Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.

“French Dragoon Scouting.” A cavalry trooper keeping an eye on the movements of the enemy. The man’s crested steel helmet—usually a highly polished affair—is covered with cloth camouflage. The soldier has a fearless, determined look but the horse seems quite nervous.


Reported in Scientific American

This Week in World War I: October 24, 1914

This article, “Letters from the Firing Line,” is bylined “By an Officer in the French Army—Special War Correspondent of the Scientific American.” The short biography describes an “artist as well as an officer.” The drawings here (see illustrations) may have been the work of Xavier Sager, a prolific creator of Parisian vignettes. The writing has the voice of an educated soldier familiar with the front lines, although it is very likely he observed the battle from a moderately safe distance. The text does smack of an author careful to not fall afoul of the censors, being short on identifiable military details and long on emotion and pithy vignettes. Here are the first two paragraphs:


“It has been raining incessantly for several days, and the nights are very cold. The beginning of this autumn strangely recalls that of 1870. In that year, from the middle of September, the frost began to torture our troops—a terrible year in every sense, one which abounded in misery for everybody. Of course, it is not possible to establish the least resemblance between our brave but poorly equipped army of that time—the army of the empire—and our admirable army of to-day—the army of the republic. The suffering from the cold is greatly to be dreaded; for pleurisy and bronchitis, which may visit the soldier, are just as deadly as the exploding of the shells or the rain of bullets and the thrust of bayonets. All precautions have been taken, and each of us is in a good condition to withstand the first cold.”



“Bivouac on the allied line.” French infantry sleeping in a comfortable haystack on some field in France; their rifles, packs and other accouterments carefully stacked at the ready in the hay.


“Is there any man living whose imagination can evoke the enormous and formidable battle that spreads from the extremity of the Ile-de-France across the boundary of Champagne? It is not a battle of men, it is a battle of giants, and there is no record of anything like it in all history. For ten days two furious and tragical masses of humanity that has lost all feeling of humanity have thrown themselves against each other with an ever increasing violence. On the enemy's side there is a solid iron wall of obstinate troops frozen by a terrible discipline, which will break to pieces one day. The Allies' side is a battering ram hammering away without cessation and directed by an unseen and unparalleled hand which is moved by the soul of patriotism. It is the cord of the human energy stretched to the breaking point, although the sun-burned and toughened faces show beneath their apparent placidity an indomitable resolution. The pen of Tennyson writing the 'Charge of the Light Brigade' could only give the slightest idea of this terrible shock—a terrible and gruesome vision which surpasses in imagination Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, Dante. The human eye which has looked upon such things as these can never forget them, and the image of it will be stamped in his memory as the very climax of horror until the tomb closes over him. What I have seen on the battlefield will remain pictured indelibly in my mind until my dying days. Nature herself, with her storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of burning lava, and clouds of smoke, never produced a more stupendous chaos and never opened a deeper sepulcher than this incalculable artillery which for many weeks has roared and spit shells upon a front of 200 kilometers, from Saint Quentin to the Argonne.”


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