Burrowing to Berlin:
The War of Spades and Picks

By War Editor

[The Independent; March 8, 1915]

The twentieth century will be distinguished in history as the time when war invaded the third dimension. Man in his eagerness to slay his fellow man has taken as his model the eagle and the shark .and strikes his enemy on the sea from the sky above or the water beneath. On the land he imitates the mole, tho it does an injustice to that harmless animal to compare him to the vast machine which scars the country with its burrows and throws destruction for miles roundabout.

In modern warfare a battlefield can be distinguished from any other stretch of ground by there being no soldiers visible on it. Movements of troops near the front have to be made mostly at night and in the daytime, the scene of conflict looks like the interior of the crater of Mauna Loa, a torn and barren plain with here and there a volcanic eruption.

Of course mining and entrenchment are no new thing, but with the development of the long-range rifle and smokeless powder the practise became so extensive and essential as to transform military science. It was our boys in blue and gray who discovered that a dirt ridge and a ditch made the best kind of life insurance and every war since then has shown an increased dependence upon subterranean operations. In the seventeenth century the school of Vauban had worked out a mathematical system of angular advance with trenches and mines by which it could be calculated beforehand just what day a besieged fortress was due to fall—provided of course that the defenders also followed the rules of the game. But nowadays we have to deal not with a besieged city but with a besieged country and the problem is correspondingly complicated. The double entrenched line in France and Flanders extends from Switzerland to the North Sea, and it measures 420 miles in length not counting its minor twists and turns and parallels. For nearly six months both parties have been pounding away at one point and another along this line and yet it has scarcely budged enough to make a noticeable change upon our maps. A professor of mathematics in the Paris Sorbonne is said to have figured out that according to the average rate of progress since General Joffre ordered the advance all along the line the French will reach Berlin in 1948, and the Russians will reach there—but it is more difficult to calculate their date of arrival since they are now further away from Berlin by half than when they started out the first of August. Such calculations, however, cannot be relied upon since at any moment a break may be made in one line or the other through a shortage of some one of the essentials of war, say courage or copper. Lord Sydenham reminds his impatient countrymen that when Lee took to the trenches in June, 1864, it was nine months before Grant with double his force was able to dislodge him. It may be that the 42-centimeter Krupp would make as short work of the fortresses of Verdun or Warsaw as it did those of Liège and Namur, but after six months of effort the Germans have not yet succeeded in getting near enough to try it. A barbed wire fence and ditch have stood between.

It is evident that the soldier would have been much better trained for warfare under modern conditions if he had been set to digging irrigation ditches than in doing "Fours right!" and "Present arms!" on the parade ground. The London Times prints a private letter from a British cavalry officer who frankly confesses his helpless feeling at being left in charge of a front trench the first night:

Being entirely innocent of the correct procedure under strange circumstances, I squatted in my trench, wondering whether it was expected of the officer in charge to sit down and keep awake, or to lie down and go to sleep as all the men, excepting those I had put on guard, appeared to be doing, or to get up at the risk of his life and make periodical inspections of the men in their trenches.... Nothing that I had ever been taught in all the courses had been thru bore in the slightest upon what we were doing.

Practise in the throwing of hand grenades was dropt from the drill of the British army about thirty years ago and even the "grenadiers" have lost their ancient cunning now when it is most needed. The modern grenade is provided with a short stick handle by which it is thrown after the fuse is lighted. The favorite form of the Germans looks like a school globe except that it is made of cast iron instead of papier maché and that the lines of latitude and longitude are grooves deep-cut so that when the bomb explodes it flies into small, sharp fragments. It is about four inches in diameter and weighs a pound and a half when loaded.

But this is too small and short ranged, so the Germans have constructed a trench howitzer which fires a bomb bigger than itself. The steel shell is fifteen inches in diameter and weighs 185 pounds, nearly as much as the gun including its wheeled base. The shell is not loaded into the barrel, but rests upon a rod projecting from the muzzle as the gun points upward at an angle of forty-three degrees. The firing of the gun shoots the rod out of the bore and sends the shell on its way, three or four hundred yards in front, while the rod drops to the ground. These aerial torpedoes are filled with high explosive and burst with a terrific noise and fatal effect in the trenches.

Altho this is a long-range, machine-made campaign, it is not altogether devoid of the romance and chivalry which has attached to warfare thru all the ages. No broadsword champion, no knight encased in steel, has ever shown more personal gallantry in deeds of derring-do than have the bird-men and the fish-men in the Great War. The cruise of the "Emden" reads like a tale of the Spanish Main. Near Verdun a party of 125 Frenchmen dug their way to within twenty feet of a German blockhouse and then rising from the earth took it by assault. But that night the garrison of the pocket fortress had to stand a siege. Suddenly the darkness was lightened by magnesium stars shot into the air and suspended from parachutes, while two battalions of the enemy advanced singing a hymn. But the little garrison beat them off until the day brought reinforcements.

According to the extreme pacifist, Lowell for instance, every soldier is ipso facto a murderer, and should feel like a murderer. But as a matter of fact he does not. It is impossible for two rows of brave fellows, whose bravery each has tried, to stand opposite for weeks without gaining a certain respect for one another. The difficulty is to keep them enemies so that the war can go long enough to satisfy the hate and contempt of the poets, journalists and professors, who remain at home. Where have we read anything finer in the literature of the world's wars than this letter from an officer in the Yorkshire Light Infantry:

One wonders, when one sees a German face to face, is this really one of those devils who wrought such devastation—for devastation, they have surely wrought. You can hardly believe it, for he seems much the same as other soldiers. I can assure you that there is none of that insensate hatred that one hears about, out here. We are about to kill, and kill we do, at any and every opportunity. But, when all is done and the battle is over the splendid universal of "soldier spirit" comes over all the men, and we cannot help thinking that Kipling must have been in the firing line when he wrote that "East is East and West is West" thing. Just to give you some idea of what I mean, the other night four German snipers were shot on our wire. The next night our men went out and brought one in who was near and get-at-able and buried him. They did it with just the same reverence and sadness as they do to our own dear fellows! I went to look at the grave the next morning, and one of the most uncouth looking men in my company had placed a cross at the head of the grave, and had written on it:

"Here lies a German.
We don't know his name,
He died bravely fighting
For his Fatherland."

And under that, "got mitt urns" (sic), that being the highest effort of all the men at German. Not bad for a bloodthirsty Briton, eh? Really that, shows the spirit.

I don't believe there is a man living who, when first interviewing an 11-in. howitzer shell, is not pink with funk. After, the first ten, one gets quite used to them, but really, they are terrible! They hit a house. You can see the great shell—a black streak—just before it strikes, then, before you hear the explosion, the whole house simply lifts up into the air, apparently quite silently; then you hear the roar, and the whole earth shakes. In the place where the house was there is a huge fountain-spout of what looks like pink fluff. It is the pulverized bricks. Then a monstrous shoot of black smoke towering up a hundred feet or more, and, finally, there is a curious willow-like formation, and then—you duck, as huge pieces of shell, and house, and earth, and haystack tumble over your head. And yet, do you know, it is really remarkable how little damage they do against earth trenches. With a whole morning's shelling, not a single man of my company was killed, altho not a single shell missed what it had aimed at by more than fifty yards. That makes all the difference, that fifty yards. If you only keep your head down, you are as safe as houses: exactly, you will remark, "as safe as houses."

Fraternizing between the trenches cannot be altogether prevented even by officers who like the writer of the following letter views the practise with grave disfavor and suspicion:

"When I got back to our trenches after dark on Christmas Eve I found the Bosches' trenches looking like the Thames on Henley Regatta night! They had got little Christmas trees burning all along the parapet of their trench. No truce had been proclaimed, and I was all for not allowing the blighters to enjoy themselves, especially as they had killed one of our men that afternoon. But my captain (who hadn't seen our wounded going mad and slowly dying outside the German trenches on the Aisne) wouldn't let me shoot; however, I soon had an excuse, as one of the Germans fired at us, so I quickly lined up my platoon and had those Christmas trees down and out. Meanwhile, unknown to us, two officers on our right, without saying a word to anybody, got out of their trench and walked halfway to the German trench, and were met by two German officers and talked away quite civilly and actually shook hands! It was an awfully stupid thing to do, as it might easily have had different results; but our captains are new and, not having seen the Germans in their true light yet, apparently won't believe the stories of their treachery and brutality.

The Germans came out, and as soon as we saw they were Saxons I knew it was all right, because they're good fellows on the whole and play the game as far as they know it. The officer came out; we gravely saluted each other, and I then pointed to nine dead Germans lying in midfield and suggested burying them, which both sides proceeded to do. We gave them some wooden crosses for them, which completely won them over, and soon the men were on the best of terms and laughing. Several of the Saxons spoke very fair English, and some hailed from London, much to our cockneys' delight, and talk became genera! about "Precisely," etc. One of them played a mouth-organ, and the others did sort of weird dances, or series of hops, in the turnip field where we were!

I think it did our men good to have a close inspection of their foes; three-quarters, of them seemed to be very young youth; I wouldn't mind taking most of them on myself with a bayonet. They said we were very good shots, so I hope by that we've done some damage. They said to the men, "Send us the tip when you're relieved and we will fire over your heads till then." I don't think! Anyhow, we've got orders not to fire till they do, and if they get the same orders this truce will continue indefinitely. It's really an extraordinary state of affairs. We had an inter-platoon game of football in the afternoon, a cap comforter stuffed with straw did for the ball much to the Saxons' amusement. In the evening we said "Good night," and our men lit large fire in the trenches and sang songs, tho I took good care to double my sentries, as I trust these fellows, devil an inch. This morning war has broken out again, but not in front of us. It is a rum show; I believe politicians will be wrong now, and that the war will come to an end because every one will get fed up and refuse to go on shooting! But it's stupid to take risks.

When ice-cold slush filled the bottoms of the trenches it was found impossible to prevent the men, when their officers were not watching them, from arranging informal truces with their enemies so they could sit up on the edge of the trenches and get their feet out of the freezing mixture. Sometimes by mutual consent the soldiers on both sides come out to mend their breastworks, working openly between the lines a couple of hundred yards apart and then getting under cover to resume firing on one another.

In certain places the opposing trenches have come so close together that the enemies are within range of the camera and may photograph one another. After the preliminary negotiations, the photographer gives a signal and the Germans and French in turn stick their heads up in a row above the breastworks and are snap-shotted.

Decoys are in frequent use. The log cannon, which may, like the wooden nutmeg, be claimed as an American invention, has held many a position. The Russians before Warsaw chuckled in their sleeves to see the Germans waste a day's time and five thousand shells (count them) on a fake barricade consisting of a plowed furrow with a few overcoats scattered along it.

Really, war would not be so bad if it were not for the danger of getting killed—and the duty of killing. From all sides we hear reports that the men are "gaining weight" and "never felt so well in their lives" as in the trenches. Making due allowance for the effort of the soldiers to write home as cheerfully as possible we cannot question that some of these young men are living in more healthful and wholesome conditions than when they were in Tipperary or Seven Dials. The funk-hole is not so picturesque as the canvas tent, but it is preferable in cold weather. In the pioneer days of Kansas and Nebraska many a good Christian family has been raised in a dug-out or a 'dobe not half so well furnished or provisioned as one of these trench dwellings. They are often well drained, warmed and ventilated and free from disease, and the rations supplied regularly are pure and calculated by expert dieticians to the proper nutritive ratio.

The irrepressible humor of the soldier finds an outlet in the naming of these troglodyte villas. Some of the German caves bear signboards which may be translated "Under the Greenwood Tree," "Rheumatism Hall," "The jolly cave-dwellers," "Here lives the primeval man" and "The Shooting Gallery, 3 shots for 10 cents." Neat pyramids of green lyddite shells are piled on each side of the entrance of a subterranean dining hall with the placard "Green gages supplied by the English for every meal." In Belgium "Venice" and "The Grand Canal" are favorite trench names for obvious reasons. Londoners naturally name their trenches after the stations on the tuppenny tube and so have no difficulty in remembering their order, "Waterloo" and "Charing Cross" come before you get to "Leicester Square." The Parisians name theirs from the Metropolitaine subway: "Alma," "Etoile," and so on, ending up with "Père Lachaise," the most deadly post of all.

Kipling in his "Song of the Banjo" extols the merit of that instrument at the front, but the mouth-organ seems now to be more in demand. A Territorial sergeant who received a batch of them from home tells how he distributed them and gave an impromptu concert:

We had all sorts of instruments in the band; the big drum was an empty packing-case and the drum-stick an entrenching tool handle with a piece of sacking tied round the end; empty biscuit tins were side drums; tin whistles, squeakers, and combs and paper came in as well. Candles and electric lamps gave the illumination, and it was really very funny to see this band of about thirty marching around the building, headed by the self-appointed drum-major and conductor in a goatskin, twirling a big stick which I use in feeling my way to and from the trenches,

In the more luxurious of these subterranean lodges a phonograph may be found and since the trenches are connected by telephones one record may be heard by the whole line. The London Times' letters, from which we are mostly quoting, tells of other amusements, such as the following:

The men are truly wonderful; some of the –––– were playing football yesterday afternoon, three shells pitched among them, killing one man wounding nine. Within a quarter of an hour they were playing football again. Of course, it was unaimed fire, but it gives you an idea of the callous value of life. We went to see a performance of "The Follies" yesterday afternoon; the troupe was got up by the –––– Division, with the addition of two local ladies. It was awfully good; some of the talent above the ordinary, especially a corporal from the Army Service Corps. They have two performances a day, at four and seven, and the men come in batches when in reserve, and pay ½f. entrance; with the profits they run a cinematograph, an excellent thing, as it takes the strain quite completely off the men's minds for an hour or two.

The following extract from the letter of a young Australian in Belgium shows callousness of another kind:

There are seven dead Germans in front of the trenches this morning, and I hope to get them in at dusk, to see if they have any papers on them. –––– "dropped" one, and is now full of enthusiasm at the thought of looting something off him, as a souvenir for his girl at home. I want them moved, because in a few days they become almost as objectionable dead as alive.... We lost Major ––––. We want at least 500 dead Germans to wipe that out, and if they continue attacking this position we will bag the number before many days.

But strangely mixt as human nature is, the experiences which will arouse the sporting or the murderous instinct in one man will in another revive a religion which in the tamer times of peace had been half forgotten. Said a wounded Tommy to the chaplain, "Yes, you know, sir, God seems jolly near you in the trenches."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury