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    Ch. 2: In Argonne

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    Chapter 2
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    I

    The permission to visit a few ambulances and evacuation hospitals
    behind the lines gave me, at the end of February, my first sight of
    War.

    Paris is no longer included in the military zone, either in fact or
    in appearance. Though it is still manifestly under the war-cloud,
    its air of reviving activity produces the illusion that the menace
    which casts that cloud is far off not only in distance but in time.
    Paris, a few months ago so alive to the nearness of the enemy, seems
    to have grown completely oblivious of that nearness; and it is
    startling, not more than twenty miles from the gates, to pass from
    such an atmosphere of workaday security to the imminent sense of
    war.

    Going eastward, one begins to feel the change just beyond Meaux.
    Between that quiet episcopal city and the hill-town of Montmirail,
    some forty miles farther east, there are no sensational evidences of
    the great conflict of September--only, here and there, in an
    unploughed field, or among the fresh brown furrows, a little mound
    with a wooden cross and a wreath on it. Nevertheless, one begins to
    perceive, by certain negative signs, that one is already in another
    world. On the cold February day when we turned out of Meaux and took
    the road to the Argonne, the change was chiefly shown by the curious
    absence of life in the villages through which we passed. Now and
    then a lonely ploughman and his team stood out against the sky, or a
    child and an old woman looked from a doorway; but many of the fields
    were fallow and most of the doorways empty. We passed a few carts
    driven by peasants, a stray wood-cutter in a copse, a road-mender
    hammering at his stones; but already the "civilian motor" had
    disappeared, and all the dust-coloured cars dashing past us were
    marked with the Red Cross or the number of an army division. At
    every bridge and railway-crossing a sentinel, standing in the middle
    of the road with lifted rifle, stopped the motor and examined our
    papers. In this negative sphere there was hardly any other tangible
    proof of military rule; but with the descent of the first hill
    beyond Montmirail there came the positive feeling: _This is war!_

    Along the white road rippling away eastward over the dimpled country
    the army motors were pouring by in endless lines, broken now and
    then by the dark mass of a tramping regiment or the clatter of a
    train of artillery. In the intervals between these waves of military
    traffic we had the road to ourselves, except for the flashing past
    of despatch-bearers on motor-cycles and of hideously hooting little
    motors carrying goggled officers in goat-skins and woollen helmets.

    The villages along the road all seemed empty--not figuratively but
    literally empty. None of them has suffered from the German invasion,
    save by the destruction, here and there, of a single house on which
    some random malice has wreaked itself; but since the general flight
    in September all have remained abandoned, or are provisionally
    occupied by troops, and the rich country between Montmirail and
    Chalons is a desert.

    The first sight of Chame is extraordinarily exhilarating. The old
    town lying so pleasantly between canal and river is the
    Head-quarters of an army--not of a corps or of a division, but of a
    whole army--and the network of grey provincial streets about the
    Romanesque towers of Notre Dame rustles with the movement of war.
    The square before the principal hotel--the incomparably named "Haute
    Mere-Dieu"--is as vivid a sight as any scene of modern war
    can be. Rows of grey motor-lorries and omnibuses do not lend
    themselves to as happy groupings as a detachment of cavalry, and
    spitting and spurting motor-cycles and "torpedo" racers are no
    substitute for the glitter of helmets and the curvetting of
    chargers; but once the eye has adapted itself to the ugly lines and
    the neutral tints of the new warfare, the scene in that crowded
    clattering square becomes positively brilliant. It is a vision of
    one of the central functions of a great war, in all its concentrated
    energy, without the saddening suggestions of what, on the distant
    periphery, that energy is daily and hourly resulting in. Yet even
    here such suggestions are never long out of sight; for one cannot
    pass through Chalons without meeting, on their way from the station,
    a long line of "eclopes"--the unwounded but battered, shattered,
    frost-bitten, deafened and half-paralyzed wreckage of the
    awful struggle. These poor wretches, in their thousands, are daily
    shipped back from the front to rest and be restored; and it is a
    grim sight to watch them limping by, and to meet the dazed stare of
    eyes that have seen what one dare not picture.

