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Chapter XVIII. French Guns in Action

The car stopped. We were at the wireless and telephone headquarters for the French Army of the North. It was a low brick building, and outside, just off the roadway, was a high van full of telephone instruments. That it was moved from one place to another was shown when, later in the day, returning by that route, we found the van had disappeared.

It was two o'clock. The German wireless from Berlin had just come in. At three the receiving station would hear from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was curious to stand there and watch the operator, receivers on his ears, picking up the German message. It was curious to think that, just a little way over there, across a field or two, the German operator was doing the same thing, and that in an hour he would be receiving the French message.

All the batteries of the army corps are--or were--controlled from that little station. The colonel in charge came out to greet us, and to him Captain Boisseau gave General Foch's request to show me batteries in action.

The colonel was very willing. He would go with us himself. I conquered a strong desire to stand with the telephone building between me and the German lines, now so near, and looked about. A French aeroplane was overhead, but there was little bustle and activity along the road. It is a curious fact in this war that the nearer one is to the front the quieter things become. Three or four miles behind there is bustle and movement. A mile behind, and only an occasional dispatch rider, a few men mending roads, an officer's car, a few horses tethered in a wood, a broken gun carriage, a horse being shod behind a wall, a soldier on a lookout platform in a tree, thickets and hedges that on occasion spout fire and death--that is the country round Ypres and just behind the line, in daylight.

We were between Ypres and the Allied line, in that arc which the Germans are, as I write, trying so hard to break through. The papers say that they are shelling Ypres and that it is burning. They were shelling it that day also. But now, as then, I cannot believe it is burning. There was nothing left to burn.

While arrangements were being made to visit the batteries, Lieutenant Puaux explained to me a method they had established at that point for measuring the altitude of hostile aeroplanes for the guns.

"At some anti-aircfaft batteries," he explained, "they have the telemeter for that purpose. But here there is none. So they use the system of visee laterale, or side sight, literally."

He explained it all carefully to me. I understood it at the time, I think.

I remember saying it was perfectly clear, and a child could do it, and a number of other things. But the system of visee laterale has gone into that part of my mind which contains the Latin irregular verbs, harmonies, the catechism and answers to riddles.

There is a curious feeling that comes with the firing of a large battery at an unseen enemy. One moment the air is still; there is a peaceful plain round. The sun shines, and heavy cart horses, drawing a wagon filled with stones for repairing a road, are moving forward steadily, their heads down, their feet sinking deep in the mud. The next moment hell breaks loose. The great guns stand with smoking jaws. The message of death has gone forth. Over beyond the field and that narrow line of trees, what has happened? A great noise, the furious recoiling of the guns, an upcurling of smoke--that is the firing of a battery. But over there, perhaps, one man, or twenty, or fifty men, lying still.

So I required assurance that this battery was not being fired for me. I had no morbid curiosity as to batteries. One of the officers assured me that I need have no concern. Though they were firing earlier than had been intended, a German battery had been located and it was their instructions to disable it.

The battery had been well concealed.

"No German aeroplane has as yet discovered it," explained the officer in charge.

To tell the truth, I had not yet discovered it myself. We had alighted from the machine in a sea of mud. There was mud everywhere.

A farmhouse to the left stood inaccessible in it. Down the road a few feet a tree with an observation platform rose out of it. A few chickens waded about in it. A crowd of soldiers stood at a respectful distance and watched us. But I saw no guns.

One of the officers stooped and picked up the cast shoe of a battery horse, and shaking the mud off, presented it to me.

"To bring you luck," he said, "and perhaps luck to the battery!"

We left the road, and turning to the right made a floundering progress across a field to a hedge. Only when we were almost there did I realise that the hedge was the battery.

"We built it," said the officer in charge. "We brought the trees and saplings and constructed it. Madame did not suspect?"

Madame had not suspected. There were other hedges in the neighbourhood, and the artificial one had been well contrived. Halfway through the field the party paused by a curious elevation, flat, perhaps twenty feet across and circular.

"The cyclone cellar!" some one said. "We will come here during the return fire."

But one look down the crude steps decided me to brave the return fire and die in the open. The cave below the flat roof, turf-covered against the keen eyes of aeroplanes, was full of water. The officers watched my expression and smiled.

And now we had reached the battery, and eager gunners were tearing away the trees and shrubbery that covered them. In an incredible space of time the great grey guns, sinister, potential of death, lay open to the bright sky. The crews gathered round, each man to his place. The shell was pushed home, the gunners held the lanyards.

"Open your mouth wide," said the officer in charge, and gave the signal.

The great steel throats were torn open. The monsters recoiled, as if aghast at what they had done. Their white smoke curled from the muzzles. The dull horses in the road lifted their heads.

And over there, beyond the line of poplar trees, what?

One by one they fired the great guns. Then all together, several rounds. The air was torn with noise. Other batteries, far and near, took up the echo. The lassitude of the deadlock was broken.

And then overhead the bursting shell of a German gun. The return fire had commenced!

