Frederick Palmer.

My Year of the War Including an Account of Experiences with the Troops in France and the Record of a Visit to the Grand Fleet Which is Here Given for the First Time in its Complete Form online

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own eyes and not written reports. Other passes I have had since,
which gave me the run of trenches and shell-fire areas; but this pass
opened the first door to the war. That day we ran by Meaux and
Château Thierry to Soissons and back by Senlis to Paris. We saw a
finger's breadth of battle area; a pin-point of army front. Only a ride
along a broad, fine road out of Paris, at first; a road which our cars
had all to themselves. Then at Claye we came to the high-water mark
of the German invasion in this region. Thus close to Paris in that
direction and no closer had the Germans come.

There was the field where their skirmishers had turned back. Farther
on, the branches of the avenue of trees which shaded the road had
been slashed as if by a whirlwind of knives, where the French
soixante-quinze field-guns had found a target. Under that sudden
bath of projectiles, with the French infantry pressing forward on their
front, the German gunners could not wait to take away the cord of
five-inch shells which they had piled to blaze their way to Paris. One
guessed their haste and their irritation. They were within range of the
fortifications; within two hours' march of the suburbs; of the Mecca of
forty years' preparation. After all that march from Belgium, with no
break in the programme of success, the thunders broke and lightning
flashed out of the sky as Manoury's army rushed upon von Kluck's
flank.

"It was not the way that they wanted us to get the shells," said a
French peasant who was taking one of the shell-baskets for a
souvenir. It would make an excellent umbrella stand.

For the French it had been the turn of the tide; for that little British
army which had fought its way back from Mons it was the sweet
dream, which had kept men up on the retreat, come true. Weary
Germans, after a fearful two weeks of effort, became the driven.
Weary British and French turned drivers. A hypodermic of victory
renewed their energy. Paris was at their back and the German backs
in front. They were no longer leaving their dead and wounded behind
to the foe; they were sweeping past the dead and wounded of the
foe.

But their happiness, that of a winning action, exalted and passionate,
had not the depths of that of the refugees who had fled before the
German hosts and were returning to their homes in the wake of their
victorious army. We passed farmers with children perched on top of
carts laden with household goods and drawn by broad-backed farm-
horses, with usually another horse or a milch cow tied behind. The
real power of France, these peasants holding fast to the acres they
own, with the fire of the French nature under their thrifty
conservatism. Others on foot were villagers who had lacked horses
or carts to transport their belongings. In the packs on their backs
were a few precious things which they had borne away and were now
bearing back.

Soon they would know what the Germans had done to the homes.
What the Germans had done to one piano was evident. It stood in the
yard of a house where grass and flowers had been trodden by horses
and men. In the sport of victory the piano had been dragged out of
the little drawing-room, while Fritz and Hans played and sang in the
intoxication of a Paris gained, a France in submission. They did not
know what Joffre had in pickle for them. It had all gone according to
programme up to that moment. Nothing can stop us Germans!
Champagne instead of beer! Set the glass on top of the piano and
sing! Haven't we waited forty years for this day?

Captured diaries of German officers, which reflect the seventh
heaven of elation suddenly turned into grim depression, taken in
connection with what one saw on the battlefield, reconstruct the
scene around that piano. The cup to the lips; then dashed away. How
those orders to retreat must have hurt!

The state of the refugees' homes all depended upon the chances of
war. War's lightning might have hit your roof-tree and it might not. It
plays no favourites between the honest and the dishonest; the thrifty
and the shiftless. We passed villages which exhibited no signs of
destruction or of looting. German troops had marched through in the
advance and in the retreat without being billeted. A hurrying army with
another on its heels has no time for looting. Other villages had been
points of topical importance; they had been in the midst of a fight.
General Mauvaise Chance had it in for them. Shells had wrecked
some houses; others were burned. Where a German non-commissioned
officer came to the door of a French family and said that room must
be made for German soldiers in that house and if anyone dared to
interfere with them he would be shot, there the exhausted human
nature of a people trained to think that "Krieg ist Krieg" and that the
spoils of war are to the victor had its way.

It takes generations to lift a man up a single degree; but so swift is the
effect of war, when men live a year in a day, that he is demonized in a
month. Before the occupants had to go, often windows were broken,
crockery smashed, closets and drawers rifled. The soldiery which
could not have its Paris "took it out" of the property of their hosts.
Looting, destruction, one can forgive in the orgy of war which is
organized destruction; one can even understand rapine and atrocities
when armies, which include latent vile and criminal elements, are
aroused to the kind of insane passion which war kindles in human
beings. But some indecencies one could not understand in civilized
men. All with a military purpose, it is said; for in the nice calculations
of a staff system which grinds so very fine, nothing must be excluded
that will embarrass the enemy. A certain foully disgusting practice
was too common not to have had the approval of at least some
officers, whose conduct in several châteaux includes them as
accomplices. Not all officers, not all soldiers. That there should be a
few is enough to sicken you of belonging to the human species.
Nothing worse in Central America; nothing worse where civilized
degeneracy disgraces savagery.

But do not think that destruction for destruction's sake was done in all
houses where German soldiers were billeted. If the good principle
was not sufficiently impressed, Belgium must have impressed it; a
looting army is a disorderly army. The soldier has burden enough to
carry in heavy marching order without souvenirs. That collector of the
stoppers of carafes who had thirty on his person when taken prisoner
was bound to be a laggard in the retreat.

To their surprise and relief, returning farmers found their big, conical
haystacks untouched, though nothing could be more tempting to the
wantonness of an army on enemy soil. Strike a match and up goes
the harvest! Perhaps the Germans as they advanced had in mind to
save the forage for their own horses, and either they were running too
fast to stop or the staff overlooked the detail on the retreat.

It was amazing how few signs of battle there were in the open.
Occasionally one saw the hastily-made shelter-trenches of a skirmish
line; and again, the emplacements for batteries - hurried field-
emplacements, so puny beside those of trench warfare. It had been
open fighting; the tide of an army sweeping forward and then,
pursued, sweeping back. One side was trying to get away; the other
to overtake. Here, a rearguard made a determined action which
would have had the character of a battle in other days; there, a
rearguard was pinched as the French or the British got around it.

Swift marching and quick manœuvres of the type which gave war
some of its old sport and zest; the advance all the while gathering
force like the neap tide! Crowds of men hurrying across a harvested
wheatfield or a pasture after all leave few marks of passage. A day's
rain will wash away bloodstains and liven trampled vegetation. Nature
hastens with a kind of contempt of man to repair the damage done by
his murderous wrath.

The cyclone past, the people turned out to put things in order.
Peasants too old to fight, who had paid the taxes which paid for the
rifles and guns and shell-fire, were moving across the fields with
spades, burying the bodies of the young men and the horses that
were war's victims. Long trenches full of dead told where the eddy of
battle had been fierce and the casualties numerous; scattered
mounds of fresh earth where they were light; and, sometimes, when
the burying was unfinished - well, one draws the curtain over scenes
like that in the woods at Betz, where Frenchmen died knowing that
Paris was saved and Germans died knowing that they had failed to
take Paris.

Whenever we halted our statesman, M. Doumer, was active. Did we
have difficulties over a culvert which had been hastily mended, he
was out of the car and in command. Always he was meeting some
man whom he knew and shaking hands like a senator at home. At
one place a private soldier, a man of education by his speech, came
running across the street at sight of him.

"Son of an old friend of mine, from my town," said our statesman.
Being a French private meant being any kind of a Frenchman. All
inequalities are levelled in the ranks of a great conscript army.

Be it through towns unharmed or towns that had been looted and
shelled, the people had the smile of victory, the look of victory in their
eyes. Children and old men and women, the stay-at-homes, waved to
our car in holiday spirit. The laugh of a sturdy young woman who
threw some flowers into the tonneau as we passed, in her tribute to
the uniform of the army that had saved France, had the spirit of
victorious France - France after forty years' waiting throwing back a
foe that had two soldiers to every one of hers. All the land, rich fields
and neat gardens and green stretches of woods in the fair, rolling
landscape, basked in victory. Dead the spirit of anyone who could
not, for the time being, catch the infection of it and feel himself a
Frenchman. Far from the Paris of gay show for the tourist one
seemed; in the midst of the France of the farms and the villages
which had saved Paris and France.

