When the French have been pestered for permission to visit the front by some foreigner--usually an American--until their patience has been exhausted, or when there comes to Paris a visitor to whom, for one reason or another, they wish to show attention, they send him to Rheims. Artists, architects, ex-ambassadors, ex-congressmen, lady journalists, manufacturers in quest of war orders, bankers engaged in floating loans, millionaires who have given or are likely to give money to war-charities, editors of obscure newspapers and monthly magazines, are packed off weekly, in personally conducted parties of a dozen or more, on a day's excursion to the City of the Desecrated Cathedral. They grow properly indignant over the cathedral's shattered beauties, they visit the famous wine-cellars, they hear the occasional crack of a rifle or the crash of a field-gun,[B] and, upon their return, they write articles for the magazines, and give lectures, and to their friends at home send long letters--usually copied in the local papers--describing their experiences "on the firing-line." "Visiting the front" has, indeed, become as popular a pastime among Americans in Paris as was racing at Longchamps and Auteuil before the war. Hence, no place in the entire theatre of war has had so much advertising as Rheims. No sector of the front has been visited by so many civilians. That is why I am not going to say anything about Rheims--at least about its cathedral. For there is nothing left to say.
Five minutes of brisk walking from the cathedral brings one to the entrance of the famous wine-cellars of Pommery et Cie, the property of the ancient family of de Polignac. The space in this underground city is about equally divided between champagne and civilians, for several hundred of the townspeople, who sought refuge here in the opening weeks of the war, still make these gloomy passages their home. As the caves have a mean temperature of fifty degrees Fahrenheit they are comfortable enough, and, as they are fifty feet below the surface of the earth, they are safe. So there the more timid citizens live, rent-free, and will continue to live, no doubt, until the end of the war. In normal times, there are shipped from these cellars each day thirty thousand bottles of champagne, and even now, despite the proximity of the Germans--their trenches are only a few hundred yards away--the work of packing and shipping goes on much as usual, though, of course, on a greatly reduced scale, averaging, so I was told, eight thousand bottles daily. By far the greater part of this goes to America, for nowadays Europeans do not buy champagne.
To the red-faced, white-waistcoated, prosperous-looking gentlemen who scan so carefully the hotel wine-lists, I feel sure that it will come as a relief to learn that, though there was no 1916 crop of champagne, the vintages of 1914 and 1915 were exceptionally fine--grands vins they will probably be labelled. (And they ought to be, for the vines were watered with the bravest blood of France.) I don't suppose it would particularly interest those same complacent gentlemen, though, were I to add that the price of one of those gilt-topped bottles would keep a French child from cold and hunger for a month.
A few hours before I visited the cellars, a workman, loading cases of champagne in front of the company's offices for export to the United States, was blown to pieces by a German shell. They showed me the shattered columns of the office-building, and on the cobbles of the little square pointed out an ugly stain. So, when I returned to America, and in a famous restaurant, where I was dining, saw white-shirted men and white-shouldered women sipping glasses abrim with the sparkling wine of Rheims, the picture of those blood-stained cobbles in that French city flashed before me, and I experienced a momentary sensation of disgust, for it seemed to me that in the amber depths I caught a stain of crimson. But of course it was only my imagination. Still, I was glad when it came time to leave, for the scene was too suggestive in its contrast to be pleasant: we, in America, eating and drinking and laughing; they, over there in Europe, fighting and suffering and hungering.
Leaving Rheims, we took a great gray car and drove south, ever south, until, as darkness was falling, we reached the headquarters of General Jilinsky, commanding the Russian forces fighting in Champagne. Here the Russians have two infantry brigades, with a total of 16,000 men; there is a third brigade at Salonika. The last time the Russians were in France was in 1814, and then they were there for a different purpose. Little could Napoleon have dreamed that they, who helped to dethrone him, would come back, a century later, as France's allies. Yet this war has produced stranger coincidences than that. The British armies, disembarking at Rouen, tramp through that very square where their ancestors burned the Maid of Orleans. And at Pont des Briques, outside Boulogne, where Napoleon waited impatiently for weeks in the hope of being able to invade England, is now situated the greatest of the British base camps.
General Jilinsky reminded me of a fighting-cock. He is a little man, much the height and build of the late General Funston, with hair cropped close to the skull, after the Russian fashion; through a buttonhole of his green service tunic was drawn the orange-and-black ribbon of the Order of St. George. He can best be described as "a live wire." His staff-officers impressed me as being as efficient and razor-keen as their chief. The general asked me if I would like to visit his trenches, and I assured him that it was the hope of being permitted to do so which had brought me there. Whereupon a staff-officer disappeared into the hall to return a moment later with a gas-mask in a tin case and a steel helmet covered with tan linen.
"You had better take these with you," he said. "There is nearly always something happening on our front, and there is no sense in taking unnecessary risks."
I soon found that the precaution was not an idle one, for, as our car drew up at the entrance to the boyau which led by devious windings into the first-line trenches, the group of officers and men assembled in front of brigade headquarters were hastily donning their masks: grotesque-looking contrivances of metal, cloth, and rubber, which in shape resembled a pig's snout.
"Gas," said my Russian companion briefly. "We will stay here until it is over."
Though we must have been nearly a mile behind the firing-line, the air was filled with a sweetish, sickish smell which suggested both the operating-room and the laboratory. So faint and elusive was the odor that I hesitated to follow the example of the others and don my mask, until I remembered having been told at Souchez, on the British front, that a horse had been killed by gas when seven miles behind the lines.
It is a logical development of this use of chemicals as weapons that the horses in use on the French front are now provided with gas-masks in precisely the same manner as the soldiers. These masks, which are kept attached to the harness, ready for instant use, do not cover the entire face, as do those worn by the men, but only the mouth and nostrils. In fact they resemble the feeding-bags which cartmen and cab-drivers put on their horses for the midday meal. Generally speaking, the masks are provided only for artillery horses and those employed in hauling ammunition, though it now seems likely that if the cavalry gets a chance to go into action, masks will be worn by the troopers and their horses alike. After a large gas attack the fumes sometimes settle down in the valleys far behind the lines, and hours may elapse before they are dissipated by the wind. As it not infrequently happens that one of these gas banks settles over a road on which it is imperative that the traffic be not interrupted, large signs are posted notifying all drivers to put the masks on their horses before entering the danger zone.
There are now three different kinds of gases in general use on the Western Front. The best known of these is a form of chlorine gas, which is liberated from cylinders or flasks, to be carried by the wind over the enemy's lines. Contrary to the popular impression, its use is not as general as the newspaper accounts have led the public to believe, for it requires elaborate preparation, can only be employed over comparatively flat ground, and then only when the wind is of exactly the right velocity, neither too light nor too strong. Another form of asphyxiating gas is held in shells in liquid form, usually in lead containers. Upon the bursting of the shell, which is fired from an ordinary field-gun, the liquid rapidly evaporates and liberates the gas, a few inhalations of which are sufficient to cause death. The third type consists of lachrymal, or tear-producing, gas, which is used in the same way as the asphyxiating, but its effects are not fatal, merely putting a man out of action for a few hours. It is really, however, the most efficacious of the three types, as it does not evaporate as readily as the asphyxiating gas. As a well distributed fire of lachrymal shells will form a screen of gas which will last for several hours, they are often used during an attack to prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. Another use is against artillery positions, the clouds of gas from the lachrymal shells making it almost impossible for the men to serve the guns. I was also told of these shells having been used with great success to surround the headquarters of a divisional commander, disabling him and his entire staff during an attack.
Before a change in the wind dissipated the last odors of gas, darkness had fallen. "Now," said my cicerone, "we will resume our trip to the trenches." The last time that I had seen these trenches, which the Russians are now holding, was in October, 1915, during the great French offensive in Champagne, when I had visited them within a few hours after their capture by the French. On that occasion they had been so pounded by the French artillery that they were little more than giant furrows in the chalky soil, and thickly strewn along those furrows was all the horrid garbage of a battlefield: twisted and tangled barbed wire, splintered planks, shattered rifles, broken machine-guns, unexploded hand-grenades, knapsacks, water-bottles, pieces of uniforms, bits of leather, and, most horrible of all, the remains of what had once been human beings. But all this débris had long since been cleared away. Under the skilful hands of the Russians the rebuilt trenches had taken on a neat and orderly appearance. The earthen walls had been revetted with wire chicken-netting, and instead of tramping through ankle-deep mud, we had beneath our feet neat walks of corduroy. We tramped for what seemed interminable miles in the darkness, always zig-zagging. Now and then we would come upon little fires, discreetly screened, built at the entrances to dugouts burrowed from the trench-walls. Over these fires soldiers in flat caps and belted greatcoats were cooking their evening meal. I had expected to see unkempt men wearing sheepskin caps, men with flat noses and matted beards, but instead I found clean-shaven, splendidly set-up giants, with the pink skins that come from perfect cleanliness and perfect health. Following the direction of the arrows on signs printed in both French and Russian, we at last reached the fire-trench, where dim figures looking strangely mediæval in their steel helmets, crouched motionless, peering out along their rifle-barrels into the eerie darkness of No Man's Land. Here there was a sporadic illumination, for from the German trenches in front of us lights were rising and falling. They were very beautiful: slender stems of fire arching skyward to burst into blossoms of brilliant sparks, which illuminated the band of shell-pocked soil between the trenches as though it were day. Occasionally there would be a dozen of these star-shells in the air at the same time: they reminded me of the Fourth of July fireworks at Manhattan Beach. In the fire-trenches there is no talking save in whispers, but every now and then the almost uncanny silence would be punctuated by the sharp crack of a rifle, the tut-tut-tut of a mitrailleuse, or, from somewhere in the distance, the angry bark of a field-gun.
There was a whispered conversation between the officer in command of the trench and my guide. The latter turned to me.
"We have driven a sap to within thirty metres of the enemy," he said, "and have established a listening-post out there. Would you care to go out to it?"
I would, and said so.
"No talking, then, if you please," he warned me, "and as little noise as possible."
This time the boyau was very narrow, and writhed between its earthen walls like a dying snake. We advanced on tiptoe, as cautiously as though stalking big game--as, indeed, we were. Ten minutes of this slow and tortuous progress brought us to the poste d'écoute. In a space the size of a hall bedroom half a score of men stood in attitudes of strained expectancy, staring into the blackness through the loopholes in their steel shields. There being no loophole vacant, I took a chance and, standing on the firing step, raised my head above the level of the parapet and made a hurried survey of the few yards of No Man's Land which separated us from the enemy--a space so narrow that I could have thrown a stone across, yet more impassable than the deepest chasm. I was rewarded for the risk by getting a glimpse of a dim maze of wire entanglements, and, just beyond, a darker bulk which I knew for the German trench. And I knew that from that trench sharp eyes were peering out into the darkness toward us just as we were trying to discern them. As I stepped down from my somewhat exposed position a soldier standing a few feet farther along the line raised his head above the parapet, as though to relieve his cramped muscles. Just then a star-shell burst above us, turning the trench into day. Ping!!! There was a ringing metallic sound, as when a 22-caliber bullet strikes the target in a shooting-gallery, and the big soldier who had incautiously exposed himself crumpled up in the bottom of the trench with a bullet through his helmet and through his brain. The young officer in command of the listening-post cursed softly. "I'm forever warning the men not to expose themselves," he said irritatedly, "but they forget it the next minute. They're nothing but stupid children." He spoke in much the same tone of annoyance he might have used if the man had been a clumsy servant who had broken a valuable dish. Then he went into the tiny dugout where the telephone was, and rang up the trench commander, and asked him to send out a bearer, for the boyau communicating with the listening-post was too narrow to admit the passage of a stretcher. The bearer arrived just as we started to return. He was a regular dray-horse of a man, with shoulders as massive and competent as those of a Constantinople hamel. Strapped to his back by a sort of harness was a contrivance which looked like a rude armchair with the legs cut off. His comrades hoisted the dead man onto the back of the live man, and with a rope took a few turns about the bodies of both. As we made our slow way back to the fire-trench, and so to the rear, there stumbled at our heels the grunting porter with his ghastly burden. Now and then I would glance over my shoulder and, in the fleeting glare of the star-shells, would glimpse, above the porter's straining shoulders, the head of the dead soldier lolling inertly from side to side, as though very, very tired.... And I wondered if in some lonely cabin by the Volga a woman was praying for her boy.