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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsPaths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 10. In the Trenches Before Rheims
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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 10. In the Trenches Before Rheims Post by :Truman Category :Nonfictions Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :May 2012 Read :3257

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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 10. In the Trenches Before Rheims

After my balloon-riding experience what followed was in the nature of an anticlimax--was bound to be anti-climactic. Yet the remainder of the afternoon was not without action. Not an hour later, as we stood in a battery of small field guns--guns I had watched in operation from my lofty gallery seat--another flyer, or possibly the same one we had already seen, appeared in the sky, coming now in a long swinging sweep from the southwest, and making apparently for the very spot where our party had stationed itself to watch the trim little battery perform.

It had already dropped some form of deadly souvenir we judged, for we saw a jet of black smoke go geysering up from a woodland where a German corps commander had his field headquarters, just after the airship passed over that particular patch of timber. As it swirled down the wind in our direction the vigilant balloon guns again got its range, and, to the throbbing tune of their twin boomings, it ducked and dodged away, executing irregular and hurried upward spirals until the cloud-fleece swallowed it up.

The driver of that monoplane was a persistent chap. I am inclined to believe he was the selfsame aviator who ventured well inside the German lines the following morning. While at breakfast in the prefecture at Laon we heard the cannoneer-sharpshooters when they opened on him; and as we ran to the windows--we Americans, I mean, the German officers breakfasting with us remaining to finish their coffee--we saw a colonel, whom we had met the night before, sitting on a bench in the old prefecture flower garden and looking up into the skies through the glasses that every German officer, of whatsoever degree, carries with him at all times.

He looked and looked; then he lowered his glasses and put them back into their case, and took up the book he had been reading.

"He got away again," said the colonel regretfully, seeing us at the window. "Plucky fellow, that! I hope we kill him soon. The airmen say he is a Frenchman, but my guess is that he is English." And then he went on reading.

Getting back to the afternoon before, I must add that it was not a bomb which the flying man threw into the edge of the woods. He had a surprise for his German adversaries that day. Soon after we left the stand of the field guns a civilian Red Cross man halted our machines to show us a new device for killing men. It was a steel dart, of the length and thickness of a fountain pen, and of much the same aspect. It was pointed like a needle at one end, and at the other was fashioned into a tiny rudder arrangement, the purpose of this being to hold it upright---point downward--as it descended. It was an innocent-looking device--that dart; but it was deadlier than it seemed.

"That flyer at whom our guns were firing a while ago dropped this," explained the civilian. "He pitched out a bomb that must have contained hundreds of these darts; and the bomb was timed to explode a thousand or more feet above the earth and scatter the darts. Some of them fell into a cavalry troop on the road leading to La Fere.

"Hurt anyone? Ach, but yes! Hurt many and killed several--both men and horses. One dart hit a trooper on top of his head. It went through his helmet, through his skull, his brain, his neck, his body, his leg--all the way through him lengthwise it went. It came out of his leg, split open his horse's flank, and stuck in the hard road.

"I myself saw the man afterward. He died so quickly that his hand still held his bridle rein after he fell from the saddle; and the horse dragged him--his corpse, rather--many feet before the fingers relaxed."

The officers who were with us were tremendously interested--not interested, mind you, in the death of that trooper, spitted from the heavens by a steel pencil, but interested in the thing that had done the work. It was the first dart they had seen. Indeed, I think until then this weapon had not been used against the Germans in this particular area of the western theater of war. These officers passed it about, fingering it in turn, and commenting on the design of it and the possibilities of its use.

"Typically French," the senior of them said at length, handing it back to its owner, the Red Cross man--"a very clever idea too; but it might be bettered, I think." He pondered a moment, then added, with the racial complacence that belongs to a German military man when he considers military matters: "No doubt we shall adopt the notion; but we'll improve on the pattern and the method of discharging it. The French usually lead the way in aerial inventions, but the Germans invariably perfect them."

The day wound up and rounded out most fittingly with a trip eastward along the lines to the German siege investments in front of Rheims. We ran for a while through damaged French hamlets, each with its soldier garrison to make up for the inhabitants who had fled; and then, a little later, through a less well-populated district. In the fields, for long stretches, nothing stirred except pheasants, feeding on the neglected grain, and big, noisy magpies. The roads were empty, too, except that there were wrecked shells of automobiles and bloated carcasses of dead troop horses. When the Germans, in their campaigning, smash up an automobile--and traveling at the rate they do there must be many smashed--they capsize it at the roadside, strip it of its tires, draw off the precious gasoline, pour oil over it and touch a match to it. What remains offers no salvage to friend, or enemy either.

The horses rot where they drop unless the country people choose to put the bodies underground. We counted the charred cadavers of fifteen automobiles and twice as many dead horses during that ride. The smell of horseflesh spoiled the good air. When passing through a wood the smell was always heavier. We hoped it was only dead horses we smelled there.

When there has been fighting in France or Belgium, almost any thicket will give up hideous grisly secrets to the man who goes searching there. Men sorely wounded in the open share one trait at least with the lower animals. The dying creature--whether man or beast--dreads to lie and die in the naked field. It drags itself in among the trees if it has the strength.

I believe every woodland in northern France was a poison place, and remained so until the freezing of winter sealed up its abominations under ice and frost.

Nearing Rheims we turned into a splendid straight highway bordered by trees, where the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the dead leaves, which still hung from the boughs and dappled the yellow road with black splotches, until it made you think of jaguar pelts. Midway of our course here we met troops moving toward us in force. First, as usual, came scouts on bicycles and motorcycles. One young chap had woven sheaves of dahlias and red peonies into the frame of his wheel, and through the clump of quivering blossoms the barrel of his rifle showed, like a black snake in a bouquet. He told us that troops were coming behind, going to the extreme right wing--a good many thousands of troops, he thought. Ordinarily Uhlans would have followed behind the bicycle men, but this time a regiment of Brunswick Hussars formed the advance guard, riding four abreast and making a fine show, what with their laced gray jackets and their lanes of nodding lances, and their tall woolly busbies, each with its grinning brass death's-head set into the front of it.

There was a blithe young officer who insisted on wheeling out of the line and halting us, and passing the time of day with us. I imagine he wanted to exercise his small stock of English words. Well, it needed the exercise. The skull-and-bones poison label on his cap made a wondrous contrast with the smiling eyes and the long, humorous, wrinkled-up nose below it.

"A miserable country," he said, with a sweep of his arm which comprehended all Northwestern Europe, from the German border to the sea --"so little there is to eat! My belly--she is mostly empty always. But on the yesterday I have the much great fortune. I buy me a swine--what you call him?--a pork? Ah, yes; a pig. I buy me a pig. He is a living pig; very noisy, as you say--very loud. I bring him twenty kilometers in an automobile, and all the time he struggle to be free; and he cry out all the time. It is very droll--not?--me and the living pig, which ride, both together, twenty kilometers!"

We took some letters from him to his mother and sweetheart, to be mailed when we got back on German soil; and he spurred on, beaming back at us and waving his free hand over his head.

For half an hour or so, we, traveling rapidly, passed the column, which was made up of cavalry, artillery and baggage trains. I suppose the infantry was going by another road. The dragoons sang German marching songs as they rode by, but the artillerymen were dour and silent lot for the most part. Repeatedly I noticed that the men who worked the big German guns were rarely so cheerful as the men who belonged to the other wings of the service; certainly it was true in this instance.

We halted two miles north of Rheims in the front line of the German works. Here was a little shattered village; its name, I believe, was Brimont. And here, also, commanding the road, stood a ruined fortress of an obsolete last-century pattern. Shellfire had battered it into a gruel of shattered red masonry; but German officers were camped within its more habitable parts, and light guns were mounted in the moat.

The trees thereabout had been mowed down by the French artillery from within the city, so that the highway was littered with their tops. Also, the explosives had dug big gouges in the earth. Wherever you looked you saw that the soil was full of small, raggedy craters. Shrapnel was dropping intermittently in the vicinity; therefore we left our cars behind the shelter of the ancient fort and proceeded cautiously afoot until we reached the frontmost trenches.

Evidently the Germans counted on staying there a good while. The men had dug out caves in the walls of the trenches, bedding them with straw and fitting them with doors taken from the wreckage of the houses of the village. We inspected one of these shelters. It had earthen walls and a sod roof, fairly water-tight, and a green window shutter to rest against the entrance for a windbreak. Six men slept here, and the wag of the squad had taken chalk and lettered the words "Kaiserhof Cafe" on the shutter.

The trenches were from seven to eight feet deep; but by climbing up into the little scarps of the sharpshooters and resting our elbows in niches in the earth, meantime keeping our heads down to escape the attentions of certain Frenchmen who were reported to be in a wood half a mile away, we could, with the aid of our glasses, make out the buildings in Rheims, some of which were then on fire--particularly the great Cathedral.

Viewed from that distance it did not appear to be badly damaged. One of the towers had apparently been shorn away and the roof of the nave was burned--we could tell that. We were too far away of course to judge of the injury to the carvings and to the great rose window.

Already during that week, from many sources, we had heard the Germans' version of the shelling of Rheims Cathedral, their claim being that they purposely spared the pile from the bombardment until they found the defenders had signal men in the towers; that twice they sent officers, under flags of truce, to urge the French to withdraw their signalers; and only fired on the building when both these warnings had been disregarded, ceasing to fire as soon as they had driven the enemy from the towers.

I do not vouch for this story; but we heard it very frequently. Now, from one of the young officers who had escorted us into the trench, we were hearing it all over again, with elaborations, when a shrapnel shell from the town dropped and burst not far behind us, and rifle bullets began to plump into the earthen bank a little to the right of us; so we promptly went away from there.

We were noncombatants and nowise concerned in the existing controversy; but we remembered the plaintive words of the Chinese Minister at Brussels when he called on our Minister--Brand Whitlock--to ascertain what Whitlock would advise doing in case the advancing Germans fired on the city. Whitlock suggested to his Oriental brother that he retire to his official residence and hoist the flag of his country over it, thereby making it neutral and protected territory.

"But, Mister Whitlock," murmured the puzzled Chinaman, "the cannon--he has no eyes!"

We rode back to Laon through the falling dusk. The western sky was all a deep saffron pink--the color of a salmon's belly--and we could hear the constant blaspheming of the big siege guns, taking up the evening cannonade along the center. Pretty soon we caught up with the column that was headed for the right wing. At that hour it was still in motion, which probably meant forced marching for an indefinite time. Viewed against the sunset yellow, the figures of the dragoons stood up black and clean, as conventionalized and regular as though they had all been stenciled on that background. Seeing next the round, spiked helmets of the cannoneers outlined in that weird half-light, I knew of what those bobbing heads reminded me. They were like pictures of Roman centurions.

Within a few minutes the afterglow lost its yellowish tone and burned as a deep red flare. As we swung off into a side road the columns were headed right into that redness, and turning to black cinder-shapes as they rode. It was as though they marched into a fiery furnace, treading the crimson paths of glory--which are not glorious and probably never were, but which lead most unerringly to the grave.

A week later, when we learned what had happened on the right wing, and of how the Germans had fared there under the battering of the Allies, the thought of that open furnace door came back to me. I think of it yet-often.

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