The car sped on over the hard road. Staff officers in other cars whom
we passed alone suggested that there was war somewhere ahead.
Were we never going to reach the battle-line, the magnet of our
speed when a French army chauffeur made all speed laws obsolete?

Shooting out of a grove, a valley made a channel for sound that
brought to our ears the thunder of guns, with firing so rapid that it was
like the roll of some cyclopean snare-drum beaten with sticks the size
of ship-masts. From the crest of the next hill we had a glimpse of an
open sweep of park-like country toward wooded hills. As far as we
could see against the background of the foliage which threw it into
relief was a continuous cloud of smoke from bursting shells, renewed
with fresh, soft, blue puffs as fast as it was dissipated.

This, then, was a battle. No soldiers, no guns, in sight; only against
masses of autumn green a diaphanous, man-made nimbus which
was raining steel hail. Ten miles of this, one would say; and under it
lines of men in blue coats and red trousers and green uniforms
hugging the earth, as unseen as a battalion of ants at work in the tall
grass. Even if a charge swept across a field one would have been
able to detect nothing except moving pin-points on a carpet.

There was hard fighting; a lot of French and German were being
killed in the direction of Compiègne and Noyon to-day. Another dip
into another valley and the thir-r-r of a rapid-firer and the muffled
firing of a line of infantry were audible. Yes, we were getting up
with the army, with one tiny section of it operating along the road on
which we were. Multiply this by a thousand and you have the whole.

Ahead was the army's larder on wheels; a procession of big motor
transport trucks keeping their intervals of distance with the precision
of a battleship fleet at sea. We should have known that they belonged
to the army by the deafness of the drivers to appeals to let us pass.
All army transports are like that. What the deuced right has anybody
to pass? They are the transport, and only fighting men belong in front
of them. Our car in trying to go by to one side got stuck in a rut that
an American car, built for bad roads, would have made nothing of;
which proves again how closely European armies are tied to their fine
highways. We got out, and here again was our statesman putting his
shoulder to the wheel. That is the way of the French in war.
Everybody tries to help. By this time the transport chauffeurs
remembered that they also were Frenchmen; and as Frenchmen are
polite even in time of war, they let us by.

A motor-cyclist approached with his hand up.

"Stop here!" he called.

Those transport chauffeurs who were deaf to ex-premiers heard
instantly and obeyed. In front of them was a line of single horse-
drawn carts, with an extra horse in the rear. They could take paths
that the motor trucks could not. Archaic they seemed, yet friendly, as
a relic of how armies were fed in other days. For the first time I was
realizing what the motor truck means to war. It brings the army
impedimenta close up to the army's rear; it means a reduction of road
space occupied by transport by three-quarters; ease in keeping pace
with food with the advance, speed in falling back in case of retreat.

All that day I did not see a single piece of French army transport
broken down. And this army had been fighting for weeks; it had been
an army on the road. The valuable part of our experience was exactly
in this: a glimpse of an army in action after it had been through all the
vicissitudes that an army may have in marching and counter-
marching and attack. Order one expected afterwards, behind the
siege line of trenches, when there had been time to establish a
routine; organization and smooth organization you had here at the
climax of a month's strain. It told the story of the character of the
French army and the reasons for its success other than its courage.
The brains were not all with the German Staff.

That winding road, with a new picture at every turn, now revealed the
town of Soissons in the valley of the River Aisne. Soissons was ours,
we knew, since yesterday. How much farther had we gone? Was our
advance still continuing? For then, winter trench-fighting was
unforeseen and the sightseers thought of the French army as
following up success with success. Paris, rising from gloom to
optimism, hoped to see the Germans speedily put out of France. The
appetite for victory grew, after a week's bulletins which moved the
flags forward on the map every day.

