Friday, 27 November 2015
Confidences of a War Correspondent
Confidences of a War Correspondent
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, November, 1920.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, November 2015.
THE hectic flush that once bathed the work of the war correspondent passed into memory with the outbreak of the Great War. Like a change in the colour of the stage calcium light departed much of the nerve-breaking strain of news gathering in battle, all the endless conflict and uncanny ingenuity of news despatching. The correspondent became a part of the military machine—with unique privileges and freedom, of course—and the process of getting his “stuff” to his newspapers was as formally prescribed as the provision of food to the armies.
Nerve strain did not cease to be a daily diet. More ground than ever had to be covered by the man who sent out the news—the reading world demanded it—but he had his own car to do it with; or rather, General Headquarters rented him a car at sixty dollars a week if he were a Canadian correspondent, or part of that price was included in the weekly bill for keep at the Press Chateau, where the British correspondents resided. The strain was the result more of competition where “scoops” were practically impossible, of irritating censorship, of possible break-down of car or chauffeur, of greater physical danger within sight or sound of battle, and of that overhanging control which agitates the soul of every natural news-gatherer.
War correspondents in this Great War traduced all the traditions of the profession, even of newspaper reporting. They became gregarious even in their gathering of news. They exchanged items of interest as a matter of policy, not for mere friendship’s sake. Every correspondent at the Press Chateau, the headquarters of the men who reported the operations of the British Army, saw precisely what his fellows did and he heard almost precisely the same stories. He couldn’t help it. Lord Kitchener started the idea. The particular kind of war this was did the rest. So that, if Philip Gibbs, or Beach Thomas, or Phillips, or Nevinson, or any of the rest of them pleased the reader better than his mates it was only because of a more vivid imagination or a more fluent pen.
The Canadian war correspondent was a very different cog in the war machinery from the British correspondent, that prolific and hard-working writer who supplied the news to the world under difficult conditions.
In privileges, in authority, in location at the Front, in experiences, the Canadian news-gatherer was unique.
The two Canadian war correspondents during the fighting of the Canadian Corps in 1918 were Mr. J. F. B. Livesay—than whom there never was a more indefatigable and unselfish news-gatherer at the front—and myself. Mr. Stewart Lyon had preceded us. Our sleeping quarters were never more than seven or eight miles from the front lines. We were eye-witnesses of every “kick-off” in which the Canadian Corps was concerned. Every day, rain or shine, we looked on the actual battle from points of vantage, usually in front of the guns. We talked to the wounded as they staggered back, while they waited to be dressed, as they lay patiently awaiting their turns for the ambulances. We went unattended where we liked when we liked.
Our writing was done by night to the light of a candle stuck in its own grease. Often as I pulled the slim coverings over me during those vile weeks near Wancourt, Livesay’s typewriter was clicking from his tent; and sundry officers with red tabs were wont to make violent remarks about both our machines.
British correspondents were less—and more—fortunate. Owing to the necessity of being with the censors at the centre where the wires from the whole British Army converged, they slept and ate at what we called the Press Chateau, which was located for years before the 1918 fighting at Hesdin, and later moved to different points as the successes developed. At no time, however, was it less than thirty-five miles from the front lines. Their messages had to be filed in mid-forenoon or mid-afternoon, and their car capacity was limited. They could not visit the Front without an attending officer. That they did so well under these handicaps is one of the brilliant features of the war.
The Canadian war correspondents of 1918 probably saw more real fighting in two months than their British confreres did throughout the war. Yet only at one period to my knowledge did the men at the Press Chateau make errors in fact that were worth correcting. And that period was interwoven with brainstorms of the censorship that make another story.
My experiences commenced long before reaching France—seven months before. Having undertaken the assignment for a group of important Canadian papers, the first wall I had to scale was precedent. Never before had there been with the British Army a war correspondent whose duties were confined to the writing of descriptive articles instead of news, and who sent them by mail instead of by wire. “Colour” writers were a new genus to the War Office, demanding as much ponderous rumination as a new type of machine gun or a new national policy. Besides, the Australians had no equivalent attached to them. And it was a recognized condition of internal harmony that when a ray of sunlight was permitted to shine on the Canadians a consignment of moonlight or rainbows had to be despatched by special messenger to the Aussies—and vice versa.
At first it seemed fairly clear sailing. The fact that the group of papers I represented covered Canada and included both parties earned me official backing. But five months passed before I even learned the reason why I was refused the white pass which is the open-sesame of the war correspondent.
