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Chapter XXIX. Along the Great Bethune Road

Again and again through these chapters I have felt apologetic for the luxurious manner in which I frequently saw the war. And so now I hesitate to mention the comfort of that trip along the British lines; the substantial and essentially British foresight and kindness that had stocked the car with sandwiches wrapped in white paper; the good roads; the sense of general well-being that spread like a contagion from a well-fed and well-cared-for army. There is something about the British Army that inspires one with confidence. It is a pity that those people who sit at home in Great Britain and shrug their shoulders over the daily papers cannot see their army at the front.

It is not a roast beef stolidity. It is rather the steadiness of calm eyes and good nerves, of physically fit bodies and clean minds. I felt it when I saw Kitchener's army of clear-eyed boys drilling in Hyde Park. I got it from the quiet young officer, still in his twenties, who sat beside me in the car, and who, having been in the war from the beginning, handling a machine gun all through the battle of Ypres, when his regiment, the Grenadier Guards, suffered so horribly, was willing to talk about everything but what he had done.

We went first to Bethune. The roads as we approached the front were crowded, but there was no disorder. There were motor bicycles and side-cars carrying dispatch riders and scouts, travelling kitchens, great lorries, small light cars for supplies needed in a hurry--cars which make greater speed than the motor vans--omnibuses full of troops, and steam tractors or caterpillar engines for hauling heavy guns.

The day was sunny and cold. The rain of the day before had turned to snow in the night, and the fields were dazzling.

"In the east," said the officer with me, "where there is always snow in the winter, the Germans have sent out to their troops white helmet covers and white smocks to cover the uniforms. But snow is comparatively rare here, and it has not been considered necessary."

At a small bridge ten miles from Bethune he pointed out a house as marking the farthest advance of the German Army, reached about the eleventh of October. There was no evidence of the hard fighting that had gone on along this road. It was a peaceful scene, the black branches of the overarching trees lightly powdered with snow. But the snowy fields were full of unmarked mounds. Another year, and the mounds will have sunk to the level of the ground. Another year, and only history will tell the story of that October of 1914 along the great Bethune road.

An English aeroplane was overhead. There were armoured cars on the road, going toward the front; top-heavy machines that made surprisingly little noise, considering their weight. Some had a sort of conning tower at the top. They looked sombre, menacing. The driving of these cars over slippery roads must be difficult. Like the vans, they keep as near the centre of the road as possible, allowing lighter traffic to turn out to pass them. A van had broken down and was being repaired at one of the wayside repair shops maintained everywhere along the roads for this war of machinery. Men in khaki with leather aprons were working about it, while the driver stood by, smoking a pipe.

As we went on we encountered the Indian troops again. The weather was better, and they thronged the roads, driving their tiny carts, cleaning arms and accoutrements in sunny doorways, proud and haughty in appearence even when attending to the most menial duties. From the little ammunition carts, like toy wagons, they gazed gravely at the car, and at the unheard of spectacle of a woman inside. Side by side with the Indians were Scots in kilts, making up with cheerful impudence for the Indians' lack of curiosity.

There were more Ghurkas, carrying rifles and walking lightly beside forage carts driven by British Tommies. There were hundreds of these carts taking hay to the cavalry divisions. The Ghurkas looked more Japanese than ever in the clear light. Their broad-brimmed khaki hats have a strap that goes under the chin. The strap or their black slanting eyes or perhaps their rather flattened noses and pointed chins give them a look of cruelty that the other Indian troops do not have. They are hard and relentless fighters, I believe; and they look it.

The conversation in the car turned to the feeding of the army.

"The British Army is exceedingly well fed," said the young officer.

"In the trenches also?"

"Always. The men are four days in the trenches and four out. When the weather is too bad for anything but sniping, the inactivity of the trench life and the abundant ration gets them out of condition. On their four days in reserve it is necessary to drill them hard to keep them in condition."

This proved to be the explanation of the battalions we met everywhere, marching briskly along the roads. I do not recall the British ration now, but it includes, in addition to meat and vegetables, tea, cheese, jam and bacon--probably not all at once, but giving that variety of diet so lacking to the unfortunate Belgian Army. Food is one of the principal munitions of war. No man fights well with an empty stomach. Food sinks into the background only when it is assured and plentiful. Deprived of it, its need becomes insistent, an obsession that drives away every other thought.

So the wise British Army feeds its men well, and lets them think of other things, such as war and fighting and love of country and brave deeds.

But food has not always been plentiful in the British Army. There were times last fall when, what with German artillery bombardment and shifting lines, it was difficult to supply the men.

"My servant," said the officer, "found a hare somewhere, and in a deserted garden a handful of carrots. Word came to the trench where I was stationed that at dark that night he would bring out a stew. We were very hungry and we waited eagerly. But just as it was cooked and ready a German shell came down the chimney of the house where he was working and blew up stove and stew and everything. It was one of the greatest disappointments I ever remember."

We were in Bethune at last--a crowded town, larger than any I had seen since I left Dunkirk. So congested were its narrow streets with soldiers, mounted and on foot, and with all the ghastly machinery of war, that a traffic squad had taken charge and was directing things. On some streets it was possible to go only in one direction. I looked about for the signs of destruction that had grown so familiar to me, but I saw none. Evidently the bombardment of Bethune has not yet done much damage.

