"MY EXPERIENCES AT THE FRONT"
AN ADDRESS BY STEWART LYON
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
November 15, 1917
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--I am very glad to be the guest of the Empire Club, because after all this is the Empire's business in which we are engaged, and your sons and brothers who are over in France are fighting for the cause of the Empire as well as the cause of civilization. No matter what might have happened to civilization, if the Germans had reached the narrow part of the English Channel and had been able to plant themselves firmly there, the British Empire might have gone into liquidation at about 60 cents on the dollar. The Germans are now bringing to the Western front guns with a range of 30 miles, and it is only about 21 miles across the Channel. We can now understand how great was the menace of 1914, when the Germans tried to reach the coast. They had their plans made for the use of super-guns by super-men, and they might well have rendered untenable the whole coast of Kent; but that peril is over. At the present time one can say with the utmost confidence, after talking to the men who are controlling the forces of the army, that not again will there be danger of the enemy breaking through on the Western front, even though Russia makes peace, even though Italy should be crushed, even though all the men of the German
At the time of this address, Mr. Lyon had just returned after six months' experience as an eye witness in thrilling theatres of the War, such as Vimy Ridge, Lens, etc., where Canadians have immortalized themselves. The Club was enabled to hear an address by an eloquent War Correspondent on themes which had not hitherto been covered in public addresses.
and Austrian armies now on the Eastern front were to be concentrated on the Western front in a supreme effort to win the War there. Germany is absolutely on the defensive on the Western front. There have been one or two little local offensives in the past three years, but only an infinitesimal bit of territory on the Belgian coast has fallen into German hands since the Autumn of 1914 and the Spring of 1915, when the last German drive took place at Langemarck. Since that time, the trend has been altogether in one way. The progress has perhaps not been as great as we had hoped, but at any rate it has been progress, and all in one direction. The German wave of invasion in the West is receding, and will continue -to recede.
Our men are splendid; we all know that there are no better soldiers on the Western front. In the Paschendaele operation, they have done the same great type of thing they did at Ypres, when they stopped the Prussians from reaching the coast in 1915. They did fine work also at Vimy and Hill "70" this year. Paschendaele will stand out very prominently in the history of the War, and the credit for it is largely due to our own lads.
We sometimes wonder why the almost undivided efforts of 46,000,000 British people, plus the Australians, plus the Canadians and the 40,000,000 Frenchmen have failed to break and drive back, as speedily as we had hoped, the Germans on the Western front; because Germany is bearing the brunt of the Central Powers' attack alone on that front; she has no other troops, and I do not suppose that two-thirds of the effectives of the German army are engaged on the Western front. That is to say, two-thirds of the soldiers of a nation of 67,000,000 are holding back probably four-fifths of the soldiers of two nations, one of 40,000,000 and the other, if we take the white men in the British Empire, of almost 60,000,(100. That does seem like a. problem we ought to consider. Why cannot we, with the force of those two nations, with more population than Germany standing alone, resist two-thirds of the German army?
The answer is to be found in the topography of the country in which the bulk of the fighting is taking place on the Western front. When the Germans invaded France in the fall of 1914 they took every bit of strategic height that they could occupy and hold; their lines were based upon the occupation of the high country, which was used wherever possible to buttress the remaining portions of their lines in the low country. (Explaining points on the map.) You must remember that so far as the British front is concerned, there have never been more than two areas in which effective offensive campaigning has been conducted. Those two areas were opposite the Lorette Ridge and to the east of Ypres, on the ridges from Menin north to Paschendaele. The British armies were really under the necessity, if they were going to do any effective fighting, of securing the land on the ridges. The part of the Belgian coast marked green is just a few feet above water level, even in summer, and the sort of guns needed to carry on an offensive will, in wet weather, sink to the hub in that kind of country. When they break through the crust they never come back. In the region between the Forest of Houthulst and the sea, there is therefore, no possibility of conducting an important offensive.
There was another and more compelling reason why the British and French armies should make their first big fight in the Lens-Arras area. You can swing a circle from Lens, about 20 miles in each direction, and include most of the coal land which is mined by the French people. The Germans knew this very well, and when they came into France it was the Lorette and Vimy Ridges that they struck. No doubt they had calculated on a very great war against shipping, and that if France could not get sufficient coal from Britain, she would be in great straits. As a matter of fact, the British good-will to France in that respect saved the situation, because even as late as last winter and spring, long after many of those mines had been recovered and the Lorette Ridge had passed again into the hands of the French, one found power lorries and horse-drawn waggons taking the roads and hauling coal almost 200 kilometers, because the rail ways were so crowded with military supplies that they could not be used; the Lens field was the only place in France from which coal could be got in quantities for French industries and domestic purposes. The Canadian foresters are doing a vast deal in the centre and east of France, on the slopes of the Jura, to provide wood as a substitute for coal during the present winter, as the price of coal has become almost prohibitive.
The recovery of this coal region is one of the great problems of the French people. In the spring of 1915, the French fought the Germans for that dark brown patch inch by inch, not even foot by foot. They forced the enemy down into the valley of Souchez and climbed to Vimy Ridge. For a few days in the Fall of 1915, the French were actually on the crest of Vimy Ridge, and last summer I found a French helmet down in the Village of Givenchy on the eastern slope of Vimy Ridge, which shows that some part of the French penetrated that far. But they did not hold the Ridge; they were driven off the crest, and some British soldiers were driven off also and lost a little more of the Ridge. When our Canadian folks came up to the same valley just about a year ago, the crest was again in the hands of the Germans, and the whole operation had to be undertaken afresh. The coal country had to be recovered if the French were not to be hopelessly handicapped.
On that part of the Western front, the occupations of war and peace are going on side by side in a way that one does not find in any other part of the front. If they were not going on side by side, I am quite certain that the French attitude towards the War would be one of despair. The coal miners in the villages are there operating mines everywhere within range of the enemy's long distance guns. Just west of Lens, a little north of the Souchez River, one finds clusters of villages crowded with miners and-what is more remarkable-with the families of miners. I have seen the children playing in the streets of a village with great sheels coming in not more than two or three hundred yards away from them, shattering the windows of the houses by which they were playing. The sound of the guns was an everyday affair while the children were playing in the streets and the men and women going about their business. The teachers gave the youngsters a holiday when the shelling became specially heavy. I have seen the boys, when shelling started in the morning just about the time school was due having been dismissed by the teacher, come roaring back through the village, most of them highly delighted that the shelling had begun at that particular time. As a matter of fact, the women in those French villages hold knitting parties in the vaulted caverns which were made by design after 1870 so that the people of France might be protected in their cellars from artillery fire. I was for a time in a mess that was located in one of those houses, and it was quite a common thing for the ladies across the way to come and bring their knitting and spend the time in the vaulted caves if the shelling was particularly heavy. The fact that the miners remain there, and that the women are sufficiently courageous to keep the company there, and that their children are with them, has done very much to reconcile the French to the tension of the war, for, without the coal that is being won under those amazing conditions, the French people would have long ago been in dire straits. Coal is a vital thing in war as in peace.
Lille is the Manchester and the Birmingham of France combined. Industrial development has been going on in that district for a long while. Those northern French people are a fine sort, and by the moves that are going on now, the lines of British and French moving to the northeast, and ultimately also to the south-east, the enemy will be squeezed out of this great industrial centre of France without the need of over-much fighting. That also adds to the comfort of the French people when they are considering the whole problem of the War, because one can realize what the loss of a city like Lille would mean to the French people, if it and the cities of the industrial north were destroyed in the same degree in which ha: been necessary to destroy Lens to drive the Germans out. Since our guns began to play seriously on Lens (about the middle of May), I do not suppose there is one house in ten in that very large town that is still habitable; so that to recover France we have to destroy France, and the French people themselves, seeing the need, have very gladly consented to the change in the direction of the Allied campaign on the Western front, which puts the emphasis in a comparatively lightly settled country instead of smashing a way through, which would involve the destruction of the great city of Lille and the tremendous industrial plants centered in that city.
It may be that the enemy will destroy Lille, even if we do not attempt to smash our way through Lille, and we may think it is labour in vain to spare the city, but the thing is at least worth trying. There is no tremendous loss of material things involved in the move towards the Belgian coast that is now going on, such as would inevitably be involved if the army, after taking Paschendaele and the Menin Ridges, had swung to the right in the endeavour to envelope Lille and force its evacuation. At one time the operations on the Western front seemed to point to form a converging movement from Lens toward Lille in the north-east, and toward Messines Ridge on the south-east; but that has been changed, and I think wisely. The French officers do not wish that area devoted to destruction of a most terrible sort that would take decades to overcome.
Further south, in the area north of the Aisne river, west of Laon, probably the worst example of this German deviltry is to be found. While the journalists of the British Overseas Dominions were at the French front as guests of the French Government, we were shown not only the battle scenes, but the scenes in the villages from which the Germans had retired after the Battle of the Somme last year. The area actually conquered by our people in the Somme was relatively small last fall, but the tremendous hammering the Germans got on the Somme induced them to begin in the last week of March this year to evacuate a very large area relatively to the area of the Somme. On the Noyon front and to the south, they got back twenty-five miles behind where the actual fighting has taken place. With the exception of an occasional shell from a long range gun, there is no sign of War either on our side of this long line or on the German side, no sign of physical ravages of War. But in that country where the German voluntarily retired, the signs of War are something terrific. Take the town of Chauny, which has about 15,000 people; it did nothing but make glass; its factories represented an invested capital of many millions of francs. When we went through that town in May, about six weeks after the evacuation by the Germans, there was not a house that had not been destroyed, burned or blown up, and every factor had been absolutely levelled to the ground, the machinery thrown about in such a way that it could never be recovered. An investment of many millions of francs that had nothing to do with the War was destroyed. Another town, Noyon, presented the same characteristics. There vandalism was shown in a most amazing degree. There was a beautiful old cathedral, built by the Saxons before they became entirely civilized,-I think the beginning of the 12th century,-and that had been wrecked. For the sake of the lead with which the panes of priceless stained glass had been stuck together, they had ripped every window out. Their escape from Noyon had been hurried, and they had not time to take away the stuff, and their way was marked by the great piles of loot left by those new barbarians.
In Soissons itself the same thing happened. The Aisne river runs through the town; there are in the city a great beet sugar factory, a huge bottle-blowing establishment, and an abattoir, and those things were totally destroyed; the great cathedral was blown to pieces, with its stained glass. Half a mile to the south, where it did not matter so much, where shells did not produce so great results, the Germans had just thrown in an occasional shell and destroyed an occasional house, but the lawns and the beauty of that fine French countryside remained practically undisturbed. At Soissons those ingenious fellows had taken hundreds of thousands of bottles and used them as breastworks instead of trenches-anything to destroy the property of the French people.
Now, that experience this spring had a great deal to do with turning the minds of the French people in the direction of preventing war from sweeping over thoroughly settled parts of the French countryside, and I believe the reason why a large French army at the present moment is up here at the Forest of Houthulst helping the British forces to clear the way to the Belgian coast, is because of the feeling in France that Germany will be more quickly defeated by forcing her armies away from that coast than she would be were the Allied efforts to be directed almost wholly to shoving the German armies back along this whole line south, where there is a thoroughly settled country.
It is interesting to note the way in which the French merchant population stuck to the cities and towns and to their jobs in the face of all the difficulties that they encountered. It would be most interesting to go into Bailleul, near the Ypres salient some afternoon and see the merchandising going on under constant shell fire. I went into a lace shop-they are famous for their lacesand behind the counter was a young woman who was quite well known among the men of the army, and almost the first thing she said to me was, "Oh, from Toronto, are you?" I said, "Yes." She pointed to a picture on the wall and said, "That is a picture of a nephew of Mayor Church; you know Mayor Church?" And while she was selling me that little bit of lace there was an unseemly sound, a big shell coming in whizzed through the air, and we all listened-it is a habit out there. It fell on the other side of the square, and smashed a house or two by the way, and she went on selling the lace. Those women go on with business with the utmost coolness; there are not many men left in stores like that. There are bombs at night coming down on them, and shells by day, but the French people in that part of the country have no nerves at all. I am quite certain that in England they would not stand the same thing with the same coolness. They are willing to go on for a while longer if there is hope that in the general settlement of this War, there shall be no further eruption of those barbarians from across the Rhine. In the late part of March of this year, there was a rather dangerous feeling gathering in French Government circles. The trench had fought very long; the recovery of their territory had been very slow; the exhaustion of their wealth had been very great; the depletion of their manhood had been such as we will not know until the War ends and the figures are published; and the French people had begun to wonder whether the losses borne were worth the price.
I think, at that time, if it had not been for the coming into the War of the United States, France might have been prepared to make what would have been a premature and perhaps a very insecure peace. But, let us say it to the credit of our neighbours to the south, the coming of the United States into the War at that psychological moment when the people of France were becoming war-weary, has been one of the greatest things of the War; a thing that future centuries will record, probably, as the turning-point in the struggle against the maintenance of autocratic government in one of the greatest countries of Europe. Looking at the situation in France, the French people, however war-weary, will stick it out to the end under the belief that Britain and America will force such a reconsideration of the whole ideas of the German people in regard to government, that they will never again allow their war lords to invade France.
The American transport waggons and American mechanical transport officers and men are doing the chief work in cleaning up the Somme region-one of the most interesting things that goes on behind the lines. There are thousands of Hindus in that part of France, recovering material of war that has been put into the earth. They take out the headings of the dug-outs, they take away the barbed wire. they lift all the big walks in the trenches, they bring all those things up to stations along the line of railways, and they are forwarded to the north where War is still going on. In that work, the labour of which is done by these Orientals, American officers and troops are doing a great service to the Allied army. I believe they will be maintained on the French part of the front, for it is France that needs men most, and the fact that France and the United States are both Republics and that they have had a national friendship for 150 years will tend to make the Americans go into the line, probably on the eastern part of the French front rather than come up to the Belgian coast. The British army hereafter will have as its great job, the drive towards Ostend, which has been remarkably successful up to the present time. The Flanders plain is going to see hard fighting this winter. Our people have forced the Germans down into the plain; they are getting mauled dreadfully, by our artillery. I imagine that the further pushes must consist of moving them far enough back into the plain to make it impossible that their artillery shall shake our position on the Paschendaele Ridges. That is the inevitable sequence of the Campaign, and if it goes as everyone over there hopes, I think by the very early spring, the submarine bases of the enemy on the Belgian coast and the aerodromes from which he launches most of his air-raids on Great Britain will no longer be tenable for that purpose. The War may continue for a time after that but there will be no longer any real object on the part of Germany in having war, because she will have lost it definitely. If she cannot tire Great Britain out, she cannot win the War, because France, with the coming in of America, will unquestionably stick, and no matter what happens in Eastern Europe, or how many battalions or divisions the Germans and Austrians can throw on the Western front, that front will be able to hold against every assault that may be brought against it.
I would like to direct your attention to the dispatch of Walter Willison, the Canadian press correspondent at the front, in which he says, "Our losses have been heavy. We know what that means. I suppose these Paschendaele Ridges may be found in the end to have cost us 10,000 casualties among the Canadians." It strikes me, talking to business men of Toronto, that it is the most utter and absolute folly that all over this country, men should be arguing as to the method of sending reinforcements. We have got in two weeks, without the hearing of the appeals from the tribunals, over 21,000, mostly of A class, who can be sent as reinforcements to France. Are we going to agree that because some one proposes that the Military Service Act shall be suspended if the election is decided in a certain way in December next, those men must be held here and not sent as reinforcements to our brave fellows at the front? I want you who have been in politics to get out of politics and get into War business, and see that the Canadian forces in France are reinforced at once. They need it; I know that they need it; I can say so confidently to you.