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Chapter XVII. In the Line of the "Mitrailleuse"

I was taken to see the battlefield of Ypres by Captain Boisseau, of the French War Academy, and Lieutenant Rene Puaux, of the staff of General Foch. It was a bright and sunny day, with a cold wind, however, that set the water in the wayside ditches to rippling.

All the night before I had wakened at intervals to heavy cannonading and the sharp cracking of mitrailleuse. We were well behind the line, but the wind was coming from the direction of the battlefield.

The start was made from in front of General Foch's headquarters. He himself put me in the car, and bowed an au revoir.

"You will see," he said, "the French soldier in the field, and you will see him cheerful and well. You will find him full also of invincible courage and resolution."

And all that he had said, I found. I found the French soldiers smiling and cheerful and ruddy in the most wretched of billets. I found them firing at the enemy, still cheerful, but with a coolness of courage that made my own shaking nerves steady themselves.

Today, when that very part of the line I visited is, as was expected when I was there, bearing the brunt of the German attack in the most furious fighting of the war, I wonder, of those French soldiers who crowded round to see the first woman they had beheld for months, how many are lying on that muddy battlefield? What has happened on that road, guarded by buried quick-firers, that stretched to the German trenches beyond the poplar trees? Did the "rabbit trap" do its work? Only for a time, I think, for was it not there that the Germans broke through? Did the Germans find and silence that concealed battery of seventy-five-millimetre guns under its imitation hedge? Who was in the tree lookout as the enemy swarmed across, and did he get away?

Except for the constant road repairing there was little to see during the first part of the journey. Here in a flat field, well beyond the danger zone, some of the new British Army was digging practice trenches in the mud. Their tidy uniforms were caked with dirt, their faces earnest and flushed. At last the long training at Salisbury Plain was over, and here they were, if not at the front, within hearing distance of the guns. Any day now a bit of luck would move them forward, and there would be something doing.

By now, no doubt, they have been moved up and there has been something doing. Poor lads! I watched them until even their khaki-coloured tents had faded into the haze. The tall, blonde, young officer, Lieutenant Puaux, pointed out to me a detachment of Belgian soldiers mending roads. As our car passed they leaned on their spades and looked after us.

"Belgian carabineers," he said. "They did some of the most heroic work of the war last summer and autumn. They were decorated by the King. Now they are worn out and they mend roads!"

For--and this I had to learn--a man may not fight always, even although he escapes actual injury. It is the greatest problem of commanding generals that they must be always moving forward fresh troops. The human element counts for much in any army. Nerves go after a time. The constant noise of the guns has sent men mad.

More than ever, in this new warfare, is the problem serious. For days the men suffer not only the enemy's guns but the roar of their own batteries from behind them. They cannot always tell which side they hear. Their tortured ears ache with listening. And when they charge and capture an outpost it is not always certain that they will escape their own guns. In one tragic instance that I know of this happened.

The route was by way of Poperinghe, with its narrow, crowded streets, its fresh troops just arrived and waiting patiently, heavy packs beside them, for orders. In Poperinghe are found all the troops of the Allies: British, Belgian, French, Hindus, Cingalese, Algerians, Moroccans. Its streets are a series of colourful pictures, of quaint uniforms, of a babel of tongues, of that minor confusion that is order on a great scale. The inevitable guns rumbled along with six horses and three drivers: a lead driver, a centre driver and wheel driver. Unlike the British guns, there are generally no gunners with the guns, but only an officer or two. The gunners go ahead on foot. Lines of hussars rode by, making their way slowly round a train of British Red-Cross ambulances.

At Elverdingue I was to see the men in their billets. Elverdingue was another Poperinghe--the same crowds of soldiers, the same confusion, only perhaps more emphasised, for Elverdingue is very near the front, between Poperinghe and Ypres and a little to the north, where the line that curves out about Ypres bends back again.

More guns, more hussars. It was difficult to walk across the narrow streets. We watched our chance and broke through at last, going into a house at random. As each house had soldiers billeted in it, it was certain we would find some, and I was to see not selected quarters but billets chosen at random. Through a narrow, whitewashed centre hall, with men in the rooms on either side, and through a muddy kitchen, where the usual family was huddled round a stove, we went into a tiny, brick-paved yard. Here was a shed, a roof only, which still held what remained of the winter's supply of coal.

Two soldiers were cooking there. Their tiny fire of sticks was built against a brick wall, and on it was a large can of stewing meat. One of the cooks--they were company cooks--was watching the kettle and paring potatoes in a basket. The other was reading a letter aloud. As the officers entered the men rose and saluted, their bright eyes taking in this curious party, which included, of all things, a woman!

"When did you get in from the trenches?" one of the officers asked.

"At two o'clock this morning, Monsieur le Capitaine."

"And you have not slept?"

"But no. The men must eat. We have cooked ever since we returned."

Further questioning elicited the facts that he would sleep when his company was fed, that he was twenty-two years old, and that--this not by questions but by investigation--he was sheltered against the cold by a large knitted muffler, an overcoat, a coat, a green sweater, a flannel shirt and an undershirt. Under his blue trousers he wore also the red ones of an old uniform, the red showing through numerous rents and holes.

"You have a letter, comrade!" said the Lieutenant to the other man.

"From my family," was the somewhat sheepish reply.

Round the doorway other soldiers had gathered to see what was occurring. They came, yawning with sleep, from the straw they had been sleeping on, or drifted in from the streets, where they had been smoking in the sun. They were true republicans, those French soldiers. They saluted the officers without subservience, but as man to man. And through a break in the crowd a new arrival was shoved forward. He came, smiling uneasily.

"He has the new uniform," I was informed, and he must turn round to show me how he looked in it.

We went across the street and through an alleyway to an open place where stood an old coach house. Here were more men, newly in from the front. The coach house was a ruin, far from weather-proof and floored with wet and muddy straw. One could hardly believe that that straw had been dry and fresh when the troops came in at dawn. It was hideous now, from the filth of the trenches. The men were awake, and being advised of our coming by an anxious and loud-voiced member of the company who ran ahead, they were on their feet, while others, who had been sleeping in the loft, were on their way down the ladder.

"They have been in a very bad place all night," said the Captain. "They are glad to be here, they say."

"You mean that they have been in a dangerous place?"

The men were laughing among themselves and pushing forward one of their number. Urged by their rapid French, he held out his cap to me. It had been badly torn by a German bullet. Encouraged by his example, another held out his cap. The crown had been torn almost out of it.

"You see," said Captain Boisseau, "it was not a comfortable night. But they are here, and they are content."

I could understand it, of course, but "here" seemed so pitifully poor a place--a wet and cold and dirty coach house, open to all the winds that blew; before it a courtyard stabling army horses that stood to the fetlocks in mud. For food they had what the boy of twenty-two or other cooks like him were preparing over tiny fires built against brick walls. But they were alive, and there were letters from home, and before very long they expected to drive the Germans back in one of those glorious charges so dear to the French heart. They were here, and they were content.

More sheds, more small fires, more paring of potatoes and onions and simmering of stews. The meal of the day was in preparation and its odours were savoury. In one shed I photographed the cook, paring potatoes with a knife that looked as though it belonged on the end of a bayonet. And here I was lined up by the fire and the cook--and the knife--and my picture taken. It has not yet reached me. Perhaps it went by way of England, and was deleted by the censor as showing munitions of war!

From Elverdingue the road led north and west, following the curves of the trenches. We went through Woesten, where on the day before a dramatic incident had taken place. Although the town was close to the battlefield and its church in plain view from the German lines, it had escaped bombardment. But one Sunday morning a shot was fired. The shell went through the roof of the church just above the altar, fell and exploded, killing the priest as he knelt. The hole in the roof of the building bore mute evidence to this tragedy. It was a small hole, for the shell exploded inside the building. When I saw it a half dozen planks had been nailed over it to keep out the rain.

There were trees outside Woesten, more trees than I had been accustomed to nearer the sea. Here and there a troop of cavalry horses was corralled in a grove; shaggy horses, not so large as the English ones. They were confined by the simple expedient of stretching a rope from tree to tree in a large circle.

