SCENES IN THE BRITISH LINES (as reported by the Press Bureau - reproduced in The Times and other newspapers)
The following descriptive account which has been communicated by an eye-witness present with General Headquarters continues and supplements the narrative published yesterday of the movements of the British Force and of the French Armies in immediate touch with it, and is issued by the Press Bureau:-
"In the presentation of striking contrasts this war is no exception to the rule. Within sight of the spot where these words are being penned the chauffeur of a General Staff motor-car is completing his morning toilet in the open. After washing hands and face in a saucepan minus handle, which he has balanced on an empty petrol-can, he carefully brushes his hair with an old nail-brush, using the window of the car, in which he has slept, as a looking-glass. From the backward sweep he gives to his somewhat long locks, and judging by his well-cut and clean, but dull, brogue shoes, it is clear that he has once been a “knut,” in spite of his oil-stained khaki service jacket and trousers. He is, in fact, an ex-public-school boy who enlisted for the war to do his bit for his country, and a right useful part he is playing.
The resignation with which many of the inhabitants accept whatever happens is a remarkable feature of the situation. They seem in no way perturbed by the incursion of strange officers and men billeted on them, whose presence, even if they appear in the shape of deliverers, must be at least a great inconvenience. At the dinner hour yesterday, in a house which at ordinary times is a second-class café in a small country town, this trait was exhibited to a curious degree. The main entrance of the café opens on to a combined entrance hall and kitchen containing a long zinc-covered table and furnished with a large cooking range.
Whilst the officers billeted in the house were eating lunch and smoking in the salon next door, a continuous stream of orderlies, motor-cyclist dispatch-riders, intelligence agents, telegraph operators, and staff officers were passing through the hall, one soldier servant was frying something at the range, and others were slicing tomatoes and onions at one end of the table. Quite unperturbed, amidst a cloud of flies, the “patron,” his wife, and family were discussing their own duty there with gusto, immersed in their own affairs and also in a shower of grease, for they were eating artichokes, each petal of which was first dipped in a bowl of melted butter and conveyed to the mouth with a flourish.
There was so much noise and smell that it was impossible from inside the house to hear the incessant booming of the guns within half a mile of this bustling scene, palpitating with life, however, was a different picture. In the clearing hospital to which the wounded had been brought from the dressing stations behind the firing line were rows of our wounded men. In here there was no difficulty in discerning the distant roar of artillery, with which the air outside quivered.
It is always instructive to regard matters from the opposing point of view, and the following further extracts from the letters of prisoners may be of interest:-
“In all the places we passed through we found wounded and many parties of men with bandaged arms and hands. On the 15th (September) we reached a village in which we thought we should get some rest, but we had hardly gone to the field kitchens for our food when shrapnel started bursting near our regiment, which was in close formation. We at once sought cover in some houses. At 6 o’clock our company was ordered to move up to a wood in order to protect our artillery, which was coming into action in a field, the rest of the battalion marching northwards.
On the 16th we advanced, covered by our guns. The enemy was hidden in business, and some were firing from houses into our trenches, which were not more than 100 yards from the village. To my right and left wounded comrades were complaining bitterly that the enemy, shooting from the houses, found too easy a mark in us. If we assumed an upright position we were immediately fired on. Two of our soldiers endeavoured to carry a wounded man to the rear, one was killed and the other was wounded in the attempt. Soon the enemy’s bullets began to get us which time the company lost about 25 men, we were forced to retire. This brought our total strength down to 80 (we started with 251 men). We had no officers left.....
On the 18th at 4.30 a.m. we reached a village where we thought we expected to be able to rest and collected some straw. Before half an hour had passed, however, the shrapnel again found us out. We spent the afternoon in the village, which was continuously under shell fire in spite of the fact that our guns were shelling the enemy’s artillery. We heard our Colonel say that our guns could not get at those of the enemy satisfactorily, as the latter were so well concealed .....Our condition is now really awful, for we have to lie out in all weathers; and we are all looking forward to a speedy end. We are very badly off as regards food .... Some of our regiments can only muster three to four companies. (The enemy referred to are the French.)”
Another letter written during the retreat in front of the French from Montmirail contains the following:-
“After a 36 hours’ march we had a rest, and arrived just in time for the fight. For three days we did not have a hot meal, because our field kitchens were lost. We got a hot meal yesterday evening. Though we are all just ready to drop, we must march on.”
Yet two more extracts:-
“We found great quantities of food, but for fear of poison did not take possession of it until we had got hold of the proprietor of the house and forced him to taste it.
We ae near Reims, after having gone through hard, bloody, and most horrible days. Thank God I am still alive. Of our regiment of 3,000 men there are now only 1,600. Let us hope that this battle – which ought to be one of the greatest in history – will leave m safe and well, and give us peace. I am absolutely done, but we must not despair.”