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Ch. 2: In Argonne

I

The permission to visit a few ambulances and evacuation hospitals
behind the lines gave me, at the end of February, my first sight of
War.

Paris is no longer included in the military zone, either in fact or
in appearance. Though it is still manifestly under the war-cloud,
its air of reviving activity produces the illusion that the menace
which casts that cloud is far off not only in distance but in time.
Paris, a few months ago so alive to the nearness of the enemy, seems
to have grown completely oblivious of that nearness; and it is
startling, not more than twenty miles from the gates, to pass from
such an atmosphere of workaday security to the imminent sense of
war.

Going eastward, one begins to feel the change just beyond Meaux.
Between that quiet episcopal city and the hill-town of Montmirail,
some forty miles farther east, there are no sensational evidences of
the great conflict of September--only, here and there, in an
unploughed field, or among the fresh brown furrows, a little mound
with a wooden cross and a wreath on it. Nevertheless, one begins to
perceive, by certain negative signs, that one is already in another
world. On the cold February day when we turned out of Meaux and took
the road to the Argonne, the change was chiefly shown by the curious
absence of life in the villages through which we passed. Now and
then a lonely ploughman and his team stood out against the sky, or a
child and an old woman looked from a doorway; but many of the fields
were fallow and most of the doorways empty. We passed a few carts
driven by peasants, a stray wood-cutter in a copse, a road-mender
hammering at his stones; but already the "civilian motor" had
disappeared, and all the dust-coloured cars dashing past us were
marked with the Red Cross or the number of an army division. At
every bridge and railway-crossing a sentinel, standing in the middle
of the road with lifted rifle, stopped the motor and examined our
papers. In this negative sphere there was hardly any other tangible
proof of military rule; but with the descent of the first hill
beyond Montmirail there came the positive feeling: _This is war!_

Along the white road rippling away eastward over the dimpled country
the army motors were pouring by in endless lines, broken now and
then by the dark mass of a tramping regiment or the clatter of a
train of artillery. In the intervals between these waves of military
traffic we had the road to ourselves, except for the flashing past
of despatch-bearers on motor-cycles and of hideously hooting little
motors carrying goggled officers in goat-skins and woollen helmets.

The villages along the road all seemed empty--not figuratively but
literally empty. None of them has suffered from the German invasion,
save by the destruction, here and there, of a single house on which
some random malice has wreaked itself; but since the general flight
in September all have remained abandoned, or are provisionally
occupied by troops, and the rich country between Montmirail and
Chalons is a desert.

The first sight of Chame is extraordinarily exhilarating. The old
town lying so pleasantly between canal and river is the
Head-quarters of an army--not of a corps or of a division, but of a
whole army--and the network of grey provincial streets about the
Romanesque towers of Notre Dame rustles with the movement of war.
The square before the principal hotel--the incomparably named "Haute
Mere-Dieu"--is as vivid a sight as any scene of modern war
can be. Rows of grey motor-lorries and omnibuses do not lend
themselves to as happy groupings as a detachment of cavalry, and
spitting and spurting motor-cycles and "torpedo" racers are no
substitute for the glitter of helmets and the curvetting of
chargers; but once the eye has adapted itself to the ugly lines and
the neutral tints of the new warfare, the scene in that crowded
clattering square becomes positively brilliant. It is a vision of
one of the central functions of a great war, in all its concentrated
energy, without the saddening suggestions of what, on the distant
periphery, that energy is daily and hourly resulting in. Yet even
here such suggestions are never long out of sight; for one cannot
pass through Chalons without meeting, on their way from the station,
a long line of "eclopes"--the unwounded but battered, shattered,
frost-bitten, deafened and half-paralyzed wreckage of the
awful struggle. These poor wretches, in their thousands, are daily
shipped back from the front to rest and be restored; and it is a
grim sight to watch them limping by, and to meet the dazed stare of
eyes that have seen what one dare not picture.

If one could think away the "'eclopes" in the streets and the
wounded in their hospitals, Chalons would be an invigorating
spectacle. When we drove up to the hotel even the grey motors and
the sober uniforms seemed to sparkle under the cold sky. The
continual coming and going of alert and busy messengers, the riding
up of officers (for some still ride!), the arrival of much-decorated
military personages in luxurious motors, the hurrying to and fro of
orderlies, the perpetual depleting and refilling of the long rows of
grey vans across the square, the movements of Red Cross ambulances
and the passing of detachments for the front, all these are sights
that the pacific stranger could forever gape at. And in the hotel,
what a clatter of swords, what a piling up of fur coats and
haversacks, what a grouping of bronzed energetic heads about the
packed tables in the restaurant! It is not easy for civilians to get
to Chalons, and almost every table is occupied by officers and
soldiers--for, once off duty, there seems to be no rank distinction
in this happy democratic army, and the simple private, if he chooses
to treat himself to the excellent fare of the Haute Mere-Dieu, has
as good a right to it as his colonel.

The scene in the restaurant is inexhaustibly interesting. The mere
attempt to puzzle out the different uniforms is absorbing. A week's
experience near the front convinces me that no two uniforms in the
French army are alike either in colour or in cut. Within the last
two years the question of colour has greatly preoccupied the French
military authorities, who have been seeking an invisible blue; and
the range of their experiments is proved by the extraordinary
variety of shades of blue, ranging from a sort of greyish
robin's-egg to the darkest navy, in which the army is clothed. The
result attained is the conviction that no blue is really
inconspicuous, and that some of the harsh new slaty tints are no
less striking than the deeper shades they have superseded. But to
this scale of experimental blues, other colours must be added: the
poppy-red of the Spahis' tunics, and various other less familiar
colours--grey, and a certain greenish khaki--the use of which is due
to the fact that the cloth supply has given out and that all
available materials are employed. As for the differences in cut, the
uniforms vary from the old tight tunic to the loose belted jacket
copied from the English, and the emblems of the various arms and
ranks embroidered on these diversified habits add a new element of
perplexity. The aviator's wings, the motorist's wheel, and many of
the newer symbols, are easily recognizable--but there are all the
other arms, and the doctors and the stretcher-bearers, the sappers
and miners, and heaven knows how many more ramifications of this
great host which is really all the nation.

The main interest of the scene, however, is that it shows almost as
many types as uniforms, and that almost all the types are so good.
One begins to understand (if one has failed to before) why the
French say of themselves: "_La France est une nation guerriere._"
War is the greatest of paradoxes: the most senseless and
disheartening of human retrogressions, and yet the stimulant of
qualities of soul which, in every race, can seemingly find no other
means of renewal. Everything depends, therefore, on the category of
impulses that war excites in a people. Looking at the faces at
Chalons, one sees at once in which [Page 54] sense the French are
"une nation guerriere." It is not too much to say that war has given
beauty to faces that were interesting, humorous, acute, malicious, a
hundred vivid and expressive things, but last and least of all
beautiful. Almost all the faces about these crowded tables--young or
old, plain or handsome, distinguished or average--have the same look
of quiet authority: it is as though all "nervosity," fussiness,
little personal oddities, meannesses and vulgarities, had been burnt
away in a great flame of self-dedication. It is a wonderful example
of the rapidity with which purpose models the human countenance.
More than half of these men were probably doing dull or useless or
unimportant things till the first of last August; now each one of
them, however small his job, is sharing in a great task, and knows
it, and has been made over by knowing it.

Our road on leaving Chalons continued to run northeastward toward
the hills of the Argonne.

We passed through more deserted villages, with soldiers lounging in
the doors where old women should have sat with their distaffs,
soldiers watering their horses in the village pond, soldiers cooking
over gypsy fires in the farm-yards. In the patches of woodland along
the road we came upon more soldiers, cutting down pine saplings,
chopping them into even lengths and loading them on hand-carts, with
the green boughs piled on top. We soon saw to what use they were
put, for at every cross-road or railway bridge a warm sentry-box of
mud and straw and plaited pine-branches was plastered against a bank
or tucked like a swallow's nest into a sheltered corner. A little
farther on we began to come more and more frequently on big colonies
of "Seventy-fives." Drawn up nose to nose, usually against a curtain
of woodland, in a field at some distance from the road, and always
attended by a cumbrous drove of motor-vans, they looked like giant
gazelles feeding among elephants; and the stables of woven
pine-boughs which stood near by might have been the huge huts of
their herdsmen.

The country between Marne and Meuse is one of the regions on which
German fury spent itself most bestially during the abominable
September days. Half way between Chalons and Sainte Menehould we
came on the first evidence of the invasion: the lamentable ruins of
the village of Auve. These pleasant villages of the Aisne, with
their one long street, their half-timbered houses and high-roofed
granaries with espaliered gable-ends, are all much of one pattern,
and one can easily picture what Auve must have been as it looked
out, in the blue September weather, above the ripening pears of its
gardens to the crops in the valley and the large landscape beyond.
Now it is a mere waste of rubble [Page 58] and cinders, not one
threshold distinguishable from another. We saw many other ruined
villages after Auve, but this was the first, and perhaps for that
reason one had there, most hauntingly, the vision of all the
separate terrors, anguishes, uprootings and rendings apart involved
in the destruction of the obscurest of human communities. The
photographs on the walls, the twigs of withered box above the
crucifixes, the old wedding-dresses in brass-clamped trunks, the
bundles of letters laboriously written and as painfully deciphered,
all the thousand and one bits of the past that give meaning and
continuity to the present--of all that accumulated warmth nothing was
left but a brick-heap and some twisted stove-pipes!

As we ran on toward Sainte Menehould the names on our map showed us
that, just beyond the parallel range of hills six or seven miles to
the north, the two armies lay interlocked. But we heard no cannon
yet, and the first visible evidence of the nearness of the struggle
was the encounter, at a bend of the road, of a long line of
grey-coated figures tramping toward us between the bayonets of their
captors. They were a sturdy lot, this fresh "bag" from the hills, of
a fine fighting age, and much less famished and war-worn than one
could have wished. Their broad blond faces were meaningless,
guarded, but neither defiant nor unhappy: they seemed none too sorry
for their fate.

Our pass from the General Head-quarters carried us to Sainte
Menehould on the edge of the Argonne, where we had to apply to the
Head-quarters of the division for a farther extension. The Staff are
lodged in a house considerably the worse for German occupancy, where
offices have been improvised by means of wooden hoardings, and
where, sitting in a bare passage on a frayed damask sofa surmounted
by theatrical posters and faced by a bed with a plum-coloured
counterpane, we listened for a while to the jingle of telephones,
the rat-tat of typewriters, the steady hum of dictation and the
coming and going of hurried despatch-bearers and orderlies. The
extension to the permit was presently delivered with the courteous
request that we should push on to Verdun as fast as possible, as
civilian motors were not wanted on the road that afternoon; and this
request, coupled with the evident stir of activity at Head-quarters,
gave us the impression that there must be a good deal happening
beyond the low line of hills to the north. How much there was we
were soon to know.

We left Sainte Menehould at about eleven, and before twelve o'clock
we were nearing a large village on a ridge from which the land swept
away to right and left in ample reaches. The first glimpse of the
outlying houses showed nothing unusual; but presently the main
street turned and dipped downward, and below and beyond us lay a
long stretch of ruins: the calcined remains of Clermont-en-Argonne,
destroyed by the Germans on the 4th of September. The free and lofty
situation of the little town--for it was really a good deal more
than a village--makes its present state the more lamentable. One can
see it from so far off, and through the torn traceries of its ruined
church the eye travels over so lovely a stretch of country! No doubt
its beauty enriched the joy of wrecking it.

At the farther end of what was once the main street another small
knot of houses has survived. Chief among them is the Hospice for old
men, where Sister Gabrielle Rosnet, when the authorities of Clermont
took to their heels, stayed behind to defend her charges, and where,
ever since, she has nursed an undiminishing stream of wounded from
the eastern front. We found Soeur Rosnet, with her Sisters,
preparing the midday meal of her patients in the little kitchen of
the Hospice: the kitchen which is also her dining-room and private
office. She insisted on our finding time to share the _filet_ and
fried potatoes that were just being taken off the stove, and while
we lunched she told us the story of the invasion--of the Hospice
doors broken down "a coups de crosse" and the grey officers bursting
in with revolvers, and finding her there before them, in the big
vaulted vestibule, "alone with my old men and my Sisters." Soeur
Gabrielle Rosnet is a small round active woman, with a shrewd and
ruddy face of the type that looks out calmly from the dark
background of certain Flemish pictures. Her blue eyes are full of
warmth and humour, and she puts as much gaiety as wrath into her
tale. She does not spare epithets in talking of "ces satanes
Allemands"--these Sisters and nurses of the front have seen sights
to dry up the last drop of sentimental pity--but through all the
horror of those fierce September days, with Clermont blazing about
her and the helpless remnant of its inhabitants under the perpetual
threat of massacre, she retained her sense of the little inevitable
absurdities of life, such as her not knowing how to address the
officer in command "because he was so tall that I couldn't see up to
his shoulder-straps."--"Et ils etaient tous comme ca," she added, a
sort of reluctant admiration in her eyes.

A subordinate "good Sister" had just cleared the table and poured
out our coffee when a woman came in to say, in a matter-of-fact
tone, that there was hard fighting going on across the valley. She
added calmly, as she dipped our plates into a tub, that an obus had
just fallen a mile or two off, and that if we liked we could see the
fighting from a garden over the way. It did not take us long to
reach that garden! Soeur Gabrielle showed the way, bouncing up the
stairs of a house across the street, and flying at her heels we came
out on a grassy terrace full of soldiers.

The cannon were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that
it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside
that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass,
and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was
suddenly brought close to us--the rush of French infantry up the
slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high
up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightnings and white
puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering
guns, as the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued
wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having
stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.

Though Soeur Rosnet had seen too many such sights to be much moved,
she was full of a lively curiosity, and stood beside us, squarely
planted in the mud, holding the field-glass to her eyes, or passing
it laughingly about among the soldiers. But as we turned to go she
said: "They've sent us word to be ready for another four hundred
to-night"; and the twinkle died out of her good eyes.

Her expectations were to be dreadfully surpassed; for, as we learned
a fortnight later from a three column _communique,_ the scene we had
assisted at was no less than the first act of the successful assault
on the high-perched village of Vauquois, a point of the first
importance to the Germans, since it masked their operations to the
north of Varennes and commanded the railway by which, since
September, they have been revictualling and reinforcing their army
in the Argonne. Vauquois had been taken by them at the end of
September and, thanks to its strong position on a rocky spur, had
been almost impregnably fortified; but the attack we looked on at
from the garden of Clermont, on Sunday, February 28th, carried the
victorious French troops to the top of the ridge, and made them
masters of a part of the village. Driven from it again that night,
they were to retake it after a five days' struggle of exceptional
violence and prodigal heroism, and are now securely established
there in a position described as "of vital importance to the
operations." "But what it cost!" Soeur Gabrielle said, when we saw
her again a few days later.

II


The time had come to remember our promise and hurry away from
Clermont; but a few miles farther our attention was arrested by the
sight of the Red Cross over a village house. The house was little
more than a hovel, the village--Blercourt it was called--a mere
hamlet of scattered cottages and cow-stables: a place so easily
overlooked that it seemed likely our supplies might be needed there.

An orderly went to find the _medecin-chef_, and we waded after him
through the mud to one after another of the cottages in which, with
admirable ingenuity, he had managed to create out of next to nothing
the indispensable requirements of a second-line ambulance:
sterilizing and disinfecting appliances, a bandage-room, a pharmacy,
a well-filled wood-shed, and a clean kitchen in which "tisanes" were
brewing over a cheerful fire. A detachment of cavalry was quartered
in the village, which the trampling of hoofs had turned into a great
morass, and as we picked our way from cottage to cottage in the
doctor's wake he told us of the expedients to which he had been put
to secure even the few hovels into which his patients were crowded.
It was a complaint we were often to hear repeated along this line of
the front, where troops and wounded are packed in thousands into
villages meant to house four or five hundred; and we admired the
skill and devotion with which he had dealt with the difficulty, and
managed to lodge his patients decently.

We came back to the high-road, and he asked us if we should like to
see the church. It was about three o'clock, and in the low porch the
cure was ringing the bell for vespers. We pushed open the inner
doors and went in. The church was without aisles, and down the nave
stood four rows of wooden cots with brown blankets. In almost every
one lay a soldier--the doctor's "worst cases"--few of them wounded,
the greater number stricken with fever, bronchitis, frost-bite,
pleurisy, or some other form of trench-sickness too severe to permit
of their being carried farther from the front. One or two heads
turned on the pillows as we entered, but for the most part the men
did not move.

