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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsPaths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 8. Three Generals and a Cook
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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 8. Three Generals and a Cook Post by :Truman Category :Nonfictions Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :May 2012 Read :1196

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Paths Of Glory: Impressions Of War Written At And Near The Front - Chapter 8. Three Generals and a Cook

To get to the civic midriff of the ancient and honorable French city of Laon you must ascend a road that winds in spirals about a high, steep hill, like threads cut in a screw. Doing this you come at length to the flat top of the screw--a most curiously flat top--and find on this side of you the Cathedral and the market-place, and on that side of you the Hotel de Ville, where a German flag hangs among the iron lilies in the grille-worked arms of the Republic above the front doors. Dead ahead of you is the Prefecture, which is a noble stone building, facing southward toward the River Aisne; and it has decorations of the twentieth century, a gateway of the thirteenth century and plumbing of the third century, when there was no plumbing to speak of.

We had made this journey and now the hour was seven in the evening, and we were dining in the big hall of the Prefecture as the guests of His Excellency, Field Marshal von Heeringen, commanding the Seventh Army of the German Kaiser--dining, I might add, from fine French plates, with smart German orderlies for waiters.

Except us five, and one other, the twenty-odd who sat about the great oblong table were members of the Over-General's staff. We five were Robert J. Thompson, American consul at Aix-la-Chapelle; McCutcheon and Bennett, of the Chicago Tribune; Captain Alfred Mannesmann, of the great German manufacturing firm of Mannesmann Mulag; and myself. The one other was a Berlin artist, by name Follbehr, who having the run of the army, was going out daily to do quick studies in water colors in the trenches and among the batteries. He did them remarkably well, too, seeing that any minute a shell might come and spatter him all over his own drawing board. All the rest, though, were generals and colonels and majors, and such--youngish men mostly. Excluding our host I do not believe there was a man present who had passed fifty years of age; but the General was nearer eighty than fifty, being one of the veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, whom their Emperor had ordered out of desk jobs in the first days of August to shepherd his forces in the field. At his call they came--Von Heeringen and Von Hindenberg and Von Zwehl, to mention three names that speedily became catchwords round the world-- with their gray heads full of Prussian war tactics; and very soon their works had justified the act of their imperial master in choosing them for leadership, and now they had new medals at their throats and on their breasts to overlay the old medals they won back in 1870-71.

Like many of the older officers of the German Army I met, Von Heeringen spoke no English, in which regard he was excessively unlike ninety per cent of the younger officers. Among them it was an uncommon thing in my experience to find one who did not know at least a smattering of English and considerably more than a smattering of understandable French. Even that marvelous organism, the German private soldier, was apt to astonish you at unexpected moments by answering in fair-enough English the questions you put to him in fractured and dislocated German.

Not once or twice, but a hundred times during my cruising about in Belgium and Germany and France, I laboriously unloaded a string of crippled German nouns and broken-legged adjectives and unsocketed verbs on a hickory-looking sentry, only to have him reply to me in my own tongue. It would come out then that he had been a waiter at a British seaside resort or a steward on a Hamburg-American liner; or, oftener still, that he had studied English at the public schools in his native town of Kiel, or Coblenz, or Dresden, or somewhere.

The officers' English, as I said before, was nearly always ready and lubricant. To one who spoke no French and not enough German to hurt him, this proficiency in language on the part of the German standing army was a precious boon. The ordinary double-barreled dictionary of phrases had already disclosed itself as a most unsatisfying volume in which to put one's trust. It was wearing on the disposition to turn the leaves trying to find out how to ask somebody to pass the butter and find instead whole pages of parallel columns of translated sentences given over to such questions as "Where is the aunt of my stepfather's second cousin?"

As a rule a man does not go to Europe in time of war to look up his relatives by marriage. He may even have gone there to avoid them. War is terrible enough without lugging in all the remote kinsfolk a fellow has. How much easier, then, to throw oneself on the superior educational qualifications of the German military machine. Somebody was sure to have a linguistic life net there, rigged and ready for you to drop into.

It was so in this instance, as it has been so in many instances before and since. The courteous gentlemen who sat at my right side and at my left spoke in German or French or English as the occasion suited, while old Von Heeringen boomed away in rumbling German phrases. As I ate I studied him.

Three weeks later, less a day, I met by appointment Lord Kitchener and spent forty minutes, or thereabouts, in his company at the War Office in London. In the midst of the interview, as I sat facing Kitchener I began wondering, in the back part of my head, who it was Lord Kitchener reminded me of. Suddenly the answer came to me, and it jolted me. The answer was Von Heeringen.

Physically the two men--Kitchener of Khartoum and Von Heeringen, the Gray Ghost of Metz--had nothing in common; mentally I conceived them to be unlike. Except that both of them held the rank of field marshal, I could put my finger on no point of similarity, either in personality or in record, which these men shared between them. It is true they both served in the war of 1870-71; but at the outset this parallel fell flat, too, because one had been a junior officer on the German side and the other a volunteer on the French side. One was a Prussian in every outward aspect; the other was as British as it is possible for a Briton to be. One had been at the head of the general staff of his country, and was now in the field in active service with a sword at his side. The other, having served his country in the field for many years, now sat intrenched behind a roll-top desk, directing the machinery of the War Office, with a pencil for a baton. Kitchener was in his robust sixties, with a breast like a barrel; Von Heeringen was in his shrinking, drying-up seventies, and his broad shoulders had already begun to fold in on his ribs and his big black eyes to retreat deeper into his skull. One was beaky-nosed, hatchet-headed, bearded; the other was broad-faced and shaggily mustached. One had been famed for his accessibility; the other for his inaccessibility.

So, because of these acutely dissimilar things, I marveled to myself that day in London why, when I looked at Kitchener, I should think of Von Heeringen. In another minute, though, I knew why: Both men radiated the same quality of masterfulness; both of them physically typified competency; both of them looked on the world with the eyes of men who are born to have power and to hold dominion over lesser men. Put either of these two in the rags of a beggar or the motley of a Pantaloon, and at a glance you would know him for a leader. Considering that we were supposed to be at the front on this evening at Laon, the food was good, there being a soup, and the invariable veal on which a German buttresses the solid foundations of his dinner, a salad and fruit, red wine and white wine and brandy. Also, there were flies amounting in numbers to a great multitude. The talk, like the flies, went to and fro about the table; and always it was worth hearing, since it dealt largely with first-hand experiences in the very heart of the fighting.

Yet I must add that not all the talk was talk of war. In peaceful Aix- la-Chapelle, whence we had come, the people knew but one topic. Here, on the forward frayed edge of the battle line, the men who had that day played their part in battle occasionally spoke of other things. I recall there was a discussion between Captain von Theobald, of the Artillery, and Major Humplmayer, of the Automobile Corps, on the merits of a painting that filled one of the panels in the big, handsome, overdecorated hall. The major won, which was natural enough, since, in time of peace, he was by way of being a collector of and dealer in art objects at Munich. Somebody else mentioned big-game shooting. For five minutes, then, or such a matter, the ways of big game and the ways of shooting it held the interest of half a dozen men at our curve of the table.

In such an interlude as this the listener might almost have lulled himself into the fancy that, after all, there was no war; that these courteous, gray-coated, shoulder-strapped gentlemen were not at present engaged in the business of killing their fellowmen; that this building wherein we sat, with its florid velvet carpets underfoot and its too-heavy chandeliers overhead, was not the captured chateau of the governor of a French province; and that the deep-eyed, white-fleeced, bull-voiced old man who sat just opposite was not the commander of sundry hundreds of thousands of fighting men with guns in their hands, but surely was no more and no less than the elderly lord of the manor, who, having a fancy for regimentals, had put on his and had pinned some glittering baubles on his coat and then had invited a few of his friends and neighbors in for a simple dinner on this fine evening of the young autumn.

Yet we knew that already the war had taken toll of nearly every man in uniform who was present about this board. General von Heeringen's two sons, both desperately wounded, were lying in field hospitals--one in East Prussia, the other in northern France not many miles from where we were. His second in command had two sons--his only two sons--killed in the same battle three weeks before. When, a few minutes earlier, I had heard this I stared at him, curious to see what marks so hard a stroke would leave on a man. I saw only a grave middle-aged gentleman, very attentive to the consul who sat beside him, and very polite to us all.

Prince Scharmberg-Lippe, whom we had passed driving away from the Prefecture in his automobile as we drove to it in ours, was the last of four brothers. The other three were killed in the first six weeks of fighting. Our own companion, Captain Mannesmann, heard only the day before, when we stopped at Hirson--just over the border from Belgium-- that his cousin had won the Iron Cross for conspicuous courage, and within three days more was to hear that this same cousin had been sniped from ambush during a night raid down the left wing.

Nor had death been overly stingy to the members of the Staff itself. We gathered as much from chance remarks. And so, as it came to be eight o'clock, I caught myself watching certain vacant chairs at our table and at the two smaller tables in the next room with a strained curiosity.

One by one the vacant chairs filled up. At intervals the door behind me would open and an officer would clank in, dusted over with the sift of the French roads. He would bow ceremoniously to his chief and then to the company generally, slip into an unoccupied chair, give an order over his shoulder to a soldier-waiter, and at once begin to eat his dinner with the air of a man who has earned it. After a while there was but one place vacant at our table; it was next to me. I could not keep my eyes away from it. It got on my nerves--that little gap in the circle; that little space of white linen, bare of anything but two unfilled glasses. To me it became as portentous as an unscrewed coffin lid. No one else seemed to notice it. Cigars had been passed round and the talk eddied casually back and forth with the twisty smoke wreaths.

An orderly drew the empty chair back with a thump. I think I jumped. A slender man, whose uniform fitted him as though it had been his skin, was sitting down beside me. Unlike those who came before him, he had entered so quietly that I had not sensed his coming. I heard the soldier call him Excellency; and I heard him tell the soldier not to give him any soup. We swapped commonplaces, I telling him what my business there was; and for a little while he plied his knife and fork busily, making the heavy gold curb chain on his left wrist tinkle musically.

"I'm rather glad they did not get me this afternoon," he said as though to make conversation with a stranger. "This is first-rate veal--better than we usually have here."

"Get you?" I said. "Who wanted to get you?"

"Our friends, the enemy," he answered. "I was in one of our trenches rather well toward the front, and a shell or two struck just behind me. I think, from their sound, they were French shells."

This debonair gentleman, as presently transpired, was Colonel von Scheller, for four years consul to the German Embassy at Washington, more lately minister for foreign affairs of the kingdom of Saxony, and now doing staff duty in the ordnance department here at the German center. He had the sharp brown eyes of a courageous fox terrier, a mustache that turned up at the ends, and a most beautiful command of the English language and its American idioms. He hurried along with his dinner and soon he had caught up with us.

"I suggest," he said, "that we go out on the terrace to drink our coffee. It is about time for the French to start their evening benediction, as we call it. They usually quit firing their heavy guns just before dark, and usually begin again at eight and keep it up for an hour or two."

So we two took our coffee cups and our cigars in our hands and went out through a side passage to the terrace, and sat on a little iron bench, where a shaft of light, from a window of the room we had just quit, showed a narrow streak of flowering plants beyond the bricked wall and a clump of red and yellow woodbine on a low wall.

The rest lay in blackness; but I knew, from what I had seen before dusk came, that we must be somewhere near the middle of a broad terrace--a hanging garden rather--full of sundials and statues and flower beds, which overhung the southern face of the Hill of Laon, and from which, in daylight, a splendid view might be had of wooded slopes falling away into wide, flat valleys, and wide, flat valleys rising again to form more wooded slopes. I knew, too, from what I remembered, that the plateau immediately beneath us was flyspecked with the roofs of small abandoned villages; and that the road which ran straight from the base of the heights toward the remote river was a-crawl with supply wagons and ammunition wagons going forward to the German batteries, seven miles away, and with scouts and messengers in automobiles and on motor cycles, and the day's toll of wounded in ambulances coming back from the front.

We could not see them when we went to the parapet and looked downward into the black gulf below, but the rumbling of the wheels and the panting of the motors came up to us. With these came, also, the remote music of those queer little trumpets carried by the soldiers who ride beside the drivers of German military automobiles; and this sounded as thinly and plaintively to our ears as the cries of sandpipers heard a long way off across a windy beach.

We could hear something else too: the evening benediction had started. Now fast, now slow, like the beating of a feverish pulse, the guns sounded in faint throbs; and all along the horizon from southeast to southwest, and back again, ran flares and waves of a sullen red radiance. The light flamed high at one instant--like fireworks--and at the next it died almost to a glow, as though a great bed of peat coals or a vast limekiln lay on the farthermost crest of the next chain of hills. It was the first time I had ever seen artillery fire at night, though I had heard it often enough by then in France and in Belgium, and even in Germany; for when the wind blew out of the west we could hear in Aix-la-Chapelle the faint booming of the great cannons before Antwerp, days and nights on end.

I do not know how long I stood and looked and listened. Eventually I was aware that the courteous Von Scheller, standing at my elbow, was repeating something he had already stated at least once.

"Those brighter flashes you see, apparently coming from below the other lights, are our guns," he was saying. "They seem to be below the others because they are nearer to us. Personally I don't think these evening volleys do very much damage," he went on as though vaguely regretful that the dole of death by night should be so scanty, "because it is impossible for the men in the outermost observation pits to see the effect of the shots; but we answer, as you notice, just to show the French and English we are not asleep."

Those iron vespers lasted, I should say, for the better part of an hour. When they were ended we went indoors. Everybody was assembled in the long hall of the Prefecture, and a young officer was smashing out marching songs on the piano. The Berlin artist made an art gallery of the billiard table and was exhibiting the water-color sketches he had done that day--all very dashing and spirited in their treatment, though a bit splashy and scrambled-eggish as to the use of the pigments.

A very young man, with the markings of a captain on shoulder and collar, came in and went up to General von Heeringen and showed him something-- something that looked like a very large and rather ornamental steel coal scuttle which had suffered from a serious personal misunderstanding with an ax. The elongated top of it, which had a fluted, rudder-like adornment, made you think of Siegfried's helmet in the opera; but the bottom, which was squashed out of shape, made you think of a total loss.

When the general had finished looking at this object we all had a chance to finger it. The young captain seemed quite proud of it and bore it off with him to the dining room. It was what remained of a bomb, and had been loaded with slugs of lead and those iron cherries that are called shrapnel. A French flyer had dropped it that afternoon with intent to destroy one of the German captive balloons and its operator. The young officer was the operator of the balloon in question. It was his daily duty to go aloft, at the end of a steel tether, and bob about for seven hours at a stretch, studying the effects of the shell fire and telephoning down directions for the proper aiming of the guns. He had been up seven hundred feet in the air that afternoon, with no place to go in case of accident, when the Frenchman came over and tried to hit him. "It struck within a hundred meters of me," called back the young captain as he disappeared through the dining-room doorway. "Made quite a noise and tore up the earth considerably."

"He was lucky--the young Herr Captain," said Von Scheller--"luckier than his predecessor. A fortnight ago one of the enemy's flyers struck one of our balloons with a bomb and the gas envelope exploded. When the wreckage reached the earth there was nothing much left of the operator-- poor fellow!--except the melted buttons on his coat. There are very few safe jobs in this army, but being a captive-balloon observer is one of the least safe of them all."

I had noted that the young captain wore in the second buttonhole of his tunic the black-and-white-striped ribbon and the black-and-white Maltese Cross; and now when I looked about me I saw that at least every third man of the present company likewise bore such a decoration. I knew the Iron Cross was given to a man only for gallant conduct in time of war at the peril of his life.

A desire to know a few details beset me. Humplmayer, the scholarly art dealer, was at my side. He had it too--the Iron Cross of the first class.

"You won that lately?" I began, touching the ribbon.

"Yes," he said; "only the other day I received it."

"And for what, might I ask?" said I, pressing my advantage.

"Oh," he said, "I've been out quite a bit in the night air lately. You know we Germans are desperately afraid of night air."

Later I learned--though not from Humplmayer--that he had for a period of weeks done scout work in an automobile in hostile territory; which meant that he rode in the darkness over the strange roads of an alien country, exposed every minute to the chances of ambuscade and barbed-wire mantraps and the like. I judge he earned his bauble.

I tried Von Theobald next--a lynx-faced, square-shouldered young man of the field guns. To him I put the question: "What have you done, now, to merit the bestowal of the Cross?"

"Well," he said--and his smile was born of embarrassment, I thought-- "there was shooting once or twice, and I--well, I did not go away. I remained."

So after that I quit asking. But it was borne in upon me that if these gold-braceletted, monocled, wasp-waisted exquisites could go jauntily forth for flirtations with death as afore-time I had seen them going, then also they could be marvelously modest touching on their own performances in the event of their surviving those most fatal blandishments.

Pretty soon we told the Staff good night, according to the ritualistic Teutonic fashion, and took ourselves off to bed; for the next day was expected to be a full day, which it was indeed and verily. In the hotels of the town, such as they were, officers were billeted, four to the room and two to the bed; but the commandant enthroned at the Hotel de Ville looked after our comfort. He sent a soldier to nail a notice on the gate of one of the handsomest houses in Laon--a house whence the tenants had fled at the coming of the Germans--which notice gave warning to all whom it might concern that Captain Mannesmann, who carried the Kaiser's own pass, and four American Herren were, until further orders, domiciled there. And the soldier tarried to clean our boots while we slept and bring us warm shaving water in the morning.

Being thus provided for we tramped away through the empty winding streets to Number Five, Rue St. Cyr, which was a big, fine three-story mansion with its own garden and courtyard. Arriving there we drew lots for bedrooms. It fell to me to occupy one that evidently belonged to the master of the house. He must have run away in a hurry. His bathrobe still hung on a peg; his other pair of suspenders dangled over the footboard; and his shaving brush, with dried lather on it, was on the floor. I stepped on it as I got into bed and hurt my foot.

Goodness knows I was tired enough, but I lay awake a while thinking what changes in our journalistic fortunes thirty days had brought us. Five weeks before, bearing dangerously dubious credentials, we had trailed afoot--a suspicious squad--at the tail of the German columns, liable to be halted and locked up any minute by any fingerling of a sublieutenant who might be so minded to so serve us. In that stressful time a war correspondent was almost as popular, with the officialdom of the German army, as the Asiatic cholera would have been. The privates were our best friends then. Just one month, to the hour and the night, after we slept on straw as quasi-prisoners and under an armed guard in a schoolhouse belonging to the Prince de Caraman-Chimay, at Beaumont, we dined with the commandant of a German garrison in the castle of another prince of the same name--the Prince de Chimay--at the town of Chimay, set among the timbered preserves of the ancient house of Chimay. In Belgium, at the end of August, we fended and foraged for ourselves aboard a train of wounded and prisoners.

In northern France, at the end of September, Prince Reuss, German minister to Persia, but serving temporarily in the Red Cross Corps, had bestirred himself to find lodgings for us. And now, thanks to a newborn desire on the part of the Berlin War Office to let the press of America know something of the effects of their operations on the people of the invaded states, here we were, making free with a strange French gentleman's chateau and messing with an Over-General's Staff. Lying there, in another man's bed, I felt like a burglar and I slept like an oyster--the oyster being, as naturalists know, a most sound sleeper.

In the morning there was breakfast at the great table--the flies of the night before being still present--with General von Heeringen inquiring most earnestly as to how we had rested, and then going out to see to the day's killing. Before doing so, however, he detailed the competent Captain von Theobald and the efficient Lieutenant Giebel to serve for the day as our guides while we studied briefly the workings of the German war machine in the actual theater of war.

It was under their conductorship that about noon we aimed our automobiles for the spot where, in accordance with provisions worked out in advance, but until that moment unknown to us, we were to lunch with another general--Von Zwehl, of the reserves. We left the hill, where the town was, some four miles behind us, and when we had passed through two wrecked and silent villages and through three of those strips of park timber which Continentals call forests, we presently drew up and halted and dismounted where a thick fringe of undergrowth, following the line of an old and straggly thorn hedge, met the road at right angles on the comb of a small ridge commanding a view of the tablelands to the southward.

As we climbed up the banks we were aware of certain shelters which were like overgrown rabbit hutches cunningly contrived of wattled faggots and straw sheaves plaited together. They had tarpaulin interlinings and dug-out earthen floors covered over thickly with straw. These cozy small shacks hid themselves behind a screen of haws among the scattered trees which flanked an ancient fortification, abandoned many years before, I judged, by the grass-grown looks of it. Out in front, upon the open crest of the rise, staff officers were grouped about two telescopes mounted on tripods. An old man--you could tell by the hunch of his shoulders he was old--sat on a camp chair with his back to us and his face against the barrels of one of the telescopes. With his long dust-colored coat and the lacings of violent scarlet upon his cap and his upturned collar he made you think of one of those big gray African parrots that talk so fluently and bite so viciously. But when, getting nimbly up, he turned to greet us and be introduced the resemblance vanished.

There was nothing of the parrot about him now, Here was a man part watch dog and part hawk. His cheeks and the flanges of his nostrils were thickly hair-lined with those little red-and-blue veins that are to be found in the texture of good American paper currency and in the faces of elderly men who have lived much out-of-doors during their lives. His jowls were heavy and pendulous like a mastiff's. His frontal bone came down low and straight so that under the flat arch of the brow his small, very bright agate-blue eyes looked out as from beneath half-closed shutters. His hair was clipped close to his scalp and the shape of his skull showed, rounded and bulgy; not the skull of a thinker, nor yet the skull of a creator, just the skull of a natural-born fighting man. The big, ridgy veins in the back of his neck stood out like window-cords from a close smocking of fine wrinkles. The neck itself was tanned to a brickdust red. A gnawed white mustache bristled on his upper lip. He was tall without seeming to be tall and broad without appearing broad, and he was old enough for a grandfather and spry enough for his own grandchild. You know the type. Our Civil War produced it in number.

At his throat was the blue star of the Order of Merit, the very highest honor a German soldier can win, and below it on his breast the inevitable black-and-white striped ribbon. The one meant leadership and the other testified to individual valor in the teeth of danger. It was Excellency von Zwehl, commander of the Seventh Reserve Corps of the Western Army, the man who took Maubeuge from the French and English, and the man who in the same week held the imperiled German center against the French and English.

We lunched with the General and his staff on soup and sausages, with a rare and precious Belgian melon cut in thin, salmon-tinted crescents to follow for dessert. But before the lunch he took us and showed us, pointing this way and that with his little riding whip, the theater wherein he had done a thing which he valued more than the taking of a walled city. Indeed there was a certain elemental boy-like bearing of pride in him as he told us the story. If I am right in my dates the defenses of Maubeuge caved in under the batterings of the German Jack Johnsons on September sixth and the citadel surrendered September seventh. On the following day, the eighth, Von Zwehl got word that a sudden forward thrust of the Allies threatened the German center at Laon. Without waiting for orders he started to the relief. He had available only nine thousand troops, all reserves. As many more shortly re-enforced him. He marched this small army--small, that is, as armies go these Titan times--for four days and three nights. In the last twenty-four hours of marching the eighteen thousand covered more than forty English miles--in the rain. They came on this same plateau, the one which we now faced, at six o'clock of the morning of September thirteenth, and within an hour were engaged against double or triple their number. Von Zwehl held off the enemy until a strengthening force reached him, and then for three days, with his face to the river and his back to the hill, he fought.

Out of a total force of forty thousand men he lost eight thousand and more in killed and wounded, but he saved the German Army from being split asunder between its shoulder-blades. The enemy in proportion lost even more than he did, he thought. The General had no English; he told us all this in German, Von Theobald standing handily by to translate for him when our own scanty acquaintance with the language left us puzzled.

"We punished them well and they punished us well," he added. "We captured a group of thirty-one Scotchmen--all who were left out of a battalion of six hundred and fifty, and there was no commissioned officer left of that battalion. A sergeant surrendered them to my men. They fight very well against us--the Scotch."

Since then the groundswell of battle had swept forward, then backward, until now, as chance would have it, General von Zwehl once more had his headquarters on the identical spot where he had them four weeks before during his struggle to keep the German center from being pierced. Then it had been mainly infantry fighting at close range; now it was the labored pounding of heavy guns, the pushing ahead of trench-work preparatory to another pitched battle.

Considering what had taken place here less than a month before the plain immediately before us seemed peaceful enough.

Nature certainly works mighty fast to cover up what man at war does. True, the yellow-green meadowlands ahead of us were scuffed and scored minutely as though a myriad swine had rooted there for mast. The gouges of wheels and feet were at the roadside. Under the broken hedge-rows you saw a littering of weather-beaten French knapsacks and mired uniform coats, but that was all. New grass was springing up in the hoof tracks, and in a pecking, puny sort of way an effort was being made by certain French peasants within sight to get back to work in their wasted truck patches. Near at hand I counted three men and an old woman in the fields, bent over like worms. On the crest above them stood this gray veteran of two invasions of their land, aiming with his riding whip. The whip, I believe, signifies dominion, and sometimes brute force.

Beyond the tableland, and along the succession of gentle elevations which ringed it in to the south, the pounding of the field pieces went steadily on, while Von Zwehl lectured to us upon the congenial subject of what he here had done. Out yonder a matter of three or four English miles from us the big ones were busy for a fact. We could see the smoke clouds of each descending shell and the dust clouds of the explosion, and of course we could hear it. It never stopped for an instant, never abated for so much as a minute. It had been going on this way for weeks; it would surely go on this way for weeks yet to come. But so far as we could discern the General paid it no heed--he nor any of his staff. It was his business, but seemingly the business went well.

It was late that afternoon when we met our third general, and this meeting was quite by chance. Coming back from a spin down the lines we stopped in a small village called Amifontaine, to let our chauffeur, known affectionately as The Human Rabbit, tinker with a leaky tire valve or something. A young officer came up through the dusk to find out who we were, and, having found out, he invited us into the chief house of the place, and there in a stuffy little French parlor we were introduced in due form to General d'Elsa, the head of the Twelfth Reserve Corps, it turned out. Standing in a ceremonious ring, with filled glasses in our hands, about a table which bore a flary lamp and a bottle of bad native wine, we toasted him and he toasted us.

He was younger by ten years, I should say, than either Von Heeringen or Von Zwehl; too young, I judged, to have got his training in the blood- and-iron school of Bismarck and Von Moltke of which the other two must have been brag-scholars. Both of them, I think, were Prussians, but this general was a Saxon from the South. Indeed, as I now recall, he said his home in peace times was in Dresden. He seemed less simple of manner than they; they in turn lacked a certain flexibility and grace of bearing which were his. But two things in common they all three had and radiated from them--a superb efficiency in the trade at which they worked and a superb confidence in the tools with which they did the work. This was rather a small man, quick and supple in his movements. He had a limited command of English, and he appeared deeply desirous that we Americans should have a good opinion of the behavior of his troops and that we should say as much in what we wrote for our fellow Americans to read.

Coming out of the house to reenter our automobile I saw, across the small square of the town, which by now was quite in darkness, the flare of a camp kitchen. I wanted very much to examine one of these wheeled cook wagons at close range. An officer--the same who had first approached us to examine our papers--accompanied me to explain its workings and to point out the various compartments where the coal was kept and the fuel, and the two big sunken pots where the stew was cooked and the coffee was brewed. The thing proved to be cumbersome, which was German, but it was most complete in detail, and that, take it, was German too. While the officer rattled the steel lids the cook himself stood rigidly alongside, with his fingers touching the seams of his trousers. Seen by the glare of his own fire he seemed a clod, fit only to make soups and feed a fire box. But by that same flickery light I saw something. On the breast of his grease-spattered blouse dangled a black-and-white ribbon with a black-and-white Maltese cross fastened to it. I marveled that a company cook should wear the Iron Cross of the second class and I asked the captain about it. He laughed at the wonder that was evident in my tones.

"If you will look more closely," he said, "you will see that a good many of our cooks already have won the Iron Cross since this war began, and a good many others will yet win it--if they live. We have no braver men in our army than these fellows. They go into the trenches at least twice a day, under the hottest fire sometimes, to carry hot coffee and hot food to the soldiers who fight. A good many of them have already been killed.

"Only the other day--at La Fere I think it was--two of our cooks at daybreak went so far forward with their wagon that they were almost inside the enemy's lines. Sixteen bewildered Frenchmen who had got separated from their company came straggling through a little forest and walked right into them. The Frenchmen thought the cook wagon with its short smoke funnel and its steel fire box was a new kind of machine gun, and they threw down their guns and surrendered. The two cooks brought their sixteen prisoners back to our lines too, but first one of them stood guard over the Frenchmen while the other carried the breakfast coffee to the men who had been all night in the trenches. They are good men, those cooks!"

So at last I found out at second hand what one German soldier had done to merit the bestowal of the Iron Cross. But as we came away, I was in doubt on a certain point and, for that matter, am still in doubt on it: I am in doubt as to which of two men most fitly typified the spirit of the German Army in this war--the general feeding his men by thousands into the maw of destruction because it was an order, or the pot-wrestling private soldier, the camp cook, going to death with a coffee boiler in his hands--because it was an order.

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