The Field Of Battle

“To see the damage done by the Germans in unfortified villages.”

This was the quest that first passed me into the zone of military operations, that first landed me on the field of battle, and gave me my first experience under fire.

Ambassador Herrick had procured a pass for me and two other Paris correspondents; it covered also an automobile and chauffeur, and was signed by General Galliéni, the Military Governor and Commander of the Army of Paris. Mr. Herrick explained that he had requested it, because we had not attempted to leave the city without credentials—as had many correspondents—”by the back door,” as he said. He considered that it was time for some of us to go out openly “by the front door,” in order to later tell the truth to America.

We took the pass thankfully. It was good for a week and would take us “anywhere on the field of battle.” We have always been thankful that this pass was handed to us by Ambassador Herrick in his private room at the American Embassy, and that it was requested of General Galliéni by the Ambassador himself—that it was his idea and not ours. For later it developed that a pass from General Galliéni was not sufficient to take us “anywhere on the field of battle”—the pass itself disappeared and we came back to Paris as prisoners of war. We were told that we were arrested because we were “at the front without credentials.” Our defense was clear, because, we argued, when an ambassador asks for something, a record of that request exists. Ambassador Herrick made a similar declaration, and we were not only released but “expressions of regret” for our “detention” were tendered us.

We rented a car and a French chauffeur. We wore rough clothes and heavy overcoats, we took extra socks, collars, soap, shaving utensils and candles. As food we took sardines, salmon, cocoa, biscuits, coffee, sausage, bread, bottles of wine and water. We also bought an alcohol lamp, aluminum plates, collapsible drinking cups and jack-knives. At four o’clock that afternoon we started.

In retrospect I divide the ensuing days into two parts, and in the latter part I believe that the high water mark of my existence was reached—at least the high tide from the standpoint of new sensations, excitement, and genuine thrills. To digress for an instant, I have somewhere read the account of a person, a well-known novelist, who visited the French trenches months after the period I shall describe; when he got away from his censor and was safe back in America, he reported that no correspondents have really seen anything in this war—and that many of their stories are fakes. Some correspondents, including this one, have not seen much. Some stories have been fakes, including the one which he told. I wish it were permissible to enumerate some of the fakes in detail—but I wish for the sake of this person that he had been along in either the second or the first portions of that trip;—when, just a few miles outside Paris, we first heard the Sentries in the Dark—when, the next morning we met the first batch of Wounded Who Could Walk—and later, when we ate luncheon to an orchestra of bursting shells, a luncheon ordered quietly—to be eaten quietly, during a Lull in the Bombardment.

Sentries In The Dark

The car whizzed down the straight country road. We were trying to make night quarters thirty kilometers away. The dusk was already upon us—and the rain. Every night for a week the rain had come at dusk. We were well behind the battle lines, but the Germans had held that countryside only a few days before. Many of them still lurked in the dense woods. At dusk they were apt to shoot at passing motors. If they killed the occupants, they secured clothes and credentials and attempted cutting through to their own lines. The night before, a French general had been killed on the road we were passing. Therefore it was not well to be abroad at dusk, too far northward on the battlefield of the Aisne. But we had cast a tire and lost considerable time. It was necessary to go forward or strike back toward Paris. To remain in the open held an additional risk of being stopped by a British patrol—we were near their lines—and the British were not so polite as the French about requisitioning big touring cars. Our credentials were French.

So we dipped into the night down a long road that ran between solid shadows of towering trees, behind which ran the continuous hedge of the French countryside, making an ideal hiding place for enemies. The rain increased and so did the cold. Our French driver struggled into an ulster and we crouched low in the body of the limousine, watching the whirling road revealed by our powerful headlights fifty yards in front of the car.

Suddenly came a sharp cry. The chauffeur crashed on the brakes and the car slid to a standstill. I knew that cry from many a novel I had read, but I had never actually heard it before. It was the famous “Qui vive” or “Who goes there?” of the French army. We sat waiting. We saw no one. The rain poured down.

The cry was repeated. A soldier stepped into the road and stood in the light of our lamps about thirty feet away. His rifle was half thrown across his arm and half aimed towards us. He was a tall, handsome chap wearing a long coat buttoned back at the bottom away from his muddy boots. His cap was jammed carelessly over one eye. He bent forward and peered at us under our lights, which half blinded him. Then we saw two dusky shadows at either side of the car. We caught the steel flash of bayonets turned toward us.

The chauffeur saw them too, for he cried out nervously, “Non, non!” The soldier in the road ignored him. In the dramatic language of France his “Avancez—donnez le mot de la nuit” sounded far more impressive than the English equivalent about advancing to give the countersign. He spoke the words simply, a little monotonously, with an air of having done it many times during his period of watch. Then he bent lower and peered more intently under the lights, brushing one arm across his face as though the pelting rain also interfered with his business of seeing in the night.

The chauffeur stated that we carried the signed pass of General Galliéni. If we had mentioned the Mayor of Chicago we would not have made less impression. The ghostly sentries at the sides of the car did not budge. The patrol in the center of the road in the same almost monotone announced that one of us would descend. One would be sufficient. The others might keep the shelter of the car. But he would see these credentials from General X——. If to him they did not appear in order, our fate was a matter within his discretion. We were traveling an important highway and his orders were definite. So the member of our party who carried the important slip of paper descended.

The sentry in the road moved further into the light. As he read the pass he sheltered it from the rain under the cape of his coat. The guards at the sides of the car remained as though built in position. Then the leader handed back the paper and brought his hand to salute. The others immediately broke their pose; moved into the light and likewise saluted. The tension relieved, we all felt friendly. As we started forward I held a newspaper out of the window and three hands grasped it simultaneously. We had hundreds of newspapers, for some one had told us how welcome they would be at the front.

At an intersection of roads a couple of miles further on, the rain was pelting down so fiercely that we did not clearly hear the “qui vive.” The chauffeur desperately called out not to shoot as a file of soldiers suddenly swung across the road with rifles leveled. On their leader we then tried an experiment which we afterwards followed religiously. We handed over a newspaper with our pass. To our surprise he turned first to the government war communiqué on the first page and read it through, grunting his satisfaction meanwhile, before he even glanced at the document which held our fate and on which the rain was making great inky smears. Then he saluted and we drove on rapidly—everybody smiling.

The road then led up an incline through a small village that was filled with soldiers. A patrol halted us as usual and informed us that there was no hotel within another five miles, and possibly even that hotel might be closed. At this news our excitable chauffeur immediately killed his engine and the car started slipping backward down the incline. Fifty soldiers leaped forward and held it while the brakes were applied. We distributed a score of newspapers and as many cigarettes before we could get under way.

We passed no more patrols, but when our lights finally picked out the first signs of the next village they also brought into bold relief a pile of masonry completely blocking the road. We stopped. A villager loomed out of the dark at the side of the car and informed us that the road was barred because the bridge just beyond had been blown up and that we could not pass over the pontoon until morning. The inn, he said, had never been closed nor was its stock of tobacco yet exhausted. He offered to conduct us, and when the innkeeper—a very fat innkeeper—looked over our credentials from General Galliéni he insisted that certain guests should double up, in order to make room for us in the crowded place. He then called his wife, his daughter, his father and his father’s wife, that they might be permitted the honor of shaking us by the hand, as he held aloft the candle, the flame of which flickered down the ancient stone corridor that led to our rooms.

The Wounded Who Could Walk

We were crossing a battlefield four days old. It was remarkable how much it resembled the ordinary kind of field. The French had conquered quickly at this point and the dead had been buried. Except for frequent mounds of earth headed by sticks forming crosses; except for the marks of shrapnel in the roads and on the trees; except for the absence of every living thing, this countryside was at peace. The sun was shining. The frost had brought out flaming tints on the hills. It was glorious Indian summer.

The road we were motoring wound far away through the battlefield. For the armies had fought over a front of many miles. We traveled slowly. As we topped a rise and searched the valley below with our glasses, a mile away in the cup of the valley we saw a moving mass. It filled the roadway from hedge to hedge and appeared to be approaching us. We drove more slowly, stopping several times. The movement of the car made the glasses quiver and blur. We saw that the moving mass stretched back a considerable distance—perhaps the length of a city block. We stopped our engine and waited in the center of the road.

As the mass came nearer it outlined itself into men. We saw that they were soldiers; but we could not distinguish the uniform. So we waited. We even got our papers ready to show if necessary. Then we saw that the soldiers were not of the same regiment—that their uniforms were conglomerate. We saw the misfits of the French line regiments, the gay trappings of the Spahis and Chasseurs d’Afrique, the skirt trousers of the Zouaves, Turcos and Senegalese, the khaki of the English Tommies and the turbans of the Hindoos. But all these men in the varied costumes of the army of the Allies wore one common mark—a bandage. Arm or head or face was wrapped in white cloths, usually stained with blood. For these on whom we waited were the wounded who could walk. They were going from the battle trenches to somewhere in the rear.

The front rank glanced wonderingly at the big motor that blocked the center of the road and moved aside in either direction. Those behind did likewise, until there was a lane for the car to pass. But we waited. As the front rank came level with us, a dust-caked British Tommy, with a bloody bandage over one eye, winked his good one at us and touched his cap in salute. We took our hats off as the tragic crowd surrounded us. Tommy sat down on our running board and I handed him a cigarette.

The cigarette established cordial relations at once. Tommy’s lean face was browned by the sun and streaked with dirt. About the bandage which encircled his head and crossed his right eye were cakes of dirt and clots of blood. His hair where his cap was pushed back was sand color and crinkly. The eye that turned up to me was pale blue and the skin just about it was white and blue veined.

“Is this Frawnce or is it Belgium?” he asked me. At my answer he squirmed around on the running board, calling to a companion in khaki just coming up—his arm in a sling—”‘Ee says it’s Frawnce.” The other nodded indifferently and saluted us.

I asked the man about the battle, but he only stared. His friend on the running board turned his eye upward and said, “It’s ‘ell, that’s wot it is.” I replied that my question had to do with the course of the battle—which side was winning; and he too only stared at that. Then he arose and plodded on and I gave a cigarette to his companion.

A score of men stood about the front of the car where the chauffeur was busy handing out apples and pears. My companions were busy on the opposite side with a dozen French infantrymen, telling the latest news from Paris and giving out newspapers. I leaned over them, the box of cigarettes still in my hand. A tall Senegalese standing back from the group caught sight of the box and called out, “Cigarette, eh!” I motioned him to my side of the car. He came running weakly, followed at once by fifty others. I handed out until that box and several others that I dug from my valise were exhausted. I called several times that I had no more, but still they crowded about, stretching out their arms and crying, “Cigarette, eh?” One of my companions warned me that we might ourselves feel the want of tobacco—that money would not buy it in the country we were traversing, because it did not exist.

We still had a box of cigars and I had several loose in my pocket. The black face of a Turco appeared at the car window. One arm was in a sling and a bandage was wound about his brow. But his eyes shone brightly at the thought of tobacco, and at the smell of it now arising on all sides. He was tobacco hungry. He was more than that. He was tobacco starving. He poked his other arm into the car. I motioned him to crowd his entire bulk into the window so that the others would not see. Then I gave him a cigar. He hung over the car frame as I held out the lighted tip of my own cigar. He puffed a cloud into the interior. He looked at the cigar fondly and seemed to measure its length. It was a good cigar. If it had been a miserable cheroot his regard would have been the same. He took another puff, and drew a complete mouthful into his lungs. His cheeks bulged and his eyes glinted inwards as though he looked at the tip of his nose. I wondered how long he could keep that huge mouthful of smoke within him. Again he held the cigar close to his eyes and seemed to measure its length. It burned perfectly round and the ash was white and solid. Finally he poured forth the smoke from nose and mouth and ejaculated the only English word he knew—”good.” I nodded and asked in French where he had been fighting. He cocked his head toward the fore part of the car and took another puff. I asked him where he had been wounded and he replied that he did not know but that it occurred in the trenches “là bas.” I asked him how long he had been fighting in France—how long since he had left Africa, and he spread his arm far out to indicate that the time had been long. I asked him where he was going; he rolled his eyes to the rear of the car and said he did not know.

I sank back in my seat and he climbed down into the road. Most of the troop had limped off. To the few still lingering we indicated that our stock of things to give away was exhausted. They eyed us wistfully, then passed on.

The chauffeur asked if he should start the car, but some one said, “No, let’s wait until they all pass.” The rear guard straggled up; many were ready to drop with fatigue and pain and loss of blood. I asked a Britisher how long they had been on the road. He replied “since sunrise” and plodded stolidly on. It was then noon. Several sank down for moments under the trees by the roadside. A chasseur stopped and asked our chauffeur to tighten a thong of his bandage, which was stained with fresh blood. We asked him where they were going and he replied vaguely, “To the rear.” “And what then?” one of us asked. “Oh! I hope we will all be fighting again soon,” he replied. They were all like that. They wanted to be fighting again soon. They were not happy. They were not unhappy. They were indifferent; more or less, made so by utter fatigue and the pain of their wounds. But they all wanted to be fighting again soon.

We watched them top the rise of the hill to disappear down the long road “to the rear.” The last straggler, his head bound with white and red, vanished. They were all privates—all common men of all the world from Scotland to Hindustan. The majority were coming from and going they knew not where, and wanting to fight again for they knew not what—except possibly the men of France, who began to hear about this war in their cradles.

We cranked up the car.

A Lull In The Bombardment

The sentry just outside the town advised us to right about face and travel the other direction. But he only advised us. Our credentials appeared in order and he did not feel that he could issue a command on the subject. In fact our credentials were very much in order. The sentry saluted us most respectfully; but his advice was wasted. We argued to ourselves that if we went to “the front” we must take a few chances.

So we entered Soissons—one of the most beautiful and historic towns in Northern France. It has now become even more historic; but its beauty has changed from the crumbling medieval. It is a ruin—more—a remnant of the Great War.

We did not notice this so much as we rode down the winding road to the outskirts. We did notice the unusual fall of autumn foliage. We commented on the early season; the preceding night had been frosty, following rain. Then we noticed many branches lying across the road. Many trees were chipped as with an ax, but the chipped places were high up—out of reach. We wondered why the trees were chipped so high. Then we skirted a great hole in the center of the road. A tree further on was cut off close to the ground. The truth came to us. The fallen leaves and the chipped places were the work of bullets—a multitude of bullets. The hole in the road and the fallen tree were the results of shells.

We saw horses lying in the fields. Their legs stuck rigidly into the air. Horses were lying along the roadside. Insects were crawling over them. Fallen trees lined the way into the town.

We turned into the main street and rattled over its cobblestones. We met no one. Crossing an open square we saw that over half the trees were down. Up a side street a house had fallen forward from its foundations and settled in a crumbled heap in the center of the road. The sun which had been shining brightly went behind a cloud. We stopped for a moment. We could hear the wind sighing in the tops of the remaining trees. Some one asked, “Is this Sunday?” and was answered, “No. It’s Friday. Why?” He replied, “Because it is so still. Did you ever see a place where people live that is so completely silent?” “It reminds me of London on Good Friday—everybody gone to church,” said another.

We drove on. A block along the main street a soldier in the French uniform of the line lounged in a doorway. His long blue overcoat flapped desolately over his baggy red trousers. His rifle leaned in the corner. We asked if any hotel remained open. He replied, “I don’t know. Have you a cigarette?” I drew out a box and he ran to the car, seizing it as a hungry animal snatches food. He settled back into his doorway, smiling; then said in French argot which translated into American best reads: “Do you guys know you ain’t safe here?” We smiled and waited explanation. But he merely shrugged his shoulders. We started the car.

More French soldiers lounged in doorways. Once we saw the white and frightened face of a woman peering at us from a window. She was entirely incurious. Her gaze was dispassionate. She appeared to have not the slightest interest either in us or our big car, which surely was a rare sight in the streets of that town on that day. But the fright upon her face was stamped.

Several villagers stood at the next corner. They exhibited interest. We again asked about a hotel and one pointed to a building we had just passed. We noted that its doors and windows were barred; but we thought they might open up.

We asked, then, when the firing on the town had ceased. The man laughed. Anything so normal as a laugh seemed out of place in that ghastly silence. It grated. But it seemed that after all one might observe the function of laughing even during war. He informed us that the German gunners were probably at lunch. We asked the position of the French batteries, and as he pointed vaguely toward the south we realized that we were then in an advance position on the firing line—that the force of soldiers was only an outpost. The same man told us that the town had been under fire for eight days, that the French had shifted the position of their heavy guns and that the Germans were now trying to locate them. We returned to the hotel, stabled our automobile and ordered luncheon, which the landlord informed us would be ready in half an hour. So we continued the exploration of the town on foot.

The chauffeur did not accompany us, for there was a captured German automobile in the barn that interested him greatly. Under the seat he found the army papers of the German driver. He advised us not to touch them. They were dangerous. If found in our possession we might be arrested as spies. So we dropped them back under the seat, and went out into the market place.

As is usual in small French cities the market consisted of a large building entirely open at the ends and fronting on a large square paved with cobbles. We walked into the building; it was deserted and our footsteps echoed. In the center was a pile of masonry, beneath a large hole in the roof torn by a shell. The explosion had cracked the side walls. In one of the cracks was jammed the top of a meat table, forcibly caught up from the floor and hurled there. A little further on a shell had passed through both side walls, leaving clean holes large enough for a man to stand.

I stood in one of them and saw where the shell had spent its force on a residence across the square. It had caught the house plumb on a corner and at the floor of the second story, so that the floor sagged down into the room below. The room above had been a bedchamber. The entire side wall was gone, so all that remained of the intimacies of the room were exposed. The bed with the covers thrown back as though the occupant quitted it hurriedly had slipped forward until stopped by a broken bit of the wall. From another jagged piece of masonry that formed part of the wall the blue skirt of a child flapped desolately over the sidewalk. We left the market building and stood in the center of the square looking down the six streets that emptied into it. They were narrow, winding streets, and we could not see far. But in all we could see the ruin—the crumbled masonry and walls blackened by fire.

We looked at our watches and hurried toward the hotel. Entering the street, about half a block distant, we stopped to look down a side alley. As we looked we heard what seemed to be a shrill whistle, pitched high and very prolonged. It seemed like the shriek of a suddenly rising wind; but it was followed by a dull boom and the crash of falling masonry. We looked behind us and saw clouds of smoke and dust rising a short distance beyond the market place. We ran toward the hotel. At the entrance we again heard the high-pitched screaming whistle, ending in a crash much more acute. “That struck nearer,” one of us observed. But we did not wait to see. As we entered the hall, the landlord remarked, “Ça commence encore.”

We filed into the dining room in time to see him carefully place the soup upon the table.


Support this fine website.

Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Thanks, champ.

Share via
Send this to a friend