The cure, meanwhile, passing around to the sacristy, had come out
before the altar in his vestments, followed by a little white
acolyte. A handful of women, probably the only "civil" inhabitants
left, and some of the soldiers we had seen about the village, had
entered the church and stood together between the rows of cots; and
the service began. It was a sunless afternoon, and the picture was
all in monastic shades of black and white and ashen grey: the sick
under their earth-coloured blankets, their livid faces against the
pillows, the black dresses of the women (they seemed all to be in
mourning) and the silver haze floating out from the little acolyte's
censer. The only light in the scene--the candle-gleams on the altar,
and their reflection in the embroideries of the cure's
chasuble--were like a faint streak of sunset on the winter dusk.

For a while the long Latin cadences sounded on through the church;
but presently the cure took up in French the Canticle of the Sacred
Heart, composed during the war of 1870, and the little congregation
joined their trembling voices in the refrain:

"_Sauvez, sauvez la France,
Ne l'abandonnez pas!_"

The reiterated appeal rose in a sob above the rows of bodies in the
nave: "_Sauvez, sauvez la France_," the women wailed it near the
altar, the soldiers took it up from the door in stronger tones; but
the bodies in the cots never stirred, and more and more, as the day
faded, the church looked like a quiet grave-yard in a battle-field.

After we had left Sainte Menehould the sense of the nearness and
all-pervadingness of the war became even more vivid. Every road
branching away to our left was a finger touching a red wound:
Varennes, le Four de Paris, le Bois de la Grurie, were not more than
eight or ten miles to the north. Along our own road the stream of
motor-vans and the trains of ammunition grew longer and more
frequent. Once we passed a long line of "Seventy-fives" going single
file up a hillside, farther on we watched a big detachment of
artillery galloping across a stretch of open country. The movement
of supplies was continuous, and every village through which we
passed swarmed with soldiers busy loading or unloading the big vans,
or clustered about the commissariat motors while hams and quarters
of beef were handed out. As we approached Verdun the cannonade had
grown louder again; and when we reached the walls of the town and
passed under the iron teeth of the portcullis we felt ourselves in
one of the last outposts of a mighty line of defense. The desolation
of Verdun is as impressive as the feverish activity of
Chalons. The civil population was evacuated in September, and
only a small percentage have returned. Nine-tenths of the shops are
closed, and as the troops are nearly all in the trenches there is
hardly any movement in the streets.

The first duty of the traveller who has successfully passed the
challenge of the sentinel at the gates is to climb the steep hill to
the citadel at the top of the town. Here the military authorities
inspect one's papers, and deliver a "permis de sejour" which must be
verified by the police before lodgings can be obtained. We found the
principal hotel much less crowded than the Haute Mere-Dieu at
Chalons, though many of the officers of the garrison mess
there. The whole atmosphere of the place was different: silent,
concentrated, passive. To the chance observer, Verdun appears to
live only in its hospitals; and of these there are fourteen within
the walls alone. As darkness fell, the streets became completely
deserted, and the cannonade seemed to grow nearer and more
incessant. That first night the hush was so intense that every
reverberation from the dark hills beyond the walls brought out in
the mind its separate vision of destruction; and then, just as the
strained imagination could bear no more, the thunder ceased. A
moment later, in a court below my windows, a pigeon began to coo;
and all night long the two sounds strangely alternated...

On entering the gates, the first sight to attract us had been a
colony of roughly-built bungalows scattered over the miry slopes of
a little park adjoining the railway station, and surmounted by the
sign: "Evacuation Hospital No. 6." The next morning we went to visit
it. A part of the station buildings has been adapted to hospital
use, and among them a great roofless hall, which the surgeon in
charge has covered in with canvas and divided down its length into a
double row of tents. Each tent contains two wooden cots,
scrupulously clean and raised high above the floor; and the immense
ward is warmed by a row of stoves down the central passage. In the
bungalows across the road are beds for the patients who are to be
kept for a time before being transferred to the hospitals in the
town. In one bungalow an operating-room has been installed, in
another are the bathing arrangements for the newcomers from the
trenches. Every possible device for the relief of the wounded has
been carefully thought out and intelligently applied by the surgeon
in charge and the _infirmiere major_ who indefatigably seconds him.
Evacuation Hospital No. 6 sprang up in an hour, almost, on the
dreadful August day when four thousand wounded lay on stretchers
between the railway station and the gate of the little park across
the way; and it has gradually grown into the model of what such a
hospital may become in skilful and devoted hands.

Verdun has other excellent hospitals for the care of the severely
wounded who cannot be sent farther from the front. Among them St.
Nicolas, in a big airy building on the Meuse, is an example of a
great French Military Hospital at its best; but I visited few
others, for the main object of my journey was to get to some of the
second-line ambulances beyond the town. The first we went to was in
a small village to the north of Verdun, not far from the enemy's
lines at Cosenvoye, and was fairly representative of all the others.
The dreary muddy village was crammed with troops, and the ambulance
had been installed at haphazard in such houses as the military
authorities could spare. The arrangements were primitive but clean,
and even the dentist had set up his apparatus in one of the rooms.
The men lay on mattresses or in wooden cots, and the rooms were
heated by stoves. The great need, here as everywhere, was for
blankets and clean underclothing; for the wounded are brought in
from the front encrusted with frozen mud, and usually without having
washed or changed for weeks. There are no women nurses in these
second-line ambulances, but all the army doctors we saw seemed
intelligent, and anxious to do the best they could for their men in
conditions of unusual hardship. The principal obstacle in their way
is the over-crowded state of the villages. Thousands of soldiers are
camped in all of them, in hygienic conditions that would be bad
enough for men in health; and there is also a great need for light
diet, since the hospital commissariat of the front apparently
supplies no invalid foods, and men burning with fever have to be fed
on meat and vegetables.

In the afternoon we started out again in a snow-storm, over a
desolate rolling country to the south of Verdun. The wind blew
fiercely across the whitened slopes, and no one was in sight but the
sentries marching up and down the railway lines, and an occasional
cavalryman patrolling the lonely road. Nothing can exceed the
mournfulness of this depopulated land: we might have been wandering
over the wilds of Poland. We ran some twenty miles down the
steel-grey Meuse to a village about four miles west of Les Eparges,
the spot where, for weeks past, a desperate struggle had been going
on. There must have been a lull in the fighting that day, for the
cannon had ceased; but the scene at the point where we left the
motor gave us the sense of being on the very edge of the conflict.
The long straggling village lay on the river, and the trampling of
cavalry and the hauling of guns had turned the land about it into a
mud-flat. Before the primitive cottage where the doctor's office had
been installed were the motors of the surgeon and the medical
inspector who had accompanied us. Near by stood the usual flock of
grey motor-vans, and all about was the coming and going of cavalry
remounts, the riding up of officers, the unloading of supplies, the
incessant activity of mud-splashed sergeants and men.

The main ambulance was in a grange, of which the two stories had
been partitioned off into wards. Under the cobwebby rafters the men
lay in rows on clean pallets, and big stoves made the rooms dry and
warm. But the great superiority of this ambulance was its nearness
to a canalboat which had been fitted up with hot douches. The boat
was spotlessly clean, and each cabin was shut off by a gay curtain
of red-flowered chintz. Those curtains must do almost as much as the
hot water to make over the _morale_ of the men: they were the most
comforting sight of the day.

Farther north, and on the other bank of the Meuse, lies another
large village which has been turned into a colony of eclopes.
Fifteen hundred sick or exhausted men are housed there--and there
are no hot douches or chintz curtains to cheer them! We were taken
first to the church, a large featureless building at the head of the
street. In the doorway our passage was obstructed by a mountain of
damp straw which a gang of hostler-soldiers were pitch-forking out
of the aisles. The interior of the church was dim and suffocating.
Between the pillars hung screens of plaited straw, forming little
enclosures in each of which about a dozen sick men lay on more
straw, without mattresses or blankets. No beds, no tables, no
chairs, no washing appliances--in their muddy clothes, as they come
from the front, they are bedded down on the stone floor like cattle
till they are well enough to go back to their job. It was a pitiful
contrast to the little church at Blercourt, with the altar lights
twinkling above the clean beds; and one wondered if even so near the
front, it had to be. "The African village, we call it," one of our
companions said with a laugh: but the African village has blue sky
over it, and a clear stream runs between its mud huts.