I had been under fire before. The sound of a bursting shell was not a new one. But there had always before been a strong element of chance in my favour. When the Germans were shelling a town, who was I that a shell should pick me out to fall on or to explode near? But this was different. They were firing at a battery, and I was beside that battery. It was all very well for the officer in charge to have said they had never located his battery. I did not believe him. I still doubt him. For another shell came.

The soldiers from the farmhouse had gathered behind us in the field. I turned and looked at them. They were smiling. So I summoned a shaky smile myself and refused the hospitality of the cellar full of water.

One of the troopers stepped out from the others.

"We have just completed a small bridge," he said--"a bridge over the canal. Will madame do us the honour of walking across it? It will thus be inaugurated by the only lady at the front."

Madame would. Madame did. But without any real enthusiasm. The men cheered, and another German shell came, and everything was merry as a marriage bell.

They invited me to climb the ladder to the lookout in the tree and look at the enemy's trenches. But under the circumstances I declined. I felt that it was time to move on and get hence. The honour of being the only woman who had got to the front at Ypres began to weigh heavy on me. I mentioned the passing of time and the condition of the roads.

So at last I got into the car. The officers of the battery bowed, and the men, some fifty of them, gave me three rousing cheers. I think of them now, and there is a lump in my throat. They were so interested, so smiling and cheery, that bright late February afternoon, standing in the mud of the battlefield of Ypres, with German shells bursting overhead. Half of them, even then, had been killed or wounded. Each day took its toll of some of them, one way or another.

How many of them are left to-day? The smiling officer, so debonair, so proud of his hidden battery, where is he? The tiny bridge, has it run red this last week? The watchman in the tree, what did he see, that terrible day when the Germans got across the canal and charged over the flat lands?

The Germans claim to have captured guns at or near this place. One thing I am sure of: This battery or another, it was not taken while there were men belonging to it to defend it. The bridge would run red and the water under the bridge, the muddy field be strewn with bodies, before those cheery, cool-eyed and indomitable French gunners would lose their guns.

The car moved away, fifty feet, a hundred feet, and turned out to avoid an ammunition wagon, disabled in the road. It was fatal. We slid off into the mire and settled down. I looked back at the battery. A fresh shell was bursting high in the air.

We sat there, interminable hours that were really minutes, while an orderly and the chauffeur dug us out with spades. We conversed of other things. But it was a period of uneasiness on my part. And, as if to point the lesson and adorn the tale, away to the left, rising above the plain, was the church roof with the hole in it--mute evidence that even the mantle of righteousness is no protection against a shell.

Our course was now along a road just behind the trenches and paralleling them, to an anti-aircraft station.

I have seen a number of anti-aircraft stations at the front: English ones near the coast and again south of Ypres; guns mounted, as was this French battery, on the plain of a battlefield; isolated cannon in towers and on the tops of buildings and water tanks. I have seen them in action, firing at hostile planes. I have never yet seen them do any damage, but they serve a useful purpose in keeping the scouting machines high in the air, thus rendering difficult the work of the enemy's observer. The real weapon against the hostile aeroplane is another machine. Several times I have seen German Taubes driven off by French aviators, and winging a swift flight back to their lines. Not, one may be sure, through any lack of courage on the part of German aviators. They are fearless and extremely skilful. But because they have evidently been instructed to conserve their machines.

I had considerable curiosity as to the anti-aircraft batteries. How was it possible to manipulate a large field gun, with a target moving at a varying height, and at a speed velocity of, say, sixty miles an hour?

The answer was waiting on the field just north of Ypres.

A brick building by the road was evidently a storehouse for provisions for the trenches. Unloaded in front of it were sacks of bread, meal and provisions. And standing there in the sunshine was the commander of the field battery, Captain Mignot. A tall and bearded man, essentially grave, he listened while Lieutenant Puaux explained the request from General Foch that I see his battery. He turned and scanned the sky.

"We regret," he said seriously, "that at the moment there is no aeroplane in sight. We will, however, show Madame everything."

He led the way round the corner of the building to where a path, neatly banked, went out through the mud to the battery.

"Keep to the path," said a tall sign. But there was no temptation to do otherwise. There must have been fifty acres to that field, unbroken by hedge or tree. As we walked out, Captain Mignot paused and pointed his finger up and somewhat to the right.

"German shrapnel!" he said. True enough, little spherical clouds told where it had burst harmlessly.

As cannonading had been going on steadily all the afternoon, no one paid any particular attention. We walked on in the general direction of the trenches.

The gunners were playing prisoner's base just beyond the guns. When they saw us coming the game ceased, and they hurried to their stations. Boys they were, most of them. The youth of the French troops had not impressed me so forcibly as had the boyishness of the English and the Belgians. They are not so young, on an average, I believe. But also the deception of maturity is caused by a general indifference to shaving while in the field.

But Captain Mignot evidently had his own ideas of military smartness, and these lads were all clean-shaven. They trooped in from their game, under that little cloud of shrapnel smoke that still hung in the sky, for all the world a crowd of overheated and self-conscious schoolboys receiving an unexpected visit from the master of the school.

The path ended at the battery. In the centre of the guns was a raised platform of wood, and a small shelter house for the observer or officer on duty. There were five guns in pits round this focal point and forming a circle. And on the platform in the centre was a curious instrument on a tripod.

"The telemeter," explained Captain Mignot; "for obtaining the altitude of the enemy's aeroplane."

Once again we all scanned the sky anxiously, but uselessly.

"I don't care to have any one hurt," I said; "but if a plane is coming I wish it would come now. Or a Zeppelin."

The captain's serious face lighted in a smile.

"A Zeppelin!" he said. "We would with pleasure wait all the night for a Zeppelin!"

He glanced round at the guns. Every gunner was in his place. We were to have a drill.

"We will suppose," he said, "that a German aeroplane is approaching. To fire correctly we must first know its altitude. So we discover that with this." He placed his hand on the telemeter. "There are, you observe, two apertures, one for each eye. In one the aeroplane is seen right side up. In the other the image is inverted, upside down. Now! By this screw the images are made to approach, until one is superimposed exactly over the other. Immediately on the lighted dial beneath is shown the altitude, in metres."

I put my eyes to the openings, and tried to imagine an aeroplane overhead, manoeuvring to drop a bomb or a dart on me while I calculated its altitude. I could not do it.

Next I was shown the guns. They were the famous seventy-five-millimetre guns of France, transformed into aircraft guns by the simple expedient of installing them in a pit with sloping sides, so that their noses pointed up and out. To swing them round, so that they pointed readily toward any portion of the sky, a circular framework of planks formed a round rim to the pit, and on this runway, heavily greased, the muzzles were swung about.

The gun drill began. It was executed promptly, skilfully. There was no bungling, not a wrong motion or an unnecessary one, as they went through the movements of loading, sighting and firing the guns. It was easy to see why French artillery has won its renown. The training of the French artilleryman is twice as severe as that of the infantryman. Each man, in addition to knowing his own work on the gun, must be able to do the work of all the eleven others. Casualties must occur, and in spite of them the work of the gun must go on.

Casualties had occurred at that station. More than half the original battery was gone. The little shelter house was splintered in a hundred places. There were shell holes throughout the field, and the breech of one gun had recently been shattered and was undergoing repair.

The drill was over and the gunners stood at attention. I asked permission to photograph the battery, and it was cheerfully given. One after the other I took the guns, until I had taken four. The gunners waited smilingly expectant. For the last gun I found I had no film, but I could not let it go at that. So I pointed the empty camera at it and snapped the shutter. It would never do to show discrimination.

Somewhere in London are all those pictures. They have never been sent to me. No doubt a watchful English government pounced on them in the mail, and, in connection with my name, based on them most unjust suspicions. They were very interesting. There was Captain Mignot, and the two imposing officers from General Foch's staff; there were smiling young French gunners; there was the telemeter, which cost, they told me, ten thousand francs, and surely deserved to have its picture taken, and there was one, not too steady, of a patch of sunny sky and a balloon-shaped white cloud, where another German shrapnel had burst overhead.

The drill was over. We went back along the path toward the road. Behind the storehouse the evening meal was preparing in a shed. The battery was to have a new ration that night for a change, bacon and codfish. Potatoes were being pared into a great kettle and there was a bowl of eggs on a stand. It appeared to me, accustomed to the meagre ration of the Belgians, that the French were dining well that night on the plains of Ypres.

In a stable near at hand a horse whinnied. I patted him as I passed, and he put his head against my shoulder.

"He recognises you!" said Captain Boisseau. "He too is American."

It was late afternoon by that time. The plan to reach the advanced trenches was frustrated by an increasing fusillade from the front. There were barbed-wire entanglements everywhere, and every field was honeycombed with trenches. One looked across the plain and saw nothing. Then suddenly as we advanced great gashes cut across the fields, and in these gashes, although not a head was seen, were men. The firing was continuous. And now, going down a road, with a line of poplar trees at the foot and the setting sun behind us throwing out faint shadows far ahead, we saw the flash of water. It was very near. It was the flooded river and the canal. Beyond, eight hundred yards or less from where we stood, were the Germans. To one side the inundation made a sort of bay.

It was along this part of the field that the Allies expected the German Army to make its advance when the spring movement commenced. And as nearly as can be learned from the cabled accounts that is where the attack was made.

A captain from General d'Urbal's staff met us at the trenches, and pointed out the strategical value of a certain place, the certainty of a German advance, and the preparations that were made to meet it.

It was odd to stand there in the growing dusk, looking across to where was the invading army, only a little over two thousand feet away. It was rather horrible to see that beautiful landscape, the untravelled road ending in the line of poplars, so very close, where were the French outposts, and the shining water just beyond, and talk so calmly of the death that was waiting for the first Germans who crossed the canal.

Mary Roberts Rinehart