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Chapter XXVIII. Sir John French

The next day I was taken along the English front, between the first and the second line of trenches, from Bethune, the southern extremity of the line, the English right flank, to the northern end of the line just below Ypres. In a direct line the British front at that time extended along some twenty-seven miles. But the line was irregular, and I believe was really well over thirty.

I have never been in an English trench. I have been close enough to the advance trenches to be shown where they lay, and to see the slight break they make in the flat country. I was never in a dangerous position at the English front, if one excepts the fact that all of that portion of the country between the two lines of trenches is exposed to shell fire.

No shells burst near me. Bethune was being intermittently shelled, but as far as I know not a shell fell in the town while I was there. I lunched on a hill surrounded by batteries, with the now celebrated towns of Messines and Wytschaete just across a valley, so that one could watch shells bursting over them. And still nothing threatened my peace of mind or my physical well-being. And yet it was one of the most interesting days of a not uneventful period.

In the morning I was taken, still in General Huguet's car, to British Headquarters again, to meet Sir John French.

I confess to a thrill of excitement when the door into his private office was opened and I was ushered in. The Field Marshal of the British Army was standing by his table. He came forward at once and shook hands. In his khaki uniform, with the scarlet straps of his rank on collar and sleeves, he presented a most soldierly and impressive appearance.

A man of middle height, squarely and compactly built, he moves easily. He is very erect, and his tanned face and grey hair are in strong contrast. A square and determined jaw, very keen blue eyes and a humorous mouth--that is my impression of Sir John French.

"We are sending you along the lines," he said when I was seated. "But not into danger. I hope you do not want to go into danger."

I wish I might tell of the conversation that followed. It is impossible. Not that it dealt with vital matters; but it was understood that Sir John was not being interviewed. He was taking a little time from a day that must have been crowded, to receive with beautiful courtesy a visitor from overseas. That was all.

There can be no objection, I think, to my mentioning one or two things he spoke of--of his admiration for General Foch, whom I had just seen, of the tribute he paid to the courage of the Indian troops, and of the marvellous spirit all the British troops had shown under the adverse weather conditions prevailing. All or most of these things he has said in his official dispatches.

Other things were touched on--the possible duration of the war, the new problems of what is virtually a new warfare, the possibility of a pestilence when warm weather came, owing to inadequately buried bodies. The Canadian troops had not arrived at the front at that time, although later in the day I saw their transports on the way, or I am sure he would have spoken of them. I should like to hear what he has to say about them after their recent gallant fighting. I should like to see his fine blue eyes sparkle.

The car was at the door, and the same young officer who had taken me about on the previous day entered the room.

"I am putting you in his care," said Sir John, indicating the new arrival, "because he has a charmed life. Nothing will happen if you are with him." He eyed the tall young officer affectionately. "He has been fighting since the beginning," he said, "handling a machine gun in all sorts of terrible places. And nothing ever touches him."

A discussion followed as to where I was to be taken. There was a culm heap near the Givenchy brickyards which was rather favoured as a lookout spot. In spite of my protests, that was ruled out as being under fire at the time. Bethune was being shelled, but not severely. I would be taken to Bethune and along the road behind the trenches. But nothing was to happen to me. Sir John French knitted his grey brows, and suggested a visit to a wood where the soldiers had built wooden walks and put up signs, naming them Piccadilly, Regent Street, and so on.

"I should like to see something," I put in feebly.

I appreciated their kindly solicitude, but after all I was there to see things; to take risks, if necessary, but to see.

"Then," said Sir John with decision, "we will send you to a hill from which you can see."

The trip was arranged while I waited. Then he went with me to the door and there we shook hands. He hoped I would have a comfortable trip, and bowed me out most courteously. But in the doorway he thought of something.

"Have you a camera with you?"

I had, and said so; a very good camera.

"I hope you do not mind if I ask you not to use it."

I did not mind. I promised at once to take no pictures, and indeed at the end of the afternoon I found my unfortunate camera on the floor, much buffeted and kicked about and entirely ignored.

The interview with Sir John French had given me an entirely unexpected impression of the Field Marshal of the British Army. I had read his reports fully, and from those unemotional reports of battles, of movements and countermovements, I had formed a picture of a great soldier without imagination, to whom a battle was an issue, not a great human struggle--an austere man.

I had found a man with a fighting jaw and a sensitive mouth; and a man greatly beloved by the men closest to him. A human man; a soldier, not a writer.

And after seeing and talking with Sir John French I am convinced that it is not his policy that dictates the silence of the army at the front. He is proud of his men, proud of each heroic regiment, of every brave deed. He would like, I am sure, to shout to the world the names of the heroes of the British Army, to publish great rolls of honour. But silence, or comparative silence, has been the decree.

There must be long hours of suspense when the Field Marshal of the British Army paces the floor of that grey and rose brocade drawing-room; hours when the orders he has given are being translated into terms of action, of death, of wounds, but sometimes--thank God!--into terms of victory. Long hours, when the wires and the dispatch riders bring in news, valiant names, gains, losses; names that are not to be told; brave deeds that, lacking chroniclers, must go unrecorded.

Read this, from the report Sir John French sent out only a day or so before I saw him:

"The troops composing the Army of France have been subjected to as severe a trial as it is possible to impose upon any body of men. The desperate fighting described in my last dispatch had hardly been brought to a conclusion when they were called upon to face the rigours and hardships of a winter campaign. Frost and snow have alternated with periods of continuous rain."

"The men have been called upon to stand for many hours together almost up to their waists in bitterly cold water, separated by only one or two hundred yards from a most vigilant enemy."

"Although every measure which science and medical knowledge could suggest to mitigate these hardships was employed, the sufferings of the men have been very great."

"In spite of all this they present a most soldier like, splendid, though somewhat war-worn appearance. Their spirit remains high and confident; their general health is excellent, and their condition most satisfactory."

"I regard it as most unfortunate that circumstances have prevented any account of many splendid instances of courage and endurance, in the face of almost unparalleled hardship and fatigue in war, coming regularly to the knowledge of the public."

So it is clearly not the fault of Sir John French that England does not know the names of her heroes, or that their families are denied the comfort of knowing that their sons fought bravely and died nobly. It is not the fault of the British people, waiting eagerly for news that does not come. Surely, in these inhuman times, some concession should be made to the humanities. War is not moving pawns in a game; it is a struggle of quivering flesh and agonised nerves, of men fighting and dying for ideals. Heroism is much more than duty. It is idealism. No leader is truly great who discounts this quality.

America has known more of the great human interest of this war than England. English people get the news from great American dailies. It is an unprecedented situation, and so far the English people have borne it almost in silence. But as the months go on and only bare official dispatches reach them, there is a growing tendency to protest. They want the truth, a picture of conditions. They want to know what their army is doing; what their sons are doing. And they have a right to know. They are making tremendous sacrifices, and they have a right to know to what end.

The greatest agent in the world for moulding public opinion is the press. The Germans know this, and have used their journals skilfully. To underestimate the power of the press, to fail to trust to its good will and discretion, is to refuse to wield the mightiest instrument in the world for influencing national thought and national action. At times of great crisis the press has always shown itself sane, conservative, safe, eminently to be trusted.

The English know the power of the great modern newspaper, not only to reflect but to form public opinion. They have watched the American press because they know to what extent it influences American policy.

There is talk of conscription in England to-day. Why? Ask the British people. Ask the London Times. Ask rural England where, away from the tramp of soldiers in the streets, the roll of drums, the visual evidence of a great struggle, patriotism is asked to feed on the ashes of war.

Self-depreciation in a nation is as great an error as over-complacency. Lack of full knowledge is the cause of much of the present British discontent.

Let the British people be told what their army is doing. Let Lord Kitchener announce its deeds, its courage, its vast unselfishness. Let him put the torch of publicity to the national pride and see it turn to a white flame of patriotism. Then it will be possible to tear the recruiting posters from the walls of London, and the remotest roads of England will echo to the tramp of marching men.

Mary Roberts Rinehart