WE JOIN BRUSILOFF'S BIG DRIVE
After the demonstration attack, our corps was moved back near the railroad and billeted in little villages which were scattered over the surrounding territory.
The gaps in our ranks were rapidly filled up and in a week our corps received orders to be ready to entrain in four days.
Every one knew we were going south somewhere, but to just what point on the line no one could be certain.
In the evening of the third day we moved our entire outfit to the station, camping that night in a grove of trees along the track.
The loading of 50,000 men, a division of artillery, a regiment of Cossacks, the staff and its equipment, to say nothing of the enormous number of little transport carts, with their horses, was a difficult task.
The railroad was a single-track affair, with only one siding. Nevertheless the trains, each of which consisted of thirty-five cars, pulled out with clocklike regularity.
We had an entire train for our ambulance column. Our ambulances were placed in flat cars, the horses led up planks into the box cars, six in each car, while the personnel occupied box cars fitted with tiers of rough planks at either end to sleep upon.
Russian troops are always moved in this fashion, the coaches being reserved for the officers. The Colonel, the students and I shared an old third-class car with some officers from the staff. We placed two field kitchens on a flat car and our food was cooked in them while travelling.
The trains followed each other in rapid succession, ours being in about the middle of the long line. Progress was slow and breakdowns were frequent.
At one point we burned out an axle bearing on one of the box cars. We stopped at a station and instead of cutting out this car, side-tracking it and substituting a new one, which could have been done in about ten minutes, they repaired the damaged one on the main track! An old bearded mechanic jacked up our car, seated himself on an old stool beside the axle, took out the burned-up bearing and, with a gouge, cut a new one out of some soft metal and fitted it to the axle. The operation took three hours and not only held us up for that length of time but also the twelve trains back of us.
After five days we reached Rovno and detrained. The fighting unit of the corps went on by rail, as telegrams had been received from the corps whose places we were to take urging us to speed up as they had suffered such losses from German counter-attacks that they would be unable to hold out much longer. Because of lack of rail facilities, the transport and ambulance corps had to go to the fighting lines on their own wheels. Rovno was ninety miles from the trenches along the River Stockhod.
After the fall of Warsaw, the Austro-German forces had advanced within twenty miles of Rovno, where, in September, 1915, the Russians had stemmed their advance. Both sides then entrenched and occupied the positions for nine months.
When Brusiloff started his big drive in June, 1916, the Austrians had been forced back with frightful losses until they had been able to check the Russian advances at the River Stockhod. The Russians had been pounding away at this line, trying to break through, for several weeks. If they could accomplish this, Kovel, known as the "key of Warsaw," would be at their mercy.
Kovel was an important railway center, twenty miles beyond Stockhod River.
In August the Germans had rushed up many new divisions and were putting up a frightful defensive fight.
"Our corps has a difficult task to perform," said Colonel Kalpaschnecoff, as we rode along at the head of our long column of ambulances. "The Stockhod is a series of sluggish streams running through an immense marsh. We will be sent against the Prussian guard corps, which is defending the other bank of the river. It promises to be a terrible fight."
About eighteen miles from Rovno we came to the first of the old lines, which the Austrians had held since the fall of 1915 and had been forced out of early in August, just a few weeks before we arrived.
Where our road crossed the Russian trench line, we could see the signs of the intense fighting which had occurred there a short time before. The trenches were in a marshy field facing the Austrian lines, which ran along the border of a swampy forest.
The Russian trenches were of the built-up type, the ground being too marshy for deep digging. Sods of earth formed a high parapet, which had been badly battered by Austrian shell fire.
We crossed what had been No Man's Land and arrived at the abandoned Austrian trenches. They were beautifully constructed of great timbers, concrete and earth. In some places even steel rails had been cemented into place as protection against shell fire.
We dismounted to make a careful inspection of their construction. Near the road stood a large structure, with thick walls of logs and dirt. Apparently it had been an officer's bomb-proof.
As we tied our horses to a tree, an old peasant, leading a child by the hand, emerged from the door of the bomb-proof and approached us. Never have I seen a more forlorn spectacle than these two presented. The old man was in his bare feet, he was without a hat, his long gray hair falling in stringy unkempt masses over his shoulders, his frame was emaciated and bent, and his face had not known water for a long time. His clothes, mere rags, hung from his cadaverous frame like those of a scare-crow.