For months I had been running a series of magazine articles on different phases of war effort in England. Naturally there was criticism as well as acclamation. It happened that in a treatment of the alien question there was more of the former, though the article presented every possible mitigation. And in the light of the revelations of a committee of investigation in 1919 that there were still 835 employees in Government Departments both of whose parents were enemy subjects; that a Lieut.-Col. Beichwald, whose father was for many years Krupp’s adviser in England, had been recently appointed to a liaison position in British affairs in Turkey; and that a naturalized British subject, Austrian born, who fought against the Allies in the Austrian Army, had been permitted to return to England and resume his business—my position in the article requires no defence. Indeed, the worst I said was as a mere acid drop to calomel compared with what the press of London was handing almost daily to the Government for its persistent kindness to enemy aliens. However it is much easier to exercise restraint over a mere Canadian in London than over the London press; and for months I was so busy in a war of my own, defensive and offensive, that the one over there in France seemed to have lost its nip.
Every wire within reach I began to pull. And finally I discovered that which has entirely altered my conception of English Government—that its faults are not in the men at the top but in the system that robs them of real authority and places it in the hands of bloodless and cut-by-measure assistants and departmental officials who bring to the consideration of every problem a mechanical device invented probably to relieve the real heads of the worry of government. The full significance of this came to light not long ago when it was admitted officially in the British House of Commons that a civil service employee cannot be dismissed for incompetence. England is “governed” by gentlemen of the first water. It is ruled by underlings who protect their authority more zealously than most men do their honour, who can work more destruction in a week than their nominal superiors can rebuild in a lifetime.
A wire invited me to a certain Government office. There occurred an interview with a general and colonel that was a pleasure from greeting to farewell.
“When do you want to go?” suddenly inquired one.
“Saturday,” I replied, and I said it as if I hadn’t to take a firm hold of my chair to keep me from falling off.
But I was not in France yet. On the morning before I was to leave the War Office called me up to read me a cable just received from G.H.Q.: “Canadian Corps now say that Mr. Lacey Amy must be regarded as an officially attached journalist and must have his own car. Corps cannot supply car. Canadian representative consulted says under these circumstances Mr. Amy cannot be received.”
Phew! Without divulging what steps were taken, I can say that that parley was cut so short that several of us had time only to get mad. But new papers had to be made out; and on Tuesday, June 25th, I almost sneaked to Victoria Station, climbed inconspicuously aboard the Staff train for Folkestone, unobtrusively handed my papers over at the boat, stumbled through the formalities at Boulogne—and after seven months of brain-racking uncertainty and worry struck across France towards Canadian Corps Headquarters in a high- powered car.
I was there.
The Corps was then in rest camp about Pernes, fifteen miles north-west of Arras and about twelve from the nearest point in the front lines. My first impression of war correspondence as a permanency—I had been across before on those Cook’s-Tour trips for newspapermen—came from the sight of several large fresh shell-holes close to my first billet. In part of my billet itself were sundry conspicuous chips. And that night the raiders came over and bumped me about disturbingly—though I had already experienced twenty-eight such raids in London. But then one is such a speck in London—and there were six women in the house there to lord it over. I began to wonder if war was really a proper place for a war correspondent.
Trouble visited me early owing to my ignorance of army regulations. The first exhibition might have earned me a bullet, the second a court-martial. With characteristic ignorance I failed to appreciate either escape.
North of Pernes was a hill from which was obtainable one of the finest distant views of the spectacle of war I ever saw. Every evening after dinner a Montreal artist friend, a Belgian artist then working with the Corps, and I used to climb to the practice trenches of the hilltop and thrill with it far into the night. In time I came to consider that hill my personal property. So that when I wandered up alone one night and came on a British battalion at night practice I simply looked on without a thought of the outward similarity between a spectator and a spy—until the whining of an occasional bullet about my ears warned me of the unreliability of blank cartridges and drove me to the edge of the hill where I lay in the grass overlooking distant Bethune and its strafing. Behind me the mimic warfare continued.
About midnight I rose to return to my billet, passed carelessly about the end of the first trench—and was suddenly halted by a shadowy figure. A company that knew me not had the trenches now. After explanations I continued my way. At the other end the silence was eerie, especially as I could see heads moving cautiously against the sky and long things protruding towards me. Once I heard the. click of a trigger. Then a stentorian voice—must have been a sergeant-major—roared: “Stop that officer. Don’t let even your own commanding officer pass in front of you without challenging him.”
Naturally I didn’t wait for the order. Once more I gave my pedigree and was permitted to pass. And just when safety was in sight, a voice called to me from the top of the hill. Looking up, two tremendous soldiers, capped by two tremendous rifles, were visible against the sky running for me. They took me back to the officer, a mere chit of a child who pretended to examine my papers in the darkness. “Do you know you are in great danger?” he inquired solemnly, but with an indifference that appealed to me as unnecessarily hard-hearted. And with apparent disappointment that there would be no execution at dawn, he let me go.
I still contend that two smaller men and two ordinary rifles could have effected my arrest and sustained the dignity of the Army.
The other display was a terrible breach of Army—especially of First Division—discipline. Calling on General Macdonnell, whom I had met only once eight months before, I found him closeted with General Currie. To my credit let it stand that I waited. Leaning wearily on an urn at the front door—mentally polishing the introductory paragraph of an article in plan—someone passed me from behind. I was conscious of the officer beside me springing to the salute. Lazily, more by instinct than by consciousness, I waved a negligent hand towards my cap as the back of a gray-haired head moved out before me.
But General Macdonnell has eyes in the back of his head—he demonstrated it to me later; it was the reflection in his glasses. And I returned to Etrun and the Canadian Corps with a start when the gray head whirled and a pair of fiery eyes and fierce mustachios made the air crackle. I was ignorant of the orthodox line to pursue under the circumstances—but I noticed from the corner of my eye a wobble in the knees of the staff officers about.
General Macdonnell speaks fast. In moments of excitement he might be said to hurry. But he never trips.
“Who are you? . . . What’s your name? . . . Where do you come from? . . . What Division do you belong to? . . . Don’t you know how to salute . . .?”
That is all I recall—but there was more like it in Macdonell’s eyes. Once or twice I managed to ejaculate the first letter of a word, but gave up helplessly while he was pausing for breath.
Then I shot at him in a dash of words who I was, for I didn’t like the thoughts of a second spasm.
“No, General,” I added, “I’m afraid I don’t know how to salute.”
It was a trying moment for a general whose reputation in matters of discipline can’t be added to by any—with a very sensitive body and a vivid thing I can say—to say nothing of how trying it was to a correspondent without much reputation to lose but imagination. But General Macdonell was equal to the occasion. Swiftly but easily he did the only thing possible without embarrassment. Throwing back his head he laughed—and even with those eyes and that ruddy face and that moustache no smile is pleasanter; at least, that’s my opinion.
“Oh, it’s you, is it? I thought I had to knock someone’s head off.” And the knees about began to stiffen; circulation resumed its duty in blanched faces.
After lunch the General and I retired to a quiet place where I practised a salute that might pass me over the initial meetings with strange generals who had not yet learned that I knew no better.
The path of the war correspondent was beset by other trials. Thrown into the discomforts of the front without the hardening process of training, I was unprepared for tent life. By advice in
I neglected to provide myself with a sleeping bag, being assured that I would
always be in billets. Fortunately for my adviser, his name has slipped my
Tent life started for me at Molliens Vidame (or, as even the G.O.C. must have called it, Mollyann be damned). It was there we stopped for the first week after our unexpected flit to the
front. The heat during the day was almost unbearable; at night there would have
been frost in Western Canada. Thus the dark
stained tents in the orchard were furnaces by day and refrigerators by night;
and even the early morning sun was denied us by the trees in which we had
pitched to escape detection by Hun planes.
By dint of the most pathetic begging I managed to borrow two blankets from the quartermaster. But there was not another to beg, borrow, or steal. I proved the hopelessness of begging and borrowing, myself; my batman experimented fruitlessly in the other. And when he failed to wangle anything I needed it was because it was chained down and guarded night and day. I recall his return to the incomplete tent “home” one day after a round of the town and tents, such a look of disgust on his Scotch face that I feared his category had been raised. “Everybody’s sitting on their kits!” he growled. Then, with that look of guileless indifference which served him—and me—so well, he sauntered into the yard of the engineers’ chateau and “picked up” sufficient material to make me a cot and wire mattress. A great find was that batman; especially fortunate was the officer who had him, in that he was protected from anyone else having him.
And so my first few nights in a tent were spent on the damp ground; and during that first week two blankets had to do duty under as well as over. The margin between freezing and the limit of human endurance was filled by trench coats and papers my friends contributing to the supply. I grew almost accustomed to awaiting the morning sun to thaw me out—but the other tents never grew fond of the rustle of paper when I moved or shivered.
But never was there a camp in all the last year of the war the equal, in dreariness and discomfort, of advanced headquarters out there between Neuville Vitasse and Wancourt, where we existed during the three weeks and more preceding the Bourlon Wood attack. The utter desolation of the waste that stretched to the horizon was appalling. When it blew, our tent pegs worked loose in the sand. When it rained most of the tents were flooded out and the batmen were busy for days rebuilding the walls and refilling the floors. One night’s storm tore down a half dozen tents and landed the occupants in a couple of feet of water.
By this time, thanks to my assiduous collection, my bed coverings, under and over, consisted of three blankets (my batman gave me his own and slept in his clothes), two British warms, a sweater coat, a trench coat and lining, heavy socks, a woollen cap, several layers of cheesecloth-backed maps—That is all I remember, but in late September and early October no heterogeneous assortment of makeshifts can take the place of a pair of good wool blankets when the frost is whitening the ground and the wind persists in filtering under the tent wall.
And the ugly lonesomeness of it! Out across the slopes the evenings settled to absolute lifelessness, though we knew that thousands lay there within bugle call. The drab spirit of it came up through the darkness in sad part-song from a hundred desolate funkholes. Someone broke out, night after night, on a cornet, and the rest of us shuddered. “If I could get hands on that fellow,” exploded an officer in the mess one night, after we had struggled in vain to ignore it, “I’d knife him. Makes me feel like the night before going over.”
