Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reporting from a World War I Battlefield: the Champagne, September 1915

American war correspondent E. Alexander Powell visited the battlefield in Champagne toward the end of the September 1915 battle.  Here is a vivid description of what he saw.

Navarin Farm Was on the Front Line in the Champagne for Three Years

The thing of which the Champagne battlefield most reminded me was a garbage-heap. It looked and smelled as though all the garbage cans in Europe and America had been emptied upon it. This region, as I have remarked before, is of a chalk formation, and wherever a trench had been dug, or a shell had burst, or a mine had been exploded, it left on the face of the earth a livid scar. The destruction wrought by the French artillery fire is almost beyond imagining. Over an area as long as from Charing Cross to Hampstead Heath and as wide as from the Bank to the Marble Arch the earth is pitted with the craters caused by bursting shells as is pitted the face of a man who has had the small-pox. Any of these shell-holes was large enough to hold a barrel; many of them would have held a horse; I saw one, caused by the explosion of a mine, which we estimated to be seventy feet deep and twice that in diameter. In the terrific blast that caused it five hundred German soldiers perished. At another point on what had been the German first line I saw a yawning hole as large as the cellar of a good-sized apartment house. It marked the site of a German blockhouse, but the blockhouse and the men who composed its garrison had been blown out of existence by a torrent of 370-millimeter high-explosive shells. 

The captured German trenches presented the most horrible sight that I have ever seen or ever expect to see. This is not rhetoric; this is fact. Along the whole front of fifteen miles the earth was littered with torn steel shields and twisted wire, with broken waggons, bits of harness, cartridge-pouches, dented helmets, belts, bayonets-some of them bent double-broken rifles, field-gun shells and rifle cartridges, hand-grenades, aerial torpedoes, knapsacks, bottles, splintered planks, sheets of corrugated iron which had been turned into sieves by bursting shrapnel, trench mortars, blood-soaked bandages, fatigue-caps, entrenching tools, stoves, iron rails, furniture, pots of jam and marmalade, note-books, water-bottles mattresses, blankets, shreds of clothing, and, most horrible of all, portions of what had once been human bodies. Passing through an abandoned German trench, I stumbled over a mass of grey rags, and they dropped apart to disclose a headless, armless, legless torso already partially devoured by insects. I kicked a hobnailed German boot out of my path and from it fell a rotting foot. A hand with awful, outspread fingers thrust itself from the earth as though appealing to the passer-by to give decent burial to its dead owner. 

Well-Stocked German Trench in the Sector

I peered inquisitively into a dug- out only to be driven back by an overpowering stench. A French soldier, more hardened to the business than I, went in with a candle, and found the shell-blackened bodies of three Germans. Clasped in the dead fingers of one of them was a postcard dated from a little town in Bavaria. It began : "My dearest Heinrich: You went away from us just a year ago to-day. I miss you terribly, as do the children, and we all pray hourly for your safe return —." The rest we could not decipher; it had been blotted out by a horrid crimson stain. Without the war that man might have been returning, after a day's work in field or factory, to a neat Bavarian cottage, with geraniums growing in the garden, and a wife and children waiting for him at the gate. 

Though when I visited the battlefield of Champagne the guns were still roaring —for the Germans were attempting to retake their lost trenches in a desperate series of counter-attacks — the field was already dotted with thousands upon thousands of little wooden crosses planted upon new-made mounds. 

The Utter Desolation of the Champagne During the War

Above many of the graves there had been no time to erect crosses or headboards, so into the soft soil was thrust, neck downward, a bottle, and in the bottle was a slip of paper giving the name and the regiment of the soldier who lay beneath. In one place the graves had been dug so as to form a vast rectangle, and a priest, his cassock tucked up so that it showed his military boots and trousers, was at work with saw and hammer building in the center of that field of graves a little shrine. 

Scrawled in pencil on one of the pitiful little crosses I read : "Un brave — Emile Petit — Mort aux Champ d'Honneur — Priez pour lui." (Brave Emile Petit — Dead on the Field of Honor — Pray for him.)

Six feet away was another cross which marks the spot where sleeps Gottlieb Zimmerman, of the Wurtemberg Pioneers, and underneath, in German script, that line from the Bible which reads : "He fought the good fight."

Images and article from Tony Langley's collection

No comments:

Post a Comment