MoboReader> Literature > The Glory of The Coming

   Chapter 4 ON THE THRESHOLD OF BATTLE

The Glory of The Coming By Irvin S. Cobb Characters: 21120

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


WE left Paris at an early hour of March 25, which was the morning of the fourth day of perhaps the greatest battle in the history of this or any other war, and of the third day of the bombardment of Paris by the long-range steel monster which already had become famous as the latest creation of the Essen workshops.

There were three of us and no more-Raymond Carroll, Martin Green and I. To each of the three the present excursion was in the nature of a reunion. For more than six years we held down adjoining desks in the city room of a New York evening newspaper. Since we parted, Carroll and I to take other berths and Green to bide where he was, this had been the first time we had met on the same assignment.

I counted myself lucky to be in their company, for two better newspaper men never walked in shoe leather. Carroll among reporters is what Elihu Root is among corporation lawyers. There are plenty of men in the journalistic craft who know why certain facts pertinent to the proper telling of a tale in print may not be secured; he, better than almost any man I ever ran across in this business, knows how these facts may be had, regardless of intervening obstacles. In his own peculiar way, which is a calm, quiet, detached way, Green is just as effective. When it comes to figuring where unshirted Hades is going to break loose next and getting first upon the spot he is a regular Nathan Bedford Forrest. His North American sanity, which is his by birth, and his South of Ireland wit, which is his by inheritance, give strength and savour to what he writes once he has assembled the details in that card index of a mind of his.

We left Paris, heading north by east in the direction whence came in dim reverberations the never-ending sound of the big guns firing in the biggest of all big engagements. Through the courtesy of friends who are members of the French Government we bore special passes admitting us to the Soissons area. Later we were to learn that we were the only individuals not actively concerned in military operations who at particularly momentous time had been thus favoured, all other such passes having been cancelled; and by the same lucky token we are, I believe, the only three newspaper men of any nationality whatsoever who may lay claim to having witnessed at first-hand any part of the close-up fighting in the most critical period and at one of the most critical spots along the crest of the culminating German offensive of this present year of grace and gunpowder, 1918.

Indeed, so far as the available information goes, I think we were the only practitioners of the writing trade who actually got to the actual Front in the first week of the push. Whether any of our calling have got there in the succeeding weeks, I doubt. These times the war correspondent, so called, does not often enjoy such opportunities. After the army has dug itself in is another matter; then, within limitations, he may go pretty much where he pleases to go. But when the shove is on he stays behind, safely at the rear with the rest of the camp followers, and compiles his dispatches from the official communications, fatting them out with details out of the accounts of eyewitnesses and occasionally of participants.

For the three of us, though, was to be vouchsafed the chance which comes but once in the modern newspaperman's life, and sometimes not then. By a combination of rare luck and yet more rare luck we not only got to the Front but we got clear through it. As I write these lines I figuratively pat myself on the back at the thought of having seen what I never expected to see when I landed on French soil less than a month ago. At the same time it behooves me to disclaim for the members of our party that any special sagacity on our part figured in the transaction. Good fortune came flitting along and perched on our shoulders, that's all.

If our passes had shared the common fate of those other passes in being annulled, if any one charged with authority had seen fit to halt us, if any one of a half dozen other things had or had not befallen us-we never should have gone where we did go.

Except that we three were the only passengers on the train who did hot wear French uniforms, and except that the train ran very slowly, nothing happened on the journey to distinguish it from any other wartime journey on a railroad where always there is to be heard the distant booming of the guns mingling with the clickety-clank of the car wheels, and where always the sight of all manner of military activities is to be viewed from the car windows.

In a deep cut we halted. When we had waited there for perhaps twenty minutes a kindly officer volunteered the information in broken English that the station at Soissons was being shelled and that if we intended to enter the town it behooved us to walk in. So we took up our traps and walked.

Through old trenches where long-abandoned German defences once had run in zigzags across the flanks of the hills we laboured up to the top, to find the road along the crest cumbered and in places almost clogged with marching troops on their way back to rest billets, and with civilians fleeing southward from Soissons or from evacuated villages within the zone of active hostilities. We seemingly were the only civilians going in; all those we met on that three-mile hike were coming out. To me the spectacle was strikingly and pathetically reminiscent of Belgium in mid-August of 1914-old men trudging stolidly ahead with loads upon their bent backs; women, young and old, dragging carts or pushing shabby baby carriages that were piled high with their meagre belongings; grave-faced children trotting along at their elders' skirts; wearied soldiers falling out of the line to add to their already heavy burdens as they relieved some half-exhausted member of the exodus of an unwieldy pack. Over the lamentable procession hung a fog of gritty chalk particles that had been winnowed up by the plodding feet. Viewed through the cloaking dust the figures drifted past us like the unreal shapes of a dream. I saw one middle-aged sergeant, his whiskers powdered white and his face above the whiskers masked in a sweaty white paste like a circus clown's, who, for all that he was in heavy marching order, had a grimed mite of a baby snuggled up to the breast of his stained tunic, with its little feet dangling in the crisscross of his leather gear and its bobbing head on his shoulder. He carried the baby with one hand and with the other hand he dragged his rifle; and he looked down smiling at the bedraggled little mother who travelled alongside him shoving before her a barrow in which another child sat on a pillion of bed clothes.

I saw two infantrymen slide down a steep embankment to give aid to an old woman who struggled with a bundle almost as large as herself, and then, having accomplished the job, running with their accoutrements slapping against their legs to catch up with their company. I saw scores of sights such as this, and I did not hear one word of complaint uttered, nor did I look into one face that expressed aught save courage and patience. And seeing these things, multiplied over and over again, I said to myself then, as I say to myself now, that I do not believe Almighty God in His infinite mercy, designed that such people as these should ever be conquered.

Only one person spoke to us. A captain, grinning at us as he plodded by at the head of his company, said with a rearward flirt of his thumb over his shoulders: "No good, no good! much boom-boom!"

Much boom-boom was emphatically right. Over the clustered tops of the city the hostile shells were cracking, and frequently to our ears there came along with the smashing notes of the explosives the clatter of tumbling walls and smashing tiles. Drawing nearer we divined that the cannonading was directed mainly at the railroad station, so skirting to the left of the district under fire we made our way through almost deserted side streets to the centre of the town.

Hardly a house or a wall along our route but bore marks of punishment. Some were fallen into heaps of ruins; some merely were pecked-and scarred, with corners bitten out of the walls and chimneys broken into fantastic designs. Indeed we found out later that only one structure in Soissons had escaped damage in the shelling which went on intermittently in the earlier years of the war and which the Germans, with a sort of futile, savage fury, had lately renewed from their lines twelve miles away to the northward.

This sort of thing appears to be a favourite trick with our enemies. A village or a town may be abandoned by all save a few helpless citizens, living, God only knows how, in the litter of their homes; the place may be of absolutely no military value to the Allies; possibly no troop? are quartered there and no batteries or wagon trains are stationed within miles of it; but all the same when the frenzy of their madness descends upon them the Huns will level and loose their batteries upon the spot and make of the hideous hash which it has become a still more hideous hash. It is as though in sheer wantonness they kicked a corpse.

We skirted the sides of the wonderful old cathedral, which since 1914 has stood for the most part in ruins, with its beautiful stained windows-which never can be replaced, since the art of making such glass as this has been lost-lying underfoot in broken splinters of many colours. Just off the main square we secured quarters in a typical French inn of the second class, a small place with a grandiloquent name. Mainly the shops and houses in the neighbourhood were closed and their owners gone away, but the proprietor of the little hotel and his family and his help still abided under their belaboured roof. Plainly their motto was "Business as Usual."

Their only guests were a few American Red Cross workers, both men and women; a few American officers of the transport service; and a few French officers. But that day at noon, so we were told, the whole staff turned in and cooked and served, free of charge, a plentiful hot meal to two hundred refugees, who staggered in afoot from districts now overrun by the advancing Germans. These poor folk were all departed when we arrived; French camions and American motor trucks had carried them away to temporary asylums beyond the limit of the shelling, and for us there was abundant accommodation-seats at the common dining table, chambers on the second floor, and standing room in the d

eep wine cellars down below if we cared to occupy them when the bombardment became heavier or when hostile a?oplanes circled over to drop down bombs. The members of the ménage, as we learned later, slept regularly down among the casks and wine bottles, because nearly every night for a week past enemy airmen had been circling about doing what hurt they could to the town and its remaining inhabitants.

From the single shattered window of the bedroom to which I was assigned I could look out and down across the narrow roadway upon a smaller house which had caught the full force of a big shell. The thing must have happened within a day or two, for the splintered woodwork and caved-in masonry had not yet begun to wear the weathered, crumbly look that comes to débris after a few weeks of exposure in this rainy climate, and there was a fresh powdering of dust upon the mass of wreckage before the door. Curiously enough the explosive which had reduced the interior of the building to a jumble of ruination left most of the roof rafters intact, and to them still adhered tiles in a sort of ordered pattern, with gaps between the red squares, so that the effect might be likened to a kind of lacy architectural lingerie.

Any moment similar destruction might be visited upon the hotel opposite, but, despite the constant and the imminent danger, the big-bodied, broad-faced proprietor and his trim small wife were seemingly as tranquil as though they lived where the roar of guns was never heard. The man who looks upon the French as an excitable race has only to come here now, to this land, to learn his error and to realise that beneath their surface emotionalism they have splendid reserve forces of resolution and fortitude. By my way of reasoning, it is with these people not merely a case of getting used to a thing-it is something more than that, something deeper than that. It is a pure, clean courage cast in the matrix of a patient heroism which buoys them up to carry on the ordinary undertakings of life amid conditions abnormal and disordered to the point of being almost intolerable when endured for weeks and months and years on end.

Having established ourselves, we set about the task of securing the coveted transportation up to the vicinity of the planes of contact between the Allies and the enemy. The shelling had somewhat abated since our arrival, so we made so bold as to trudge across town to the railroad station, encountering but few persons on the way. In the immediate neighbourhood of the station the evidences of recent strafing were thicker even than in other parts of the old city. Where an hour before a shell had blown two loitering French soldiers to bits, a shattered stone gateway and a wide hole in the ground and a great smearing of moist red stains upon the upheaved earth spelled the tale of what had happened plainly enough. A withered old man was doing his feeble best to patch together the split and sundered planks of the gate; the bodies, what was left of them, had been removed by a burial squad.

At the railroad terminal there was pressing need for everything that went on wheels, and of a certainty there was nothing in the nature of a self-propelled vehicle available for the use of three men who came bearing no order that would give them the right to commandeer government equipment. So our next hope, and seemingly our last one, lay in the French. At a certain place we found numbers of kindly and sympathetic officers with staff markings on their collars, who professed to be glad to see us, at the same time expressing a polite surprise that a trio of unannounced American newspaper men should have dropped in upon them, seemingly out of the shell-harassed skies above.

But when we suggested we would appreciate the loan of an automobile and with the automobile an officer to escort us up to the battle front they lifted eyebrows, shoulder blades and arms toward heaven, all in the same movement signifying chagrin and regret. What we asked was quite impossible, considering the exigencies and emergencies of the moment. The most formidable engagement that ever had been or perhaps ever would be was in midblast. Every available bit of motive power was required; every available man was required.

Besides, the roads, as doubtless we knew, were blocked with re?nforcements hurrying up to support the hard-pressed British north of the Aisne. Any other time, yes. But now-no, and once again, no. We were quite free to stay on in Soissons if we cared for a place temporarily so unhealthy. We might have free access to any of the maps or records on hand. We might visit any of the hospitals or rest camps in the immediate vicinity. But further than that our new friends could not go. They added, by way of advice, that our best course would be to return straightway to Paris and come again when the crisis had passed and the sector to the north had somewhat quieted.

There being nothing else to do, we took a walk to think things over. The walk ended at our stopping place just as the German guns north of us beyond the river resumed their afternoon serenade. More refugees were coming into the town in a long dismal procession from Chauny and Ham and Noyon and scores of smaller places. Some of them had been on the road for twenty-four hours, some for as long as forty-eight hours. They had rested a while in wrecked and empty villages during the preceding night, then had risen at daybreak and resumed their heart-breaking pilgrimage, with no goal in sight and no destination in view, and only knowing that what might lie ahead of them could never by any chance be half so bad as what the Germans were creating behind them.

At the beginning of this war, in Belgium and again in Northern France, not many miles from where we then were, I had seen on the edges of the vortex of battle and destruction many such eddying, aimless streams of human flotsam and jetsam of war; but to one who knew the facts of their case the present plight of these poor wanderers had a special appeal. For this was the second time they had been dispossessed from their small holdings, the second time they had fled in huddles like frightened sheep before the path of the grey invader, the second time all that they owned had been swept away and smashed up and wasted beyond repairing.

Driven out of their homes in the first four weeks of the war, back in 1914, at the time of the great onslaught against Paris, they had been kept away from these homes for more than two years, all during the German occupation of their territory. After the great victory of the Allies over von Hindenburg in the Aisne country they had returned, tramping back in pairs and groups to the sites of their homesteads, filled with the tenacious impulse of the French peasant and the French villager to reroot himself in his native soil; had returned to find that before the Germans retreated beyond the Chemin des Dames they, in accordance with orders from the all-highest command, sawed down the fruit trees in the little orchards and burned the houses that had sheltered them, and tore up the vines and shovelled dung into the drinking wells.

Nevertheless, the repatriates had set to, working like beavers to restore a sorry semblance of the simple frugal communal system under which they and their fathers before them had existed since the Napoleonic wars. And now, just when they were beginning to patch together the broken ends of their lives, when with aid from the French Government and aid from Americans they had cleared and planted their devastated fields and had built new habitations for themselves out of the ruins of the old ones, again the enemy had come down upon them like a ravening wolf on a fold; and again they had run away, deserting all they could not carry in their arms or upon their backs, and knowing full well in the light of past experience that the Germans either would garner the work of their hands or else would make an utter end of it.

At a corner just above the hotel we came upon a mother and her family of nine. She was less than forty years old herself; her husband was a soldier at the Front. She wore wooden sabots on her feet, and upon her body a tattered, sleazy black frock. Her eldest child was fifteen years old, her youngest less than six months. For the ten of them to travel a distance of twelve miles had taken the better part of two days and two nights. The woman had contrived a sling of an old bed sheet, which passed over one of her shoulders and under the other; and in this hammock contrivance she had carried the youngest child against her bosom, with her bodice open at the breast so the baby might suckle while she pushed a crippled perambulator containing the two next youngest bairns. The rest of the brood had walked all the way. They were wearied beyond description; they were incredibly dirty and famishing for want of proper sustenance, but not a single one of the small wretches who was old enough to speak the word failed to murmur "Merci, merci," when the neighbours brought them bowls of hot soup and gave them sups of warm milk and put big slices of bread smeared with jam into their dirty, clawlike little hands.

Having wolfed down the food they squatted, all of them, against a house front to wait for the camion which would take them to a refuge in a Red Cross station a dozen miles away. They had to wait a good while, since all the available wagons were engaged in performing similar merciful offices for earlier arrivals. The children curled up in little heaps like kittens and went to sleep, but the mother sat on a stone doorstep with her babe against her bare flesh, over her heart, to keep it warm, and stared ahead of her with eyes which expressed nothing save a dumb, numbed resignation.

An old priest in a black robe came along and he stopped, being minded, I think, to utter some message of comfort to this wife of a soldier of France, and in her way, I say, as valorous a soldier as her husband could be, did he wear twenty decorations for bravery. But either the priest could find no words to say or the words choked in his throat. Above her drooped head he made with his hand the sign of the cross in the air and went away. And as I stood looking on I did in my heart what any man with blood in his veins would have done had he been there in my stead-I consigned to the uttermost depths of perdition the soul of the Brute of Prussia whose diseased ambition brought to pass this thing and a million things like unto it.

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