"French horses," I said, "always look to me so small and light compared with English horses."

Then a horse moved about, and on its shaggy flank showed plainly the mark of a Western branding iron! They were American cow ponies from the plains.

"There are more than a hundred thousand American horses here," observed the Lieutenant. "They are very good horses."

Later on I stopped to stroke the soft nose of a black horse as it stood trembling near a battery of heavy guns that was firing steadily. It was American too. On its flank there was a Western brand. I gave it an additional caress, and talked a little American into one of its nervous, silky ears. We were both far from home, a trifle bewildered, a bit uneasy and frightened.

And now it was the battlefield--the flat, muddy plain of Ypres. On the right bodies of men, sheltered by intervening groves and hedges, moved about. Dispatch riders on motor cycles flew along the roads, and over the roof of a deserted farmhouse an observation balloon swung in the wind. Beyond the hedges and the grove lay the trenches, and beyond them again German batteries were growling. Their shells, however, were not bursting anywhere near us.

The balloon was descending. I asked permission to go up in it, but when I saw it near at hand I withdrew the request. It had no basket, like the ones I had seen before, but instead the observers, two of them, sat astride a horizontal bar.

The English balloons have a basket beneath, I am told. One English airship man told me that to be sent up in a stationary balloon was the greatest penalty a man could be asked to pay. The balloon jerks at the end of its rope like a runaway calf, and "the resulting nausea makes sea-sickness seem like a trip to the Crystal Palace."

So I did not go up in that observation balloon on the field of Ypres. We got out of the car, and trudged after the balloon as it was carried to its new position by many soldiers. We stood by as it rose again above the tree tops, the rope and the telephone wire hanging beneath it. But what the observers saw that afternoon from their horizontal bar I do not yet know--trenches, of course. But trenches are interesting in this war only when their occupants have left them and started forward. Batteries and ammunition trains, probably, the latter crawling along the enemy's roads. But both of these can be better and more easily located by aeroplanes.

The usefulness of the captive balloon in this war is doubtful. It serves, at the best, to take the place of an elevation of land in this flat country, is a large and tempting target, and can serve only on very clear days, when there is no ground mist--a difficult thing to achieve in Flanders.

We were getting closer to the front all the time. As the automobile jolted on, drawing out for transports, for ambulances and ammunition wagons, the two French officers spoke of the heroism of their men. They told me, one after the other, of brave deeds that had come under their own observation.

"The French common soldier is exceedingly brave--quite reckless," one of them said. "Take, for instance, the case, a day or so ago, of Philibert Musillat, of the 168th Infantry. We had captured a communication trench from the Germans and he was at the end of it, alone. There was a renewal of the German attack, and they came at him along the trench. He refused to retreat. His comrades behind handed him loaded rifles, and he killed every German that appeared until they lay in a heap. The Germans threw bombs at him, but he would not move. He stood there for more than twelve hours!"

There were many such stories, such as that of the boys of the senior class of the military school of St. Cyr, who took, the day of the beginning of the war, an oath to put on gala dress, white gloves and a red, white and blue plume, when they had the honour to receive the first order to charge.

They did it, too. Theatrical? Isn't it just splendidly boyish? They did it, you see. The first of them to die, a young sub-lieutenant, was found afterward, his red, white and blue plume trampled in the mud, his brave white gloves stained with his own hot young blood. Another of these St. Cyr boys, shot in the face hideously and unable to speak, stood still under fire and wrote his orders to his men. It was his first day under fire.

A boy fell injured between the barbed wire in front of his trench and the enemy, in that No Man's Land of so many tragedies. His comrades, afraid of hitting him, stopped firing.

"Go on!" he called to them. "No matter about me. Shoot at them!"

So they fired, and he writhed for a moment.

"I got one of yours that time!" he said.

The Germans retired, but the boy still lay on the ground, beyond reach. He ceased moving, and they thought he was dead. One may believe that they hoped he was dead. It was more merciful than the slow dying of No Man's Land. But after a time he raised his head.

"Look out," he called. "They are coming again. They are almost up to me!"

That is all of that story.

Mary Roberts Rinehart