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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Rear Area During Fighting in the Champagne, 1915

From Vive la France! by American Journalist E. Alexander Powell 1917

This is the most vivid description of what went on in the rear area during a major battle I've ever read. Powell was an observer during the September 1915 Second Battle of Champagne.

One of the things that particularly impressed me during my visit to Champagne was the feverish activity that prevailed behind the firing line. It was the busiest place that I have ever seen; busier than Wall Street at the noon-hour; busier than the Panama Canal Zone at the rush period of the Canal's construction.

The roads behind the front for twenty miles were filled with moving troops and transport-trains; long columns of sturdy infantrymen in mud-stained coats of faded blue and wearing steel casques which gave them a startling resemblance to their ancestors, the men-at-arms of the Middle Ages; brown-skinned men from North Africa in snowy turbans and voluminous burnouses, and black-skinned men from West Africa, whose khaki uniforms were brightened by broad red sashes and rakish red tarbooshes; sun-tanned Colonial soldiery from Annam and Tonquin, from Somaliland and Madagascar, wearing on their tunics the ribbons of wars fought in lands of which most people have never so much as heard; Spahis from Morocco and the Sahara, mounted on horses as wiry and hardy as themselves ; Zouaves in jaunty fezes and braided jackets and enormous trousers ; sailors from the fleet, brought to handle the big naval guns, swaggering along with the roll of the sea in their gait ; cuirassiers, their steel breastplates and horse-tailed helmets making them look astonishingly like Roman horsemen; dragoons so picturesque that they seemed to be posing for a Detaille or a Meissonier ; field-batteries, pale blue like everything else in the French army, rocking and swaying. over the stones; cyclists with their rifles slung across their backs hunter-fashion; leather-jacketed despatch riders on panting motor- cycles ; post-offices on wheels ; telegraph offices on wheels butchers' shops on wheels; bakers' shops on wheels ; garages on wheels ; motor-buses, their tops covered with wire-netting and filled with carrier-pigeons ; giant searchlights ; water-carts drawn by patient Moorish donkeys whose turbaned drivers cursed them in shrill, harsh Arabic ; troop transport cars like miniature railway-coaches, each carrying fifty men; field- kitchens with the smoke pouring from their stovepipes and steam rising from the soup cauldrons; long lines of drinking-water waggons, the gift of the Touring Club de France; great herds of cattle and woolly waves of sheep, soon to be converted into beef and mutton, for the fighting man needs meat, and plenty of it; pontoon-trains; balloon outfits; machine guns; pack-trains; mountain batteries; ambulances; world without end, amen.

Though the roads were jammed from ditch to ditch, there was no confusion, no congestion. Everything was as well regulated as the traffic is in the busiest London streets. If the roads were crowded, so were the fields. Here a battalion of Zouaves at bayonet practice was being instructed in the "haymaker's lift," that terrible upward thrust in which a soldier trained in the use of the bayonet can, in a single stroke, rip his adversary open from waist to neck, and toss him over his shoulder as he would a forkful of hay. Over there a brigade of chasseurs d'Afrique was encamped, the long lines of horses, the hooded waggons, and the fires with the cooking-pots steaming over them, suggesting a mammoth encampment of gypsies. In the next field a regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs had halted for the night, and the men, kneeling on their blankets, were praying with their faces turned toward Mecca. Down by the horse-lines a Moorish barber was at work shaving the heads of the soldiers, but taking care always to leave the little top-knot by means of which the faithful when they die, may be jerked to Paradise.


  1. An amazing account which shows just how much more there is to war than the front lines and what a huge amount of organisation goes into it.
    As for the "curaissiers in steel breastplates and helmets.... dragoons so picturesque..." presumably this is 1915; by 1917 there wouldn't have been a place for them in a technological war.

  2. I like very much history and everything that is associated with it