Fighting France - From Dunkerque to Belport
by Edith Wharton
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May 14th.

Luncheon with the General Staff in an old bourgeois house of a little town as sleepy as "Cranford." In the warm walled gardens everything was blooming at once: laburnums, lilacs, red hawthorn, Banksia roses and all the pleasant border plants that go with box and lavender. Never before did the flowers answer the spring roll-call with such a rush! Upstairs, in the Empire bedroom which the General has turned into his study, it was amusingly incongruous to see the sturdy provincial furniture littered with war-maps, trench-plans, aeroplane photographs and all the documentation of modern war. Through the windows bees hummed, the garden rustled, and one felt, close by, behind the walls of other gardens, the untroubled continuance of a placid and orderly bourgeois life.

We started early for Mousson on the Moselle, the ruined hill-fortress that gives its name to the better-known town at its foot. Our road ran below the long range of the "Grand Couronne," the line of hills curving southeast from Pont-a-Mousson to St. Nicolas du Port. All through this pleasant broken country the battle shook and swayed last autumn; but few signs of those days are left except the wooden crosses in the fields. No troops are visible, and the pictures of war that made the Argonne so tragic last March are replaced by peaceful rustic scenes. On the way to Mousson the road is overhung by an Italian-looking village clustered about a hill-top. It marks the exact spot at which, last August, the German invasion was finally checked and flung back; and the Muse of History points out that on this very hill has long stood a memorial shaft inscribed: Here, in the year 362, Jovinus defeated the Teutonic hordes.

A little way up the ascent to Mousson we left the motor behind a bit of rising ground. The road is raked by the German lines, and stray pedestrians (unless in a group) are less liable than a motor to have a shell spent on them. We climbed under a driving grey sky which swept gusts of rain across our road. In the lee of the castle we stopped to look down at the valley of the Moselle, the slate roofs of Pont-a-Mousson and the broken bridge which once linked together the two sides of the town. Nothing but the wreck of the bridge showed that we were on the edge of war. The wind was too high for firing, and we saw no reason for believing that the wood just behind the Hospice roof at our feet was seamed with German trenches and bristling with guns, or that from every slope across the valley the eye of the cannon sleeplessly glared. But there the Germans were, drawing an iron ring about three sides of the watch-tower; and as one peered through an embrasure of the ancient walls one gradually found one's self re-living the sensations of the little mediaeval burgh as it looked out on some earlier circle of besiegers. The longer one looked, the more oppressive and menacing the invisibility of the foe became. "There they are—and there—and there." We strained our eyes obediently, but saw only calm hillsides, dozing farms. It was as if the earth itself were the enemy, as if the hordes of evil were in the clods and grass-blades. Only one conical hill close by showed an odd artificial patterning, like the work of huge ants who had scarred it with criss-cross ridges. We were told that these were French trenches, but they looked much more like the harmless traces of a prehistoric camp.

Suddenly an officer, pointing to the west of the trenched hill said: "Do you see that farm?" It lay just below, near the river, and so close that good eyes could easily have discerned people or animals in the farm-yard, if there had been any; but the whole place seemed to be sleeping the sleep of bucolic peace. "They are there," the officer said; and the innocent vignette framed by my field-glass suddenly glared back at me like a human mask of hate. The loudest cannonade had not made "them" seem as real as that!...

At this point the military lines and the old political frontier everywhere overlap, and in a cleft of the wooded hills that conceal the German batteries we saw a dark grey blur on the grey horizon. It was Metz, the Promised City, lying there with its fair steeples and towers, like the mystic banner that Constantine saw upon the sky...

Through wet vineyards and orchards we scrambled down the hill to the river and entered Pont-a-Mousson. It was by mere meteorological good luck that we got there, for if the winds had been asleep the guns would have been awake, and when they wake poor Pont-a-Mousson is not at home to visitors. One understood why as one stood in the riverside garden of the great Premonstratensian Monastery which is now the hospital and the general asylum of the town. Between the clipped limes and formal borders the German shells had scooped out three or four "dreadful hollows," in one of which, only last week, a little girl found her death; and the facade of the building is pock-marked by shot and disfigured with gaping holes. Yet in this precarious shelter Sister Theresia, of the same indomitable breed as the Sisters of Clermont and Gerbeviller, has gathered a miscellaneous flock of soldiers wounded in the trenches, civilians shattered by the bombardment, eclopes, old women and children: all the human wreckage of this storm-beaten point of the front. Sister Theresia seems in no wise disconcerted by the fact that the shells continually play over her roof. The building is immense and spreading, and when one wing is damaged she picks up her proteges and trots them off, bed and baggage, to another. "Je promene mes malades," she said calmly, as if boasting of the varied accommodation of an ultra-modern hospital, as she led us through vaulted and stuccoed galleries where caryatid-saints look down in plaster pomp on the rows of brown-blanketed pallets and the long tables at which haggard eclopes were enjoying their evening soup.

May 15th.

I have seen the happiest being on earth: a man who has found his job.

This afternoon we motored southwest of Nancy to a little place called Menil-sur-Belvitte. The name is not yet intimately known to history, but there are reasons why it deserves to be, and in one man's mind it already is. Menil-sur-Belvitte is a village on the edge of the Vosges. It is badly battered, for awful fighting took place there in the first month of the war. The houses lie in a hollow, and just beyond it the ground rises and spreads into a plateau waving with wheat and backed by wooded slopes—the ideal "battleground" of the history-books. And here a real above-ground battle of the old obsolete kind took place, and the French, driving the Germans back victoriously, fell by thousands in the trampled wheat.

The church of Menil is a ruin, but the parsonage still stands—a plain little house at the end of the street; and here the cure received us, and led us into a room which he has turned into a chapel. The chapel is also a war museum, and everything in it has something to do with the battle that took place among the wheat-fields. The candelabra on the altar are made of "Seventy-five" shells, the Virgin's halo is composed of radiating bayonets, the walls are intricately adorned with German trophies and French relics, and on the ceiling the cure has had painted a kind of zodiacal chart of the whole region, in which Menil-sur-Belvitte's handful of houses figures as the central orb of the system, and Verdun, Nancy, Metz, and Belfort as its humble satellites. But the chapel-museum is only a surplus expression of the cure's impassioned dedication to the dead. His real work has been done on the battle-field, where row after row of graves, marked and listed as soon as the struggle was over, have been fenced about, symmetrically disposed, planted with flowers and young firs, and marked by the names and death-dates of the fallen. As he led us from one of these enclosures to another his face was lit with the flame of a gratified vocation. This particular man was made to do this particular thing: he is a born collector, classifier, and hero-worshipper. In the hall of the "presbytere" hangs a case of carefully-mounted butterflies, the result, no doubt, of an earlier passion for collecting. His "specimens" have changed, that is all: he has passed from butterflies to men, from the actual to the visionary Psyche.

On the way to Menil we stopped at the village of Crevic. The Germans were there in August, but the place is untouched—except for one house. That house, a large one, standing in a park at one end of the village, was the birth-place and home of General Lyautey, one of France's best soldiers, and Germany's worst enemy in Africa. It is no exaggeration to say that last August General Lyautey, by his promptness and audacity, saved Morocco for France. The Germans know it, and hate him; and as soon as the first soldiers reached Crevic—so obscure and imperceptible a spot that even German omniscience might have missed it—the officer in command asked for General Lyautey's house, went straight to it, had all the papers, portraits, furniture and family relics piled in a bonfire in the court, and then burnt down the house. As we sat in the neglected park with the plaintive ruin before us we heard from the gardener this typical tale of German thoroughness and German chivalry. It is corroborated by the fact that not another house in Crevic was destroyed.

May 16th.

About two miles from the German frontier (frontier just here as well as front) an isolated hill rises out of the Lorraine meadows. East of it, a ribbon of river winds among poplars, and that ribbon is the boundary between Empire and Republic. On such a clear day as this the view from the hill is extraordinarily interesting. From its grassy top a little aeroplane cannon stares to heaven, watching the east for the danger speck; and the circumference of the hill is furrowed by a deep trench—a "bowel," rather—winding invisibly from one subterranean observation post to another. In each of these earthly warrens (ingeniously wattled, roofed and iron-sheeted) stand two or three artillery officers with keen quiet faces, directing by telephone the fire of batteries nestling somewhere in the woods four or five miles away. Interesting as the place was, the men who lived there interested me far more. They obviously belonged to different classes, and had received a different social education; but their mental and moral fraternity was complete. They were all fairly young, and their faces had the look that war has given to French faces: a look of sharpened intelligence, strengthened will and sobered judgment, as if every faculty, trebly vivified, were so bent on the one end that personal problems had been pushed back to the vanishing point of the great perspective.

