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Friday, 28 June 2013

Instruments of war

Monday, June 28th., Chateau Thierry, Picardy, France.

Arrived here last night at 7.20. We took drinks at Headquarters of a Commandant of whom I didn't catch the name. This drink (lemon and water and sugar) restored me more than any drink I ever had. We did a great deal of rough walking yesterday. Much marching up and down hills and among woods, gazing at horses and hot-water douches, baths and barbers shops, and deep dugouts called 'Tipperary', and guns of various calibre.  Estimated 20 miles. I put it at 12.

We inspected hills of coils of the most formidable barbed wire, far surpassing that of farmers, well contrived to tear to pieces any human being who, having got into its entanglement, should try to get out again. Also the four-pointed contraptions called chevaux de frise which, however you throw them, will always stick a fatal point upwards, to impale the horse or man who cannot or will not look where he is going. Everything in this parc du genie (engineers park) in unimagined quantities.

Close by, a few German prisoners performing sanitary duties under a guard. They were men in God's image, and they went about on the assumption that all the rest of the war lay before them and that there was a lot of it. A General told us that he had mentioned to them the possibility of an exchange of prisoners, whereupon they had gloomily and pathetically protested. They very sincerely did not want to go back whence they had come, preferring captivity, humiliation, and the basest tasks to a share in the great glory of German arms. To me they had a brutalised air, no doubt one minor consequence of military ambition in high places.

Not many minutes away was a hospital, what the French call an ambulance de premiere ligne, contrived out of a factory. This was the hospital nearest the trenches in that region, and the wounded came to it directly from the dressing stations which lie immediately behind the trenches. There were few patients when we were there, yet the worn face of the doctor in charge showed that vast labours must have been accomplished in those sombre chambers. In the very large courtyard a tent operating-hospital was established. Ether smell. Some cases operated on here in an hour after wound.

Another short ride and we were in an aviation park, likewise tented, in the midst of an immense wheatfield on the lofty side of a hill. There were six hangars of canvas, each containing an aeroplane. A young non-commissioned officer with a marked Southern accent explained to us the secret nature of things. He was wearing both the Military Cross and the Legion of Honour, for he had done wondrous feats in the way of shooting the occupants of Taube in mid-air. Naturally after this we visited some auto-cannons expressly constructed for bringing down aeroplanes. In front of these marvels it was suggested to us that we should neither take photographs nor write down exact descriptions. The high-priest of these guns was a middle-aged artillery Captain who explained their operation in an esoteric yet quite comprehensible language. The demoniac ingenuity of these guns was impressive to a high degree.

We inspected a "seventy-five", a very sympathetic creature, in blue-grey with metallic hints. We beheld the working of the gun by two men, and we beheld the different sorts of shells in their delved compartments. But this was not enough for us. We ventured to suggest that it would be proper to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement. The request was instantly granted. It was done. It was done with disconcerting rapidity. The shell was put in its place. A soldier pulled a string. Bang! A neat, clean, not too loud bang! The messenger had gone instantly forth. The "seventy-five" was enthusiastically praised by every officer present. He is beloved like a favourite sporting dog, and with cause.

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