ANTWERP TO GALLIPOLI
A Year of the War on Many Fronts—and Behind Them
by Arthur Ruhl
with Illustrations from Photographs
I. "The Germans Are Coming!" II. Paris at Bay III. After the Marne IV. The Fall of Antwerp I V. Paris Again-and Bordeaux: Journal of a Flight from a London Fog VI. "The Great Days" VII. Two German Prison Camps VIII. In the German Trenches at La Bassee IX. The Road to Constantinople: Rumania and Bulgaria X. The Adventure of the Fifty Hostages XI. With the Turks at the Dardanelles XII. Soghan-Dere and the Flier of Ak-Bash XIII. A War Correspondents' Village XIV. Cannon Fodder XV. East of Lemberg: Through Austria-Hungary to the Galician Front XVI. In the Dust of the Russian Retreat
The Germans Are Coming!
The Germans had already entered Brussels, their scouts were reported on the outskirts of Ghent; a little farther now, over behind the horizon wind-mills, and we might at any moment come on them.
For more than a fortnight we had been hurrying eastward, hearing, through cable despatches and wireless, the far-off thunder of that vast gray tide rumbling down to France. The first news had come drifting in, four thousand miles away, to the little Wisconsin lake where I was fishing. A strange herd of us, all drawn in one way or another by the war, had caught the first American ship, the old St. Paul, and, with decks crowded with trunks and mail-bags from half a dozen ships, steamed eastward on the all but empty ocean. There were reservists hurrying to the colors, correspondents, men going to rescue wives and sisters. Some were hit through their pocketbooks, some through their imaginations— like the young women hoping to be Red Cross nurses, or to help in some way, they weren't sure how.
One had a steamer chair next mine—a pale, Broadway tomboy sort of girl in a boyish sailor suit, who looked as if she needed sleep. Without exactly being on the stage, she yet appeared to live on the fringe of it, and combined the slangy freedoms of a chorus girl with a certain quick wisdom and hard sense. It was she who discovered a steerage passenger, on the Liverpool dock, who had lost his wife and was bringing his four little children back to Ireland from Chicago, and, while the other cabin passengers fumed over their luggage, took up a collection for him then and there.
"Listen here!" she would say, grabbing my arm. "I want to tell you something. I'm going to see this thing—d'you know what I mean?—for what it'll do to me—you know—for its effect on my mind! I didn't say anything about it to anybody—they'd only laugh at me—d'you know what I mean? They don't think I've got any serious side to me. Now, I don't mind things—I mean blood—you know—they don't affect me, and I've read about nursing—I've prepared for this! Now, I don't know how to go about it, but it seems to me that a woman who can—you know—go right with 'em—jolly 'em along—might be just what they'd want—d'you know what I mean?"
One Russian had said good-by to a friend at the dock, he to try to get through this way, the other by the Pacific and Trans-Siberian. The Englishman who shared my stateroom was an advertising man. "I've got contracts worth fifty thousand pounds," he said, "and I don't suppose they're worth the paper they're written on." There were several Belgians and a quartet of young Frenchmen who played cards every night and gravely drank bottle after bottle of champagne to the glory of France.
Even the Balkans were with us, in the shape of a tall, soldier-like Bulgarian with a heavy mustache and the eyes of a kindly and highly intelligent hawk. He was going back home—"to fight?" "Yes, to fight."
"With Servia?" asked some one politely, with the usual vague American notion of the Balkan states. The Bulgarian's eyes shone curiously.
"You have a sense of humor!" he said.
This man had done newspaper work in Russia and America, studied at Harvard, and he talked about our politics, theatres, universities, society generally. It was a pity, he said, and the result of the comparative lack of critical spirit in America that Mr. Roosevelt had been a hero so long. There were party papers mechanically printing their praise or blame—"and then, of course, the New York Evening Post and the Springfield Republican"—but no general intelligent criticism of ideas for a popular idol to meet and answer. "On the whole, he's a good influence—but in place of something better. It isn't good for a man to stand so long in the bright sunshine."
That it was impossible for the Mexicans to work out their own salvation he doubted. "I think of Bulgaria—surely our inheritance of Turkish rule was almost as bad, and of how the nation has responded, and of the intensive culture we had at a time when we were only a name to most western Europeans." He was but one of those new potentialities which every whisper from the now cloud-wrapped Continent seemed to be opening —this tall, scholar-fighter from the comic-opera land where Mr. Shaw placed his chocolate soldiers.
In a steamer chair a frail-looking young woman in a white polo coat looked nervously out on the sea. She was Irish and came of a fighting line—father, uncles, and brothers in army and navy, her husband in command of a British cruiser, scouting the very steamship lane through which we were steaming. Frail-looking, but not frail in spirit—a fighter born, with Irish keenness and wit, she was ready to prick any balloon in sight. She had chased about the world too long after a fighting family to care much about settling down now. They couldn't afford to keep a place in England and live somewhere else half the time —"and, after all, what is there in being a cabbage?" She talked little. "You can learn more about people merely watching them," and she lay in her steamer chair and watched.
She could tell, merely by looking at them in their civilian's clothes, which were army and which navy men, which "R.N.s" and which merchant- service men. We spoke of a young lieutenant from an India artillery regiment. "Yes—'garrison-gunner,'" she said. She was sorry for the German people, but the Kaiser was "quite off his rocker and had to be licked."
War suddenly reached out for us as we came up to Mersey Bar, and an officer in khaki bellowed from the pilot-boat: "Take down your wireless!" Down it came, and there the ship stayed for the night, while the passengers crowded about a volunteer town-crier who read from the papers that had come aboard, and, in the strange quiet that descends on an anchored steamship, asked each other how true it was that the German military bubble—a magazine article with that title had been much read on the way over—had burst.
Slowly next morning we crept up the Mersey, past a rusty tramp outward bound, crowded with khaki-clad men. All the shipping was tooting as she swept by, and the men cheering and waving their hats at the land they might never come back to. The regular landing-stages were taken by transports, tracks were held for troop-trains, and it was night before we got down to London, where crowds and buses stormed along as usual and barytone soloists in every music-hall were roaring defiance to the Kaiser and reiterating that Britannia ruled the waves.
Into the fog of war that covered the Continent an army of Englishmen had vanished, none knew where. Out of it came rumors of victories, but as I crossed the Strand that morning on the way to Charing Cross, a newsboy pushed an extra into the cab window—the Germans were entering Brussels! Yet we fought into the boat train just as if thousands of people weren't fighting to get away from the very places we hoped to reach.
There were two business men in our coupe going to France, an elderly Irish lady, an intransigent Unionist, with black goggles and umbrella, hoping to get through to her invalid brother in Diest, and a bright, sweet-faced little Englishwoman, in nurse's dark-blue uniform and bonnet, bound for Antwerp, where her sister's convent had been turned into a hospital. She told about her little east-coast town as we crossed the sunny Channel; we trailed together into the great empty station at Ostend and, after an hour or two, found a few cars getting away, so to speak, of their own accord.
The low checker-board Belgian fields drifted quickly past; then Bruges, with a wounded soldier leaning on the shoulders of two companions; then Ghent. There was a great crowd about the station—men thrown out of work, men in flat cloth caps smoking pipes—the town just recovering from the panic of that afternoon. Flags had been hauled down—the American consul was even asked if he didn't think it would be safer to take down his flag—some of the civic guards, fearing they would be shot on sight if the Germans saw them in uniform, tore off their coats and threw them in the canal. Others threw in cartridges, thousands of gallons of gasolene were poured on the ground, and everybody watched the church tower for the red flag which would signal that firing was about to begin. Le Bien Public of Ghent, however, protested stoutly because its mail edition had been refused at the station:
It is not alone on the field of battle that one must be brave. For us civilians real courage consists in doing our ordinary duty up to the last. In Limburg postmen made their rounds while Prussians inundated the region, and peasants went right along with their sowing while down the road troops were falling back from the firing-line.
Let us think of our sons sleeping forever down there in the trenches of Haelen and Tirlemont and Aerschot; of those brave artillerymen who, for twenty days, have been waiting in the forts at Liege the help so many times promised from the allies; of our lancers charging into mitrailleuse-fire as if they were in a tournament; let us remember that our heroic little infantrymen, crouched behind a hedge or in a trench, keeping up their fire for ten hours running until their ammunition was exhausted, and forced at last to retire, wounded and worn out, without a chief to take orders from, have had no other thought than that of finding some burgomaster or commissioner of police, in order not to be taken for deserters. Let us think a little of all these brave men and be worthy of them.
There were no music-halls in Belgium and there were posters on the blank walla, even of little villages, reminding bands and hurdy-gurdy players and the proprietors of dance-halls that this was no time for unnecessary noise. There were no soldiers going gayly off to war; the Belgians were coming back from war. They had been asked to hold out for three days, and they had held for three weeks. All their little country was a battle-field, and Belgium open to the invader.
It was too late to get to Brussels, but there was still a train to Antwerp. At Puers soldiers were digging trenches and stringing approaches with barbed wire. The dikes had been opened and part of the country flooded. Farther on we passed the Antwerp forts, then comely suburbs where houses had been torn down and acres of trees and shrubs— precious, as may be imagined, to a people who line their country roads with elms and lindens like avenues in parks, and build monuments to benevolent-looking old horticulturists—chopped down and burned. And go, presently, into the old city itself, dull-flaming with the scarlet, gold, and black, of the Belgian flag, and with something that seemed to radiate from the life itself of this hearty, happy people, after all their centuries of trade and war, and good food, and good art—like their own Rubenses and Van Dycks.
There was no business, not a ship moving in the Scheldt. All who worked at all were helping prepare for the possible siege; those who didn't crowded the sidewalk cafes, listening to tales from the front, guessing by the aid of maps whither, across the silent, screened southwest, the German avalanche was spreading.
"Treason," "betrayal," "savagery," were on everybody's lips. For Antwerp, you might say, had been "half German"; many of its rich and influential men were of German origin, although they had lived in Belgium for years. And now the Belgians felt they had lived there as spies, and the seizure of Belgium was an act long and carefully planned. One was told of the finding of rifles in German cellars, marked "Preserves," of German consuls authorized to give prizes for the most complete inventories of their neighborhoods turned in by amateur spies.
Speaking to one man about the Rubens "Descent from the Cross" still hanging in the cathedral, I suggested that such a place was safe from bombardment. He looked up at the lace-like old tower, whose chimes, jangling down through leaping shafts and jets of Gothic stone, have so long been Antwerp's voice. "They wouldn't stop a minute," he said.
All eastern Belgium was cut off. Brussels, to which people run over for dinner and the theatre, might have been in China. Meanwhile Antwerp seemed safe for the time and I returned to Ghent, got a train next day as far south as Deynze, where the owner of a two-wheeled Belgian cart was induced to take me another thirty kilometres on down to Courtrai. It was rumored that there had been a battle at Courtrai—it was, at any rate, close to the border and the German right wing and in the general line of their advance.
We rattled along the hard highroad, paved with Belgian blocks, with a well-pounded dirt path at the side for bicycles, between almost uninterrupted rows of low houses and tiny fields in which men and women both were working. Other carts like ours passed by, occasional heavy wagons drawn by one of the handsome Belgian draft-horses, and now and then a small loaded cart, owner perched on top, zipping along behind a jolly Belgian work dog—pulling as if his soul depended on it and apparently having the time of his life. Every one was busy, not a foot of ground wasted; a more incongruous place into which to force the waste and lawlessness of war it would be hard to imagine.
Past an old chateau, with its lake and pheasant-preserve; along the River Lys, with its miles of flax, soaked in this peculiarly potent water, now drying in countless little cones, like the tents of some vast Lilliputian army, and so at last into Courtrai.
It was like hundreds of other quaint old towns along the French and Flemish border, not yet raked by war, but motionless, with workmen idle, young men gone to the front, and nothing for people to do but exchange rumors and wait for the clash to come. I strolled round the old square and through some of the winding streets. One window was filled with tricolor sashes carrying the phrase: "Long live our dear Belgium! May God preserve her!"
On blank walls was this proclamation in parallel columns of French and Flemish:
Ville De Courtrai Avis Important a la Population Courtraisienne Stad Kortrijk Belangrijk Bericht aan de Kortrijksche Bevolking
I am about to make an appeal to your reason and your sentiments of humanity.
If, in the course of the unjust war which we are now enduring, it happens that French or Belgian troops bring German prisoners to our city, I beseech you to maintain your calm and dignity. These prisoners, wounded or not, I shall take under my protection, became I say that they are not really to blame for acts which they have been ordered to do under threat of cruel punishment.
Yes, I say I shall take them under my protection because my heart bleeds to think that they, too, have left behind those dear to them—an aged father, an old mother, a wife, children, sisters, or sweethearts whom separation has plunged into deepest anguish. Do not forget when you see these prisoners passing by, I beg of you, and permit yourself to shout at and insult them. Keep, on the contrary, the respectful silence appropriate to thinking men. Fellow citizens, if, in these grave and painful circumstances, you will listen to my advice, if you will recall that it is now thirty years that I have been your burgomaster and during all that time of hard work I have never asked a favor of you, I feel sure that you will obey my request and, on your side, you may be sure that my gratitude will not be wanting.
A. REYNAEKT, Burgomaster.
Although war had not touched Courtrai as yet, the rumor of it, more terrifying often than the thing itself, had swept through all Flanders. Along the level highways leading into Courtrai trooped whole families carrying babies and what few household things they could fling together in blankets. Covered wagons overflowed with men, women, and children. The speed with which rumor spread was incredible. In one village a group of half-drunken men, who insisted on jeering the Germans were put at the head of a column and compelled to march several miles before they were released. The word at once ran the length of dozens of highroads that the Germans "were taking with them every one between fifteen and fifty." I heard the same warning repeated on several of the roads about Courtrai by men and women, panting, red-faced, stumbling blindly on from they knew not what. Later, I met the same people, straggling back to their villages, good-naturedly accepting the jibes of those who had stayed behind.
A linen manufacturer who lived in the village of Deerlyck, not far from Courtrai, where German scouts had been reported, kindly asked me to come out and spend the night. For several miles we drove through the densely populated countryside, past rows of houses whose occupants all seemed to know him.
Women ran out to stop him and rattled away in Flemish; there were excited knots of people every few steps, and the heads kept turning this way and that, as if we were all likely to be shot any minute. We drove into the courtyard of the solid old Flemish house—a house in which he and his father before him had lived, with tiny rooms full of old paintings, garden, stable, and hothouse packed close in the saving Belgian fashion, and all as spick and span and shining as if built yesterday—and then into the street again. It was interesting to watch this square little man roll sturdily along, throwing out his stout arms impatiently and flinging at the nervous villagers—who treated him almost as a sort of feudal lord—guttural Flemish commands to keep cool and not make fools of themselves.
All at once, coming out of nowhere, a wave of panic swept down the street like a squall across a still pond.
"Bing—Bang!" went wooden shutters over windows, the stout housewives flinging the bars home and gathering up their children. Doors slammed, windows closed—it was like something in a play—and almost as soon as it takes to tell it there was not a head, not a sound; the low houses were one blank wall, and we stood in the street alone.
Just such scenes as this people must have known in the days when Europe was a general battle-ground—when the French or the Spanish came into Flanders; just such villages, just such housewives slamming shutters close—you can see them now in old Flemish pictures.
Slowly doors and windows opened, heads poked out. The little street filled, the knots of people gathered again. We walked up and down, the linen merchant flinging out his arms and his reassurances more and more vigorously. Half an hour passed, and then, all at once, it came again. And this time it was real. The Germans were coming!
Down the straight, paved highway, a mile or so away, at the farther end of an avenue of elms which framed them like a tunnel, was a band of horsemen. They were coming at an easy trot, half a dozen in single file on either side of the road. We could see their lances, held rakishly upstanding across the saddle, then the tail of the near horse whisking to and fro. One, crossing over, was outlined against the sky, and those who could see whispered: "One is standing sidewise!" as if this were somehow important. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the women huddled inside the door before which we stood.
Coming nearer and nearer up that long tunnel of trees, like one of those unescapable things seen in dreams, the little gray spot of moving figures grew to strange proportions—"the Germans!"—front of that frightful avalanche. A few hundred yards away they pulled down to a walk, and slowly, peering sharply out from under their helmets, entered the silent street. Another moment and the leader was alongside, and we found ourselves looking up at a boy, not more than twenty he seemed, with blue eyes and a clean-cut, gentle face. He passed without a look or word, but behind him a young officer, soldier-like and smart in the Prussian fashion, with a half-opened map in his hand, asked the way to a near-by village. He took the linen merchant's direction without pausing and the horses swung down the side street. "Do you speak English?" he called back, as if, in happier times, we might have been friends, and, without waiting for an answer, trotted on into the growing dusk.
They were but one of hundreds of such squads of light cavalry—uhlans for the most part—ranging all over western Belgium as far as Ostend, a dozen or so men in hostile country, prepared to be cut to pieces if they found the enemy they were looking for, or to be caught from ambush at any time by some squad of civic guards. But as one watched them disappear down their long road to France they grew into something more than that. And in the twilight of the quiet countryside these stern shapes that rode on without turning, lances upstanding from tired shoulders, became strange, grotesque, pathetic—again the Germans, legions of the War Lord, come too late into a world which must crush them at last, Knights of the Frightful Adventure, riding to their death.
Paris At Bay
The Calais and Boulogne routes were already closed. Dieppe and Havre might at any moment follow. You must go now, people said in London, if you want to get there at all.
And yet the boat was crowded as it left Folkstone. In bright afternoon sunshine we hurried over the Channel, empty of any sign of war, unless war showed in its very emptiness. Next to me sat a young Frenchman, different from those we had met before hurrying home to fight. Good-looking, tall, and rather languid in manner, he spoke English with an English accent, and you would have taken him for an Englishman. A big canvas bag full of golf-clubs leaned against the wall behind him, and he had been trying to play golf at one of the east-coast seaside places in England. But one couldn't play in a time like this, and the young man sighed and waved his hands rather desperately—one couldn't settle down to anything. So he was going home. To fight ?—I suggested. Possibly, he said—the army had refused him several years ago—maybe they would take him now. Very politely, in his quiet manner, he asked me down to tea. When he stood by the rail watching the tawny French cliffs draw nearer, one noticed a certain weary droop to his shoulders, in contrast to his well-tanned, rather athletic-looking, face—born a little tired, perhaps, like the young nobleman in Bernstein's "Whirlwind." His baggage was addressed to a Norman chateau.
On the other side was a pink-cheeked boy of seventeen, all French, though he spoke English and divided his time between writing post-cards to the boys he had been visiting in England and reading General von Bernhardi. "The first chapter, 'The Right to Make War,'" he said, "I understand that—yes! But the second chapter—'The Duty to Make War'" —he laughed and shook his head.
"No—no—no!" He was the son of an insurance agent who was already at the front, and, although under age, he hoped to enlist. We drew nearer Dieppe—tall French houses leaning inward with tricolors in the windows, a quay with the baggy red breeches of French soldiers showing here and there—just such a scene as they paint on theatre curtains at home. A smoky tug whistled uproariously, there was a patter of wooden shoes as children clattered along the stone jetty, and from all over the crowd that had come down to greet us came brave shouts of "Eep-eep Hoorah! Eep-eep Hoorah!"
No news, or at least no reliable news. A lot of wounded had been brought in, business was stopped, the great beach deserted; some thought the Germans would be in Dieppe in a day or two. Our train was supposed to start as soon as the boat arrived and reach Paris before ten that night. It was after dark before we got away and another day before we crawled into St. Lazare.
There was a wild rush for places as soon as the gates opened; one took what one could, and nine of us, including three little children, were glad enough to crowd into a third-class compartment. Two ladies, with the three little children, were hurrying away from the battle that their husbands .thought was going to be fought near Dieppe within a day or two. From Paris they hoped to get to the south of France. Over and over again the husbands said good-by, then the guards whistled for the last time.
"Albaire!" ... and a boy of about six went to the door of the compartment to receive his father's embrace. "Don't let the Germans get you!" cried the father, with a great air of gayety, and kissed the boy again and again. He returned to his corner, rubbed his fists into his eyes, and the tears rolled out under them. Then the two little girls— twins, it seemed, about four years old, in little mushroom hats—took their turns, and they put their fists into their eyes and cried, and then the two mothers began to cry, and the men, dabbing their eyes and puffing vigorously at their cigars, cried good-by over and over, and so at last we moved out of the station.
The long train crept, stopped, backed, crept on again. Through the open windows one caught glimpses of rows of poplar-trees and the countryside lying cool and white in the moonlight. Then came stations with sentries, stray soldiers hunting for a place to squeeze in, and now and then empty troop-trains jolted by, smelling of horses. In the confusion at Dieppe we had had no time to get anything to eat, and several hours went by before, at a station lunchroom, already supposed to be closed, I got part of a loaf of bread. One of the young mothers brought out a bit of chocolate, the other a bottle of wine, and so we had supper—a souper de luxe, as one of them laughed—all, by this time, old friends.
Eleven o'clock—midnight—the gas, intended for a short journey, grew dimmer and dimmer, presently flickered out. We were in darkness—all the train was in darkness—we were alone in France, wrapped in war and moonlight, half real beings who had been adventuring together, not for hours, but for years. The dim figure on the left sighed, tried one position and another uneasily, and suddenly said that if it would not derange monsieur too much, she would try to sleep on his shoulder. It would not derange monsieur in the least. On the contrary...
"You must make yourself at home in France," laughed the mother of the two little girls. But the other was even more polite.
"Nous sommes en Amerique!" she murmured. The train jolted slowly on. An hour or two after midnight it stopped and a strange figure in turban and white robe peered in. "Complet! Complet!" cried the lady with the little girls. But the figure kept staring in, and, turning, chattered to others like him. There was a crowd of them, men from France's African colonies, from Algeria or Morocco, who had been working in the French mines and were now going back to take the places of trained soldiers—the daredevil "Turcos"—sent north to fight the Germans.
They did not get into our compartment, but into the one next to it, and as there was no place to sit down, stood in patient Arab fashion, and after a time gradually edged into ours, where they squatted on the floor. They talked broken French or Italian or their native speech and now and then broke into snatches of a wild sort of song. In Paris girls ran into the street and threw their arms about the brave "Marocs" as they marched by, but the lady with the little girls felt that they were a trifle smelly, and, fishing out a bottle of scent, she wet a handkerchief with it and passed it round.
The young Frenchman lit a match—three-twenty. The little boy, rousing from his corner, suddenly announced, apropos of nothing, that the Germans ought to be dropped into kettles of boiling water; at once came the voice of one of the little girls, sound asleep apparently before this, warning him that he must not talk like that or the Germans might hear and shoot them. We jolted on, backed, and suddenly one became aware that the gray light was not that of the moon. The lady at my left sat upright. "The day comes!" she said briskly. It grew lighter. We passed sentries, rifles stacked on station platforms, woods—the forest of St. Germain. These woods were misty blue in the cool autumn morning, there were bivouac fires, coffee-pots on the coals, and standing beside these fires soldiers in kepis and red trousers and heavy blue coats with the flaps pinned back. Just such soldiers and scenes you have seen in the war pictures of Detaille and De Neuville. Bridges, more houses, the rectangular grass-covered faces of forts at last; just as Paris was getting up for breakfast, into St. Lazare station, heaped with trunks and boiling with people, Parisians, belated American tourists, refugees from northeast villages, going somewhere, anywhere, to get away. It was September 2.
There were miles of closed shops with placards on the shutters: "Proprietor and personnel have been called to the colors"; no buses or trams, the few 'cabs piled with the luggage of those trying to get away, almost no way to traverse the splendid distances but to walk. Papers could not be cried aloud on the streets, and the only news was the official communique and a word about some Servian or Russian victory in some un-pronounceable region of the East.
"France is a history, a life, an idea which has taken its place in the world, and the bit of earth from which that history, that life, that thought, has radiated, we cannot sacrifice without sealing the stone of the tomb over ourselves and our children and the generations to follow us." Thus George Clemenceau was writing in L'Homme Libre, and people knew that this was true. And yet in that ghastly silence of Paris, broken only by the constant flight of military automobiles, screaming through the streets on missions nobody understood, those left behind did not even know where the enemy was, where the defenders were, or what was being done to save Paris. And it gradually, and not unnaturally, seemed to the more nervous that nothing had been done—the forts were paper, the government faithless, revolution imminent—one heard the wildest things.
Late that afternoon I walked down from the Madeleine toward the river. It was the "hour of the aperitif"—there were still enough people to fill cafe tables—and since Sunday it had been the hour of the German aeroplane. It had come that afternoon, dropped a few bombs—"quelques ordures"—and sailed away to return next day at the same hour. "You have remarked," explained one of the papers, "that people who are without wit always repeat their jokes." And just as I came into the Place de la Concorde, "Mr. Taube" came up out of the north.
You must imagine that vast open space, with the bridge and river and Invalides behind it, and beyond the light tracery of the Eiffel Tower, covered with little specks of people, all looking upward. Back along the boulevards, on roofs on both banks, all Paris, in fact, was similarly staring—"Le nez en l'air." And straight overhead, so far up that even the murmur of the motor was unheard, no more than a bird, indeed, against the pale sky, "Mr. Taube," circling indolently about, picking his moment, plotting our death.
I thought of the shudder of outraged horror that ran over Antwerp when the first Zeppelin came. It seemed the last unnecessary blow to a heroic people who had already stood so much. Very different was "Mr. Taube's" reception here. He might have been a holiday balloon or some particularly fancy piece of fireworks. Everywhere people were staring upward, looking through their closed fists, through opera-glasses. Out of the arcades of the Hotel de Crillon one man in a bath-robe and another in a suit of purple underclothes came running, to gaze calmly into the zenith until the "von" had gone.
As the little speck drew straight overhead, these human specks scattered over the Place de la Concorde suddenly realized that they were in the line of fire, and scattered just as people run from a sudden shower. This was the most interesting thing—these helpless little humans scrambling away like ants or beetles to shelter, and that tiny insolent bird sailing slowly far overhead. This was a bit of the modern war one reads about—it was a picture from some fanciful story of Mr. H. G. Wells. They scattered for the arcades, and some, quaintly enough, ran under the trees in the near-by Champs-Elysees. There was a "Bang!" at which everybody shouted "There!" but it was not a bomb, only part of the absurd fusillade that now began. They were firing from the Eiffel Tower, whence they might possibly have hit something, and from roofs with ordinary guns and revolvers which could not possibly have hit anything at all. In the gray haze that hung over Paris the next morning, I wandered through empty streets and finally, with some vague notion of looking out, up the hill of Montmartre. All Paris lay below, mysterious in the mist, with that strange, poignant beauty of something trembling on the verge. One could follow the line of the Seine and see the dome of the Invalides, but nothing beyond. I went down a little way from the summit and, still on the hill, turned into the Rue des Abbesses, crowded with vegetable carts and thrifty housewives. The gray air was filled with their bargaining, with the smell of vegetables and fruit, and there, in front of two men playing violins, a girl in black, with a white handkerchief loosely knotted about her throat, was singing of the little Alsatian boy, shot by the Prussians because he cried "Vive la France!" and threatened them with his wooden gun.
True or not, it was one of those things that get believed. Verses were written about it and pictures made of it all over Paris—presently it would be history. And this girl, true child of the asphalt, was flinging it at them, holding the hearts of these broad-faced mothers in the hollow of her hand. She would sing one verse, pause, and sell copies of the song, then put a hand to her hoarse throat and sing again. The music was not sold with the song, and it was rather difficult—a mournful sort of recitative with sudden shifts into marching rhythm—and so the people sang the words over and over with her until they had almost learned the tune. You can imagine how a Frenchman—he was a young fellow, who lived in a rear tenement over on the other side of Montmartre—would write that song. The little boy, who was going to "free his brothers back there in Alsace" when he grew up, playing soldier—"Joyeux, il murmurait: Je suis petit, en somme, Mais viendra bien le jour, ou je serai un homme, Ardeat! Vaillanti..."—the Prussians—monstres odieux—smashing into the village, the cry "Maman! Maman!"—and after each verse a pause, and slowly and lower down, with the crowd joining in, "Petit—enfant" ("Little boy, close your big blue eyes, for the bandits are hideous and cruel, and they will kill you if they read your brave thoughts") "ferme tes grands yeux bleus."
The violins mixed with the voices of the market-women, crying their artichokes and haricots, and above them rang—"Ardent! Vaillant! ..." Audit might have been the voice of Paris itself, lying down there in her mist, Paris of lost Alsace and hopeless revanche, of ardor and charm crushed once, as they might be again, as the voice of that pale girl in black, with her air of coming from lights and cigarette smoke, and of these simple mothers rose above the noise of the street, half dirge, half battle-cry, while out beyond somewhere the little soldiers in red breeches were fighting, and the fate of France hung in the balance, that morning.
After The Marne
At the end of the village the road climbed again from the ravine and emerged on open fields. A wall of timber, dark and impenetrable as the woods round an old chateau, rose at the farther end of these fields—the road cutting through it like a tunnel—and on the brow of the ravine, commanding the road and the little plain, was a line of trenches. Here evidently they had fought.
We walked on down the road. Below the northern horizon, where they were fighting now along the Aisne, rolled the sullen thunder of artillery, as it had been rolling since daylight. And the autumn wind, cold with the week of equinoctial rain, puffing out of thickets and across ravines, brought, every now and then, the horrible odor of death.
Ahead, to the right, one caught the glint of a French infantry's red trousers. A man was lying there, face downward, on the field. Then across the open space appeared another—and another—they were scattered all over that field, bright as the red poppies which were growing in the stubble and as still. They were in various positions. One lay on his back, with one knee raised like a man day-dreaming and looking up at the sky. Another was stretched stiff, with both hands clinched over his chest. One lay in the ditch close beside us, his head jammed into the muddy bank just as he had dived there in falling; another gripped a cup in one hand and a spoon in the other, as if, perhaps, he might have tried to feed himself in the long hours after the battle rolled on and left them there.
All these were French, but just at the edge of the thick timber was a heap—one could scarcely say of Germans, so utterly did the gray, sodden faces and sodden, gray uniforms merge into anonymity. A squad of French soldiers appeared at a turn in the road. Two officers rode beside them, and they were just moving off across the fields carrying shovels instead of rifles. Looking after them, beyond the belt of timber, one could see other parties like theirs on the distant slopes to the left, and here and there smoke. Two more French soldiers appeared pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cast-off arms. With the boyish good nature which never seems to desert these little men in red and blue, they stopped and offered us a few clips of German cartridges. They were burying their own men, they said, burning the Germans. The dead had been lying here for nearly a fortnight now while the battle line rolled northward, clear across France.
We turned back toward Crepy, passing again through the shattered village of Betz. For three days it had been the centre of a battle, the two forces lying outside it and shelling each other across the town. The main street, now full of French soldiers, was in ruins, the church on the edge of the ravine smashed and gaping, and a few peasant women stood about, arms folded patiently, telling each other over and over again what they had seen.
Past fields, where the wheat still waited to be stacked and thrashed, past the carcasses of horses sprawled stiff-legged in the ditch or in the stubble, we tramped on to Crepy-en-Valois. The country was empty, scoured by the flood that had swept across it, rolled back again, and now was thundering, foot by foot, farther and farther below the horizon to the north. The little hotel across from the railroad station in Crepy had kept open through it all. It was the typical Hotel de la Gare of these little old towns—a bar and coffee-room down-stairs, where the proprietor and his wife and daughters served their fleeting guests, a few chambers up-stairs, where one slept between heavy homespun sheets and under a feather bed. They were used to change, and the mere coming of armies could not be permitted to derange them.
Within a fortnight that little coffee-room of theirs had been crowded with English soldiers in retreat; then with Germans—stern, on edge, sure of being in Paris in a few days; then with the same Germans falling back, a trifle dismayed but in good order, and then the pursuing French. And now they were serving the men from the troop-trains that kept pouring up toward the Aisne, or those of the wounded who could hobble over from the hospital trains that as steadily kept pouring down.
Sometimes they coined money, and, again, when the locomotive unexpectedly whistled, saw a roomful of noisy men go galloping away, leaving a laugh and a few sous behind. Madame would come in from the kitchen, raise her arms and sigh something about closing their doors, but, after all, they knew they should keep right on giving as long as they had anything to give. One of their daughters, a strapping, light-hearted colt of a girl, told us some of the things they had seen as she paused in the hall after preparing our rooms. Her sister stood beside her, and together they declaimed in an inimitable sort of recitative.
How the English soldiers had come in, all laughing, and the young officers so handsome; but the German soldiers were all like this—and the young woman gave a quick gesture as of one taking nose and mouth in her hand and pulling it stiffly down a bit. The French officers and their men were like fathers and sons, but the Germans had a discipline you would not believe—she had seen one officer strike a man with his whip, she said, because he was not marching fast enough, and another, when a soldier had come too near, had kicked him. And they all thought surely they were going into Paris—"Two days more," they had laughed as they drank down-stairs, "Paris, and then—kaput!"
You can imagine that gray horde rolling through the streets—narrow, cobblestoned streets, with steep-roofed stone houses and queer little courts, and the air over all of having been lived in for generations on generations. There is the remnant in Crepy of one of the houses that used to belong to the Dukes of Valois, and at the end of one winding street you find yourself unexpectedly looking through a grilled iron gateway into the ordered stateliness of an old-time chateau. On the outward side the walls of the chateau garden drop a sheer thirty or forty feet to the edge of the ravine. What a place to wait for an approaching enemy, one thinks, walking underneath; and the Germans evidently thought so too, for from this part of town they carefully kept away. They burned one house, that of a dressmaker so unfortunate as to live next door to a shop in which arms were sold, they pillaged the houses whose owners had run away, and they ordered the town to pay them one hundred thousand francs, but those townspeople who had the fortitude to stay behind were not molested. The enemy were even polite, one woman told us—"Pas peur!" said the officer who visited her house, taking off his hat. On the gate of another house was scrawled in German script, "Sick Woman—keep away!" and as we passed the open windows, sure enough there was the pale young mother lying propped up in bed just as she had been when the Germans came.
On another door we read, also in German script, "Good people—they give everything!" and on several were orders to leave those within alone. And there was a curious and touching irony in that phrase: "Gute Leute— Schoenen!" chalked in stiff script by those now fighting for their lives to the north of us and likely never to see their fatherland again.
Crepy-en-Valois, more fortunate than some of the towns, whose mayors were dismissed for revealing "a lamentable absence of sang-froid," had a mayor who stuck to his post. He was there when three-fourths of the village had fled and, getting up from a sick-bed to receive the German commander, he saw that the latter's orders were carried out, and signed the order for the town's ransom while his daughter held smelling-salts under his nose.
Whether the mayor of the old town of Senlis, a few miles west of Crepy, was in any way tactless is scarcely of importance now, in so far as it concerns him for he and the other hostages were shot, and, however little good it may have done anybody, he at least gave France his life. It is said that his order to the townspeople to turn in their arms was not completely obeyed. It was also said—and this several people of Senlis told us—that a few Senegalese, lagging behind as the French left, fired on the Germans as they approached, and that it was possible that one or two excited civilians had joined in.
Granting that civilians did fire after hostages had been given, there remains the question of reprisal. It was the German commander's idea that Senlis should be taught a lesson, and this consisted of shooting the mayor and the hostages, and sacking and burning the main street—a half mile, perhaps—from end to end. The idea was carried out with thoroughness, and men ran along from house to house feeding the flames with petroleum and even burning a handsome new country house which stood apart at one end.
A nice-looking, elderly gentleman whom we met in front of the ruined Hotel du Nord said that the Germans came there and, finding champagne in the cellar after the maitre d'hotel had told them there wasn't any, set fire to the hotel, and, as I recall it, shot him. How true such stories are I cannot say, but there was no doubt that Senlis had been punished. At least half of the old city on the banks of the wistful Nonette—it is a much larger place than Crepy, with a cathedral of some consequence— was smashed as utterly as it might have been by a cyclone or an earthquake. The systematic manner in which this was done was suggested by the fact that, in the long street running parallel to the one picked for destruction, nearly every door still carried its chalked order to "Schoenen." One house spared was that of a town fireman. "I've got five little children," he told the German soldiers. "They're one, two, three, four, five years old, and I'm expecting another." And they went on.
These were common sights and sounds of that gracious country north of Paris—deserted, perhaps demolished, villages; the silent countryside, with dead horses, bits of broken shell, smashed bicycles or artillery wagons along the road; and the tainted autumn wind. Along the level French roads, under their arches of elms or poplars, covered carts on tall wheels, drawn by two big farm horses harnessed one behind another, and loaded with women, children, and household goods, were beginning to move northward as they had moved south three weeks before. Trains, similarly packed, were creeping up to within ear-shot of the constant cannonading, and it was on one of these trains that we had come.
In Paris, recovered now from the dismay of three weeks before, keen French imaginations were daily turning the war into terms of heroism and sacrifice and military glory. Even editors and play-writers fighting at the front were able to send back impressions now and then, and these, stripped by the censorship of names and dates, became almost as impersonal as pages torn from fiction. Sitting comfortably at some cafe table, reading the papers with morning coffee, one saw the dawn coming up over the Oise and Aisne, heard the French "seventy-fives" and the heavy German siege-guns resume their roar; saw again, for the hundredth time, some hitherto unheard-of little man flinging away his life in one brief burst of glory. And these thrills, repeated over and over again, without sight or sound of the concrete facts, in that strange, still city whose usual life had stopped, produced at last a curious sense of unreality. Meaux became as far away as Waterloo, and one read words that had been spoken yesterday exactly as one reads that the old guard dies but never surrenders.
A man could leave the Cafe de la Paix and in two hours be under fire, where killing was as matter of fact as driving tacks. And in between these two zones—the zone where war was at once a highly organized business and a splendid, terrible game, and that in which its disjointed, horrible surfaces were being turned into abstractions, into ideas, poetry, rhetoric—was this middle ground through which we were now tramping, where one saw only its silence and ruin and desolation.
We returned to Crepy. All that night the trains went clanking through the station, pouring more men—Frenchmen, Englishmen—into the sodden trenches along the Aisne. For a week it had rained, cold shower following cold shower. In Paris shivering concierges closed their doors in the middle of the day in mournful attempts to keep warm—autumn's quick sequel to the almost torrid heat in which the armies had fought across this same country a fortnight before. It was into trenches half filled with water that the new men were going—Frenchmen trundling over to the bar in big overcoats, with their air of good little boy, to go galloping back with a bottle of red wine and a long loaf of bread; Englishmen, noisy, laughing, trying to talk French with their fingers and wanting a nip of brandy or hot water for their tea.
There were Highlanders among them, men with necks like towers and straight, flat backs and a swing of the shoulders—like band music going past. One watched them stride back to their cars with a sort of pang. What grotesque irony that men like these, who in times when war was man's normal business might have fought their way through, must now, with all the diseased and hopeless bodies encumbering the earth, be cut off by a mere wad of unthinking lead!
All that night it rained, and, through the rain and dark, trains kept pouring on up into the terrible north. Once I heard cattle lowing as their cars clanked past, and again, in the gloomy clairvoyance of night, saw the faces on the field at Betz, beaten on by the rain that had beaten them for days. And just before a feeble daylight returned again, the steady rumble of artillery.
After noon there was a break in the clouds, and we started on foot for Villers-Cotterets, some fifteen kilometres away. The hard macadam road was no more than dampened, and ambulances and motor-trucks went scooting by as on a city street. Occasionally there was an abandoned trench, once a broken caisson, and the wreck of an aeroplane, but the wheat was harvested and stacked. Beyond Vaumoise the country grew more hilly, and the caves and quarries, which the Germans were making such effective use of along the Aisne, began to appear.
And all this time the cannon were thundering—so close that it seemed each hilltop would bring them into view, and as the detonation puffed across the landscape, one even fancied one could feel the concussion in one's ear. Up from a field ahead of us an aeroplane rose and, in a wide spiral, went climbing up the sky, now almost cleared, and presently disappeared in the north. Then, after satisfying a sentry that our papers were correct—such things could be done in those first days—we got into Villers-Cotterets. Instead of deserted houses we found that nearly every house was quartering soldiers. There were infantrymen, dragoons, flyers, Senegalese, Algerians in white turbans and burnooses on their desert horses, and everywhere officers. We had stumbled into a headquarters!
With somewhat the sensation of walking a tight rope, we sought the mayor to ask for permission to stay in town—finally to ask for safe-conducts to Soissons. The charming old gentleman, undisturbed by war's alarms, politely made them out.
Presently in a hotel full of officers we came on three civilians calmly eating dinner. They had arrived by train, although there were no trains for civilians; they were now dining at a long table set for officers from which we had a moment before been turned away; and we were rescued by a mysterious being at the head of the table—a dark, bald, bright-eyed, smiling, sanguine gentleman, who might have been an impresario or a press agent, and continually had the air of saying, as from time to time he actually said: "Ssst! Leave it all to me!"
He was an American, he said, but spoke vernacular French. The other two civilians were a London chartered accountant and a Canadian volunteer—a young Oxford man—waiting for his regiment. Across the table, a big French dragoon, just in from the firing-line, his horsetail helmet on the chair beside him, was also dining. This man was as different from the little infantrymen we had so often seen as the air of that town was different from deserted Paris. Just as he was, he might have stepped— or ridden, rather—from some cavalry charge by Meissonier or Detaille; a splendid fellow—head to spurs, all soldier.
After weeks of newspaper rhetoric and windy civilian partisanship, it was like water in the desert to listen to him—straight talk from a professional fighting man, modest, level-headed, and, like most fighting men, as contrasted with those who stay at home and write about fighting, ready to give a brave enemy his due. The German retirement was not at all a rout. When an army is in flight it leaves baggage and equipment behind, guns in the mud. The Germans had left very little; they were falling back in good order. Their soldiers were good fighters, especially when well led. They might lack the individual initiative of Frenchmen, the nervous energy with which Frenchmen would keep on fighting after mere bone and muscle had had enough, but they had plenty of courage. Their officers—the dragoon paused. Yesterday, he said, they had run into a troop of cavalry. The German officer ordered his men to charge, and instead they wavered and started to fall back. He turned on them. "Schweinhunde!" he shouted after them, and, flinging his horse about, charged alone, straight at the French lances.
"Kill him?" asked the man at the head of the table.
The dragoon nodded. "It was a pity. Joli garcon he was"—he ran a hand round a weather-beaten cheek as if to suggest the other's well-made face—"monocle in his eye—and he never let go of it until it fell off— a lance through his heart."
As we talked two secret-service-men entered, demanded our papers, examined them, and directed us to call at the Maine for them next morning at eight o'clock. Now, indeed, we were walking a tight rope. Following the genius who had got us our suppers, we emerged into the dark street, walked down it a few doors, entered a courtyard full of cavalry horses, where men in spurred boots were clanking up and down stairs. He thrust a heavy key into a lock, opened a door and ushered us into an empty and elegantly furnished house.
Here was a sombre dining-room with decanters and glasses, bedrooms with satin down quilts spread over the foot of the bed, and adjoining one of them a dressing-room with pomades and perfumes and rows of boots just as its owner had left it. Who he might be, why we should be here, how our mysterious, conductor—who knew no one in Villers-Cotteret and had but landed there himself that night—had arranged this occupation, was beyond finding out. At the moment, with military motor-trucks rumbling past outside, soldiers coming and going in the court and tramping about in the room overhead—an extension of the adjoining house—one scarcely thought of trying to find out. One merely accepted it, enchained by that uplifted finger and "Leave it to me!" For a time we talked under the dining-room light, with doors bolted and wooden shutters on street and courtyard closed, as if we were conspirators in Russian melodrama, and then we slept.
The Germans were evidently much nearer than Paris had supposed, and we should not have been greatly surprised to find them in the streets next morning. It was an Algerian horseman, however, muffled up in his dingy white and looking rather chilly, who was riding past the window as I first looked out.
We went to the Mairie—not the grandfatherly old mayor this time, but a sharp-eyed special commissioner of police.
"After all," said he, when we had put our case, "you want to get as near the front as possible."
True, I answered, we did.
"Well," he said, with a gesture at once final and wholly French, "you are already farther than that. You are inside the lines." He crossed out the safe-conduct and on the laissez-passer wrote: "Good for immediate return to Paris," and carefully set down the date. Half an hour later we were well on the road to Crepy, with the thunder which had drawn us hither rolling fainter and fainter in the north.
The Fall Of Antwerp
The storm which was to burst over Antwerp the following night was gathering fast when we arrived on Tuesday morning. Army motor-trucks loaded with dismantled aeroplanes, and the less essential impedimenta screamed through the streets bound away from, not toward, the front. The Queen, that afternoon, was seen in the Hotel St. Antoine receiving the good-bys of various friends. Consuls suddenly locked their doors and fled. And the cannon rumbling along the eastern horizon as they had rumbled, nearer and nearer, for a fortnight, were now beyond the outer line of forts and within striking distance of the town. That night, an hour or two after midnight, in my hotel by the water-front, I awoke to the steady clatter of hoofs on cobblestones and the rumble of wheels. I went to the window, on the narrow side street, black as all streets had been in Antwerp since the night that the Zeppelin threw its first bombs, and looked out. It was a moonlight night, clear and cold, and there along the Quai St. Michael, at the end of the street, was an army in retreat. They were Belgians, battered and worn out with their unbroken weeks of hopeless fighting; cavalrymen on their tired horses, artillerymen, heads sunk on their chests, drowsing on their lurching caissons; the patient little foot-soldiers, rifles slung across their shoulders, scuffling along in their heavy overcoats.
In the dark shadow of the tall old houses a few people came out and stood there watching silently, and, as one felt, in a sort of despair. All night long men were marching by—and in London they were still reading that it was but a "demonstration" the Germans were engaged in— down the quay and across the pontoon bridge—the only way over the Scheldt—over to the Tete-de-Flandres and the road to Ghent. They were strung along the street next morning, boots mud-covered, mud-stained, intrenching shovels hanging to their belts, faces unshaven for weeks, just as they had come from the trenches; yet still patient and cheerful, with that unshakable Flemish good cheer. Perhaps, after all, it was not a retreat; they might be swinging round to the south and St. Nicholas to attack the German flank...
But before they had crossed, another army, a civilian army, flowed down on and over the quay. For a week people had been leaving Antwerp, now the general flight began. From villages to the east and southeast, from the city itself, people came pouring down. In wagons drawn by huge Belgian draft-horses, in carts pulled by the captivating Belgian work dogs, panting mightily and digging their paws into the slippery cobbles; on foot, leading little children and carrying babies and dolls and canaries and great bundles of clothes and household things wrapped in sheets, they surged toward that one narrow bridge and the crowded ferry-boats. I saw one old woman, gray-haired and tanned like an Indian squaw with work in the fields, yet with a fine, well-made face, pushing a groaning wheelbarrow. A strap went from the handles over her shoulders, and, stopping now and then to ask the news, she would slip off this harness, gossip for a time, then push on again. That afternoon under my window there was a tall wagon, a sort of hay wagon, in which there were twenty-two little tow-headed children, none more than eight or ten and several almost babies in arms. By the side of the wagon a man, evidently father of some of them, stood buttering the end of a huge round loaf of bread and cutting off slice after slice, which the older children broke and distributed to the little ones. Two cows were tied to the back of the wagon and the man's wife squatted there milking them. All along the quay and in the streets leading into it were people like this—harmless, helpless, hard-working people, going they knew not where. The entrance to the bridge was soon choked. One went away and returned an hour later and found the same people waiting almost in the same spot, and, with that wonderful calm and patience of theirs, feeding their children or giving a little of their precious hay to the horses, quietly waiting their turn while the cannon which had driven them from their homes kept on thundering behind them.
That afternoon I walked up-town through the shuttered, silent streets— silent but for that incessant rumbling in the southeast and the occasional honking flight of some military automobile—to two of the hospitals. In one, a British hospital on the Boulevard Leopold, the doctor in charge was absent for the moment, and there was no one to answer my offer of occasional help if an outsider could be of use. As I sat waiting a tall, brisk Englishwoman, in nurse's uniform, came up and asked what I wanted. I told her.
"Oh," she said, and in her crisp, English voice, without further ado, "will you help me with a leg?"
She led the way into her ward, and there we contrived between us to bandage and slip a board and pillow under a fractured thigh. Between whispers of "Courage! Courage!" to the Belgian soldier, she said that she was the wife of a British general and had two sons in the army, and a third—"Poor boy!" she murmured, more to him than to me—on one of the ships in the North Sea. I arranged to come back next morning to help with the lifting, and went on to another hospital in the Rue Nerviens, to find that little English lady who crossed with me in the Ostend boat in August on the way to her sister's hospital in Antwerp.
Here in the quiet wards she had been working while the Germans swept down on Paris and were rolled back again, and while the little nation which she and her sister loved so well was being clubbed to its knees.
Louvain, Liege, Malines, Namur—chapters in all the long, pitiless story were lying there in the narrow iron beds. There were men with faces chewed by shrapnel, men burned in the explosion of the powder magazine at Fort Waelhem, when the attack on Antwerp began—dragged out from the underground passage in which the garrison had sought momentary refuge and where most of them were killed, burned, and blackened. One strong, good-looking young fellow, able to eat and live apparently, was shot through the temples and blind in both eyes. It was the hour for carrying those well enough to stand it out into the court and giving them their afternoon's airing and smoke. One had lost an arm, another, a whimsical young Belgian, had only the stump of a left leg. When we started to lift him back into his bed, he said he had a better way than that. So he put his arms round my neck and showed me how to take him by the back and the well leg.
"Bon!" he said, and again "Bon!" when I let him down, and then, reaching out and patting me on the back, "Bon!" he smiled again.
That night, behind drawn curtains which admitted no light to the street, we dined peacefully and well, and, except for this unwonted seclusion, just outside which were the black streets and still the endless procession of carts and wagons and shivering people, one might have forgotten, in that cheerfully lighted room, that we were not in times of peace. We even loitered over a grate fire before going to bed, and talked in drowsy and almost indifferent fashion of whether it was absolutely sure that the Germans were trying to take the town.
It was almost exactly midnight that I found myself listening, half awake, to the familiar sound of distant cannon. One had come to think of it, almost, as nothing but a sound; and to listen with a detached and not unpleasant interest as a man tucked comfortably in bed follows a roll of thunder to its end or listens to the fall of rain.
It struck me suddenly that there was something new about this sound; I sat up in bed to listen, and at that instant a far-off, sullen "Boom !" was followed by a crash as if lightning had struck a house a little way down the street. As I hurried to the window there came another far-off detonation, a curious wailing whistle swept across the sky, and over behind the roofs to the left there was another crash.
One after another they came, at intervals of half a minute, or screaming on each other's heels as if racing to their goal. And then the crash or, if farther away, muffled explosion as another roof toppled in or cornice dropped off, as a house made of canvas drops to pieces in a play.
The effect of those unearthly wails, suddenly singing in across country in the dead of night from six—eight—ten miles away—Heaven knows where—was, as the Germans intended it to be, tremendous. It is not easy to describe nor to be imagined by those who had not lived in that threatened city—the last Belgian stronghold—and felt that vast, unseen power rolling nearer and nearer. And now, all at once, it was here, materialized, demoniacal, a flying death, swooping across the dark into your very room.
It was like one of those dreams in which you cannot stir from your tracks, and meanwhile "Boom... Tzee-ee-ee-ee !"—is this one meant for you?
Already there was a patter of feet in the dark, and people with white bundles on their backs went stumbling by toward the river and the bridge. Motors came honking down from the inner streets, and the quay, which had begun to clear by this time, was again jammed. I threw on some clothes, hurried to the street. A rank smell of kerosene hung in the air; presently a petrol shell burst to the southward, lighting up the sky for an instant like the flare from a blast-furnace, and a few moments later there showed over the roofs the flames of the first fire.
Although we could hear the wail of shells flying across their wide parabola both into the town and out from the first ring of forts, few burst in our part of the city that night, and we walked up as far as the cathedral without seeing anything but black and silent streets. Every one in the hotel was up and dressed by this time. Some were for leaving at once; one family, piloted by the comfortable Belgian servants—far cooler than any one else—went to the cellar, some gathered about the grate in the writing-room to watch the night out; the rest of us went back to bed.
There wasn't much sleep for any one that night. The bombardment kept on until morning, lulled slightly, as if the enemy might be taking breakfast, then it continued into the, next day. And now the city—a busy city of nearly four hundred thousand people—emptied itself in earnest. Citizens and soldiers, field-guns, motor-trucks, wheelbarrows, dog-carts, hay-ricks, baby-carriages, droves of people on foot, all flowing down to the Scheldt, the ferries, and the bridge. They poured into coal barges, filling the yawning black holes as Africans used to fill slave-ships, into launches and tugs, and along the roads leading down the river and southwestward toward Ostend.
One thought with a shudder of what would happen if the Germans dropped a few of their shells into that helpless mob, and it is only fair to remember that they did not, although retreating Belgian soldiers were a part of it, and one of the German aeroplanes, a mere speck against the blue, was looking calmly down overhead. Nor did they touch the cathedral, and their agreement not to shell any of the buildings previously pointed out on a map delivered to them through the American Legation seemed to be observed.
Down through that mass of fugitives pushed a London motor-bus ambulance with several wounded British soldiers, one of them sitting upright, supporting with his right hand a left arm, the biceps, bound in a blood-soaked tourniquet, half torn away. They had come in from the trenches, where their comrades were now waiting, with their helpless little rifles, for an enemy, miles away, who lay back at his ease and pounded them with his big guns. I asked them how things were going, and they said not very well. They could only wait until the German aeroplanes had given the range and the trenches became too hot, then fall back, dig themselves in, and play the same game over again.
Following them was a hospital-service motor-car, driven by a Belgian soldier and in charge of a young British officer. It was his present duty to motor from trench to trench across the zone of fire, with the London bus trailing behind, and pick up wounded. It wasn't a particularly pleasant job, he said, jerking his head toward the distant firing, and frankly he wasn't keen about it. We talked for some time, every one talked to every one else in Antwerp that morning, and when he started out again I asked him to give me a lift to the edge of town.
Quickly we raced through the Place de Meir and the deserted streets of the politer part of Antwerp, where, the night before, most of the shells had fallen. We went crackling over broken glass, past gaping cornices and holes in the pavement, five feet across and three feet deep, and once passed a house quietly burning away with none to so much as watch the fire. The city wall, along which are the first line of forts, drew near, then the tunnel passing under it, and we went through without pausing and on down the road to Malines. We were beyond the town now, bowling rapidly out into the flat Belgian country, and, clinging there to the running-board with the October wind blowing quite through a thin flannel suit, it suddenly came over me that things had moved very fast in the last five minutes, and that all at once, in some unexpected fashion, all that elaborate barrier of laissez-passers, sauf-conduits, and so on, had been swept aside, and, quite as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, I was spinning out to that almost mythical "front."
Front, indeed! It was two fronts. There was an explosion just behind us, a hideous noise overhead, as if the whole zenith had somehow been ripped across like a tightly stretched piece of silk, and a shell from the Belgian fort under which we had just passed went hurtling down long aisles of air—farther—farther—to end in a faint detonation miles away.
Out of sight in front of us, there was an answering thud, and— "Tzee-ee-ee-er-r-r-ong!"—a German shell had gone over us and burst behind the Belgian fort. Under this gigantic antiphony the motor-car raced along, curiously small and irrelevant on that empty country road.
We passed great holes freshly made, neatly blown out of the macadam, then a dead horse. There were plenty of dead horses along the roads in France, but they had been so for days. This one's blood was not yet dry, and the shell that had torn the great rip in its chest must have struck here this morning.
We turned into the avenue of trees leading up to an empty chateau, a field-hospital until a few hours before. Mattresses and bandages littered the deserted room, and an electric chandelier was still burning. The young officer pointed to some trenches in the garden. "I had those dug to put the wounded in in case we had to hold the place," he said. "It was getting pretty hot."
There was nothing here now, however, and, followed by the London bus with its obedient enlisted men doing duty as ambulance orderlies, we motored a mile or so farther on to the nearest trench. It was in an orchard beside a brick farmhouse with a vista in front of barbed-wire entanglement and a carefully cleaned firing field stretching out to a village and trees about half a mile away. They had looked very interesting and difficult, those barbed-wire mazes and suburbs, ruthlessly swept of trees and houses, when I had seen the Belgians preparing for the siege six weeks before, and they were to be of about as much practical use now as pictures on a wall.
There are, it will be recalled, three lines of forts about Antwerp—the inner one, corresponding to the city's wall; a middle one a few miles farther out, where the British now were; and the outer line, which the enemy had already passed. Their artillery was hidden far over behind the horizon trees, and the British marines and naval-reserve men who manned these trenches could only wait there, rifle in hand, for an enemy that would not come, while a captive balloon a mile or two away to the eastward and an aeroplane sailing far overhead gave the ranges, and they waited for the shrapnel to burst. The trenches were hasty affairs, narrow and shoulder-deep, very like trenches for gas or water pipes, and reasonably safe except when a shell burst directly overhead. One had struck that morning just on the inner rim of the trench, blown out one of those crater-like holes, and discharged all its shrapnel backward across the trench and into one of the heavy timbers supporting a bombproof roof. A raincoat hanging to a nail in this timber was literally shot to shreds. "That's where I was standing," said the young lieutenant in command, pointing with a dry smile to a spot not more than a yard from where the shell had burst.
Half a dozen young fellows, crouched there in the bomb-proof, looked out at us and grinned. They were brand-new soldiers, some of them, boys from the London streets who had answered the thrilling posters and signs, "Your King and Country Need You," and been sent on this ill-fated expedition for their first sight of war. The London papers are talking about it as I am writing this—how this handful of nine thousand men, part of them recruits who scarcely knew one end of a rifle from another, were flung across the Channel on Sunday night and rushed up to the front to be shot at and rushed back again. I did not know this then, but wondered if this was what they had dreamed of—squatting helplessly in a ditch until another order came to retire—when they swung through the London streets singing "It's a long, long way to Tipperary" two months before.
Yet not one of the youngest and the greenest showed the least nervousness as they waited there in that melancholy little orchard under the incessant scream of shells. That unshakable British coolness, part sheer pluck, part a sort of lack of imagination, perhaps, or at least of "nerves," left them as calm and casual as if they were but drilling on the turf of Hyde Park. And with it persisted that almost equally unshakable sense of class, that touching confidence in one's superiors— the young clerk's or mechanic's inborn conviction that whatever that smart, clean-cut, imperturbable young officer does and says must inevitably be right—at least, that if he is cool and serene you must, if the skies fall, be cool and serene too.
We met one young fellow as we walked through an empty lateral leading to a bomb-proof prepared for wounded, and the ambulance officer asked him sharply how things had been going that morning.
"Oh, very well, sir," he said with the most respectful good humor, though a shell bursting just then a stone's throw beyond the orchard made both of us duck our heads. "A bit hot, sir, about nine o'clock, but only one man hurt. They do seem to know just where we are, sir; but wait till their infantry comes up—we'll clean them out right enough, sir."
And, if he had been ordered to stay there and hold the trench alone, one could imagine him saying, in that same tone of deference and chipper good humor, "Yes, sir; thank you, sir," and staying, too, till the cows came home.
We motored down the line to another trench—this one along a road with fields in front and, about a couple of hundred yards behind, a clump of trees which masked a Belgian battery. The officer here, a tall, upstanding, gravely handsome young man, with a deep, strong, slightly humorous voice, and the air of one both born to and used to command—the best type of navy man—came over to meet us, rather glad, it seemed, to see some one. The ambulance officer had just started to speak when there was a roar from the clump of trees, at the same instant an explosion directly overhead, and an ugly chunk of iron—a bit of broken casing from a shrapnel shell—plunged at our very feet. The shell had been wrongly timed and exploded prematurely.
"I say!" the lieutenant called out to a Belgian officer standing not far away, "can't you telephone over to your people to stop that? That's the third time we've been nearly hit by their shrapnel this morning. After all"—he turned to us with the air of apologizing somewhat for his display of irritation—"it's quite annoying enough here without that, you know."
It was, indeed, annoying—very. The trenches were not under fire in the sense that the enemy were making a persistent effort to clear them out, but they were in the zone of fire, their range was known, and there was no telling, when that distant boom thudded across the fields, whether that particular shell might be intended for them or for somebody's house in town.
We could see in the distance their captive balloon, and there were a couple of scouts, the officer said, in a tower in the village, not much more than half a mile away. He pointed to the spot across the barbed wire. "We've been trying to get them for the last half-hour."
We left them engaged in this interesting distraction, the little rifle-snaps in all that mighty thundering seeming only to accent the loneliness and helplessness of their position, and spun on down the transverse road, toward another trench. The progress of the motor seemed slow and disappointing. Not that the spot a quarter of a mile off was at all less likely to be hit, yet one felt conscious of a growing desire to be somewhere else. And, though I took off my hat to keep it from blowing off, I found that every time a shell went over I promptly put it on again, indicating, one suspected, a decline in what the military experts call morale.
As we bowled down the road toward a group of brick houses on the left, a shell passed not more than fifty yards in front of us and through the side of one of these houses as easily as a circus rider pops through a tissue-paper hoop. Almost at the same instant another exploded—where, I haven't the least idea, except that the dust from it hit us in the face. The motor rolled smoothly along meanwhile, and the Belgian soldier driving it stared as imperturbably ahead of him as if he were back at Antwerp on the seat of his taxicab.
You get used to shells in time, it seems, and, deciding that you either are or are not going to be hit, dismiss responsibility and leave it all to fate. I must admit that in my brief experience I was not able to arrive at this restful state. We reached at last the city gate through which we had left Antwerp, and the motor came to a stop just at the inner edge of the passage under the fort, and I said good-by to the young Englishman ere he started back for the trenches again.
"Well," he called after me as I started across the open space between the gate and the houses, a stone's throw away, "you've had an experience anyway."
I was just about to answer that undoubtedly I had when— "Tzee-ee-ee-er-r"—a shell just cleared the ramparts over our heads and disappeared in the side of a house directly in front of us with a roar and a geyser of dust. Neither the motor nor a guest's duty now detained me, and, waving him good-by, I turned at right angles and made with true civilian speed for the shelter of a side street.
The shells all appeared to be coming from a southeast direction, and in the lee of houses on the south side of the street one was reasonably protected. Keeping close to the house-fronts and dodging—rather absurdly, no doubt—into doorways when that wailing whistle came up from behind, I went zigzagging through the deserted city toward the hotel on the other side of town.
It was such a progress as one might make in some fantastic nightmare—as the hero of some eerie piece of fiction about the Last Man in the World. Street after street, with doors locked, shutters closed, sandbags, mattresses, or little heaps of earth piled over cellar windows; streets in which the only sound was that of one's own feet, where the loneliness was made more lonely by some forgotten dog cringing against the closed door and barking nervously as one hurried past.
Here, where most of the shells had fallen the preceding night, nearly all the houses were empty. Yet occasionally one caught sight of faces peering up from basement windows or of some stubborn householder standing in his southern doorway staring into space. Once I passed a woman bound away from, instead of toward, the river with her big bundle; and once an open carriage with a family in it driving, with peculiarly Flemish composure, toward the quay, and as I hurried past the park, along the Avenue Van Dyck—where fresh craters made by exploding shells had been dug in the turf—the swans, still floating on the little lake, placidly dipped their white necks under water as if it were a quiet morning in May.
Now and then, as the shell's wail swung over its long parabola, there came with the detonation, across the roofs, the rumble of falling masonry. Once I passed a house quietly burning, and on the pavement were lopped-off trees. The impartiality with which those far-off gunners distributed their attentions was disconcerting. Peering down one of the up-and-down streets before crossing it, as if a shell were an automobile which you might see and dodge, you would shoot across and, turning into a cosey little side street, think to yourself that here at least they had not come, and then promptly see, squarely in front, another of those craters blown down through the Belgian blocks.
Presently I found myself under the trees of the Boulevard Leopold, not far from the British hospital, and recalled that it was about time that promise was made good. It was time indeed, and help with lifting they needed very literally. The order had just come to leave the building, bringing the wounded and such equipment as they could pack into half a dozen motor-buses and retire—just where, I did not hear—in the direction of Ghent. As I entered the porte-cochere two poor wrecks of war were being led out by their nurses—more men burned in the powder explosion at Waelhem, their seared faces and hands covered with oil and cotton just as they had been lifted from bed.
The phrase "whistle of shells" had taken on a new reality since midnight. Now one was to learn something of the meaning of those equally familiar words, "they succeeded in saving their wounded, although under heavy fire."
None of the wounded could walk, none dress himself; most of them in ordinary times would have lain where they were for weeks. There were fractured legs not yet set, men with faces half shot away, men half out of their heads, and all these had to be dressed somehow, covered up, crowded into or on top of the buses, and started off through a city under bombardment toward open country which might already be occupied by the enemy.
Bundles of uniforms, mud-stained, blood-stained, just as they had come from the trenches, were dumped out of the storeroom and distributed, hit or miss.
British "Tommies" went out as Belgians, Belgians in British khaki; the man whose broken leg I had lifted the day before we simply bundled in his bed blankets and set up in the corner of a bus. One healthy-looking Belgian boy, on whom I was trying to pull a pair of British trousers, seemed to have nothing at all the matter with him, until it presently appeared that he was speechless and paralyzed in both left arm and left leg. And while we were working, an English soldier, shot through the jaw and throat, sat on the edge of his bed, shaking with a hideous, rattling cough.
The hospital was in a handsome stone building, in ordinary times a club, perhaps, or a school; a wide, stone stairway led up the centre, and above it was a glass skylight. This central well would have been a charming place for a shell to drop into, and one did drop not more than fifty feet or so away, in or close to the rear court. A few yards down the avenue another shell hit a cornice and sent a ton or so of masonry crashing down on the sidewalk. Under conditions like these the nurses kept running up and down that staircase during the endless hour or two in which the wounded were being dressed and carried on stretchers to the street. They stood by the buses making their men comfortable, and when the first buses were filled they sat in the open street on top of them, patiently waiting, as calm and smiling as circus queens on their gilt chariots. The behavior of the men in the trenches was cool enough, but they at least were fighting men and but taking the chance of war. These were civilian volunteers, they had not even trenches to shelter them, and it took a rather unforeseen and difficult sort of courage to leave that fairly safe masonry building and sit smiling and helpful on top of a motor-bus during a wait of half an hour or so, any second of which might be one's last. There was an American nurse there, a tall, radiant girl, whom they called, and rightly, "Morning Glory," who had been introduced to me the day before because we both belonged to that curious foreign race of Americans. What her name was I haven't the least idea, and if we were to meet to-morrow, doubtless we should have to be carefully presented over again, but I remember calling out to her, "Good-by, American girl!" as we passed in the hall during the last minute or two, and she said good-by, and suddenly reached out and put her hand on my shoulder and added, "Good luck!" or "God bless you!" or something like that. And these seemed at the moment quite the usual things to do and say. The doctor in charge and the general's wife apologized for running away, as they called it, and the last I saw of the latter was as she waved back to me from the top of a bus, with just that look of concern over the desperate ride they were beginning which a slightly preoccupied hostess casts over a dinner-table about which are seated a number of oddly assorted guests.
The strange procession got away safely at last, and safely, too, so I was told later, across the river; but where they finally spent the night I never heard. I hurried down the street and into the Rue Nerviens. It must have been about four o'clock by that time. The bright October morning had changed to a chill and dismal afternoon, and up the western sky in the direction of the river a vast curtain of greasy, black smoke was rolling. The petrol-tanks along the Scheldt had been set afire. It looked at the moment as if the whole city might be going, but there was no time then to think of possibilities, and I slipped down the lee side of the street to the door with the Red Cross flag. The front of the hospital was shut tight. It took several pulls at the bell to bring any one, and inside I found a Belgian family who had left their own house for the thicker ceilings of the hospital, and the nuns back in the wards with their nervous men. Their servants had left that morning, the three or four sisters in charge had had to do all the cooking and housework as well as look after their patients, and now they were keeping calm and smiling, to subdue as best they could the fears of the Belgian wounded, who were ready to jump out of bed, whatever their condition, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. Each had no doubt that if he were not murdered outright he would be taken to Germany and forced to fight in the east against the Russians. Several, who knew very well what was going on outside, had been found by the nurses that morning out of bed and all ready to take to the street.
Lest they should hear that their comrades in the Boulevard Leopold had been moved, the lay sister—the English lady—and I withdrew to the operating-room, closed the door, and in that curious retreat talked over the situation. No orders had come to leave; in fact, they had been told to stay. They did have a man now in the shape of the Belgian gentleman, and from the same source an able-bodied servant, but how long these would stay, where food was to be found in that desolate city, when the bombardment would cease, and what the Germans would do with them—well, it was not a pleasant situation for a handful of women. But it was not of themselves she was thinking, but of their wounded and of Belgium, and of what both had suffered already and of what might yet be in store. It was of that this frail little sister talked that hopeless afternoon, while the smoke in the west spread farther up the sky, and she would now and then pause in the middle of a syllable while a shell sang overhead, then take it up again.
Meanwhile the light was going, and before it became quite dark and my hotel deserted, perhaps, as the rest of Antwerp, it seemed best to be getting across town. I could not believe that the Germans could treat such a place and people with anything but consideration and told the little nurse so. She came to the edge of the glass-covered court, laughingly saying I had best run across it, and wondering where we, who had met twice now under such curious circumstances, would meet again. Then she turned back to the ward—to wait with that roomful of more or less panicky men for the tramp of German soldiers and the knock on the door which meant that they were prisoners.
Hurrying across town, I passed, not far from the Hotel St. Antoine, a blazing four-story building. The cathedral was not touched, and indeed, in spite of the noise and terror, the material damage was comparatively slight. Soldiers were clearing the quay and setting a guard directly in front of our hotel—one of the few places in Antwerp that night where one could get so much as a crust of bread—and behind drawn curtains we made what cheer we could. There were two American photographers and a correspondent who had spent the night before in the cellar of a house, the upper story of which had been wrecked by a shell; a British intelligence officer, with the most bewildering way of hopping back and forth between a brown civilian suit and a spick-and-span new uniform; and several Belgian families hoping to get a boat down-stream in the morning.
We sat round the great fire in the hall, above which the architect, building for happier times, had had the bad grace to place a skylight, and discussed the time and means of getting away. The intelligence officer, not wishing to be made a prisoner, was for getting a boat of some sort at the first crack of dawn, and the photographers, who had had the roof blown off over their heads, heartily agreed with him. I did not like to leave without at least a glimpse of those spiked helmets nor to desert my friends in the Rue Nerviens, and yet there was the likelihood, if one remained, of being marooned indefinitely in the midst of the conquering army.