VERY EARLY in the morning I met Alan Breck, with a half-healed bullet-scrape across the bridge of his nose, and an Alpine cap over one ear. His people a few hundred years ago had been Scotch. He bore a Scotch name, and still recognized the head of his clan, but his French occasionally ran into German words, for he was an Alsatian on one side.
“This,” he explained, “is the very best country in the world to fight in. It’s picturesque and full of cover. I’m a gunner. I’ve been here for months. It’s lovely.”
It might have been the hills under Mussoorie, and what our cars expected to do in it I could not understand. But the demon-driver who had been a road-racer took the 70 h.p. Mercedes and threaded the narrow valleys, as well as occasional half-Swiss villages full of Alpine troops, at a restrained thirty miles an hour. He shot up a new-made road, more like Mussoorie than ever, and did not fall down the hillside even once. An ammunition-mule of a mountain-battery met him at a tight corner, and began to climb a tree.
“See! There isn’t another place in France where that could happen,” said Alan. “I tell you, this is a magnificent country.”
The mule was hauled down by his tail before he had reached the lower branches, and went on through the woods, his ammunition-boxes jinking on his back, for all the world as though he were rejoining his battery at Jutogh. One expected to meet the little Hill people bent under their loads under the forest gloom. The light, the colour, the smell of wood smoke, pine-needles, wet earth, and warm mule were all Himalayan. Only the Mercedes was violently and loudly a stranger.
“Halt!” said Alan at last, when she had done everything except imitate the mule.
“The road continues,” said the demon-driver seductively.
“Yes, but they will hear you if you go on. Stop and wait. We’ve a mountain battery to look at.”
They were not at work for the moment, and the Commandant, a grim and forceful man, showed me some details of their construction. When we left them in their bower—it looked like a Hill priest’s wayside shrine—we heard them singing through the steep-descending pines. They, too, like the 75’s, seem to have no pet name in the service.
It was a poisonously blind country. The woods blocked all sense of direction above and around. The ground was at any angle you please, and all sounds were split up and muddled by the tree-trunks, which acted as silencers. High above us the respectable, all-concealing forest had turned into sparse, ghastly blue sticks of timber—an assembly of leper-trees round a bald mountain top. “That’s where we’re going,” said Alan. “Isn’t it an adorable country?”
A machine-gun loosed a few shots in the fumbling style of her kind when they feel for an opening. A couple of rifle shots answered. They might have been half a mile away or a hundred yards below. An adorable country! We climbed up till we found once again a complete tea-garden of little sunk houses, almost invisible in the brown-pink recesses of the thick forest. Here the trenches began, and with them for the next few hours life in two dimensions—length and breadth. You could have eaten your dinner almost anywhere off the swept dry ground, for the steep slopes favoured draining, there was no lack of timber, and there was unlimited labour. It had made neat double-length dug-outs where the wounded could be laid in during their passage down the mountain side; well-tended occasional latrines properly limed; dug-outs for sleeping and eating; overhead protections and tool-sheds where needed, and, as one came nearer the working face, very clever cellars against trench-sweepers. Men passed on their business; a squad with a captured machine-gun which they tested in a sheltered dip; armourers at their benches busy with sick rifles; fatigue-parties for straw, rations, and ammunition; long processions of single blue figures turned sideways between the brown sunless walls. One understood after a while the nightmare that lays hold of trench-stale men, when the dreamer wanders for ever in those blind mazes till, after centuries of agonizing flight, he finds himself stumbling out again into the white blaze and horror of the mined front—he who thought he had almost reached home!
There were no trees above us now. Their trunks lay along the edge of the trench, built in with stones, where necessary, or sometimes overhanging it in ragged splinters or bushy tops. Bits of cloth, not French, showed, too, in the uneven lines of debris at the trench lip, and some thoughtful soul had marked an unexploded Boche trench-sweeper as “not to be touched.” It was a young lawyer from Paris who pointed that out to me.
We met the Colonel at the head of an indescribable pit of ruin, full of sunshine, whose steps ran down a very steep hillside under the lee of an almost vertically plunging parapet. To the left of that parapet the whole hillside was one gruel of smashed trees, split stones, and powdered soil. It might have been a rag-picker’s dump-heap on a colossal scale.
Alan looked at it critically. I think he had helped to make it not long before.
“We’re on the top of the hill now, and the Boches are below us,” said he. “We gave them a very fair sickener lately.”
“This,” said the Colonel, “is the front line.”
There were overhead guards against hand-bombs which disposed me to believe him, but what convinced me most was a corporal urging us in whispers not to talk so loud. The men were at dinner, and a good smell of food filled the trench. This was the first smell I had encountered in my long travels uphill—a mixed, entirely wholesome flavour of stew, leather, earth, and rifle-oil.
A proportion of men were standing to arms while others ate; but dinner-time is slack time, even among animals, and it was close on noon.
“The Boches got their soup a few days ago,” some one whispered. I thought of the pulverized hillside, and hoped it had been hot enough.
We edged along the still trench, where the soldiers stared, with justified contempt, I thought, upon the civilian who scuttled through their life for a few emotional minutes in order to make words out of their blood. Somehow it reminded me of coming in late to a play and incommoding a long line of packed stalls. The whispered dialogue was much the same: “Pardon!” “I beg your pardon, monsieur.” “To the right, monsieur.” “If monsieur will lower his head.” “One sees best from here, monsieur,” and so on. It was their day and night-long business, carried through without display or heat, or doubt or indecision. Those who worked, worked; those off duty, not five feet behind them in the dug-outs, were deep in their papers, or their meals or their letters; while death stood ready at every minute to drop down into the narrow cut from out of the narrow strip of unconcerned sky. And for the better part of a week one had skirted hundreds of miles of such a frieze!
The loopholes not in use were plugged rather like old-fashioned hives. Said the Colonel, removing a plug: “Here are the Boches. Look, and you’ll see their sandbags.” Through the jumble of riven trees and stones one saw what might have been a bit of green sacking. “They’re about seven metres distant just here,” the Colonel went on. That was true, too. We entered a little fortalice with a cannon in it, in an embrasure which at that moment struck me as unnecessarily vast, even though it was partly closed by a frail packing-case lid. The Colonel sat him down in front of it, and explained the theory of this sort of redoubt. “By the way,” he said to the gunner at last, “can’t you find something better than that?” He twitched the lid aside. “I think it’s too light. Get a log of wood or something.”
I loved that Colonel! He knew his men and he knew the Boches—had them marked down like birds. When he said they were beside dead trees or behind boulders, sure enough there they were! But, as I have said, the dinner-hour is always slack, and even when we came to a place where a section of trench had been bashed open by trench-sweepers, and it was recommended to duck and hurry, nothing much happened. The uncanny thing was the absence of movement in the Boche trenches. Sometimes one imagined that one smelt strange tobacco, or heard a rifle-bolt working after a shot. Otherwise they were as still as pig at noonday.
We held on through the maze, past trench-sweepers of a handy light pattern, with their screw-tailed charge all ready; and a grave or so; and when I came on men who merely stood within easy reach of their rifles, I knew I was in the second line. When they lay frankly at ease in their dug-outs, I knew it was the third. A shot-gun would have sprinkled all three.
“No flat plains,” said Alan. “No hunting for gun positions—the hills are full of them—and the trenches close together and commanding each other. You see what a beautiful country it is.”
The Colonel confirmed this, but from another point of view. War was his business, as the still woods could testify—but his hobby was his trenches. He had tapped the mountain streams and dug out a laundry where a man could wash his shirt and go up and be killed in it, all in a morning; had drained the trenches till a muddy stretch in them was an offence; and at the bottom of the hill (it looked like a hydropathic establishment on the stage) he had created baths where half a battalion at a time could wash. He never told me how all that country had been fought over as fiercely as Ypres in the West; nor what blood had gone down the valleys before his trenches pushed over the scalped mountain top. No. He sketched out new endeavours in earth and stones and trees for the comfort of his men on that populous mountain.
And there came a priest, who was a sub-lieutenant, out of a wood of snuff-brown shadows and half-veiled trunks. Would it please me to look at a chapel? It was all open to the hillside, most tenderly and devoutly done in rustic work with reedings of peeled branches and panels of moss and thatch—St. Hubert’s own shrine. I saw the hunters who passed before it, going to the chase on the far side of the mountain where their game lay.
Alan carried me off to tea the same evening in a town where he seemed to know everybody. He had spent the afternoon on another mountain top, inspecting gun positions; whereby he had been shelled a little—marmite is the slang for it. There had been no serious marmitage, and he had spotted a Boche position which was marmitable.
“And we may get shelled now,” he added, hopefully. “They shell this town whenever they think of it. Perhaps they’ll shell us at tea.”
It was a quaintly beautiful little place, with its mixture of French and German ideas; its old bridge and gentle-minded river, between the cultivated hills. The sand-bagged cellar doors, the ruined houses, and the holes in the pavement looked as unreal as the violences of a cinema against that soft and simple setting. The people were abroad in the streets, and the little children were playing. A big shell gives notice enough for one to get to shelter, if the shelter is near enough. That appears to be as much as any one expects in the world where one is shelled, and that world has settled down to it. People’s lips are a little firmer, the modelling of the brows is a little more pronounced, and, maybe, there is a change in the expression of the eyes; but nothing that a casual afternoon caller need particularly notice.
The house where we took tea was the “big house” of the place, old and massive, a treasure house of ancient furniture. It had everything that the moderate heart of man could desire—gardens, garages, outbuildings, and the air of peace that goes with beauty in age. It stood over a high cellarage, and opposite the cellar door was a brand-new blindage of earth packed between timbers. The cellar was a hospital, with its beds and stores, and under the electric light the orderly waited ready for the cases to be carried down out of the streets.
“Yes, they are all civil cases,” said he.
They come without much warning—a woman gashed by falling timber; a child with its temple crushed by a flying stone; an urgent amputation case, and so on. One never knows. Bombardment, the Boche text-books say, “is designed to terrify the civil population so that they may put pressure on their politicians to conclude peace.” In real life, men are very rarely soothed by the sight of their women being tortured.
We took tea in the hall upstairs, with a propriety and an interchange of compliments that suited the little occasion. There was no attempt to disguise the existence of a bombardment, but it was not allowed to overweigh talk of lighter matters. I know one guest who sat through it as near as might be inarticulate with wonder. But he was English, and when Alan asked him whether he had enjoyed himself, he said: “Oh, yes. Thank you very much.”
“Nice people, aren’t they?” Alan went on.
“Oh, very nice. And—and such good tea.”
He managed to convey a few of his sentiments to Alan after dinner.
“But what else could the people have done?” said he. “They are French.”