Under "The Fog of War"
From London, Through Paris When The Germans Were At Its Gate,
To The Battle Line On The River Aisne
By Arno Dosch
[The World's Work, February 1915]
When the advance of the German army was within twenty miles of Paris, on the fifth of September, Mrs. Dosch and I left London with the hope of crossing the Channel and getting there first.
"The fog of war," as the London newspapers phrase it, hung so thick there was no telling what would happen in the next twenty-four hours. But the journey was worth the chance.
We found Paris dark and still. The only light came from the moon and the white paths of a dozen searchlights which, were patrolling the sky for German aeroplanes. Outside the Invalides Station the street was empty. There was not even the distant tinkle of a wandering fiacre. We walked to the Seine and along the Quai D'Orsay, our footsteps echoing from the buildings. Looking across the river we could see the Place de la Concorde, white and empty in the moonlight, and the Madeleine, beyond, vague and insubstantial. A little farther on we came to the hotel over the Quai D'Orsay Station, one of the few big hotels in Paris open that night. It had less than a dozen guests besides us.
The fog of war did not lift in the morning, nor for several mornings. We knew there was a big battle on, but that was all we knew. The third day neither of the usual official communiques were issued, and the curtain closed down tight. But on the fourth day the news of a great victory came down the boulevards, and that afternoon Paris was officially reported out of danger.
he news, however, was exasperatingly lacking in details. We knew there had been a battle at Meaux, at which the German flank had been turned, but we knew nothing more for certain. Paris knew it was saved, at least for the time being, and, from a repressed, white-faced city on Wednesday, it recovered sufficiently by Sunday to offer thanks in Notre Dame. I was there and I saw men there who, I felt certain, had not been to church for years.
Monday, the streets began to fill with those who had fled to the south, all trying "to look nonchalant and unconscious, as if they had been there all the time. But there was no sign of refugees from the north returning to their homes. On Friday, however, Mrs. Dosch and I undertook to penetrate the fog of war for eighty miles, to a point just south of the River Aisne. Our purpose, was to reach and protect, from pillage an old chateau belonging to a member of Mrs. Dosch's. family.
There were no trains, of course, and it was impossible to get an automobile except at a price I could not pay. So we left Paris on bicycles, heading into the troubled country, where every one assured us there was no one left, absolutely no one.
Of course we knew it was not as bad as painted. Our only fear was we should not be allowed to go. We asked for no safe-conduct or leave-to-pass, because we were not inviting refusal. We had only our American passports and our permits de sejour in Paris. So the barriers of Paris offered us our first obstacle.
"How far do you have to go?" asked the polite civic guard at the Vincennes barrier.
We named Lagny, a town only ten miles out. We did not know even then that the English right had rested at Lagny the night we left London. But our passports were sufficient.
"Show these wherever you are stopped," the guard said, handing the passports back, "and you will have no trouble."
As I remounted my bicycle I heard him say to the other guards and the bystanders, "Americans will go anywhere."
For the next twenty miles we felt we had been penetrating the fog of war chiefly to find the sunny land of France, though at Chelles we were warned not to go on to Lagny, as there were British soldiers there who would not let us pass. By this time we had extended our destination to Meaux, so we were advised to pass Lagny to the north. Just outside Chelles were rifle pits dug by the local civic guard, but that was the only preparation for defense we encountered, after leaving the outer defenses of Paris itself, until we entered the ancient town of Meaux, shattered by shells and half deserted. We spent the night there and only had a bed to sleep in because a girl at a postal-card and news stand pounded at the supposedly closed hotel next door until some one came.
In the morning we climbed to the plateau north of Meaux, and, after passing many signs of shell fire, such as trees cut in two and smashed roofs, we came upon the battlefield of Chambry.
To the east of Chambry's few houses runs a bad byroad with a bank toward the fields shoulder-high. Here were rifle-pits, and effective ones evidently, as all the graves were in the field beyond, not nearer than thirty yards, the nearest the Germans got. Behind, in the road, there were torn pieces of French uniforms, empty cans bearing the labels of a Chicago meatpacker, scraps of bread, and a few empty bottles.
Where this byroad joins the highway at the end of a hundred yards is a walled-in graveyard, one wall running at right angles to the road and facing the open fields. This wall is pocked with bullet holes, except where the larger loop-holes were knocked through it from within.
Just as it stands the wall should be preserved. It proved to be one of France's stoutest defenses. Before it was fought one of the first terrific combats of the battle of the Marne. Against it the German army broke. It had been hurled across Belgium and nearly one hundred and fifty miles into France, to be stopped and routed before this cemetery wall.
As a cemetery wall it is useless now, anyway. The graves outside are almost as thick as within, and they extend to the far side of the plateau. Behind the wall the immortelles were still lying all awry as they had been knocked in haste of combat. Before it the fresh graves had been dug among blood-red poppies.
In every direction, and as far as we could see for a mile, there were graves, some unmarked, which were evidently filled by blond men in dirty gray uniforms, others marked with rude crosses, and by that we knew they contained darker men in badly fitting long blue coats and red trousers. The crosses were made by tying two sticks together with cord. The winter will rot the cord, and by spring German and French graves will be alike unmarked. But the flimsy crosses serve for the present to show the German losses much greater than the French. The work of burial was still going on when we were there, and bodies of dead men, killed six days before, still lay uncovered among the sugar beets.
At the edge of the plateau we looked down on a hamlet in a small valley and across at another plateau perhaps a mile away. Coasting down the hill into the narrow valley, we passed several piles of German artillery ammunition, lying in disorder beside the road, showing how fast the Germans had retreated.
The hamlet was shattered and almost empty, but, at the far side, we came to a combination inn and store, where. Three women were trying to find room in which to stand. Everything had been knocked off the shelves and trampled on the floor, cloth, lanterns, lamps, crockery, bottles of perfume, felt slippers, dozen of things. In the middle of the mess there was an unexploded shell which had driven a hole through the floor.
Before we had seen what a wreck the place was, we had asked if we could get anything to eat, and, once having asked, we were not permitted to go. They insisted on dividing with us their bowl of soup, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine. They insisted on us taking a second helping, too. "My heart is yours," said the eldest of the women, in the idiom of the country. And ours were hers, too, when she told us her husband, who had stayed there alone through it all, had been taken prisoner by the Germans. I speculated as to what the German army could want with a middle-aged French inn-keeper, and I could not help feeling our hostess was never going to see her husband again. Perhaps he had "sniped." Maybe he resisted. The chances were he was dead.
As soon as we reached the heights of the next plateau we could see a stand had been made there. There were graves there, too, many of them, and no wonder. The field looked as if it had been prepared for planting an orchard, the shells had fallen so thick. Some of the trees had been split and blasted. I had heard of the killing French artillery fire, and here was evidence.
THE LAST OF THE LANDWEHR
I have since been told the story of the stand there. On the retreat north from the Marne, wherever artillery was needed to hold a position the Germans left Landwehr, the older reservists, whose loss crippled the army least. If there was time they were called in, but the French and English pushed them too hard at first, So the Landwehr had to be left to be killed or captured. It was rather hard on the Landswehr, but military necessity knows no mercy. In this case all those who were not killed were captured. They had no chance.
The road to the north was marked by constant signs of an army retreating in a hurry. Most of the dead men were buried by now, but the swollen bodies of horses showed the way the army had gone. It was not, however, in too much of a hurry to commit a few acts of vandalism. The town of Maye is a fair example. In the tavern there all the mirrors and clocks had been broken and the billiard cloth ripped off. In a store, filled with the things we have in one of our own small-town general stores, clothing and calicos had been pulled down, coffee, tea, and sugar had been spilled on it, and the bung had been taken from a vinegar barrel to soak it well.
Back of the counters it was worse, It seemed incredible that any one would take the trouble to wreck the place so completely. Covers were even ripped off small spice cans, little sacks of salt were spilled, and cloth was unrolled from the bolt and spoiled.
The women who ran the store had just come back, but you could see their imaginations had prepared them for this. It was only when they encountered filth that they showed their feelings. They had taken flight before the German advance. Other stores where the owners had stayed were spared. This was the case everywhere. Vandalism waited on opportunity, and the German army was not alone guilty.
There was nothing to eat in Maye, but we had no difficulty in getting a bottle of wine. This was one of the astonishing things about the devastated country. Though the Germans were clever in finding concealed wine caves, and the countryside was littered with empty bottles, there were always a few wine caves that escaped.
Just beyond Maye we were picked up by a Parisian motor bus that ordinarily runs from Montparnasse to the Gare St. Lazare. The soldiers who were taking it north empty invited us to get in and lift in our bicycles. They told us they were just returning after carrying wounded to the rear. They were only privates, but they were well-bred, So we bowled along in the heavy bus through half a dozen French towns, built of stone and looking incredibly old. The little ones were almost completely deserted, but in the bigger ones the people, evidently feeling safety in numbers, had stayed. At the edge of Villers-Cotterêts, we were asked with many apologies to get down, as we were approaching the army headquarters. Later in the evening, when it looked as if we were going to find no place to sleep, we came upon the soldiers again at the edge of the town and they offered to make my wife a bed inside the bus with the cushions from the first class compartment, and sleep on the ground themselves.
A NIGHT IN AN ARMED CAMP
I could not help comparing this incident with the only time I was offered a ride during the ten days I was with the German army in Belgium. On that occasion I had no more than stepped on the running-board of the automobile, when a noncommissioned officer of an East Prussian regiment, his face flushed and convulsed with anger, rushed at me, waving an automatic revolver. "Es ist verboten," he cried, and I did not wait to argue the point.
The old forest town of Villers-Cotterêts was an armed camp that night. The streets were full to jostling of French and English soldiers, all fresh from combat and swaggering. The wine-shops also were jammed with them, and you could hardly see across the rooms for the smoke. 'In one ale-house they were singing the "Marseillaise," the English soldiers making no attempt to get the words, but slapping their French comrades in arms on the back and howling at the top of their voices, In another a young English private was singing a sentimental music-hall ballad in a high, nasal tenor. This was a new kind of war-song to the French, but they did their politest to join in the chorus.
We did not know it then, but we were caught in the big flanking movement of the Allies, when they sent two hundred thousand men through Villers-Cotterêts in four days in an attempt to manoeuvre the Germans out of their position on the Aisne. So the crowd in Villers-Cotterêts grew larger as night approached, though troops, wagon trains, and automobiles kept passing out constantly to the north, forcing their way through the packed streets..
The excitement was explosive, and when at dusk an automobile swung into the town from the Soissons road, a French Zouave and an English Tommy holding high aloft the standard of a German regiment, English and French alike roared their delight. Some one brought a great torch to see it by, and stood in the arched doorway of a medieval building, lighting up the quaint facade, and throwing a brilliant gleam on the running, laughing mob.
Just then a command of native African troops, Turcos, entered the town, their mean little slender ponies, cousin to our own mustang, nosing and nipping their way. As they rode by on their high saddles, they barely turned their heads to see what the excitement was. Wrapped in their long white or red cloaks, they passed right along out of the glare, a little contemptuous, I thought, of this boisterous display of feelings.
As the torch flared up, lighting the whole street, a high-wheeled cart, piled doubly high with bundles that would have looked more natural in a desert caravan, came bumping past. Sitting on the top, joggling from side to side, was an African boy, riding as unconcerned as on a camel's back. The picture before us might have been handled by a skilful painter bent on bringing out the strong effects. All we could see of the boy was his long, white cloak, his white turban, the sheen of his dark cheekbone, and the whites of his wide-awake eyes. Behind him the street was filled with the rumble of carts, the sharp click of ponies' feet, and an overtone of many voices that rose and fell.
There was a row of bivouac fires in the street just outside our lodgings that night, and at the corner there was a French sentry in whose mouth the word "Halt" acquired new degrees of menace. His Qui vive ("Who goes there!") also woke every latent thought of war and danger.
Early in the morning we were waked by an unmistakable sound, the distant boom of cannon at Soissons. Our road out of Villers-Cotterêts was to the northeast, and all day long that deep roll pounded at our ears. For the first ten miles we rode through a beautiful forest, taking with us the uncomfortable thought that it was full of German stragglers, who were being caught daily by the dozen.
Keep pedaling while in the forest," an English cavalry officer said to me in a cheerful manner as we left, "those-clothes of yours, as well as your passport and bicycle, would come in handy to a lost German."
The fulness of this warning, however, did not come to me until afternoon at a little town to the north of Fère-en-Tardenois, at that time the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. At this little town there was a choice of two roads. One ran through open fields. The other cut the corner of a wooded knoll. We would have taken the latter road, but the peasants warned us off it. They had just returned from burying one of their number who had walked alone along that road. A German straggler had killed him for his clothes.
The cheerful English officer at Villers-Cotterêts had given us another warning. "Stop a mile or so south of the town you are going to," he said, " and see if shells are dropping there." We saw the bursting shells, however, without having to stop and look for them.
All that part of France is a great plateau into which the rivers cut narrow valleys. There are few hills, properly speaking. At the edges of the plateaus there are steep descents, usually densely wooded, and these have been serving as hills for military purposes. Both the plateaus and valleys are cultivated, affording little cover. So the German army in its retreat from the Marne had been compelled to cross this plateau as far as the Aisne before it could make a stand. That is also the reason why the French and English armies had retreated so far to the south before they were able to turn the German flank.
INTO THE BATLE OF THE AISNE
To the north of the Aisne, the opposing plateau is much more densely wooded, and there the Germans had entrenched themselves. The English in the district into which we were advancing, and the French on both sides, had pressed to the edge of the plateau on which we were riding, and, under cover of batteries hidden in the thick growth on the sharp declivity to the Aisne, had pushed across the river and were attempting to storm the heights where the Germans lay beyond.
For miles we could hear the belch and the purr of departing English shells, and we could see the German response by the dust it was kicking up all along the edge of the plateau. We had to ride straight at this line until we came within half a mile of it, and then our road turned into it.
We went along the main traveled road from the south, over which staff officers in automobiles, motor lorries, and field ambulances were constantly passing. A few miles in the rear there was a crossroad standing full of motor lorries for half a mile or more on either side. Those to the east of the main highway faced west, and those west faced east. As we came up to them we found they were full of ammunition, and had been placed in that position so they could advance or retreat without delay. From the signs on the sides we could have made out a fairly good directory of big London business houses.
Most of the soldiers on the supply, motor lorries we passed on the highway greeted us with a "bong jour," evidently not expecting to find any one who spoke English in that part of the country. All but a few were used to shell-fire, and they laughed and joked as they rode along. I noticed, though, that there was more joking on the motor lorries that were bound for the rear.
There were three quite young soldiers on the seat of one which we passed just before we left the highway, and as soon as they saw us they waved their hands frantically at us. "Back, back!" they cried, excitedly, "danger, danger!"
The officers in automobiles who passed us going both ways at high speed turned and looked at us curiously, but their habitual English reserve prevented them from saying anything to us, and we were not risking being turned back when we were so near our goal by stopping any of them. A cavalry officer, however, who heard the excited soldiers, smiled on us blandly as he passed us.
The crossroad, which we were now to take, kept heading a little closer into the line where the shells were dropping. Some of these shells ended in a puff of white smoke, by which shrapnel was to be recognized, but most of them sent a great cloud of black smoke into the air. They looked much more dangerous, and we both fell silent as we watched them. We should not have believed that afternoon that we would sleep every night for the next month with shells like that breaking on both sides of us.
We were so interested in watching to see whether those shells fell any nearer that we made a wrong turning, and, instead of going down a draw in the plateau to the valley, we came out on the edge of the plateau overlooking ten miles of the battle front. All we could see, however, was the bursting of shells on the opposing plateaus. There was a battery just to one side of us in the woods, and, as the shells departed, we could hear the whir die out in the distance and then, across the Aisne, just at the top of a cliff, we could see them burst. In a few seconds the sound of the explosion returned to us.
Down in the valley, on the roads, there were motor lorries, automobiles, and motorcycles passing occasionally, and a battery halted on a road in a wood. Close to the half dozen hamlets hugging the declivities, there were horses, batteries, and bivouac fires. But the shells were passing over them and dropping nearer us.
THE WINGED SCOUTS
Right behind us there were three English aeroplanes nesting on the open plateau, and other aeroplanes could be seen flying at various heights and in all directions. One of those behind rose and, circling over its own lines until it was about two thousand feet up, headed over the German lines. Immediately there was the sound of rapid cannon fire from across the river and white puffs of smoke began to appear all around the aeroplane, but it did not waver in its course: it only rose higher and continued until it had made a wide sweep over the German lines, when it headed south over our heads. It was bound for headquarters to report what it had seen.
Just under us was the little town and, beside it, the chateau which we had come to protect. We were surprised to find smoke rising from all the chateau chimneys, but we knew what this meant. In a few minutes we were doing the hill and, passing through a narrow lane, encountered an English cavalry officer, who is better known in the United States as a polo player. He was carrying a duck under his arm.
In the town a regiment of lancers was quartered, and, making our way among their horses, we entered the chateau grounds and found English soldiers cooking their stews of "bully-beef," potatoes, and carrots in every corner. A number of officers were in the court, and they told us the place was now the headquarters of a cavalry brigade. We found an unoccupied bed-room, however, and that night we dined with the general and his staff. We had penetrated the fog of war so successfully that we were now in the midst of the English army and in range of the German guns.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald