Read CHAPTER XX of A Journey Through France in War Time , free online book, by Joseph G. Butler‚ Jr., on ReadCentral.com.

WHERE WAR HAS RAGED

In spite of the tremendous nature of the present war and its duration for more than two years at the time of our visit, comparatively little of France had been visited with the indescribable destruction marking the struggle. No war in history has been so intense, and few wars have been so long confined to such small areas as that on the western front.

It was about the first of October that we reached Belfort, and here we saw the first signs of havoc wrought by gunfire. At Paris we had been within twenty miles of the battlefield where the German hosts were first turned back, but there was not much ruin wrought to buildings at the Marne. Men, unprotected by trenches or any of the later found defensive methods, bore the brunt of the cannon there.

At Belfort we saw signs of bombardment, but they were not so shocking. The shell fire had been at long range and was apparently brief and inaccurate. This seemed to be the case at all of the towns between Belfort and St. Die. Apparently the Germans had not used so many heavy guns in this region, or perhaps they had not yet become so desperate and ruthless as later on. At any rate, it was at St. Die where we first saw a whole town ruined.

The ruined portion of France extends in a narrow strip around the frontier from the Alps to the North Sea. Very little of this section, about three hundred and twenty-five miles in length and varying from ten to fifty miles in breadth, escaped the fearful blast of war. Few towns located in it can ever be restored to their original condition.

After the great German army had crushed Liege and captured Antwerp, one section came up the valley of the Meuse and the other up the valley of the Schelde, uniting at a point between Namur and Mons. At the latter place Sir John French had gathered his hastily formed army of one hundred and twenty-five thousand men, and with this made a gallant defense. The British were soon forced back with tremendous losses, but they delayed the Germans until the French army, hastily mobilized on the German frontier east of Paris, could be reformed on the Marne. The great German machine drove rapidly down the valleys over the wide and splendid roads, forcing the English backward toward the sea and spreading out to meet the French front so hastily interposed between it and Paris. In this way the German line became extremely long before the Battle of the Marne began. The Kaiser’s army had spread itself out like a fan. I was shown maps illustrating this mightiest of all military movements, and it was made plain how the English, hanging on the German flank, had placed the invaders in such a position that a skillful attack at the right time and in the right place forced them to fall back and strengthen their lines.

It was while they were attempting to do this that the French attacked them with all the fierceness of patriots defending their most beloved city. Then what the German commander, Von Kluck, had meant to be only a halt to reform his lines became a retreat that ended only when the Teutons had gained the hills beyond the Aisne. In their retreat they destroyed, or the French were forced to destroy, most of the towns in a section fifty miles wide and two hundred miles long the fairest part of France Artois and Champagne.

The surge of battle such a battle as the world never saw before swept over all these towns, but it was strange to see how much more some of them suffered than others. At Belfort, the town famous for withstanding sieges, comparatively little harm was done. Rambevillers, in the path of the stream of destruction, was almost unharmed. Gerbeviller, on the other hand, was entirely destroyed, probably out of revenge for the stubborn opposition of its defenders. St. Die was badly wrecked, as were Raon l’Etape and Baccarat.

It was the same all along the front. We saw some towns absolutely ruined, others very badly damaged, and still others in which the shells seem to have fallen in places where they did little harm, or where, perhaps, there was not time for the complete shelling that had made heaps of brick and stone of other thriving towns.

The smaller towns appeared to have suffered worse than the large cities. Nancy was badly battered, but not entirely destroyed. Reims, which was under the fire of German guns for many months, and where the wonderful cathedral was destroyed, apparently with malice, had lost about one-fourth of its buildings by fire and explosions resulting from the bombardment.

In the country, the territory once occupied by the Germans and now in possession of the French is seamed with trenches and pitted with shell craters in all directions. To all appearances about every foot of it has seen the tread of either French soldiers or their foes. Back from the lines a short distance in some cases, the fields had become green again, and the trees were trying to send forth new growth from then-burned and battered trunks; but it will be a long time before this part of France loses all of its scars. The filling of the trenches and leveling of the fields will be no mean task of itself. Few farm houses, which in France are built in groups of half a dozen or so, are to be seen. Stone heaps fill their places.

The roads over which we passed were in good condition, having been kept in repair. We were told, however, that many of the finest roads near the front had been badly torn up and that it would require much work to restore them. Hundreds of bridges have been destroyed, and most of the rivers and canals, of which there are many, are now crossed by temporary structures.

We were given a glimpse of the complicated system of railroads, built in large part since the war and to supply the armies with food and other necessaries. These roads were all laid hurriedly, but they seem to be in good condition and are invaluable to the French. Some of them have been laid with rails taken up in other places where they were not so badly needed. In this system of railroads and roads one gets a striking illustration of the huge task it is to feed an army.

The Commission was given figures showing the total number of buildings destroyed in France, with an estimate of their value. These figures had been compiled in July, 1916, and were reasonably accurate at the time we were there, since the Germans had yielded little ground in the interim and there had been less wanton destruction than in the first months of the war. According to this official report, more than half the houses had been destroyed, either by flames or gunfire, in one hundred and forty-eight towns. In the greater portion of these towns nearly all of the houses had been ruined. Besides this there were scores of towns suffering from gunfire which did not lose so large a part of their buildings. Among the buildings destroyed were two hundred and twenty-five city halls, three hundred and seventy-nine schools, three hundred and thirty-one churches, and more than three hundred other public buildings of various kinds and sizes. The mills and factories, like all of the larger buildings, suffered severely, more than three hundred having been totally destroyed.

Most of the towns suffering were of the smaller class, although four cities of more than one hundred thousand people were bombarded or burned by the Germans. These are Lille, Roubaix, Nancy and Reims. The section swept by the German advance and suffering even worse in the retreat is the most populous in France. It covered about ten thousand square miles. No one has yet undertaken to figure the loss in property sustained in this region. The Germans have still possession of about five million acres of French soil, including seventy per cent, of the iron ore mines and a large part of the coal supply.

The farmers are already back at work on a great part of the territory ravaged by the war. Farming under such conditions as we saw, where men and women worked in the fields within range of the guns and amid their constant roaring, or with the eternal white crosses for company, may be more exciting than the usual occupation of the agriculturist, but it must be a sad, discouraging and difficult task.