In the Field with the Armies of France
By E. Alexander Powell
(War Correspondent of The New York Times, The London Daily Mail, and Scribner's Magazine with the Allied Armies)
[Scribner's Magazine, September 1915]
Before coming to France I was told that the French were very stingy with their war. I was told that the only fighting I would be permitted to see would be on moving-picture screens. I was assured that war correspondents were about as welcome as the smallpox. But I found that I had been misinformed. So far as I am concerned they have been as generous with their war as a Kentucky colonel is with mint-juleps. They have, in fact, been so willing to let me get close up to where things were happening that, on one or two occasions, it looked as though I would never see the Statue of Liberty again. I do not wish to give the impression, however, that these facilities for flirting with sudden death are handed out promiscuously to all who apply for them. To obtain me permission to see the French fighting-machine in action required the united influence of three cabinet ministers, a British peer, two ambassadors; a score of newspapers —and the patience of Job.
Unless you have attempted to pierce it, it is impossible to comprehend the marvellous veil of secrecy which the Allied Governments have cast over their military operations. I wonder if you, who will read this, realize that, though the German trenches can be reached by motor-car in ninety minutes from the Rue de la Paix, it is as impossible for an unauthorized person to get within sound, much less within sight, of them, as it would be for a tourist to stroll into Buckingham Palace and have a friendly chat with King George. The good old days in Belgium, when the correspondents went flitting light-heartedly about the zone of operations on bicycles and in taxicabs and motor-cars, have passed, never to return. Imagine a battle in which more men were engaged and the results of which were more momentous than Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Sedan combined—a battle in which Europe lost more men than the North lost in the whole of the Civil War—being fought at, let us say, New Haven, Conn., in December, and the people of New York and Boston not knowing the details of that battle, the names of the regiments engaged, the losses, or, indeed, the actual result, until the following March. It is, in fact, not the slightest exaggeration to say that the people of Europe knew more about the wars that were fought on the South African veldt and on the Manchurian steppes than they do about this, the greatest of all wars, which is being fought literally at their front doors. So that when a correspondent does succeed in penetrating the veil of mystery, when he obtains permission to see with his own eyes something of what is happening on that five-hundred-mile-long slaughterhouse and cesspool combined which is called "the front," he has really achieved something.
When the Ministry of War had reluctantly issued me the little yellow card, with my photograph pasted on it, which, so far as this war is concerned, is the equivalent of Aladdin's lamp and the magic carpet put together, and I had become for the time being the guest of the nation, my path was everywhere made smooth before me. I was ciceroned by a staff-officer in a beautiful sky-blue uniform, and other officers were waiting to explain things to me in the various divisions through which we passed. We travelled by motor-car, with a pilot-car ahead and a baggage-car behind, and we went so fast that it took two people to tell about it, one to shout, "Here they come!" and another, "There they go!"
Leaving Paris, white and beautiful in the spring sunshine, behind us, we tore down the historic highway which still bears the title of the Route de Flandre, down which countless thousands of other men had hastened, in bygone centuries, to the fighting in the north. The houses of the city thinned and disappeared, and we came to open fields across which writhed, like monstrous yellow serpents, the zigzag lines of trenches. The whole countryside from the Aisne straightaway to the walls of Paris is one vast network of trenches and barbed-wire entanglements, and, even in the improbable event of the enemy breaking through the' present line, he would be little better off than he was before. The fields between the trenches were being ploughed by women, driving sleek white oxen, but the furrows were scarcely ever straight, for every few yards they would turn aside to avoid a turf-covered mound surmounted by a rude cross and a scarlet kepi. For half a hundred miles this portion of France is one vast cemetery. We whirled through villages whose main streets are lined with the broken, blackened shells of what had once been shops and dwellings. At once I felt at home, for with this sort of thing I had grown only too familiar in Belgium. But here the Germans were either careless or in a hurry, for they had left many buildings standing. In Belgium they made a more finished job of it. Nothing better illustrates the implicit confidence which the French people have in their army, and in its ultimate success, than the fact that in all these towns through which we passed the people were hard at work rebuilding their shattered homes, though the strokes of their hammers were echoed by the sullen boom of German cannon. To me there was something approaching the sublime in these impoverished peasants turning with stout hearts and smiling faces to the rebuilding of their homes and the retilling of their fields. To these patient, toil-worn men and women I lift my hat in respect and admiration. They, no less than their sons and husbands and brothers in the trenches, are fighting the battles of France.
As we approached the front the traditional brick-red trousers and kepis still worn by the second-line men gave way to the new uniform of silvery blue—the color of early morning. There were soldiers everywhere. Every town and hamlet through which we passed was alive with them. The highways were choked with troops of all arms: cuirassiers, with their mediaeval steel helmets and breastplates linen-covered; dragoons, riding under a forest of fluttering pennons; zouaves in short blue jackets and baggy red breeches; spahis in turbans and Senegalese in tarbooshes and Moroccans in burnooses; chasseurs d'Afrique in sky-blue and scarlet; infantry of the line in all the shades of blue that can be produced by dyes and by the weather; mile-long strings of motor transports; field-batteries; pontoon trains; balloon corps; ambulances with staring scarlet crosses painted on their canvas covers—all the nuts and bolts and springs and screws which go to compose what has become, after months of testing and improvements, probably the most efficient killing machine the world has ever seen. And it is, I am convinced, eventually going to do the business. It struck me as having all, or nearly all, of the merits of the German organization with the human element added.
When only a short distance in the rear of the firing-line we left the car and proceeded on foot down a winding country road which debouched quite suddenly into a great, saucer-shaped valley. Its gentle slopes were checkered with the brown squares of fresh ploughed fields and green ones of sprouting grain. From beyond a near-by ridge came the mutter of artillery, and every now and then there appeared against the turquoise sky what looked like a patch of cotton-wool but was in reality bursting shrapnel. The far end of the valley was filled with what appeared at first glance to be a low-hanging cloud of gray-blue mist, but which, as we drew nearer, resolved itself into dense masses of troops drawn up in review formation—infantry at the left, cavalry at the right, and guns in the centre. I had heard much of the invisible qualities of the new field uniform of the French army, but I had heretofore believed it greatly inferior to the German greenish gray. But I have changed my mind. At three hundred yards twenty thousand men could scarcely be distinguished from the landscape. The only colorful note was struck by the dragoons, who still retain their suicidal uniform of scarlet breeches, blue tunic, and the helmet with its horse-tail plume, though a concession has been made to practicality by covering the latter with gray linen.
At three o'clock a rolling cloud of dust suddenly appeared on the road from Compiegne, and out of it tore a long line of military cars, travelling at express-train speed, all save one in war coats of elephant gray. The exception was a low-slung racer painted a canary-yellow. Tearing at top speed up the valley, it came to a sudden stop before the centre of the mile-long line of soldiery. A mile of fighting men stiffened to attention; a mile of rifle barrels formed a hedge of burnished steel; the drums gave the long roll and the thirteen ruffles; the colors swept the ground; the bands burst into the splendid strains of the Marseillaise, and a little man, gray-mustached, gray-bearded, inclined to stoutness, but with the unmistakable carriage of a soldier, descended from the yellow automobile and walked briskly down the motionless lines. I was having the unique privilege of seeing a President of France reviewing a French army almost within sight; of the invader. It was under almost parallel circumstances that, upward of half a century ago, another President of another mighty republic reviewed another army, which was likewise fighting the battles of civilization.
Raymond Poincaré is by no means an easy man to describe. He is the only French President within my memory who looks the part of a ruler. In his person are centred, as it were, the aspirations of France, for he is a native of Lorraine. He was a captain of Alpine Chasseurs in his younger days and shows the result of his military training in his erect and vigorous bearing. Were you to see him apart from his official surroundings you might well take him, with his air of energy and authority, for a great employer or a captain of industry. Deduct twenty years from Andrew Carnegie and give him the carriage of a soldier and you will have as good an idea as I can give you of the war-time President of France.
After passing down the lines and making a minute inspection of the soldiers and their equipment, the President took his stand in front of the grouped standards, and the officers and men who were to be decorated for gallantry ranged themselves before him, some with bandaged heads, some hobbling along on crutches, some with their arms in slings. Stepping forward, he pinned to the tunic of each man either the Medaille Militaire, which is bestowed for deeds of the most conspicuous bravery on privates and non-commissioned officers only, or the Legion of Honor, and kissed him on either cheek, while the troops presented arms and the massed bands played the anthem. On general principles I should think that the President would rebel at having to kiss so many men, even though they are heroes and have been freshly shaved for the occasion.