The child, too, presented a weird picture. It was a little boy about four years old, clad in a queer assortment of garments. On his head was a Russian soldier's cap, many sizes too large, falling down over his ears and half concealing his pinched, wan features. He wore an Austrian tunic, cast off by some soldier. It had once been gray but was now faded to an uncertain color. It had been made for a large man and descended well below the little fellow's knee, almost hiding the ragged homespun breeches he wore, while the sleeves dangled and flapped while he walked.
This strange pair came up to us, the old man bowing and peering out from under his shaggy, unkempt hair with the dull rheumy eyes of age.
"Please, Excellencies," he said as he approached, "can you spare us a little bread? We have nothing to eat and are starving!"
The Colonel ordered one of the orderlies to bring some food. The fires in our field kitchens, which cook while on the march, were going, and the orderly came back with some steaming boiled beef, hot cassia, and black bread. He offered it to the old man and child. The youngster seized a piece of meat in his claw-like hands and proceeded to bolt it like a wild animal. The old man fell on his with equally ravenous energy.
"Have you seen my mama?" asked the little fellow, his eyes full of tears, after he had eaten all that he could. "She went away a long time ago and never came back!"
"Hush, dear!" the old man crooned. "Mama will come back to her baby in a few days." And then, turning to us, he added: "He asks that of all the soldiers who march by on the road. What can I do, Excellencies? We have no food, no home---only the mushrooms which I gather in the forest and what bread we can beg from the soldiers as they pass."
"Tell us what has happened," replied the Colonel. "Why do you live here in that bombproof?"
"It is a long story, Excellency."
"Never mind, tell us. We must stop here for lunch, and the horses must be fed and watered."
The old man seated himself at our feet and without further urging told us his story.
"My name is Gregory Paulovitch Arapoff. I lived in the village which you will pass if you follow that road. It is eight miles back of these trenches. I lived with my daughter, who is married and who is the mother of this little boy. She is twenty-four years old. Her husband is thirty-eight. He had not been called to the colors when the Austrians came to our village last fall.
"We did not leave as some of the people did, for we were very poor and had only our cabin and what we could raise on a little patch of ground. Many Austrian soldiers and officers lived in our village from last summer up until a few weeks ago. We were ordered by the officers to keep three soldiers in the house. From time to time new soldiers came to live with us. We also had to give part of our potatoes and bread, milk from the cow, many chickens, and some of our pigs to the Austrians, but they always paid for them. They were not unkind to us, Excellency, but we never grew to like them."
The old man's arm stole around the little child, who had fallen asleep on the ground beside him. He pressed the tiny form to his sunken breast.
"No, they were not unkind to us at first," he continued. "One day early this summer the sound of the cannons increased in volume. Day and night we could hear the steady roar. Many wounded Austrians were brought to the hospital in the village.
"The road was filled with wagons, loaded with shells, and hundreds of soldiers. We were not allowed to leave the village during this time.
"One afternoon four soldiers and an under-officer came to the door of our cabin and asked my daughter and her husband to come to the house of the officer who had charge of the troops in the village. They called him the commandant. We thought they wished to buy more potatoes or bread. My daughter and her husband left me to take care of the little boy. They expected to be gone only a few minutes, as it was not far to the house of the commandant, and they did not even kiss the boy good-bye. He was playing on the floor -of the isba---cabin---when they left.
"I sat by the stove waiting for them to return. Time passed and I was just thinking they had been gone a long time when the door flew open and in rushed a neighbor. He was a man nearly as old as myself, Excellency. His name was Michael. He lived but two doors away with his only daughter Olga. His wife was dead many years. I scarcely knew him as he rushed in. He was wild, his clothes were torn, and blood ran down his face from a cut over his eye.
" 'Gregory! Gregory!' he screamed, 'they have taken my little daughter, my pretty one, my Olechka!'
"Froth drooled from his mouth and ran down his beard, his eyes blazed, and he beat his breast with his clenched fists.
"'Man! Man!' I said, rising from my chair, 'be quiet and tell me what has happened !'
"He sat down on a bench and buried his face in his hands, rocking to and fro.
"'The Russians are coming and the Austrians are leaving the village. They are taking with them all the young people and are leaving the old, such as you and I, who would be only a burden to them. They came to my house and asked for my Olga'---she was a pretty girl, Excellency, not quite seventeen---'I asked them what they wanted of her, but they did not answer and tried to push by me at the door, but I barred the way. There were four soldiers and an officer in the party. The officer struck me with his riding crop, felling me to the floor. I tried to rise but a soldier jumped on me and held me down. The others rushed into place and seized my daughter and dragged her shrieking from the house. Then they tied my hands and feet and left me lying there. I worked my hands free and, unloosing my fetters, ran here, thinking you would know where they took my daughter. Hark, what is that?'
"Then, Excellency, I heard a terrible sound---the shrieks of women and the wailing of little children. 'Come !' I cried to Michael, and we ran from the house, picking up my grandson as we rushed to the street.
"I knew now why they had sent for my daughter and her husband, and I ran down the village street toward the house where they had asked her to come.
"A terrible sight met my eyes. Austrian soldiers were going about setting fire to the houses, many of which were already burning fiercely. Along the roadside, in front of her house, lay the body of old Marsha, who lived only four doors from me. Blood flowed from her chest. I stopped, but she did not move or breathe so I ran on. I ran very fast, Excellency---even carrying this child, I outdistanced Michael; who has always had something wrong with his heart.
"At the end of the village street, several companies of Austrians were drawn up in a hollow square, with the bayonets fixed on their guns. Inside the square were all the young people of the village. Barring my way was a line of soldiers drawn up across the road. They also had their bayonets fixed. The girls and young women were weeping. In front of the line of soldiers were several of the old people of the village. Some were down on their knees, begging that their dear ones be allowed to remain. One of the old men tried to force his way through the lines, but he was flung back by the Austrians.
"I rushed up to an officer who was standing there and asked to be allowed to go with my daughter. He turned on his heel and walked away. Then I heard a loud shriek and saw my daughter throw herself on one of the soldiers and try to break through the line of guards. The soldier struck her full in the face, knocking her down, and threatened her with his bayonet as she lay in the dust of the road. I saw my son-in-law. His hat was gone. His head was bowed and his hands were tied behind his back. His clothing was torn. He, too, had evidently struggled with the Austrians.
"An order was shouted and they started off down the road. One of the soldiers picked my daughter up from the ground, half dragging her along as they went.
"Then Michael, whom I had outdistanced, ran up. His face was purple and his breath coming in gasps. He saw his daughter weeping. inside that square of soldiers. With a wild cry he picked up a club which was lying on the ground and dashed at the line of soldiers who barred his way. Straight at one of the soldiers he went and struck a savage blow with the club. The Austrian was, a huge fellow and easily parried the blow with his rifle.
"Then I saw the soldier give a quick lunge and Michael threw up his hands, dropping the club and clutching his breast. I saw several inches of steel bayonet sticking out from between his shoulder-blades and a red streak of blood staining his white rooboshka (shirt). He fell to the ground, carrying the rifle with him. It stuck upright from his body. The Austrian put his big hob-nailed boot upon Michael's chest, gave a heave, and jerked the bayonet out. Michael rolled over several times and coughed, spitting out mouthfuls of blood. Finally he lay quiet.
"By this time the young folks and their guards were far off down the road. I, a feeble old man, could do nothing.
"Austrian troops came pouring through the village, which was now burning fiercely. The roads were choked with columns of artillery and ambulances, all retreating as fast as possible, their drivers yelling and swearing. Automobiles carrying officers dashed madly back and forth. Panic was in the air.
"All the time I tightly held my little grandson in my arms. He was wild with fright, screaming and crying and trying to escape from my grasp to follow his mother down the road.
"Finally I could no longer see our people. They were hidden by clouds of dust, which rose from the road. Only a few of the old folks remained. They stood stupidly about, not knowing what to do next.
"I walked back toward my house, but it was in flames. The heat was terrific and I circled the village by way of the fields. I could hear the sound of rifles and machine-guns. Some wounded Austrian soldiers came staggering down the road, making for the rear as fast as they could go.
"The fighting was getting closer and closer. Russian shells started to whistle and burst over the road, and I made off across the fields for the forest. I found a large tree which had fallen down, the limbs holding the trunk slightly off the ground. There was just room enough to hide a man's body. It was just growing dusk, so I sat down in the bushes beside the log.
"Some Austrian soldiers came running through the woods, rifles and machine-guns crashed all about, and the noise was terrible. I crawled under the log and hid, covering the little child with my body, while bullets whistled and cracked over my head and more Austrians ran by, firing their rifles as they went.
"Presently I heard Russian words spoken near me, but the firing continued as I lay still.
"I saw several soldiers creeping forward cautiously---they were Russian soldiers. The firing gradually got farther away, and when more of our soldiers came up I crawled out from under the log and called to them. They came over and talked with me, and an officer who was with them detailed a soldier to carry the. child, for I was exhausted from the exertion and the excitement.
"He led the way through the forest to this very road, which was full of Russian artillery moving up in the direction of our village, and stretcher-bearers carrying the wounded back.
"We went down the road almost to where we are now seated and came to a dressing station.' The doctor in charge was very kind and gave us some food and a place to sleep in his tent, but the next morning he received orders to move up closer to the fighting line, and as he could not take us with him, we had to remain here.
"Since then, we have lived in these old Austrian trenches, sleeping at night in that bomb-proof. Sometimes soldiers go by on the road and they always give us food. What we will do when the winter comes on I do not know. Occasionally I go back to where the village stood. Nothing remains there but ruins, but I go because I think possibly my daughter or her husband may escape and get back to the village looking for us, but nobody is ever there. Sometimes I meet some of my old neighbors who are living in the forest beyond the village. Do you think my daughter will escape from the Austrians, Excellency?"
The old man sat holding the sleeping child, supporting it with his arm, while his claw-like fingers stroked its golden hair.
"Can't we send him back to Rovno with a note to the Red Cross asking them to look out for him?" I inquired of the Colonel.
"Yes; I think that is the best thing to do," he replied.
Our column had stopped, the horses were being fed and watered and the orderlies were having their dinner. The Colonel had our much battered victoria brought up and food was placed under the seat for the old man, the child and the driver. We gave him enough money to last him for several months and a note to the head of the Red Cross in Rovno.
At first he did not wish to go, hoping that his daughter might escape and return to the village, but we assured him that this was impossible and promised to leave word with any villagers that we might meet where he could be found, and they drove off.
"I am surprised at such atrocities from the Austrians," said the Colonel, as we rode off. "They have always been more humane than the Germans. However, they receive their orders from the German General Staff and are completely under the domination of Berlin---so we may expect anything from them."
"What do you think will become of the girls those Austrians carried off?;' I asked, referring to the mother of the little boy and Michael's daughter.
"What happened to the women who, were seized by the Huns in the old days when they fought with clubs and spears?" the Colonel rejoined.
"You think, then, the very worst that can happen to a woman?" I queried, horrified by the thought.
"Without any question!" said the Colonel; and we rode on in silence, each busy with his own thoughts.
An hour later we came to the little village in which the old peasant Gregory and his daughter and little grandson had lived, happy and content with their little existence. It was now only a charred mass of ruins, scarcely one log resting upon another.
Beyond the village we passed fields of rye and wheat, the over-ripe grain falling to the ground from the dry heads. A cloud of sparrows and wild pigeons rose from its yellow surface as we rode by. They were the only harvesters for that crop.
Near the fields we met several old men and women seated along the roadside who asked us for food. They were dirty and unkempt, in all variety of ragged garments, and were the most pitiful objects one could imagine.
We questioned them and they informed us they were from the same village as Gregory. We told them where he and the little boy could be found. They, too, were living in the forest on what they could pick up---more like wild animals than human beings. We left them sufficient food for several days and continued on our journey.
For two days we rode through a belt of devastated territory, with the sound of drum-fire in our, ears day and night coming from far off in the west where lay the River Stockhod.
The terrible marks of the gigantic war machine which had rolled over the beautiful countryside were indelibly impressed on everything. In one of the swamps the Colonel and I discovered an entire battery of six-inch howitzers, a number of caissons, and a great quantity of shells for the guns. Nobody else had found them---they were so carefully screened in the heart of the swamp. They had been brought there over corduroy roads to a high spot where the ground was dry and there they had been placed. The Austrians had been too hard-pressed to get them out, and apparently had neglected to blow up the shells or even to destroy the breech blocks of the guns. There they were, their squat gray muzzles pointed toward the northeast---toward the Russian trenches abandoned a month ago.
It seemed scarcely credible that they should have remained there so long without discovery, and yet we only stumbled upon them while exploring the roads and having become lost from our columns. We took a short-cut to catch up and happened to cross this swamp, using the road which nobody had traversed since the day the Austrians had fled.
All along the roadside were isolated wooden crosses, marking the fresh graves of both Austrian and Russian dead. Where large engagements had been fought, there were great cemeteries with hundreds of these crosses, the Russians placing their dead in the cemeteries which the Austrians had established before being driven out.
I saw by my field map that we should be near the town of Kolky, on the River Styr. Its name was printed in large letters and I knew that it must be a place of importance. The country was flat, the road stretched ahead as straight as a string, and I looked for the onion-shaped church steeple and the straw-thatched houses which mark every town in Russia and which we ought to have been able to see plainly, as we were but two miles away, according to the map. Not a sign of them could we see.
We rode forward a couple of miles and then, alongside the road, I saw acres and acres of tumbled stone and brick and burned timbers scattered about over the ground, as though some giant hand had flung them there.
"That's Kolky!" declared the Colonel.
"Kolky!" I repeated in astonishment. "Why, I thought Kolky was quite a town!"
"It was. It had a population of seven thousand. But it changed hands ten times and this is all that's left!"
All traces of any system of streets was entirely effaced, the road we followed having been cleared by the troops which, preceded us through the heaps of piled-up rubbish. Not a sign of a human being was visible.
It was growing dark and we halted our horses in the midst of this scene of desolation. Several cadaverous-looking cats prowled around a heaped up pile of masonry beside the roadside. A black dog, his ribs showing on his gaunt side, came up and sniffed at us with a hungry air. He, too, looked forlorn and desolate as he circled about trying to determine if we were friend or foe. I tossed him the remains of a lunch which I had in my saddle-bag and he devoured it ravenously.
A strong raw wind had sprung up, bringing with it a cold drizzle, and I wrapped my rubber poncho tightly around me, for the rain and wind chilled me to the bone.
We spurred up our horses and rode ahead to find a place to spend the night. If we could find a place dry enough for ourselves and our orderlies to spend the night we would save the time and trouble required to put up a tent in the darkness.
At the other end of the town, screened by some shell-torn trees, we found a couple of stone houses, badly battered but still retaining enough of their walls and roofs to accommodate our party. We sent word back to the column to move up, and when they arrived the horses were unhitched and tied to the ambulances and given their supper.
We spent a miserable night in the dilapidated house. Some time in the night I was awakened by cold water soaking through my blankets, and I felt some heavy weight on my legs, as though some one were sitting on them. I reached for my flashlight and flashed it in the direction of the weight, disclosing the wretched dog that I had fed that afternoon. He was soaking wet and looked even more pathetic than before. I made him a bed in the corner and he curled himself up with the utmost satisfaction.
The next morning we crossed the River Styr on a bridge which the Russians had hastily constructed in their pursuit of the Austrians and which replaced the one which the retreating Austrians had destroyed. The dog followed at the heels of my horse, having apparently adopted me as his master, and he remained with me for several weeks, when he disappeared---being probably appropriated by some soldiers as a regiment mascot.
After crossing the river, we travelled the entire day over a military road built by the Austrians straight through the heart of an enormous swamp. The Colonel said they had used Russian prisoners to construct this marvellous piece of work. Huge pilings had been driven into the marshy ground, projecting about eight feet above the surface of the mud. On these pilings rested the bed of the road made of hand hewn square timber. It was sixty feet wide, as level as a floor, and ran straight as an arrow for forty miles! The Austrians had attempted to bum it in various places as they hastily retreated, but the timber was green and not very inflammable and little damage had been done. At other points large sections had been blown up by explosives, but these had been repaired by the pursuing Russians.
The efficiency of the Austrians revealed by this gigantic piece of work served to increase our respect for the enemy we were shortly to meet, and the sound of the big guns thundering along the line of the Stockhod River far off in the west told us that the conflict was raging fiercely.
Chapter Twenty: The Battle of the Stockhod.