I went into the trenches. The captain was very proud of them.
"They represent the latest fashion in trenches!" he explained, smiling faintly.
It seemed to me that I could easily have improved on that latest fashion. The bottom was full of mud and water. Standing in the trench, I could see over the side by making an effort. The walls were wattled--that is, covered with an interlacing of fagots which made the sides dry.
But it was not for that reason only that these trenches were called the latest fashion. They were divided, every fifteen feet or so, by a bulwark of earth about two feet thick, round which extended a communication trench.
"The object of dividing these trenches in this manner is to limit the havoc of shells that drop into them," the captain explained. "Without the earth bulwark a shell can kill every man in the trench. In this way it can kill only eight. Now stand at this end of the trench. What do you see?"
What I saw was a barbed-wire entanglement, leading into a cul-de-sac.
"A rabbit trap!" he said. "They will come over the field there, and because they cannot cross the entanglement they will follow it. It is built like a great letter V, and this is the point."
The sun had gone down to a fiery death in the west. The guns were firing intermittently. Now and then from the poplar trees came the sharp ping of a rifle. The evening breeze had sprung up, ruffling the surface of the water, and bringing afresh that ever-present and hideous odour of the battlefield. Behind us the trenches showed signs of activity as the darkness fell.
Suddenly the rabbit trap and the trench grew unspeakably loathsome and hideous to me. What a mockery, this business of killing men! No matter that beyond the canal there lurked the menace of a foe that had himself shown unspeakable barbarity and resource in plotting death. No matter if the very odour that stank in my nostrils called loud for vengeance. I thought of German prisoners I had seen, German wounded responding so readily to kindness and a smile. I saw them driven across that open space, at the behest of frantic officers who were obeying a guiding ambition from behind. I saw them herded like cattle, young men and boys and the fathers of families, in that cruel rabbit trap and shot by men who, in their turn, were protecting their country and their homes.
I have in my employ a German gardener. He has been a member of the household for years. He has raised, or helped to raise, the children, has planted the trees, and helped them, like the children, through their early weakness. All day long he works in the garden among his flowers. He coaxes and pets them, feeds them, moves them about in the sun. When guests arrive, it is Wilhelm's genial smile that greets them. When the small calamities of a household occur, it is Wilhelm's philosophy that shows us how to meet them.
Wilhelm was a sergeant in the German Army for five years. Now he is an American citizen, owning his own home, rearing his children to a liberty his own childhood never knew.
But, save for the accident of emigration, Wilhelm would to-day be in the German Army. He is not young, but he is not old. His arms and shoulders are mighty. But for the accident of emigration, then, Wilhelm, working to-day in the sun among his Delphiniums and his iris, his climbing roses and flowering shrubs, would be wearing the helmet of the invader; for his vine-covered house he would have substituted a trench; for his garden pick a German rifle.
For Wilhelm was a faithful subject of Germany while he remained there. He is a Socialist. He does not believe in war. Live and help others to live is his motto. But at the behest of the Kaiser, Wilhelm too would have gone to his appointed place.
It was of Wilhelm then, and others of his kind, that I thought as I stood in the end of the new-fashion trench, looking at the rabbit trap. There must be many Wilhelms in the German Army, fathers, good citizens, kindly men who had no thought of a place in the sun except for the planting of a garden. Men who have followed the false gods of their country with the ardent blue eyes of supreme faith.
I asked to be taken home.
On the way to the machine we passed a mitrailleuse buried by the roadside. Its location brought an argument among the officers. Strategically it would be valuable for a time, but there was some question as to its position in view of a retirement by the French.
I could not follow the argument. I did not try to. I was cold and tired, and the red sunset had turned to deep purple and gold. The guns had ceased. Over all the countryside brooded the dreadful peace of sheer exhaustion and weariness. And in the air, high overhead, a German plane sailed slowly home.
* * * * *
Sentries halted us on the way back holding high lanterns that set the bayonets of their guns to gleaming. Faces pressed to the glass, they surveyed us stolidly, making sure that we were as our passes described us. Long lines of marching men turned out to let us pass. As darkness settled down, the location of the German line, as it encircled Ypres, was plainly shown by floating fusees. In every hamlet reserves were lining up for the trenches, dark masses of men, with here and there a face thrown into relief as a match was held to light a cigarette. Open doors showed warm, lamp-lit interiors and the glow of fires.
I sat back in the car and listened while the officers talked together. They were speaking of General Joffre, of his great ability, of his confidence in the outcome of the war, and of his method, during those winter months when, with such steady fighting, there had been so little apparent movement. One of the officers told me that General Joffre had put his winter tactics in three words:
"I nibble them."
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