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AT THE BATTLE-FRONTS IN THE GREAT WAR
IT was in the summer of 1918 that Edward Bok received from the British Government, through its department of public information, of which Lord Beaverbrook was the minister, an invitation to join a party of thirteen American editors to visit Great Britain and France. The British Government, not versed in publicity methods, was anxious that selected parties of American publicists should see, personally, what Great Britain had done, and was doing in the war; and it had decided to ask a few individuals to pay personal visits to its munition factories, its great aerodromes, its Great Fleet, which then lay in the Firth of Forth, and to the battle-fields. It was understood that no specific obligation rested upon any member of the party to write of what he saw: he was asked simply to observe and then, with discretion, use his observations for his own guidance and information in future writing. In fact, each member was explicitly told that much of what he would see could not be revealed either personally or in print.
The party embarked in August amid all the attendant secrecy of war conditions. The steamer was known only by a number, although later it turned out to be the White Star liner, Adriatic. Preceded by a powerful United States cruiser, flanked by destroyers, guided overhead by observation balloons, the Adriatic was found to be the first ship in a convoy of sixteen other ships with thirty thousand United States troops on board.
It was a veritable Armada that steamed out of lower New York harbor on that early August morning, headed straight into the rising sun. But it was a voyage of unpleasant war reminders, with life-savers carried every moment of the day, with every light out at night, with every window and door as if hermetically sealed so that the stuffy cabins deprived of sleep those accustomed to fresh air, with over sixty army men and civilians on watch at night, with life-drills each day, with lessons as to behavior in life-boats; and with a fleet of eighteen British destroyers meeting the convoy upon its approach to the Irish Coast after a thirteen days' voyage of constant anxiety. No one could say he travelled across the Atlantic Ocean in war days for pleasure, and no one did.
Once ashore, the party began a series of inspections of munition plants, ship-yards, aeroplane factories and of meetings with the different members of the English War Cabinet. Luncheons and dinners were the order of each day until broken by a journey to Edinburgh to see the amazing Great Fleet, with the addition of six of the foremost fighting machines of the United States Navy, all straining like dogs at leash, awaiting an expected dash from the bottled-up German fleet. It was a formidable sight, perhaps never equalled: those lines of huge, menacing, and yet protecting fighting machines stretching down the river for miles, all conveying the single thought of the power and extent of the British Navy and its formidable character as a fighting unit.
It was upon his return to London that Bok learned; through the confidence of a member of the British "inner circle," the amazing news that the war was practically over: that Bulgaria had capitulated and was suing for peace; that two of the Central Power provinces had indicated their strong desire that the war should end; and that the first peace intimations had gone to the President of the United States. All diplomatic eyes were turned toward Washington. Yet not a hint of the impending events had reached the public. The Germans were being beaten back, that was known; it was evident that the morale of the German army was broken; that Foch had turned the tide toward victory; but even the best-informed military authorities, outside of the inner diplomatic circles, predicted that the war would last until the spring of 1919, when a final "drive" would end it. Yet, at that very moment, the end of the war was in sight!
Next Bok went to France to visit the battle-fields. It was arranged that the party should first, under guidance of British officers, visit back of the British lines; and then, successively, be turned over to the American and French Governments, and visit the operations back of their armies.
It is an amusing fact that although each detail of officers delegated to escort the party "to the front" received the most explicit instructions from their superior officers to take the party only to the quiet sectors where there was no fighting going on, each detail from the three governments successively brought the party directly under shell-fire, and each on the first day of the "inspection." It was unconsciously done: the officers were as much amazed to find themselves under fire as were the members of the party, except that the latter did not feel the responsibility to an equal degree. The officers, in each case, were plainly worried: the editors were intensely interested.
They were depressing trips through miles and miles of devastated villages and small cities. From two to three days each were spent in front-line posts on the Amiens-Bethune, Albert-Peronne, Bapaume-Soissons, St. Mihiel, and back of the Argonne sectors. Often, the party was the first civilian group to enter a town evacuated only a week before, and all the horrible evidence of bloody warfare was fresh and plain. Bodies of German soldiers lay in the trenches where they had fallen; wired bombs were on every hand, so that no object could be touched that lay on the battle-fields; the streets of some of the towns were still mined, so that no automobiles could enter; the towns were deserted, the streets desolate. It was an appalling panorama of the most frightful results of war.
The picturesqueness and romance of the war of picture books were missing. To stand beside an English battery of thirty guns laying a barrage as they fired their shells to a point ten miles distant, made one feel as if one were an actual part of real warfare, and yet far removed from it, until the battery was located from the enemy's "sausage observation"; then the shells from the enemy fired a return salvo, and the better part of valor was discretion a few miles farther back.
The amazing part of the "show," however, was the American doughboy. Never was there a more cheerful, laughing, good-natured set of boys in the world; never a more homesick, lonely, and complaining set. But good nature predominated, and the smile was always uppermost, even when the moment looked the blackest, the privations were worst, and the longing for home the deepest.
Bok had been talking to a boy who lived near his own home, who was on his way to the front and "over the top" in the Argonne mess. Three days afterward, at a hospital base where a hospital train was just discharging its load of wounded, Bok walked among the boys as they lay on their stretchers on the railroad platform waiting for bearers to carry them into the huts. As he approached one stretcher, a cheery voice called, "Hello, Mr. Bok. Here I am again."
It was the boy he had left just seventy-two hours before hearty and well.
"Well, my boy, you weren't in it long, were you?"
"No, sir," answered the boy; "Fritzie sure got me first thing. Hadn't gone a hundred yards over the top. Got a cigarette?" (the invariable question).
Bok handed a cigarette to the boy, who then said: "Mind sticking it in my mouth?" Bok did so and then offered him a light; the boy continued, all with his wonderful smile: "If you don't mind, would you just light it? You see, Fritzie kept both of my hooks as souvenirs."
With both arms amputated, the boy could still jest and smile!
It was the same boy who on his hospital cot the next day said: "Don't you think you could do something for the chap next to me, there on my left? He's really suffering: cried like hell all last night. It would be a Godsend if you could get Doc to do something."
A promise was given that the surgeon should be seen at once, but the boy was asked: "How about you?"
"Oh," came the cheerful answer, "I'm all right. I haven't anything to hurt. My wounded members are gone — just plain gone. But that chap has got something — he got the real thing!"
What was the real thing according to such a boy's idea?
There were beautiful stories that one heard "over there." One of the most beautiful acts of consideration was told, later, of a lovable boy whose throat had been practically shot away. During his convalescence he had learned the art of making beaded bags. It kept him from talking, the main prescription. But one day he sold the bag which he had first made to a visitor, and with his face radiant with glee he sought the nurse-mother to tell her all about his good fortune. Of course, nothing but a series of the most horrible guttural sounds came from the boy: not a word could be understood. It was his first venture into the world with the loss of his member, and the nurse-mother could not find it in her heart to tell the boy that not a word which he spoke was understandable. With eyes full of tears she placed both of her hands on the boy's shoulders and said to him: "I am so sorry, my boy. I cannot understand a word you say to me. You evidently do not know that I am totally deaf. Won't you write what you want to tell me?"
A look of deepest compassion swept the face of the boy. To think that one could be so afflicted, and yet so beautifully tender and always so radiantly cheerful, he wrote her.
Pathos and humor followed rapidly one upon the other "at the front" in those gruesome days, and Bok was to have his spirits lightened somewhat by an incident of the next day. He found himself in one of the numerous little towns where our doughboys were billeted, some in the homes of the peasants, others in stables, barns, outhouses, lean-tos, and what not. These were the troops on their way to the front where the fighting in the Argonne Forest was at that time going on. As Bok was walking with an American officer, the latter pointed to a doughboy crossing the road, followed by as disreputable a specimen of a pig as he had ever seen. Catching Bok's smile, the officer said: "That's Pinney and his porker. Where you see the one you see the other."
Bok caught up with the boy, and said: "Found a friend, I see, Buddy?"
"I sure have," grinned the doughboy, "and it sticks closer than a poor relation, too."
"Where did you pick it up?"
"Oh, in there," said the soldier, pointing to a dilapidated barn.
"Why in there?"
"My home," grinned the boy.
"Let me see," said Bok, and the doughboy took him in with the pig following close behind. "Billeted here — been here six days. The pig was here when we came, and the first night I lay down and slept, it came up to me and stuck its snout in my face and woke me up. Kind enough, all right, but not very comfortable: it stinks so."
"Yes; it certainly does. What did you do?"
"Oh, I got some grub I had and gave it to eat: thought it might be hungry, you know. I guess that sort of settled it, for the next night it came again and stuck its snout right in my mug. I turned around, but it just climbed over me and there it was."
"Well, what did you do then? Chase it out?"
"Chase it out?" said the doughboy, looking into Bok's face with the most unaffected astonishment. "Why, mister, that's a mother-pig, that is. She's going to have young ones in a few days. How could I chase her out?"
"You're quite right, Buddy," said Bok. "You couldn't do that."
"Oh, no," said the boy. "The worst of it is, what am I going to do with her when we move up within a day or two? I can't take her along to the front, and I hate to leave her here. Some one might treat her rough."
"Captain," said Bok, hailing the officer, "you can attend to that, can't you, when the time comes?"
"I sure can, and I sure will," answered the Captain. And with a quick salute, Pinney and his porker went off across the road!
Bok was standing talking to the commandant of one of the great French army supply depots one morning. He was a man of forty; a colonel in the regular French army. An erect, sturdy-looking man with white hair and mustache, and who wore the single star of a subaltern on his sleeve, came up, saluted, delivered a message, and then asked:
"Are there any more orders, sir?"
"No," was the reply.
He brought his heels together with a click, saluted again, and went away.
The commandant turned to Bok with a peculiar smile on his face and asked:
"Do you know who that man is?"
"No," was the reply.
"That is my father," was the answer.
The father was then exactly seventy-two years old. He was a retired business man when the war broke out. After two years of the heroic struggle he decided that he couldn't keep out of it. He was too old to fight, but after long insistence he secured a commission. By one of the many curious coincidences of the war he was assigned to serve under his own son.
When under the most trying conditions, the Americans never lost their sense of fun. On the staff of a prison hospital in Germany, where a number of captured American soldiers were being treated, a German sergeant became quite friendly with the prisoners under his care. One day he told them that he had been ordered to active service on the front. He felt convinced that he would be captured by the English, and asked the Americans if they would not give him some sort of testimonial which he could show if he were taken prisoner, so that he would not be ill-treated.
The Americans were much amused at this idea, and concocted a note of introduction, written in English. The German sergeant knew no English and could not understand his testimonial, but he tucked it in his pocket, well satisfied.
In due time, he was sent to the front and was captured by "the ladies from hell," as the Germans called the Scotch kilties. He at once presented his introduction, and his captors laughed heartily when they read:
"This is L—. He is not a bad sort of chap. Don't shoot him; torture him slowly to death."
One evening as Bok was strolling out after dinner a Red Cross nurse came to him, explained that she had two severely wounded boys in what remained of an old hut: that they were both from Pennsylvania, and had expressed a great desire to see him as a resident of their State.
"Neither can possibly survive the night," said the nurse.
"They know that?" asked Bok.
"Oh, yes, but like all our boys they are lying there joking with each other."
Bok was taken into what remained of a room in a badly shelled farmhouse, and there, on two roughly constructed cots, lay the two boys. Their faces had been bandaged so that nothing was visible except the eyes of each boy. A candle in a bottle standing on a box gave out the only light. But the eyes of the boys were smiling as Bok came in and sat down on the box on which the nurse had been sitting. He talked with the boys, got as much of their stories from them as he could, and told them such home news as he thought might interest them.
After half an hour he arose to leave, when the nurse said: "There is no one here, Mr. Bok, to say the last words to these boys. Will you do it?" Bok stood transfixed. In sending men over in the service of the Y. M. C. A. he had several times told them to be ready for any act that they might be asked to render, even the most sacred one. And here he stood himself before that duty. He felt as if he stood stripped before his Maker. Through the glassless window the sky lit up constantly with the flashes of the guns, and then followed the booming of a shell as it landed.
"Yes, won't you, sir?" asked the boy on the right cot as he held out his hand. Bok took it, and then the hand of the other boy reached out.
What to say, he did not know. Then, to his surprise, he heard himself repeating extract after extract from a book by Lyman Abbott called The Other Room, a message to the bereaved declaring the non-existence of death, but that we merely move from this earth to another: from one room to another, as it were. Bok had not read the book for years, but here was the subconscious self supplying the material for him in his moment of greatest need. Then he remembered that just before leaving home he had heard sung at matins, after the prayer for the President, a beautiful song called "Passing Souls." He had asked the rector for a copy of it; and, wondering why, he had put it in his wallet that he carried with him. He took it out now and holding the hand of the boy at his right, he read to them:
For the passing souls we pray,
Saviour, meet them on their way;
Let their trust lay hold on Thee
Ere they touch eternity.
Holy counsels long forgot
Breathe again 'mid shell and shot;
Through the mist of life's last pain
None shall look to Thee in vain.
To the hearts that know Thee, Lord,
Thou wilt speak through flood or sword;
Just beyond the cannon's roar,
Thou art on the farther shore.
For the passing souls we pray,
Saviour, meet them on the way;
Thou wilt hear our yearning call,
Who hast loved and died for all.
Absolute stillness reigned in the room save for the half-suppressed sob from the nurse and the distant booming of the cannon. As Bok finished, he heard the boy at his right say slowly: "Saviour — meet — me — on — my — way": with a little emphasis on the word "my." The hand in his relaxed slowly, and then fell on the cot; and he saw that the soul of another brave American boy had "gone West."
Bok glanced at the other boy, reached for his hand, shook it, and looking deep into his eyes, he left the little hut.
He little knew where and how he was to look into those eyes again!
Feeling the need of air in order to get hold of himself after one of the most solemn moments of his visit to the front, Bok strolled out, and soon found himself on what only a few days before had been a field of carnage where the American boys had driven back the Germans. Walking in the trenches and looking out, in the clear moonlight, over the field of desolation and ruin, and thinking of the inferno that had been enacted there only so recently, he suddenly felt his foot rest on what seemed to be a soft object. Taking his "ever-ready" flash from his pocket, he shot a ray at his feet, only to realize that his foot was resting on the face of a dead German!
Bok had had enough for one evening! In fact, he had had enough of war in all its aspects; and he felt a sigh of relief when, a few days thereafter, he boarded The Empress of Asia for home, after a ten-weeks absence.
He hoped never again to see, at first hand, what war meant!