A Visit to the Western Front

Main Johnson January 1 1917

A Visit to the Western Front

Main Johnson January 1 1917

HOW WOULD a person feel if, in the morning, he left Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg, and, at noon of the same day, arrived at the Front, under shell fire, without any acclimatizing experience or training? How much of a shock would it be, how much of a disturbing of one’s very consciousness and existence!

It is not physically possible to make this exact experiment, but it is possible to do something which, although different geographically, does approximate it in feeling and sensation, and which does plunge you from one world and one form of life and civilization headlong into another.

One morning, not long ago, I had breakfast in the peaceful city of Paris, and had luncheon the same day in Reims (Rheims), a town under almost constant bombardment from the Germans, and at the immediate and actual front. An hour or two later, I was still further up, with the French artillery during a bombardment, and still further yet, in observation posts, where the German trenches lay in front of us in full and unobstructed view, surprisingly close at hand, with shrieking shells, both French and German, crossing each other on their devastating paths.

Although we had already been in Great Britain and France for a month, and thought then we were close enough to the war, in reality everything we had seen up to that time, however significant, had been comparatively secondary and remote. The astonishingly violent change even from Paris to the actual front was such as to jolt one’s very personality.

ONE MORNING there came to the door of our hotel a motor to take us to the front. Immediately I felt myself keyed up to a point where the most casual things stood out with all the vividness of a silhouette. The boulevards of Paris were no longer merely delightful thoroughfares—they were roads leading direct to the focus-point of all our world, the Western front! It was about to become as actual as a house or a street.

As we speeded out of the suburbs into the open country, we were travelling on one of those famous roads of France, straight as a railroad line into the farthest distance, and lined by wonderful trees. This particular road was the one over which a large section of the spectacular taxi-cab army was rushed from Paris to Meaux at the Battle of the Marne, and the one, too, along which the Germans would have marched into Paris, if it had been they who had won the battle. West of Meaux, half an hour by motor from the gates of Paris, we saw the wooded slope where German batteries had been placed—the farthest point of the German advance, perilously close to the heart of France.

Up to this point, life seemed fairly normal, but soon we entered the “zone of the armies,” and immediately the whole aspect of things changed. Some indefinable human element, some indefinite but deep ingrained feeling of the essential cheerfulness of life despite all its ordinary woe, some psychological impression of normal, secure existence as it is lived by the mass of humanity in average times and average communities, went out suddenly like an extinguished light and in its place came a sinister air, a feverish atmosphere of abnormality, the first currents of an electrical influence which hung heavily and ominously over the whole area of the front. The joy of life snapped off!

AS we gradually drove further and further in, the human, element became submerged—the machine of war and fate came in. Not that there were the slightest indications of fear or despair. That is not what I mean. But a cheerless colorlessness, a brooding sense of drabness, of the mechanical rather than the human, bore one down; coupled with an immense feeling of pity for these towns and for the women and children who still had to live in them, where all the pleasures of life had been snuffed out so long ago, that now it seemed as if the world never had been happy, and never would be again.

In spite of the prevailing sensation of a strained abnormality, yet, so complex are our emotions, there was also the appetizing zest of romance. As Philip Gibbs points out, these small stone French towns have not changed since “D’Artagnan and his Musketeers rode on their way to great adventures in the days of Richelieu and Mazarin.” It was not only of Dumas that I was reminded, but of Cervantes and Sir Walter Scott and other writers of romance. Not that the actual front as we soon saw it had many elements of romance about it, but the towns immediately behind the front, breathed these mingled qualities of adventure and brooding horror—the adventure of Cervantes and Dumas; the horror of Poe, and of the Grand Guignol, that theatre of horror, which I had seen the week before in Paris. The characters in those terrible plays seemed ghostly and intangible, so awful was the atmosphere woven about them. Here again, at the front, was the very air of the Grand Guignol, but this time it was not make-believe, to be shut oft at the fall of a curtain, but grim and ineluctable reality.

WE CAME, in time, into the region of dust—dust from the countless motor cars and motor lorries—dust from the transport wagons and ambulance cars—dust from men marching up to the front, and dust from other detachments marching back into rest billets. Soon we swung into a little village, passed through its narrow stone streets, filled with soldiers, and, in this case, with no one else, except a few old women, bent and withered, and a noticeably large number of black cats; turned a corner, and entered the headquarters of a French army, where we had the opportunity of meeting the general in command. Then we drove away, and, after some unspecified time, like people in a dream, for the reality of the thing seemed almost impossible, we entered the town of Reims.

The Germans held this city for a few days in August and September, 1914, were driven back during the engagements marking the Battle of the Marne, and entrenched themselves in sight of the town. During these whole two years and a half, the town has been subject to a persistent bombardment. One never knows when a shell will come crashing through the streets or over the roof tops. A group of civilians, including a woman and children, had been killed a day or two before we were there; another heavy bombardment had occurred just previous to that, and, still another might begin at any moment.

We drove directly to an hotel for luncheon. It is one of two principal hotels—the other lies in ruins; the one in which we had our meal hadn’t been hit YET, although several shops in the neighborhood had been demolished.

What a meal, eaten in this hotel at Reims! Every moment of the hour we spent at luncheon in this bombarded town, stands out with an inerasable vividness. I remember feeling the pathos of the situation—two lonely-looking women preparing and cooking food for us; such a normal occupation in such abnormal circumstances. We ate hors d'oeuvres, I remember, and an appetizing omelette, juicy lamb chops, a huge plateful of green peas, French pastry, coffee, and bread, which for brownness and a touch of sourness and sogginess, was the nearest approach to “war bread” we met in France.

AFTER luncheon we went for a walk through the town. Grass was growing through the cobbles of the street; many shops were closed; the thoroughfares, although not deserted, were depressingly quiet. And yet there were signs of ordinary life too. Water was running in the fountain in the middle of the square; the flowers at its base were gay and showed signs of care. Butcher shops and bakeries were open, and the post office. In one window was arranged quite a display of corsets, and, in another, some children’s hats. We went into the largest shop in Reims, a department store, which in its advertising, boasted that it had an elevator, and which had been hit twice. All the windows were shattered by shell shock. There were not many customers that afternoon, but there were women attendants ready to look after us, all dressed in black, and all with sorrow stamped on their faces. Yet they were still prepared to sell a strange hodgepodge of merchandise. We bought some articles in that department store at Reims which I believe reveal the pathos and tragedy of war as well as any incident we encountered. For example, I got a little toy doll’s trunk for ten centimes, and four or five celluloid animals, a frog, a fish, a duck, a dog, for 5 centimes each. We bought some wooden forks and spoons, and a shaving brush. In the very centre of the war, here were people selling trinkets and toys and the most conventional articles. I have an idea that fifty years from now, a small celluloid duck, bought in a store of Reims, during the period of its bombardment, will have a real and pathetic historical value, a human interest exhibit of the Great War.

AFTER we left the shop, we came into an area where the destruction of property was much greater than in the other parts of the town. Hardly a stone was left one on top of the other; whole blocks were razed to the ground. Not a place was habitable. Complete destruction lay all about us. Rising out of the midst of the ruins, but itself a ruin too, stood the Cathedral of Reims, considered by many the finest in all Europe, and the destruction of which by the Germans has aroused such world-wide condemnation. We spent about twenty minutes inside the wrecked building, and could see for ourselves the extent to which the Germans in their two years’ campaign against it, had ruined the sacred pile. Without going into details, the damage is very great, and, for the most part, irretrievable, although the outer walls still remain.

On the floor I picked up fragments of the medieval glass of that peculiar quality and color that no one has ever been able to duplicate. These glorious windows are now lying shattered on the stone pavement of the cathedral floor. Huge craters gape where the altar used to stand, and the pillars are scarred by the marks of heavy shells. It was a dangerous twenty minutes, that time spent within Reims Cathedral, for, almost daily, the Germans keep hurling their bolts against it.

The most inspiring thing about the cathedral in its present condition, is the statue of Joan of Arc standing in the square immediately in front. Unscathed it has remained from all the attacks; banners and wreaths of flowers, emblems of supplication and thanksgiving, from all parts of France, are strewn about the statue, and Joan of Arc herself, holds aloft in her upraised hand, the tricolor of her country. The soul of France, the matchless spirit she has shown, the courage and devotion and love almost surpassing human comprehension, qualities that have raised France and the French people to unique heights in the estimation of the world, and that have given her one of the very noblest places in history—all this miracle is symbolized in the tricolor of France, held aloft defiantly and yet lovingly and sadly, by Joan of Arc in the courtyard of Reims Cathedral. If any image is worthy to be worshipped, it is this image of the soul of France.

THAT afternoon we drove up and down the front for many miles, stopping at times to visit the artillery trenches and the batteries, and then to go further forward into observation posts. On one of these visits, as an example, it was a surprisingly short wait from the automobile to the artillery dug-outs. As we went through a wood on our way to the trenches, we saw a number of French privates, some of the world-honored poilus, cooking bacon for themselves on little wood fires, and breaking off, from long French loaves, huge chunks of bread. Through the trenches, we made our way to the artillery positions, and saw a battery of the famous French "75” guns. Everything was so quiet at the moment that we were able to examine the guns closely, pat them affectionate, and gaze around at the stores of ammunition. The gunners themselves, as, indeed, all the French soldiers, artillery and infantry, which we had seen that day, were the sort of men we had expected to see—those wonderful French soldiers, reserved, serious, unflinching and determined, who in the last two years and a half have raised France’s military reputation, already high, to a point where it has become the marvel and admiration of the world.

But it is one thing to read about the French poilu; it is another actually to see him, not on paper, not on parade, not at any base or headquarters, but actually on the firing line, where all theories meet their tests, and all reports meet their true interpretation. To see these French soldiers at their posts of danger, to see the coolness and deliberation of their demeanor, was to realize once for all, the essential fact that makes France great to-day.

WHILE we were with the battery there was no indication of any immediate firing. Although for several hours, we had been within range of German fire, with the French army in their lines, we had not heard a sound of war. But it was now four o’clock in the afternoon, the period of the day when a renewal of activity, after the respite of late morning and early afternoon, might be looked for.

It came even sooner than we expected. We had left the guns, walked through the trenches, and climbed to the level again. A cross-road, leading in the direction of the German lines, lay in font of us. One of our party, an officer, motioned us to wait a moment; he peeked out from behind a tree, drew back, peeked again, and then signalled us to follow. This incident brought home the realization that this was no picnic excursion, but that we were so close to the Germans that we had to take precautions before crossing a road.

On the other side was a vineyard. We were in the champagne district of France, had been there all afternoon. We had seen women and old men working among the vines within range of German shells, in constant danger of death, which all too often really came. We saw this visible proof that French agriculturists, men and women, fear death for France no more than do her soldiers.

This particular vineyard, in our personal history, will rank before all others. As I said before, we had just left a battery which, to all appearance, was quiescent. No sooner, however, had we begun to walk across the field than these French guns opened fire, one after the other, in steady succession.

One of the officers who was with us was diplomatic, if not entirely reassuring.

“I think we’d better hurry a bit,” was his quietly expressed advice. “Our battery have opened fire, and although the Germans don’t know the exact point from which the shells are coming, they have a pretty good idea, and they often try to return the compliment as accurately as they can. This is a long vineyard, and rather exposed. Shall we move on?”

The invitation was accepted. The French officer was right. That WAS a long vineyard, and exposed to a dangerous degree. All around us, as we walked, the ground was ploughed and churned in obviously recent shell holes, and many of the vines were scorched and burnt by the heat of shells which had coursed through them not long ago and which might sweep through again at any minute.

SOMETHING else beside vines was growing in this ground, something we saw all along the front—blood-red poppies. Before we went to France we had seen a number of poems in London journals about the poppies at the front, but had never realized their true significance. When there, however, we saw that red poppies did blaze everywhere, in the fields, among the vines, along the edge of fences, overhanging the very guns themselves. All the heat, the feverishness and the pain were symbolized in one of the most suggestive influences in the world, that of color. Afterwards, likewise, we saw the white lily-flowers growing on the battlefield of the Marne, a symbol of the peace that follows even the bloodiest battle—the peace, alas, of death; cool and white, but death nevertheless.

Before we reached the end of that vineyard, making our way by every step closer to the front, the bombardment became heavier, and the long drawn whistling of the shells, going and coming, from French and German batteries alike, became more frequent.

Observation posts are always ingeniously placed to escape the notice of enemy batteries. We were guided to one point of observation near this section of the line, but for obvious reasons it is impossible to give any description either of the post itself or of the circuitous route by which it was reached. It was evident that it had not been left unscathed by the storm of shell that breaks over all parts of the line.

THERE, stretched before us, was a section of the supreme panorama of the world, French and German trenches facing each other, close at hand!

It was a particularly favorable place to see the front, for here was a valley, with one slope (on which we were standing) held by the French, the other by the Germans, with No Man’s Land lying between, along the floor of the valley. For observation, this reduced the distance between us and the Germans very considerably, for we could gaze down upon them instead of having to look along the level. Not only was the slope of the ground favorable, but the quality of the soil also added to the clearness of the picture. The ground in this region has large deposit of chalk, which, when thrown up in the digging of the ditches, marks every twist in the trenches with surprising detail. There, in front of us, plainly to be seen by the naked eye, and startlingly close through field glasses, lay the first, second and third lines of German trenches, with the communicating trenches running between them, all marked off to their every zigzag, as if one were looking at the irregular furrows of a field.

We hadn’t been looking for more than a minute when a great upburst of earth was hurled from between the first and second German lines. A French shell had landed. And for a long time we watched similar shells landing at various points along the line. If any one thinks it is exciting to sit in a grandstand and watch where a batted ball is likely to fall, imagine the tenseness with which we stood in that observation post looking through an aperture in the wall, watching the landing of French shells on German trenches!

And, as before, the shriek and wail of shells were not all travelling in the one direction. The Germans were firing, too; we were on the route for them.

It was not only the noise of German shells in the air which assured us there were Germans opposite us. An observation balloon began to be inflated behind their lines, reached its full size, and rose gracefully above the trees. No, the German lines were not empty!

What sort of landscape were we looking upon? One of the most beautiful countrysides I have ever seen, extraordinarily beautiful even in a land of rural charm. First there were the vineyards, thick and green and cool looking in the feverish air, stretching from beneath our feet to the advanced French lines, and beginning again on the German side. In addition, in one direction, were ridiculously small tilled fields at harvest time, glowing under the French sun, with various colors of earth and produce, the whole producing that variegated color effect you do not see in the larger, American farms and which, when I used to see it depicted in paintings, I thought was exaggerated and impossibly colorful. Here was a combination of all the charm of French nature, vineyard and field, in the very territory of the opposing trenches!

And what were one's feelings? We were so busy watching every detail of the scene, looking at a vine or a tree or a hill as if we had never seen one before, so tense and keyed-up were our senses, that there was no time to analyze our emotions. That night, however, with the memory of the German trenches vivid and fresh, my feelings began to sift themselves, and, at the time, I wrote down three adjectives which, I believe, express the front as I had seen it—“sinister, electric, ultimate.”

“Sinister.” For the front is sinister indeed; there is no element of a joke in it. It is not the least like training manœuvres or sham battled. A different quality enters in. Even when the front was quiet, before the bombardment began, there was a feeling of enveloping feverishness. Death was there—not a game. Above all, there was a feeling of impersonal mechanical force of fate pitted against an equally impersonal and mechanical force.

“Electric.” The mechanical force seemed to be electrical. The front reminded me of nothing more than of some huge electrical power station, with a partially bottled-up energy and destruction, appalling to contemplate. While we were there at first, it looked as if the whole machine was as well controlled as the dynamos in a power station, but as the bombardment commenced, there came the feeling that one was in a station where, instead of control, chaos might at any moment step in, all the belts fly off, and a pell-mell of darkness, destruction and death rush through.

“Ultimate.” It was sinister, yes, and electric, so sinister and electric that one felt this represented the very ultimate in existence. All else in the world, pleasant and unpleasant alike, slipped a Iong way back, and the “front,” the trenches and what lay beyond, became so all dominating, all pervading, that the rest of the world, the remainder of existence, seemed an unreality.