After the move to the outskirts of Queant, following the successful Bourlon Wood battle, the two correspondents developed a fed-up feeling. We had reached our limit. The grind of typing by night in leaky tents, with our hands so cold we could not feel the keys, of living conditions that drove us to bitterness and overpowered our mental capacity by physical sensitiveness, impelled us to appeal to General Currie. Only the previous night I had spent hours dodging the trickling streams in my tent—and then failed. In the morning my underclothing was wet, a toad jumped on my face as I slept, and my typewriter case and paper were soggy. It was presented to a sympathetic Commander-in-Chief that the product of such conditions would be good neither for the Corps nor for the people of
We flatter ourselves that
owes General Currie an additional debt for responding immediately. Next morning
an Armstrong hut was erected for us—and all our worries ended. Thereafter lots
of table space, dry beds and typewriters and paper, an oil stove that made
night work a comfort, canvas cots, ample transport, dignity. The Canadian war
correspondents ranked now as Staff Officers.
It was the happy conclusion of a personal struggle which, during the six weeks when 1 was the only Canadian correspondent, the
Commandant and I had waged in a friendly, but none the less persistent, way to
establish the position of the news gatherer of the Corps. To the
the war correspondent was a necessary evil; and as he arranged the billets and
located the personnel of Headquarters there was ample opportunity to him of
expressing his conception of values. I inherited from my predecessor the rear
Echelon of Headquarters as the correspondent’s home. That was no serious
disadvantage until the advanced Echelon moved a dozen miles away to Duisans.
Appeals to the Camp Commandant failed on the
plea that Duisans was full. So I carried the question to the Commander-in-Chief.
But just then we flitted to Camp
When Headquarters was again split into two echelons for the battle, my name was down to remain at Molliens Vidame, fifteen miles from the front lines. Again an appeal to the
was useless. But
General Currie was fortunately of a different mind. In just as long as it takes
to walk four hundred yards at a good pace, orders were put through that I was
always to be attached to advanced Headquarters. And that ended that. But the Camp
with a fertility worthy of his job, almost got even with me. The billet he
assigned me in the deserted Camp Commandant was a filthy,
shattered ground-floor cubicle not more than seven feet square—not a stick of
furniture but a straw mattress that could have walked out by itself had it had
the mind, window gone, stone floor. But a still hunt found me a fine house that
had not been discovered by the billeters. It was locked but— village
That very day, the day preceding the Second Battle of Amiens, came my introduction to the sleepless nights and midnight strain of keeping in touch with the Canadian fighting. All day we had been struggling at settlement in new quarters. Livesay, just arrived, had to be found billet, mess, and batman. At 11.40 we threw ourselves on our beds. At midnight we were tiptoeing through the streets to the car to start for the Front—for no one left in the village but three or four of us knew the exact hour of the attack—even the day of it. In disturbing darkness we rolled towards Boves, my eyes substituting for the chauffeur’s, who was night-blind from years of ambulance driving. We had never seen a foot of the way before. No lights were permitted, of course, The road was cluttered in almost endless stream with the traffic of battle. In a clear spot we lost our way.
Through the nights preceding every attack thereafter we were the sole “joy-riders” on the roads. Often it was raining. Now and then—as on the way to the Bourlon Wood battle— the burning of a distant dump was our only light. Once we drew up intuitively, to find the car within a foot of the end of the arm of a temporary bridge. Once the leg of a dead horse caught in a wheel. Often we were forced to back up in search of a wider spot for passing.
Our aim in the attacks was to choose the best points for observation. Sometimes, as at
Amiens, we looked on from
in front of all the guns; always we
were ahead of most of them. At the fight of August 26th, before Arras, we
narrowly escaped being blown over to the Germans from the muzzles of a battery
of field guns which suddenly shattered the heavens in the darkness close above
our heads. The flames seemed to sear my cheek. We ran—just plain ran. Only the
barbwire about a deep overgrown trench prevented our outstripping the attacking
party and perhaps winning Y.C.’s. On such slender threads, so to speak, do
great achievements hang.
Our approach in the early morning to the kick-off that broke the Hindenburg Line was marked by a German plane bombing the slope behind us as we climbed towards the height overlooking Cherisy. For one attack we were awakened at midnight, following a dinnerless conclusion to a weary 150-mile motor ride; and hungry and weary we turned out into the rain. At Bourlon Wood we sat on the parados of the trench filled with one of the waves of the attack, until the barrage opened; and we accompanied the soldiers moving up, until depressions in the ground cut off the spectacle and induced us to return to the heights.
Of course it was fatiguing—those sleepless nights and hungry exciting days. The messes were rationed so closely that there never was sufficient for proper lunches to be made up for us. Had it not been for the chocolate, coffee, and biscuits of the Y.M.C.A. at the advanced dressing stations the post-war physical condition of two Canadian war correspondents would have entitled them to pensions. As it was, we ate bully beef sandwiches two inches thick, and great hunks of cheese, until we hated the sight of them and hunted round for the welcome Y.
