Confessions of a War Correspondent
By William G. Shepherd
[Everybody's Magazine, February 1917]
Here is the first frank, full answer to the questions that we constantly ask as we read reports from the front: How much do war correspondents really see? Do they tell the truth? Does the censorship warp news? Do the reporters get into danger? Mr. Shepherd has had a remarkably varied experience. He has reported the war from every important battle-front in Europe, As correspondent of the United Press he covered the destruction of Belgium; he was the only newspaper man who saw the second battle of Ypres; he was the first American reporter permitted at the British front in France. He has been at the German front, with the Austrians at Przemysl; with the Italians in the Trieste district; he reported four of the greatest retreats of the war, including the retreat of the Austrians, and later that of the Servians, from Servia. His confessions—this article and two more to come—are a real sensation. The photographs were taken by the author, and have never before been published—THE EDITOR.
It is Sunday, September 5, 1914. With another American correspondent, earlier in the day, I have stood in the middle of the Avenue de l'Opera and looked about at the Avenue, the side streets, and the doors and windows of the buildings. Not a human being is in sight except ourselves. The prairies of Texas were never more silent.
The fate of Paris is hanging by a thread, with the outside world looking on. The Germans have been coming toward us daily. Ten, fifteen, twenty miles they have come nearer to us each twenty-four hours. We, with a half-dozen others, are the only correspondents, of any nationality, in the French capital; the others have all followed the French Government down to Bordeaux. Between us, we represent all the newspapers in the United States with their millions of readers. They are looking to us to give them, first hand, the news of the first round of this world's championship fight which they, with the rest of the civilized world, believe may end in a knockout.
And all we can do is to walk aimlessly about the deserted streets and listen to the rumble of distant guns. We do not know whether these guns are French or German; we do not know how near the Germans really are; we do not know how long Paris can hold out. There is no one to for information. We can not leave the city and make a try for the front, because we have no military passes. We know nothing about what is going on around us, and the United States must go without news so far as we are concerned.
That night a few of us sat in the lobby of a hotel under the beams of one little electric light which the porter was operating for our benefit, and listened to an American magazine editor tell how his magazine has grown from small beginnings to a great position in the magazine world. The Germans might be in Paris the next day, but we had tired of talking about things we knew nothing of.
Our talk was interrupted at one stage by a correspondent who had spent the evening with a French censor in a restaurant near the War Office in the hope of getting news.
"Nothing to report," said Dawson. "He doesn't know anything more about what's going on than we do,"
When our party broke up, tired with much talking and smoking, at two o'clock on Monday morning, we expected to see German soldiers in the French capital within twenty-four hours.
The next day, at three in the afternoon, the French communiqué, which had been issued in Bordeaux and telegraphed to Paris for distribution among the few correspondents who had remained there, reached our hands. I have a copy of that communiqué, which I am saving as one of the relics of the Great War. It says in effect—this communiqué of the afternoon of Monday, September 6, 1914:
Our advance troops defending Paris have come in contact with forces of the right wing of the Germans. The small engagement has resulted to our advantage.
That was all. "The small engagement;" "our advantage." And yet every schoolboy in future years will know that on that Sunday evening and the following day, by a mighty conflict, Paris was being saved.
The Gallieni taxicabs, which will take their place in history with the geese that saved Rome, were gathering near Napoleon's tomb to carry the army of Paris out to the front at Meaux. Manoury's army was swinging past Paris to the north of us and was crashing into the German flank. Things were happening within a few miles of us to make glad the hearts of Frenchmen for a thousand years. An adventure of an entire twentieth-century nation was coming to a good and thrilling close. The crisis of the world's greatest war was being decided.
And we war correspondents, in the midst of it, did not know what was going on! The only news we had discovered in those two great days was that little forty-four-word communiqué with its "little engagement" and "our advantage."
"It will take more than a 'little engagement' resulting to 'our advantage' to save this town, we decided. But in due time, which means several days, we learned that there was a world of news we did not know in that forty-four-word message.
A new determination grew up in our hearts in Paris. We decided that it was an unendurable humiliation to be in the midst of great affairs and not see them or even know that they were going on. It was a spur, that humiliation. It spurred seventeen of us into trouble. Each man for himself decided that he must get out and see things. We did not confer, for after the saving of Paris, competition between the correspondents became bitterly keen. It was an individual but unanimous determination.
How it was that all of us decided upon the same geographical point for carrying out our resolve to see things remains a mystery; but ten days after the salvation of Paris had been effected, the French army commander at Villers-Cotterets, on the afternoon of September 18th, began to receive reports from various parts of his line that certain mysterious male persons, who bore the credentials of American war correspondents, were being arrested, without passports in considerable numbers. Such persons were as unwelcome to a French army commander at that time—and they have been ever since, more or less—as a plague of grasshoppers to a Kansas farmer. Before midnight the French and British had arrested seventeen of us, who, taking our destinies into our own hands, had come to the front "for to see and for to admire."
The few of us who were arrested by the British were lucky: we were permitted to remain in the town after giving our parole not to attempt to pass beyond the town limits. The correspondents who were arrested by the French were sent back to Paris without delay.
For five days I looked on while the town's buildings shook like jelly-molds under the pulse and throb of thousands of auto-busses; while armies of men on horseback, afoot, in autos, passed through the streets. Senegalese in bright robes; Arabs on horse-show horses; French Zouaves in red and yellow; French soldiers in bright blue and violent crimson—they passed back and forth, an unending tide, a super-circus parade.
I did not know what it all meant. I did not know what was going on. I saw the village priest march before six men who were being led out to be shot as spies, but I did not follow to see the execution. I saw a dozen German spies who had been arrested, one after another, somewhat as we correspondents had been arrested on that fateful September 18th, and I heard a French officer say: "There is some particular thing the Germans are trying to find out over here, and they will send over man after man until one of them gets back to them alive." But I was in as great ignorance as the Germans of what all the great to-do really signified.
In five, days I got three feature stories, which I sent back to the United States. 'One told of the brave little priest and his work among the wounded and suffering; another of how unconcerned were the German spies whom I had seen awaiting death; and the third described a French chef who was cooking a meal in a grape-arbor with the steam from the coffee-tank settling in bead moisture on the cool white grapes above his head.
Those were all the stories I got out of seeing things first hand at Villers-Cotterets.
And I was glad to get them. If I had tried to get any more exact stories, to delve into the situation in true reporter fashion, I should have wound up in a cell for seeking to gain information in regard to military secrets.
I discovered, some days later in Paris, from an official communiqué, that Villers-Cotterets, while I had been held there, was the pivot of a turning movement in the battle along the Aisne. Also, I decided no matter how great the humiliation might have been of remaining in Paris in those great days without seeing anything at first hand, there might be even greater disappointment and humiliation in seeing things and not knowing what they meant.
To see or not to see became an important question with every correspondent at this early stage of the war, and it hasn't yet lost its importance. "How much do you fellows really know of what is going on around you? How much do you really see? are questions which are flung at returning war correspondents both by their lecture audiences and by their friends who seek to get behind the scenes in the war correspondent's life and work.
Only too often, I admit, we do not see big events at first hand; but seeing them, being present in person, does not always assist a correspondent to get at the inwardness of what is going on.
I stood on a hill at Scherpenberg, Belgium, a few miles south of Ypres, during the second battle of Ypres, in April of 1915, and saw forty miles of battle. The rattle of rifle-fire, the pounding of machine guns, and the thunder of thousands of artillery pieces, filled the air with sound-waves that beat against my very insides. It was a battle; that was all I knew of it. How it was going, who was winning, what strategy was being used, and what tactics, I did not know. Neither did the officers about me know these things. Two American military attachés who were present seemed to be in equal doubt.
A little man, white-haired and white-mustached, rode up to the foot of the steep slope, dismounted from his horse, and climbed the hill to watch the fighting. He was General Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British army, creator of the battle we were beholding. He was as calm and cool as any man who viewed the battle that day.
And I have always doubted whether he could tell from what he saw from the hill how hi forty-mile battle was going. Back in his headquarters, thirty miles away, trusted men bending over maps in a room that was lined with busy telephones were watching the battle and knew exactly what was happening. Couriers came occasionally to the general with dispatches that told him what was going on; but I have always felt sure that General French came to the front that day merely to hear the noise and see the physical manifestation of his own handiwork. He was scalloping the line of the forty-mile horizon with shell smoke as a housekeeper with her tiny shears scallops the edge of a table-cover.
It was a sight for any man to see, especially for the men who had created it. Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander—none of them ever saw such a sight as this. In all the landscape before us men were dying like mere germs; human life was at the lowest quotation it has ever been in civilization's history. Somewhere down there poison gas was being used for the first time, so the telephone said. At some point before our gaze ten thousand Canadians, caught in a German trap, were being slaughtered, and at another point ten thousand Germans were being wiped out. Looking through our glasses we could see in distant trenches the backs of British soldiers, men who were to die in a charge that night.
Give Caesar this mass of machinery; these massive guns that shoot as far as his cavalry could have moved in half a day; these aeroplanes; these clouds of deadly gas; this network of telephone wires; these wireless towers that talk with the aeroplanes in the sky; these rubber-tired horseless chariots that can move fifty thousand men ten miles in one hour; this system of railroads that run back a hundred miles behind the front line, and the system of transport ships that run back to England; this hospital system by which a man when wounded is tenderly carried back to safety and nursed like a baby instead of being left to die or being kindly killed as were the legionaries of Rome; give Cassar this battle-line, forty miles, wide and ten miles thick, with fighting so intense that most of it must be done underground—and how would the great Cassar have finished this afternoon's battle?
But seeing it gave only meager understanding of it. Our ears, our eyes, and, to a certain extent, our noses, helped us to sense what was going on, but it was too gigantic to be taken in by the senses alone. The imagination of man, working through the centuries, had produced this machinery of war, and it was by imagination alone, founded on a mass of small facts, that one was able to understand what this machinery now in full and ponderously terrible operation, was accomplishing. In the story which I cabled to America that night—the first story that had been sent from a battle-field in the course of the war—I made no pretense at telling the military purposes of what I had seen; I avoided the fashion of the old-time war correspondents who criticized and analyzed as dramatic critics do at a first night. I could only tell what I had seen, heard, and smelled that day. To tell what the battle meant and how it was going was beyond me, as it was beyond every one else, except the men bending over the maps at headquarters. From these men, two days later, I got something of the real story; they were just beginning then to get the facts together.
There are times when it is impossible for a correspondent to see his story; when to see it would mean to lose it. A young man of the vague nationality of the Levant came into my room one winter day in Salonica, wild-eyed and covered with mud and the marks of Macedonian travel.
"The Bulgars have got Monastir," he said, "but I broke through their lines, and I have been traveling on foot five days to reach Salonica. When they came into town they broke into the American Red Cross store-room, tore down the American flag, and drew a sword on the American Red Cross men in charge, and made them turn over a lot of Red Cross flour to them."
The story was a long and exciting one, but I had known him in Monastir, and knew that I could believe him. Therefore I put the story of the attack on the cable, and Americans were reading it within a few hours. I introduced my story by saying: "A report which reached Salonica today indicates that the American flag has been torn down, and insulted at Monastir by Bulgarian soldiers." Later events proved that the story as I sent it was true in every detail, but some weeks later I received, in my usual batch of anonymous correspondence, a letter from the United. States signed "A Bulgar Girl," in which, I was severely criticized for having sent such a story without having myself witnessed the incident.
"You war correspondents are always telling us what somebody else has seen and told you. Why don't you go out and see things yourselves?" wrote "A Bulgar Girl."
Her question was a fair one. But in the instance to which she referred, no correspondent would have tried to break through the strong line of her Bulgarian brothers advance to attempt to witness an incident that had already happened.
There was a little coffee-house at Monastir, where a few of us spent our evenings in those days of November, 1915, when the Bulgars were just about to pounce on that quaint and ancient city and we were just about to leave it. The door opened late one night, and when the blast of fresh air had blown away the fog of Servian tobacco smoke, we saw a group of travel-stained men and women file in through the entrance, their faces strained but smiling.
"We come from Ushkub," one of the travelers explained. "We have come by horse and on foot. The roads are lined with horrors, and it is only by God's grace that we are here. All the folk in Servia are fleeing from the Bulgars."
Up to the north of us, a hundred miles, say, we learned men, women, and children were, dying from exposure and hunger, and such horrors were occurring as the world had not known for many centuries. Up there somewhere in the ruck we knew there was an American newspaperman who had been seeing it all. Would he scoop us? Ought we to go and see the thing with our own eyes? I telegraphed the story of the travelers to Athens, where it was put on the cables for the United States. This was the first story that reached the outside world of the Gethsemane through which the Servian nation was passing. Then I went to bed to think it out.
The next morning we went out of the city along the road to see if more refugees from Servia were coming. We met them, a small group, tired almost to exhaustion, hungry, dirty, and sleepy, after twenty days of hardship. They were too worried or too happy at reaching safety to talk intelligently about what they had seen, so we helped them to stir up the dust on the road back to Monastir, and, an hour later, we got their story in the coffee-house, after they had intoxicated themselves with hot coffee and food, and put the story on the wire. The London evening newspapers carried seven-column heads on these stories of the Servian hegira—an unheard-of display of headlines in England.
I decided not to go into the mountains. The coffee-house at Monastic was the place for me. There I could get a new story daily with all the latest developments. Monastir, besides, was the end of the telegraph lines.
"Always stick to the end of the cable," was one of Richard Harding Davis's maxims. "Somebody will always come along to you with a story."
But to see things is the main effort of all the correspondents in Europe. To get to the front is the correspondent's chief object in life, and to attain this object it is often necessary to pass through a sea of social activities, including teas, calls, and conferences in which stormy journey the correspondent lays aside his knee breeches and belted coat, and appears, most of the time, in afternoon clothes or his claw-hammer. That's the way things are done in Europe.
I have been to teas in Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Budapest, and at every function I felt—nay knew—that I and my fellow correspondents were being looked over and measured as to our individual intelligence, our appearance, our leaning, our appetites, and all other points in which we might appear to good or ill advantage. Many a war correspondent's fate in Europe has been settled at some afternoon tea. And the teas are still going on.
In London there is a certain weekly tea in a little old hotel in Pall Mall where reliable correspondents from America are always welcome and where, from time to time, they meet some of the leading British statesmen and, in an informal way, are put in the way of getting proper information and are also measured up by the officials who have to do with newspaper correspondents. This London tea has been of inestimable benefit to the American newspaper correspondents. Whatever is said at these teas is secret. I have heard some of the chief statesmen of England chatting at these affairs, dropping remarks that might electrify the world; but never has an American correspondent taken advantage of anything he has heard on these occasions.
It was at a weekly tea given by the wife of a government official that the American correspondents now in good standing in Berlin first proved themselves worthy of trust. I notice that the American writers who are now most greatly favored by the German military authorities are the same chaps who, when these teas were started in the fall 1914, attended them most religiously, even if attendance going home and getting into your one-button frock coat and high hat. New York editors laughed at the "society game," as some of them called it; but, in the main, it was the society game that turned the trick. In time New York editors recognized this fact; after losing my evening clothes in a trunk which the Italian railroads lost sight of, I put a new evening layout on my expense account, and got away with it.
Yet all this social and diplomatic struggle to win the favor of going to the front results, if it is successful, more in kudos for the correspondent than in real news for his papers. The war is so vast and the things which a correspondent can see with his own eyes are proportionately, so small that when he has seized an incident out of the cyclone of incidents that is going on around him he often finds that it is too small to make a showing with.
I went with Frederick Villiers, the oldest war correspondent alive, once an associate of Archibald Forbes, the father of war correspondents, to the British trenches near Ploegsteert one afternoon.
"Why in the devil do those German machine guns keep banging away to-day? They hardly ever use machine guns over there in the daytime. I don't like the looks of it." I heard a captain make this, remark to the British officer who was acting as our escort.
"I'll have to get these two correspondents out of here if there's going to be any trouble," said our guide. "Can't have them in a charge, you know."
English shells from guns some miles behind us sang over our heads and dropped on the German trench three hundred feet distant. Three times we saw shells fall directly on the German line. Blasts of material would mushroom into the air, and out of the blast we would see pieces of timber, parts of rifles, objects that looked "gruesomely like human arms and legs, float to the earth, moving downward very slowly, as compared with their upward rush. We heard our British friends jubilate over the marksmanship of their distant artillery—and then our guide took us away to safety. "Within a few minutes after we had left the trench and returned to the shelter of the grove the cry of "Ambulance!" came running along the trench and a sentry at the trench entrance shouted it into the Ploegsteert wood where the ambulance men were stationed.
"Thirty-four Seaforths hit by a German shell,", said the entrance sentry.
Villiers and I had missed it, for it was among the Seaforths that we had spent the afternoon. And yet, when it came to writing the story of the afternoon's experience, the incident seemed hopelessly small as an illustration of the unpleasant side of war. It was too slight to be mentioned in the communiqués on either side. What are thirty-four dead men among thousands?
Passing along a country road in Galicia, near Przemysl, I saw a score of Austrian soldiers lying on the ground in a farmyard. It was the beauty of the picture that first attracted our attention. Through the bare branches of an apple-orchard the winter sunshine drifted down on to beds of golden straw which served as the background for the blue-gray Austrian uniform of the prostrate men. We learned that these men were dying of cholera; within twenty-four hours most of them would be dead and new victims would be in their places, for this orchard had been set aside as the spot to which every soldier on that part of the line who developed symptoms of cholera must be carried. Across the road, in a plowed field, farmer boys were digging a hole—it was their daily task—in which these men would be buried. Cholera was a sure and quick death in Galicia in those days.
A military priest moved about in the mud of the orchard and when he found men who were strong enough to rise on their knees he bent over toward them, as they did so, received their confession, and granted them extreme unction. There were no doctors for these men. The health of their bodies had gone forever; for the health of their souls the good priest put his own gentle life in jeopardy. I took photographs of the priest and of the men who were doomed to die; I took photographs of the boys digging the big grave in the field across the way. I was beholding things at first hand, and my own excuse for using my camera on such a scene is that I wanted my readers also to see the horror of war as I had seen it there in the orchard.
And yet all the words that I could write of this small thing which I had seen, and all the photographs I might take, fell short of telling adequately the full horror which the cholera was working among thousands of lives, daily, in the Austrian and Russian lines. Again I had come up against the hard fact that the Great War is too big to be seen.
One reassuring fact for American newspaper readers is that, even if we correspondents do not know the latest news, they, the readers, will get it, anyhow. For instance: It was a winter day at Przemysl. New guns were booming to the north of us where Russian guns had never been before. The Austrian officer who had us in charge would not explain what the sound of the new guns meant. Instead he took us to the suburbs of Przemysl, within the fortifications, and let us look at a church from which the spire had been blown away. All the story I found that day to write was about a fight between an owl that had been driven into the blinding daylight by having his home in the church steeple blown away, and six blackbirds who, perhaps, had never seen an owl. I called the story a battle of monoplanes and mailed it in the military post that night. But that day, seventeen miles away, Jaroslav had fallen; that was what the new guns meant. Przemysl was doomed. We did not know in Przemysl what had happened, but that same evening in New York, and in every other city in the United States, Americans read in their evening papers the Russian communiqué telling how the Russians had driven the Austrians out of Jaroslav and how the fall of Przemysl was at hand. And yet two American war reporters in Przemysl and all the millions of men and women in Austria and Germany did not know for several days that Przemysl was doomed.
Again: We were riding in springless wagons in a blizzard in desolate northern Servia in the winter of 1914-1915. "Never mind the inconvenience," said the Austrian officer who was our chaperon. "The Servians are flying before us. To-morrow Belgrade falls and I am informed that I am to take you to that city. There you shall have comfort and find plenty of news."
But, on the morrow, when we arose from the pile of straw in the ramshackle schoolhouse where we had spent the night, and climbed into our bone-wracking wagons after enjoying a breakfast of goulash, the drivers turned their horses northward, toward the Save and Austria, not eastward toward the Danube and Belgrade. There was no explanation given to us. At last we passed out of Servia into Hungary and, after some days, we arrived in Budapest on a steam train. Why the change in plans? What had happened? We American war correspondents, on whom, as we felt, some millions of Americans were depending for their news, did not know. We could get no answers to our questions. But that night, while we were sleeping in the bleak schoolhouse some twenty miles behind the Austrian front, Americans, in their comfortable homes, were reading in their evening newspapers that the Servians had come to life and were driving the Austrians out of Servia, in utter rout. Americans got the story from the Servian communiqué, but millions of Austrians and Germans did not know of the rout for many weeks. As for myself, a Hungarian journalist whispered the story to me in the Belvarosi Kavehaz in Budapest some days after the Austrian army and we two American war correspondents had reached safety, on the Hungarian side of the Danube.
"How much danger do you war correspondents get into?" is a question which every correspondent must face when he returns to the. United States. This is our casualty list, up to the winter of 1915-1916:
Dead: Henry Beach Needham, magazine writer; killed in fall of aeroplane, in suburbs of Paris.
Patrick L. Jones, International News; drowned in sinking of Lusitania.
Wounded: Walter C. Whiffen, Associated Press; struck in leg by shrapnel while on the Russian front.
This list tells its own story of the fact that so few of the men who are sending America its war news have been under fire in the field that only one of them has been hit. The British correspondents have taken up this question of who is a war correspondent and who isn't by applying this question as a test: "Have you ever had a gun fired at you in anger?" Little it boots an English correspondent to hang around headquarters in jaunty costume of the field. Sooner or later he must answer this question, put to him by the chaps who have had guns so directed at themselves, and if his answer is in the negative, he doesn't belong. Out of the comparatively large number of American correspondents who have been gathering war news in Europe I know perhaps twenty who would qualify as war correspondents under the test of the British journalists.
But the British journalists have not taken into account the large number of correspondents who have been in London during the Zeppelin raids and who have found themselves, together with some seven million other human beings, in as much danger from death by bombs and shells as any war correspondent that ever went onto a battle-field. Any American correspondent in London has won the right to say that he has been under fire.
I have seen American correspondents under danger from shell and rifle-fire a number of times. After the battle of Neuve-Chapelle a few correspondents, including Elser, of the Associated Press, and myself, were taken by the British to see the ruins of the town which they had just captured. In our party was Matania, an Italian sketch artist, whose work in the London illustrated weeklies has been considered the best that has appeared during the war. It was a cloudy day, and in the late afternoon a rainbow appeared over the shattered village, framing it like a proscenium arch—a stage setting. Matania, in hot enthusiasm, began to sketch the scene, when a three-inch shell whistled its way to a spot near by and burst. The explosion drenched the party in mud and half covered Matania's drawing.
With an Italian expletive the artist tore up the drawing and began violently to sketch the shell-burst as the fresh memory of it appeared in his mind's eye. A second and a third shell fell near the party, and the British officer ordered us to move on to another part of the line, as the Germans had undoubtedly found our range.
At dinner that night Matania, rumpling his hair with excited hands, suddenly shouted: "Fool that I am! Why didn't I save that mud-covered drawing and have it published to show how near I came to being killed to-day!"
Matania was merely expressing a feeling of elation and pride which all correspondents feel at having been under fire and at having escaped.
This is a feeling that is not confined to cub reporters in the war game. The old-timers, I find, have it also.
On a hill in Bulgaria a shell which the Bulgarians sent over into the British lines fell within forty feet of our party, which included Richard Harding Davis, James H. Hare, John McCutcheon, and John Bass, every one of whom had been under fire in other wars. That night, in talking over the events of the day, I found them all jubilant over the fact that they had been under fire; I had something of the same feeling but, in a spirit of candor, I said:
"I don't like shell fire." I wasn't lying, either.
Davis, with a contented smile, said: "Well, I've been a war correspondent long enough to have the right to say I like it. There's a thrill about it that's pleasant."
Later, I heard him say of another shell: "Well, I'm glad that one didn't get me. This war game is too interesting. I don't want to have to go home in the fifth inning."
Rifle-fire leaves a different impression upon you. There is something impersonal about an exploding shell, but a rifle-bullet sent at you is all your own. The artillerymen who sent the shell were trying to kill anybody, but the rifleman who sent the bullet was trying to kill YOU.
Looking through a periscope from the British trenches in Belgium, I unwittingly disobeyed orders and moved the top of the periscope, which projected, of course, above the trench. Within a fraction of a second a bullet from the German trenches passed directly above my head. The impression that that bullet was mine, that somebody had tried to kill me was as vivid as the joy that he had not succeeded. I went to sleep that night thinking about that one bullet, and it was on my mind in the morning.
Habit, apparently, accustoms the average human to all the dangers that war presents, which explains, perhaps, the fact that one day, coming to a gap in a British trench where it crossed the La Bassée road, I was casually ordered by an officer, who had become habituated to death, to jump across in haste "because the Germans are always watching this spot.'' I made the twelve-foot jump in a hurry. Six others did the same and a bullet came from the German rifles about a thousand feet away at each one of us.
Undoubtedly those eager German eyes across the way waited for more of us to jump. If they did they soon met a strange sight. They saw a large gentleman, dressed in golf costume, walk into the road from the direction we had come, take off his golf cap, wipe the perspiration from his forehead—they might have heard him give a sigh of relief if their ears had ranged with their eyes—lean like an exhausted man against the pile of sandbags which formed the entrance to the trench, and settle himself contentedly for a rest, within full view of the German trenches.
Their surprise and astonishment is recorded to this day in the living person of A. H. Griffith; his unriddled body is a testament to the fact that the Germans were too puzzled to shoot; that the view of a large plump man in No Man's Land, clad in golf costume, paralyzed their trigger fingers. Griffith, for many years private secretary to the late Lord Strathcona of Canada, had come to the front as a representative of the Canadian Government and had joined the small party of newspaper correspondents because it gave him an opportunity to get a view of trench life. Half a mile of walking with bended back in the trench had well-nigh exhausted him and caused him to drop behind. The gap in the trench he had taken as an indication of the absence of danger and as a fitting resting-place for a man whose back ached from stooping.
"Good God! Jump! Get out of there!" yelled an officer who came along the trench some minutes later. Griffith, it may be recorded, gathered from the officer's words, without further explanation, that he ought to move, which he did.
I have always felt that the Germans across the way "played cricket," as the English call it, that day. There must have been scores of them who had a chance to kill the man in the golf costume, but some Teutonic phrase ran along the line that gave him his life. He was too obviously not in the war game, but only an onlooker.
Ordinary street clothes are, as a usual thing, however, highly dangerous as trench garb. "I am not a war correspondent. I am a litterateur and I am going to the front merely to write what I see. I shall wear my ordinary clothes." So said a certain German writer who received word at his home one night that he would be taken with a party on a trip to the front the next day. His wife laid out his big muffler, his rubbers, umbrella, and overcoat, and the next morning, thus accoutered and wearing a derby hat, he went to the War Office and was taken to the front.
From the first appearance of the party in the battle zone they drew Russian fire. The derby hat of the German litterateur served as a moving target on which, throughout the day, the enemy directed his utmost efforts and skill. In the trenches the black arch-like profile of the bowler hat skirted the trench-top and drew from time to time a rattle of Russian rifle-fire. The man in the derby hat became an Ishmaelite, a pariah, shunned by all, and that night the military authorities tucked him into an automobile, derby, muffler, rubbers, umbrella, and all, and sent him back home.
"No one knows how many Germans have been killed to-day by fire drawn by that black costume," said an officer. "Any time the enemy sees a man dressed like a civilian it judges that he is some statesman who ought to be put out of the way."
I confess that once I joined in the common popular ribaldry over war correspondents' clothes. But I must admit that, to-day, in my trunks I have five different sets of such garments, not including my afternoon garb and my evening clothes. They are of different colors to suit my work at the British, French, Austrian, Italian, and Servian army headquarters.
Before a correspondent goes to the front he is told what clothes to secure. The Ally armies are not particular as to the exact cut of the war correspondent's garb, but the Germans have devised an official uniform for war correspondents, with the assistance of the correspondents themselves.
The popular idea of how much roughing it a correspondent must undergo in the present war is considerably exaggerated. There have been times, of course, when correspondents were forced to take soldier's fare and live the soldier's life, but such occasions have been few.
Not since the days of the Japanese-Russian War have war correspondents lived in tents, bathed in canvas bathtubs, had their retinues of servants and couriers, chartered despatch boats, bought horses, and otherwise dissipated the funds of their helpless employers and lived up to the popular idea of what a war correspondent ought to be and do. All the wars, since the conflict in Manchuria—with the exception of the mild Villa campaign and the inconsequential Pershing expedition—have been fought in the populous places of the earth. There have been short stretches of time in the Great War when certain clusters of correspondents lived in freight-cars or passenger-cars, but these have been rare. I slept in forty different beds in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Galicia in a total of sixty consecutive nights, and not one bed was a poor one.
The only real, honest-to-goodness valet that has ever brightened my life and taken care of my clothes, was a man-servant, in soldier's clothes, who was assigned to me while I was at the British front. I think it hurt Fred to discover that I had not brought enough underwear with me to wear a new layout every day, but I had come "traveling light," prepared for war. Every morning at seven o'clock—I insisted on rising at a most plebeian hour—he would tiptoe into the room in the little French hotel, light my oil lamp, untangle my underwear, fold it carefully on a chair, with the shirt on top (I was glad in those days that I did not wear combination underwear. An English valet never serves an Englishman who wears combination suits, for the simple reason that no Englishman ever does), shake out my socks, turn them inside out, and arrange them, as mother used to do on darning days, with the toe folded in so that I could peel them on. I would find my shoes and leggings cleaned of all of yesterday's mud and polished to a fault.
This could hardly be called "roughing it," though I have given it as an instance of luxury in the extreme, I have dined with officers at the front, in a French chateau, within sound of infantry fire, who were served, by waiters from Paris, a dinner prepared by a chef from the Cafe de Paris. And I have had dinner with a Servian general when our table was a bale of hay and our food a piece of cheese, a chunk of bread, and a bottle of strong Servian wine.
The cost of keeping a correspondent in the field in the Great War varies in accordance with the territory. In Galicia, where "roughing it" extended to sleeping in boxcars and eating what could be found in the small villages, my expense account shows that twenty dollars a week kept me going. But in Salonica, where British officers abounded, and entertainment and hospitality were the pleasant order, my receipts from the home office which did not include salary ran like this:
November 5, 1915 ………….
And there were four other American correspondents who were finding Salonica as expensive as I did. Adding our expenses, it may be gathered that the occasional little items and even more occasional feature stories which were sent from Salonica for the casual perusal of American newspaper readers were costly bits for the newspapers when salaries and cable tolls are appended. And Salonica was only one corner of many which were being "covered" by the American news agencies and newspapers.
American newspaper readers, in spite of a certain sort of faking by irresponsible correspondents, with which I intend to deal in a later article, know more about both sides of the war, and get more news than the folks of any other land.
From the very first, the American newspaper correspondents have had the inside track in Europe. This was so markedly true that during the first year of the war the British public received its important news from American newspaper correspondents. For some reason or other, known to British journalists alone, American correspondents were given the best chances at the war news, and the great newspapers of London printed stories by American correspondents until some of these correspondents became better known to the British public than they were to their own countrymen back in the United States. The British censors permitted American correspondents to write and send to the United States stories of news events which the British journalists were not allowed even to submit to the censor. Therefore, if a British newspaper could secure from an American correspondent a story which British journalists did not, even attempt to delve into, it did so with avidity. It was unfair to the British journalist, I confess.
I happened to be the American correspondent on whom the fortune fell of being the only correspondent of any nationality for some weeks at the British front. My stories were carried to London by the King's messenger every morning at seven o'clock, were cabled to the United States, and then after my London office was assured that the stories had reached America, they were turned over to a British news agency which distributed them throughout the British Isles and sent them to India and Australia. Why such an arrangement was ever made I have never been able to comprehend. It grew out of British politics that were too deep for me. But the point is that Americans were getting the news first.
Will Irwin, the American writer, came to London six months after the war began and discovered that the English people did not know—actually were in total ignorance of the fact—-that there ever had been such a thing as the battle of Ypres in October of 1914. Lord Northcliffe, the king of British publishers, with almost unlimited influence in British affairs, knew of the battle, as did all the other publishers of England, but, for some mysterious reason working in British affairs, they did not publish the story. Irwin got the story and sent it to the New York Tribune. Within a week Irwin became the most famous journalist in England. His picture was published in the British newspapers, together with his story of the battle of Ypres. The story was published in pamphlet form and sold on the news-stands through the British Isles. But the American public took the story as a commonplace, quite in line with their habit of receiving the best war news first.
I can not say that America is getting all the news of the Great War. The iron hand of the censor is on the news. How extensive this censorship is, its nature, and how, at times, it has broken down or has been evaded by American correspondents I expect to tell in a later article.
But this much I know about the news which America has received from Europe:
America, because her people have obtained from the newspapers and magazines, and carefully sifted from the mass of propaganda more uncolored news and information than the people of any other neutral nation, is to-day the logical and unillusioned peacemaker of the earth.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald