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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

In sight of the front

Saturday, June 26th., Rheims.

Mair and I dined at Meaux last evening. Lord Esher came in, wearing a fancy military costume - perhaps that of Constable of Windsor Castle. A star was depending from his neck. As soon as he saw my eye on it he tucked it inside his double-breasted khaki coat.

Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher GCVO, KCB, PC, DL (1852 – 1930) was a historian and Liberal politician in the United Kingdom, although his greatest influence over military and foreign affairs was as a courtier, member of public committees and behind-the-scenes "fixer". During the First World War Esher was, in one writer’s description, de facto head of British Intelligence in France, reporting on the French domestic and political situation. He reportedly told his son he preferred not to have a formal position where he would have to take orders.

Chateau Pommery
Today we were met at a poste de commandement by the officers in charge, who were waiting for us. After the rites of greeting, we walked up to the high terrace of Chateau Pommary, a considerable chateau close by. France lay before us in a shimmering vast semicircle. In the distance a low range of hills, irregularly wooded; then a river; then woods and spinneys; then vineyards - boundless vineyards which climbed in varying slopes out of the valley almost to our feet. The champagne proprietor didn't want me to drink water! Far to the left was a town with lofty factory chimneys, smokeless. Peasant women were stooping in the vineyards; the whole of the earth seemed to be cultivated and to be yielding bounteously. It was a magnificent summer afternoon. The sun was high and a few huge purple shadows moved with august deliberation across the brilliant greens. An impression of peace, majesty, grandeur; and of the mild, splendid richness of the soil of France.

"You see that white line on the hills opposite," said an officer, opening a large scale map. I guessed it was a level road. "That is the German trenches," said he. "They are five miles away. Their gun positions are in the woods. Our own trenches are invisible from here."

It constituted a great moment, this first vision of the German trenches. With the thrill came the lancinating thought: "All of France that lies beyond that line, land just like the land on which I am standing, inhabited by people just like the people who are talking to me, is under the insulting tyranny of the invader." And I also thought, as the sense of distance quickened my imagination to realise that these trenches stretched from Ostend to Switzerland, and that the creators of them were prosecuting similar enterprises as far north-east as Riga, and as far south-east as the confines of Roumania: "The brigands are mad, but they are mad in the grand manner."

We were at the front. We had driven for twenty miles along a very busy road which was closed to civilians. The civil life of the district was in abeyance, proceeding precariously from meal to meal. Aeroplanes woke the sleep. No letter could leave a post office without a precautionary delay of three days. Telegrams were suspect. To get into a railway station was almost as difficult as to get into paradise. And yet nowhere did I see a frown or hear a complaint. Everybody comprehended that the exigencies of the terrific military machine were necessary exigencies. Everybody waited, waited, in confidence and with tranquil smiles.
We were veritably at the front. There was however not a whisper of war, nor anything visible except the thin pale line like a striation on the distant hills. Then a far-off sound of thunder is heard. It is a gun. A faint puff of smoke is pointed out to us. Neither the rumble nor the transient cloudlet makes any apparent impression on the placid and wide dignity of the scene. nevertheless, this is war. And war seems a very vague, casual, and negligible thing. We are led about fifty feet to the left, where in a previous phase a shell has indented a huge hole in the earth. The sight of the hole renders war rather less vague and rather less negligible.

"There are 80,000 men in front of us," says an officer, indicating the benign shimmering, empty landscape.
"But where?"
"Interred - in the trenches."
It is incredible.
"And the other interred - the dead?" I ask.
"We never speak of them. But we think of them a good deal."

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