    If one could think away the "'eclopes" in the streets and the
    wounded in their hospitals, Chalons would be an invigorating
    spectacle. When we drove up to the hotel even the grey motors and
    the sober uniforms seemed to sparkle under the cold sky. The
    continual coming and going of alert and busy messengers, the riding
    up of officers (for some still ride!), the arrival of much-decorated
    military personages in luxurious motors, the hurrying to and fro of
    orderlies, the perpetual depleting and refilling of the long rows of
    grey vans across the square, the movements of Red Cross ambulances
    and the passing of detachments for the front, all these are sights
    that the pacific stranger could forever gape at. And in the hotel,
    what a clatter of swords, what a piling up of fur coats and
    haversacks, what a grouping of bronzed energetic heads about the
    packed tables in the restaurant! It is not easy for civilians to get
    to Chalons, and almost every table is occupied by officers and
    soldiers--for, once off duty, there seems to be no rank distinction
    in this happy democratic army, and the simple private, if he chooses
    to treat himself to the excellent fare of the Haute Mere-Dieu, has
    as good a right to it as his colonel.

    The scene in the restaurant is inexhaustibly interesting. The mere
    attempt to puzzle out the different uniforms is absorbing. A week's
    experience near the front convinces me that no two uniforms in the
    French army are alike either in colour or in cut. Within the last
    two years the question of colour has greatly preoccupied the French
    military authorities, who have been seeking an invisible blue; and
    the range of their experiments is proved by the extraordinary
    variety of shades of blue, ranging from a sort of greyish
    robin's-egg to the darkest navy, in which the army is clothed. The
    result attained is the conviction that no blue is really
    inconspicuous, and that some of the harsh new slaty tints are no
    less striking than the deeper shades they have superseded. But to
    this scale of experimental blues, other colours must be added: the
    poppy-red of the Spahis' tunics, and various other less familiar
    colours--grey, and a certain greenish khaki--the use of which is due
    to the fact that the cloth supply has given out and that all
    available materials are employed. As for the differences in cut, the
    uniforms vary from the old tight tunic to the loose belted jacket
    copied from the English, and the emblems of the various arms and
    ranks embroidered on these diversified habits add a new element of
    perplexity. The aviator's wings, the motorist's wheel, and many of
    the newer symbols, are easily recognizable--but there are all the
    other arms, and the doctors and the stretcher-bearers, the sappers
    and miners, and heaven knows how many more ramifications of this
    great host which is really all the nation.

    The main interest of the scene, however, is that it shows almost as
    many types as uniforms, and that almost all the types are so good.
    One begins to understand (if one has failed to before) why the
    French say of themselves: "_La France est une nation guerriere._"
    War is the greatest of paradoxes: the most senseless and
    disheartening of human retrogressions, and yet the stimulant of
    qualities of soul which, in every race, can seemingly find no other
    means of renewal. Everything depends, therefore, on the category of
    impulses that war excites in a people. Looking at the faces at
    Chalons, one sees at once in which [Page 54] sense the French are
    "une nation guerriere." It is not too much to say that war has given
    beauty to faces that were interesting, humorous, acute, malicious, a
    hundred vivid and expressive things, but last and least of all
    beautiful. Almost all the faces about these crowded tables--young or
    old, plain or handsome, distinguished or average--have the same look
    of quiet authority: it is as though all "nervosity," fussiness,
    little personal oddities, meannesses and vulgarities, had been burnt
    away in a great flame of self-dedication. It is a wonderful example
    of the rapidity with which purpose models the human countenance.
    More than half of these men were probably doing dull or useless or
    unimportant things till the first of last August; now each one of
    them, however small his job, is sharing in a great task, and knows
    it, and has been made over by knowing it.

    Our road on leaving Chalons continued to run northeastward toward
    the hills of the Argonne.

    We passed through more deserted villages, with soldiers lounging in
    the doors where old women should have sat with their distaffs,
    soldiers watering their horses in the village pond, soldiers cooking
    over gypsy fires in the farm-yards. In the patches of woodland along
    the road we came upon more soldiers, cutting down pine saplings,
    chopping them into even lengths and loading them on hand-carts, with
    the green boughs piled on top. We soon saw to what use they were
    put, for at every cross-road or railway bridge a warm sentry-box of
    mud and straw and plaited pine-branches was plastered against a bank
    or tucked like a swallow's nest into a sheltered corner. A little
    farther on we began to come more and more frequently on big colonies
    of "Seventy-fives." Drawn up nose to nose, usually against a curtain
    of woodland, in a field at some distance from the road, and always
    attended by a cumbrous drove of motor-vans, they looked like giant
    gazelles feeding among elephants; and the stables of woven
    pine-boughs which stood near by might have been the huge huts of
    their herdsmen.

    The country between Marne and Meuse is one of the regions on which
    German fury spent itself most bestially during the abominable
    September days. Half way between Chalons and Sainte Menehould we
    came on the first evidence of the invasion: the lamentable ruins of
    the village of Auve. These pleasant villages of the Aisne, with
    their one long street, their half-timbered houses and high-roofed
    granaries with espaliered gable-ends, are all much of one pattern,
    and one can easily picture what Auve must have been as it looked
    out, in the blue September weather, above the ripening pears of its
    gardens to the crops in the valley and the large landscape beyond.
    Now it is a mere waste of rubble [Page 58] and cinders, not one
    threshold distinguishable from another. We saw many other ruined
    villages after Auve, but this was the first, and perhaps for that
    reason one had there, most hauntingly, the vision of all the
    separate terrors, anguishes, uprootings and rendings apart involved
    in the destruction of the obscurest of human communities. The
    photographs on the walls, the twigs of withered box above the
    crucifixes, the old wedding-dresses in brass-clamped trunks, the
    bundles of letters laboriously written and as painfully deciphered,
    all the thousand and one bits of the past that give meaning and
    continuity to the present--of all that accumulated warmth nothing was
    left but a brick-heap and some twisted stove-pipes!

    As we ran on toward Sainte Menehould the names on our map showed us
    that, just beyond the parallel range of hills six or seven miles to
    the north, the two armies lay interlocked. But we heard no cannon
    yet, and the first visible evidence of the nearness of the struggle
    was the encounter, at a bend of the road, of a long line of
    grey-coated figures tramping toward us between the bayonets of their
    captors. They were a sturdy lot, this fresh "bag" from the hills, of
    a fine fighting age, and much less famished and war-worn than one
    could have wished. Their broad blond faces were meaningless,
    guarded, but neither defiant nor unhappy: they seemed none too sorry
    for their fate.

    Our pass from the General Head-quarters carried us to Sainte
    Menehould on the edge of the Argonne, where we had to apply to the
    Head-quarters of the division for a farther extension. The Staff are
    lodged in a house considerably the worse for German occupancy, where
    offices have been improvised by means of wooden hoardings, and
    where, sitting in a bare passage on a frayed damask sofa surmounted
    by theatrical posters and faced by a bed with a plum-coloured
    counterpane, we listened for a while to the jingle of telephones,
    the rat-tat of typewriters, the steady hum of dictation and the
    coming and going of hurried despatch-bearers and orderlies. The
    extension to the permit was presently delivered with the courteous
    request that we should push on to Verdun as fast as possible, as
    civilian motors were not wanted on the road that afternoon; and this
    request, coupled with the evident stir of activity at Head-quarters,
    gave us the impression that there must be a good deal happening
    beyond the low line of hills to the north. How much there was we
    were soon to know.

    We left Sainte Menehould at about eleven, and before twelve o'clock
    we were nearing a large village on a ridge from which the land swept
    away to right and left in ample reaches. The first glimpse of the
    outlying houses showed nothing unusual; but presently the main
    street turned and dipped downward, and below and beyond us lay a
    long stretch of ruins: the calcined remains of Clermont-en-Argonne,
    destroyed by the Germans on the 4th of September. The free and lofty
    situation of the little town--for it was really a good deal more
    than a village--makes its present state the more lamentable. One can
    see it from so far off, and through the torn traceries of its ruined
    church the eye travels over so lovely a stretch of country! No doubt
    its beauty enriched the joy of wrecking it.

    At the farther end of what was once the main street another small
    knot of houses has survived. Chief among them is the Hospice for old
    men, where Sister Gabrielle Rosnet, when the authorities of Clermont
    took to their heels, stayed behind to defend her charges, and where,
    ever since, she has nursed an undiminishing stream of wounded from
    the eastern front. We found Soeur Rosnet, with her Sisters,
    preparing the midday meal of her patients in the little kitchen of
    the Hospice: the kitchen which is also her dining-room and private
    office. She insisted on our finding time to share the _filet_ and
    fried potatoes that were just being taken off the stove, and while
    we lunched she told us the story of the invasion--of the Hospice
    doors broken down "a coups de crosse" and the grey officers bursting
    in with revolvers, and finding her there before them, in the big
    vaulted vestibule, "alone with my old men and my Sisters." Soeur
    Gabrielle Rosnet is a small round active woman, with a shrewd and
    ruddy face of the type that looks out calmly from the dark
    background of certain Flemish pictures. Her blue eyes are full of
    warmth and humour, and she puts as much gaiety as wrath into her
    tale. She does not spare epithets in talking of "ces satanes
    Allemands"--these Sisters and nurses of the front have seen sights
    to dry up the last drop of sentimental pity--but through all the
    horror of those fierce September days, with Clermont blazing about
    her and the helpless remnant of its inhabitants under the perpetual
    threat of massacre, she retained her sense of the little inevitable
    absurdities of life, such as her not knowing how to address the
    officer in command "because he was so tall that I couldn't see up to
    his shoulder-straps."--"Et ils etaient tous comme ca," she added, a
    sort of reluctant admiration in her eyes.

    A subordinate "good Sister" had just cleared the table and poured
    out our coffee when a woman came in to say, in a matter-of-fact
    tone, that there was hard fighting going on across the valley. She
    added calmly, as she dipped our plates into a tub, that an obus had
    just fallen a mile or two off, and that if we liked we could see the
    fighting from a garden over the way. It did not take us long to
    reach that garden! Soeur Gabrielle showed the way, bouncing up the
    stairs of a house across the street, and flying at her heels we came
    out on a grassy terrace full of soldiers.

    The cannon were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that
    it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside
    that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass,
    and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was
    suddenly brought close to us--the rush of French infantry up the
    slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high
    up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightnings and white
    puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering
    guns, as the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued
    wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having
    stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.

    Though Soeur Rosnet had seen too many such sights to be much moved,
    she was full of a lively curiosity, and stood beside us, squarely
    planted in the mud, holding the field-glass to her eyes, or passing
    it laughingly about among the soldiers. But as we turned to go she
    said: "They've sent us word to be ready for another four hundred
    to-night"; and the twinkle died out of her good eyes.

    Her expectations were to be dreadfully surpassed; for, as we learned
    a fortnight later from a three column _communique,_ the scene we had
    assisted at was no less than the first act of the successful assault
    on the high-perched village of Vauquois, a point of the first
    importance to the Germans, since it masked their operations to the
    north of Varennes and commanded the railway by which, since
    September, they have been revictualling and reinforcing their army
    in the Argonne. Vauquois had been taken by them at the end of
    September and, thanks to its strong position on a rocky spur, had
    been almost impregnably fortified; but the attack we looked on at
    from the garden of Clermont, on Sunday, February 28th, carried the
    victorious French troops to the top of the ridge, and made them
    masters of a part of the village. Driven from it again that night,
    they were to retake it after a five days' struggle of exceptional
    violence and prodigal heroism, and are now securely established
    there in a position described as "of vital importance to the
    operations." "But what it cost!" Soeur Gabrielle said, when we saw
    her again a few days later.

    II

    The time had come to remember our promise and hurry away from
    Clermont; but a few miles farther our attention was arrested by the
    sight of the Red Cross over a village house. The house was little
    more than a hovel, the village--Blercourt it was called--a mere
    hamlet of scattered cottages and cow-stables: a place so easily
    overlooked that it seemed likely our supplies might be needed there.

    An orderly went to find the _medecin-chef_, and we waded after him
    through the mud to one after another of the cottages in which, with
    admirable ingenuity, he had managed to create out of next to nothing
    the indispensable requirements of a second-line ambulance:
    sterilizing and disinfecting appliances, a bandage-room, a pharmacy,
    a well-filled wood-shed, and a clean kitchen in which "tisanes" were
    brewing over a cheerful fire. A detachment of cavalry was quartered
    in the village, which the trampling of hoofs had turned into a great
    morass, and as we picked our way from cottage to cottage in the
    doctor's wake he told us of the expedients to which he had been put
    to secure even the few hovels into which his patients were crowded.
    It was a complaint we were often to hear repeated along this line of
    the front, where troops and wounded are packed in thousands into
    villages meant to house four or five hundred; and we admired the
    skill and devotion with which he had dealt with the difficulty, and
    managed to lodge his patients decently.

    We came back to the high-road, and he asked us if we should like to
    see the church. It was about three o'clock, and in the low porch the
    cure was ringing the bell for vespers. We pushed open the inner
    doors and went in. The church was without aisles, and down the nave
    stood four rows of wooden cots with brown blankets. In almost every
    one lay a soldier--the doctor's "worst cases"--few of them wounded,
    the greater number stricken with fever, bronchitis, frost-bite,
    pleurisy, or some other form of trench-sickness too severe to permit
    of their being carried farther from the front. One or two heads
    turned on the pillows as we entered, but for the most part the men
    did not move.

    The cure, meanwhile, passing around to the sacristy, had come out
    before the altar in his vestments, followed by a little white
    acolyte. A handful of women, probably the only "civil" inhabitants
    left, and some of the soldiers we had seen about the village, had
    entered the church and stood together between the rows of cots; and
    the service began. It was a sunless afternoon, and the picture was
    all in monastic shades of black and white and ashen grey: the sick
    under their earth-coloured blankets, their livid faces against the
    pillows, the black dresses of the women (they seemed all to be in
    mourning) and the silver haze floating out from the little acolyte's
    censer. The only light in the scene--the candle-gleams on the altar,
    and their reflection in the embroideries of the cure's
    chasuble--were like a faint streak of sunset on the winter dusk.

    For a while the long Latin cadences sounded on through the church;
    but presently the cure took up in French the Canticle of the Sacred
    Heart, composed during the war of 1870, and the little congregation
    joined their trembling voices in the refrain:

    "_Sauvez, sauvez la France,
    Ne l'abandonnez pas!_"

    The reiterated appeal rose in a sob above the rows of bodies in the
    nave: "_Sauvez, sauvez la France_," the women wailed it near the
    altar, the soldiers took it up from the door in stronger tones; but
    the bodies in the cots never stirred, and more and more, as the day
    faded, the church looked like a quiet grave-yard in a battle-field.

    After we had left Sainte Menehould the sense of the nearness and
    all-pervadingness of the war became even more vivid. Every road
    branching away to our left was a finger touching a red wound:
    Varennes, le Four de Paris, le Bois de la Grurie, were not more than
    eight or ten miles to the north. Along our own road the stream of
    motor-vans and the trains of ammunition grew longer and more
    frequent. Once we passed a long line of "Seventy-fives" going single
    file up a hillside, farther on we watched a big detachment of
    artillery galloping across a stretch of open country. The movement
    of supplies was continuous, and every village through which we
    passed swarmed with soldiers busy loading or unloading the big vans,
    or clustered about the commissariat motors while hams and quarters
    of beef were handed out. As we approached Verdun the cannonade had
    grown louder again; and when we reached the walls of the town and
    passed under the iron teeth of the portcullis we felt ourselves in
    one of the last outposts of a mighty line of defense. The desolation
    of Verdun is as impressive as the feverish activity of
    Chalons. The civil population was evacuated in September, and
    only a small percentage have returned. Nine-tenths of the shops are
    closed, and as the troops are nearly all in the trenches there is
    hardly any movement in the streets.

    The first duty of the traveller who has successfully passed the
    challenge of the sentinel at the gates is to climb the steep hill to
    the citadel at the top of the town. Here the military authorities
    inspect one's papers, and deliver a "permis de sejour" which must be
    verified by the police before lodgings can be obtained. We found the
    principal hotel much less crowded than the Haute Mere-Dieu at
    Chalons, though many of the officers of the garrison mess
    there. The whole atmosphere of the place was different: silent,
    concentrated, passive. To the chance observer, Verdun appears to
    live only in its hospitals; and of these there are fourteen within
    the walls alone. As darkness fell, the streets became completely
    deserted, and the cannonade seemed to grow nearer and more
    incessant. That first night the hush was so intense that every
    reverberation from the dark hills beyond the walls brought out in
    the mind its separate vision of destruction; and then, just as the
    strained imagination could bear no more, the thunder ceased. A
    moment later, in a court below my windows, a pigeon began to coo;
    and all night long the two sounds strangely alternated...

    On entering the gates, the first sight to attract us had been a
    colony of roughly-built bungalows scattered over the miry slopes of
    a little park adjoining the railway station, and surmounted by the
    sign: "Evacuation Hospital No. 6." The next morning we went to visit
    it. A part of the station buildings has been adapted to hospital
    use, and among them a great roofless hall, which the surgeon in
    charge has covered in with canvas and divided down its length into a
    double row of tents. Each tent contains two wooden cots,
    scrupulously clean and raised high above the floor; and the immense
    ward is warmed by a row of stoves down the central passage. In the
    bungalows across the road are beds for the patients who are to be
    kept for a time before being transferred to the hospitals in the
    town. In one bungalow an operating-room has been installed, in
    another are the bathing arrangements for the newcomers from the
    trenches. Every possible device for the relief of the wounded has
    been carefully thought out and intelligently applied by the surgeon
    in charge and the _infirmiere major_ who indefatigably seconds him.
    Evacuation Hospital No. 6 sprang up in an hour, almost, on the
    dreadful August day when four thousand wounded lay on stretchers
    between the railway station and the gate of the little park across
    the way; and it has gradually grown into the model of what such a
    hospital may become in skilful and devoted hands.

    Verdun has other excellent hospitals for the care of the severely
    wounded who cannot be sent farther from the front. Among them St.
    Nicolas, in a big airy building on the Meuse, is an example of a
    great French Military Hospital at its best; but I visited few
    others, for the main object of my journey was to get to some of the
    second-line ambulances beyond the town. The first we went to was in
    a small village to the north of Verdun, not far from the enemy's
    lines at Cosenvoye, and was fairly representative of all the others.
    The dreary muddy village was crammed with troops, and the ambulance
    had been installed at haphazard in such houses as the military
    authorities could spare. The arrangements were primitive but clean,
    and even the dentist had set up his apparatus in one of the rooms.
    The men lay on mattresses or in wooden cots, and the rooms were
    heated by stoves. The great need, here as everywhere, was for
    blankets and clean underclothing; for the wounded are brought in
    from the front encrusted with frozen mud, and usually without having
    washed or changed for weeks. There are no women nurses in these
    second-line ambulances, but all the army doctors we saw seemed
    intelligent, and anxious to do the best they could for their men in
    conditions of unusual hardship. The principal obstacle in their way
    is the over-crowded state of the villages. Thousands of soldiers are
    camped in all of them, in hygienic conditions that would be bad
    enough for men in health; and there is also a great need for light
    diet, since the hospital commissariat of the front apparently
    supplies no invalid foods, and men burning with fever have to be fed
    on meat and vegetables.

    In the afternoon we started out again in a snow-storm, over a
    desolate rolling country to the south of Verdun. The wind blew
    fiercely across the whitened slopes, and no one was in sight but the
    sentries marching up and down the railway lines, and an occasional
    cavalryman patrolling the lonely road. Nothing can exceed the
    mournfulness of this depopulated land: we might have been wandering
    over the wilds of Poland. We ran some twenty miles down the
    steel-grey Meuse to a village about four miles west of Les Eparges,
    the spot where, for weeks past, a desperate struggle had been going
    on. There must have been a lull in the fighting that day, for the
    cannon had ceased; but the scene at the point where we left the
    motor gave us the sense of being on the very edge of the conflict.
    The long straggling village lay on the river, and the trampling of
    cavalry and the hauling of guns had turned the land about it into a
    mud-flat. Before the primitive cottage where the doctor's office had
    been installed were the motors of the surgeon and the medical
    inspector who had accompanied us. Near by stood the usual flock of
    grey motor-vans, and all about was the coming and going of cavalry
    remounts, the riding up of officers, the unloading of supplies, the
    incessant activity of mud-splashed sergeants and men.

    The main ambulance was in a grange, of which the two stories had
    been partitioned off into wards. Under the cobwebby rafters the men
    lay in rows on clean pallets, and big stoves made the rooms dry and
    warm. But the great superiority of this ambulance was its nearness
    to a canalboat which had been fitted up with hot douches. The boat
    was spotlessly clean, and each cabin was shut off by a gay curtain
    of red-flowered chintz. Those curtains must do almost as much as the
    hot water to make over the _morale_ of the men: they were the most
    comforting sight of the day.

    Farther north, and on the other bank of the Meuse, lies another
    large village which has been turned into a colony of eclopes.
    Fifteen hundred sick or exhausted men are housed there--and there
    are no hot douches or chintz curtains to cheer them! We were taken
    first to the church, a large featureless building at the head of the
    street. In the doorway our passage was obstructed by a mountain of
    damp straw which a gang of hostler-soldiers were pitch-forking out
    of the aisles. The interior of the church was dim and suffocating.
    Between the pillars hung screens of plaited straw, forming little
    enclosures in each of which about a dozen sick men lay on more
    straw, without mattresses or blankets. No beds, no tables, no
    chairs, no washing appliances--in their muddy clothes, as they come
    from the front, they are bedded down on the stone floor like cattle
    till they are well enough to go back to their job. It was a pitiful
    contrast to the little church at Blercourt, with the altar lights
    twinkling above the clean beds; and one wondered if even so near the
    front, it had to be. "The African village, we call it," one of our
    companions said with a laugh: but the African village has blue sky
    over it, and a clear stream runs between its mud huts.

    We had been told at Sainte Menehould that, for military reasons, we
    must follow a more southerly direction on our return to
    Chalons; and when we left Verdun we took the road to
    Bar-le-Duc. It runs southwest over beautiful broken country,
    untouched by war except for the fact that its villages, like all the
    others in this region, are either deserted or occupied by troops. As
    we left Verdun behind us the sound of the cannon grew fainter and
    died out, and we had the feeling that we were gradually passing
    beyond the flaming boundaries into a more normal world; but
    suddenly, at a cross-road, a sign-post snatched us back to war: _St.
    Mihiel_, 18 _Kilometres_. St. Mihiel, the danger-spot of the region,
    the weak joint in the armour! There it lay, up that harmless-looking
    bye-road, not much more than ten miles away--a ten minutes' dash
    would have brought us into the thick of the grey coats and spiked
    helmets! The shadow of that sign-post followed us for miles,
    darkening the landscape like the shadow from a racing storm-cloud.

    Bar-le-Duc seemed unaware of the cloud. The charming old town was in
    its normal state of provincial apathy: few soldiers were about, and
    here at last civilian life again predominated. After a few days on
    the edge of the war, in that intermediate region under its solemn
    spell, there is something strangely lowering to the mood in the
    first sight of a busy unconscious community. One looks
    instinctively, in the eyes of the passers by, for a reflection of
    that other vision, and feels diminished by contact with people going
    so indifferently about their business.

    A little way beyond Bar-le-Duc we came on another phase of the
    war-vision, for our route lay exactly in the track of the August
    invasion, and between Bar-le-Duc and Vitry-le-Francois the high-road
    is lined with ruined towns. The first we came to was Laimont, a
    large village wiped out as if a cyclone had beheaded it; then comes
    Revigny, a town of over two thousand inhabitants, less completely
    levelled because its houses were more solidly built, but a spectacle
    of more tragic desolation, with its wide streets winding between
    scorched and contorted fragments of masonry, bits of shop-fronts,
    handsome doorways, the colonnaded court of a public building. A few
    miles farther lies the most piteous of the group: the village of
    Heiltz-le-Maurupt, once pleasantly set in gardens and orchards, now
    an ugly waste like the others, and with a little church so stripped
    and wounded and dishonoured that it lies there by the roadside like
    a human victim.

    In this part of the country, which is one of many cross-roads, we
    began to have unexpected difficulty in finding our way, for the
    names and distances on the milestones have all been effaced, the
    sign-posts thrown down and the enamelled _plaques_ on the houses at
    the entrance to the villages removed. One report has it that this
    precaution was taken by the inhabitants at the approach of the
    invading army, another that the Germans themselves demolished the
    sign-posts and plastered over the mile-stones in order to paint on
    them misleading and encouraging distances. The result is extremely
    bewildering, for, all the villages being either in ruins or
    uninhabited, there is no one to question but the soldiers one meets,
    and their answer is almost invariably "We don't know--we don't
    belong here." One is in luck if one comes across a sentinel who
    knows the name of the village he is guarding.

    It was the strangest of sensations to find ourselves in a chartless
    wilderness within sixty or seventy miles of Paris, and to wander, as
    we did, for hours across a high heathery waste, with wide blue
    distances to north and south, and in all the scene not a landmark by
    means of which we could make a guess at our whereabouts. One of our
    haphazard turns at last brought us into a muddy bye-road with long
    lines of "Seventy-fives" ranged along its banks like grey ant-eaters
    in some monstrous menagerie. A little farther on we came to a
    bemired village swarming with artillery and cavalry, and found
    ourselves in the thick of an encampment just on the move. It seems
    improbable that we were meant to be there, for our arrival caused
    such surprise that no sentry remembered to challenge us, and
    obsequiously saluting _sous-officiers_ instantly cleared a way for
    the motor. So, by a happy accident, we caught one more war-picture,
    all of vehement movement, as we passed out of the zone of war.

    We were still very distinctly in it on returning to Chalons,
    which, if it had seemed packed on our previous visit, was now
    quivering and cracking with fresh crowds. The stir about the
    fountain, in the square before the Haute Mere-Dieu, was more
    melodramatic than ever. Every one was in a hurry, every one booted
    and mudsplashed, and spurred or sworded or despatch-bagged, or
    somehow labelled as a member of the huge military beehive. The
    privilege of telephoning and telegraphing being denied to civilians
    in the war-zone, it was ominous to arrive at night-fall on such a
    crowded scene, and we were not surprised to be told that there was
    not a room left at the Haute Mere-Dieu, and that even the sofas in
    the reading-room had been let for the night. At every other inn in
    the town we met with the same answer; and finally we decided to ask
    permission to go on as far as Epernay, about twelve miles off. At
    Head-quarters we were told that our request could not be granted. No
    motors are allowed to circulate after night-fall in the zone of war,
    and the officer charged with the distribution of motor-permits
    pointed out that, even if an exception were made in our favour, we
    should probably be turned back by the first sentinel we met, only to
    find ourselves unable to re-enter Chalons without another
    permit! This alternative was so alarming that we began to think
    ourselves relatively lucky to be on the right side of the gates; and
    we went back to the Haute Mere-Dieu to squeeze into a crowded corner
    of the restaurant for dinner. The hope that some one might have
    suddenly left the hotel in the interval was not realized; but after
    dinner we learned from the landlady that she had certain rooms
    permanently reserved for the use of the Staff, and that, as these
    rooms had not yet been called for that evening, we might possibly be
    allowed to occupy them for the night.

    At Chalons the Head-quarters are in the Prefecture, a coldly
    handsome building of the eighteenth century, and there, in a
    majestic stone vestibule, beneath the gilded ramp of a great festal
    staircase, we waited in anxious suspense, among the orderlies and
    _estafettes_, while our unusual request was considered. The result
    of the deliberation, was an expression of regret: nothing could be
    done for us, as officers might at any moment arrive from the General
    Head-quarters and require the rooms. It was then past nine o'clock,
    and bitterly cold--and we began to wonder. Finally the polite
    officer who had been charged to dismiss us, moved to compassion at
    our plight, offered to give us a _laissez-passer_ back to Paris. But
    Paris was about a hundred and twenty-five miles off, the night was
    dark, the cold was piercing--and at every cross-road and railway
    crossing a sentinel would have to be convinced of our right to go
    farther. We remembered the warning given us earlier in the evening,
    and, declining the offer, went out again into the cold. And just
    then chance took pity on us. In the restaurant we had run across a
    friend attached to the Staff, and now, meeting him again in the
    depth of our difficulty, we were told of lodgings to be found near
    by. He could not take us there, for it was past the hour when he had
    a right to be out, or we either, for that matter, since curfew
    sounds at nine at Chalons. But he told us how to find our way
    through the maze of little unlit streets about the Cathedral;
    standing there beside the motor, in the icy darkness of the deserted
    square, and whispering hastily, as he turned to leave us: "You ought
    not to be out so late; but the word tonight is _Jena_. When you give
    it to the chauffeur, be sure no sentinel overhears you." With that
    he was up the wide steps, the glass doors had closed on him, and I
    stood there in the pitch-black night, suddenly unable to believe
    that I was I, or Chalons Chalons, or that a young man
    who in Paris drops in to dine with me and talk over new books and
    plays, had been whispering a password in my ear to carry me
    unchallenged to a house a few streets away! The sense of unreality
    produced by that one word was so overwhelming that for a blissful
    moment the whole fabric of what I had been experiencing, the whole
    huge and oppressive and unescapable fact of the war, slipped away
    like a torn cobweb, and I seemed to see behind it the reassuring
    face of things as they used to be.

    The next morning dispelled that vision. We woke to a noise of guns
    closer and more incessant than even the first night's cannonade at
    Verdun; and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if,
    overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground. Waylaid at one
    corner after another by the long tide of troops streaming out
    through the town to the northern suburbs, we saw in turn all the
    various divisions of the unfolding frieze: first the infantry and
    artillery, the sappers and miners, the endless trains of guns and
    ammunition, then the long line of grey supply-waggons, and finally
    the stretcher-bearers following the Red Cross ambulances. All the
    story of a day's warfare was written in the spectacle of that
    endless silent flow to the front: and we were to read it again, a
    few days later, in the terse announcement of "renewed activity"
    about Suippes, and of the bloody strip of ground gained between
    Perthes and Beausejour.
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    Chapter 2
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