Russia's Red Road to Berlin

By Percival Gibbon

[Everybody's Magazine, April 1915]

From the Russian trenches in Poland—at the real front—in the midst of the grimmest and savagest fighting of the war, Mr. Gibbon sent this article over in answer to EVERYBODY'S cable question, "How are the Russians fighting?"

Mr. Gibbon became famous as a writer of powerful stories of sailormen fighting storms at sea. He has represented the London Daily Chronicle with the Russian troops in Poland ever since the war began. With all his skill as a writer of stirring fiction and with scenes before him more thrilling than any that fiction could furnish, he has here surpassed himself in the most vivid story yet written of the fighting on the great Eastern battle line. THE EDITOR.

Zyrardow, Poland.

Seven miles southwest from, here the railway crosses a road running north, and south through the tall woods that stand above the eastern bank of the little river Bsura, that insignificant stream which the events of the war have lifted to the tragic rank of another Beresina.

Here, a straggle of small houses following the road, is the Polish village of Bartniki, with its modern red-brick church at one end and the great plains of Poland, level as standing water, reaching forth behind it into the dimness of the winter mists. It is such a village as you may find by the score of hundreds in this richest and most thickly populated province of the Russian Empire, timber-built, one-story cottages, with thatched roofs and that quality of a picturesque amenity which Poles contrive so constantly to build into their dwellings and Russians never do.

Of those who built it, the villagers to whose lives it was the frame, not one now remains. The army, whose trenches are on the river bank just beyond the high trees, whose batteries, faked with green branches to look to the scouting aeroplanes like clumps of thicket, shout from the fields, has taken it over. There is no place left for any man whose business is not the killing of Germans.

At the corner of the churchyard wall, lying on his back, with his gray overcoat fallen open, was a man. His head lay over a little to one side, his hands were half-open at his side. He was in the uniform of a Russian infantryman, and his face, with its dirt and weather-scorch, its bush of beard, its simple peasant quality wherein simplicity and kindliness and a kind of brutality were joined together, was just such a face as one sees by battalions and brigades when a shift of troops blocks the road with slow, gray-coated columns. The eyelids, not quite closed, left visible a paring of white eyeball; so that as he lay he seemed to be peering at us in a counterfeit of sleep. Nothing about him hinted of tragedy. My companion was Prince Wyazmesky, a Russian officer. He halted to look at the body. "This is a new one," he said. "Yesterday they were firing at the village, but they couldn't quite find it. To-day they are shelling the length of the road with shrapnel. A good many have been killed."

"They," of course, were the Germans on the other side of the river, whose guns for days past had sounded in the air unceasingly. They were sounding now, dull, heavy detonations in the distance, answered from close at hand by a Russian battery roaring behind a screen of trees. A bang, faintly resonant like a very sullen drum, tailing off into echoes; a fainter jarring roar like a train going over an iron bridge in the distance—the noise of the shell—then, among the woods a rending crash, possibly a spark of flame wan in the daylight, and a mounting spire of smoke over the tree-tops that showed where the shell had landed—every few seconds saw it repeated. In between came the shrapnel aimed at the road from the field-batteries nearer to the river—a crackling as of breaking wood in the air, a ragged ball of whitish smoke that appeared suddenly as though by some trick, and an invisible rain of shrapnel bullets and jagged fragments of the shell casing.

The little cottages showed to the road those blind and vacant fronts which houses have when they are unoccupied. Most of the windows were broken by the shock of the near-by firing. At one of them I stopped a moment to look within. There was a little room, dim with interior shadow as one saw it from the outer daylight—a comfortable peasant's parlor. A crude wall-paper clad its walls; a mirror in a frame of cheap gilt glorified it; a holy picture was yet in its place, looking down serenely upon dusty best furniture.

On the floor was a mess of mud and straw, It needed a moment to see clearly in the indoor dimness; then I was aware, suddenly, that from the floor pale, still eyes were returning my look. Like the man at the corner of the church, their owner lay on his back; his face was upturned; his eyes, too steady, too stagnant, too daunting for life, had in them the appearance of dreadful, incurious scrutiny.

"Killed this morning," explained my companion. "There are some of them in most of these houses. They will be buried to-night."

The little decent houses, shelters of deathbeds and marriage-beds, the ugly fine furniture and pretentious gilt that groped so simply and pathetically toward some foggy ideal of beauty and decency, and the stiff, ungainly dead lying among them, at home in their midst like ghastly householders! Dead men in the trenches, in the batteries, upon the open ground of war—yes! That one understands. But death in homes, death within the four walls of small rooms, death pressing on honest and commonplace life like a strong and impudent trespasser—that hurts!

But the man who sticks in my mind and rankles in my memory like a thorn was farther on. We came along the village street, walking to the accompaniment of the orchestra of guns, whose tremendous atmosphere of sound dulled itself upon the ear till one heard it only as an accustomed undertone to the moment. Behind the houses there were camped detachments of the transport, close bunches of horses and wagons, men and the smoking field-kitchens that are never far from Russian troops.

"War Is Insult to the Image of God"

Upon the road there were few people: the morning's shelling had warned them off it; but toward the end of the village a few soldiers came out of a garden and walked along perhaps fifty yards in front of us. Then, of a sudden, the air creaked and rattled with the bursting of a beautifully timed shrapnel, exploding, as it should, not more than twenty feet above the road. The noise of a fagot of sticks broken across a giant's knee, the sudden appearance, like a mean miracle, of the little balloon of bomb-smoke overhead, and the group of soldiers ahead of us burst asunder with queer, tiny cries, mere startled squeaks.

Two fell; one, as we ran toward them, rose to his feet, cursing in a slow, monotonous voice like a man who has recently cursed a good deal; he had merely tripped over his own feet in trying to run. But the other did not rise. The shrapnel had taken him along the side of the face, plowing down through the cheek and descending into that nest of arteries and vital parts which is situated in the base of the neck; but he was not dead. A sanitar, with the Red Cross brassard on his left arm, came running from somewhere, and was already with him before we arrived. Do you know the color of blood—that startling red that not only looks red but smells red and feels red when you touch it? He was on one elbow, his head drooping, and around him the mud of the road was reddening with the very essence of his life that spouted from him, that dyed his shoulder to the hue of horror—the awful, copious blood of a man.

The sanitar was on his knees beside him, busy and deft; the others, his unhurt comrades, came crowding round; the Prince, my companion, shoved his way in to look and direct. The sanitar, knee and arm holding the wounded man up in a sitting position, made a face like a man who bites on something sour; he was no doctor, but a mere porter of the wounded, and the thing was outside his slender knowledge.

Round the Prince's shoulder I had a view of the wounded man's face, round like a baby's, and bearded, ruddy as copper—another laborious moujik whom events had transfigured into a soldier.

The Prince gave some direction in sibilant Russian; the wounded man lifted his slow eyes toward the voice, resigned, patient, and acquiescent as a beast's; he saw above him the tall, slender figure, the exquisitely fitting khaki, the slung and tasseled sword, and the broad gold epaulets—the embodiment of high authority. God knows the Russian mind—not I, who am here for the sixth time in ten years and find the Russian yet a problem and a wonder. None can know now what he saw, unless it was the gilt of power and aristocracy, the badge of rank. His glazing eyes dwelt on it dully; comprehension came to him slowly; so that for some seconds he stared at the Prince, as though making sure of the presence he was in.

Then he perceived, and ancient instincts, old, ineradicable slave traditions were at work in the misty fever of his failing mind. He strained upon his elbow and the supporting knee of the sanitar; with awful and agonized effort, dying as he was, he made an attempt to stand; his body bent in the convulsion of his purpose and for a moment he was half up, on one knee and one hand. He could not quite achieve it; one saw, in his face, how he realized that; but, none the less, his great hand, horny like a hoof, the hand of a field laborer, of a plowman, came up to the cap brim in a salute to the epaulets.

"Nichevo!" The Prince, shocked and compassionate, deprecated the salute; but it was done. Even while, the last spasm of his strength failing him, he sank back on the knee of the sanitar, his bent and obedient hand was lifted; he died, under our eyes, Russian to the last, Russian to the bone, docile, pliable as a kind horse, yielding his life in a final impulse of faith in the power and virtue of those who ruled him.

Have you seen a man die? That queer hardening of the man into the corpse, that terrifying metamorphosis that with a gasp, a gurgle in the throat, and a slackening of the jaw, makes of a man dead flesh? No? Then you don't know war. War is death pervading humanity like an odor; it is the spirit of horrible burlesque working upon the dignity of mankind; it is abrupt catastrophe intruding like a robber upon the sanctity of life. War is hell—I know all that; but war is insult, too—insult to man, insult to the stuff man is made of, insult to the image of God.

The Line of Retreat

Here, upon the Bsura, we are in the positions to which the Russians have retreated from that advanced line which included the towns of Skiernievitche and Lowitch. A week ago I was lodged in the Palace of the Tsar at Skiernievitche, where in the autumn the Emperor of all the Russias comes to shoot his pheasants among his Polish subjects. White rooms with gilt cornices; wide double doors that opened from one room to another over a whole floor of the building, unfolding great gleaming spaces of parquet floor designed for stately groupings, that Majesties might appear with the due and august effect.

Here, in October, the generals of the German army that advanced upon Warsaw and were there beaten and driven back, accommodated themselves. They have left their traces. They burned the buildings of the station; they dug trenches across the roads; and—for a climax—they wrote their names in pencil on the white enamel of the beautifully proportioned double doors of the rooms which they occupied.

Thus, in that spacious white chamber where the Tsar is wont to sleep, General von Barth had his bed. To be detailed, he had a red counterpane, with the blanket and the sheet buttoned into it in the handy Russian fashion. His room had a great open fireplace in the English style, with a stand of valuable shotguns above the white marble mantelpiece—and, it is grievous to relate, ten of those shotguns are missing. The cabinet adjoining the Empress's apartments was reserved for the Graf Einsiedeln; two golden crucifixes are charged to his account; and the Herr Rittmeister Roppkuthner, in the neighboring room, seems to have got away with a frame containing nine intimate photographs of members of the royal family. My room, which I shared with four officers of the Red Cross, was dignified by the scrawled inscription of the Ritter von Livonin. If I mistake not, he and I were at school together at Konigsfeld in Baden; I make him my compliments—he seems to have stolen nothing at all.

It was from the Lowitch-Skiernievitche line that we fell back to the present line upon the Bsura and the Rawa. A retreat always needs explanation; there never was a retreat that did not look, at a distance, like a defeat. It is told of General Dankle, the Austrian, that he once reported: "The enemy is advancing with great loss and we are victoriously retreating." If he had been a Russian, that might have been true. Here, at Zyrardow, the retreat in which I have just taken part has come to a halt. We are standing by those positions which follow the little Bsura from its junction with the Vistula southward to where the yet smaller Rawa joins it. The two banks of the Bsura are about on the same level; both....

[At this point the censor eliminated an entire page of manuscript]

.... the sword and the large-scale map than the large-caliber gun; but Seychewsky has an old-fashioned belief in being on the spot. He came early in the morning, just as the day-reliefs went into the trenches and the men who had spent the night in them were coming up through the wood-ways toward their camps. In a space of grass that makes a bay in the high coast of the woods they were halted; the general was going to speak to them in person.

These dull days of overdue winter open with a false show of sunlight that fails before the morning is ripe; the sun slanted now from the east into the tree-embayed recess where the soldiers, fur-capped, stained with their night's work in the mud and cold, showed rank after rank of faces rough as tree bark, hairy and inexpressive, with the wary eyes moving in them.

On both sides the guns were at work strongly; a battery out of sight but close by thundered superbly. The general, on foot, with a group of staff officers and others behind him, walked forward to the middle of the empty space in the midst of the waiting troops. He spoke briefly....

[The censor again—quarter of a page]

Of the men to whom he spoke, many were of the Siberians, regiments whose fame is lasting. They were the men who carried Rennenkampf forward in East Prussia; who made of dismal, untenable Lodz a sort of Gibraltar of bayonets. Big men, these, great in the limb, plodding, shoving, enduring infantry from the swamps and forests of Asiatic Russia, native to seven months of winter and lives of which hardship is the commonplace condition.

They have been complaining, one hears, of the previous policy of retreating before the Germans; and now they began to cheer. One knows the ritual cheers of mere etiquette which round out loyal and patriotic platitudes and are specially due to the utterances of generals. But these were not such cheers. The men below in the trenches must have heard them and wondered what was going on—that roar that swelled against the shock of the guns, the spontaneous applause of fighting-men who would have to make good their cheers with the bayonets.

If there is a key to the Russian military situation, it is the secret of the soul of the Russian soldier. That, and nothing else, is the dominating factor in the plans of the General Staff, in the shape and trend of the various phases of the campaign and in the present position of the armies. It is the quality of that soul, which throws back to a still recent serfdom, that makes it possible to hold the present line of the Bsura in face of the mighty German attacks, and deliberately to forego the advantages to be gained by drawing back to the defenses of Warsaw and the rampart of the Vistula.

[Here about ten lines were clipped out.]

Upon a vital emergency, a crisis of real peril, there is cannon-fodder enough to choke the guns; men can be herded up into the zone of fire, line after shattered line of them, till the enemy's trenches are snowed under with their bodies.

Modern war, for all the elaboration of its mechanical side, still bases itself upon the prowess of the infantryman with the rifle and bayonet. Across the river from us the Germans have completed their rearrangement of the land for the purposes of battle, trenching mightily, planting it with barbed wire, cutting gun-pits, magazines, emplacements, and the rest. Their work is said to be wonderful, a monument to the science of military engineering; but it is with their infantry that they try in the nights to force their way across the river—citizens in spiked helmets, lawyers, merchants, clerks, workmen, struggling toward us through the shell-torn dark against the whistling gale of fire. The artilleryman seldom sees his target; he fires to orders which come by telephone from some distant observation-post; the cavalryman may never draw his sword or lower his lance-point; but the infantryman is the flesh upon the bones of war.

Through Ice and Fire

Think of it! It is a late and mild winter for Russia, where normally at this season the ice stands three feet thick upon all rivers. This year, upon the Bsura, the water has frozen only along the banks; sunrise sees only a film of ice covering the middle of the river, and in the morning, for an hour or two, there is a reticent, grudging sort of cordiality of sunlight. But the nights have the Russian flavor: they are acid, edged like a knife, fanged like a wolf with cruel cold. The wounded who are not found till next day die of it.

Yet these are the nights in which the Germans come down from behind their foremost trenches, backed by a tempest of rifle-fire and shelling, a couple of battalions at a time, and surge across the narrow strand between their defenses and the water, the lines of them swaying back and forth under the scourge of the Russian fire.

Down into the water they go, the water that bites like vitriol, stamping through the ice under the bank, bearing ever forward against the farther bank that is lighted like a festive street with the blaze of the rifles and mitrailleuses. Armpit deep, with their rifles upheld above their heads clear of the water, the searchlights that mock the night slashing across the sky and settling upon them bewilderingly, pointing them out to the immediate finger of death, they come! I was in the positions when they attacked in force, four times between dark and sunrise. Four times down into that water in the face of the fire—four times blown off their feet by the rifles and the pretty little machine-guns that do their work so devilishly in such rough and unlikely hands, four times shattered and ground into a water-staining pulp of broken flesh—and next night they attacked again.

[The censor here—three or four lines.]

Eleven attacks—great lines that surged up into the eye of the searchlights, went roaring into the bitterness of the river, and came with gaped ranks, torn asunder but indomitable, flowing in lunatic gallantry up to the very lip of the trenches held by the Siberians, there to be blotted out, obliterated, slaughtered to the last man by the quiet, practised death-dealers behind the earthen breastworks.

"They held their fire till the enemy was within forty feet," said an official account; but I have better information: they held it till the enemy was within twenty feet. They waited in the shelled trench, peering across the breastwork, while the charge raced down upon them.

Dying men, slaughtered by shrapnel, were writhing at the trench bottom among their feet or shrieking in the insupportable agony of wounds; pain, deadly wrath, and murder were alight in men's minds like opposite fires in the frosty night; all is frantic, a nightmare of noisy horror—and the Siberians holding their fire! Holding it, waiting in the stoic calm of their half-Mongol minds till each bullet would drive through a file of Germans, and then, at the tactical moment, letting go the hurricane of bullets that mows down the charging men like a scythe shearing through grass.

The Bsura is a little river, but still it is fifty yards wide. Upon that night it was dammed by German dead—a barrage of bodies that held up the water for a while and then gave and let it through and floated with it, going down with the current to the Vistula—German husbands and fathers traveling back to Germany upon that river which has borne in its time so many dead down to Dantzig.

But for those whom the river does not take there is another end. A few evenings ago there arrived here a wet and chilly official of the Red Cross with the news that Radziwilow was being bombarded, and that a train was running down to fetch away the wounded who lay in the station there, and the doctors and nurses. I had just time to make it before it moved off, the armored engine pushing ahead of it an armored truck with a machine-gun and its crew.

Cautiously, with many halts and an inspection of each culvert before we crossed it, the train crawled down to Radziwilow with its background of those woods which hide the Bsura. Somewhere to the left, behind the trees, a house was burning, making a cave of ruddy glamour in the darkness. The guns sounded always, very loud and close, and shells were sailing in, screaming, landing on the flat fields about the station and there bursting with a crash and a vicious splash of flame.

In the station the business of shifting the wounded out of the buildings was going forward urgently. Polish volunteer sanitars were hasting to and fro with stretchers, nurses with their faces bound up in their great white coifs were spectral in the flitting light of the lanterns. Mixed with the jar of voices came cries and groans from suffering men. From time to time a greenish radiance glowed faintly like an unnatural sunrise beyond the horizon of the woods where a star-shell was making things visible and ghastly for the fighting-men.

To load the wounded into the cars would take a couple of hours; I went on along the line across the Bartniki crossing.

It ran between the woods as straight as a taut string, to where it began insensibly to dip toward the river and the ruined railway bridge. Thence a path led to the right, and brought me at last to a field telephone-station with the horses of mounted orderlies tethered around it and a couple of tired officers standing by the receiver. Below it, a gap in the woods let one look down to where the river was veiled by the night.

Far away, jerking into view and dodging like sparks of marsh-fire, were little momentary glows of fire, the flash of far guns; it was all there was to see of the battle. But to the left, nearer, were fires that burned steadily, showing each a red eye toward us.

"Those fires?" The weary officer glanced over to them. "That's where they are burning their dead."

It is by the light of those fires that we shall see our road to Berlin.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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