Ch 4: A More Personal View in Picardy

Let us now take a more personal view of the new phases of the conflict after the stupendous battle of millions had resolved itself into a huge siege operation from Switzerland to Noyon. From September 21st the fighting on the German flank in the districts of Eibecourt, Noyon and Roye, with many interlocking positions and scores of minor battles, was like a game of chess. On September 30th a night attack gave the Germans the heights of Roye and Fresnoy le Grande, northwest of Noyon, and the lines became definitely established on a firm curve northward from the Aisne. Until then no rigid front had been established across this zone. Life and property were nowhere safe, and the farmers in the cultivated forests of the Oise suffered shamefully from German raiding parties foraging at night. The French invariably treated these freebooters as prisoners of war when caught, though, with the Germans, a peasant’s frown was a death-warrant. Specific cases of rape and degeneracy, frequent when von Kluck's Reserves were resting on the Ourcq, were repeated on the Oise.
   Checked on the heights of Lassigny, De Castelnau dug in, filled his trenches with territorials and pushed his picked forces to Amiens, to feel again for the German flank. Amade's cavalry reoccupied the St. Quentin roads, menacing important lines of communication, and other forces worked their way up the Somme valley in support. It was impressive to watch the change in the inhabitants of Amiens as the army based there pushed successfully eastward.
   After the battle of Moreuil von Kluck's Reserve Corps had goose-stepped majestically down the Rue Jules Barny, when they captured Amiens on September 3rd, Amade retiring through Picquigny. They withdrew with no bands or chorus of "Deutschland uber Alles," horse, foot and guns scrambling out on the 13th when von Kluck's retreat had uncovered the roads from the south. They left huge levies of wine and cigars uncollected, and did not seriously damage the railways, except to blow up one bridge as Sordet's cavalry approached.
   With incredible speed the Royal Engineers erected bridges of crib work on the already destroyed structures on the Rouen branch. The French put crossings on the spans they had blown up on the Abbeville section. They were tested for a night by heavy express engines, and within two days the lines to Paris, Havre and North France, of special strategic value, were in operation.
   When I read the proclamations posted up in this district, in German and French, it was apparent that German soldiers, like those of other armies, reflect the will and desire of their immediate commanders. The orders were different from the rigorous effusions I had seen elsewhere. I made diligent inquiries and emphasise the fact that I did not hear a serious complaint of brutality during the occupation, when Amiens was crowded with women and children from other districts. They took away many young men of the next recruit classes, an act of war, but they purchased instead of looting, and their requisitions were not excessive. General von Stockhausen and Mr. Fiquet, the mayor, deserve special commendation for their actions in those trying days.
   We cannot believe that the people of Picardy are merely more truthful than the inhabitants of other departments, from whom I heard stories of brutality which cannot be swept away as lies or hysterical exaggerations, especially from the towns which were not torn to pieces in conflict, when suffering and horror are unavoidable. In most places the Germans have been guilty of murder and outrage. Many soldiers were paleolithic men; others were degenerates. Fiends were allowed full sway when those in authority were disciples of that pernicious doctrine of terrorism and destruction of all spiritual and moral structures; a code of war laid down by leading military writers in Germany. Side by side in Belgium and France you could trace the advance of humane leaders and the ruthless trail of those who had read, unwisely or too well, specific passages of the General Staff’s manual, "Kriegsbrauch in Landkriege." The Usages of War on Land.
   I could fill several volumes with the story of German ruthlessness not far away. Of special interest, however, is the treatment of the famous Au Fond des Forets, the beautiful country seat of Mr. William Payne of New York and his paralyzed wife, at Rosoy on the Oise. The British had camped in their grounds, but not a thing had been touched. Leaving three American flags on the Chateau and gates, the owners moved out when the Germans approached. The Stars and Stripes were torn down, pinned on the lawn and polluted. The Chateau was looted from attic to wine cellar, and of the historical furniture, prized library and collection of arms, tapestry, paintings and antiques, everything that could not be sent back to Germany was hacked to pieces. Dead horses were buried in the lawn, stained glass windows of Cucci were smashed, and Mrs. Payne's clothes were looted or torn up. Every bed was polluted. The Chateau de Chamant, home of Mr. Jefferson Davis Cohan near Senlis, was occupied by von Kluck's staff. The private property of this American was coolly loaded in his own farm wagons and driven off. Prince Eitel was at the Chateau Sivier at Choisy near Compiegne. When he left the art treasures were carted away with his baggage. The country seat of a Philadelphia lady was completely looted. Her stock of preserves was emptied and each jar carefully refilled with offal. These are a few instances out of hundreds, but significant because in modern wars neutral flags have generally won immunity for property of foreign residents.
   I wish that I could take you through the black ruins of many historic French homes so that you would appreciate the vandalism which characterised the German advance, and the destruction of so much that belongs to history rather than to an individual owner or nation. In an indignant message to the United States, the Crown Prince denied the stories of looting by the German forces in general, and his own command in particular. The treatment of homes of neutral Americans in France is an emphatic answer to his Royal Highness, and on his own front there have been shameful looting and spoliation. Some neutrals have visited the Chateau de Baye near Champaubert, Mr. Minnon's Chateau near Sedan, and a home at Revigny after the Crown Prince had moved his respective headquarters. And the treatment of women by men in his command during the advance of this royal plunderer was far worse than more isolated incidents on the route of the First Army.
   There is a need for moderate statements. But arson, organised pillage and foul pollution characterised the general German advance. The commanders of several army corps also specifically authorised murder and ignored rape, as their masses swept across France. In consequence a million women and children fled in mad terror from the northern departments, enduring terrible hardships and privations, and leaving zones not endangered by battle.
   Thousands of French troops were soon moving through Amiens to the fighting east of the city, when the flanking offensive was checked and hammered into a French defensive across the Somme valley and the plateau of Thipeval. The campaign was full of exciting and picturesque incidents.
   A moving picture of the effect of masked machine guns in checking the second advance of the French near Albert would speak eloquently of many phases of German success. Six hundred dead or frightfully wounded lay heaped in one sunken road along which a comparatively small force had deployed and attempted to sweep over the bank to charge. Verestchagin alone could have painted the scene there. The attacking lines had been instantly swept away when exposed to a cleverly masked company of quick firers, the dead or dying falling back into the road with the survivors who waited until the "75’s" cleared the way, after which some ground was regained.
   War is no longer picturesque; but in France military tradition had died hard in a land where the popular will has so frequently swept aside civil tradition. With the exception of the dull linen covers for the headdress, the uniforms for the first few months were the same as those endeared to our hearts by the pens of French writers and the brushes of her artists. There was a puzzling sense of familiarity with every scene, a positive idea that you had participated in it all before.
   Let us watch the troops of De Castelnau, the "permanent" general whose popularity is second only to Pere Joffre’s, and who has lost his three sons in the war French near Albert prepare a village for defence. The artillery behind the hill have dropped from a Berne-Bellecour canvas. A squadron of dragoons are retiring down a road flanked by a canal lined with poplars. Nothing has changed since ’70 except the uniforms of the dejected prisoners who move down the road, and are given milk and wine by the village women, an act of splendid magnanimity from people who know that sympathy from civilians for French prisoners in Germany has been severely punished.
   Now a travel-stained regiment of infantry marches up with the loose plodding route-step of the French, denoting a spirit so peculiarly their own. Some joke, others laugh and sing, and the older men are marked by the dignity and reserve of men uprooted from their homes and families and flung into suffering and endurance, facing a death that few then could hope to escape. The village square bristles with picturesque military preparation, and when a flock of geese scatter before a group of staff officers who ride up rapidly, and infantrymen drag lumbering farm wagons down to barricade the road against Uhlans and armoured cars, the illusion is complete. Your mind can see this just as clearly as my eyes did. Thus art and literature can make the whole world kin.
   But the opening roar of guns in the hills brings us back to solid reality as three sweet-faced nuns, in spotless headdress, walk calmly to the church, ready for the wounded, who soon trickle in on stretchers strapped to automobiles, which strike discordant modern notes in the vivid reproduction of the scenes we have stored in earliest memory. Some of the peasants have gone, but many remain, and despite the ruthless destruction a few miles away, and coming nearer, they carry food to the tired patrols and to the hungry prisoners, who are haggard, and some of whom are kindly faced fellows to contrast with their blasphemous sergeant and a group of thugs. How your heart goes out to these people of France, simple and kind-hearted! The enemy at their throats, they are fighting for their homes, and they are trying to be brave and cheerful when every heart is breaking.
   The aeroplanes, another modern note, rush past overhead very low, and above the hill, behind which French artillery is concealed, a large craft appears, shaped exactly like a bird, the wings marked with the Maltese cross. The Taube insists on knowing what is going on, the French machines are lighter and faster, and finally the German reels and slithers sideways to the ground. The soldiers give a reserved cheer; a wagon and ambulance go out. The French machines, however, fly off without waiting; the fight is all in the day's work. And on one hill the Alpine artillery, bronzed and hardy in picturesque berets and puttees, brought from the mountains to serve the few heavy guns, are screening their position.
   French troops were not in Albert, but the pretty town was battered to pieces at considerable cost for ammunition for its wanton destruction. The beautiful church of Notre Dame de Brebieres was left, a sad ruin, with the figure of the Virgin shot away from the tower, but suspended sideways by its tangled supports.
   During a prolonged lull, on the first Sunday in October, women and children crept back to the pitiful ruins of their homes to see what they could save. Without warning, shells were flung into them, killing one and fatally tearing a child with shrapnel. It is difficult to find an excuse for these gunners, and less palliation for the shells fired at the motor ambulance which went out for the little girl. It is fair to point out that all vehicles in the French Army carry small flags denoting the corps and branch of the service. It is not always possible to distinguish the Geneva emblem, but the German system gives no benefit of a doubt. In Albert the women, the children and the ambulance were all obvious, however. It was wanton murder.
   Two Sundays afterward, when passing again through Amiens, I saw a Taube, a light carrier aeroplane, drop bombs on the Evacuation Hospital on the rue Paul Tellier. One burst in the hospital yard, killing a well-known lady visiting the wounded, and injuring her daughter. The teams of some loaded ambulances stampeded, and each was stopped by French soldiers guarding the entrance to the railroad station, quiet, bearded Reservists who caught the horses, adjusted the wounded, and resumed their posts.
   At the Champ des Courses an aviation park had just been founded. French aviators pursued the Taube, which dropped a second bomb at Picquigny, where a hundred women were giving water and cigarettes to soldiers, as passing troop trains slowed down to cross the repaired bridges. Many were injured. A warning was telephoned to Abbeville, then held by the London Scottish volunteers, and a visiting British airman went up. The Taube then turned back and a French flier was over it in a flash. Three times the "dove" drove upward, and three times the more rapid Frenchman looped above his rival, firing when his machine righted itself. In five minutes the Taube crashed to the earth, both the occupants being killed.
   Apart from their brutal tactics, the scientific efficiency of the German air service is as unquestioned as the bravery of its aviators. In combat they suffered often because of the heavy stability of their machines. But for general military purposes their training was then unsurpassed. In ranging for artillery, they would parallel a position, outlining its confines with smoke bombs or tinsel streamers if sunny, thus marking the sector for their gunners. At night they essayed flights, releasing parachute magnesium flares over bivouacs, parked convoys or ammunition trains, and made precarious landing at their base as a rain of shells searched out the lighted position.
   The feeding of vast armies in the field is a difficult and complex undertaking. When the German machine became disorganised its efficient kitchen service went to pieces, and the men approached starvation after their emergency rations were devoured. The flexibility of French methods was adaptable to most circumstances. In trench warfare, however, the Germans were at first able to send their "Feldkuchen" nearer the front, while the French broke monotony by alternating platoons for guard, reserve and commissary, so that every third normal day the men got change, exercise, and a hot meal before taking up rations and supplies. An abundant meal of cooked meat, and vegetables, bread, red wine and coffee, was the French staple, helped out with rations of cheese and chocolate. But the people in the district were never too poor to remember their army, and it was touching to see the contributions made by the peasants. I have seen children with loaded baskets trudge along shell-swept roads daily, with gifts for soldiers whom they had never seen.
   The fortitude of the French wounded exhibited the most wonderful side of the national temperament, and if you have seen them, you will hiss the next time your intelligence is outraged by the stage travesty of a Frenchman, just as you wonder at the popular foreign conception of British officers as "monocled donkeys," when you see the modest, clean-cut men who lead their forces at the front. Only swaggering German officers now wear monocles.
   At first most of the wounds were the clean punctures of the modern bullet. Occasionally the nickel coating becomes damaged and spreads, or the bullet is deflected, and topples in the body, making a frightful hole at egress. Uninitiated at once cry dum-dums, but we learned to know these wounds in Cuba and South Africa.
   Some German soldiers reversed their bullets and fired them base first. I have never been able to loosen the slightly blunt French bullet, though with the pentacapsular clips of the Mauser bullets can generally be worked loose with the fingers and turned. I have found one clip with three cartridges thus reversed and reset in wax. This would spoil accuracy but inflict a terrible wound.
   During September, diabolical wounds from shell fire, indescribably terrible in effect, became common, though considering the persistent hail of heavy projectiles which the Germans maintained on the Allies' positions, the losses inflicted were light. The high-angle howitzers, so potent against fortifications, are jokes when they fall from the clouds into receptive mother earth. With their great weight they burrow deeply, and the explosion makes a miniature volcano, dangerous only for those on the crater. A group of Royal Artillery drivers across the Aisne were playing cards when an 11-inch shell dropped among them, tearing off one man's leg. It exploded well underground, and the circle of men were raised, dazed but unscathed, on a cone of earth. Only the maimed man lost his life. Bayonet wounds were common in Picardy and generally fatal, owing, it was said, to some preparation smeared on the weapon.
   Sabre wounds were encountered in volume only during this stage of the war when cavalry charged cavalry, and the Uhlan all-steel lances proved a deadly weapon, though in swordsmanship and shock both the French and British cavalry proved distinctly superior.
   It has been said that the training of the French troops was lax. But the soldier of tomorrow has to face a Spartan course, which is heart-breaking for those lacking virility. For some years the French have been following outdoor sports with avidity, and they have been producing athletes able to compete on equal terms with their cross-Channel neighbours. There is naturally no compromise for the present recruit classes. Every lad is anxious to serve, and from the moment that a recruit receives his first kit and map, he has the deepest contempt for a "pekin," as he terms a civilian.
   The French army is absolutely democratic, and the unusual "one year merit privilege" of the German army, which groups some men of superior education, is unknown. The average Frenchman has little use for aristocrats, and the sons of the best families are gruffly patronised by the ordinary private until they forget their airs. From 5 am. "reveille" to "retreat" the recruits drill, march, dig trenches, and perform fatigue until dark. For recreation there is setting-up drill and instruction in French boxing to make the recruits aggressive.
   After a course of heavy field training, the class is ready for the third line of the reserve near the front, where the final practice with the long French rifle at a changing silhouette target, and route marches of twenty miles with full equipment, often under shell fire, graduate the recruit to the front line, where his average term of life proved short in the terrible early days. Ask them if they are downhearted. "Non." They have little need to study their military code, "Moral duties of a soldier." Since the war, many regiments have had no cases of desertion or absence without leave, and the "priccoteur", or shirker, has disappeared.
   A glance at their towns occupied only by youths and women bravely trying to be cheerful, tells one story. But in the churches their mask is discarded, and life can never be the same again to those who have seen the packed rows of kneeling figures, who may never know the fate of their loved ones, but who supplicate silently with faith when the shadow of death is on their hearts, or chant the national prayer, "Sauvez la France, ne l’abandonnez pas," majestic in its simplicity.

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