Nature certainly works mighty fast to cover up what man at war does. True, the yellow-green meadowlands ahead of us were scuffed and scored minutely as though a myriad swine had rooted there for mast. The gouges of wheels and feet were at the roadside. Under the broken hedge-rows you saw a littering of weather-beaten French knapsacks and mired uniform coats, but that was all. New grass was springing up in the hoof tracks, and in a pecking, puny sort of way an effort was being made by certain French peasants within sight to get back to work in their wasted truck patches. Near at hand I counted three men and an old woman in the fields, bent over like worms. On the crest above them stood this gray veteran of two invasions of their land, aiming with his riding whip. The whip, I believe, signifies dominion, and sometimes brute force.
Beyond the tableland, and along the succession of gentle elevations which ringed it in to the south, the pounding of the field pieces went steadily on, while Von Zwehl lectured to us upon the congenial subject of what he here had done. Out yonder a matter of three or four English miles from us the big ones were busy for a fact. We could see the smoke clouds of each descending shell and the dust clouds of the explosion, and of course we could hear it. It never stopped for an instant, never abated for so much as a minute. It had been going on this way for weeks; it would surely go on this way for weeks yet to come. But so far as we could discern the General paid it no heed—he nor any of his staff. It was his business, but seemingly the business went well.
It was late that afternoon when we met our third general, and this meeting was quite by chance. Coming back from a spin down the lines we stopped in a small village called Amifontaine, to let our chauffeur, known affectionately as The Human Rabbit, tinker with a leaky tire valve or something. A young officer came up through the dusk to find out who we were, and, having found out, he invited us into the chief house of the place, and there in a stuffy little French parlor we were introduced in due form to General d’Elsa, the head of the Twelfth Reserve Corps, it turned out. Standing in a ceremonious ring, with filled glasses in our hands, about a table which bore a flary lamp and a bottle of bad native wine, we toasted him and he toasted us.
He was younger by ten years, I should say, than either Von Heeringen or Von Zwehl; too young, I judged, to have got his training in the blood-and-iron school of Bismarck and Von Moltke of which the other two must have been brag-scholars. Both of them, I think, were Prussians, but this general was a Saxon from the South. Indeed, as I now recall, he said his home in peace times was in Dresden. He seemed less simple of manner than they; they in turn lacked a certain flexibility and grace of bearing which were his. But two things in common they all three had and radiated from them—a superb efficiency in the trade at which they worked and a superb confidence in the tools with which they did the work. This was rather a small man, quick and supple in his movements. He had a limited command of English, and he appeared deeply desirous that we Americans should have a good opinion of the behavior of his troops and that we should say as much in what we wrote for our fellow Americans to read.