We had been told at Sainte Menehould that, for military reasons, we
must follow a more southerly direction on our return to
Chalons; and when we left Verdun we took the road to
Bar-le-Duc. It runs southwest over beautiful broken country,
untouched by war except for the fact that its villages, like all the
others in this region, are either deserted or occupied by troops. As
we left Verdun behind us the sound of the cannon grew fainter and
died out, and we had the feeling that we were gradually passing
beyond the flaming boundaries into a more normal world; but
suddenly, at a cross-road, a sign-post snatched us back to war: _St.
Mihiel_, 18 _Kilometres_. St. Mihiel, the danger-spot of the region,
the weak joint in the armour! There it lay, up that harmless-looking
bye-road, not much more than ten miles away--a ten minutes' dash
would have brought us into the thick of the grey coats and spiked
helmets! The shadow of that sign-post followed us for miles,
darkening the landscape like the shadow from a racing storm-cloud.

Bar-le-Duc seemed unaware of the cloud. The charming old town was in
its normal state of provincial apathy: few soldiers were about, and
here at last civilian life again predominated. After a few days on
the edge of the war, in that intermediate region under its solemn
spell, there is something strangely lowering to the mood in the
first sight of a busy unconscious community. One looks
instinctively, in the eyes of the passers by, for a reflection of
that other vision, and feels diminished by contact with people going
so indifferently about their business.

A little way beyond Bar-le-Duc we came on another phase of the
war-vision, for our route lay exactly in the track of the August
invasion, and between Bar-le-Duc and Vitry-le-Francois the high-road
is lined with ruined towns. The first we came to was Laimont, a
large village wiped out as if a cyclone had beheaded it; then comes
Revigny, a town of over two thousand inhabitants, less completely
levelled because its houses were more solidly built, but a spectacle
of more tragic desolation, with its wide streets winding between
scorched and contorted fragments of masonry, bits of shop-fronts,
handsome doorways, the colonnaded court of a public building. A few
miles farther lies the most piteous of the group: the village of
Heiltz-le-Maurupt, once pleasantly set in gardens and orchards, now
an ugly waste like the others, and with a little church so stripped
and wounded and dishonoured that it lies there by the roadside like
a human victim.

In this part of the country, which is one of many cross-roads, we
began to have unexpected difficulty in finding our way, for the
names and distances on the milestones have all been effaced, the
sign-posts thrown down and the enamelled _plaques_ on the houses at
the entrance to the villages removed. One report has it that this
precaution was taken by the inhabitants at the approach of the
invading army, another that the Germans themselves demolished the
sign-posts and plastered over the mile-stones in order to paint on
them misleading and encouraging distances. The result is extremely
bewildering, for, all the villages being either in ruins or
uninhabited, there is no one to question but the soldiers one meets,
and their answer is almost invariably "We don't know--we don't
belong here." One is in luck if one comes across a sentinel who
knows the name of the village he is guarding.

It was the strangest of sensations to find ourselves in a chartless
wilderness within sixty or seventy miles of Paris, and to wander, as
we did, for hours across a high heathery waste, with wide blue
distances to north and south, and in all the scene not a landmark by
means of which we could make a guess at our whereabouts. One of our
haphazard turns at last brought us into a muddy bye-road with long
lines of "Seventy-fives" ranged along its banks like grey ant-eaters
in some monstrous menagerie. A little farther on we came to a
bemired village swarming with artillery and cavalry, and found
ourselves in the thick of an encampment just on the move. It seems
improbable that we were meant to be there, for our arrival caused
such surprise that no sentry remembered to challenge us, and
obsequiously saluting _sous-officiers_ instantly cleared a way for
the motor. So, by a happy accident, we caught one more war-picture,
all of vehement movement, as we passed out of the zone of war.