Another turn and Soissons was hidden from view by a woodland.
Here we came upon what looked like a leisurely family party of
reserves. The French army, a small section of French army, along a
road! And thus, if one would see the whole it must be in bits along the
roads, when not on the firing-line. They were sprawling in the fields in
the genial afternoon sun, looking as if they had no concern except to
rest. Uniforms dusty and faces tanned and bearded told their story of
the last month.

The duty of a portion of a force is always to wait on what is being
done by the others at the front. These were waiting near a fork which
could take them to the right or the left, as the situation demanded. At
the rear, their supply of small arms ammunition; in front, caissons of
shells for a battery speaking from the woods near by; a troop of
cavalry drawn up, the men dismounted, ready; and ahead of them
more reserves ready; everything ready.

This was where the general wanted the body of men and equipment
to be, and here they were. There were no dragging ends in the rear,
so far as I could see; nobody complaining that food or ammunition
was not up; no aide looking for somebody who could not be found; no
excited staff officer rushing about shouting for somebody to look
sharp for somebody had made a mistake. The thing was unwarlike; it
was like a particularly well-thought-out route march. Yet at the word
that company of cavalry might be in the thick of it, at the point where
they were wanted; the infantry rushing to the support of the firing-line;
the motor transport facing around for withdrawal, if need be. It was
only a little way, indeed, into the zone of death from the rear of that
compact column. Thousands of such compact bodies on many
roads, each seemingly a force by itself and each a part of the whole,
which could be a dependable whole only when every part was ready,
alert, and where it belonged! Nothing can be left to chance in a battle-
line three hundred miles long. The general must know what to
depend on, mile by mile, in his plans. Millions of human units are
grouped in increasingly larger units, harmonized according to set
forms. The most complex of all machines is that of a vast army, which
yet must be kept most simple. No unit acts without regard to the
others; every one must know how to do its part. The parts of the
machine are standardized. One is like the other in training, uniform,
and every detail, so that one can replace another. Oldest of all trades
this of war; old experts the French. What one saw was like
manœuvres. It must be like manoeuvres or the army would not hold
together. Manœuvres are to teach armies coherence; war tries out
that coherence, which you may not have if someone does not know
just what to do; if he is uncertain in his rôle. Haste leads to confusion;
haste is only for supreme moments. In order to know how to hasten
when the hurry call comes, the mighty organism must move in its
routine with the smoothness of a well-rehearsed play.

Joffre and the others who directed the machine must know more than
the mechanics of staff-control. They must know the character of the
man-material in the machine. It was their duty as real Frenchmen to
understand Frenchmen, their verve, their restlessness for the
offensive, their individualism, their democratic intelligence, the value
of their elation, the drawback of their tendency to depression and to
think for themselves. Indeed, the leader must counteract the faults of
his people and make the most of their virtues.

Thus, we had a French army's historical part reversed: a French army
falling back and concentrating on the Marne to receive the enemy
blow. Equally alive to German racial traits, the German Staff had
organized in their mass offensive the élan which means fast
marching and hard blows. So, we found the supposedly excitable
French digging in to receive the onslaught of the supposedly
phlegmatic German. When the time came for the charge - ah, you can
always depend on a Frenchman to charge!

Those reserves were pawns on a chessboard. They appeared like it;
one thought that they realized it. Their individual intelligence
and democracy had reasoned out the value of obedience and
homogeneity, rather than accepted it as the dictum of any war lord.
Difficult to think that 'each one had left a vacancy at a family board;
difficult to think that all were not automatons in a process of endless
routine of war; but not difficult to learn that they were Frenchmen
once we had thrown our bombs in the midst of the group.

Of old, one knew the wants of soldiers. One needed no hint of what
was welcome at the front. Never at any front were there enough
newspapers or tobacco. Men smoke twice as much as usual in the
strain of waiting for action; men who do not use tobacco at all get the
habit. Ask the G.A.R. men who fought in our great war if this is not
true. Then, too, when your country is at war, when back at home
hands stretch out for every fresh edition and you at the front know
only what happens in your alley, think what a newspaper from Paris
means out on the battle-line seventy miles from Paris! So I had
brought a bundle of newspapers and many packets of cigarettes.

Monsieur, the sensation is beyond even the French language to
express - the sensation of sitting down by the roadside with this
morning's edition and the first cigarette for twenty-four hours.

"C'est épatant! C'est chic, ça! C'est magnifique! Alors, nom de Dieu!
Tiens! Hélas! Voilà! Merci, mille remerciments!" - it was an army of
Frenchmen with ready words, quick, telling gestures, pouring out their
volume of thanks as the car sped by and we tossed out our
newspapers at intervals, so that all should have a look.

An Echo de Paris that fell into the road was the centre of a flag-rush,
which included an officer. Most un-military - an officer scrambling at
the same time as his men! In the name of the Kaiser, what discipline!

Then the car stopped long enough for me to see a private give the
paper to his officer, who was plainly sensible of a loss of dignity, with
a courtesy which said, "A thousand pardons, mon capitaine!" and the
capitaine began reading the newspaper aloud to his men. Scores of
human touches which were French, republican, democratic!

With half our cigarettes gone, we fell in with some brown-skinned,
native African troops, the Mohammedan Turcos. Their white teeth
gleaming, their black eyes devilishly eager, they began climbing on to
the car. We gave them all the cigarettes in sight; but fortunately our
reserve supply was not visible, and an officer's sharp command
saved us from being invested by storm.

As we came into Soissons we left the reserves behind. They were
kept back out of range of the German shells, making the town a dead
space between them and the firing-line, which was beyond. When the
Germans retreated through the streets the French had taken care, as
it was their town, to keep their fire away from the cathedral and the
main square to the outskirts and along the river. Not so the German
guns when the French infantry passed through. Soissons was not a
German town.

We alighted from the car in a deserted street, with all the shutters of
shops that had not been torn down by shell-fire closed. Soissons was
as silent as the grave, within easy range of many enemy guns. War
seemed only for the time being in this valley bottom shut in from the
roar of artillery a few miles away, except for a French battery which
was firing methodically and slowly, its shells whizzing toward the ridge
back of the town.

The next thing that one wanted most was to go into that battery and
see the soixante-quinze and their skilful gunners. Our statesman said
that he would try to locate it. We thought that it was in the direction of
the river, that famous Aisne which has since given its name to the
longest siege-line in history; a small, winding stream in the bottom of
an irregular valley. Both bridges across it had been cut by the
Germans. If that battery were on the other side under cover of any
one of a score of blots of foliage we could not reach it. Another shot -
and we were not sure that the battery was not on the opposite side of
the town; a crack out of the landscape: this was modern artillery fire to
one who faced it. Apparently the guns of the battery were scattered,
according to the accepted practice, and from the central firing-station
word to fire was being passed first to one gun and then to another.

Beside the buttress of one bridge lay two still figures of Algerian
Zouaves. These were fresh dead, fallen in the taking of the town.
Only two men! There were dead by thousands which one might see
in other places. These two had leaped out from cover to dash forward
and bullets were waiting for them. They had rolled over on their
backs, their rigid hands still in the position of grasping their rifles
after the manner of crouching skirmishers.

Our statesman said that we had better give up trying to locate the
battery; and one of the officers called a halt to trying to go up to the
firing-line on the part of a personally-conducted party, after we
stopped a private hurrying back from the front on some errand. With
his alertness, the easy swing of his walk, his light step, and his
freedom of spirit and appearance, he typified the thing which the
French call élan. Whenever one asked a question of a French private
you could depend upon a direct answer. He knew or he did not know.
This definiteness, the result of military training as well as of Gallic
lucidity of thought, is not the least of the human factors in making an
efficient army, where every man and every unit must definitely know
his part. This young man, you realized, had tasted the "salt of life," as
Lord Kitchener calls it. He had heard the close sing of bullets; he had
known the intoxication of a charge.

"Does everything go well?" M. Doumer asked. "It is not going at all,



Online LibraryFrederick PalmerMy Year of the War Including an Account of Experiences with the Troops in France and the Record of a Visit to the Grand Fleet Which is Here Given for the First Time in its Complete Form → online text (page 3 of 28)