OFF TO THE FRONT
As we sat in our little compartment in the train before retiring, Col. Kalpaschnecoff explained to me the working details of the Column to which I was to be attached.
They had thirty-five horse-drawn ambulances, and equipment for three first-aid dressing stations. They worked in the First Division of the First Siberian Army Corps. Advanced dressing stations were established in the trenches, and there was a larger station somewhat farther back where the ambulances could come up. This station was usually one-half to one mile from the firing line.
The wounded were carried from the advance dressing station to the main dressing station by stretcher bearers and from there they were removed by horse ambulance to the division hospital about four miles back.
The personnel consisted of 180 sanitars or orderlies, three students, and two aids to Kalpaschnecoff. The bulk of the reserve material and the heavy transport wagons, food, feed for horses, etc., were kept at a base situated about three or four miles from the line.
"You will have charge of the advance dressing stations and the main dressing station where operations can be performed," declared the Colonel, "and two of the students will act as your assistants."
Sleeping on the train was almost out of the question, but I suppose we did succeed in getting a cat-nap every now and again despite the poor travelling conditions.
We had breakfast on the train, but in the middle of the day we got off at one of the larger stations for dinner, as there was no provision on the train for regular meals. We rushed into the first-class waiting-room to the buffet where, at a counter, one could purchase zachowsky, similar to our hors-d'oeuvres, various smoked fish, or a dinner of cabbage soup with sour cream, called shee, or cutlets of chopped beef with fried potatoes. Hastily selecting what we desired, we carried it to a table crowded with Russians and disposed of it as quickly as possible.
The station was packed with a picturesque crowd. There were bearded peasants in dirty sheepskin coats called shubas, with their feet wrapped in cloths over which was fitted a basketwork affair made from the bark of trees, fastened to the feet by strings which criss-crossed up the leg to just below the knee, where it was tied and served to hold the cloths in place. This is the usual footwear of the peasant class in the summer or when the weather is dry.
Some, more fortunate, wore leather boots. Soldiers were crowded together, smoking, sleeping on the floor, or talking in little groups, waiting for the train to take them back to the front from their furlough. Most of them were great hulking fellows with bland, childlike faces, mostly blond types with brown-reddish hair and blue eyes, many wearing the orange and black ribbon and little silver cross of the Order of St. George, which is given only for conspicuous bravery under fire.
There were many little family groups in which the women were red-eyed from weeping as a father or son or brother left them to take his place in the train. They were primitive and unashamed in their grief, and as the train pulled out from the station and the loved one swung aboard, their wailing rose above the grind of the car-wheels and the shrieking of the locomotive whistle, the women with aprons covering their faces swaying backward and forward in heart-rending agony.
One little incident at this station made a deep impression upon me. I saw an old, blear-eyed woman, dirty beyond belief, bidding farewell to a fine young fellow who was evidently her son---more than likely her only son. The big fellow kissed her tenderly. He was a fine picture of vigorous manhood as he stood there with his blond head bared while the old mother touched her fingers to his forehead and breast, making the sign of the cross. He stood on the step as the train gathered speed, while the old woman ran stiffly along the tracks in her heavy boots, the tears streaming down her weather-beaten old face calling out her blessing on the departing soldier-boy as she ran.
The country near Petrograd is sparsely settled. Indeed, that huge city with its sparkling golden domes reminds one of a gem set down in the midst of a great green table, for the surrounding country is a flat expanse of green forest.
Now, however, we were reaching a section where more villages were noticeable. They were little gray groups of thatched houses built of logs, huddled together, surrounded by fields of rye and wheat and garden patches. Beyond always stretched the great dark pine forests, the white trunks of the birches showing ghost-like through gloomy cathedral aisles of pines, the sky steel gray and sullen. Over all hung a peculiar sadness, a sullenness of earth and sky, indescribable yet surely there.
What is it that produces the mysterious melancholy of this great country---a mystery and melancholy written deep in the character and in the person of all its people? Is it the vast distances, the flatness of the landscape, the lonesomeness of the Northland, the gloom of the forests, the long, cold sunless winters that reflect on the peasant clad in his sheepskin coat, standing there in the field, a little lonesome human atom on the great far-stretching expanse of field and forest and swamp? I do not know, but it is there---as mysterious and yet as certain as life itself. One feels it instinctively.
That night we retired early. We were thoroughly tired out from the journey, with its long halts at the stations and the dose, stuffy atmosphere of the coach.
The Russian cars, first-class, are fairly comfortable although not very clean. The trains make only about twenty miles per hour on the average, but time is no particular object in Russia and one becomes accustomed to the slowness of travel. The engines burn wood on most lines, huge piles of the fuel racked, split and ready to be thrown into the tender as needed being on hand at the stations.
The next morning, at a station, we had coffee and bread and butter---the customary breakfast in Russia. We had time to take a short stroll on the station platform before the train pulled out. The day was crisp with a touch of autumn and the sun was shining brightly. Most of the passengers were out stretching their legs. I noticed a number of them---soldiers, officers and civilians---running with tea-kettle in hand to a large boiler, and asked the Colonel what they were doing.
"That's just plain water," he explained., "Fire is kept burning under these water boilers, which are called kipetocks, day and night, at all stations. No unboiled water is drunk in Russia. This accounts for the small amount of typhoid in this otherwise unsanitary land."
The soldiers filled their kettles and dashed back to the train, and as we walked through some of the second and third class cars, we saw them bring out little china teapots, cans of tea, sugar, and glasses, and proceed to brew tea which they drank from the glasses.
"Men always drink tea from glasses, women from cups," explained the Colonel. "It is considered effeminate for a man to drink from a cup."
At first the absence of ice-water or even cold water was very annoying to me, but I soon became accustomed to tea and before I left Russia I was consuming from ten to fifteen glasses of tea a day and never thought of drinking water.
The tracks near the station were being repaired and I noticed that the work was done by women. They were mostly young or middle-aged---all great strong creatures with arms and hands and shoulders like men, swinging a pick or shovel or tamping bar without any apparent effort. Although they were bare-footed, they walked about over the rough stone ballast, carrying heavy ties, with apparent unconcern! They were supervised in their labors by a man who leaned indolently against a telegraph pole smoking a cigarette. We noticed many such crews along the line.
Eventually we arrived at Ceslivano, a station about thirty miles from our base. A large sector of the front is supplied from this station. Numerous sidings with cars laden with munitions, huge piles of material under canvas covers, stacks of baled hay as large as houses, and similar stores marked it as an important point. Wagon-loads knee-deep in mud converged to the loading platforms, and hundreds of little two-wheeled carts drawn by a single horse were coming and going, the horse's fetlock deep in sticky brown mud, toiling slowly along over roads which apparently meandered off through fields and forest---diverging like the ribs of a fan over the vast landscape towards the west, where the trenches lie.
We had to transfer our baggage to a little narrow-gauge road which ran to a station a few miles from our base. A toy engine and several flat cars were standing there. Ivan, Kalpaschnecoff's orderly or deenshick, who had met us at the station, carried our luggage.
On the way we passed great rows of low buildings which looked like barracks but which were really an immense evacuation hospital.
I was astonished at the terrible condition of the roads. We had to cross one which was a veritable sea of mud, up to our knees. When we reached the other side I noticed an old peasant in the middle of a similar morass of ooze, trying to get to terra firma. He had a bundle in one hand and was holding up his dirty old sheepskin shuba in the other.
Apparently his boots were securely anchored and he couldn't move. He let go his coat and attempted to pull his feet out by lugging at his boot straps. He tugged and tugged and finally lost his balance and to save himself plunged his arm into the mud up to the shoulder. He extricated his arm, righted himself and stood helplessly holding the dripping member out and staring at it as though he didn't recognize it.
Several soldiers saw the old fellow's sad plight and ;waded out, forming a sort of human chain holding on to each other's hands. The peasant reached out to the one closest to him, they gave a heave and out he came-minus his boots I The old man had no stockings. on and he walked off in his bare feet, shaking his head disgustedly.
"This is our muddy season," Kalpaschnecoff explained, rather unnecessarily. "In the spring it is somewhat worse. At these times, no army can conduct an offensive in Russia because supplies cannot be brought up quickly enough."
We boarded one of the little flat cars, in company with other officers, and were presently chugging up hill and down dale along hastily laid ties, little grading having been done. Several times, indeed, the rails spread and we ran off the track. Then we would all get off and, by means of crowbars, lift the little cars back and start off again.
I did not know just how close to the front the railroad ran and kept looking at the clear blue sky, far away on the horizon, for the white puffs of shrapnel which I had heard about; but I saw nothing nor could I even hear the sound of a cannon.
After numerous delays, we arrived at our station, a solitary house in the midst of a great dark forest of pines. Here we found a dilapidated victoria drawn by three horses awaiting us.
As Kalpaschnecoff stood talking to the orderly who was in charge of the victoria, I heard a sound like distant thunder muttering on a hot afternoon in summer-far off in the west over the tops of the dark pine trees. Where we stood all was serene and peaceful, but that distant rumbling told me of the grim tragedy that was being enacted along the far borders of that dark forest down whose dismal aisles I vainly peered-gloomy, sunless, mysterious.
"We must be getting on, Grow," declared the Colonel, interrupting my reverie; "it is five miles to our base. Ivan will stay here with the baggage. We will send a wagon for it."
The Colonel and I climbed in the old carriage, and off we went down the muddy road, lurching along, the horses straining at the traces.
As the late autumn twilight fell, we passed a company of sappers returning from a reserve trench-digging operation. They plodded silently by in the gloom, shovels and picks over shoulder, cigarettes glowing, the pungent odor of Makorka ---the cheap tobacco from the Caucasus which the Russian soldier invariably smokes---permeating the crisp night air.
We passed through a little village. Close to the road were log-houses with projecting thatched eaves and small windows, through which, in the dim candle light, we could see little groups of soldiers sitting around tables drinking tea, and we could hear the sounds of a concertina and a man's voice singing in a high sweet tenor a plaintive Russian romance.
"That's a reserve regiment in billet," the Colonel explained.
We gradually ascended to higher ground, passing a column of transport wagons, the drivers of which yelled at their horses as they got mixed up in a bad spot. From the high ground we got a glimpse of black pine tops outlined against a greenish horizon where the sun had set, fading to the dark blue of the upper sky, a crescent moon apparently just balanced on the spire of a distant pine-tree, while far off a white rocket rose gracefully into the air, hung poised a second, and fell from view behind the screening forest. It was a most impressive picture.
"The positions are there," said the Colonel, pointing in the direction of the rocket. "It is about eight miles away. You can see the rockets at intervals all night long. When there is any fighting, the trenches just spout them in a steady stream."
Presently we entered another village and drew up before a house of log and thatch identical to hundreds I had seen.
"Here we are," said the Colonel, as I followed him to the door; "this is our base."
Chapter Six: The spectacle in the frozen lake.