A squad of artillerymen marched by in perfect step; their faces were keen, bronzed. They were fine-looking, well-set-up men, as smart as English artillerymen always are. I watched them as long as I could see them.

We had lost our way, owing to the regulations of the traffic squad. It was necessary to stop and inquire. Then at last we crossed a small bridge over the canal, and were on our way along the front, behind the advanced trenches and just in front of the second line.

For a few miles the country was very level. The firing was on our right, the second line of trenches on our left. The congestion of Bethune had given way to the extreme peace in daylight of the region just behind the trenches. There were few wagons, few soldiers. Nothing could be seen except an occasional cloud where shrapnel had burst. The British Army was keeping me safe, as it had promised!

There were, however, barbed-wire entanglements everywhere, built, I thought, rather higher than the French. Roads to the right led to the advanced trenches, empty roads which at night are thronged with men going to the front or coming back.

Here and there one saw a sentry, and behind him a tent of curious mottled shades of red, brown and green.

"They look as though they were painted," I said, rather bewildered.

"They are," the officer replied promptly. "From an aeroplane these tents are absolutely impossible to locate. They merge into the colors of the fields."

Now and then at a crossroads it was necessary to inquire our way. I had no wish to run into danger, but I was conscious of a wild longing to have the car take the wrong turning and land abruptly at the advance trenches. Nothing of the sort happened, however.

We passed small buildings converted into field hospitals and flying the white flag with a red cross.

"There are no nurses in these hospitals," explained the officer. "Only one surgeon and a few helpers. The men are brought here from the trenches, and then taken back at night in ambulances to the railroad or to base hospitals."

"Are there no nurses at all along the British front?"

"None whatever. There are no women here in any capacity. That is why the men are so surprised to see you."

Here and there, behind the protection of groves and small thickets, were temporary camps, sometimes tents, sometimes tent-shaped shelters of wood. There were batteries on the right everywhere, great guns concealed in farmyards or, like the guns I had seen on the French front, in artificial hedges. Some of them were firing; but the firing of a battery amounts to nothing but a great noise in these days of long ranges. Somewhere across the valley the shells would burst, we knew that; that was all.

The conversation turned to the Prince of Wales, and to the responsibility it was to the various officers to have him in the trenches. Strenuous efforts had been made to persuade him to be satisfied with the work at headquarters, where he is attached to Sir John French's staff. But evidently the young heir to the throne of England is a man in spite of his youth. He wanted to go out and fight, and he had at last secured permission.

"He has had rather remarkable training," said the young officer, who was also his friend. "First he was in Calais with the transport service. Then he came to headquarters, and has seen how things are done there. And now he is at the front."

Quite unexpectedly round a turn in the road we came on a great line of Canadian transports--American-built lorries with khaki canvas tops. Canadians were driving them, Canadians were guarding them. It gave me a homesick thrill at once to see these other Americans, of types so familiar to me, there in Northern France.

Their faces were eager as they pushed ahead. Some of the tent-shaped wooden buildings were to be temporary barracks for them. In one place the transports had stopped and the men were cooking a meal beside the road. Some one had brought a newspaper and a crowd of men had gathered round it. I wondered if it was an American paper. I would like to have stood on the running board of the machine, as we went past, and called out that I, too, was an American, and God bless them!

But I fancy the young officer with me would have been greatly disconcerted at such an action. The English are not given to such demonstrations. But the Canadians would have understood, I know.

Since that time the reports have brought great news of these Canadian troops, of their courage, of the loss of almost all their officers in the fighting at Neuve Chapelle. But that sunny morning, when I saw them in the north of France, they were untouched by battle or sudden death. Their faces were eager, intent, earnest. They had come a long distance and now they had arrived. And what next?

Into this scene of war unexpectedly obtruded itself a bit of peace. A great cart came down a side road, drawn by two white oxen with heavy wooden yokes. Piled high in the cart were sugar beets. Some thrifty peasant was salvaging what was left of his crop. The sight of the oxen reminded me that I had seen very few horses.

"They are farther back," said the officer, "Of course, as you know, for the last two or three months it has been impossible to use the cavalry at all."

Then he told me a curious thing. He said that during the long winter wait the cavalry horses got much out of condition. The side roads were thick with mud and the main roads were being reserved for transports. Adequate exercises for the cavalry seemed impossible. One detachment discovered what it considered a bright solution, and sent to England for beagle hounds. Morning after morning the men rode after the hounds over the flat fields of France. It was a welcome distraction and it kept the horses in working trim.

But the French objected. They said their country was at war, was being devastated by an alien army. They considered riding to hounds, no matter for What purpose, an indecorous, almost an inhuman, thing to do under the circumstances. So the hounds were sent back to England, and the cavalry horses are now exercised in dejected strings along side roads.

As we went north the firing increased in intensity. More English batteries were at work; the German response was insistent.

We were approaching Ypres, this time from the English side, and the great artillery duel of late February was in progress.

The country was slightly rolling. Its unevenness permitted more activity along our road. Batteries were drawn up at rest in the fields here and there. In one place a dozen food kitchens in the road were cooking the midday meal, the khaki-clad cooks frequently smoking as they worked.

Ahead of this loomed two hills. They rose abruptly, treeless and precipitous. On the one nearest to the German lines was a ruined tower.

"The tower," said the officer, "would have been a charming place for luncheon. But the hill has been shelled steadily for several days. I have no idea why the Germans are shelling it. There is nobody there."

Mary Roberts Rinehart