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At the Western Front

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At the Western Front
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): Granville Fortescue
Date Published: 2013/07
Page Count: 284
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-137-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-136-6

An American journalist’s view of the Great War

For the first thirty-three months of the Great War the United States of America was a neutral nation. This enabled her newspaper correspondents and other observers comparatively free access to the theatre of war in Europe, to witness and report to the American nation the progress of what was then the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. Journalist Granville Fortescue was a member of this elite cadre of war-zone reporters. This unique Leonaur volume, which brings together two of Fortescue’s books on the Great War, will be of particular interest not only to those who are fascinated by the war as seen by an English language writer with access to ‘enemy’ held locations—something almost impossible for other English language speakers—but also to students of journalism who respect the work of the ‘warcos’ of all generations. Fortescue reports on all aspects of the conflict, both from behind and on the battle-line. He reports on Belgium under fire, the battles of Dinant and Mons, German perspectives on the war and home front, the bombardment of Rheims, the battle at Verdun, the war in the air and the coming of the tanks as well as many other interesting aspects of the First World War in Europe.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

The most significant happening of the day was the ambush of a French dragoon squadron. One hundred of them had ridden out in the morning to reconnoitre on the German side of the river, and of the hundred, just thirteen rode in at night, and of these half were wounded. I was not allowed to hear their report, but they told their own story. The exhausted horses flecked with sweat showed how the survivors had ridden to save themselves; there was no doubt now that the Germans were coming. Major Bertrand gave the order that all who wished to leave the town should do so at once; after a certain hour no civilian would be allowed in the streets.<br>
It was with Lieutenant Parent, who could speak English and who therefore constituted himself my especial guide, that I inspected the defences of the bridge that night. It was a picture that might well have inspired Detaille; hardly a ripple showed in the surface of the broad river, the clustering houses on the banks somehow reminded me of cattle crowding down to drink; the church with its curious minaret tower smiled at us from across the bridge. I could just distinguish the white walls of the Tête d’Or.<br>
On the top of the citadel a sentinel stood out sharp against the sky line. The bridge with its field of barbed wire stretched away before us; on either side, where the winged abutments turned off at right angles, soldiers in blue and red were grouped; they had made these wall wings into a little fort, their rifles were stacked beside them, some smoked, others chatted and one sang in a low voice; it was an old Norman folk song, Parent told me, and was cast in a mournful minor key. I had seen war; many of these men—perhaps all of them—had not; they had no disquieting visions of the morrow. As we turned to the town again I caught sight of a belated fisherman a few hundred yards downstream. Why not? It was dusk now. Lieutenant Parent pointed out where the machine-guns were placed, in the upper storeys of the house bordering the stream.<br>
“In that corner, there,” he said, pointing to a window that gave on the bridge, “is my special gun. She sweeps the road.”<br>
I could hear the low voices of the men as they climbed to their posts, and at times I caught the sharp click of steel on steel. Sounds I had not heard for years set my nerves tingling, but to these men they meant nothing. Later, the sentinel on the citadel signalled with a lantern that all was well from that side. I crossed the bridge and sent a despatch of about fifty words. I tried to put a warning in that telegram, but when my French friends had censored it, it was innocuous. I looked up at the darkened windows of the Tête d’Or as I passed and wondered if M. Bourgemont still disbelieved in the approach of the Germans.<br>
The next morning I was brought out of my bed with a spring by a loud explosion which seemed to come from the next room; immediately there followed the most mournful wailing I have ever heard; it was a dog in agony. While I hurried into my clothes I heard another explosion duplicating the first, and now that I was fully awake I knew the sound; it was a small shell bursting. The shell had passed directly over the Hotel du Nord, and smashed through the roof of the railway station within two feet of the clock which marked ten minutes past six. It did little damage except shatter a dozen windows. The third shell carried away the chimney of the hotel, leaving a great hole in the roof and incidentally spoiling the morning coffee. This seemed to worry the proprietor more than the presence of the Germans; while he was bewailing the spilt coffee, his guests scuttled to the cellar. Captain Cuff, with his escort of motorcycle scouts, made his escape in a motor. I got little satisfaction out of watching him go.<br>
The Germans continued the shelling of the town with little effect for nearly an hour. The population had all gone under ground and only the military showed themselves in the streets. I found a good look-out position and turned my glass on the citadel across the river. Up to this time I had heard very little infantry fire. The detachment, which occupied the ancient fortress, had not been able to locate the mountain battery that was dropping the German visiting cards within the town. The enemy’s infantry had not, up to the moment, put in an appearance, so at least I judged.<br>
About seven I noticed a good deal of movement on the crest of the citadel. In a few minutes the echo of a scattering volley drifted back to me; that was the beginning of the end of the little band of defenders holding the post beyond the river. I could only judge how the fight was going from the firing of the French soldiers I could see; but it was soon evident that the Germans were attacking them on all sides. From our side there was nothing we could do. Shells continued to drop into the streets and I picked up the fuse of one of these; it was a Dopp with the fuse cut at 4,000 metres. As it was about two thousand metres across to the citadel the German guns must be another two thousand metres beyond; but the infantry was closing in on the fortress.<br>
Now I saw that the half company, or rather what was left of it, had drawn together in one angle of the wall. But now the Germans began to make their appearance in the main street of that part of the town that lay on the other side of the river, thus they were able to take the defenders in reverse. Soon what was left of the French began to waver; first one slipped down the stone steps leading down the face of the cliff and then another followed. Most of those who came were evidently wounded, and as they crawled from step to step they were fair marks for the Germans who had occupied the outskirts of the town. Word must have passed to those still holding on to the citadel, that their retreat would be soon cut off, for suddenly the group of them fired a parting volley and dropped back to the path leading to the steps. It was then that a veritable slaughter began.<br>
The Germans had now possession of the crest of the citadel and rained a perfect hail of death on the French; a few stumbled on the steps and lay blocking the path of those coming behind, one rolled all the way down. Now I could see half a dozen bodies, in blue and red, stretched out at intervals down the stone staircase; a few reached the street below in safety. At the foot of the stairs behind the church there is what in military terms is called a “dead angle.” This means a position under a wall protected from hostile fire. The retreating French paused there a moment. Then they caught sight of M. Bourgemont, who stood in the open door of his hotel, waving to them frantically. He too was in a protected angle, safe from the enemy’s fire.<br>
What was left of the little band ran like sheep to the Tête d’Or, but of the number one fell. He was not dead, for in a moment he struggled up on his knees, trying to move forward. Then a rather grotesque figure in brown ran out into the shot-swept street. It was M. Bourgemont. Stooping over the limp figure in blue and red, he started dragging it to the zone of safety. He staggered a dozen paces. Then, in the absurd way fat men do, he fell. A bullet had passed through his brain.