As soon as this picturesque ceremony was concluded the review of the troops began. Topping a rise, they swept down upon us in line of column—a moving cloud of grayish blue under shifting, shimmering, slanting lines of steel. Company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade swept past, businesslike as a trip-hammer, resistless as a steam-roller, moving with mechanical precision to the exultant strains of the march of the Sambre et Meuse. These were the famous poilus, the bearded ones, the men with hair on their chests. Their uniforms were not immaculate. They were faded by wind and rain and sometimes stained with blood. On their boots was the mud of the battle-fields along the Aisne. Fresh from the trenches though they were, they were as pink-cheeked as athletes, and they marched with the buoyancy of men in high spirits and in perfect health. Here before me was a section of that wall of steel which is slowly but surely pushing back the spiked helmets toward the Rhine. Hard on the heels of the infantry came the guns—the famous "75's"—a dozen batteries, well horsed and well equipped, at a spanking trot. A little space to let the foot and guns get "out 'of the way; and then we heard the wild, shrill clangor of the cavalry trumpets pealing the charge. Over the rise they came, helmeted giants on gigantic horses. The earth shook beneath their gallop. The scarlet breeches of the riders gleamed fiery in the sunlight; the horsehair plumes of the helmets floated out behind; the upraised sword-blades formed a forest of glistening steel. As they went thundering past us they rose in their stirrups, and high above the clank of steel and the trample of hoofs came the deep-mouthed Gallic battle-cry: "Vive la France! Vive la France /"
To have had a battery of French artillery go into action and pour a torrent of steel-cased death upon the enemy's trenches for one's special benefit is, so far as I am aware, a courtesy which the General Staff has seen fit to extend to no other correspondent. That the guns were of the new 105-millimetre model, which are claimed to be as much superior to the famous 75's as the latter are to all other field-artillery, made the exhibition all the more interesting. The road which we had to take in order to reach this particular battery leads for several miles across an open plateau within full view of the German positions. As we approached this danger zone the staff-officer who accompanied me spoke to our driver, who opened up the throttle, and we took that stretch of exposed highway like a frightened cat on the top of a back-yard fence. "Merely a matter of precaution," explained my companion. "Sometimes when the Germans see a car travelling along this road they send a few shells across in the hope of getting a general. There's no use in taking unnecessary chances." Though I didn't say so, it struck me that I was in considerably more danger from the driving than I was from a German shell.
Leaving the car in the shelter of the ridge on which the battery was posted, we ascended the steep hillside on foot. I noticed that the slope we were traversing was pitted with miniature craters any one of which was large enough to hold a barrel. "It might be as well to hurry across here," the artillery officer who was acting as our guide casually remarked. "Last evening the Germans dropped eight hundred shells on this field that we are crossing, and one never knows, of course, when they will do it again."
Part-way up the slope we entered what appeared to be a considerable grove of trees. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered that it was not a real grove but an ingenious imitation, hundreds of saplings having been brought from elsewhere and set upright in the ground. Soon I saw the reason, for in a little cleared space in the heart of this imitation wood, mounted on what looked not unlike gigantic step-ladders, were two field-guns, with their lean barrels pointing, skyward. "These are for use against aircraft," explained the officer in charge. "The German airmen are constantly trying to spot our batteries, and in order to discourage their inquisitiveness we've put these guns in position." The guns were of the regulation 75-millimetre pattern, but so elevated that the wheels were at the height of a man's head from the ground, the barrels thus being inclined at such an acute angle that, by means of a sort of turntable on which the platforms were mounted, the gunners were able to sweep the sky. "This," said the artillery officer, indicating a curious-looking instrument, "is the telemeter. By means of it we are able to obtain the exact altitude of the aircraft at which we are firing, and thus know at what elevation to set our guns. It is as simple as it is ingenious. There are two apertures, one for each eye. In one the aircraft is seen right side up; in the other it is inverted. By turning this thumb-screw the images are brought together. When one is superimposed exactly over the other the altitude is shown in meters on this dial beneath. Then we open on the airmen with shrapnel." Since these guns were placed in position the German air scouts have taken few chances at playing peek-a-boo from the clouds.
A few minutes' walk along the ridge brought us to the battery of 105's, which was the real object of our visit. The guns were not posted on the summit of the ridge, as a layman might suppose, but a quarter of a mile behind it, so that the ridge itself, a dense forest, and the river Aisne intervened between the battery and the German positions four miles away. The guns were sunk in pits so ingeniously masked with shrubs and branches that the keenest-eyed airman, flying low overhead, would have seen nothing to arouse his suspicions. Fifty feet away one could detect nothing about that apparently innocent clump of tangled vegetation to suggest that it concealed an amazing quantity of potential death. This battery had been here for many weeks, and the gunners had utilized the time, which hung heavy on their hands, in making themselves comfortable and in beautifying their surroundings. With the taste and ingenuity so characteristic of the French, they had transformed their battery into a sylvan grotto. The winding paths were lined with woven wicker fences and bordered by strips of white sand, on which appeared patriotic mottoes in colored pebbles. Scattered about were ingeniously constructed rustic seats and tables. Within ten feet of one of the great gray guns a bed of hyacinths made the air heavy with their fragrance. The next gun-pit was banked about with yellow crocus. Hanging from the arbor which shielded another of the steel monsters were baskets made of moss and bark, in which were growing violets. At a rustic table, under a sort of pergola, a soldier was engaged in painting a picture in water-colors. It was a good picture. I saw it afterward on exhibition in the Salon des Humoristes in Paris. A few yards back of each gun-emplacement were cave-like shelters, dug in the hillside, in which the men sleep, and in which they take refuge during the periodic shell-storms which visit them. Over the entrance to one of these troglodyte dwellings was a sign announcing that it was the Villa des Roses.
"Do the Germans know the position of these guns?" I asked the battery commander.
"Not exactly, though they have, of course, a pretty general idea."
"Then you are not troubled by German shells," I remarked.
"Indeed we are," was the answer. "Though they have not been able to Locate us exactly, they know that we are somewhere at the back of this ridge, so every now and then they attempt to clear us out by means of progressive fire. That is, they start in at the summit, and by gradually increasing the elevation of their guns, systematically sweep the entire back slope of the ridge, so that some of their shells are almost certain to drop in on us. Do you appreciate, however, that, though we have now been in this same position for nearly three months, though not a day goes by that we are not under fire, and though a number of my men have been killed or wounded, we have never seen the target at which we are firing and we have never seen a German soldier?"
A ten-minute walk across the open table-land which lay in front of the battery, and which forms the summit of the ridge, then through a dense bit of forest, and we found ourselves at the entrance to one of those secret observatoires from which the French observers keep an unceasing watch on the movements of the enemy, and, by means of telephones, direct and control the fire of their own batteries with incredible accuracy. This particular observatoire occupied the mouth of a cave in the precipitous hillside above the Aisne, being rendered invisible by a cleverly arranged screen of bushes. Pinned to the earthen walls were contour maps and fire-control charts; powerful telescopes mounted on tripods brought the German trenches across the river so close to us that, had a German soldier been incautious enough to show himself, we could almost have seen the spike upon his helmet; and a military telephonist with receivers clamped to his ears sat at a switch-board and pushed buttons or pulled out pegs just as the telephone-girls do in Fifth Avenue hotels. The chief difference was that this operator, instead of ordering a bell-hop to take ice-water and writing-paper to Room 503, would tell the commander of a battery, four or five or six miles away, to send over to a German trench, which he would designate by number, a few rounds of shrapnel or high explosive.
An officer in a smart uniform of dark blue with the scarlet facings of the artillery beckoned to me to come forward, and indicated a small opening in the screen of branches.
"Look through there," he said, "but please be extremely careful not to show yourself or to shake the branches. That hillside opposite us is dotted with the enemy's observatoires, just as this hillside is dotted with ours, and they are constantly sweeping this ridge with powerful glasses in the hope of spotting us and shelling us out. Thus far they've not been able to locate us. We've had better luck, however. We've located two of their fire-control stations, and put them out of business.
As I was by no means anxious to have a storm of shrapnel bursting about my head, I was careful not to do anything which might attract the attention of a German with a telescope glued to his eye. Peering cautiously through the opening in the screen of bushes, I found myself looking down upon the winding silver ribbon which is the Aisne; to the southwest I could catch a glimpse of the pottery roofs of Soissons, while from the farther bank of the river rose the gentle slopes which formed the opposite side of the river valley. These slopes were everywhere slashed and scarred by zigzag lines of yellow which I knew to be the German trenches. But, though I knew that those trenches sheltered an invading army, not a sign of life was to be seen. Barring a few black-and-white cows grazing contentedly in a pasture, the landscape was absolutely deserted. On the other side of that ridge I knew that the German batteries were posted, just as the French guns were stationed out of sight at the back of the ridge on which I stood. This artillery warfare is, after all, only a gigantic edition of the old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek. Though when you catch, sight of your opponent, instead of tapping him politely on the shoulder and saying, "I see you!" you try to kill him with a three-inch shell.
A soldier set a tripod in position and on it carefully adjusted a powerful telescope. The colonel motioned me to look through it, and suddenly the things that had looked like yellow lines became recognizable as marvellously constructed earthworks.
"Now," said the colonel, "focus your glass on that trench just above the ruined farmhouse, and I will show you what our gunners can do." After consulting a chart with innumerable radiating blue and scarlet lines which was pinned to a drafting-table, and making some hasty calculations with a pencil, he gave a few curt orders to a junior officer who sat at a telephone switch-board with receivers clamped to his ears. The young officer spoke some cabalistic figures into the transmitter and concluded with the order: "Tir rapide."
"Now, Monsieur Powell," called the colonel, "watch the trenches." A moment later, from somewhere behind the ridge at the back of us, came in rapid succession six splitting crashes—bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! A fraction of a second later I saw six puffs of black smoke suddenly appear against one of the yellow lines on the distant hillside; six fountains of earth shot high into the air.
"Right into the trenches!" exclaimed the colonel, who was kneeling beside me with his glasses glued to his eyes. "Watch once more." Again six splitting crashes, six distant puffs of smoke, and, floating back to us a moment later, six muffled detonations.
"The battery that has just been firing is six miles from those trenches," remarked the colonel casually. "Not so bad, eh?"
"It's marvelous," I answered, but all the time I was wondering "how many lives had been snuffed out for my benefit that morning on the distant hillside, how many men with whom I have no quarrel had been maimed for life, how many women had been left husband-less, how many children fatherless.
"I do not wish to hasten your departure, Monsieur Powell," apologized the colonel, "but if you wish to get back to your car without annoyance I think that you had better be starting. We've stirred up the Boches, and at any moment now their guns may begin to answer."
He knew what he was talking about, did that colonel. In fact, we had delayed our departure too long, for just as we reached the edge of the wood, and started across the open plateau which crowns the summit, something hurtled through the air above the tree-tops with a sound between a moan and a snarl and exploded with a crash like a thousand cannon crackers set off together a few yards in front of us. Before the echoes of the first had time to die away came another and yet another. They burst to the right of us, to the left of us, seemingly all around us. We certainly had stirred up the Germans. For a few minutes we were in a very warm corner, and I am no stranger to shell fire, either. At first we decided to make a dash for it across the plateau, but a shell which burst in the undergrowth not thirty feet ahead induced us to change our minds, and we precipitately retreated to the nearest bomb-proof. The next half-hour we spent snugly and securely several feet below the surface of the ground, while shrapnel whined overhead like bloodhounds seeking their prey. Have you ever heard shrapnel, by any chance? No? Well, it sounds as much as anything else like a winter gale howling through the branches of a pine-tree. It is a moan, a groan, a shriek, and a wail rolled into one, and when the explosion comes it sounds as though some one had touched off a stick of dynamite under a grand piano. And it is not particularly cheering to know that the ones you hear you do not harm you, and that it is the ones you do not have time to hear that send you to the cemetery. The French artillery officers tell me that the German ammunition has noticeably deteriorated in the last few months. Well, perhaps.
Still, I hadn't noticed it. It was thirty minutes before the storm of shrapnel slackened and it was safe to start for the car. We had a mile of open field to cross, with shells still occasionally falling. I felt like a man wearing a silk hat who has just passed a gang of boys engaged in making snowballs. In a lifetime largely made up of interesting experiences that exhibition of French gunnery will always stand out as one of the most interesting things I have ever seen. But all the way back to headquarters I kept wondering about those men in the trenches where the shells had fallen, and about the women and children who are waiting and watching and praying for them over there across the Rhine. Now, it must be borne in mind that the task of the artillery is far easier in hilly or mountainous country, such as is found along the Aisne and in the Vosges and Alsace, where the movements of the enemy can be observed with comparative facility and where both observers and gunners can usually find a certain degree of shelter, than in Artois and Flanders, where the country is as flat as the top of a table, with nothing even remotely resembling a hill on which the observers can be stationed or behind which can be concealed the guns.
In the flat country the guns, which are carefully masked by means of branches from detection by hostile aircraft, take position at distances varying from two thousand to five thousand yards from the enemy's trenches. Immediately in the rear of each gun is a subterranean shelter, so that when a German Taube comes in sight the gun-crew can go to earth until it has passed. An artillery subaltern, known in the British service as the "forward observing officer," goes up to the infantry trenches and chooses a position, sometimes in a tree, sometimes in a shattered church tower, sometimes in a sort of dugout, from which he can obtain an unobstructed view of his battery's zone of fire. He is to his battery very much what a coach is to a football team, giving his men directions by telephone instead of through a megaphone, but, unlike the coach, he is stationed not on the side line but on the firing-line. Amid all the uproar of battle the observing officer has to keep careful track, through his glasses, of every shell his battery fires, and to inform his battery commander by telephone of the effect of his fire. He can make no mistakes, for on those portions of the battle-line where the trenches are frequently less than a hundred feet apart the slightest miscalculation in giving the range might land the shells among his own men. The critical moment for the observing officer is, however, when the enemy makes a sudden rush and swarms of helmeted, gray-clad figures, climbing out of their trenches, come rolling forward in a steel-tipped wave, tripping in the barbed wire and f ailing in ones and twos and dozens. Instantly the French trenches crackle and roar into the full blast of magazine fire. The rattle of the machine guns sounds like a boy drawing a stick along the palings of a picket fence. The air quivers to the incessant crash of bursting shrapnel. "Infantry attack!" calls the observation officer into the telephone receiver which is clamped to his head.
"Number one, four and five gun fire!" and his battery, two or three miles in the rear, begins pouring shrapnel on the advancing Germans. But still the gray figures come on, hoarsely cheering. "Drop twenty-five!" he orders. "Careful with your fuse-setting…very close to our trenches." The French shrapnel sprays the ground immediately in front of the French trenches as a street-cleaner sprays the pavement with a hose. The gray line checks, falters, sways uncertainly before the blast of steel. Men begin to fall by dozens and scores, others turn and run for their lives. With a shrill cheer the French infantry spring from their trenches in a counter-attack. "Raise twenty-five!…raise fifty!" telephones the observing officer as the blue figures of his countrymen sweep forward in the charge. And so it goes, the guns backing up the French attacks and breaking the German ones, shelling a house or haystack for snipers, putting a machine gun out of business, dropping death into the enemy's trenches or sending its steel calling-cards across to a German battery whose position has been discovered and reported by wireless by a scouting French aeroplane. And all the time the youngster out in front, flattened to the ground, with glasses at his eyes and a telephone at his lips, acts the part of prompter and tells the guns when to speak their parts.
In reading accounts of artillery fire it should be remembered that there are two types of shell, in common use to-day—shrapnel and high-explosive—and that they are used for entirely different purposes and produce entirely different results. Shrapnel, which is intended only for use against infantry in the open, or when lightly entrenched, is a shell with a very thin steel body and a small bursting charge, generally of low-power explosive, in the base. By means of a time fuse the projectile is made to burst at some little distance short of the target, the explosion of the weak charge breaking the thin steel case and liberating the bullets, which fly forward with the velocity of the shrapnel, scattering much as do the pellets from a shotgun. At a range of 3,500 yards the bullets of the British 18-pound shrapnel, 375 in number, cover a space 250 yards long and 30 yards wide—an area of more than one and a half acres. Though terribly effective against infantry attacks or unprotected batteries, shrapnel are wholly useless against fortified positions, strongly built houses, or deep and well-planned entrenchments. The difference between shrapnel and high-explosive is the difference between a shotgun and an elephant rifle. The high-explosive shell, which is considerably stronger than the shrapnel, contains no bullets, but charge of high-explosive—in the French service melinite, in the British usually lyddite (which is picric acid melted with a little vaseline), and in the Germany army trinitrotoluene. The effect of high-explosive is far more concentrated than that of shrapnel, covering only one-fifteenth of the area affected by the latter. Though shrapnel has practically no effect on barbed-wire entanglements or on concrete, and very little on earthworks, high-explosive shells of the same calibre destroy everything in the vicinity, concrete, wire entanglements, steel shields, guns, and even the trenches themselves disappearing like a dynamited stump before the terrific blast. The men holding the trenches are driven into their dugouts, and may be reached even there by high-explosive shells fired from high-angle howitzers.
The commanding importance of the high-explosive shell in this war is due to the peculiar nature of the conflict. Instead of fighting in the open field, the struggle has developed into what is, to all intents and purposes, a fortress warfare on the most gigantic scale. The Germans are not simply entrenched. They have protected themselves with masses of concrete and steel armor, so that the so-called trenches are in reality concrete forts, with shields of armor-plate, protected by the most ingenious wire entanglements and other obstructions that the mind of man can devise, and defended by machine guns mounted behind steel plates and capable of firing a thousand shots a minute, in the enormous proportion of one to every fifty men. That is the sort of wall through which the Allies have to break if they are to win this war. In order to pave the way for an infantry attack on a German position of this description near Arras, the French fired two hundred thousand rounds of high-explosives in a single day—and the scouts came back to report that not a barbed-wire entanglement, a trench, or a living human being remained. During the same battle, the British, owing to a shortage of high-explosive ammunition, were able to precede their attack by only forty minutes of shell fire. This was wholly insufficient to clear away the entanglements and other obstructions, and, as a result, the men were literally mowed down by the German machine guns. To give some idea of the staggering expense of modern artillery fire, I might mention that the Germans, during the crossing of the San, fired seven hundred thousancl shells in four hours.
