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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsPaths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 11. War de Luxe
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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 11. War de Luxe Post by :simkl Category :Nonfictions Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :May 2012 Read :819

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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 11. War de Luxe

"I think," said a colonel of the ordnance department as we came out into the open after a good but a hurried and fly-ridden breakfast--"I think," he said in his excellent Saxonized English, "that it would be as well to look at our telephone exchange first of all. It perhaps might prove of some small interest to you." With that he led the way through a jumble of corridors to a far corner of the Prefecture of Laon, perching high on the Hill of Laon and forming for the moment the keystone of the arch of the German center. So that was how the most crowded day in a reasonably well-crowded newspaperman's life began for me--with a visit to a room which had in other days been somebody's reception parlor. We came upon twelve soldier-operators sitting before portable switchboards with metal transmitters clamped upon their heads, giving and taking messages to and from all the corners and crannies of the mid-battle-front. This little room was the solar plexus of the army. To it all the tingling nerves of the mighty organism ran and in it all the ganglia centered. At two sides of the room the walls were laced with silk-covered wires appliqued as thickly and as closely and as intricately as the threads in old point lace, and over these wires the gray-coated operators could talk--and did talk pretty constantly--with all the trenches and all the batteries and all the supply camps and with the generals of brigades and of divisions and of corps.

One wire ran upstairs to the Over-General's sleeping quarters and ended, so we were told, in a receiver that hung upon the headboard of his bed. Another stretched, by relay points, to Berlin, and still another ran to the headquarters of the General Staff where the Kaiser was, somewhere down the right wing; and so on and so forth. If war is a business these times instead of a chivalric calling, then surely this was the main office and clearing house of the business.

To our novice eyes the wires seemed snarled--snarled inextricably, hopelessly, eternally--and we said as much, but the ordnance colonel said behind this apparent disorder a most careful and particular orderliness was hidden away. Given an hour's notice, these busy men who wore those steel vises clamped upon their ears could disconnect the lines, pull down and reel in the wires, pack the batteries and the exchanges, and have the entire outfit loaded upon automobiles for speedy transmission elsewhere. Having seen what I had seen of the German military system, I could not find it in my heart to doubt this. Miracles had already become commonplaces; what might have been epic once was incidental now. I hearkened and believed.

At his command a sergeant plugged in certain stops upon a keyboard and then when the Colonel, taking a hand telephone up from a table, had talked into it in German he passed it into my hands.

"The captain at the other end of the line knows English," he said. "I've just told him you wish to speak with him for a minute." I pressed the rubber disk to my ear. "Hello!" I said.

"Hello!" came back the thin-strained answer. "This is such and such a trench"--giving the number--"in front of Cerny. What do you want to know?"

"What's the news there?" I stammered fatuously.

A pleasant little laugh tinkled through the strainer.

"Oh, it's fairly quiet now," said the voice. "Yesterday afternoon shrapnel fire rather mussed us up, but to-day nothing has happened. We're just lying quiet and enjoying the fine weather. We've had much rain lately and my men are enjoying the change."

So that was all the talk I had with a man who had for weeks been living in a hole in the ground with a ditch for an exercise ground and the brilliant prospects of a violent death for his hourly and daily entertainment. Afterward when it was too late I thought of a number of leading questions which I should have put to that captain. Undoubtedly there was a good story in him could you get it out.

We came through a courtyard at the north side of the building, and the courtyard was crowded with automobiles of all the known European sizes and patterns and shapes--automobiles for scout duty, with saw-edged steel prows curving up over the drivers' seats to catch and cut dangling wires; automobiles fitted as traveling pharmacies and needing only red- and-green lights to be regular prescription drug stores; automobile- ambulances rigged with stretchers and first-aid kits; automobiles for carrying ammunition and capable of moving at tremendous speed for tremendous distances; automobile machine guns or machine-gun automobiles, just as suits you; automobile cannon; and an automobile mail wagon, all holed inside, like honeycomb, with two field-postmen standing up in it, back to back, sorting out the contents of snugly packed pouches; and every third letter was not a letter, strictly speaking, at all, but a small flat parcel containing chocolate or cigars or handkerchiefs or socks or even light sweaters--such gifts as might be sent to the soldiers, stamp-free, from any part of the German Empire. I wonder how men managed to wage war in the days before the automobile.

Two waiting cars received our party and our guides and our drivers, and we went corkscrewing down the hill, traversing crooked ways that were astonishingly full of German soldiers and astonishingly free of French townspeople. Either the citizens kept to their closed-up houses or, having run away at the coming of the enemy, they had not yet dared to return, although so far as I might tell there was no danger of their being mistreated by the gray-backs. Reaching the plain which is below the city we streaked westward, our destination being the field wireless station.

Nothing happened on the way except that we overtook a file of slightly wounded prisoners who, having been treated at the front, were now bound for a prison in a convent yard, where they would stay until a train carried them off to Munster or Dusseldorf for confinement until the end of the war. I counted them.--two English Tommies, two French officers, one lone Belgian--how he got that far down into France nobody could guess--and twenty-eight French cannoneers and infantrymen, including some North Africans. Every man Jack of them was bandaged either about the head or about the arms, or else he favored an injured leg as he hobbled slowly on. Eight guards were nursing them along; their bayonets were socketed in their carbine barrels. No doubt the magazines of the carbines were packed with those neat brass capsules which carry doses of potential death; but the guards, except for the moral effect of the thing, might just as well have been bare-handed. None of the prisoners could have run away even had he been so minded. The poor devils were almost past walking, let alone running. They wouldn't even look up as we went by them.

The day is done of the courier who rode horseback with orders in his belt and was winged in mid-flight; and the day of the secret messenger who tried to creep through the hostile picket lines with cipher dispatches in his shoe, and was captured and ordered shot at sunrise, is gone, too, except in Civil War melodramas. Modern military science has wiped them out along with most of the other picturesque fol-de-rols of the old game of war. Bands no longer play the forces into the fight-- indeed I have seen no more bands afield with the dun-colored files of the Germans than I might count on the fingers of my two hands; and flags, except on rare show-off occasions, do not float above the heads of the columns; and officers dress as nearly as possible like common soldiers; and the courier's work is done with much less glamour but with in-, finitely greater dispatch and certainty by the telephone, and by the aeroplane man, and most of all by the air currents of the wireless equipment. We missed the gallant courier, but then the wireless was worth seeing too.

It stood in a trampled turnip field not very far beyond the ruined Porte St. Martin at the end of the Rue St. Martin, and before we came to it we passed the Monument des Instituteurs, erected in 1899--as the inscription upon it told us--by a grateful populace to the memory of three school teachers of Laon who, for having raised a revolt of students and civilians against the invader in the Franco-Prussian War, were taken and bound and shot against a wall, in accordance with the system of dealing with ununiformed enemies which the Germans developed hereabouts in 1870 and perfected hereabouts in 1914. A faded wreath, which evidently was weeks old, lay at the bronze feet of the three figures. But the institute behind the monument was an institute no longer. It had become, over night as it were, a lazaret for the wounded. Above its doors the Red Cross flag and the German flag were crossed--emblems of present uses and present proprietorship. Also many convalescent German soldiers sunned themselves upon the railing about the statue. They seemed entirely at home. When the Germans take a town they mark it with their own mark, as cattlemen in Texas used to mark a captured maverick; after which to all intents it becomes German. We halted a moment here.

"That's French enough for you," said the young officer who was riding with us, turning in his seat to speak--"putting up a monument to glorify three francs-tireurs. In Germany the people would not be allowed to do such a thing. But it is not humanly conceivable that they would have such a wish. We revere soldiers who die for the Fatherland, not men who refuse to enlist when the call comes and yet take up arms to make a guerrilla warfare."

Which remark, considering the circumstances and other things, was sufficiently typical for all purposes, as I thought at the time and still think. You see I had come to the place where I could understand a German soldier's national and racial point of view, though I doubt his ability ever of understanding mine. To him, now, old John Burns of Gettysburg, going out in his high, high hat and his long, long coat to fight with the boys would never, could never be the heroic figure which he is in the American imagination; he would have been a meddlesome malefactor deserving of immediate death. For 1778 write it 1914, and Molly Pitcher serving at the guns would have been in no better case before a German court-martial. I doubt whether a Prussian Stonewall Jackson would give orders to kill a French Barbara Frietchie, but assuredly he would lock that venturesome old person up in a fortress where she could not hoist her country's flag nor invite anybody to shoot her gray head. For you must know that the German who ordinarily brims over with that emotion which, lacking a better name for it, we call sentiment, drains all the sentiment out of his soul when he takes his gun in his hand and goes to war.

Among the frowzy turnip tops two big dull gray automobiles were stranded, like large hulks in a small green sea. Alongside them a devil's darning-needle of a wireless mast stuck up, one hundred and odd feet, toward the sky. It was stayed with many steel guy ropes, like the center pole of a circus top. It was of the collapsible model and might therefore be telescoped into itself and taken down in twenty minutes, so we were informed pride-fully by the captain in charge; and from its needle-pointed tip the messages caught out of the ether came down by wire conductors to the interior of one of the stalled automobiles and there were noted down and, whenever possible, translated by two soldier- operators, who perched on wooden stools among batteries and things, for which I know not the technical names. The spitty snarl of the apparatus filled the air for rods roundabout. It made you think of a million gritty slate pencils squeaking over a million slates all together. We were permitted to take up the receivers and listen to a faint scratching sound which must have come from a long way off.

Indeed the officer told us that it was a message from the enemy that we heard.

"Our men just picked it up," he explained; "we think it must come from a French wireless station across the river. Naturally we cannot understand it, any more than they can understand our messages--they're all in code, you know. Every day or two we change our code, and I presume they do too."

Two of our party had unshipped their cameras by now, for the pass which we carried entitled us, among other important things, to commandeer that precious fluid, gasoline, whenever needed, and to take photographs; but we were asked to make no shapshots here. We gathered that there were certain reasons not unconnected with secret military usage why we might not take away with us plates bearing pictures of the field wireless. In the main, though, remarkably few restrictions were laid upon us that day. Once or twice, very casually, somebody asked us to refrain from writing about this thing or that thing which we had seen; but that was all.

In a corner of the turnip field close up to the road were mounds of fresh-turned clay, and so many of them were there and so closely were they spaced and for so considerable a distance did they stretch along, they made two long yellow ribs above the herbage. At close intervals small wooden crosses were stuck up in the rounded combs of earth so that the crosses formed a sort of irregular fence. A squad of soldiers were digging more holes in the tough earth. Their shovel blades flashed in the sunlight and the clods flew up in showers.

"We have many buried over there," said an artillery captain, seeing that I watched the grave diggers, "a general among them and other officers. It is there we bury those who die in the Institute hospital. Every day more die, and so each morning trenches are made ready for those who will die during that day. A good friend of mine is over there; he was buried day before yesterday. I sat up late last night writing to his wife--or perhaps I should say his widow. They had been married only a few weeks when the call came. It will be very hard on her."

He did not name the general who lay over yonder, nor did we ask him the name. To ask would not have been etiquette, and for him to answer would have been worse. Rarely in our wanderings did we find a German soldier of whatsoever rank who referred to his superior officer by name. He merely said "My captain" or "Our colonel." And this was of a piece with the plan--not entirely confined to the Germans--of making a secret of losses of commanders and movements of commands.

We went thence then, the distance being perhaps three miles by road and not above eight minutes by automobile at the rate we traveled to an aviation camp at the back side of the town. Here was very much to see, including many aeroplanes of sorts domiciled under canvas hangars and a cheerful, chatty, hospitable group of the most famous aviators in the German army--lean, keen young men all of them--and a sample specimen of the radish-shaped bomb which these gentlemen carry aloft with the intent of dropping it upon their enemies when occasion shall offer. Each of us in turn solemnly hefted the bomb to feel its weight. I should guess it weighed thirty pounds--say, ten pounds for the case and twenty pounds for its load of fearsome ingredients. Finally, yet foremost, we were invited to inspect that thing which is the pride and the brag of this particular arm of the German Army--a balloon-cannon, so called.

The balloon-gun of this size is--or was at the date when I saw it--an exclusively German institution. I believe the Allies have balloon-guns too, but theirs are smaller, according to what the Germans say. This one was mounted on a squatty half-turret at the tail end of an armored- steel truck. It had a mechanism as daintily adjusted as a lady's watch and much more accurate, and when being towed by its attendant automobile, which has harnessed within it the power of a hundred and odd draft horses, it has been known to cover sixty English miles in an hour, for all that its weight is that of very many loaded vans.

The person in authority here was a youthful and blithe lieutenant--an Iron Cross man--with pale, shallow blue eyes and a head of bright blond hair. He spun one small wheel to show how his pet's steel nose might be elevated almost straight upward; then turned another to show how the gun might be swung, as on a pivot, this way and that to command the range of the entire horizon, and he concluded the performance, with the aid of several husky lads in begrimed gray, by going through the pantomime of loading with a long yellow five-inch shell from the magazine behind him, and pretending to fire, meanwhile explaining that he could send one shot aloft every six seconds and with each shot reach a maximum altitude of between seven and eight thousand feet. Altogether it was a very pretty sight to see and most edifying. Likewise it took on an added interest when we learned that the blue-eyed youth and his brother of a twin balloon-cannon at the front of Laon had during the preceding three weeks brought down four of the enemy's airmen, and were exceedingly hopeful of fattening their joint average before the present week had ended.

After that we took photographs ad lib and McCutcheon had a trip with Ingold, a great aviator, in a biplane, which the Germans call a double- decker, as distinguished from the Taube or monoplane, with its birdlike wings and curved tail rudder-piece. Just as they came down, after a circular spin over the lines, a strange machine, presumably hostile, appeared far up and far away, but circled off to the south out of target reach before the balloon gunman could get the range of her and the aim. On the heels of this a biplane from another aviation field somewhere down the left wing dropped in quite informally bearing two grease- stained men to pass the time of day and borrow some gasoline. The occasion appeared to demand a drink. We all repaired, therefore, to one of the great canvas houses where the air birds nest night-times and where the airmen sleep. There we had noggins of white wine all round, and a pointer dog, which was chained to an officer's trunk, begged me in plain pointer language to cast off his leash so he might go and stalk the covey of pheasants that were taking a dust-bath in the open road not fifty yards away.

The temptation was strong, but our guides said if we meant to get to the battlefront before lunch it was time, and past time, we got started. Being thus warned we did get started.

Of a battle there is this to be said--that the closer you get to it the less do you see of it. Always in my experiences in Belgium and my more recent experiences in France I found this to be true. Take, for example, the present instance. I knew that we were approximately in the middle sworl of the twisting scroll formed by the German center, and that we were at this moment entering the very tip of the enormous inverted V made by the frontmost German defenses. I knew that stretching away to the southeast of us and to the northwest was a line some two hundred miles long, measuring it from tip to tip, where sundry millions of men in English khaki and French fustian and German shoddy- wools were fighting the biggest fight and the most prolonged fight and the most stubborn fight that historians probably will write down as having been fought in this war or any lesser war. I knew this fight had been going on for weeks now back and forth upon the River Aisne and would certainly go on for weeks and perhaps months more to come. I knew these things because I had been told them; but I shouldn't have known if I hadn't been told. I shouldn't even have guessed it.

I recall that we traveled at a cup-racing clip along a road that first wound like a coiling snake and then straightened like a striking snake, and that always we traveled through dust so thick it made a fog. In this chalky land of northern France the brittle soil dries out after a rain very quickly, and turns into a white powder where there are wheels to churn it up and grit it fine. Here surely there was an abundance of wheels. We passed many marching men and many lumbering supply trains which were going our way, and we met many motor ambulances and many ammunition trucks which were coming back. Always the ambulances were full and the ammunition wagons were empty. I judge an expert in these things might by the fullness of the one and the emptiness of the other gauge the emphasis with which the fight ahead went on. The drivers of the trucks nearly all wore captured French caps and French uniform coats, which adornment the marching men invariably regarded as a quaint jest to be laughed at and cheered for.

We stopped at our appointed place, which was on the top of a ridge where a general of a corps had his headquarters. From here one had a view--a fair view and, roughly, a fan-shaped view--of certain highly important artillery operations. Likewise, the eminence, gentle and gradual as it was, commanded a mile-long stretch of the road, which formed the main line of communication between the front and the base; and these two facts in part explained why the general had made this his abiding place. Even my layman's mind could sense the reasons for establishing headquarters at such a spot.

As for the general, he and his staff, at the moment of our arrival in their midst, were stationed at the edge of a scanty woodland where telescopes stood and a table with maps and charts on it. Quite with the manner of men who had nothing to do except to enjoy the sunshine and breathe the fresh air, they strolled back and forth in pairs and trios. I think it must have been through force of habit that, when they halted to turn about and retrace the route, they stopped always for a moment or two and faced southward. It was from the southward that there came rolling up to us the sounds of a bellowing chorus of gunfire--a Wagnerian chorus, truly. That perhaps was as it should be. Wagner's countrymen were helping to make it. Now the separate reports strung out until you could count perhaps three between reports; now they came so close together that the music they made was a constant roaring which would endure for a minute on a stretch, or half a minute anyhow. But for all the noticeable heed which any uniformed men in my vicinity paid to this it might as well have been blasting in a distant stone quarry. This attitude which they maintained, coupled with the fact that seemingly all the firing did no damage whatsoever, only served to strengthen the illusion that after all it was not the actual business of warfare which spread itself beneath our eyes.

Apparently most of the shells from the Allies' side--which of course was the far side from us--rose out of a dip in the contour of the land. Rising so, they mainly fell among or near the shattered remnants of two hamlets upon the nearer front of a little hill perhaps three miles from our location. A favorite object of their attack appeared to be a wrecked beet-sugar factory of which one side was blown away.

There would appear just above the horizon line a ball of smoke as black as your hat and the size of your hat, which meant a grenade of high explosives. Then right behind it would blossom a dainty, plumy little blob of innocent white, fit to make a pompon for the hat, and that, they told us, would be shrapnel. The German reply to the enemy's guns issued from the timbered verges of slopes at our right hand and our left; and these German shells, so far as we might judge, passed entirely over and beyond the smashed hamlets and the ruined sugar-beet factory and, curving downward, exploded out of our sight.

"The French persist in a belief that we have men in those villages," said one of the general's aides to me. "They are wasting their powder. There are many men there and some among them are Germans, but they are all dead men."

He offered to show me some live men, and took me to one of the telescopes and aimed the barrel of it in the proper direction while I focused for distance. Suddenly out of the blur of the lens there sprang up in front of me, seemingly quite close, a zigzagging toy trench cut in the face of a little hillock. This trench was full of gray figures of the size of very small dolls. They were moving aimlessly back and forth, it seemed to me, doing nothing at all.

Then I saw another trench that ran slantwise up the hillock and it contained more of the pygmies. A number of these pygmies came out of their trench--I could see them quite plainly, clambering up the steep wall of it--and they moved, very slowly it would seem, toward the crosswise trench on ahead a bit. To reach it they had to cross a sloping green patch of cleared land. So far as I might tell no explosive or shrapnel shower fell into them or near them, but when they had gone perhaps a third of the distance across the green patch there was a quick scatteration of their inch-high figures. Quite distinctly I counted three manikins who instantly fell down flat and two others who went ahead a little way deliberately, and then lay down. The rest darted back to the cover which they had just quit and jumped in briskly. The five figures remained where they had dropped and became quiet. Anyway, I could detect no motion in them. They were just little gray strips. Into my mind on the moment came incongruously a memory of what I had seen a thousand times in the composing room of a country newspaper where the type was set by hand. I thought of five pica plugs lying on the printshop floor.

It was hard for me to make myself believe that I had seen human beings killed and wounded. I can hardly believe it yet--that those insignificant toy-figures were really and truly men. I watched through the glass after that for possibly twenty minutes, until the summons came for lunch, but no more of the German dolls ventured out of their make- believe defenses to be blown flat by an invisible blast.

It was a picnic lunch served on board trestles under a tree behind the cover of a straw-roofed shelter tent, and we ate it in quite a peaceful and cozy picnic fashion. Twice during the meal an orderly came with a message which he had taken off a field telephone in a little pigsty of logs and straw fifty feet away from us; but the general each time merely canted his head to hear what the whispered word might be and went on eating. There was no clattering in of couriers, no hurried dispatching of orders this way and that. Only, just before we finished with the meal, he got up and walked away a few paces, and there two of his aides joined him and the three of them confabbed together earnestly for a couple of minutes or so. While so engaged they had the air about them of surgeons preparing to undertake an operation and first consulting over the preliminary details. Or perhaps it would be truer to say they looked like civil engineers discussing the working-out of an undertaking regarding which there was interest but no uneasiness. Assuredly they behaved not in the least as a general and aides would behave in a story book or on the stage, and when they were through they came back for their coffee and their cigars to the table where the rest of us sat.

"We are going now to a battery of the twenty-one-centimeter guns and from there to the ten-centimeters," called out Lieutenant Geibel as we climbed aboard our cars; "and when we pass that first group of houses yonder we shall be under fire. So if you have wills to make, you American gentlemen, you should be making them now before we start." A gay young officer was Lieutenant Geibel, and he just naturally would have his little joke whether or no.

Immediately then and twice again that day we were technically presumed to be under fire--I use the word technically advisedly--and again the next day and once again two days thereafter before Antwerp, but I was never able to convince myself that it was so. Certainly there was no sense of actual danger as we sped through the empty single street of a despoiled and tenantless village. All about us were the marks of what the shellfire had done, some fresh and still smoking, some old and dry- charred, but no shells dropped near us as we circled in a long swing up to within half a mile of the first line of German trenches and perhaps a mile to the left of them.

Thereby we arrived safely and very speedily and without mishap at a battery of twenty-one-centimeter guns, standing in a gnawed sheep pasture behind an abandoned farmhouse, what was left of a farmhouse, which was to say very little of it indeed. The guns stood in a row, and each one of them--there were five in all--stared with its single round eye at the blue sky where the sky showed above a thick screen of tall slim poplars growing on the far side of the farmyard. We barely had time to note that the men who served the guns were denned in holes in the earth like wolves, with earthen roofs above them and straw beds to lie on, and that they had screened each gun in green saplings cut from the woods and stuck upright in the ground, to hide its position from the sight of prying aeroplane scouts, and that the wheels of the guns were tired with huge, broad steel plates called caterpillars, to keep them from bogging down in miry places--I say we barely had time to note these details mentally when things began to happen. There was a large and much be-mired soldier who spraddled face downward upon his belly in one of the straw-lined dugouts with his ear hitched to a telephone. Without lifting his head or turning it he sang out. At that all the other men sprang up very promptly. Before, they had been sprawled about in sunny places, smoking and sleeping, and writing on postcards. Postcards, butter and beer--these are the German private's luxuries, but most of all postcards. The men bestirred themselves.

"You are in luck, gentlemen," said the lieutenant. "This battery has been idle all day, but now it is to begin firing. The order to fire just came. The balloon operator, who is in communication with the observation pits beyond the foremost infantry trenches, will give the range and the distance. Listen, please." He held up his hand for silence, intent on hearing what the man at the telephone was repeating back over the line. "Ah, that's it--5400 meters straight over the tree tops."

He waved us together into a more compact group. "That's the idea. Stand here, please, behind Number One gun, and watch straight ahead of you for the shot--you must watch very closely or you will miss it--and remember to keep your mouth open to save your eardrums from being injured by the concussion."

So far as I personally was concerned this last bit of advice was unnecessary--my mouth was open already. Four men trotted to a magazine that was in an earthen kennel and came back bearing a wheelless sheet- metal barrow on which rested a three-foot-long brass shell, very trim and slim and handsome and shiny like gold. It was an expensive-looking shell and quite ornate. At the tail of Number One the bearers heaved the barrow up shoulder-high, at the same time tilting it forward. Then a round vent opened magically and the cyclops sucked the morsel forward into its gullet, thus reversing the natural swallowing process, and smacked its steel lip behind it with a loud and greasy snuck! A glutton of a gun--you could tell that from the sound it made.

A lieutenant snapped out something, a sergeant snapped it back to him, the gun crew jumped aside, balancing themselves on tiptoe with their mouths all agape, and the gun-firer either pulled a lever out or else pushed one home, I couldn't tell which. Then everything--sky and woods and field and all--fused and ran together in a great spatter of red flame and white smoke, and the earth beneath our feet shivered and shook as the twenty-one-centimeter spat out its twenty-one-centimeter mouthful. A vast obscenity of sound beat upon us, making us reel backward, and for just the one-thousandth part of a second I saw a round white spot, like a new baseball, against a cloud background. The poplars, which had bent forward as if before a quick wind-squall, stood up, trembling in their tops, and we dared to breathe again. Then each in its turn the other four guns spoke, profaning the welkin, and we rocked on our heels like drunken men, and I remember there was a queer taste, as of something burned, in my mouth. All of which was very fine, no doubt, and very inspiring, too, if one cared deeply for that sort of thing; but to myself, when the hemisphere had ceased from its quiverings, I said:

"It isn't true--this isn't war; it's just a costly, useless game of playing at war. Behold, now, these guns did not fire at anybody visible or anything tangible. They merely elevated their muzzles into the sky and fired into the sky to make a great tumult and spoil the good air with a bad-tasting smoke. No enemy is in sight and no enemy will answer back; therefore no enemy exists. It is all a useless and a fussy business, signifying nothing."

Nor did any enemy answer back. The guns having been fired with due pomp and circumstance, the gunners went back to those pipe-smoking and postcard-writing pursuits of theirs and everything was as before-- peaceful and entirely serene. Only the telephone man remained in his bed in the straw with his ear at his telephone. He was still couched there, spraddling ridiculously on his stomach, with his legs outstretched in a sawbuck pattern, as we came away.

"It isn't always quite so quiet hereabouts," said the lieutenant. "The commander of this battery tells me that yesterday the French dropped some shrapnel among his guns and killed a man or two. Perhaps things will be brisker at the ten-centimeter-gun battery." He spoke as one who regretted that the show which he offered was not more exciting.

The twenty-one-centimeters, as I have told you, were in the edge of the woods, with leafy ambushes about them, but the little ten-centimeter guns ranged themselves quite boldly in a meadow of rank long grass just under the weather-rim of a small hill. They were buried to their haunches--if a field gun may be said to have haunches--in depressions gouged out by their own frequent recoils; otherwise they were without concealment of any sort. To reach them we rode a mile or two and then walked a quarter of a mile through a series of chalky bare gullies, and our escorts made us stoop low and hurry fast wherever the path wound up to the crest of the bank, lest our figures, being outlined against the sky, should betray our whereabouts and, what was more important, the whereabouts of the battery to the sharpshooters in the French rifle pits forward of the French infantry trenches and not exceeding a mile from us.

We stopped first at an observation station cunningly hidden in a haw thicket on the brow of a steep and heavily wooded defile overlooking the right side of the river valley---the river, however, being entirely out of sight. Standing here we heard the guns speak apparently from almost beneath our feet, and three or four seconds thereafter we saw five little puffballs of white smoke uncurling above a line of trees across the valley. Somebody said this was our battery shelling the French and English in those woods yonder, but you could hardly be expected to believe that, since no reply came back and no French or English whatsoever showed themselves. Altogether it seemed a most impotent and impersonal proceeding; and when the novelty of waiting for the blast of sound and then watching for the smoke plumes to appear had worn off, as it very soon did, we visited the guns themselves. They were not under our feet at all. They were some two hundred yards away, across a field where the telephone wires stretched over the old plow furrows and through the rank meadow grass, like springs to catch woodcock.

Here again the trick of taking a message off the telephone and shouting it forth from the mouth of a fox burrow was repeated. Whenever this procedure came to pass a sergeant who had strained his vocal cords from much giving of orders would swell out his chest and throw back his head and shriek hoarsely with what was left of his voice, which wasn't much. This meant a fury of noise resulting instantly and much white smoke to follow. For a while the guns were fired singly and then they were fired in salvos; and you might mark how the grass for fifty yards in front of the muzzles would lie on the earth quite flat and then stand erect, and how the guns, like shying bronchos, would leap backward upon their carriages and then slide forward again as the air in the air cushions took up the kick. Also we took note that the crews of the ten- centimeters had built for themselves dugouts to sleep in and to live in, and had covered the sod roofs over with straw and broken tree limbs. We judged they would be very glad indeed to crawl into those same shelters when night came, for they had been serving the guns all day and plainly were about as weary as men could be. To burn powder hour after hour and day after day and week after week at a foe who never sees you and whom you never see; to go at this dreary, heavy trade of war with the sober, uninspired earnestness of convicts building a prison wall about themselves--the ghastly unreality of the proposition left me mentally numbed.

Howsoever, we arrived not long after that at a field hospital--namely, Field Hospital Number 36, and here was realism enough to satisfy the lexicographer who first coined the word. This field hospital was established in eight abandoned houses of the abandoned small French village of Colligis, and all eight houses were crowded with wounded men lying as closely as they could lie upon mattresses placed side by side on the floors, with just room to step between the mattresses. Be it remembered also that these were all men too seriously wounded to be moved even to a point as close as Laon; those more lightly injured than these were already carried back to the main hospitals.

We went into one room containing only men suffering from chest wounds, who coughed and wheezed and constantly fought off the swarming flies that assailed them, and into another room given over entirely to brutally abbreviated human fragments--fractional parts of men who had lost their arms or legs. On the far mattress against the wall lay a little pale German with his legs gone below the knees, who smiled upward at the ceiling and was quite chipper.

"A wonderful man, that little chap," said one of the surgeons to me. "When they first brought him here two weeks ago I said to him: 'It's hard on you that you should lose both your feet,' and he looked up at me and grinned and said: 'Herr Doctor, it might have been worse. It might have been my hands--and me a tailor by trade!'"

This surgeon told us he had an American wife, and he asked me to bear a message for him to his wife's people in the States. So if these lines should come to the notice of Mrs. Rosamond Harris, who lives at Hinesburg, Vermont, she may know that her son-in-law, Doctor Schilling, was at last accounts very busy and very well, although coated with white dust--face, head and eyebrows--so that he reminded me of a clown in a pantomime, and dyed as to his hands with iodine to an extent that made his fingers look like pieces of well-cured meerschaum.

They were bringing in more men, newly wounded that day, as we came out of Doctor Schilling's improvised operating room in the little village schoolhouse, and one of the litter bearers was a smart-faced little London Cockney, a captured English ambulance-hand, who wore a German soldier's cap to save him from possible annoyance as he went about his work. Not very many wounded had arrived since the morning--it was a dull day for them, the surgeons said--but I took note that, when the Red Cross men put down a canvas stretcher upon the courtyard flags and shortly thereafter took it up again, it left a broad red smear where it rested against the flat stones. Also this stretcher and all the other stretchers had been so sagged by the weight of bodies that they threatened to rip from the frames, and so stained by that which had stained them that the canvas was as stiff as though it had been varnished and revarnished with many coats of brown shellac. But it wasn't shellac. There is just one fluid which leaves that brown, hard coating when it dries upon woven cloth.

As I recall now we had come through the gate of the schoolhouse to where the automobiles stood when a puff of wind, blowing to us from the left, which meant from across the battlefront, brought to our noses a certain smell which we already knew full well.

"You get it, I see," said the German officer who stood alongside me. "It comes from three miles off, but you can get it five miles distant when the wind is strong. That"--and he waved his left arm toward it as though the stench had been a visible thing--"that explains why tobacco is so scarce with us among the staff back yonder in Laon. All the tobacco which can be spared is sent to the men in the front trenches. As long as they smoke and keep on smoking they can stand--that!

"You see," he went on painstakingly, "the situation out there at Cerny is like this: The French and English, but mainly the English, held the ground firSt. We drove them back and they lost very heavily. In places their trenches were actually full of dead and dying men when we took those trenches.

"You could have buried them merely by filling up the trenches with earth. And that old beet-sugar factory which you saw this noon when we were at field headquarters--it was crowded with badly wounded Englishmen.

"At once they rallied and forced us back, and now it was our turn to lose heavily. That was nearly three weeks ago, and since then the ground over which we fought has been debatable ground, lying between our lines and the enemy's lines--a stretch four miles long and half a mile wide that is literally carpeted with bodies of dead men. They weren't all dead at first. For two days and nights our men in the earthworks heard the cries of those who still lived, and the sound of them almost drove them mad. There was no reaching the wounded, though, either from our lines or from the Allies' lines. Those who tried to reach them were themselves killed. Now there are only dead out there--thousands of dead, I think. And they have been there twenty days. Once in a while a shell strikes that old sugar mill or falls into one of those trenches. Then--well, then, it is worse for those who serve in the front lines."

"But in the name of God, man," I said, "why don't they call a truce-- both sides--and put that horror underground?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"War is different now," he said. "Truces are out of fashion."

I stood there and I smelled that smell. And I thought of all those flies, and those blood-stiffened stretchers, and those little inch-long figures which I myself, looking through that telescope, had seen lying on the green hill, and those automobiles loaded with mangled men, and War de Luxe betrayed itself to me. Beneath its bogus glamour I saw war for what it is--the next morning of drunken glory.

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