The Weekly Machen
This week, we continue exploring Arthur Machen’s war reporting for the Evening News. While he did not serve as a foreign correspondent in the field, he specialized in covering the “home front.” In this capacity, he covered many topics including the sacrifice made by British workers and subjects, the effect of the war on art and literature, and, as in the following article, the ways in which civilians could have experienced what life was like for soldiers on the Continent. Though he leaves the soldiers he personally met unnamed, Machen refers to Colonel Sir Henry Streatfeild (1857-1938) in this article, which is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweetser.
My Visit to the “Trenches”:
A Little Bit of the Real Thing at Knightsbridge
March 16, 1916
“You’ll find them,” said the C. O., “near the officers’ dug-out, by the trenches.” And, soon after, he said to me, “Well, we may as well go into the trenches now, I suppose.”
I followed him with some anxiety. We went out into a street, where the houses seemed standing firmly, safe, and secure; and then he suddenly and hastily dived up a narrow alley. Then we dodged into a house that had been badly knocked about by a German shell, and peered out cautiously; and there were the trenches.
It was one of the strangest sights that I have ever seen. We were looking down from a height, and the ground before us was pierced, and traversed in every direction by the most extraordinary passages dug deep into the soil.
These were not the shallow, narrow things we call trenches in the art of agricultural drainage; these were perhaps twelve or fifteen feet deep, and they were lined with what looked to me at the distance careful walls of rough stone from the quarry. “Are those stone walls?” I said.
“We call them revetments,” said the courteous soldier who accompanied the C.O. and myself, “and they’re made of sandbags.”
We went down from our place of observation—it had been a Flemish kitchen before the shell had struck it, and the blue tiles were still in position about the hearth—and entered by dark tunnelled ways into the extraordinary labyrinth which makes the trench system of modern warfare.
The men in khaki, mud-covered from head to foot, were putting the last touches to their work; and we were not allowed to interfere with them by too much passing and repassing; but I saw a great deal of the extraordinary complexity and elaboration of this subterranean battle.
Here was the officers’ dug-out, propped up with timbers; here the place whence the field telephone was operated.
And now we were standing on the step, about halfway down the trench, where the men stand to fire.
“And do you build up a parapet on the top?” I asked.
“This is the parapet,” said the officer, indicating a gentle slope of hard-set sandbags rising a very few inches above the ground level. “Beneath it is the elbow-rest, and beneath that is the revetment, or wall of the trench.”
A sudden thought struck him:
“Are you making a machine-gun emplacement?” he asked the C.O.
“Yes, over there’’—pointing in the direction of an old windmill.
Now this is all a perfectly true and literal account of what happened to me yesterday. I was in the trenches. I came out with the yellow mud of the trenches on my clothes; I have, for the first time, a clear, nay, a vivid notion of the battlefield of the great war.
But—my address was not “Somewhere in Flanders.” It was “Somewhere in Knightsbridge”; or, to be more particular, a certain waste piece of ground near the Princes Skating Club, where to-morrow will open The Daily Mail and Evening News “Active Services Exhibition, in aid of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.”
Warning to Visitors
To be quite plain, this piece of waste ground, surrounded by houses, has been converted into an exact replica of a portion of the British trenches. Everything—height, depth, breadth, construction, material—has been done exactly as it is done at the front.
And I did see khaki men, covered with mud, working in the trenches. They were men of the Grenadier Guards, who were doing the work by the kind permission of Colonel Streatfield.
And the C.O.—otherwise the gentleman who is managing everything for The Daily Mail and The Evening News—told me to warn visitors that they must expect to share some of the minor discomforts of our soldiers at the front.
“We are providing aprons,” he said, “but we cannot guarantee complete immunity from mud.”
Still, “the trenches” are under a huge canvas; they will be “luxurious,’’ as the officer called them.
And all this, be it understood, is but one of the “sideshows” of the exhibition.
There is another side-show, the Scenic Bombardment of Ypres, arranged by Mr. Arthur Collins, and there is the “Periscope Room,” where people will be able to look at photographic reproductions of scenes actually viewed from the firing line. And in the Exhibition itself is shown all the apparatus of the great war.
The Ballista of the Romans
The shells and bombs and grenades and the rest are all the real thing, lent by the Munitions Department. But the most nervous may be happy; all these deadly things are uncharged. They cannot go off or blow up.
I saw a great variety of grenades—and I would refer the curious to a chapter in “Rob Roy” where they will find the words of command of the Grenadiers of 1775 fully given.
There was a round grenade, like a cricket ball, and an oval grenade; and for one kind there was the patch of impregnated paper, like the stuff on match boxes, which is attached to the soldier’s arm, and on which he “strikes” his grenade before launching it against the enemy.
There were howitzers that looked likes big theodolites that meant mischief.
But the strangest thing of all, I think was a chapter from “Smith’s Classical Antiquities” brought to life.
There in a corner stood the giant catapult; the ballista of the Legions. A long pole with an apparatus of thick india-rubber thongs at one end of it; at the other a contrivance for drawing the things taut; the pocket to hold the grenade or bomb, to send a two-pound missile 220 yards on the springs being released; that is the catapult of the modern legions, who war against fouler barbarians than the Romans ever knew.”
“Ave Kaiser! Te moriturum salutamus.”
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One thought on “My Visit to the “Trenches””
Machen and his editors evidently figured their readers would get the spin on a famous Latin tag, at the piece’s end.