There are no words between the covers of the dictionary which can convey any adequate idea of what one of these great artillery actions is like. One has to see—and hear—it. Buildings of brick and stone collapse as though they were built of cards. Whole towns are razed to the ground as a city of tents would be levelled by a cyclone. Trees are snapped off like carrots. Gaping holes as large as cottage cellars suddenly appear in the fields and in the stone-paved roads. Geysers of smoke and earth shoot high into the air. The fields are strewn with the shocking remains of what had once been men: bodies without heads or arms or legs; legs and arms and heads without bodies. Dead horses, broken wagons, bent and shattered equipment are everywhere. The noise is beyond all description—yes, beyond all conception. It is like a close-by clap of thunder which, instead of lasting for a fraction of a second, lasts for hours. There is no diminution to the hell of sound, not even a momentary cessation. The ground heaves and shudders beneath your feet. You find it difficult to breathe. Your head throbs until you think that it is about to burst. You feel as though your ear-drums had been shattered. The very atmosphere palpitates to the tremendous detonations. The howl of the shell-storm passing overhead gives you the feeling that the skies are falling. Compared with it the roar of the cannon at Gettysburg must have sounded like the popping of fire-crackers.
Inconceivably awe-inspiring and terrifying as is a modern artillery action, one eventually becomes accustomed to it, but I have yet to meet the person who could say with perfect truthfulness that he was indifferent to the fire of the German siege-cannon. I have twice been under the fire of the German siege-guns—in Antwerp last October, and in Dunkirk in early May—and I hope with all my heart that I shall never have the experience again. Let me put it up to you, my friends. How would you feel if you were sleeping quite peacefully in—let us say—the Waldorf-Astoria, and along about six o'clock in the morning something dropped from the clouds, and in the pavement of Fifth Avenue blew a hole large enough to bury a horse in? And what would be your sensations if, still bewildered by the suddenness of your awakening, you ran to the window to see what had happened, and something that sounded like an approaching express-train came hurtling through the air from somewhere over in New Jersey, and with the crash of an exploding powder-mill transformed Altman's store into a heap of pulverized stone and concrete? Well, that is precisely what happened to me one beautiful spring morning in Dunkirk.
To be quite frank, I didn't like Dunkirk from the first. Its empty streets, the shuttered windows of its shops, and the inky blackness into which lie city was plunged at night from fear of aeroplanes combined to give me a feeling of uneasiness and depression. The place was about as cheerful as a country cemetery on a rainy evening. From the time I set foot in it I had the feeling that something was going to happen. I found that a room had been reserved for me on the upper floor of the local hostelry, known as the Hotel des Arcades—presumably because there are none. I did not particularly relish the idea of sleeping on the upper floor, with nothing save the roof to ward off a bomb from a marauding aeroplane, for, ever since I was under the fire of Zeppelins in Antwerp, I have made it a point to put as many floors as possible between me and the sky.
It must have been about six in the morning when I was awakened by a splitting crash which made my bedroom windows rattle. A moment later came another and then another, each louder and therefore nearer than the one preceding. All down the corridor doors began to open, and I heard voices excitedly inquiring what was happening. I didn't have to inquire. I knew from previous experience. A German Taube was raining death upon the city. Throwing open my shutters, I could see the machine quite plainly, its armor-plated body gleaming in the morning sun like polished silver as it swept in ever-widening circles across the sky. The anti-aircraft guns mounted on the ramparts opened fire, and in the immediate vicinity of the Taube fleecy clouds, which I knew for bursting shrapnel, splotched the sky. Somewhere to the east a pom-pom began its infernal trip-hammerlike clatter. An armored car, evidently British from the "R. N." painted on its turret, tore into the square in front of the hotel, the lean barrel of its quick-firing gun sweeping the sky, and began to send shell after shell at the aerial intruder. From down near the waterfront came the raucous wail of a steam-siren warning the people to get under cover. A church-bell began to clang hastily, imperatively, insistently. It seemed to say: "To your cellars! To your cellars! Hurry!...Hurry!"… From the belfry of the Church of St. Eloi a flag with blue and white stripes was run-up as a warning to the townspeople that death was abroad. Suddenly, above the tumult of the bells and horns and hurrying footsteps, came a new and inconceivably terrifying sound: a low, deep-toned roar rapidly rising into a thunderous crescendo like an express-train approaching from, far down the subway. As it passed above our heads it sounded as though a giant in the sky were tearing mighty strips of linen. Then an explosion which was brother to an earthquake. The housetops seemed to rock and sway.
The hotel shook to its foundations. The pictures on the wall threatened to come down. The glass in the windows rattled until I thought that it would break. From beyond the housetops in the direction of the receiving hospital and the railway station a mushroom-shaped cloud of green-brown smoke shot suddenly high into the air. Out in the corridor a woman screamed hysterically: "My God! My God! They've begun again with the big cannon!" I heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs as the guests rushed for the cellar. I began to dress. No fireman responding to a third alarm ever dressed quicker. Just as I was struggling with my boots there came another whistling roar and another terrific detonation. High in the air above the quivering city still circled the German aeroplane, informing by wireless the German gunners, more than a score of miles away across the Belgian border, where their shells were hitting. Think of it! Think of bombarding a city at a range of twenty-three miles and every shot a hit! That is the marvel of this modern warfare. Imagine the Grand Central Station in New York, the Presbyterian Hospital, the Metropolitan Life building, and the City Hall being blown to smithereens by shells fired from Rahway, N. J. It makes one understand why the Germans are so desperately anxious to reach Calais, with the fort-crowned cliffs of Dover rising across the channel less than twenty miles away.
Descending to the cellars of the hotel, I found that there was standing-room only. Guests, porters, cooks, waiters, chambermaids, English Red Cross nurses, and a French colonel wearing the Legion of Honor were shivering in the dampness amid the cobwebs and the wine-bottles. Every time a shell exploded the wine-bottles in their bins shook and quivered as though they too were alive and frightened. I lay no claim, to bravery, but in other bombarded cities I have seen what happens to the people in the cellar when a shell strikes that particular building, and I had no desire to end my career like a trapped rat. As I went up-stairs I heard a Frenchwoman angrily demanding of the chambermaid why she had not brought her hot water. "But, madame," pleaded the terrified girl, "the city is being bombarded." "Is that any reason why I should not wash?" cried the irate lady. "Bring me my hot water instantly."
At eight o'clock the officer commanding the garrison hurried in. He had invited me to lunch with him. "I regret that I cannot have the pleasure of your company at dejeuner, Monsieur Powell," said he, "but it is not wise for you to remain in the city. I am responsible to the government for your safety, and it would make things easier for me if you would o." You can call it cowardice or timidity or anything you please, but I am not at all ashamed to admit that I was never so glad to have an invitation cancelled. I have had a somewhat extensive acquaintance with bombardments, and I have always found that those who speak lightly of them are those who have never seen one.
In order to get out of range of the German shells my driver, acting under the orders of the commandant, turned the bonnet of the car toward Bergues, fi ve miles to the southward. But we found that Bergues had not been overlooked by the German gunners, having, indeed, suffered more severely than Dunkirk. When we arrived the bombardment was just over and the dust was still rising from the shattered houses. Twelve 38-centimetre shells had landed in the very heart of the little town, sending a score or more of its inhabitants, men, women, and children, to the hospital and a like number to the cemetery.
A few hours before Bergues had been as quaint and peaceful and contented a town of five thousand people as you could have found in France. Because of its quaint and simple charm touring motorists used to go out of their way to see it. It is fortified in theory, but not in fact, for its moss-grown ramparts, which date from the Crusades, have about as much military significance as the Battery in New York. But the guide-books describe it as a fortified -town, and that was all the excuse the Germans needed to turn loose upon it sudden death. To-day that little town is an empty, broken shell, its streets piled high with the brick and plaster of its ruined homes. One has to see the ruin produced by a 38-centimetre shell to believe it. If one hits a building that building simply ceases to exist. It crumbles, disintegrates, disappears. I do not mean to say that its roof is ripped off or that one of its walls is blown away. I mean to say that that whole building crashes to the ground as though flattened by the hand of God. The Germans sent only twelve of their shells into Bergues, but the central part of the town looked like Market Street in San Francisco after the earthquake. One of the shells struck a hospital and exploded in a ward filled with wounded soldiers. They are not wounded any longer. Another shell completely demolished a three-story brick house. In the cellar of that house a man, his wife, and their three children had taken refuge. There was no need to dig graves for them in the local cemetery. Throughout the bombardment a Taube hung over the doomed town to observe the effect of the shots, and to direct by wireless the distant gunners. I wonder what the German observer, peering down through his glasses upon the wrecked hospital and the shell-torn houses and the mangled bodies of the women and children, thought about it all. It would be interesting to know, wouldn't it?
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald