There was a village that had been stamped flat, till it looked older than Pompeii. There were not three roofs left, nor one whole house. In most places you saw straight into the cellars. The hops were ripe in the grave-dotted fields round about. They had been brought in and piled in the nearest outline of a dwelling. Women sat on chairs on the pavement, picking the good-smelling bundles. When they had finished one, they reached back and pulled out another through the window-hole behind them, talking and laughing the while. A cart had to be maneuvered out of what had been a farmyard, to take the hops to market. A thick, broad, fair-haired wench, of the sort that Millet drew, flung all her weight on a spoke and brought the cart forward into the street. Then she shook herself, and, hands on hips, danced a little defiant jig in her sabots as she went back to get the horse. Another girl came across a bridge. She was precisely of the opposite type, slender, creamy-skinned, and delicate-featured. She carried a brand-new broom over her shoulder through that desolation, and bore herself with the pride and grace of Queen Iseult.
The farm-girl came out leading the horse, and as the two young things passed they nodded and smiled at each other, with the delicate tangle of the hop-vines at their feet.
The guns spoke earnestly in the north. That was the Argonne, where the Crown Prince was busily getting rid of a few thousands of his father’s faithful subjects in order to secure himself the reversion of his father’s throne. No man likes losing his job, and when at long last the inner history of this war comes to be written, we may find that the people we mistook for principals and prime agents were only average incompetents moving all Hell to avoid dismissal. (For it is absolutely true that when a man sells his soul to the devil he does it for the price of half nothing.)
It must have been a hot fight. A village, wrecked as is usual along this line, opened on it from a hillside that overlooked an Italian landscape of carefully drawn hills studded with small villages—a plain with a road and a river in the foreground, and an all-revealing afternoon light upon everything. The hills smoked and shook and bellowed. An observation-balloon climbed up to see; while an aeroplane which had nothing to do with the strife, but was merely training a beginner, ducked and swooped on the edge of the plain. Two rose-pink pillars of crumbled masonry, guarding some carefully trimmed evergreens on a lawn half buried in rubbish, represented an hotel where the Crown Prince had once stayed. All up the hillside to our right the foundations of houses lay out, like a bit of tripe, with the sunshine in their square hollows. Suddenly a band began to play up the hill among some trees; and an officer of local Guards in the new steel anti-shrapnel helmet, which is like the seventeenth century sallet, suggested that we should climb and get a better view. He was a kindly man, and in speaking English had discovered (as I do when speaking French) that it is simpler to stick to one gender. His choice was the feminine, and the Boche described as “she” throughout made me think better of myself, which is the essence of friendship. We climbed a flight of old stone steps, for generations the playground of little children, and found a ruined church, and a battalion in billets, recreating themselves with excellent music and a little horseplay on the outer edge of the crowd. The trouble in the hills was none of their business for that day.
Still higher up, on a narrow path among the trees, stood a priest and three or four officers. They watched the battle and claimed the great bursts of smoke for one side or the other, at the same time as they kept an eye on the flickering aeroplane. “Ours,” they said, half under their breath. “Theirs.” “No, not ours that one—theirs! . . . That fool is banking too steep . . . That’s Boche shrapnel. They always burst it high. That’s our big gun behind that outer hill . . . He’ll drop his machine in the street if he doesn’t take care . . . There goes a trench-sweeper. Those last two were theirs, but that”—it was a full roar —“was ours.”
The valley held and increased the sounds till they seemed to hit our hillside like a sea.
A change of light showed a village, exquisitely pencilled atop of a hill, with reddish haze at its feet.
“What is that place?” I asked.
The priest replied in a voice as deep as an organ: “That is Saint—— It is in the Boche lines. Its condition is pitiable.”
The thunders and the smokes rolled up and diminished and renewed themselves, but the small children romped up and down the old stone steps; the beginner’s aeroplane unsteadily chased its own shadow over the fields; and the soldiers in billet asked the band for their favourite tunes.
Said the lieutenant of local Guards as the cars went on: “She—play—Tipperary.”
And she did—to an accompaniment of heavy pieces in the hills, which followed us into a town all ringed with enormous searchlights, French and Boche together, scowling at each other beneath the stars.
We came on it in a vast dip of ground under grey clouds, as one comes suddenly on water; for it lay out in misty blue lakes of men mixed with darker patches, like osiers and undergrowth, of guns, horses, and wagons. A straight road cut the landscape in two along its murmuring front.
It was as though Cadmus had sown the dragon’s teeth, not in orderly furrows but broadcast, till, horrified by what arose, he had emptied out the whole bag and fled. But these were no new warriors. The record of their mere pitched battles would have satiated a Napoleon. Their regiments and batteries had learnt to achieve the impossible as a matter of routine, and in twelve months they had scarcely for a week lost direct contact with death. We went down the line and looked into the eyes of those men with the used bayonets and rifles; the packs that could almost stow themselves on the shoulders that would be strange without them; at the splashed guns on their repaired wheels, and the easy-working limbers. One could feel the strength and power of the mass as one feels the flush of heat from off a sunbaked wall. When the Generals’ cars arrived there, there was no loud word or galloping about. The lakes of men gathered into straight-edged battalions; the batteries aligned a little; a squadron reined back or spurred up; but it was all as swiftly smooth as the certainty with which a man used to the pistol draws and levels it at the required moment. A few peasant women saw the Generals alight. The aeroplanes, which had been skimming low as swallows along the front of the line (theirs must have been a superb view) ascended leisurely, and “waited on” like hawks. Then followed the inspection, and one saw the two figures, tall and short, growing smaller side by side along the white road, till far off among the cavalry they entered their cars again, and moved along the horizon to another rise of grey-green plain.
“The army will move across where you are standing. Get to a flank,” some one said.
We were no more than well clear of that immobile host when it all surged forward, headed by massed bands playing a tune that sounded like the very pulse of France.
The two Generals, with their Staff, and the French Minister for War, were on foot near a patch of very green lucerne. They made about twenty figures in all. The cars were little grey blocks against the grey skyline. There was nothing else in all that great plain except the army; no sound but the changing notes of the aeroplanes and the blunted impression, rather than noise, of feet of men on soft ground. They came over a slight ridge, so that one saw the curve of it first furred, then grassed, with the tips of bayonets, which immediately grew to full height, and then, beneath them, poured the wonderful infantry. The speed, the thrust, the drive of that broad blue mass was like a tide-race up an arm of the sea; and how such speed could go with such weight, and how such weight could be in itself so absolutely under control, filled one with terror. All the while, the band, on a far headland, was telling them and telling them (as if they did not know!) of the passion and gaiety and high heart of their own land in the speech that only they could fully understand. (To hear the music of a country is like hearing a woman think aloud.)
“What is the tune?” I asked of an officer beside me.
“My faith, I can’t recall for the moment. I’ve marched to it often enough, though. ‘Sambre-et-Meuse,’ perhaps. Look! There goes my battalion! Those Chasseurs yonder.”
He knew, of course; but what could a stranger identify in that earth-shaking passage of thirty thousand?
The note behind the ridge changed to something deeper.
“Ah! Our guns,” said an artillery officer, and smiled tolerantly on the last blue waves of the Line already beating toward the horizon.
They came twelve abreast—one hundred and fifty guns free for the moment to take the air in company, behind their teams. And next week would see them, hidden singly or in lurking confederacies, by mountain and marsh and forest, or the wrecked habitations of men—where?
The big guns followed them, with that long-nosed air of detachment peculiar to the breed. The Gunner at my side made no comment. He was content to let his Arm speak for itself, but when one big gun in a sticky place fell out of alignment for an instant I saw his eyebrows contract. The artillery passed on with the same inhuman speed and silence as the Line; and the Cavalry’s shattering trumpets closed it all.
They are like our Cavalry in that their horses are in high condition, and they talk hopefully of getting past the barbed wire one of these days and coming into their own. Meantime, they are employed on “various work as requisite,” and they all sympathize with our rough-rider of Dragoons who flatly refused to take off his spurs in the trenches. If he had to die as a damned infantryman, he wasn’t going to be buried as such. A troop-horse of a flanking squadron decided that he had had enough of war, and jibbed like Lot’s wife. His rider (we all watched him) ranged about till he found a stick, which he used, but without effect. Then he got off and led the horse, which was evidently what the brute wanted, for when the man remounted the jibbing began again. The last we saw of him was one immensely lonely figure leading one bad but happy horse across an absolutely empty world. Think of his reception—the sole man of 40,000 who had fallen out!
The Commander of that Army Corps came up to salute. The cars went away with the Generals and the Minister for War; the Army passed out of sight over the ridges to the north; the peasant women stooped again to their work in the fields, and wet mist shut down on all the plain; but one tingled with the electricity that had passed. Now one knows what the solidarity of civilization means. Later on the civilized nations will know more, and will wonder and laugh together at their old blindness. When Lord Kitchener went down the line, before the march past, they say that he stopped to speak to a General who had been Marchand’s Chief of Staff at the time of Fashoda. And Fashoda was one of several cases when civilization was very nearly maneuvered into fighting with itself “for the King of Prussia,” as the saying goes. The all-embracing vileness of the Boche is best realized from French soil, where they have had large experience of it. “And yet,” as some one observed, “we ought to have known that a race who have brought anonymous letter-writing to its highest pitch in their own dirty Court affairs would certainly use the same methods in their foreign politics. Why didn’t we realize?”
“For the same reason,” another responded, “that society did not realize that the late Mr. Smith, of your England, who married three wives, bought baths in advance for each of them, and, when they had left him all their money, drowned them one by one.”
“And were the baths by any chance called Denmark, Austria, and France in 1870?” a third asked.
“No, they were respectable British tubs. But until Mr. Smith had drowned his third wife people didn’t get suspicious. They argued that ‘men don’t do such things.’ That sentiment is the criminal’s best protection.”