“At the Front in France” by Ring Lardner

ANZAC Day Special:
War tourism is odd. In this light piece, which includes his impressions of New Zealand Maori and Australian soldiers, the celebrated and worthy Ring Lardner recounts a day trip to the trenches of World War I as it is being fought, where he briefly stands on the brink of hell and blandly overlooks it. He also encounters runaway boy soldiers, sits with a wounded doctor, and spars with a condescending philanthropist.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“At the Front in France”

from My Four Weeks in France

Ring Lardner

edited by The Voice before the Void

We went into the aisle of the train car and found standing room among the Australians and Canadians returning from their leave. One of the former, a young, red-headed, scrappy-looking captain, smiled sympathetically and broke open a conversation. I was glad of it, for it gave me an opportunity of further study of the language. I am a glutton for languages, and the whole day has been a feast. We have listened to six different kinds — Australian, Canadian, British, French, Chinese and Harvard. I have acquired an almost perfect understanding of British, Australian and Canadian, which are somewhat similar, and of Harvard, which I studied a little back home. French and Chinese I find more difficult, and I doubt that any one could master either inside of a month or so.

The red-headed captain remarked on the crowded condition of the trine. That is Australian as well as British for train. The Canadian is like our word, and the French is spelled the same, but is pronounced as if a goat were saying it.

One of the captain’s best pals, he told us, had just been severely wounded. He was a gime one, though even smaller than the captain. The captain recalled one night when he, the pal, took prisoner a boche lieutenant who stood over six feet. Fritz was asked whether he spoke English. He shook his head. He was asked whether he spoke French. He lost his temper and, in English, called the entire continent of Australia a bad name. The captain’s little pal then marched him off to the proper authority, to be questioned in English. On the way the captain’s little pal made him take off his helmet and give it to him. This was as punishment for what Fritz had said about Australia.

Before the proper authority Fritz was as sweet-tempered as a bloody bear. This puzzled the proper authority, for making a boche prisoner is doing him a big favor.

“What iles you?” asked the authority when Fritz had refused to reply to any of a dozen questions. “You ine’t the first bloody boche officer we’ve tiken.”

Then Fritz bared his grievance. He didn’t mind, he said, being a prisoner. The size of his captor was the thing that galled. “And for Gott’s sake,” he added, “make him give back my helmet.”

The proper authority turned to the captain’s little pal. “He’s your prisoner,” he said. “What do you want to do with the helmet?”

“Keep it, sir,” said the captain’s little pal.

And it will be used back in Australia some day to illustrate the story, which by that time will doubtless have more trimmings.

“But how about Fritz?” I asked. “When he gets home and tells the same story, he’ll have nothing with which to prove it.”

“He ine’t agoin’ to tell the sime story.”

We were welcomed at our destination by a captain, another regular correspondent, and two good English cars. The captain said he was expecting another guest on this train, a Harvard professor on research work bent.

The professor appeared at length, and we were all whisked some thirty kilometers to a luncheon. Afterward we were taken to the Chinese camp. From Chinatown we were driven to the American Visitors’ Chateau, where gentlemen and correspondents from the United States are entertained. It’s a real chateau, with a moat and everything. The major is our host. The major has seen most of his service in India and China.

He said he was glad to meet us, which I doubt. The new arrivals, Mr. Gibbons, the Harvard professor and myself, were shown our rooms and informed that dinner would occur at eight o’clock. Before dinner we were plied with cocktails made by our friend, the captain. The ingredients, I believe, were ether, arsenic and carbolic acid in quantities not quite sufficient to cause death.

Eleven of us gathered around the festal board. There were the major and his aids, three British captains, one with a monocle. There was the Harvard professor, and the head of a certain American philanthropical organization, and his secretary. And then there were us, me and Mr. Gibbons and Mr. O’Flaherty and Mr. Somner, upstarts in the so-called journalistic world.

The dinner was over the eighteen-course course, the majority of the courses being liquid. I wanted to smoke between the fish and the sherry, but Mr. O’Flaherty whispered to me that it wasn’t done till the port had been served.

The major has wished on me for to-morrow a trip through the reconquered territory. My companions are to be the captain with the monocle, the Harvard professor, the philanthropist, and the philanthropist’s secretary. We are to start off at eight o’clock. Perhaps I can manage to oversleep.

Thursday, September 6.

I did manage it, and the car had left when I got down-stairs. I was left here alone with the major.

This afternoon an American captain, anonymous of course, called on us. He is stopping at G. H. Q., which is short for General Headquarters, his job being to study the British strategic methods. He and the major discussed the differences between Americans and Englishmen.

“The chief difference is in temperature,” said the captain. “You fellows are about as warm as a glacier. In America I go up to a man and say: ‘My name is Captain So-an-So.’ He replies: ‘Mine is Colonel Such-and-Such.’ Then we shake hands and talk. But if I go to an Englishman and say: ‘My name is Captain So-and-So,’ he says: ‘Oh!’ So I’m embarrassed to death and can’t talk.”

“‘Strawnary!” said the major.

At tea time a courier brought us the tidings that there’d been an air raid last Sunday at a certain hospital base.

“The boche always does his dirty work on Sunday,” remarked the American captain. “It’s queer, too, because that’s the day that’s supposed to be kept holy, and I don’t see how the Kaiser squares himself with his friend Gott.”

I laughed, but the major managed to remain calm.

The American captain departed after tea, and the major and I sat and bored each other till the Harvard professor and his illustrious companions returned. They told me I missed a very interesting trip. That’s the kind of trip one usually misses.

To-morrow we are to be shown the main British training school and the hospital bases.

Friday, September 7.

We left the chateau at nine and reached the training camp an hour later.

We saw a squad of ineligibles drilling, boys under military age who had run away from home to get into the Big Game. Their parents had informed the authorities of their ineligibility, and the authorities had refused to enroll them. The boys had refused to go back home, and the arrangement is that they are to remain here and drill till they are old enough to fight. Some of them are as much as three years shy of the limit.

We saw a bayonet drill with a tutor as vivacious and linguistically original as a football coach, and were then taken to the bomb-throwing school. The tutor here was as deserving of sympathy as a Belgian. A bomb explodes five seconds after you press the button. Many of the pupils press the button, then get scared, drop the bomb and run. The instructor has to pick up the bomb and throw it away before it explodes and messes up his anatomy.

The Maoris were our next entertainers. The Maoris are colored gemmen from New Zealand. They were being taught how to capture a trench. Before they left their own dugout they sang a battle hymn that would make an American dance and scare a German to death. They went through their maneuvers with an incredible amount of pep and acted as if they could hardly wait to get into real action against the boche. Personally, I would have conscientious objections to fighting a Maori.

Then we were shown a gas-mask dress rehearsal. A British gas mask has a sweet scent, like a hospital. You can live in one, they say, for twenty-four hours, no matter what sort of poison the lovely Huns are spraying at you. We all tried them on and remarked on their efficacy, though we knew nothing about it.

We had lunch and were told we might make a tour of inspection of the hospitals in which the wounded lay. I balked at this and, instead, called on a Neenah, Wisconsin, doctor from whose knee had been extracted a sizable piece of shrapnel, the gift of last Sunday’s bomb dropper. This doctor has been over but three weeks, and the ship that brought him came within a yard of stopping a torpedo. Neither war nor Wisconsin has any terrors left for him.

To-morrow we are to be taken right up to the front, dressed in helmets, gas masks, and everything.

Saturday, September 8.

Two machine loads, containing us and our helmets, masks, and lunch baskets, got away to an early start and headed for the Back of the Front. In one car were the Captain with the Monocle, the Harvard prof., and the American philanthropist. The baggage, the philanthropist’s secretary, and I occupied the other. The secretary talked incessantly and in reverent tones of his master, whom he called The Doctor. One would have almost believed he considered me violently opposed to The Doctor (which I wasn’t, till later in the day) and was trying to win me over to his side with eulogistic oratory.

The first half of our journey was covered at the usual terrifying rate of speed. The last half was a snail’s crawl which grew slower and slower as we neared our objective. Countless troops, afoot and in motors, hundreds of ammunition and supply trucks, and an incredible number of businesslike and apparently new guns, these took up a healthy three-quarters of the road and, despite our importance, didn’t hunch to let us pass.

When we sounded our horns to warn of our approach, the subalterns, or whatever you call them, would look round, stand at attention and salute, first the Captain with the Monocle, and then, when our car came up, me. Me because I was the only one in the second machine who wore a British officer’s cap. I returned about three salutes, blushing painfully, and then threw my cap on the floor of the car and rode exposed. Saluting is a wear and tear on the right arm, and being saluted makes you feel slackerish and camouflagy, when you don’t deserve it.

We attained the foot of the observation hill round noon, left our machines, and ate our picnic lunch, consisting of one kind of sandwiches and three kinds of wine. Then we accomplished the long climb, stopping half-way up to don helmets and masks. Our guide told us that the boche, when not otherwise pleasantly employed, took a few shots at where we were standing to test his long-distance aim.

I wore the mask as long as I could, which was about half an hour. It was unpleasantly reminiscent of an operation I once had, the details of which I would set down here if I had time. Without it, I found, I could see things much more plainly. Through strong field glasses the British trenches were discernible. The German front line was behind a ridge, two hundred yards away — from the British, not us — and invisible. No drive was in progress, but there was the steady boom, boom of heavy guns, the scary siren, with a bang at the end, of grenades, and an occasional solo in a throaty barytone which our captain told us belonged to Mr. Trench Mortar.

The firing was all in one direction — toward the northeast. Fritz was not replying, probably because he had no breath to waste in casual repartee.

Convinced that our hill was a zone of safety, for this afternoon at least, I wanted to stay up there and look and listen till it was time to go home. But our captain had arranged a trip to a sniping school, and our captain would rather have broken his monocle than have made the slightest alteration in the program for the day.

To the sniping school we went, and saw the snipers sniping on their snipes. It was just like the sniping school I had visited at the American camp, and I got pretty mad at our captain for dragging us away from a sight far more interesting. But he redeemed himself by having the major in charge show us real, honest-to-goodness camouflage, staged by an expert.

We were taken to a point two hundred yards distant from a trench system.

“Standing up in front of one of those trenches,” said the major, “there’s a sergeant in costume. He’s in plain sight. Now you find him.”

Well, we couldn’t find him, and we gave up.

“Move, Sergeant!” shouted the major.

The sergeant moved and, sure enough, there he was!

“I had him spotted all the time,” said The Doctor.

The major directed the sergeant to change to a costume of a different hue. When the change had been made we were required to turn our backs till he had “hidden” himself again. Again he was “in plain sight,” and again we had to give up. Again he was ordered to move, and we saw him, this time in colors diametrically opposed to those of his first garb.

“I had him spotted all the time,” said The Doctor.

The sergeant went through his entire repertory of tricks, but the rest must not be reported.

It occurred to me on the way back to our machines that some football coach could make a fish out of the defensive team by camouflaging his back field.

Our captain and the Harvard prof. climbed into the front car, leaving The Doctor, his secretary, and me to bring up the rear. The sec. sat with the driver; The Doctor and I in the back seat.

“How long have you been over here?” inquired The Doctor at length.

I told him.

“How many American soldiers are there in France?”

I told him.

After an impressive pause, he said:

“As a matter of fact, there are really—” And he increased my estimate by four hundred per cent. “Of course,” he continued, “I have the right figures. They were furnished me by the Defense League before I left home. They naturally wouldn’t give them to a writer because they don’t want them published.”

“And naturally,” says I, “whenever they tell a writer anything in strict confidence, he rushes to the nearest Local and Long Distance Telephone Booth and gets Wilhelmstrasse on the wire.”

“Oh, no,” said The Doctor. “But a writer might think it was his duty to send the correct information to his paper.”

“Did you ever hear of the censorship?” I asked him.

“There are ways of eluding it.”

“And do you think all writers are that kind?”

He shrugged a fat shoulder.

“Not all, possibly a very few. But one never can tell the right kind from the wrong.”

His guard was down, and I took careful aim:

“Do you think the Defense League used good judgment in entrusting that secret to you, when you spill it to the first irresponsible reporter you happen to run across?”

If I hadn’t won that argument, I wouldn’t repeat it now.