We were still very distinctly in it on returning to Chalons,
which, if it had seemed packed on our previous visit, was now
quivering and cracking with fresh crowds. The stir about the
fountain, in the square before the Haute Mere-Dieu, was more
melodramatic than ever. Every one was in a hurry, every one booted
and mudsplashed, and spurred or sworded or despatch-bagged, or
somehow labelled as a member of the huge military beehive. The
privilege of telephoning and telegraphing being denied to civilians
in the war-zone, it was ominous to arrive at night-fall on such a
crowded scene, and we were not surprised to be told that there was
not a room left at the Haute Mere-Dieu, and that even the sofas in
the reading-room had been let for the night. At every other inn in
the town we met with the same answer; and finally we decided to ask
permission to go on as far as Epernay, about twelve miles off. At
Head-quarters we were told that our request could not be granted. No
motors are allowed to circulate after night-fall in the zone of war,
and the officer charged with the distribution of motor-permits
pointed out that, even if an exception were made in our favour, we
should probably be turned back by the first sentinel we met, only to
find ourselves unable to re-enter Chalons without another
permit! This alternative was so alarming that we began to think
ourselves relatively lucky to be on the right side of the gates; and
we went back to the Haute Mere-Dieu to squeeze into a crowded corner
of the restaurant for dinner. The hope that some one might have
suddenly left the hotel in the interval was not realized; but after
dinner we learned from the landlady that she had certain rooms
permanently reserved for the use of the Staff, and that, as these
rooms had not yet been called for that evening, we might possibly be
allowed to occupy them for the night.

At Chalons the Head-quarters are in the Prefecture, a coldly
handsome building of the eighteenth century, and there, in a
majestic stone vestibule, beneath the gilded ramp of a great festal
staircase, we waited in anxious suspense, among the orderlies and
_estafettes_, while our unusual request was considered. The result
of the deliberation, was an expression of regret: nothing could be
done for us, as officers might at any moment arrive from the General
Head-quarters and require the rooms. It was then past nine o'clock,
and bitterly cold--and we began to wonder. Finally the polite
officer who had been charged to dismiss us, moved to compassion at
our plight, offered to give us a _laissez-passer_ back to Paris. But
Paris was about a hundred and twenty-five miles off, the night was
dark, the cold was piercing--and at every cross-road and railway
crossing a sentinel would have to be convinced of our right to go
farther. We remembered the warning given us earlier in the evening,
and, declining the offer, went out again into the cold. And just
then chance took pity on us. In the restaurant we had run across a
friend attached to the Staff, and now, meeting him again in the
depth of our difficulty, we were told of lodgings to be found near
by. He could not take us there, for it was past the hour when he had
a right to be out, or we either, for that matter, since curfew
sounds at nine at Chalons. But he told us how to find our way
through the maze of little unlit streets about the Cathedral;
standing there beside the motor, in the icy darkness of the deserted
square, and whispering hastily, as he turned to leave us: "You ought
not to be out so late; but the word tonight is _Jena_. When you give
it to the chauffeur, be sure no sentinel overhears you." With that
he was up the wide steps, the glass doors had closed on him, and I
stood there in the pitch-black night, suddenly unable to believe
that I was I, or Chalons Chalons, or that a young man
who in Paris drops in to dine with me and talk over new books and
plays, had been whispering a password in my ear to carry me
unchallenged to a house a few streets away! The sense of unreality
produced by that one word was so overwhelming that for a blissful
moment the whole fabric of what I had been experiencing, the whole
huge and oppressive and unescapable fact of the war, slipped away
like a torn cobweb, and I seemed to see behind it the reassuring
face of things as they used to be.

The next morning dispelled that vision. We woke to a noise of guns
closer and more incessant than even the first night's cannonade at
Verdun; and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if,
overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground. Waylaid at one
corner after another by the long tide of troops streaming out
through the town to the northern suburbs, we saw in turn all the
various divisions of the unfolding frieze: first the infantry and
artillery, the sappers and miners, the endless trains of guns and
ammunition, then the long line of grey supply-waggons, and finally
the stretcher-bearers following the Red Cross ambulances. All the
story of a day's warfare was written in the spectacle of that
endless silent flow to the front: and we were to read it again, a
few days later, in the terse announcement of "renewed activity"
about Suippes, and of the bloody strip of ground gained between
Perthes and Beausejour.

Edith Wharton

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