At the outbreak of the First World War the United States of America was a neutral power. This gave its journalists the opportunity to visit the various war fronts with a freedom to view campaigns from all perspectives and with impartiality from the lines of several of the combatant armies. War Correspondent Arthur Ruhl dropped his fishing rod, jumped on a steamer and arrived in Europe in time to witness, from the viewpoint of the invaded, the overwhelming might of the Imperial German Army as it bore down on Belgium. He experienced the chaos as France feared for its imminent fall, and the fall of Antwerp before crossing the lines to see the war from the perspective of an elated Germany. Experiences of the German front line were followed by a journey to the east as news broke of Winston Churchill's Dardanelles adventure. After coming under fire in company with Turkish troops at Gallipoli, Ruhl concluded his tour of the maelstrom that was the Great War on the Russian Front. Ruhl's was 'an eye in the storm'-a view of a war not his own by a professional writer-making it a unique, engrossing and multi-faceted narrative of some of the most momentous events in the history of human conflict.
Across the table, a big French dragoon, just in from the firing-line, his horsetail helmet on the chair beside him, was also dining. This man was as different from the little infantrymen we had so often seen as the air of that town was different from deserted Paris. Just as he was, he might have stepped—or ridden, rather—from some cavalry charge by Meissonier or Détaille; a splendid fellow—head to spurs, all soldier.
After weeks of newspaper rhetoric and windy civilian partisanship, it was like water in the desert to listen to him—straight talk from a professional fighting man, modest, level-headed, and, like most fighting men, as contrasted with those who stay at home and write about fighting, ready to give a brave enemy his due. The German retirement was not at all a rout. When an army is in flight it leaves baggage and equipment behind, guns in the mud. The Germans had left very little; they were falling back in good order. Their soldiers were good fighters, especially when well led. They might lack the individual initiative of Frenchmen, the nervous energy with which Frenchmen would keep on fighting after mere bone and muscle had had enough, but they had plenty of courage. Their officers—the dragoon paused. Yesterday, he said, they had run into a troop of cavalry. The German officer ordered his men to charge, and instead they wavered and started to fall back. He turned on them. “Schweinhunde!” he shouted after them, and, flinging his horse about, charged alone, straight at the French lances.
“Kill him?” asked the man at the head of the table.
The dragoon nodded. “It was a pity. Joli garçon he was”—he ran a hand round a weather-beaten cheek as if to suggest the other’s well-made face—“monocle in his eye—and he never let go of it until it fell off—a lance through his heart.”
As we talked two secret-service-men entered, demanded our papers, examined them, and directed us to call at the Maine for them next morning at eight o’clock. Now, indeed, we were walking a tight rope. Following the genius who had got us our suppers, we emerged into the dark street, walked down it a few doors, entered a courtyard full of cavalry horses, where men in spurred boots were clanking up and down stairs. He thrust a heavy key into a lock, opened a door and ushered us into an empty and elegantly furnished house.
Over this low ridge, from the English trenches, rifle-bullets whistled above our heads. In the shelter of a brick farmhouse a dozen or so German soldiers were waiting, after trench service, to go back to La Bassée. They were smallish, mild-looking men, dusted with the yellow clay in which they had burrowed—clothes, boots, faces, and hands—-until they looked like millers.
“How are the English?” some one asked. “Do they know how to shoot?” A weary sort of hoot chorused out from the dust-covered men.
“Gut genug!” they said. The house was strewn with rusty cartridge clips and smashed brick. We waited while our chaperon brought the battalion commander—a mild-faced little man, more like a school-teacher than a soldier—and it was decided that, as the trenches were not under fire at the moment, we might go into them. He led the way into the communication trench—a straight-sided winding ditch, shoulder-deep, and just wide enough to walk in comfortably. Yellow clay was piled up overhead on either side, and there was a wooden sidewalk. The ditch twisted constantly as the trenches themselves do, so as not to be swept by enfilading fire, and after some hundreds of yards of this twisting, we came to the: first-line trench and the men’s dugouts.
It was really a series of little caves, with walls of solid earth and roofs of timber and sand-bags, proof against almost anything but the plunging flight of heavy high-explosive shells. The floors of these caves were higher than the bottom of the trench, so that an ordinary rain would not flood them, and covered with straw. And they were full of men, asleep, working over this and that—from one came the smell of frying ham. The trench twisted snakelike in a general north and south direction, and was fitted every few feet with metal firing-shields, loopholed for rifles and machine guns. In each outer curve facing the enemy a firing platform, about waist-high, had been cut in the earth, with similar armoured port-holes.
The Germans had been holding this trench for three months, and its whole outer surface was frosted a sulphurous yellow from the smoke of exploded shells. Shrapnel-casings and rusted shell-noses were sticking everywhere in the clay, and each curve exposing a bit of surface to the enemy was honeycombed with bullet holes. In one or two places sand-bags, caves, and all had been torn out.
Except for an occasional far-off detonation and the more or less constant and, so to speak, absent-minded cracking of rifles, a mere keeping awake, apparently, and letting the men in the opposite trenches know you are awake, the afternoon was peaceful. Pink-cheeked youngsters in dusty Feldgrau, stiffened and clapped their hands to their sides as officers came in sight, heard English with an amazement not difficult to imagine, and doubtless were as anxious to talk to these strange beings from a world they’d said goodbye to, as we were to talk to them.
At one of the salient angles, where a platform had been cut, we stopped to look through a periscope: one cannot show head or hand above the trench, of course, without drawing fire, and looks out of this curious shut-in world as men do in a submarine—just as the lady in the old-fashioned house across from us in New York sits at her front window and sees in a slanting mirror everything that happens between her and the Avenue. We had not been told just where we were going (in that shut-in ditch one had no idea), and there in the mirror, beyond some straggling barbed wire and perhaps seventy-five yards of ordinary grass, was another clay bank—the trenches of the enemy! Highlanders, Gurkhas, Heaven knows what—you could see nothing—but—over there was England!
So this was what these young soldiers had come to—here was the real thing. Drums beat, trumpets blare, the Klingelspiel jingles at the regiment’s head, and with flowers in your helmet, and your wife or sweetheart shouldering your rifle as far as the station—and you should see these German women marching out with their men!—you go marching out to war. You look out of the windows of various railway trains, then they lead you through a ditch into another ditch, and there, across a stretch of mud which might be your own back yard, is a clay bank, which is your enemy. And one morning at dawn you climb over your ditch and run forward until you are cut down. And when you have, so to speak, been thrown in the stream for the others to cross over, and the trench is taken, and you are put out of the way under a few inches of French earth, then, perhaps, inasmuch as experience shows that it isn’t worth while to try to keep a trench unless you have captured more than three hundred yards of it, the battalion retires and starts all over again.
We had walked on down the trenches, turned a bend where two trees had been blown up and flung across it, when there was a dull report near by, followed a moment later by a tremendous explosion out toward the enemy’s trench. “Unsere Minen!” (“One of our bombs!”) laughed a young soldier beside me, and a crackle of excitement ran along the trench.