The New Conditions in War
As Seen from the German Side
By James F. J. Archibald
[Scribner's Magazine, March 1915]
It seemed to me rather curious that the I first shot I saw fired in this great European war, after I arrived at the front, should have been aimed at an aeroplane and be fired from an automobile, for it brought me suddenly to face with an entirely new order of things. This is my first campaign of importance since the advent of aviation and the first in a country where the automobile can play an important rôle. I have seen both aeroplanes and automobiles used in manoeuvres, but I had no conception of the extent of their importance in warfare. I therefore received a distinct shock on that afternoon, a month ago, when I saw a French monoplane circle quickly over our heads and saw the puffs of shrapnel breaking all around it while the German gunners attempted to bring it down as a party of hunters would attempt to bag a partridge. Since that day in the field I have seen many daring examples of aerial scouting, but nothing which has given me the thrill that I received the first afternoon in Saint Mihiel.
I had only remained four days in Berlin when I received permission to proceed to the front, and was instructed to report to Friedrichstrasse railway-station on a certain morning at eight o'clock, where I was met by a staff-officer, who accompanied me to Metz. Commander Gherardi, the naval attaché to the American embassy, was also of the party, and when we arrived at Metz we were given an automobile and taken to various points of interest along the entire left wing. Here I might incidentally mention that never, in my many years' experience as a war correspondent, have I received such considerate treatment as from both the Austrian and German military authorities. My good friend Richard Harding Davis (of the enemy) has written that the day of the war correspondent is past but he should have taken seats in "the other Grand-stand, for on our side we have been shown all that we could expect and given every possible liberty within military reason. Their methods of handling the "necessary evil" of correspondents are so well-ordered that I shall some time write fully of them. The operations around Verdun and Toul were at the moment of the greatest importance in this military division, and therefore, on the first day, we were hurried forward to the advanced lines at Saint Mihiel, where a thin wedge of blood and steel had penetrated the great ring of French forts.
I had already pictured in my mind the enormous bodies of troops comprising this vast army, and as we approached the main position I felt that I had been cheated, for, with the exception of a few straggling battalions and an occasional supply-train, there was no army anywhere to be seen. There were more than two million men somewhere in the vicinity, and yet there were but a few thousand in evidence. I could not believe that we were at the front. I felt sure that we were being deceived by the genial Ober-lieutenant Kliever of the General Staff, who conducted us into the active zone of operations. There was no use to ask any one regarding the disposition of the forces, for the only answer would be a shrug of the shoulders and an apparently sincere "Ich weis nicht." Perhaps they did not know, but certainly I did not. When that first French aeroplane soared over our heads, I realized that I was seeing an entirely new phase of warfare, new conditions and new problems. I then realized why I had seen no troops. They were hidden under the cover of the many thick forests which beautify the hills of France. The entire German army had burrowed itself into these hills as a hunted animal would hide from a hawk. When the army moved, it came out from its cover at night or during the gray mist of the morning. When it struck, it was when the air above was free of the watching eye of the aerial observer. I shall never forget my feeling when I first approached one of those forests which gave cover to the tens of thousands of the ever-ready German soldiery. It was between Thiaucourt and Pont-à-Mousson, where the German left wing turned sharply to the west above Nancy. I had been invited to the headquarters of the great cavalry leader, General von Haussmann, and as we approached the line of trenches we left our motor-car and made our way cautiously across a great open plain toward a dense forest. There was not a soldier, horse, or gun in sight in any direction. Across a heavy, ploughed field we tramped until we were within a few paces of the woods, when gradually I made out the indistinct forms of men under the trees. The forms took shape and the gray mass was seen to move like a swarm of bees clustered under a tree branch. At first I made out a small group, then another farther on, until suddenly the whole wood seemed fairly teeming with the gray, ghostlike figures. A staff-officer met us at the edge of the wood and conducted us back into the dark recesses under the trees, where we found a great camp of many thousands.
The headquarters of the general and his staff were comfortably built huts of pine boards. The windows and doors had been borrowed from a near-by village, and on the walls were odd bits of decorations ranging from horseshoes to cuckoo-clocks. So cleverly was that cavalry division hidden that a hostile aeroplane might pass over the forest time after time and not discover its presence. A little farther down the line we visited the artillery positions, and again I realized that we must learn the game of war all over again from a new beginning.
The day before, I had noticed wagon after wagon on the road to the front loaded with pine lumber, inchboards and two-by-four scantling. I could not imagine what such great quantities of lumber had to do with an active advance, but when I saw those field-guns in position I discovered what it all meant. Every gun was carefully covered with a little houselike structure of boards, while the top was completely covered with sod and earth. The floor of the gun-house was about a foot below the level of the ground, and the muzzle of the gun stuck only about a foot out of what might be called the front window. The gunners sat inside the hut and were served with ammunition through a covered trench. The infantry supports were also living in most comfortable, houselike trenches, which were, in some cases, permanently built of logs and timber with such a heavy covering of earth on top that they acted as bomb-proofs against the rain of shell falling almost incessantly from the French artillery. One of the most important developments of the use of the aeroplane, as far as artillery is concerned, is that the guns now do more indirect firing than ever before. That is, they are stationed well behind a hill or a wood and fire over it at a greater range, depending upon the aerial direction of their scouts for ranges and distances. When a position is to be shelled an aviator hovers over that position and from a great height his observer watches the result of the firing. He then sails back over his own lines and drops a little form, not unlike a telegraph-blank, upon which he makes the necessary notes to correct any error in range or period of the explosion of the shrapnel. I saw one of these little reports just after it was handed to the general commanding, and I was amazed at the accuracy of the drawing. The report had been made in the air at an altitude of several thousand feet, but it showed perfectly the position of two batteries of the enemy's field-artillery and also their position as compared to the river and a near-by church tower. The wonderful maps of the German General Staff gave the artillery commander the exact range to a yard, and in a few moments the German guns had silenced the French batteries. Of course, I do not know from personal observation what precautions the French took to cover their pieces, but the German staff-officers say that they have been somewhat negligent in the matter, and in many cases it has cost them dearly.
The new conditions have caused a revival of one of the oldest tricks in warfare: that of showing dummy guns along the front so that the aviators may be misled into false reports and therefore misdirect the artillery-fire. I saw many of these dummy guns which had been captured from the enemy and I also saw a couple of very clever imitations of the great mortar batteries which have done such marvelous work for the Austrians and Germans, made from barrels mounted on huge wheels of old trucks. These mock batteries were in well-built emplacements, and surrounded by all of the necessary equipment to make them appear quite real. They were even partially covered by branches of trees so that, in a photograph taken from an aeroplane, they would look as though they had been imperfectly screened. Some artillery officers showed me, with apparent amusement and relish, many scars in the ground around one of these dummy batteries which was placed in the open behind the hill upon which stood one of the Austrian thirty-one-centimetre batteries. The scars were made by the exploding shells fired at the dummy battery, the range of which had evidently been ascertained by an aerial scout. The real battery was well shielded in some thick woods at a closer range to the what really amounts to a siege of the splendid chain of French forts, so there is ample time in every case for these preparations to be very thorough.
In the matter of bomb-dropping from aeroplanes, this campaign has not developed anything of great importance, as the accuracy of the aim is greatly impaired by the enormous altitude at which the aviators must work to avoid shell and rifle fire. The aeronautic corps of each army has done a little bomb-dropping, but on the whole the result has been of very little importance, as the danger radius of a bomb such as is carried by an aeroplane is very small. It is an entirely different matter, however, when the bombs are dropped from the great dirigibles, for their carrying capacity is so much greater that the charge can be of such enormous strength that it will be of material offensive power. Apart from the actual damage, the moral effect caused by these newly invented carriers of death and destruction is of the greatest possible value. There has been a great storm of objection raised by many who apparently do not realize the full import of war and who consider bomb-throwing from aeroplanes or dirigibles into a city as outside the code of civilized warfare. There is no question, however, as to the immense value of the moral effect obtained if an army is able occasionally to drop a bomb into the cities of an enemy at war. The mental attitude has a great bearing on the defeat or victory of a country, and if that mental strain can be kept continually near the breaking-point by the use of bombs it certainly is of actual value. It is undeniably unfortunate that occasionally the innocent bystander is hurt, but if those who feel that this form of warfare is unjust could follow the advance of an army and see village after village and town after town unexpectedly shelled by the advancing artillery, they would then realize that the onlooker has no place in the theatre of war. There are times when a besieging commander has the opportunity of warning the non-combatants, but it is not the case in bomb dropping. Antwerp and Paris have been kept in constant dread of an aerial attack, and both have experienced it many times. That dread has been of material benefit to the Germans. London is almost in darkness every night as a preventive measure, and the very gloom has its influence on the mind of every recruit and every statesman. They may not realize that its effect is depressing, but it is so, nevertheless. That is the great moral effect which I mean. It is unfortunate that this new condition makes it possible and even necessary to wage war on the unoffending non-combatant, but it is a fact, and it is a method of warfare that is not going to be stopped, but, on the contrary, will be developed to the utmost degree. This dropping of bombs on cities has the same effect on the inhabitants that is produced all along the fighting-line by the continual night fire of the artillery. It simply keeps the enemy from resting, and the nervous strata on the mind is a part of the terrible toll of war. After all, war is really waged on the minds of the women, for it is the women who suffer most in these great conflicts.
The French have developed a new phase of attack upon troops from aeroplanes, which is ingenious and at times might be effective, although I have not been able to discover a case where more than one or two men have been killed. They use a small steel arrow or dart about four inches long. These darts are about as large around as the modern rifle-bullet, pointed and solid at one end for about two inches. The other end has four light flanges which act as do the feathers on an arrow. A great number of these darts are dropped from the aeroplane when it is directly over a position and are not unlike a volley of rifle-fire. As they fall, the heavy, pointed end naturally gravitates downward, steadied by the lighter, fractured end, and when dropped from a great height strike the earth at an incredible velocity. Specimens are very rare, indeed, because they go so deeply into the earth that they are not found except when they strike a log or heavy piece of wood.
The use of the automobile in the present-day warfare is almost as spectacular and quite as interesting as that of the aero plane. Before the war broke out Germany and Austria-Hungary had well-organized volunteer automobile corps, and when hostilities began a great many of the sporting set of both countries volunteered with their cars. If any of them thought that it would be a comfortable and comparatively easy way to render their service they were soon disillusioned, for it has been proved that the automobile corps is a far more dangerous service than any other branch of the army, not even excepting the flying contingent. There has been a much greater percentage of loss among the automobilists than in any other arm of the service. The reason, when one stops to consider, is most obvious. Automobiles are used for scouting and for messenger service and must go into every quarter of the field of operations. In former times when an aide-de-camp carried a dispatch to a distant commander he could choose his route, and in time of danger could take any convenient cover. But to-day the automobilists must take such roads as the country affords and cannot leave them for a short cut across fields, nor can he jump the fence and escape an oncoming enemy. Another reason the automobilist's work is more dangerous than that of the mounted aide is that the noise of his motor proclaims his approach in no uncertain terms. In spite of all its dangers and difficulties, the automobile service has, however, become indispensable to army commanders by reason of its speed. At this day men are sacrificed by twos and fours for scouting purposes; where before an entire troop of cavalry or company of infantry would be sent, the same mission is now performed in less time by one automobile.
The equipment of the cars of the active motor corps now afield is exceedingly interesting and is being improved each day by the inventive genius of the various members of that particular branch of the service. Every car in both the Austro-Hungarian and the German service has a rifle for each occupant. These rifles are carried in a rack built in some convenient position, on the running-board, where they may be reached at a moment's notice. The change of tires is, of course, a very important problem, and in practically every case spare wheels are used, as it would mean death to stop to change tires, even with detachable rims, while under fire. Spare gasoline-tanks are also carried on the running-board.
One of the most, interesting essentials of equipment is the system of wire-cutters attached to every car called upon to do work in an enemy's country. It was found that the inhabitants of some of the invaded territory were in the habit of stretching a wire across the roads at night, which, if not discovered, was liable to prove fatal to one or more occupants of a fast-moving motorcar. Nearly every car now used at the front has a long steel, knife-like bar fixed over the hood and wind-shield reaching from a point a few inches from the ground in front of the car back up over the driver. By this means a wire across the road would be scooped up just as the cowcatcher of one of our engines throws off any object on the track. As the motor rushes on it cuts the wire or rope on the sharp edge of the protecting knife. In some cases there is an automatic clipper at the top of the steel rod which severs the obstructing line.
I have been rather astonished to note how few of the cars are equipped with powerful hand search-lights which can be turned in any direction and also that not once have I seen one of the volunteer cars equipped with a rapid-fire gun. I am sure the cars in an American military motor corps would be more thoroughly up to date in this respect. Of course, it would be easier for us, as the use of electricity is far more general here than it is in Europe.
The secretary of war, Mr. Garrison, took up the matter of an American. motor corps just before this war began, along lines which I suggested after having seen the Austrian corps in manoeuvres, and I am positive that the reports of our military observers in Europe will bear out the necessity of such an organization. I do not want my cavalry friends to think that I suggest that the day of the horse in war is over, for it is far from the fact, but the "benzine lieutenant," as they call the officers of the motor corps, will certainly do the major portion of the real work of war from now on. It must be remembered that the very first advance of the invasion of Belgium was done in automobiles. Not only do the motor-cars play an important role in this war, but also the motor-cycles have their share of the work to do, and that work is often of the most dangerous character.
Apart from the spectacular, dashing corps of motor messengers, the plodding motor-trucks play a terribly earnest part in the great tragedy of war. Supplies are being brought up in surprisingly short order; ammunition reserve is now many miles farther back of the line than ever before; in fact, the whole scheme of transport and commissary has been revolutionized by the advent of the gasoline-driven vehicle.
One of the most interesting features of this new service is a complete steam laundry in three motor-trucks which are drawn up side by side, connected by lowering side doors, and so making a gangway and forming the three trucks into what is really one room. These field laundries have a capacity of ten thousand pieces a day, and every German army corps has one with its transport.
Great motor-omnibuses from the big cities have been turned into hospital tenders. The back has been removed and twelve cots or litters replace the old interior furnishings. The use of the motor-vehicles as Red Cross ambulances allows the field-hospitals to be established much farther from the actual line than heretofore and obviates the necessity of frequent movement of the wounded on account of the changes in the position of the army.
The greatest achievement of all, however, is the marvelous Austrian motor battery, which has been a complete surprise to the military world. Great thirty-one-centimetre guns of incredible power and range are mounted on motor-trucks and are therefore so mobile that each gun is equal to at least five horse-drawn guns of the old type. All of the amrnunition, supply, and forage wagons are motor-drawn. Even the men who serve the batteries are comfortably accommodated in trucks so that the entire battery is entirely independent of any other transportation than its own. These guns are to an army what the great turret-guns of a battleship are to the navy. Nothing can withstand them and no gun the enemy has can outrange them.
This has certainly been a "gasoline war," but, above all, it should be taken as a lesson to our nation. It has been proved that no nation has the right to neglect building military motor-roads to every part of its domain.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald