As I recall now we had come through the gate of the schoolhouse to where the automobiles stood when a puff of wind, blowing to us from the left, which meant from across the battlefront, brought to our noses a certain smell which we already knew full well.
“You get it, I see,” said the German officer who stood alongside me. “It comes from three miles off, but you can get it five miles distant when the wind is strong. That”—and he waved his left arm toward it as though the stench had been a visible thing—“that explains why tobacco is so scarce with us among the staff back yonder in Laon. All the tobacco which can be spared is sent to the men in the front trenches. As long as they smoke and keep on smoking they can stand—that!
“You see,” he went on painstakingly, “the situation out there at Cerny is like this: The French and English, but mainly the English, held the ground firSt. We drove them back and they lost very heavily. In places their trenches were actually full of dead and dying men when we took those trenches.
“You could have buried them merely by filling up the trenches with earth. And that old beet-sugar factory which you saw this noon when we were at field headquarters—it was crowded with badly wounded Englishmen.
“At once they rallied and forced us back, and now it was our turn to lose heavily. That was nearly three weeks ago, and since then the ground over which we fought has been debatable ground, lying between our lines and the enemy’s lines—a stretch four miles long and half a mile wide that is literally carpeted with bodies of dead men. They weren’t all dead at first. For two days and nights our men in the earthworks heard the cries of those who still lived, and the sound of them almost drove them mad. There was no reaching the wounded, though, either from our lines or from the Allies’ lines. Those who tried to reach them were themselves killed. Now there are only dead out there—thousands of dead, I think. And they have been there twenty days. Once in a while a shell strikes that old sugar mill or falls into one of those trenches. Then—well, then, it is worse for those who serve in the front lines.”
“But in the name of God, man,” I said, “why don’t they call a truce— both sides—and put that horror underground?”