first campaign, explaining each event leading up to the present position of the two armies. He gave the exact location of every French and Allied army corps on the entire front.

On the opposite side of the line he demonstrated the efficiency of the French secret service by giving full details of the position and name of every German regiment, even to the date of its arrival.

Our Captain explained the second great German blunder after their failure to occupy Paris. This was their mistake in not at once swinging a line across Northern France, cutting off Calais and Boulogne, where they could have leveled a pistol at England’s head. He explained that the superior French cavalry dictated that the line should instead run straight north through the edge of Belgium to the sea. And he refuted by many military arguments the theory that cavalry became obsolete with the advent of aeroplanes.

Cavalry formerly was used to screen the infantry advance and also for shock purposes in the charges. Now that the lines are established, it is mostly used with the infantry in the trenches; but in the great race after the Marne to turn the western flanks it was the cavalry’s ability to outstrip the infantry that kept the Germans from possession of all Northern France. In other words, the French chauseurs, more brilliant than the Uhlans, kept that northern line straight until the infantry corps had time to take up position.

Once, on passing from the second line to a point less than a hundred yards from the German rifles, I came face to face with a general of division. He was sauntering along for his morning’s stroll, which he chose to take in the trenches with his men rather than on the safer roads at the rear. He smoked a cigarette and seemed careless of danger. He continually patted his soldiers on the back as he passed and called them “his little braves.”

I could not help wondering then and since whether the German general opposite was setting his men the same splendid example. I inquired the French general’s name; he was General Fayolle, conceded by all the armies to be one of the greatest artillery experts in the world. Comradeship between officers and men always is general in the French army, but I never before realized fully the officers’ willingness to accept the same fate as their men.

In Paris the popular appellation for a German is “boche.” Not once at the front did I hear this word used by officers or men. They deplore it, just as they deplore many things that happen in Paris. Every officer I talked to declared the Germans were a brave, strong enemy; they waste no time calling them names.

“They are wonderful, but we will beat them,” was the way one officer summed up the general feeling.

Another illustration of the French officer at the front: the city of Vermelles, of 10,000 inhabitants, was captured from the Germans after thirty-four days’ fighting. It was taken literally from house to house, the French engineers sapping and mining the Germans out of every stronghold, destroying every single house, incidentally forever upsetting my own one-time idea that the French are a frivolous people. So determined were they to retake this town that they fought in the streets with artillery at a distance of twenty-one feet, probably the shortest range artillery duel in the history of the world.

The Germans before the final evacuation buried hundreds of their own dead. Every yard in the city was filled with little crosses—the ground was so trampled that the mounds of graves were crushed down level with the ground—and on the crosses are printed the names, with the number of the German regiments. At the base of every cross rested either a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin or a wreath of artificial flowers, all looted from the French graveyard.

With the German graves were French graves, made afterward. I walked through this ruined city where, aside from the soldiers, the only sign of life I saw was a gaunt, prowling cat. With me, past these hundreds of graves, walked half a dozen French officers. They did not pause to read inscriptions; they did not comment on the loot and pillage of the graveyard; they scarcely looked even at the graves, but they constantly raised their hands to their caps in salute, regardless of whether the crosses marked a French or a German life destroyed.

Another illustration of French humanity:

We were driving along back of the advance lines. On the road before us a company of territorial infantry, after eight days in the trenches, were now marching back to two days of repose at the rear. Plodding along the same road was a refugee mother and several little children in a donkey cart; behind the cart, attached by a rope, trundled a baby buggy with the youngest child inside. The buggy suddenly struck a rut in the road and overturned, spilling the baby into the mud. Terrible wails arose; the soldiers stiffened to attention. Then, seeing the accident, the entire company broke ranks and rescued the infant. They wiped the dirt from its face and helped the mother to bestow it again in the cart.

Our motor had halted; and our captain from the Great General Headquarters, in his gorgeous blue uniform, climbed from the car, and discussed with the mother the safety of a baby buggy riding behind a donkey cart; at the same time congratulating the soldier who had rescued the child.

I took a brief ride at the front in an ante-bellum motorbus,—there being nothing left in Paris but the trams and subway. Busses have since been used to carry fresh meat, to transport troops and also ammunition. We trundled merrily along a little country road, the snow-white fields on either side in strange contrast to the scenery when last I rode in that bus, in my daily trips from my home to the Times office in Paris. The bus was now riddled with bullets, but the soldier conductor still jingles the bell to the motorman, although he carries a revolver where he formerly wore the register for fares.

Trench life was one of the surprises of the trip. Every night since the war began I had heard pitying remarks about “the boys in the trenches,” especially if the nights were cold. I was, therefore, prepared to find the men standing in water to the knees, shivering, wretched, sick and unhappy. I found just the contrary—the trenches were clean, large and sanitary, although, of course, mud is mud. The bottoms of the trenches in every instance were corduroy-lined with modern drains, which keep the feet perfectly dry. In the large dugouts the men, except those doing sentry duty, sleep comfortably on dry straw. There are special dugouts for officers and artillery observers.

Although the maps show the lines of fighting to be rather wavy, one must go to the front really to appreciate the zigzag, snake-like line that it really is. The particular bit of trenches we visited covered a front of twelve miles; but so irregular was the line, so intricate and vast the system of intrenchments, that they measured 200 miles on that particular twelve-mile fighting front.

Leaving the trenches at the rear of the communication boyaux, it is astonishing how little of the war can be seen. Ten feet after we left our trenches we could not see even the entrance. We stood in a beautiful open field having our pictures taken, and a few hundred yards away our motor waited behind some trees. Suddenly we heard a “zip zip” over our heads. German snipers were taking shots at us.

With all considerations for the statement that the Germans have the greatest fighting machine the world has ever seen, the French army to me seemed invincible from the standpoints of power, intelligence and humanity. This latter quality, judging from the generals in command to the men in the trenches, especially impressed me. I did not and I do not believe that an army with such ideals as the French army can be beaten.

So I wrote my cable and sent it to Captain Blank. He viséd it, at the same time sending me a letter which I cherish among my possessions. He thanked me for the sentiments I had expressed and told me that a copy of the story would be sent to General Joffre.

A few days later I met the doyen of war correspondents, Frederick Villiers, in a boulevard café. He was out with me on that trip. But he began war-corresponding with Archibald Forbes at the battle of Plevna. This is his seventeenth war. I said to him:

“Mr. Villiers, what did you do with the story of this trip to the front; you who have been in so many battles; you who have had a camel shot under you in the desert; you who escaped from Port Arthur; you who have seen more war than any living man? What do you think of this latest edition of war?”

He answered: “It is different, very different, in many ways; but this trip from which we have just returned is the biggest war spectacle that I’ve ever had!”

Villiers, too, had seen the French army.


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