From this vigilant height—one of the intentest eyes open on the frontier—we went a short distance down the hillside to a village out of range of the guns, where the commanding officer gave us tea in a charming old house with a terraced garden full of flowers and puppies. Below the terrace, lost Lorraine stretched away to her blue heights, a vision of summer peace: and just above us the unsleeping hill kept watch, its signal-wires trembling night and day. It was one of the intervals of rest and sweetness when the whole horrible black business seems to press most intolerably on the nerves.

Below the village the road wound down to a forest that had formed a dark blur in our bird's-eye view of the plain. We passed into the forest and halted on the edge of a colony of queer exotic huts. On all sides they peeped through the branches, themselves so branched and sodded and leafy that they seemed like some transition form between tree and house. We were in one of the so-called "villages negres" of the second-line trenches, the jolly little settlements to which the troops retire after doing their shift under fire. This particular colony has been developed to an extreme degree of comfort and safety. The houses are partly underground, connected by deep winding "bowels" over which light rustic bridges have been thrown, and so profoundly roofed with sods that as much of them as shows above ground is shell-proof. Yet they are real houses, with real doors and windows under their grass-eaves, real furniture inside, and real beds of daisies and pansies at their doors. In the Colonel's bungalow a big bunch of spring flowers bloomed on the table, and everywhere we saw the same neatness and order, the same amused pride in the look of things. The men were dining at long trestle-tables under the trees; tired, unshaven men in shabby uniforms of all cuts and almost every colour. They were off duty, relaxed, in a good humour; but every face had the look of the faces watching on the hill-top. Wherever I go among these men of the front I have the same impression: the impression that the absorbing undivided thought of the Defense of France lives in the heart and brain of each soldier as intensely as in the heart and brain of their chief.

We walked a dozen yards down the road and came to the edge of the forest. A wattled palisade bounded it, and through a gap in the palisade we looked out across a field to the roofs of a quiet village a mile away. I went out a few steps into the field and was abruptly pulled back. "Take care—those are the trenches!" What looked like a ridge thrown up by a plough was the enemy's line; and in the quiet village French cannon watched. Suddenly, as we stood there, they woke, and at the same moment we heard the unmistakable Gr-r-r of an aeroplane and saw a Bird of Evil high up against the blue. Snap, snap, snap barked the mitrailleuse on the hill, the soldiers jumped from their wine and strained their eyes through the trees, and the Taube, finding itself the centre of so much attention, turned grey tail and swished away to the concealing clouds.

May 17th.

Today we started with an intenser sense of adventure. Hitherto we had always been told beforehand where we were going and how much we were to be allowed to see; but now we were being launched into the unknown. Beyond a certain point all was conjecture—we knew only that what happened after that would depend on the good-will of a Colonel of Chasseurs-a-pied whom we were to go a long way to find, up into the folds of the mountains on our southeast horizon.

We picked up a staff-officer at Head-quarters and flew on to a battered town on the edge of the hills. From there we wound up through a narrowing valley, under wooded cliffs, to a little settlement where the Colonel of the Brigade was to be found. There was a short conference between the Colonel and our staff-officer, and then we annexed a Captain of Chasseurs and spun away again. Our road lay through a town so exposed that our companion from Head-quarters suggested the advisability of avoiding it; but our guide hadn't the heart to inflict such a disappointment on his new acquaintances. "Oh, we won't stop the motor—we'll just dash through," he said indulgently; and in the excess of his indulgence he even permitted us to dash slowly.

Oh, that poor town—when we reached it, along a road ploughed with fresh obus-holes, I didn't want to stop the motor; I wanted to hurry on and blot the picture from my memory! It was doubly sad to look at because of the fact that it wasn't quite dead; faint spasms of life still quivered through it. A few children played in the ravaged streets; a few pale mothers watched them from cellar doorways. "They oughtn't to be here," our guide explained; "but about a hundred and fifty begged so hard to stay that the General gave them leave. The officer in command has an eye on them, and whenever he gives the signal they dive down into their burrows. He says they are perfectly obedient. It was he who asked that they might stay..."

Up and up into the hills. The vision of human pain and ruin was lost in beauty. We were among the firs, and the air was full of balm. The mossy banks gave out a scent of rain, and little water-falls from the heights set the branches trembling over secret pools. At each turn of the road, forest, and always more forest, climbing with us as we climbed, and dropped away from us to narrow valleys that converged on slate-blue distances. At one of these turns we overtook a company of soldiers, spade on shoulder and bags of tools across their backs—"trench-workers" swinging up to the heights to which we were bound. Life must be a better thing in this crystal air than in the mud-welter of the Argonne and the fogs of the North; and these men's faces were fresh with wind and weather.

Higher still ... and presently a halt on a ridge, in another "black village," this time almost a town! The soldiers gathered round us as the motor stopped—throngs of chasseurs-a-pied in faded, trench-stained uniforms—for few visitors climb to this point, and their pleasure at the sight of new faces was presently expressed in a large "Vive l'Amerique!" scrawled on the door of the car. L'Amerique was glad and proud to be there, and instantly conscious of breathing an air saturated with courage and the dogged determination to endure. The men were all reservists: that is to say, mostly married, and all beyond the first fighting age. For many months there has not been much active work along this front, no great adventure to rouse the blood and wing the imagination: it has just been month after month of monotonous watching and holding on. And the soldiers' faces showed it: there was no light of heady enterprise in their eyes, but the look of men who knew their job, had thought it over, and were there to hold their bit of France till the day of victory or extermination.

Meanwhile, they had made the best of the situation and turned their quarters into a forest colony that would enchant any normal boy. Their village architecture was more elaborate than any we had yet seen. In the Colonel's "dugout" a long table decked with lilacs and tulips was spread for tea. In other cheery catacombs we found neat rows of bunks, mess-tables, sizzling sauce-pans over kitchen-fires. Everywhere were endless ingenuities in the way of camp-furniture and household decoration. Farther down the road a path between fir-boughs led to a hidden hospital, a marvel of underground compactness. While we chatted with the surgeon a soldier came in from the trenches: an elderly, bearded man, with a good average civilian face—the kind that one runs against by hundreds in any French crowd. He had a scalp-wound which had just been dressed, and was very pale. The Colonel stopped to ask a few questions, and then, turning to him, said: "Feeling rather better now?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. In a day or two you'll be thinking about going back to the trenches, eh?"

"I'm going now, sir." It was said quite simply, and received in the same way. "Oh, all right," the Colonel merely rejoined; but he laid his hand on the man's shoulder as we went out.

Our next visit was to a sod-thatched hut, "At the sign of the Ambulant Artisans," where two or three soldiers were modelling and chiselling all kinds of trinkets from the aluminum of enemy shells. One of the ambulant artisans was just finishing a ring with beautifully modelled fauns' heads, another offered me a "Pickelhaube" small enough for Mustard-seed's wear, but complete in every detail, and inlaid with the bronze eagle from an Imperial pfennig. There are many such ringsmiths among the privates at the front, and the severe, somewhat archaic design of their rings is a proof of the sureness of French taste; but the two we visited happened to be Paris jewellers, for whom "artisan" was really too modest a pseudonym. Officers and men were evidently proud of their work, and as they stood hammering away in their cramped smithy, a red gleam lighting up the intentness of their faces, they seemed to be beating out the cheerful rhythm of "I too will something make, and joy in the making."...

Up the hillside, in deeper shadow, was another little structure; a wooden shed with an open gable sheltering an altar with candles and flowers. Here mass is said by one of the conscript priests of the regiment, while his congregation kneel between the fir-trunks, giving life to the old metaphor of the cathedral-forest. Near by was the grave-yard, where day by day these quiet elderly men lay their comrades, the peres de famille who don't go back. The care of this woodland cemetery is left entirely to the soldiers, and they have spent treasures of piety on the inscriptions and decorations of the graves. Fresh flowers are brought up from the valleys to cover them, and when some favourite comrade goes, the men scorning ephemeral tributes, club together to buy a monstrous indestructible wreath with emblazoned streamers. It was near the end of the afternoon, and many soldiers were strolling along the paths between the graves. "It's their favourite walk at this hour," the Colonel said. He stopped to look down on a grave smothered in beady tokens, the grave of the last pal to fall. "He was mentioned in the Order of the Day," the Colonel explained; and the group of soldiers standing near looked at us proudly, as if sharing their comrade's honour, and wanting to be sure that we understood the reason of their pride...

"And now," said our Captain of Chasseurs, "that you've seen the second-line trenches, what do you say to taking a look at the first?"

We followed him to a point higher up the hill, where we plunged into a deep ditch of red earth—the "bowel" leading to the first lines. It climbed still higher, under the wet firs, and then, turning, dipped over the edge and began to wind in sharp loops down the other side of the ridge. Down we scrambled, single file, our chins on a level with the top of the passage, the close green covert above us. The "bowel" went twisting down more and more sharply into a deep ravine; and presently, at a bend, we came to a fir-thatched outlook, where a soldier stood with his back to us, his eye glued to a peep-hole in the wattled wall. Another turn, and another outlook; but here it was the iron-rimmed eye of the mitrailleuse that stared across the ravine. By this time we were within a hundred yards or so of the German lines, hidden, like ours, on the other side of the narrowing hollow; and as we stole down and down, the hush and secrecy of the scene, and the sense of that imminent lurking hatred only a few branch-lengths away, seemed to fill the silence with mysterious pulsations. Suddenly a sharp noise broke on them: the rap of a rifle-shot against a tree-trunk a few yards ahead.

"Ah, the sharp-shooter," said our guide. "No more talking, please—he's over there, in a tree somewhere, and whenever he hears voices he fires. Some day we shall spot his tree."

We went on in silence to a point where a few soldiers were sitting on a ledge of rock in a widening of the "bowel." They looked as quiet as if they had been waiting for their bocks before a Boulevard cafe.

"Not beyond, please," said the officer, holding me back; and I stopped.

Here we were, then, actually and literally in the first lines! The knowledge made one's heart tick a little; but, except for another shot or two from our arboreal listener, and the motionless intentness of the soldier's back at the peep-hole, there was nothing to show that we were not a dozen miles away.

Perhaps the thought occurred to our Captain of Chasseurs; for just as I was turning back he said with his friendliest twinkle: "Do you want awfully to go a little farther? Well, then, come on."

We went past the soldiers sitting on the ledge and stole down and down, to where the trees ended at the bottom of the ravine. The sharp-shooter had stopped firing, and nothing disturbed the leafy silence but an intermittent drip of rain. We were at the end of the burrow, and the Captain signed to me that I might take a cautious peep round its corner. I looked out and saw a strip of intensely green meadow just under me, and a wooded cliff rising abruptly on its other side. That was all. The wooded cliff swarmed with "them," and a few steps would have carried us across the interval; yet all about us was silence, and the peace of the forest. Again, for a minute, I had the sense of an all-pervading, invisible power of evil, a saturation of the whole landscape with some hidden vitriol of hate. Then the reaction of the unbelief set in, and I felt myself in a harmless ordinary glen, like a million others on an untroubled earth. We turned and began to climb again, loop by loop, up the "bowel"—we passed the lolling soldiers, the silent mitrailleuse, we came again to the watcher at his peep-hole. He heard us, let the officer pass, and turned his head with a little sign of understanding.

"Do you want to look down?"

He moved a step away from his window. The look-out projected over the ravine, raking its depths; and here, with one's eye to the leaf-lashed hole, one saw at last ... saw, at the bottom of the harmless glen, half way between cliff and cliff, a grey uniform huddled in a dead heap. "He's been there for days: they can't fetch him away," said the watcher, regluing his eye to the hole; and it was almost a relief to find it was after all a tangible enemy hidden over there across the meadow...

The sun had set when we got back to our starting-point in the underground village. The chasseurs-a-pied were lounging along the roadside and standing in gossiping groups about the motor. It was long since they had seen faces from the other life, the life they had left nearly a year earlier and had not been allowed to go back to for a day; and under all their jokes and good-humour their farewell had a tinge of wistfulness. But one felt that this fugitive reminder of a world they had put behind them would pass like a dream, and their minds revert without effort to the one reality: the business of holding their bit of France.

It is hard to say why this sense of the French soldier's single-mindedness is so strong in all who have had even a glimpse of the front; perhaps it is gathered less from what the men say than from the look in their eyes. Even while they are accepting cigarettes and exchanging trench-jokes, the look is there; and when one comes on them unaware it is there also. In the dusk of the forest that look followed us down the mountain; and as we skirted the edge of the ravine between the armies, we felt that on the far side of that dividing line were the men who had made the war, and on the near side the men who had been made by it.


June 19th, 1915.

On the way from Doullens to Montreuil-sur-Mer, on a shining summer afternoon. A road between dusty hedges, choked, literally strangled, by a torrent of westward-streaming troops of all arms. Every few minutes there would come a break in the flow, and our motor would wriggle through, advance a few yards, and be stopped again by a widening of the torrent that jammed us into the ditch and splashed a dazzle of dust into our eyes. The dust was stifling—but through it, what a sight!

Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind toward us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers' flanks, flushed rows and rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition waggons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory...

Finally we left the last detachment behind, and had the country to ourselves. The disfigurement of war has not touched the fields of Artois. The thatched farmhouses dozed in gardens full of roses and hollyhocks, and the hedges above the duck-ponds were weighed down with layers of elder-blossom. On all sides wheat-fields skirted with woodland went billowing away under the breezy light that seemed to carry a breath of the Atlantic on its beams. The road ran up and down as if our motor were a ship on a deep-sea swell; and such a sense of space and light was in the distances, such a veil of beauty over the whole world, that the vision of that army on the move grew more and more fabulous and epic.

The sun had set and the sea-twilight was rolling in when we dipped down from the town of Montreuil to the valley below, where the towers of an ancient abbey-church rise above terraced orchards. The gates at the end of the avenue were thrown open, and the motor drove into a monastery court full of box and roses. Everything was sweet and secluded in this mediaeval place; and from the shadow of cloisters and arched passages groups of nuns fluttered out, nuns all black or all white, gliding, peering and standing at gaze. It was as if we had plunged back into a century to which motors were unknown and our car had been some monster cast up from a Barbary shipwreck; and the startled attitudes of these holy women did credit to their sense of the picturesque; for the Abbey of Neuville is now a great Belgian hospital, and such monsters must frequently intrude on its seclusion...

Sunset, and summer dusk, and the moon. Under the monastery windows a walled garden with stone pavilions at the angles and the drip of a fountain. Below it, tiers of orchard-terraces fading into a great moon-confused plain that might be either fields or sea...

June 20th.

Today our way ran northeast, through a landscape so English that there was no incongruity in the sprinkling of khaki along the road. Even the villages look English: the same plum-red brick of tidy self-respecting houses, neat, demure and freshly painted, the gardens all bursting with flowers, the landscape hedgerowed and willowed and fed with water-courses, the people's faces square and pink and honest, and the signs over the shops in a language half way between English and German. Only the architecture of the towns is French, of a reserved and robust northern type, but unmistakably in the same great tradition.

War still seemed so far off that one had time for these digressions as the motor flew on over the undulating miles. But presently we came on an aviation camp spreading its sheds over a wide plateau. Here the khaki throng was thicker and the familiar military stir enlivened the landscape. A few miles farther, and we found ourselves in what was seemingly a big English town oddly grouped about a nucleus of French churches. This was St. Omer, grey, spacious, coldly clean in its Sunday emptiness. At the street crossings English sentries stood mechanically directing the absent traffic with gestures familiar to Piccadilly; and the signs of the British Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance hung on club-like facades that might almost have claimed a home in Pall Mall.

The Englishness of things was emphasized, as we passed out through the suburbs, by the look of the crowd on the canal bridges and along the roads. Every nation has its own way of loitering, and there is nothing so unlike the French way as the English. Even if all these tall youths had not been in khaki, and the girls with them so pink and countrified, one would instantly have recognized the passive northern way of letting a holiday soak in instead of squeezing out its juices with feverish fingers.

When we turned westward from St. Omer, across the same pastures and watercourses, we were faced by two hills standing up abruptly out of the plain; and on the top of one rose the walls and towers of a compact little mediaeval town. As we took the windings that led up to it a sense of Italy began to penetrate the persistent impression of being somewhere near the English Channel. The town we were approaching might have been a queer dream-blend of Winchelsea and San Gimignano; but when we entered the gates of Cassel we were in a place so intensely itself that all analogies dropped out of mind.

It was not surprising to learn from the guide-book that Cassel has the most extensive view of any town in Europe: one felt at once that it differed in all sorts of marked and self-assertive ways from every other town, and would be almost sure to have the best things going in every line. And the line of an illimitable horizon is exactly the best to set off its own quaint compactness.

We found our hotel in the most perfect of little market squares, with a Renaissance town-hall on one side, and on the other a miniature Spanish palace with a front of rosy brick adorned by grey carvings. The square was crowded with English army motors and beautiful prancing chargers; and the restaurant of the inn (which has the luck to face the pink and grey palace) swarmed with khaki tea-drinkers turning indifferent shoulders to the widest view in Europe. It is one of the most detestable things about war that everything connected with it, except the death and ruin that result, is such a heightening of life, so visually stimulating and absorbing. "It was gay and terrible," is the phrase forever recurring in "War and Peace"; and the gaiety of war was everywhere in Cassel, transforming the lifeless little town into a romantic stage-setting full of the flash of arms and the virile animation of young faces.

From the park on top of the hill we looked down on another picture. All about us was the plain, its distant rim merged in northern sea-mist; and through the mist, in the glitter of the afternoon sun, far-off towns and shadowy towers lay steeped, as it seemed, in summer quiet. For a moment, while we looked, the vision of war shrivelled up like a painted veil; then we caught the names pronounced by a group of English soldiers leaning over the parapet at our side. "That's Dunkerque"—one of them pointed it out with his pipe—"and there's Poperinghe, just under us; that's Furnes beyond, and Ypres and Dixmude, and Nieuport..." And at the mention of those names the scene grew dark again, and we felt the passing of the Angel to whom was given the Key of the Bottomless Pit.

That night we went up once more to the rock of Cassel. The moon was full, and as civilians are not allowed out alone after dark a staff-officer went with us to show us the view from the roof of the disused Casino on top of the rock. It was the queerest of sensations to push open a glazed door and find ourselves in a spectral painted room with soldiers dozing in the moonlight on polished floors, their kits stacked on the gaming tables. We passed through a big vestibule among more soldiers lounging in the half-light, and up a long staircase to the roof where a watcher challenged us and then let us go to the edge of the parapet. Directly below lay the unlit mass of the town. To the northwest a single sharp hill, the "Mont des Cats," stood out against the sky; the rest of the horizon was unbroken, and floating in misty moonlight. The outline of the ruined towns had vanished and peace seemed to have won back the world. But as we stood there a red flash started out of the mist far off to the northwest; then another and another flickered up at different points of the long curve. "Luminous bombs thrown up along the lines," our guide explained; and just then, at still another point a white light opened like a tropical flower, spread to full bloom and drew itself back into the night. "A flare," we were told; and another white flower bloomed out farther down. Below us, the roofs of Cassel slept their provincial sleep, the moonlight picking out every leaf in the gardens; while beyond, those infernal flowers continued to open and shut along the curve of death.

June 21st.

On the road from Cassel to Poperinghe. Heat, dust, crowds, confusion, all the sordid shabby rear-view of war. The road running across the plain between white-powdered hedges was ploughed up by numberless motor-vans, supply-waggons and Red Cross ambulances. Labouring through between them came detachments of British artillery, clattering gun-carriages, straight young figures on glossy horses, long Phidian lines of youths so ingenuously fair that one wondered how they could have looked on the Medusa face of war and lived. Men and beasts, in spite of the dust, were as fresh and sleek as if they had come from a bath; and everywhere along the wayside were improvised camps, with tents made of waggon-covers, where the ceaseless indomitable work of cleaning was being carried out in all its searching details. Shirts were drying on elder-bushes, kettles boiling over gypsy fires, men shaving, blacking their boots, cleaning their guns, rubbing down their horses, greasing their saddles, polishing their stirrups and bits: on all sides a general cheery struggle against the prevailing dust, discomfort and disorder. Here and there a young soldier leaned against a garden paling to talk to a girl among the hollyhocks, or an older soldier initiated a group of children into some mystery of military housekeeping; and everywhere were the same signs of friendly inarticulate understanding with the owners of the fields and gardens.

From the thronged high-road we passed into the emptiness of deserted Poperinghe, and out again on the way to Ypres. Beyond the flats and wind-mills to our left were the invisible German lines, and the staff-officer who was with us leaned forward to caution our chauffeur: "No tooting between here and Ypres." There was still a good deal of movement on the road, though it was less crowded with troops than near Poperinghe; but as we passed through the last village and approached the low line of houses ahead, the silence and emptiness widened about us. That low line was Ypres; every monument that marked it, that gave it an individual outline, is gone. It is a town without a profile.

The motor slipped through a suburb of small brick houses and stopped under cover of some slightly taller buildings. Another military motor waited there, the chauffeur relic-hunting in the gutted houses.

We got out and walked toward the centre of the Cloth Market. We had seen evacuated towns—Verdun, Badonviller, Raon-l'Etape—but we had seen no emptiness like this. Not a human being was in the streets. Endless lines of houses looked down on us from vacant windows. Our footsteps echoed like the tramp of a crowd, our lowered voices seemed to shout. In one street we came on three English soldiers who were carrying a piano out of a house and lifting it onto a hand-cart. They stopped to stare at us, and we stared back. It seemed an age since we had seen a living being! One of the soldiers scrambled into the cart and tapped out a tune on the cracked key-board, and we all laughed with relief at the foolish noise... Then we walked on and were alone again.

We had seen other ruined towns, but none like this. The towns of Lorraine were blown up, burnt down, deliberately erased from the earth. At worst they are like stone-yards, at best like Pompeii. But Ypres has been bombarded to death, and the outer walls of its houses are still standing, so that it presents the distant semblance of a living city, while near by it is seen to be a disembowelled corpse. Every window-pane is smashed, nearly every building unroofed, and some house-fronts are sliced clean off, with the different stories exposed, as if for the stage-setting of a farce. In these exposed interiors the poor little household gods shiver and blink like owls surprised in a hollow tree. A hundred signs of intimate and humble tastes, of humdrum pursuits, of family association, cling to the unmasked walls. Whiskered photographs fade on morning-glory wallpapers, plaster saints pine under glass bells, antimacassars droop from plush sofas, yellowing diplomas display their seals on office walls. It was all so still and familiar that it seemed as if the people for whom these things had a meaning might at any moment come back and take up their daily business. And then—crash! the guns began, slamming out volley after volley all along the English lines, and the poor frail web of things that had made up the lives of a vanished city-full hung dangling before us in that deathly blast.

We had just reached the square before the Cathedral when the cannonade began, and its roar seemed to build a roof of iron over the glorious ruins of Ypres. The singular distinction of the city is that it is destroyed but not abased. The walls of the Cathedral, the long bulk of the Cloth Market, still lift themselves above the market place with a majesty that seems to silence compassion. The sight of those facades, so proud in death, recalled a phrase used soon after the fall of Liege by Belgium's Foreign Minister—"La Belgique ne regrette rien "—which ought some day to serve as the motto of the renovated city.

We were turning to go when we heard a whirr overhead, followed by a volley of mitrailleuse. High up in the blue, over the centre of the dead city, flew a German aeroplane; and all about it hundreds of white shrapnel tufts burst out in the summer sky like the miraculous snow-fall of Italian legend. Up and up they flew, on the trail of the Taube, and on flew the Taube, faster still, till quarry and pack were lost in mist, and the barking of the mitrailleuse died out. So we left Ypres to the death-silence in which we had found her.

The afternoon carried us back to Poperinghe, where I was bound on a quest for lace-cushions of the special kind required by our Flemish refugees. The model is unobtainable in France, and I had been told—with few and vague indications—that I might find the cushions in a certain convent of the city. But in which?

Poperinghe, though little injured, is almost empty. In its tidy desolation it looks like a town on which a wicked enchanter has laid a spell. We roamed from quarter to quarter, hunting for some one to show us the way to the convent I was looking for, till at last a passer-by led us to a door which seemed the right one. At our knock the bars were drawn and a cloistered face looked out. No, there were no cushions there; and the nun had never heard of the order we named. But there were the Penitents, the Benedictines—we might try. Our guide offered to show us the way and we went on. From one or two windows, wondering heads looked out and vanished; but the streets were lifeless. At last we came to a convent where there were no nuns left, but where, the caretaker told us, there were cushions—a great many. He led us through pale blue passages, up cold stairs, through rooms that smelt of linen and lavender. We passed a chapel with plaster saints in white niches above paper flowers. Everything was cold and bare and blank: like a mind from which memory has gone. We came to a class room with lines of empty benches facing a blue-mantled Virgin; and here, on the floor, lay rows and rows of lace-cushions. On each a bit of lace had been begun—and there they had been dropped when nuns and pupils fled. They had not been left in disorder: the rows had been laid out evenly, a handkerchief thrown over each cushion. And that orderly arrest of life seemed sadder than any scene of disarray. It symbolized the senseless paralysis of a whole nation's activities. Here were a houseful of women and children, yesterday engaged in a useful task and now aimlessly astray over the earth. And in hundreds of such houses, in dozens, in hundreds of open towns, the hand of time had been stopped, the heart of life had ceased to beat, all the currents of hope and happiness and industry been choked—not that some great military end might be gained, or the length of the war curtailed, but that, wherever the shadow of Germany falls, all things should wither at the root.

The same sight met us everywhere that afternoon. Over Furnes and Bergues, and all the little intermediate villages, the evil shadow lay. Germany had willed that these places should die, and wherever her bombs could not reach her malediction had carried. Only Biblical lamentation can convey a vision of this life-drained land. "Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers."

Late in the afternoon we came to Dunkerque, lying peacefully between its harbour and canals. The bombardment of the previous month had emptied it, and though no signs of damage were visible the same spellbound air lay over everything. As we sat alone at tea in the hall of the hotel on the Place Jean Bart, and looked out on the silent square and its lifeless shops and cafes, some one suggested that the hotel would be a convenient centre for the excursions we had planned, and we decided to return there the next evening. Then we motored back to Cassel.

June 22nd.

My first waking thought was: "How time flies! It must be the Fourteenth of July!" I knew it could not be the Fourth of that specially commemorative month, because I was just awake enough to be sure I was not in America; and the only other event to justify such a terrific clatter was the French national anniversary. I sat up and listened to the popping of guns till a completed sense of reality stole over me, and I realized that I was in the inn of the Wild Man at Cassel, and that it was not the fourteenth of July but the twenty-second of June.

Then, what—? A Taube, of course! And all the guns in the place were cracking at it! By the time this mental process was complete, I had scrambled up and hurried downstairs and, unbolting the heavy doors, had rushed out into the square. It was about four in the morning, the heavenliest moment of a summer dawn, and in spite of the tumult Cassel still apparently slept. Only a few soldiers stood in the square, looking up at a drift of white cloud behind which—they averred—a Taube had just slipped out of sight. Cassel was evidently used to Taubes, and I had the sense of having overdone my excitement and not being exactly in tune; so after gazing a moment at the white cloud I slunk back into the hotel, barred the door and mounted to my room. At a window on the stairs I paused to look out over the sloping roofs of the town, the gardens, the plain; and suddenly there was another crash and a drift of white smoke blew up from the fruit-trees just under the window. It was a last shot at the fugitive, from a gun hidden in one of those quiet provincial gardens between the houses; and its secret presence there was more startling than all the clatter of mitrailleuses from the rock.

Silence and sleep came down again on Cassel; but an hour or two later the hush was broken by a roar like the last trump. This time it was no question of mitrailleuses. The Wild Man rocked on its base, and every pane in my windows beat a tattoo. What was that incredible unimagined sound? Why, it could be nothing, of course, but the voice of the big siege-gun of Dixmude! Five times, while I was dressing, the thunder shook my windows, and the air was filled with a noise that may be compared—if the human imagination can stand the strain—to the simultaneous closing of all the iron shop-shutters in the world. The odd part was that, as far as the Wild Man and its inhabitants were concerned, no visible effects resulted, and dressing, packing and coffee-drinking went on comfortably in the strange parentheses between the roars.

We set off early for a neighbouring Head-quarters, and it was not till we turned out of the gates of Cassel that we came on signs of the bombardment: the smashing of a gas-house and the converting of a cabbage-field into a crater which, for some time to come, will spare photographers the trouble of climbing Vesuvius. There was a certain consolation in the discrepancy between the noise and the damage done.

At Head-quarters we learned more of the morning's incidents. Dunkerque, it appeared, had first been visited by the Taube which afterward came to take the range of Cassel; and the big gun of Dixmude had then turned all its fury on the French sea-port. The bombardment of Dunkuerque was still going on; and we were asked, and in fact bidden, to give up our plan of going there for the night.

After luncheon we turned north, toward the dunes. The villages we drove through were all evacuated, some quite lifeless, others occupied by troops. Presently we came to a group of military motors drawn up by the roadside, and a field black with wheeling troops. "Admiral Ronarc'h!" our companion from Head-quarters exclaimed; and we understood that we had had the good luck to come on the hero of Dixmude in the act of reviewing the marine fusiliers and territorials whose magnificent defense of last October gave that much-besieged town another lease of glory.

We stopped the motor and climbed to a ridge above the field. A high wind was blowing, bringing with it the booming of the guns along the front. A sun half-veiled in sand-dust shone on pale meadows, sandy flats, grey wind-mills. The scene was deserted, except for the handful of troops deploying before the officers on the edge of the field. Admiral Ronarc'h, white-gloved and in full-dress uniform, stood a little in advance, a young naval officer at his side. He had just been distributing decorations to his fusiliers and territorials, and they were marching past him, flags flying and bugles playing. Every one of those men had a record of heroism, and every face in those ranks had looked on horrors unnameable. They had lost Dixmude—for a while—but they had gained great glory, and the inspiration of their epic resistance had come from the quiet officer who stood there, straight and grave, in his white gloves and gala uniform.

One must have been in the North to know something of the tie that exists, in this region of bitter and continuous fighting, between officers and soldiers. The feeling of the chiefs is almost one of veneration for their men; that of the soldiers, a kind of half-humorous tenderness for the officers who have faced such odds with them. This mutual regard reveals itself in a hundred undefinable ways; but its fullest expression is in the tone with which the commanding officers speak the two words oftenest on their lips: "My men."

The little review over, we went on to Admiral Ronarc'h's quarters in the dunes, and thence, after a brief visit, to another brigade Head-quarters. We were in a region of sandy hillocks feathered by tamarisk, and interspersed with poplar groves slanting like wheat in the wind. Between these meagre thickets the roofs of seaside bungalows showed above the dunes; and before one of these we stopped, and were led into a sitting-room full of maps and aeroplane photographs. One of the officers of the brigade telephoned to ask if the way was clear to Nieuport; and the answer was that we might go on.

Our road ran through the "Bois Triangulaire," a bit of woodland exposed to constant shelling. Half the poor spindling trees were down, and patches of blackened undergrowth and ragged hollows marked the path of the shells. If the trees of a cannonaded wood are of strong inland growth their fallen trunks have the majesty of a ruined temple; but there was something humanly pitiful in the frail trunks of the Bois Triangulaire, lying there like slaughtered rows of immature troops.

A few miles more brought us to Nieuport, most lamentable of the victim towns. It is not empty as Ypres is empty: troops are quartered in the cellars, and at the approach of our motor knots of cheerful zouaves came swarming out of the ground like ants. But Ypres is majestic in death, poor Nieuport gruesomely comic. About its splendid nucleus of mediaeval architecture a modern town had grown up; and nothing stranger can be pictured than the contrast between the streets of flimsy houses, twisted like curl-papers, and the ruins of the Gothic Cathedral and the Cloth Market. It is like passing from a smashed toy to the survival of a prehistoric cataclysm.

Modern Nieuport seems to have died in a colic. No less homely image expresses the contractions and contortions of the houses reaching out the appeal of their desperate chimney-pots and agonized girders. There is one view along the exterior of the town like nothing else on the warfront. On the left, a line of palsied houses leads up like a string of crutch-propped beggars to the mighty ruin of the Templars' Tower; on the right the flats reach away to the almost imperceptible humps of masonry that were once the villages of St. Georges, Ramscappelle, Pervyse. And over it all the incessant crash of the guns stretches a sounding-board of steel.

In front of the cathedral a German shell has dug a crater thirty feet across, overhung by splintered tree-trunks, burnt shrubs, vague mounds of rubbish; and a few steps beyond lies the peacefullest spot in Nieuport, the grave-yard where the zouaves have buried their comrades. The dead are laid in rows under the flank of the cathedral, and on their carefully set grave-stones have been placed collections of pious images gathered from the ruined houses. Some of the most privileged are guarded by colonies of plaster saints and Virgins that cover the whole slab; and over the handsomest Virgins and the most gaily coloured saints the soldiers have placed the glass bells that once protected the parlour clocks and wedding-wreaths in the same houses.

From sad Nieuport we motored on to a little seaside colony where gaiety prevails. Here the big hotels and the adjoining villas along the beach are filled with troops just back from the trenches: it is one of the "rest cures" of the front. When we drove up, the regiment "au repos" was assembled in the wide sandy space between the principal hotels, and in the centre of the jolly crowd the band was playing. The Colonel and his officers stood listening to the music, and presently the soldiers broke into the wild "chanson des zouaves" of the —th zouaves. It was the strangest of sights to watch that throng of dusky merry faces under their red fezes against the background of sunless northern sea. When the music was over some one with a kodak suggested "a group": we struck a collective attitude on one of the hotel terraces, and just as the camera was being aimed at us the Colonel turned and drew into the foreground a little grinning pock-marked soldier. "He's just been decorated—he's got to be in the group." A general exclamation of assent from the other officers, and a protest from the hero: "Me? Why, my ugly mug will smash the plate!" But it didn't—

Reluctantly we turned from this interval in the day's sad round, and took the road to La Panne. Dust, dunes, deserted villages: my memory keeps no more definite vision of the run. But at sunset we came on a big seaside colony stretched out above the longest beach I ever saw: along the sea-front, an esplanade bordered by the usual foolish villas, and behind it a single street filled with hotels and shops. All the life of the desert region we had traversed seemed to have taken refuge at La Panne. The long street was swarming with throngs of dark-uniformed Belgian soldiers, every shop seemed to be doing a thriving trade, and the hotels looked as full as beehives.

June 23rd LA PANNE.

The particular hive that has taken us in is at the extreme end of the esplanade, where asphalt and iron railings lapse abruptly into sand and sea-grass. When I looked out of my window this morning I saw only the endless stretch of brown sand against the grey roll of the Northern Ocean and, on a crest of the dunes, the figure of a solitary sentinel. But presently there was a sound of martial music, and long lines of troops came marching along the esplanade and down to the beach. The sands stretched away to east and west, a great "field of Mars" on which an army could have manoeuvred; and the morning exercises of cavalry and infantry began. Against the brown beach the regiments in their dark uniforms looked as black as silhouettes; and the cavalry galloping by in single file suggested a black frieze of warriors encircling the dun-coloured flanks of an Etruscan vase. For hours these long-drawn-out movements of troops went on, to the wail of bugles, and under the eye of the lonely sentinel on the sand-crest; then the soldiers poured back into the town, and La Panne was once more a busy common-place bain-de-mer. The common-placeness, however, was only on the surface; for as one walked along the esplanade one discovered that the town had become a citadel, and that all the doll's-house villas with their silly gables and sillier names—"Seaweed," "The Sea-gull," "Mon Repos," and the rest—were really a continuous line of barracks swarming with Belgian troops. In the main street there were hundreds of soldiers, pottering along in couples, chatting in groups, romping and wrestling like a crowd of school-boys, or bargaining in the shops for shell-work souvenirs and sets of post-cards; and between the dark-green and crimson uniforms was a frequent sprinkling of khaki, with the occasional pale blue of a French officer's tunic.

Before luncheon we motored over to Dunkerque. The road runs along the canal, between grass-flats and prosperous villages. No signs of war were noticeable except on the road, which was crowded with motor vans, ambulances and troops. The walls and gates of Dunkerque rose before us as calm and undisturbed as when we entered the town the day before yesterday. But within the gates we were in a desert. The bombardment had ceased the previous evening, but a death-hush lay on the town, Every house was shuttered and the streets were empty. We drove to the Place Jean Bart, where two days ago we sat at tea in the hall of the hotel. Now there was not a whole pane of glass in the windows of the square, the doors of the hotel were closed, and every now and then some one came out carrying a basketful of plaster from fallen ceilings. The whole surface of the square was literally paved with bits of glass from the hundreds of broken windows, and at the foot of David's statue of Jean Bart, just where our motor had stood while we had tea, the siege-gun of Dixmude had scooped out a hollow as big as the crater at Nieuport.

Though not a house on the square was touched, the scene was one of unmitigated desolation. It was the first time we had seen the raw wounds of a bombardment, and the freshness of the havoc seemed to accentuate its cruelty. We wandered down the street behind the hotel to the graceful Gothic church of St. Eloi, of which one aisle had been shattered; then, turning another corner, we came on a poor bourgeois house that had had its whole front torn away. The squalid revelation of caved-in floors, smashed wardrobes, dangling bedsteads, heaped-up blankets, topsy-turvy chairs and stoves and wash-stands was far more painful than the sight of the wounded church. St. Eloi was draped in the dignity of martyrdom, but the poor little house reminded one of some shy humdrum person suddenly exposed in the glare of a great misfortune.

A few people stood in clusters looking up at the ruins, or strayed aimlessly about the streets. Not a loud word was heard. The air seemed heavy with the suspended breath of a great city's activities: the mournful hush of Dunkerque was even more oppressive than the death-silence of Ypres. But when we came back to the Place Jean Bart the unbreakable human spirit had begun to reassert itself. A handful of children were playing in the bottom of the crater, collecting "specimens" of glass and splintered brick; and about its rim the market-people, quietly and as a matter of course, were setting up their wooden stalls. In a few minutes the signs of German havoc would be hidden behind stacks of crockery and household utensils, and some of the pale women we had left in mournful contemplation of the ruins would be bargaining as sharply as ever for a sauce-pan or a butter-tub. Not once but a hundred times has the attitude of the average French civilian near the front reminded me of the gallant cry of Calanthea in The Broken Heart: "Let me die smiling!" I should have liked to stop and spend all I had in the market of Dunkerque...

All the afternoon we wandered about La Panne. The exercises of the troops had begun again, and the deploying of those endless black lines along the beach was a sight of the strangest beauty. The sun was veiled, and heavy surges rolled in under a northerly gale. Toward evening the sea turned to cold tints of jade and pearl and tarnished silver. Far down the beach a mysterious fleet of fishing boats was drawn up on the sand, with black sails bellying in the wind; and the black riders galloping by might have landed from them, and been riding into the sunset out of some wild northern legend. Presently a knot of buglers took up their stand on the edge of the sea, facing inward, their feet in the surf, and began to play; and their call was like the call of Roland's horn, when he blew it down the pass against the heathen. On the sandcrest below my window the lonely sentinel still watched...

June 24th.

It is like coming down from the mountains to leave the front. I never had the feeling more strongly than when we passed out of Belgium this afternoon. I had it most strongly as we drove by a cluster of villas standing apart in a sterile region of sea-grass and sand. In one of those villas for nearly a year, two hearts at the highest pitch of human constancy have held up a light to the world. It is impossible to pass that house without a sense of awe. Because of the light that comes from it, dead faiths have come to life, weak convictions have grown strong, fiery impulses have turned to long endurance, and long endurance has kept the fire of impulse. In the harbour of New York there is a pompous statue of a goddess with a torch, designated as "Liberty enlightening the World." It seems as though the title on her pedestal might well, for the time, be transferred to the lintel of that villa in the dunes.

On leaving St. Omer we took a short cut southward across rolling country. It was a happy accident that caused us to leave the main road, for presently, over the crest of a hill, we saw surging toward us a mighty movement of British and Indian troops. A great bath of silver sunlight lay on the wheat-fields, the clumps of woodland and the hilly blue horizon, and in that slanting radiance the cavalry rode toward us, regiment after regiment of slim turbaned Indians, with delicate proud faces like the faces of Princes in Persian miniatures. Then came a long train of artillery; splendid horses, clattering gun-carriages, clear-faced English youths galloping by all aglow in the sunset. The stream of them seemed never-ending. Now and then it was checked by a train of ambulances and supply-waggons, or caught and congested in the crooked streets of a village where children and girls had come out with bunches of flowers, and bakers were selling hot loaves to the sutlers; and when we had extricated our motor from the crowd, and climbed another hill, we came on another cavalcade surging toward us through the wheat-fields. For over an hour the procession poured by, so like and yet so unlike the French division we had met on the move as we went north a few days ago; so that we seemed to have passed to the northern front, and away from it again, through a great flashing gateway in the long wall of armies guarding the civilized world from the North Sea to the Vosges.


August 13th, 1915.

My trip to the east began by a dash toward the north. Near Rheims is a little town—hardly more than a village, but in English we have no intermediate terms such as "bourg" and "petit bourg"—where one of the new Red Cross sanitary motor units was to be seen "in action." The inspection over, we climbed to a vineyard above the town and looked down at a river valley traversed by a double line of trees. The first line marked the canal, which is held by the French, who have gun-boats on it. Behind this ran the high-road, with the first-line French trenches, and just above, on the opposite slope, were the German lines. The soil being chalky, the German positions were clearly marked by two parallel white scorings across the brown hill-front; and while we watched we heard desultory firing, and saw, here and there along the ridge, the smoke-puff of an exploding shell. It was incredibly strange to stand there, among the vines humming with summer insects, and to look out over a peaceful country heavy with the coming vintage, knowing that the trees at our feet hid a line of gun-boats that were crashing death into those two white scorings on the hill.

Rheims itself brings one nearer to the war by its look of deathlike desolation. The paralysis of the bombarded towns is one of the most tragic results of the invasion. One's soul revolts at this senseless disorganizing of innumerable useful activities. Compared with the towns of the north, Rheims is relatively unharmed; but for that very reason the arrest of life seems the more futile and cruel. The Cathedral square was deserted, all the houses around it were closed. And there, before us, rose the Cathedral—a cathedral, rather, for it was not the one we had always known. It was, in fact, not like any cathedral on earth. When the German bombardment began, the west front of Rheims was covered with scaffolding: the shells set it on fire, and the whole church was wrapped in flames. Now the scaffolding is gone, and in the dull provincial square there stands a structure so strange and beautiful that one must search the Inferno, or some tale of Eastern magic, for words to picture the luminous unearthly vision. The lower part of the front has been warmed to deep tints of umber and burnt siena. This rich burnishing passes, higher up, through yellowish-pink and carmine, to a sulphur whitening to ivory; and the recesses of the portals and the hollows behind the statues are lined with a black denser and more velvety than any effect of shadow to be obtained by sculptured relief. The interweaving of colour over the whole blunted bruised surface recalls the metallic tints, the peacock-and-pigeon iridescences, the incredible mingling of red, blue, umber and yellow of the rocks along the Gulf of AEgina. And the wonder of the impression is increased by the sense of its evanescence; the knowledge that this is the beauty of disease and death, that every one of the transfigured statues must crumble under the autumn rains, that every one of the pink or golden stones is already eaten away to the core, that the Cathedral of Rheims is glowing and dying before us like a sunset...

August 14th.

A stone and brick chateau in a flat park with a stream running through it. Pampas-grass, geraniums, rustic bridges, winding paths: how bourgeois and sleepy it would all seem but for the sentinel challenging our motor at the gate!

Before the door a collie dozing in the sun, and a group of staff-officers waiting for luncheon. Indoors, a room with handsome tapestries, some good furniture and a table spread with the usual military maps and aeroplane-photographs. At luncheon, the General, the chiefs of the staff—a dozen in all—an officer from the General Head-quarters. The usual atmosphere of camaraderie, confidence, good-humour, and a kind of cheerful seriousness that I have come to regard as characteristic of the men immersed in the actual facts of the war. I set down this impression as typical of many such luncheon hours along the front...

August 15th.

This morning we set out for reconquered Alsace. For reasons unexplained to the civilian this corner of old-new France has hitherto been inaccessible, even to highly placed French officials; and there was a special sense of excitement in taking the road that led to it.

We slipped through a valley or two, passed some placid villages with vine-covered gables, and noticed that most of the signs over the shops were German. We had crossed the old frontier unawares, and were presently in the charming town of Massevaux. It was the Feast of the Assumption, and mass was just over when we reached the square before the church. The streets were full of holiday people, well-dressed, smiling, seemingly unconscious of the war. Down the church-steps, guided by fond mammas, came little girls in white dresses, with white wreaths in their hair, and carrying, in baskets slung over their shoulders, woolly lambs or blue and white Virgins. Groups of cavalry officers stood chatting with civilians in their Sunday best, and through the windows of the Golden Eagle we saw active preparations for a crowded mid-day dinner. It was all as happy and parochial as a "Hansi" picture, and the fine old gabled houses and clean cobblestone streets made the traditional setting for an Alsacian holiday.

At the Golden Eagle we laid in a store of provisions, and started out across the mountains in the direction of Thann. The Vosges, at this season, are in their short midsummer beauty, rustling with streams, dripping with showers, balmy with the smell of firs and braken, and of purple thyme on hot banks. We reached the top of a ridge, and, hiding the motor behind a skirt of trees, went out into the open to lunch on a sunny slope. Facing us across the valley was a tall conical hill clothed with forest. That hill was Hartmannswillerkopf, the centre of a long contest in which the French have lately been victorious; and all about us stood other crests and ridges from which German guns still look down on the valley of Thann.

Thann itself is at the valley-head, in a neck between hills; a handsome old town, with the air of prosperous stability so oddly characteristic of this tormented region. As we drove through the main street the pall of war-sadness fell on us again, darkening the light and chilling the summer air. Thann is raked by the German lines, and its windows are mostly shuttered and its streets deserted. One or two houses in the Cathedral square have been gutted, but the somewhat over-pinnacled and statued cathedral which is the pride of Thann is almost untouched, and when we entered it vespers were being sung, and a few people—mostly in black—knelt in the nave.

No greater contrast could be imagined to the happy feast-day scene we had left, a few miles off, at Massevaux; but Thann, in spite of its empty streets, is not a deserted city. A vigorous life beats in it, ready to break forth as soon as the German guns are silenced. The French administration, working on the best of terms with the population, are keeping up the civil activities of the town as the Canons of the Cathedral are continuing the rites of the Church. Many inhabitants still remain behind their closed shutters and dive down into their cellars when the shells begin to crash; and the schools, transferred to a neighbouring village, number over two thousand pupils. We walked through the town, visited a vast catacomb of a wine-cellar fitted up partly as an ambulance and partly as a shelter for the cellarless, and saw the lamentable remains of the industrial quarter along the river, which has been the special target of the German guns. Thann has been industrially ruined, all its mills are wrecked; but unlike the towns of the north it has had the good fortune to preserve its outline, its civic personality, a face that its children, when they come back, can recognize and take comfort in.

After our visit to the ruins, a diversion was suggested by the amiable administrators of Thann who had guided our sight-seeing. They were just off for a military tournament which the —th dragoons were giving that afternoon in a neighboring valley, and we were invited to go with them.

The scene of the entertainment was a meadow enclosed in an amphitheatre of rocks, with grassy ledges projecting from the cliff like tiers of opera-boxes. These points of vantage were partly occupied by interested spectators and partly by ruminating cattle; on the lowest slope, the rank and fashion of the neighbourhood was ranged on a semi-circle of chairs, and below, in the meadow, a lively steeple-chase was going on. The riding was extremely pretty, as French military riding always is. Few of the mounts were thoroughbreds—the greater number, in fact, being local cart-horses barely broken to the saddle—but their agility and dash did the greater credit to their riders. The lancers, in particular, executed an effective "musical ride" about a central pennon, to the immense satisfaction of the fashionable public in the foreground and of the gallery on the rocks.

The audience was even more interesting than the artists. Chatting with the ladies in the front row were the General of division and his staff, groups of officers invited from the adjoining Head-quarters, and most of the civil and military administrators of the restored "Departement du Haut Rhin." All classes had turned out in honour of the fete, and every one was in a holiday mood. The people among whom we sat were mostly Alsatian property-owners, many of them industrials of Thann. Some had been driven from their homes, others had seen their mills destroyed, all had been living for a year on the perilous edge of war, under the menace of reprisals too hideous to picture; yet the humour prevailing was that of any group of merry-makers in a peaceful garrison town. I have seen nothing, in my wanderings along the front, more indicative of the good-breeding of the French than the spirit of the ladies and gentlemen who sat chatting with the officers on that grassy slope of Alsace.

The display of haute ecole was to be followed by an exhibition of "transportation throughout the ages," headed by a Gaulish chariot driven by a trooper with a long horsehair moustache and mistletoe wreath, and ending in a motor of which the engine had been taken out and replaced by a large placid white horse. Unluckily a heavy rain began while this instructive "number" awaited its turn, and we had to leave before Vercingetorix had led his warriors into the ring...

August 16th.

Up and up into the mountains. We started early, taking our way along a narrow interminable valley that sloped up gradually toward the east. The road was encumbered with a stream of hooded supply vans drawn by mules, for we were on the way to one of the main positions in the Vosges, and this train of provisions is kept up day and night. Finally we reached a mountain village under fir-clad slopes, with a cold stream rushing down from the hills. On one side of the road was a rustic inn, on the other, among the firs, a chalet occupied by the brigade Head-quarters. Everywhere about us swarmed the little "chasseurs Alpins" in blue Tam o'Shanters and leather gaiters. For a year we had been reading of these heroes of the hills, and here we were among them, looking into their thin weather-beaten faces and meeting the twinkle of their friendly eyes. Very friendly they all were, and yet, for Frenchmen, inarticulate and shy. All over the world, no doubt, the mountain silences breed this kind of reserve, this shrinking from the glibness of the valleys. Yet one had fancied that French fluency must soar as high as Mont Blanc.

Mules were brought, and we started on a long ride up the mountain. The way led first over open ledges, with deep views into valleys blue with distance, then through miles of forest, first of beech and fir, and finally all of fir. Above the road the wooded slopes rose interminably and here and there we came on tiers of mules, three or four hundred together, stabled under the trees, in stalls dug out of different levels of the slope. Near by were shelters for the men, and perhaps at the next bend a village of "trappers' huts," as the officers call the log-cabins they build in this region. These colonies are always bustling with life: men busy cleaning their arms, hauling material for new cabins, washing or mending their clothes, or carrying down the mountain from the camp-kitchen the two-handled pails full of steaming soup. The kitchen is always in the most protected quarter of the camp, and generally at some distance in the rear. Other soldiers, their job over, are lolling about in groups, smoking, gossiping or writing home, the "Soldiers' Letter-pad" propped on a patched blue knee, a scarred fist laboriously driving the fountain pen received in hospital. Some are leaning over the shoulder of a pal who has just received a Paris paper, others chuckling together at the jokes of their own French journal—the "Echo du Ravin," the "Journal des Poilus," or the "Diable Bleu": little papers ground out in purplish script on foolscap, and adorned with comic-sketches and a wealth of local humour.

Higher up, under a fir-belt, at the edge of a meadow, the officer who rode ahead signed to us to dismount and scramble after him. We plunged under the trees, into what seemed a thicker thicket, and found it to be a thatch of branches woven to screen the muzzles of a battery. The big guns were all about us, crouched in these sylvan lairs like wild beasts waiting to spring; and near each gun hovered its attendant gunner, proud, possessive, important as a bridegroom with his bride.

We climbed and climbed again, reaching at last a sun-and-wind-burnt common which forms the top of one of the highest mountains in the region. The forest was left below us and only a belt of dwarf firs ran along the edge of the great grassy shoulder. We dismounted, the mules were tethered among the trees, and our guide led us to an insignificant looking stone in the grass. On one face of the stone was cut the letter F., on the other was a D.; we stood on what, till a year ago, was the boundary line between Republic and Empire. Since then, in certain places, the line has been bent back a long way; but where we stood we were still under German guns, and we had to creep along in the shelter of the squat firs to reach the outlook on the edge of the plateau. From there, under a sky of racing clouds, we saw outstretched below us the Promised Land of Alsace. On one horizon, far off in the plain, gleamed the roofs and spires of Colmar, on the other rose the purplish heights beyond the Rhine. Near by stood a ring of bare hills, those closest to us scarred by ridges of upheaved earth, as if giant moles had been zigzagging over them; and just under us, in a little green valley, lay the roofs of a peaceful village. The earth-ridges and the peaceful village were still German; but the French positions went down the mountain, almost to the valley's edge; and one dark peak on the right was already French.

We stopped at a gap in the firs and walked to the brink of the plateau. Just under us lay a rock-rimmed lake. More zig-zag earthworks surmounted it on all sides, and on the nearest shore was the branched roofing of another great mule-shelter. We were looking down at the spot to which the night-caravans of the Chasseurs Alpins descend to distribute supplies to the fighting line.

"Who goes there? Attention! You're in sight of the lines!" a voice called out from the firs, and our companion signed to us to move back. We had been rather too conspicuously facing the German batteries on the opposite slope, and our presence might have drawn their fire on an artillery observation post installed near by. We retreated hurriedly and unpacked our luncheon-basket on the more sheltered side of the ridge. As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and every-day activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.

We had not yet made the whole tour of the mountain-top; and after luncheon we rode over to a point where a long narrow yoke connects it with a spur projecting directly above the German lines. We left our mules in hiding and walked along the yoke, a mere knife-edge of rock rimmed with dwarf vegetation. Suddenly we heard an explosion behind us: one of the batteries we had passed on the way up was giving tongue. The German lines roared back and for twenty minutes the exchange of invective thundered on. The firing was almost incessant; it seemed as if a great arch of steel were being built up above us in the crystal air. And we could follow each curve of sound from its incipience to its final crash in the trenches. There were four distinct phases: the sharp bang from the cannon, the long furious howl overhead, the dispersed and spreading noise of the shell's explosion, and then the roll of its reverberation from cliff to cliff. This is what we heard as we crouched in the lee of the firs: what we saw when we looked out between them was only an occasional burst of white smoke and red flame from one hillside, and on the opposite one, a minute later, a brown geyser of dust.

Presently a deluge of rain descended on us, driving us back to our mules, and down the nearest mountain-trail through rivers of mud. It rained all the way: rained in such floods and cataracts that the very rocks of the mountain seemed to dissolve and turn into mud. As we slid down through it we met strings of Chasseurs Alpins coming up, splashed to the waist with wet red clay, and leading pack-mules so coated with it that they looked like studio models from which the sculptor has just pulled off the dripping sheet. Lower down we came on more "trapper" settlements, so saturated and reeking with wet that they gave us a glimpse of what the winter months on the front must be. No more cheerful polishing of fire-arms, hauling of faggots, chatting and smoking in sociable groups: everybody had crept under the doubtful shelter of branches and tarpaulins; the whole army was back in its burrows.

August 17th.

Sunshine again for our arrival at Belfort. The invincible city lies unpretentiously behind its green glacis and escutcheoned gates; but the guardian Lion under the Citadel—well, the Lion is figuratively as well as literally a la hauteur. With the sunset flush on him, as he crouched aloft in his red lair below the fort, he might almost have claimed kin with his mighty prototypes of the Assarbanipal frieze. One wondered a little, seeing whose work he was; but probably it is easier for an artist to symbolize an heroic town than the abstract and elusive divinity who sheds light on the world from New York harbour.

From Belfort back into reconquered Alsace the road runs through a gentle landscape of fields and orchards. We were bound for Dannemarie, one of the towns of the plain, and a centre of the new administration. It is the usual "gros bourg" of Alsace, with comfortable old houses in espaliered gardens: dull, well-to-do, contented; not in the least the kind of setting demanded by the patriotism which has to be fed on pictures of little girls singing the Marseillaise in Alsatian head-dresses and old men with operatic waistcoats tottering forward to kiss the flag. What we saw at Dannemarie was less conspicuous to the eye but much more nourishing to the imagination. The military and civil administrators had the kindness and patience to explain their work and show us something of its results; and the visit left one with the impression of a slow and quiet process of adaptation wisely planned and fruitfully carried out. We did, in fact, hear the school-girls of Dannemarie sing the Marseillaise—and the boys too—but, what was far more interesting, we saw them studying under the direction of the teachers who had always had them in charge, and found that everywhere it had been the aim of the French officials to let the routine of the village policy go on undisturbed. The German signs remain over the shop-fronts except where the shop-keepers have chosen to paint them out; as is happening more and more frequently. When a functionary has to be replaced he is chosen from the same town or the same district, and even the personnel of the civil and military administration is mainly composed of officers and civilians of Alsatian stock. The heads of both these departments, who accompanied us on our rounds, could talk to the children and old people in German as well as in their local dialect; and, as far as a passing observer could discern, it seemed as though everything had been done to reduce to a minimum the sense of strangeness and friction which is inevitable in the transition from one rule to another. The interesting point was that this exercise of tact and tolerance seemed to proceed not from any pressure of expediency but from a sympathetic understanding of the point of view of this people of the border. I heard in Dannemarie not a syllable of lyrical patriotism or post-card sentimentality, but only a kindly and impartial estimate of facts as they were and must be dealt with.

August 18th.

Today again we started early for the mountains. Our road ran more to the westward, through the heart of the Vosges, and up to a fold of the hills near the borders of Lorraine. We stopped at a Head-quarters where a young officer of dragoons was to join us, and learned from him that we were to be allowed to visit some of the first-line trenches which we had looked out on from a high-perched observation post on our former visit to the Vosges. Violent fighting was going on in that particular region, and after a climb of an hour or two we had to leave the motor at a sheltered angle of the road and strike across the hills on foot. Our path lay through the forest, and every now and then we caught a glimpse of the high-road running below us in full view of the German batteries. Presently we reached a point where the road was screened by a thick growth of trees behind which an observation post had been set up. We scrambled down and looked through the peephole. Just below us lay a valley with a village in its centre, and to the left and right of the village were two hills, the one scored with French, the other with German trenches. The village, at first sight, looked as normal as those through which we had been passing; but a closer inspection showed that its steeple was shattered and that some of its houses were unroofed. Part of it was held by German, part by French troops. The cemetery adjoining the church, and a quarry just under it, belonged to the Germans; but a line of French trenches ran from the farther side of the church up to the French batteries on the right hand hill. Parallel with this line, but starting from the other side of the village, was a hollow lane leading up to a single tree. This lane was a German trench, protected by the guns of the left hand hill; and between the two lay perhaps fifty yards of ground. All this was close under us; and closer still was a slope of open ground leading up to the village and traversed by a rough cart-track. Along this track in the hot sunshine little French soldiers, the size of tin toys, were scrambling up with bags and loads of faggots, their ant-like activity as orderly and untroubled as if the two armies had not lain trench to trench a few yards away. It was one of those strange and contradictory scenes of war that bring home to the bewildered looker-on the utter impossibility of picturing how the thing really happens.

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