Spectators were we of every daylight hour of the fighting around Cambrai. For hours we lay on the crest overlooking the city that we were not permitted to shell as a preliminary to attack, or dodged in and out of the villages that preface it on the road from
The gas that soaked the region gave us colds in the head and prophesied certain
influenza until we understood. A Brigadier and I removed from a dead German
pilot the first aeroplane parachute taken intact—at least, he removed it; I
never reached the point where I could handle dead bodies.
Incidentally I sent to the world the first despatch announcing the use of parachutes by German aviators. Within a few minutes of the fall in flames of a German raider one night I was in connection by telephone with a battery near the spot. And the news of the escape by parachutes of two of the crew of nine was sent out within a few hours. Unfortunately the Air Oificials seemed to take umbrage at the innocent suggestion that if parachutes were found serviceable the British would quickly adopt them, for I understand an official contradiction of their use by the Germans was issued. Within the next week thousands had seen them in use, and I had one in my hands.
The world does not appreciate the severity of the fighting in which the Canadian forces were concerned north of Cambrai on the last day of September and the first of October. But from my own experience there is a complete reply to Sir Sam Hughes’s charge against General Currie of “bull-head” recklessness and heartlessness. In the first place, Cambrai was not taken “by suburbs or street fighting,” as the former Minister of Militia asserted, but by the very means he advocated: “Agoing round the darn thing.” And far from General Currie’s attitude being marked by recklessness, there was on his face at that time the first shadow of faltering confidence. One incident—which General Currie will not mind coming to the light now for the first time—dispels any doubt of that.
On the evening of the first of October, while Livesay and I were seated at our typewriters in our hut writing up with heavy hearts the incidents of the day, General Currie opened the door and entered. It startled us for a moment. Accessible as he had always been to the war correspondents, he had never visited us. His eagerness that all the news should get back to
Canada had been satisfied by our
frequent conversations in his own office or billet. Now he entered slowly and
thoughtfully, sank wearily into my chair, and leaned his arm on the table.
Sober as is his ordinary expression, we had never seen him so grave, never so
mentally and bodily fatigued. For once he had thrown aside every breath of the
dignity of the Commander. A new dignity was there—the Canadian, responsible for
the lives of a hundred thousand men and anxious that Canada should have the full story
of their sacrifice. For twenty minutes he talked—and two mere correspondents
were weighted with the responsibility that was their’s of giving Canada
the proper perspective of the hardest days of fighting in the career of the
Corps. When he had gone we looked at each other and in silence turned to our
It is little use attempting to hide the fact that certain Imperial units on our flanks often held us up, either through unexpected obstacles in their path or through a leadership not quite up to the demands of the occasion. I could give several inside stories of this. But only once did I come on a case of what looked like sheer funk.
In the attack of August 26th a famous Imperial regiment was attacking on our right. An hour and a half after the capture of the outskirts of Neuville Vitasse I was creeping along the sunken road in the ruined village when a member of this regiment dashed down to me from over the bank, inquiring where his battalion was. I did not know; nor did the innocent query convey anything more to me. A few minutes later two more made the same inquiry. But when, twenty minutes later, after ducking shells along a knee-deep trench on the eastern edge of the village, in company with a Canadian officer friend whose duties kept him there until his time came, a group of this same battalion came into view seated on the parapet of the trench watching a rapid succession of shells falling about our ambulances—when at sight of us they ran towards us with the same question, I began to wonder.
Not long afterwards we passed along the sunken road farther east still and came on a cross-trench in which an entire company of this battalion was madly digging itself into funk holes.
In a burst of anger my companion demanded to see the guilty officer. We found him peering out carefully over the parapet at the Canadians attacking in a semi-circle before him. What was exchanged between them was not conducive to Imperial fraternity. The Imperial officer admitted that he was supposed to be attacking on our right, but insisted that he thought he was holding the front line at the moment; he explained that he had lost his way. The Canadian officer pointed in disgust to the ruins of the village all about him, to the Canadians going over in attack, to the map carried by the shirking officer. And the company slunk off southward to the flank of the Canadians exposed by their cowardice.
The bad taste of the thing was partially forgotten in the record event that occurred a few minutes later. I took a prisoner. It wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that wins the V.C. Indeed, the Censor thought so little of it that he forbade my using the story to lighten the tragedy of battle description. But it was a record for a war correspondent, at least in this war. As I stood on the parapet trying to pierce the secrets of the valley before me, marvelling that so much machine-gunning could continue without a visible German, a gray figure suddenly leaped from an angle of a partially shattered trench before me and rushed up the slope.
I was the only human being in sight this side of the attack, and in my trench coat I probably seemed to present the opportunity of capitulating to a Brigadier or a Major-General. For a moment I hesitated as to whether I could beat him running or not.
But when I saw his upraised hands and streaming white face, and heard his whining “don’, don’!” I decided to carry through my part. Never have I seen such terrible fear in a human face. It was inhuman in its abjection. I should have searched him as a primary fulfilment of a captor’s obligations. Instead I swanked back with him along the road until I met two Tommies. To them I presented the German and the duty of search. To do them justice, they accepted both with avidity. So now
knows for the first time that only the ineligibility of war correspondents
precluded the addition of at least one to the list of decorations.
Our desire to see all there was to see kept us so close to the fighting that our car was not infrequently the first over some of the roads to the Front. It also brought sights that made me shudder to recall but meant next to nothing at the time. Another thing it did for us was to run us into suspicion and arrest.
On the second morning of the
attack we reached Marcelcave. According to precedent I should have turned faint
hundreds of times on that trip—a mere drop of blood has made me uncomfortable
in civilian life. Dead Germans and horses lay everywhere, and in the heat were
beginning to notify their presence in other ways than by sight. I do not care
to remember that it was to me nothing more than a great spectacle—except the
It was when it came to our own dead that I began to recognize myself. To that I never hardened. Always there came to me the thought that perhaps I was talking to these very men only a few hours back perhaps I knew them. Perhaps some of these living ones before me would lie like that to-morrow. Down the Amiens-Roye road, where our cavalry had superbly galloped its hopeless attack and the shelling was still too severe for burial parties, I passed them, lying as they fell, their arms thrown over their horses. Back behind Rumancourt, where the enemy looked down on us from across the Canal du Nord, I came on it again; and out there north-west of Cambrai—in Monchy, too, and a host of other places. Always I turned away, though I could look on a machine-gun post full of dead Germans without a twinge. It was all a part of the life.
From an observation post in the holed church tower in Rosieres we looked out over the ground that had been in German hands within the hour. And the signallers gaped at us as a new species. That day we tea-ed with a battery that was inclined to magnify our interest in the fighting. We swung our car along the road to Meharieourt, the first since the Germans moved back, twisting about dead horses and stared at as mental deficients by the soldiers in the trenches by the road, for the fighting was only a thousand yards away.
The prevailing idea, especially among the Imperial artillerymen with our Corps, was that the war correspondent was a swivel-chair gentleman who sat back among seven-course dinners and wool mattresses, and produced second-hand descriptions to the smoke of big cigars.
Arrest several times put a temporary period to our curiosity. In a wood near Demuin a motor machine gun officer satisfied his suspicions by inviting us to tea, and when he had us all alone a Major of the 18th received us suspiciously and conducted us through a long zig-zag trench to the mouth of a dugout, where he proceeded to shave. Nothing was said of arrest but I knew the symptoms. So excited was he that he gashed himself badly—but then he had the two spies. A mile walk to Rouvroy and we were ushered into the presence of Lieut.-Col. “Si” Peck. The most absorbing feature of the incident was that Col. Peck and his staff were eating. The most disgusting was that they didn’t ask us to join them. And we had not eaten for nine hours, had a ten-mile walk ahead of us—the car was away with despatches—and certain prospect of reaching home too late for dinner. But perhaps “Si” believed we were spies but didn’t want the bother of arresting us.
Two or three days later we had an afternoon of arrests. Leaving the car as far towards Z Wood, on the way to Roye, as we dare take it, we struck along the road to Damery, passing through a corner of the French front across the muzzles of several batteries of Imperial guns, and reached the ground held by the 7th Battalion. At a small wood before the tiny village I struck off to find the Battalion Headquarters, Livesay keeping on for the village and the sight we had come to see—the piles of dead Germans mowed down in a fruitless counter-attack.
In a tremendous dugout I found the staff of the 7th and was led by two of them to the village. Then, a strafe being due in a few minutes, I returned to the ear. Livesay was not there. In the warm sun I went to sleep, to the tune of a battery dropping pip-squeaks about our artillery horses near le Quesnoy, four hundred yards to the north. Two hours later I wakened—still alone. In something of a panic I started back on foot to look for my friend. And as I neared the protecting rise in the road he came wearily over it.
Three arrests had been his reward for curiosity. Up in Damery the 7th had laid hands on him. Released the Imperial artillery did not like his looks and invited him to explain. In the French lines they picked him up again, and as his French was not fluent enough to satisfy them and they could not read his papers, he was forced to wait for an interpreter.
Next day we visited the Tank Corps and the 11th Brigade, near Caix. Selecting a Y.M.C.A. stand as a good centre for news, I began to ask questions. An unusual coldness met me. A towsle-headed carrot-top came up.
“I know what I’d say if you asked me,” he growled “‘Go to hell!’ You seen that slip!” And he drew from his pocket a little folder, “Keep Your Mouth Shut”, that had been issued to the troops just before leaving for the surprise attack at
“What rank are you anyway?” he demanded with the confidence of virtue. I humoured him. “And you wear a Sam Browne! That’s a new one on me.” I tried to get even by suggesting that he might find many new things before the war was over.
But he had the last word. A month later I saw General Currie pin the Military Medal to his tunic near Wancourt. There was more beneath that red hair than impudence to a war correspondent.
One of the group, a member of the 75th, volunteered to get me some stories and to show me a few interesting souvenirs he had collected in the fight. Leading me out of the woods, he took me to his own little funk hole in the side of the hill. Then he turned on me.
“Say, who are you? I don’t like your looks. You look to me like a spy.” It had at least the virtue of frankness.
But our most disturbing experience of this description occurred in the dead o’ night, in the deadness of a deserted village that hung together only as a tangle of beams and crumbling mud walls. Returning from the front on foot, having sent the car back with despatches, we were picked up by an officer who would pass within a mile of Headquarters at Demuin. As the Germans were bombing the Amiens-Roye road every night, he decided to keep to the side roads. Maps were useless in the darkness and we kept to the side roads hours longer than we wished. And all the time the raiders were about, the throb of their propellers, the bursting of the bombs, the darting searchlights, the roar of anti-aircraft guns, and the knowledge that out there on the road and in the woods along it thousands of Canadian soldiers were absolutely without protection, gave a thrill to the starlit night probably beyond any in my experience. We completely lost ourselves, even as to direction. Once we were stopped by a rushing soldier who warned us that the road ahead was blocked by an anti-aircraft gun about to fire at an aeroplane over our heads being searched for by a cluster of lights.
After two hours of blind running about we struck the Roye road almost where we had started. Opposite Demuin Livesay and I alighted to walk to Headquarters. It was a wonderful night from that hill, clear as crystal, windless, moonless, the black sky a ceiling of diamonds. All about us was the throb of raiding aeroplanes, and far to the east the night was slit with a score of searchlights feeling for more. Two miles to our left, over Domart, the raiders were trying for a great dump there. And they found it as we looked. Then they sped homewards straight above our heads, scattering the rest of their bombs indiscriminately.
By the time we reached the ruins of Demuin we were—at least I was—in the condition that sees ghosts and imagines strange things. The wild orgy of war by night had put me on edge. I might even have written poetry then.
In the deserted streets a French civilian and a French soldier passed us, talking volubly but low, and I wondered why they were there. Still swayed by the mystery and immensity of things, we were proceeding silently down a narrow street when a sudden and terriffic “halt!” brought me up so short it hurt. Never have I heard so much concentrated emotion in a single word. I could feel bullets puncturing my most sensitive spots, and I wondered hurriedly if one of us would be left alive to give the other’s address and the other things usually looked for in tragedies of that nature.
“Where the blazes are you?” I called, not feeling a bit as casual as that.
Livesay pulled us through. “A friend!” he announced. (I had forgotten that this was a real military war; it seemed to me like a little bit of hades).
“Advance, friend!” replied the voice—with, oh, so much of its feeling flattened out.
We found a soldier before a ruin ahead of us, revolver in hand. And if ever I see the terror of darkness again I will know it. His voice was trembling; so agitated was he that he almost wept as he talked with us. And yet I doubt if I ever met a braver man. He had seen the two Frenchmen, suspected them when it was too late to stop them, and was waiting there alone at midnight to satisfy his suspicions.
“I haven’t a gun,” he explained, “but I thought my old pipe would look enough like one in the dark to fool them.” It certainly fooled me.
I have an infinite respect for that brave terrified man. I would like to meet him in
The perils of a war correspondent were, compared with those of the man in the lines, scarcely worth considering. Even the Canadian correspondent might have taken no risks and still have sent back to
stories of real interest and importance. He might have remained with the rear
Echelon. Advanced Headquarters were always within shellfire, though the danger
Four shells dropped in rapid succession on the ridge above the camp morning after I arrived at the Wancourt camp. They exploded before my eyes as I shaved in the door of my tent. I had my doubts about that camp immediately. Every night some big German gun emitted the bark one came to recognize even in one’s sleep as sending over a shell worth listening for. Almost every night a long-range gun dropped a half-dozen or a score shells into
Arras, four miles away. The brittle explosion
of a facing gun would be followed quickly by the slow whistle of a big shell,
then a moment of silence, and last of all a long roar broken in the middle by a
violent shatter of sound. It was an atmospheric effect none could explain. At
Queant the enemy developed a nasty habit of sending big shrapnel by night to
explode above the town, perhaps in search of a huge railway gun that was there
when we arrived but much more menacing to our hospitals, over which they burst
without injuring anyone.
The greatest danger was from bombs. None dropped close enough to Headquarters in my time to damage things, but that was good fortune. It was the knowledge of that which made me—I have never confessed this before—funk the raiders one night. Wakened in my tent after midnight by the disturbing throb of two German planes, I listened as they came straight towards the camp. My dreams had been unpleasant. Three bombs crashed, each nearer than the last. And then I made for the sole dugout in the camp—where the Generals slept. A relic of German occupation, it was vast and snug. Its snugness appealed to me. But in the mouth of the dugout I realized that I alone of all the camp was astir. And I slunk back to my tent and talked to myself like a brigand.
Our real exposure came from a desire to see. One day, after a German battery had opened our day by sniping us with five shells as our car laboriously climbed a hill near Dury, on the Arras-Cambrai road, another group of three followed us all the way up the slopes from Rumancourt as we were returning in the evening to the car. That stretch of rising ground was under direct observation, and there was only a sunken road to hide it. Thus our only resort was to lie down when a shell was heard coming.
It filled up two hours of our valuable lives to get out of view. To be sure there were two machine-gun posts that might have concealed us, but they were just then crammed with dead Germans of the vintage of three days before, and we preferred the shells.
Just as we were within sight of the sunken road two of the Richtofen Red Squadron decided that we were important enough for their attentions, so they dived at us. But two of our 18-pounders broke loose at them when they were about seventy feet up, the shells bursting somewhere above our heads and showering the ground about us with metal. At the moment the Red Squadron seemed almost friendly by comparison.
Arras and in Sains les
Marquion, only a brick wall separated me from exploding shells.
Our worst experience was a mere movement of excitement compared with what, from our grand-stand seats, we saw thousands of the fighting men face without visible agitation. It was above Cherisy, that village of ill-repute, near which one of my best friends in the Corps, Lieut.-Col. McKenzie, of the 26th, was killed a couple of days before, and every officer of the 22nd in the engagement, except one, was wounded or killed. A battery of 5.9’s caught us with a half dozen officers in a sunken road, within direct observation from Hendecourt, and tried to wipe the road off the map to get at us. Only a minute earlier a soldier had dropped a few yards ahead of me with a gash in his thigh from “big” shrapnel, and I was prepared for the worst.
The shells landed everywhere but in the narrow sunken strip where we huddled tight against the bank. The explosion of one was so closely followed by the whistle of the next that I had no opportunity of telling my friends how frightened I was. Stray pieces were thudding in the bank about our heads; a weak one struck Livesay on the helmet and another stopped against an officer’s leg without injury. I knew a real nice dug-out a hundred yards back—and this seemed about the time to make its acquaintance. But I closed my eyes and left it to the officers to lead the way. And presently they did, with me well up with the winners.
I have said I saw only one wound actually received. Another came so fast that I only felt it. At the base of the little finger of my right hand
I carry the best memento of the war and a reminder of what might have happened were there not a special
for certain irresponsibles.
The day following the capture of Monchy, Livesay and I wandered up to the hill-top to see what was left of perhaps the most famous and hard-fought village on the Western front. From behind a huge block of stone I was watching the battle in the hollow and on the slopes beyond, when an officer crept up the hill to volunteer the information that the last officer who had looked from behind that same stone was in the hospital now. One doesn’t argue questions of that kind.
On the way back to the road I picked up one of those beautifully made and outfitted German ammunition boxes that make ours look like the efforts of a woman carpenter. Each of us seized a handle. Just as we reached the main road a gang of German prisoners carrying back a casualty in plain view of the German observation balloons brought on us a shower of whizz-bangs. The prisoners, beyond the shelling but nearer it than we, moved on unperturbed. Their example seemed worthy of emulation. But the shower came nearer. We turned to skirt the corner. And something tugged viciously at my hand and I looked down to see blood gushing. Even at the moment I noted that it was the hand carrying the stolen box—though the farthest from the explosion—and on the point nearest the box.
But that box is with me yet. It stayed with me until we found a friendly shellhole where we lay wondering what the brain of a soldier would advise under the circumstances. I clung to it when later I was forced to discard more valuable possessions for lack of space. Nothing the German can do will make me give it up.
Thus I established, through no effort of mine, another record for a war correspondent. Besides the unfortunate French newspaperman who was sniped, I believe I was the only correspondent on the Western front whom the Germans hated enough to damage.
The incentive of the old-time war correspondent to attempt the impossible may have been removed by the formal control under which the modern edition of the fraternity works. Individuality may have been largely smothered in official red tape—and red tabs. The war correspondent of to-day will be forgotten when his predecessor of the petty wars of the past still looms large in public memory and reverence. But when the next war comes—I hope it never will—I want to be there with notebook and pencil. For one thing, it’s ever so much more comfortable and remunerative than holding a rifle. For another it is a grand stand seat at all the world’s spectacles crowded into a few months of reckless expenditure and unstinted human ingenuity. And the third reason is that I am of the opinion that in the next war the war correspondent will be permitted to paint a picture less sullied by the bloodless hand of the Censor. I have a palette daubed with paint I was never permitted to use on my pictures. It grieves my heart that, with the end of the war the colours must lie there to dry and fade. But it was war—the Great War—and my fellows and I were but the smallest links in a great chain which was under too great a strain to worry about the eyes of the world.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.