The Retaking of Alsace
By E. Alexander Powell
(War correspondent of The New York World, The London Daily Mail,
and SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE with the French Armies)
[Scribner's Magazine, November 1915]
The sergeant in charge of the machine gun, taking advantage of a lull in the rifle-fire which had crackled and roared along the trenches since dawn, was sprawled on his back in the gun-pit, reading a magazine. What attracted my attention was its being an American magazine.
"Where did you learn to read English?" I asked him curiously. "In America," said he.
"What part?" said I.
"Schenectady," he answered. "Was with the General Electric until the war began."
"I'm from up-State myself," I remarked. "My people live in Syracuse."
"The hell you say!" he exclaimed, scrambling to his feet and grasping my hand cordially. "I took you for an Englishman. From Syracuse, eh ? Why, that makes us sort of neighbors, doesn't it? We ought to have a drink on it. I suppose the Bosches have plenty of beer over there," waving his hand in the direction of the German trenches, of which I could catch a glimpse through a porthole, "but we haven't anything here but water. I've got an idea, though! Back in the States, when they have those Old Home Week reunions, they always fire the town cannon or an anvil. So what's the matter with celebrating this reunion by letting the Bosches have a few rounds from the machine gun?"
Seating himself astride the bicycle saddle on the trail of the machine gun, he swung the lean barrel of the wicked little weapon until it rested on the German trenches a hundred yards away. Then he slipped the end of a cartridge-carrier into the breech. "Three rousing cheers for good old New York State!" said he, and pressed a button, Rrrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rrrip went the machine gun, with the noise of a million mowing-machines. Flame spurted from its muzzle as water spurts from the nozzle of a fire-hose. The racket in the log-roofed gun-pit was ear-shattering. The blast of bullets spattered the German trenches, they pinged metallically against the steel plates set in the embrasures, they kicked up countless spurts of yellow earth. The sergeant stood up grinning, and with a grimy handkerchief wiped from his face the powder stains and perspiration.
"If you should happen to be in Schenectady you might drop in at the General Electric plant and tell the boys—" he began, but the sentence was never finished, for just then a shell whined low above our heads and burst somewhere behind the trenches with the roar of an exploding powder-mill. We had disturbed the Germans' afternoon siesta, and their batteries were showing their resentment.
"I think that perhaps I'd better be moving along," said I hastily. "It's getting on toward dinner-time."
"Well, s'long," said he regretfully. "And say," he called after me, "when you get back to little old New York, would you mind dropping into the Knickerbocker and having a drink for me? And be sure and give my regards to Broadway."
"I certainly will," said I.
And that is how a Franco-American whose name I do not know, sergeant in a French-line regiment whose number I may not mention, and I held an Old Home Week celebration of our own in the French trenches in Alsace. For all I know, there may have been some other residents of central New York over in the German trenches. If so, they made no attempt to join our little reunion. Had they done so they would have received a very warm reception.
There were several reasons why I welcomed the opportunity offered me by the French General Staff to see the fighting in Alsace. In the first place, a veil of secrecy had been thrown over the operations in that region, and the mysterious is always alluring. Secondly, most of the fighting that I have seen has been either in flat or only moderately hilly countries, and I was curious to see how warfare is conducted in a region as mountainous and as heavily forested as the Adirondacks or Oregon. Again, the Alsace sector is at the extreme southern end of that great battle line, close on six hundred miles long, which stretches its unlovely length across Europe from the North Sea to the Alps, like some monstrous and deadly snake. And lastly, I wanted to see the retaking of that narrow strip of territory lying between the summit of the Vosges and the Rhine which, for four-and-forty years, has been mourned by France as one of her "lost provinces."
This land of Alsace is, in many respects, the most beautiful that I have ever seen. Strung along the horizon, like sentinels wrapped in mantles of green, the peaks of the Vosges loom against the sky. On the slopes of the ridges, massed in their black battalions, stand forests of spruce and pine. Through peaceful valleys silver streams meander leisurely, and in the meadows which border them cattle stand knee-deep amid the lush green grass. The villages, their tortuous, cobble-paved streets lined on either side by dim arcades, and the old, old houses, with their turrets and balconies and steep-pitched pottery roofs, give you the feeling that they are not real, but that they are scenery on a stage, and this illusion is heightened by the men in their jaunty bérets and wooden sabots, and the women whose huge black silk head-dresses accentuate the freshness of their complexions. It is at once a region of ruggedness and majesty and grandeur, of quaintness and simplicity and charm. As I motored through it, it was hard to make myself believe that death was abroad in so fair a land, and that over there, on the other side of those near-by hills, men were engaged in the business of wholesale slaughter. I was brought to an abrupt realization of it, however, as we were passing through the old gray town of Gérardmer. I heard a sudden outcry, and the streets, which a moment before had been a-bustle with the usual marketday crowd, were all at once deserted. The people dived into their houses as a woodchuck dives into its hole. The sentries on duty in front of the État-Major were staring upward. High in the sky, approaching with the speed of an express-train, was what looked like a great white sea-gull, but which, from the silver sheen of its armor-plated body, I knew to be a German Taube. "We're in for another bombardment," remarked an officer.
"The German airmen have been visiting us every day of late." As the aircraft swooped lower and nearer a field-gun concealed on the wooded hillside above the town spoke sharply, and a moment later there appeared just below the Taube a patch of what looked like cotton-wool. From the opposite side of the town another anti-aircraft gun began to bark defiance, until soon the aerial intruder was ringed about by puffs of fleecy smoke. Things were getting too hot for the German and, with a beautiful sweep, he swung about and went sailing down the wind, content to wait until a more favorable opportunity should offer. The inhabitants of these Alsacian towns have become so accustomed to visits from German airmen that they pay scarcely more attention to them than they do to thunder-storms, going indoors to avoid the bombs just as they go indoors to avoid the rain. I remarked, indeed, as I motored through the country, that nearly every town through which we passed showed evidences, either by shattered roofs or shrapnel-spattered walls, of aeroplane bombardment. Thus is the war brought home to those who, dwelling many miles from the line of battle, might naturally suppose themselves safe from harm. In those towns which are within range of the German guns the inhabitants are in double danger, yet the shops and schools are open, and the townspeople go about their business apparently wholly unmindful of the possibility that a shell may drop in on them at any moment. In St. Dié we stopped for lunch at the Hôtel Terminus, which is just opposite the railway station. St. Dié is within easy range of the German guns—or was when I was there early in the summer—and when the Germans have nothing better to do they shell it, centring their fire, as is their custom, upon the railway station, so as to interfere as much as possible with traffic. The station and the adjacent buildings looked like cardboard boxes in which somebody had jabbed many ragged holes with a lead-pencil. The hotel, despite its upper floor having been wrecked by shellfire only a few days previously, was open and doing business. Ranged upon the mantel of the dining-room was a row of German 77-millimetre shells, polished until they shone like silver. "Where did you get those?" I asked the woman who kept the hotel. "Those are some German shells that fell in the garden during the last bombardment and failed to explode," she answered carelessly. "I had them unloaded—and the man who did it made an awful fuss about it, too—and I use them for hot-water bottles. Sometimes it gets pretty cold here at night, and it's very comforting to have a nice hot shell at your feet."
From St. Dié to Le Rudlin, where the road ends, is in the neighborhood of thirty miles, and we did it in something under thirty minutes. We went so fast that the telegraph poles looked like the palings in a picket-fence, and we took the corners on two wheels so as to save rubber. Of one thing I am quite certain: if I am killed in this war, it is not going to be by a shell or a bullet; it is going to be in a military motor-car. No cars save military ones are permitted on the roads in the zone of operations, and for the military cars no speed-limits exist. As a result the drivers tear through the country as though they were in the Vanderbilt Cup race. Sometimes, of course, a wheel comes off, or they meet another vehicle when going round a corner at full speed—and the next morning there is a military funeral. To be the driver of a military car in the zone of operations is the joyrider's dream come true. The soldier who drove my car steered with one hand because he had to use the other to illustrate the stories of his exploits in the trenches. Despite the fact that we were on a mountain road, one side of which dropped away into nothingness, when he related the story of how he captured six Germans singlehanded, he took both hands off the wheel to tell about it. It would have made Barney Oldfield's hair permanently pompadour.
At Le Rudlin, where there is an outpost of Alpine chasseurs, we left the car and mounted mules for the ascent of the Hauts Chaumes, or High Moors, which crown the summit of the Vosges. Along this ridge ran the imaginary line which Bismarck made the boundary between Germany and France. Each mule was led by a soldier, whose short blue tunic, scarlet breeches, blue puttees, rakish blue béret, and rifle slung hunter-fashion across his back made him look, uncommonly like a Spanish brigand, while another soldier hung to the mule's tail to keep him. on the path, which is as steep and narrow as the path of virtue. Have you ever ridden the trail which leads from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado? Yes? Well, the trail which we took up to the Hauts Chaumes was like that, only more so. Yet over that and similar trails has passed an army of invasion, carrying with it, either on the backs of mules or on the backs of men, its guns, food, and ammunition, and sending back in like fashion its wounded. Reaching the summit, the trail debouched from the dense pine forest onto an open, wind-swept moor. Dotting the backbone of the ridge, far as the eye could see, ran a line of low stone boundary posts. On one side of each post was carved the letter F. On the other, the eastern face, was the letter D. Is it necessary to say that F stood for France and D for Deutschland? Squatting beside one of the posts was a French soldier busily engaged with hammer and chisel in cutting away the D. "It will not be needed again," he explained, grinning.
Leaving the mules in the shelter of the wood, we proceeded across the open tableland which crowns the summit of the ridge on foot, for, being now within both sight and range of the German batteries, there seemed no object in attracting more attention to ourselves than was absolutely necessary. Half a mile or so beyond the boundary posts the plateau suddenly fell away in a sheer precipice, the brink of which was bordered by a thin screen of bushes.. The topographical officer who had assumed the direction of the expedition at Le Rudlin motioned me to come forward. "Look," said he, "but be careful not to show yourself or to shake the bushes, or we will have some shells bursting about our heads." Cautiously I peered through an opening in the branches.
The mountain slope below me, almost at the foot of the cliff on which I stood, was scarred across by two great undulating yellow ridges. In places they were as much as a thousand yards apart, in others barely ten. I did not need to be told what they were. I knew. The ridge higher up the slope marked the line of the French trenches; the lower that of the German. From them came an incessant crackle and splutter which sounded like a forest fire. Sometimes it would die down until only an occasional shot would punctuate the mountain silence, and then, apparently without cause, it would rise into a clatter which sounded like an army of carpenters shingling a roof. In the forests on either side of us batteries were at work steadily, methodically, and, though we could not see the guns, the frequent puffs of yellow smoke and the fountains of earth thrown up along both lines of trenches by bursting shells showed how accurate was both the French and German fire. We were watching what the official communiqué described the next day as the fighting on the Fecht very much as one would watch a football game from the upper row of seats in the Harvard stadium. Above the forest at our right swayed a French observation balloon, tugging impatiently at its rope, while the observer, glasses glued to his eyes, telephoned to the commander of the battery in the wood below him where his shells were hitting. Suddenly, from the French position just below me, there rose, high above the duo tone of rifle and artillery fire, the shrill clatter of a quick-firer. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat it went, for all the world like one of those machines which they use for riveting steel girders. And, when you come to think of it, that is what it was doing: riveting the bonds which bind Alsace to France.
"Look over there," said the little French captain who was acting as our guide, and he pointed to where, far beyond the trench-slashed hillsides, a great, broad valley was swimming in the twilight mists. There were green squares which I knew for meadow-lands, and yellow squares which were fields of ripening grain; here and there were clusters of white-walled, red-roofed houses, with ancient church spires rising above them, like fingers pointing toward heaven; and winding down the middle of the plain was a broad gray ribbon which turned to silver when the sun struck upon it. "Look," said the little captain again, and there was a break in his voice, "that is what we are fighting for. That is Alsace." Then I knew that I was looking upon what is, to every man of Gallic birth, the Promised Land; I knew that the great dim bulk which loomed against the distant sky-line was the Black Forest; I knew that somewhere up that mysterious, alluring valley, Strasburg sat on her hilltop, like an Andromeda waiting to be freed; and that the broad, silent-flowing river which I saw below me was none other than the Rhine.
And as I looked I recalled another scene, on another continent, and beside another river, two years before. I was standing beside a colored cavalry sergeant of the border patrol on the banks of the Rio Grande, and we were looking southward to where the mountains of Chihuahua rose, purple, mysterious, and forbidding, against the evening sky. On the Mexican side of the river a battle was in progress.
"I suppose," I remarked to my companion, "that you'll be mighty glad when the orders come to cross the border and clean things up over there in Mexico."
"Mistah," he answered earnestly, "we ain't never gwine tuh cross dat bodah, but one of dese yere days we's a gwine tuh pick dat bodah up an' carry it right down tuh Panama."
And that is what the French are doing in Alsace. They have not crossed the border, but they have picked the border up and are carrying it right down, to the banks of the Rhine. I have heard it said that the French army has been opposed and in many instances betrayed by the people whom they thought they were liberating from the German yoke, and that consequently the feeling of the French soldiers for the Alsacians is very bitter. This assertion is not true. I talked with a great many people during my stay in Alsace—with the maires of towns, with shopkeepers, with peasant farmers, and with village priests—and I found that they welcomed the French as wholeheartedly as a citizen who hears a burglar in his house welcomes a policeman. I saw old men and women who had dwelt in Alsace before the Germans came, and who had given up all hope of seeing the beloved tricolor flying again above Alsacian soil, standing at the doors of their cottages, with tears coursing down their cheeks, cheering with cracked voices as the endless columns of soldiery in the familiar uniform tramped by. In the schoolhouses of Alsace I saw French soldiers patiently teaching children of French blood who have been born under German rule and educated under German schoolmasters the meaning of "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" and that p-a-t-r-i-e spells France.
The change from Teutonic to Gallic rule is, however, by no means welcomed by all Alsacians. The Alsatians of to-day, remember, are not the Alsacians of 1870. It has been the consistent policy of the German Government to encourage and where necessary to assist German farmers to settle in Alsace, and, as the years passed and the old hatred died down, these newcomers inter-married with the old French stock, so that to-day there are thousands of the younger generation in whose veins flow both French and German blood and who scarcely know them selves to whom their allegiance belongs. As a result of this peculiar condition both the French and German military authorities have to be constantly on their guard against treachery, for a woman bearing a French name may well be of German birth, while a man who speaks nothing but German may, nevertheless, be of pure French extraction. Hence spies, both French and German, abound. If the French Intelligence Department is well served, so is that of Germany. Peasants working in the fields, petty tradesmen in the towns, women of social standing, Germans dressed as priests, as hospital attendants, as sisters of charity, as Red Cross nursesm sometimes in French uniforms and travelling in motor-cars with all the necessary papers, all help to keep the German military authorities informed of what is going on behind the French lines. Sometimes they signal by means of lamps, or by raising and lowering the shade of a lighted room of some lonely farmhouse; sometimes by means of cunningly concealed telephone wires; occasionally by the fashion in which the family washing is arranged upon a line within range of German telescopes, innocent-looking red flannel petticoats, blue linen blouses, and white undergarments taking the place of signal flags. They are no cowards who do this sort of work. They know perfectly well what it means if they are detected: sunrise, a wall, and a firing party. They shot a woman for espionage when I was in Alsace. An officer who was present at her execution told me about it. She was young and very beautiful, it seems, and came from an excellent family. It was shown at her trial that she was at the head of a remarkably efficient and extensive system of espionage. "It was a horrible business shooting a woman," said the officer, "but it had to be done, for she was endangering the safety of the whole army. She behaved splendidly, too. I wish to God that I could forget about it."
From the Hauts Chaumes we descended by a very steep and perilous path to the Lac Noir, where a battalion of Alpine chasseurs had built a cantonment at which we spent the night. The Lac Noir, or Black Lake, occupies the crater of an extinct volcano, whose rocky sides are so smooth and steep that it looks like a gigantic washtub, in which a weary Hercules might wash the clothing of the world. There were in the neighborhood of a thousand chasseurs in camp on the shores of the Lac Noir when I was there, the chef de brigade having been, until the beginning of the war, military adviser to the President of China. The amazing democracy of the French army was illustrated by the fact that his second in command, Lieutenant-Colonel Messimy, was, until the change of cabinet which took place after the battle of the Marne, French minister of war. The cantonment—"Black Lake City," Colonel Messimy jokingly called it—looked far more like a summer camp in the Adirondacks than a soldiers' camp in Alsace. All the buildings were of logs, their roofs being covered with masses of green boughs to conceal them from inquisitive aeroplanes, and at the back of each hut, hollowed from the mountainside, was an underground shelter in which the men could take refuge in case of bombardment. Gravelled paths, sometimes bordered with flowers, wound amid the trees; the officers' quarters had broad verandas with ingeniously made rustic furniture upon them; the mess tables were set under leafy arbors; there was a swimming raft and a diving-board, and a sort of rustic pavilion known as the "Casino," where the men passed their spare hours in playing cards or danced to the music of a really excellent band. Though the Lac Noir is within the French lines, it is within range of the German batteries, which shell it almost daily. The slopes of the crater, on which the cantonment is built, are so steep, however, that the shells miss the barracks altogether and drop harmlessly in the middle of the little lake.
The ensuing explosion stuns hundreds of fish, which float upon the surface, whereupon the soldiers paddle out in a rickety flatboat and gather them in. A German bombardment has come to mean, therefore, that the chasseurs will have fish for dinner. This daily bombardment, which begins just before sunset, the French call "the Evening Prayer." The first shot is the signal for the band to take position on that shore of the lake which cannot be reached by the German shells and play the Marseillaise, a bit of irony which affords huge amusement to the French and excessive irritation to the Germans.
When the history of the campaign in the Vosges comes to be written, a great many pages will have to be devoted to recounting the exploits, of the chasseurs alpins. The "Blue Devils," as the Germans have dubbed them, are the Highlanders of the French army, being recruited from the French slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees. Tough as rawhide, hard as nails, keen as razors, they are the ideal troops for mountain warfare. They wear a distinctive dark-blue uniform, and the béret or cap of the French Alps, a flat-topped, jaunty head-dress which is brother to the tam-o'-shanter. The frontier of Alsace, from a point opposite Strasburg to a point opposite Mulhausen, follows the summit of the Vosges, and over this range, which in places is nearly a mile in height, have poured the French armies of invasion. In the van of those armies have marched the chasseurs alpins, dragging their guns by hand up the almost sheer precipices, and dragging the gun-mules up after them; advancing through forests so dense that they had to chop paths for the line regiments which followed them; carrying by storm the apparently impregnable positions held by the Germans; sleeping on the heights which they had captured often without blankets, with the mercury hovering near zero; taking their batteries into positions where it was believed that no batteries could go; raining shells from those batteries upon the wooded slopes ahead, and, under cover of that fire, advancing, always advancing. Think of what it meant to get a great army over such a mountain range in the face of desperate opposition; think of the labor involved in transporting the enormous supplies of food, clothing, and ammunition required by that army; think of the sufferings of the wounded who had to be taken back across those mountains, many of them in the depths of winter, sometimes in litters, sometimes lashed to the backs of mules. The mule, whether from the Alps, the Pyrenees, or from Missouri, is playing a brave part in this mountain warfare, and whenever I saw one I felt like the motorist who, after his automobile had been hauled out of an apparently bottomless Southern bog by a negro who happened to be passing with a mule, said to his son: "My boy, from now on always raise your hat to a mule."
When I asked the general commanding the armies operating in Alsace for permission to visit the fire-trenches, I did it merely as a matter of form. I was quite prepared to be met with a polite but firm refusal, for it is as difficult to get into the French trenches as it is to get behind the scenes of a Broadway theatre on the first night of a big production. This, understand, is not from any solicitude for your safety, but because a fire-trench is usually a very busy place indeed, and a visitor is apt to get in the way and make himself a nuisance generally. Imagine my astonishment, then, when the general said, " Certainly, if you wish," just as though he were giving me permission to visit his stables or his gardens. I might add that almost every correspondent who has succeeded in getting to the French front has been taken, with a vast deal of ceremony and precaution, into a trench of some sort, thus giving him an experience to tell about all the rest of his life, but those who have been permitted to visit the actual fire-trenches might almost be numbered on the fingers of one hand. The fire, or first-line, trench, is the one nearest the enemy, and both from it and against it there is almost constant firing. The difference between a second-line, or reserve, trench and a fire-trench is the difference between sitting in a comfortable orchestra stall and in being on the stage and a part of the show.
Before they took me out to the trenches we had lunch in Dannemarie, or, as it used to be known under German rule, Dammerkirch. Though the town is within easy range of the German guns, and is shelled by them on occasion, the motto of the townsfolk seemed to be "business as usual," I had lunch at the local inn; it began with fresh lobster, followed by spring lamb and asparagus, and ended with strawberries, and it cost me sixty cents, wine included. From which you will gather that the people behind the French lines are not exactly starving. Just outside Dannemarie the railway crosses the river Ill by three tremendous viaducts eighty feet in height. When, early in the war, the Germans fell back before the impetuous French advance, they effectually stopped railway traffic by blowing up one of these viaducts behind them. Urged by the railway company, who preferred to have the government foot the bill, the viaduct was rebuilt by the French military authorities, and a picture of the ceremony which marked its inauguration by the minister of war was published in one of the Paris illustrated papers. The jubilation of the French was a trifle premature, however, for a few days later the Germans moved one of their monster siege-guns into position and, at a range of eighteen miles, sent over a shell which again put the viaduct out of business. That explains why the French don't like to have pictures taken in the zone of operations.
Dannemarie is barely ten miles from that point where the French and German trenches, after zigzagging across nearly six hundred miles of European soil, come to an abrupt end against the frontier of Switzerland. The Swiss, who are taking no chances of having the violation of Belgium repeated with their own country for the victim, have at this point massed a heavy force of extremely businesslike-looking troops, the frontier is marked by a line of wire entanglements, and a military zone has been established, civilians not being permitted to approach within a mile or more of the border. Taking advantage of a sharp angle in the contour of the Swiss frontier, the French have posted one of their batteries in such a position that it commands the German trenches, but it is so close to the border that whenever the German guns reply their shells fall on Swiss soil, and an international incident is created.
The trenches in front of Altkirch, and indeed throughout Alsace, are flanked by patches of dense woods, and it is in these woods that the cantonments for the men are built, and amid their leafy recesses that they spend their time when off duty in sleeping, smoking, and playing cards. Though the German batteries periodically rake the woods with shell-fire, it is an almost total waste of ammunition, for the men simply retreat to the remarkable underground cities which they have constructed during the past year and stay there until the shell-storm is over. These troglodyte habitations, which have come into existence along the entire length of the western battlefront, are perhaps the most curious products of this siege warfare. A dozen feet below the surface of the ground, and so strongly roofed over with logs and earth as to render their occupants safe from the most torrential rain of high-explosive, I was shown rooms with sleeping-quarters for a hundred men apiece, blacksmith and carpenter shops, store-rooms, a post-office, a telegraph station, telephone exchange, a bathing establishment, a barber-shop, and stables for the horses—all with board floors, free from dampness and immaculately clean.
As a matter of fact, the French soldier is admirably taken care of. He is well fed, well clothed, and, following the policy of economizing in human lives, he is afforded every protection that human ingenuity can devise. Nearly every French soldier is now provided with a light steel helmet which can be worn without discomfort under his cap and which, it is asserted, has already saved thousands of lives, and experiments are now being made with various forms of body armor. I am convinced that it is this policy of conserving the lives of her fighting men which is going to win the war for France. If necessity demands that a position be taken with the bayonet, no soldiers in the world sacrifice themselves more freely than the French, but the military authorities have realized that men, unlike shells, cannot be replaced. "The duration and the outcome of the war," the general commanding the armies in Alsace remarked to me, "depend upon how fast we can kill off the Germans. Their army has reached and passed its maximum strength, and every day sees it slowly but surely weakening. Our game, therefore, is to kill as many as possible of the enemy while at the same time saving our own men. It is, after all, a purely mathematical proposition."
I believe that the losses incidental to trench warfare, at least as it is being conducted in the Vosges, have been greatly exaggerated. The officer in command of the French positions in front of Altkirch told me that, during the construction of some of the trenches, the Germans rained twelve thousand shells upon the working parties, yet not a man was killed and only ten were wounded. The modern trench is so ingeniously constructed that, even in the comparatively rare event of a shell dropping squarely into it, only the soldiers in the immediate vicinity, seldom more than half a dozen at the most, are injured. The trenches of to-day would, before this war, have been classed as permanent fortifications, and these fortifications have been rendered so nearly impregnable by applied science that the armies are, for a time at least, in a state of deadlock, remaining hidden and almost stationary in subterranean caves and labyrinths. The Germans can no longer afford the appalling losses which would be entailed in storming the French trenches, and though, if necessity required it, the French could doubtless spare the men who would be lost in taking the German positions, it is felt that such wholesale sacrifices would be unjustified when shells and patience will eventually achieve the same result.
So cleverly have the French engineers taken advantage of the configuration of the country in front of Altkirch, that we were able to enter the boyaux or communication trenches, without leaving the shelter of the wood. Half an hour's brisk walking through what would, in times of peace, be called a ditch, perhaps three feet wide and seven deep, its earthen walls kept in place by fascines of woven willows, and with as many twists and turns as the famous maze at Hampton Court, brought us into the-fire-trenches. These were considerably roomier than the boyaux, a sort of raised step or earthern platform, on which the men stood to fire, running along the side nearest the enemy. Each soldier was protected by a steel shield, about eighteen inches square and painted a lead-gray. In the centre of the shield is cut an opening slightly larger than a playing-card, through which the soldier pokes his rifle when he wishes to fire, and which, when not in use, is screened by a wooden shutter or a cloth curtain so that the riflemen in the German trench cannot see any one who may happen to pass behind it. At intervals of five or six yards men were on watch with their rifles laid. Their instructions are never to take their eyes off the enemy's trenches, a shout from them bringing their comrades tumbling out of their dugouts just as firemen respond to the clang of the fire-gong. When the men come rushing out of the shelters they have, in the earthen platform, a good steady footing which will bring their heads level with the parapet, where their rifles, leaning against the steel shields, await them. It is planned always to keep a sufficient force in the trenches so that, roughly speaking, there will be a man to every yard, which'is about as close as they can fight to advantage. Every thirty yards or so, in a log-roofed shelter known as a gun-pit, was a machine gun, though I was told that in the German trenches opposite us they had a machine gun to every fifteen men.
"Look through, here,' said the officer who was acting as my guide, indicating the port-hole in one of the steel shields, "but don't stay too long or a German sharpshooter may spot you." Cautiously applying my eye to the embrasure I saw, perhaps a hundred yards away, a long, low mound of earth, such as would be thrown up from a sewer excavation, and dotting it at intervals of a yard darker patches which I knew to be just such steel shields as the one behind which I was sheltered. And I knew that behind each one of those steel shields was standing a keen-eyed rifleman searching for something suspicious at which to fire. Immediately in front of the German trench, just as in front of the trench in which I stood, a forest of stout stakes had been driven deep into the ground and draped between these stakes were countless strands of barbed wire, so snarled and tangled and interlaced and woven that not a cat could have gotten through unscratched. Between the two lines of entanglements stretched a field of ripening wheat, streaked here and there with patches of scarlet poppies. There were doubtless other things besides poppies amid that wheat, but, thank God, it was high enough to hide them. Rising from the wheatfield, almost midway between the French and German lines, was a solitary apple-tree. "Behind that tree," whispered the officer standing beside me—for some reason they always speak in hushed tones in the trenches—"is a German outpost. He crawls out every morning before sunrise, and is relieved at dark. Though some of our men keep their rifles constantly laid on the tree we've never been able to get him. Still, he's not a very good life-insurance risk, eh?" And I agreed that he certainly was not.
I must have stayed at my loophole a little too long, or some movement of mine must have attracted the attention of a German sharpshooter, for pang came a bullet against the shield behind which I was standing, with the same ringing, metallic sound which a bullet makes when it hits the iron target in a shooting-gallery. In this case, however, I was the bullseye. Had that bullet been two inches nearer the centre there would have been, in the words of the poet, "more work for the undertaker, another little job for the casket-maker."
"Lucky for you that wasn't one of the new armor-piercing bullets," remarked the officer as I stepped down hastily. "After the Germans introduced the steel shields we went them one better by introducing a jacketed bullet which will go through a sheet of armor-plate as though it were made of cheese. We've had lots of fun with them. Sometimes one of our men will fire half a dozen rounds of ordinary ammunition at a shield behind which he hears some Bosches talking, and they laugh and jeer at him. Then he slips in one of the jacketed bullets and—whang! ! !—we hear a wounded Bosche yelping like a dog that has been run over by a motor-car. Funny things about the Germans. They're brave enough ordinarily, but they scream like animals when they're wounded."
From all that I could gather, the French do not have a particularly high opinion of the quality of the troops opposed to them in Alsace, most of whom are from Bavaria and Baden. An officer who was in the trenches on the Hartmannswillerkopf, where the French and German positions are in places very close together, told me that whenever the Germans attempted an attack the French trenches burst into so fierce a blast of rifie and machine-gun fire that the men in the spiked helmets refused to face it. "Vorwärts! vorwärts!" the German officers would scream, exposing themselves recklessly as they ordered their men forward. "Nein! nein!" the fear-maddened men would answer, as they broke and ran for the shelter of their trenches. Then the French would hear the angry bark of automatics as the officers pistolled their men. When the French, in one of the most desperate and bloody assaults of the entire war, carried the summit of the Hartmannswillerkopf by storm, they found the German machine-gun crews chained to their guns as galley-slaves were chained to their oars. French artillery-officers have repeatedly told me, moreover, that when German infantry advances to take a position by assault the men are frequently urged forward by their own batteries raking them from the rear. As the German gunners gradually advance their fire as the infantry moves forward, it is as dangerous for the men to retreat as to go on. Hence it is by no means uncommon for the German troops to arrive pell-mell at the French trenches, breathless, terrified, hands above their heads, seeking not a fight but a chance to surrender.
A grim comedy was enacted in Alsace while I was there. A company of German infantry was defending a stonewalled farmstead on the Fecht. So murderous was the fire of the French batteries that soon a white sheet was seen waving frantically from one of the farmhouse windows. The French fire ceased, and through the gateway came a group of Germans holding their hands above their heads and shouting, "Kamerad! Kamerad!" which has become the euphemism for "I surrender." But when a detachment of chasseurs went forward to take them prisoners, the Germans suddenly dropped to the ground, while from a window a hidden machine gun poured a stream of lead into the advancing Frenchmen, most of whom were killed or wounded. In payment for this act of treachery the French batteries proceeded to transform that farmhouse into a sieve. In a quarter of an hour the tablecloth was again seen waving, the French fire again died down, and again the Germans came crowding out with their hands above their heads. But this time they were stark naked. Every man had stripped to the skin to prove that he had no weapons concealed on his person. It is scarcely necessary to add, however, that, under the circumstances, those Germans were not taken prisoners.
I was, indeed, particularly struck by the fact that, notwithstanding the heavy fighting which was in progress all along the Alsacian front, I saw remarkably few prisoners. Those that I did see looked as though they were not at all averse to being captured. All the fight seemed to have gone out of them. I had, of course, heard many stories of the German ranks being filled with boys and old men, and the convoys of prisoners which I saw in Alsace led me to believe that the assertion contained a considerable element of truth. Many of the prisoners whom I saw looked as though they should have been in high school, and others as though they had been recruited from old soldiers' homes, and all of them looked dirty and hungry and dispirited and very, very tired. The straggling columns of unkempt, unshaven, undersized men in their soiled and tattered gray-green uniforms were in striking contrast to the helmeted giants on gigantic horses who guarded them.
Though in the comparatively level country between Dannemarie and Altkirch the French and German positions are rarely less than a hundred yards apart, and usually very much more, I was taken into trenches on the slopes of the Vosges where the German earthworks were barely thirty feet distant, while at La Fontenelle the opposing forces are separated by a wall of rock only six feet thick. The only reason one side does not blow up the other by means of mines is because the rock is too hard to tunnel through. It being certain death, under such circumstances, for working parties to attempt to erect the usual entanglements outside the trenches, a sort of movable entanglement, as well as various forms of chevaux-de-frise, is constructed n the shelter of the trenches and pushed over the parapet with poles. In cases where the trenches are so close together the men have the comfort of knowing that they are at least safe from shell-fire, for as the battery-commander is perfectly aware that the slightest error in calculating the range, or the least deterioration in the rifling of his guns, would result in his shells landing among his own men, he usually plays safe and concentrates his fire on the reserve trenches instead of the fire-trenches of the enemy. The fighting in these close-up positions has, consequently, degenerated into a warfare of bombs, hand-grenades, poison-gas, burning oil, and other methods reminiscent of the Dark Ages. Some of the trenches which I visited had ten-foot-high screens of wire netting, looking for all the world like the back-nets of tennis-courts, strung along the tops of the parapets as a protection against bombs and hand-grenades. The grenade commonly used by the French is of the "bracelet" type, consisting of a cast-iron ball filled with explosive, and a leathern loop or bracelet which slips over the wrist, and which is prolonged by a piece of cord about a foot long with an iron hook at the end. Just before the grenade is thrown the hook is passed into the ring of a friction-pin inside the firing-plug which closes the iron ball. By a sharp backward turn of the wrist when the grenade is thrown, the ring, with the friction-pin, held back by the hook, is torn off, the grenade itself continuing on its brief journey of destruction. The troops also use a primed grenade attached to a sort of wooden racket, which can be quickly improvised on the spot.
Hollowed at frequent intervals from the earthen back-walls of the trenches were niches, in each of which was set a bottle of hyposulphate of soda and a pail of water. When the yellow cloud which denotes that the Germans have turned loose their poison-gas comes rolling down upon the trenches, the soldiers hastily empty the hyposulphate into the water, saturate in the solution thus formed a pad of gauze which they always carry with them, fasten it over the mouth and nostrils by means of an elastic, and, as an additional precaution, draw over the head a sort of bag of blue linen with a piece of mica set in front and a draw-string to pull it tight about the neck. Thus protected, they are able to remain at their posts without fear of asphyxiation. The burning oil, which has now been adopted by the French, as well as by the Germans, is squirted by a hose in much the same fashion as a nurseryman sprays his trees with Paris green, the work being assigned to a corps of former firemen who have been specially trained for the purpose. Such is warfare in this year of grace one thousand nine hundred and fifteen.
But poison-gas and flaming oil are by no means the most devilish of the devices introduced by the Germans. The soldiers of the Kaiser have now adopted the weapon of the jealous prostitute, and are throwing vitriol. The vitriol is contained in fragile globes or vials which break upon contact, scattering the liquid fire upon everything in the immediate vicinity. I might add that I do not make this assertion except after the fullest investigation and confirmation. I have not only talked with scores of officers and men who have been in the trenches into which these vitriol bombs were thrown, but American ambulance-drivers working in the Vosges told me that they had carried to the hospitals French soldiers whose faces had been burned almost beyond recognition.
"But we captured one of the vitriol throwers," said an officer who was telling me about the hellish business. "He was pretty badly burned himself."
"I hope that you shot him then and there," said I.
"Oh, no," was the answer, "we sent him along with the other prisoners."
"You don't mean to say," I exclaimed, indignation in my voice, "that you captured a man who had been throwing vitriol at your soldiers and let him live!"
"Naturally," said the officer quietly. "There was nothing else to do. You see, monsieur, we French are civilized."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald