E-text prepared by A. Langley
IN THE CLAWS OF THE GERMAN EAGLE
ALBERT RHYS WILLIAMS
My thanks go to the Editors of The Outlook for permission to reproduce the articles which first appeared in that magazine.
Also to many friends all the way from Maverick to Pasadena. Above all to Frank Purchase, my comrade in the first weeks of the war and always.
Instead of a Preface
Part I The Spy-Hunters Of Belgium
Chapter I. A Little German Surprise Party II. Sweating Under The German Third Degree III. A Night On A Prison Floor IV. Roulette And Liberty
Part II On Foot With The German Army
V. The Gray Hordes Out Of The North VI. In The Black Wake Of The War VII. A Duelist From Marburg VIII. Thirty-Seven Miles In A Day
Part III With The War Photographers In Belgium
IX. How I Was Shot As A German Spy X. The Little Belgian Who Said, "You Betcha" XI. Atrocities And The Socialist
Part IV Love Among The Ruins
XII. The Beating Of "The General" XIII. America In The Arms Of France XIV. No-Man's-Land
Instead Of A Preface
The horrible and incomprehensible hates and brutalities of the European War! Unspeakable atrocities! Men blood-lusting like a lot of tigers!
Horrible they are indeed. But my experiences in the war zone render them no longer incomprehensible. For, while over there, in my own blood I felt the same raging beasts. Over there, in my own soul I knew the shattering of my most cherished principles.
It is not an unique experience. Whoever has been drawn into the center of the conflict has found himself swept by passions of whose presence and power he had never dreamed.
For example: I was a pacifist bred in the bone. Yet, caught in Paris at the outbreak of the war, my convictions underwent a rapid crumbling before the rising tide of French national feeling. The American Legion exercised a growing fascination over me. A little longer, and I might have been marching out to the music of the Marseillaise, dedicated to the killing of the Germans. Two weeks later I fell under the spell of the self-same Germans. That long gray column swinging on through Liege so mesmerized me that my natural revulsion against slaughter was changed to actual admiration.
Had an officer right then thrust a musket into my hand, I could have mechanically fallen into step and fared forth to the killing of the French. Such an experience makes one chary about dispensing counsels of perfection to those fighting in the vortex of the world-storm. Whenever I begin to get shocked at the black crimes of the belligerents, my own collapse lies there to accuse me.
It is in the spirit of a non-partisan, then, that this chronicle of adventure in those crucial days of the early war is written. It is a welter of experiences and reactions which the future may use as another first-hand document in casting up its own conclusions. There is no careful culling out of just those episodes which support a particular theory, such as the total and complete depravity of the German race.
Despite my British ancestry, the record tries to be impartial— without pro- or anti-German squint. If the reader had been in my skin, zigzagging his way through five different armies, the things which I saw are precisely the ones which he would have seen. So I am not to blame whether these episodes damn the Germans or bless them. Some do, and some don't. What one ran into was largely a matter of luck.
For example: In Brussels on September 27, 1914, I fell in with a lieutenant of the British army. With an American passport he had made his way into the city through the German lines. We both desired to see Louvain, but all passage thereto was for the moment forbidden. Starting out on the main road, however, sentry after sentry passed us along until we were halted near staff headquarters, a few miles out of the city, and taken before the commandant. We informed him of our overweening desire to view the ruins of Louvain. He explained, as sarcastically as he could, that war was not a social diversion, and bade us make a quick return to Brussels, swerving neither to the right nor left as we went.
As we were plodding wearily back, temptation suddenly loomed up on our right in the shape of a great gas-bag which we at first took to be a Zeppelin. It proved to be a stationary balloon which was acting as the eye of the artillery. It was signaling the range to the German gunners beneath, who were pounding away at the Belgians. In our excitement over the spectacle, we went plunging across fields until we gained a good view of the great swaying thing, tugging away at the slender filament of rope which bound it to the earth.
Sinking down into the grass, we were so intent upon the sharp electric signaling as to be oblivious to aught else, until a voice rang a harsh challenge from behind. Jumping to our feet, we faced a squad of German soldiers and an officer who said:
"What are you doing here?"
"Came out to see the big balloon," we somewhat naively informed him.
"Very good!" he said. And then, quite as if he were rewarding our manifest zeal for exploration, he added, "Come along with me and you can see the big commandant, too."
Three soldiers ahead and three behind, we were escorted down the railroad track in silence until we began to pass some cars filled with the recently wounded in a fearfully shot-to-pieces state. Some one mumbled "Englishmen!" and the whole crowd, bandaged and bleeding as they were, rose to the occasion and greeted us with derisive shouts.
"Put the blackguards to work," growled one.
"No! Kill the damn spies!" shouted another, as he pulled himself out of the straw, "kill them!"
A huge fellow almost wild from his wounds bellowed out: "Why don't you stick your bayonet into the cursed Englishmen?" No doubt it would have eased his pain a bit to see us getting a taste of the same thing he was suffering.
Our officer, as if to make concessions to this hue and cry, growled harshly: "Don't look around! Damn you! and take your hands out of your pockets!"
We heaved sighs of relief as we left this place of pain and hate behind. But a new terror took hold of us as a turn in the track brought our destination into view. It was the staff headquarters in which, two hours before, the commandant had ordered us to make direct return to Brussels.
"Wait here," said the officer as he walked inside.
We stood there trying to appear unconcerned while we cursed the exploring bent in our constitutions, and mentally composed farewell letters to the folks at home.
But luck does sometimes light upon the banners of the daring. It seems that in the two hours since we had left headquarters a complete change had been made in the staff. At any rate, an officer whom we had not seen before came out and addressed us in English. We told him that we were Americans.
"Well, let's see what you know about New York," he said.
We displayed an intensive knowledge of Coney Island and the Great White Way, which he deemed satisfactory.
"Nothing like them in Europe!" he assured us. "I did enjoy those ten years in America. I would do anything I could for one of you fellows."
He backed this up by straightway ordering our release, and authenticated his claim to American residence by his last shot:
"Now boys, beat it back to Brussels."
We stood not on the order of our beating, but beat at once.
One may pick out of such an experience precisely what one wishes to pick out: the imbecile hatred in the Teuton—the perfidy of the British—the efficiency or the blundering of the German—or perchance the foolhardiness of the American, just as his nationalistic bias leads him.
So, from the narratives in this book, one may select just the material which supports his theory as to the merits or demerits of any nation. To myself, out of these insights into the Great Calamity, there has come re-enforcement to my belief in the essential greatness of the human stuff in all nations. Along with this goes a faith that in the New Internationalism mankind will lay low the military Frankenstein that he has created, and realize the triumphant brotherhood of all human souls.
Part I The Spy-Hunters Of Belgium
A Little German Surprise Party
"Two days and the French will be here! Three days at the outside, and not an ugly Boche left. Just mark my word!"
This the patriarchal gentleman in the Hotel Metropole whispered to me about a month after the Germans had captured Brussels. They had taken away his responsibilities as President of the Belgian Red Cross, so that now he had naught to do but to sit upon the lobby divan, of which he covered much, being of extensive girth. But no more extensive than his heart, from which radiated a genial glow of benevolence to all—all except the invaders, the sight or mention of whom put harshness in his face and anger in his voice.
"Scabbard-rattler!" he mumbled derisively, as an officer approached. "Clicks his spurs to get attention! Wants you to look at him. Don't you do it. I never do." He closed his eyes tightly, as if in sleep.
Oftentimes he did not need to feign his slumber. But sinking slowly down into unconsciousness his native gentleness would return and a smile would rest upon his lips; I doubt not that in his dreams the Green-Gray troops of Despotism were ridden down by the Blue and Red Republicans of France.
Once even he hummed a snatch of the Marseillaise. An extra loud blast from the distant cannonading stirred him from his reverie. "Ah ha!" he exclaimed, clasping my arm, the artillery—"it's getting nearer all the time. They are driving back the Boches, eh? We'll be free to-morrow, certain. Then we'll celebrate together in my country- home."
Walking over to the door, he peered down the street as if he already expected to catch a glint of the vanguard of the Blue and Red. Twice he did this and returned with confidence unshaken. "Mark my word," he reiterated; "three days at the outside and we shall see the French!"
That was in September, 1914. Those three days passed away into as many weeks, into as many months, and into almost as many years. I cannot help wondering whether the same hopes stirred within him at each fresh outburst of cannonading on the Somme. And whether through those soul-sickening months that white- haired man peered daily down those Brussels streets, yearning for the advent of the Red and Blue Army of Deliverance. Red and Blue it was ever in his mind. If once it had come in its new uniform of somber hue, it would have been a disappointing shock I fear. He was an old man then; he is now perhaps beyond all such human hurts. His pain was as real as anything I saw in all the war. I had little time to dwell upon it, however, for presently I was put into a situation that called for all my wits. I was introduced to it by the announcement of the porter:
"An American gentleman to see you, sir."
That was joyful news to one held within the confines of a captive city, from which all exit was, for the time being, closely barred.
It was September 28th, my birthday, too. The necessity of celebrating this in utter boredom was a dismal prospect. Now this came upon me like a little surprise-party.
Picking up a bit of paper on which I had been scribbling down a few memoranda that I feared might escape my mind, I hastened into the hallway to meet a somewhat spare, tall, and extremely erect-appearing man. He greeted me with a smile and a bow—a rather dry smile and a rather stiff bow for an American.
So I queried, "You're an American, are you?"
"Not exactly," he responded; "but I would like to talk with you."
Without the shadow of a suspicion, I told him it would be a great relief from the tedium of the day to talk to any one.
"But I would prefer to talk to you in your room," he added.
"Certainly," I responded, stepping toward the elevator.
The hotel was practically deserted, so I was somewhat surprised when two men, one a huge fellow built on a superdreadnaught plan, followed us in and got out with us on the fifth floor. The superdreadnaught sailed on into my room, which seemed a breach of propriety for an un-introduced stranger. He closed the door rudely behind him. I was prepared to resent this altogether high-handed intrusion, when my tall guest said, very simply, "I am representing the Imperial German Government."
I rallied under the shock sufficiently to say, "Will you take a chair?"
"No," came the laconic reply, "I will take you—and this," he said, reaching for the piece of scribble-paper I had in my hands, "and any baggage you have in your room."
I assured him that I had none, as I really expected to stay in Brussels but a day. He pretended not to hear my reply, and said,
"We better take it with us, for we will probably need it."
He looked under the bed and unlocked the closet door. Finding nothing, he asked for the key to my room. I handed it over, Room Number 502.
"You will be so good as to follow me now."
Now every one knows that the Spy-Season in Europe opened with the beginning of the war. Spy hunting became at once a veritable mania.
Consequently no self-respecting person returns from the war-zone without at least one hair-raising story of being taken as a spy. Being just an average species of American, I exhale no particular air of mystery or villainy; yet I suffered a score of times the laying on of hands by German, French, Belgian, and even Dutch authorities.
But this experience is marked off from all my other ordeals in four ways. In the first place, instead of casually falling into the hands of my captors, they came after me in full force. In the second place, a specific charge of using money for bribing information was laid against me, and witnesses were at hand. In the third place, the leader of the party arrested me in civilian dress, but before examination and trial he changed to military uniform. In the fourth place, the officials were in such a surly mood that my message to the American Ambassador was undelivered, and at the last trial before the American representatives there was no apology, but rather the sullen attitude of those who had been balked in bagging their game.
When my captor bade me follow him I asked:
"Can I leave word with my friends?" For an answer he smiled satirically. By accident or design, the time chosen for my taking off was one when both of my two casual acquaintances were out of the hotel.
"Not now, but a little later perhaps, when this is fixed up," my captor answered me.
We stepped into a carriage. The two assistants at the little surprise party walked away, and my rising sense of fear was allayed by the friendly offer of a cigarette. It was a brand-new experience to ride away to prison in royal state like this. The almost pleasant attitude of my companion reassured me. "After all," I mused, "this is a lucky stroke; a little uncertain perhaps, but on the whole an interesting way to while away the tedium of an otherwise eventless birthday."
We stopped before the Belgian Government building, on the Rue de la Loi, the headquarters of the German staff. At a word the sentries dropped back and my companion bade me walk down a long, dark corridor. I opened a door at the end, and found myself in a room with a few officers in chairs, and a large array of documents upon a table.
The moment I came within the safe confines of that room the whole attitude of my captor changed. His mask of friendliness dropped away. Perhaps his spirit responded and adapted itself to the official atmosphere of the headquarters. Anyhow, at once he froze up into the most rigid formality. Sitting down, he wrote out what I deemed was the report of the morning's proceedings. I watched him writing with all the semblance and precision of a machine, except for a half-smile that sometimes flickered upon his close-pressed lips.
He was a machine, or, more precisely, a cog in the great fighting machine that was producing death and destruction to Belgium. Just as the Germans have put men through a certain mold and turned out the typical German soldier, in like manner through other molds they have turned out according to pattern the German secret service man. He is a kind of spy-destroyer performing in his sphere the same service that the torpedo-boat destroyer does in its domain. This man was the German reincarnation of Javert, the police inspector who hung so relentlessly upon the flanks of Jean Valjean. In his stolid silence I read an iron determination to "get" me, and in that flickering smile I saw an inhuman delight in putting the worst construction upon my case as he wrote it down. Hereafter he shall be known as Javert.
Towards Javert I sustain a very distinct aversion. This is not the result of any evil twist put into my constitution by original sin. Quite the contrary. Hitherto I have always felt that I, like the man in Oscar Wilde's play, could forgive anybody anything, any time, anywhere. One can forgive even a hangman for doing his duty, however it may thwart one's plans. Some men must play the part of prosecutor and devil's advocate.
But such was the cold, cynical delight in this fellow's doing his duty, such was his arrogant, overbearing attitude toward the helpless peasant prisoners, that I know my prayers for the end of the war were not motivated entirely by selfless considerations. I am hankering to get into the neighborhood of this fellow when he doesn't hold all the trump cards. In justice to Javert, I must say that he reciprocated my feeling magnificently, and, inasmuch as he was the cat and I the mouse, and a very small one at that, he probably found much more spiritual satisfaction in the exercise of his feelings than I did in mine. That is why I was anxious to have the war end and embrace the first opportunity to change our roles. I yearned to give him his proper place in the sun.
Having completed my case, he demanded my papers, and then bade me open the door. There was a soldier waiting, and with him ahead and Javert behind, I was escorted into the courtyard. Here a double-door was opened, and I was thrust into a room filled with a motley collection of persons guarded by a dozen soldiers with rifles ready.
The sight was anything but reassuring. I turned toward Javert and asked, somewhat frantically, I fear: "What is all this for? Aren't you going to do anything about my case?"
My hitherto cool, smiling manner must have been an irritation to him. A German official, especially a petty one, takes everything with such deadly seriousness that he can't understand us taking things so debonairly, especially when it is his own magisterial self.
So I think he thoroughly enjoyed my first signs of perturbation, and said: "Your case will be settled in a little while—perhaps directly." He turned to a soldier, bade him watch me, and disappeared.
About five minutes later I heard outside the command "Halt!" to a squad of soldiers. The doors opened and Javert reappeared, this time in the full uniform of an officer. For the moment I thought he had come with a firing squad and they were going to make short shrift of me. The grim humor of disposing of my case thus "directly" came home to me. But merely flicking the ashes from his cigarette, he glanced round the room without offering the slightest recognition, and then disappeared. How he made his change from civilian clothes so quickly I can't understand. It seemed like a vainglorious display of his uniform in order to let us take full cognizance of his eminence.
I began now a survey of my surroundings. Our room was in fact a hallway crammed with soldiers and prisoners. The soldiers, with fixed bayonets in their rifles, stood guard at the door. The prisoners, some thirty-five in number, were ranged on benches, overturned boxes, and on the floor. We were of every description, from well-groomed men of the city to artisans and peasants from the fields. The most interesting of the peasants was a young fellow charged with carrying dispatches through the lines to Antwerp. The most interesting of the well-dressed urban group was a theater manager charged with making his playhouse the center of distribution for the forbidden newspapers smuggled into Brussels. There was a Belgian soldier in uniform, woefully battered and beaten; and for the first time I saw a German soldier without his rifle. He, too, was a prisoner waiting trial, having been sent up to the headquarters accused of muttering against an under officer.
All these facts I learned later. Then I sat paralyzed in an atmosphere charged with smoke and silence. The smoke came not from the prisoners, for to them it was forbidden, but from the soldiers, who rolled it up in great clouds. The silence came from the suspicion that one's next neighbor might be a spy planted there to catch him in some unwary statement. Each man would have sought relief from the strain by unbosoming his hopes and fears to his neighbor, but he dared not. That is one fearful curse of any cause that is buttressed by a system of espionage. It scatters everywhere the seeds of suspicion. All society is shot through with cynical distrust. It poisons the springs at the very source—one's faith in his fellows. Ordinarily one regards the next man as a neighbor until he proves himself a spy. In Europe he is a scoundrel and a spy until he proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is a neighbor.
And then one is never certain. People were everywhere aghast to find even their life-long friends in the pay of the enemy. A large military establishment draws spies as certainly as a carcass draws vermin; the one is the inevitable concomitant of the other. It is the Nemesis of all human brotherhood.
Now to be taken as a prisoner of war was to most men more of a Godsend than a tragedy. The prisoner knew that he was to be corralled in a camp. But he was alive at any rate and he had but to await the end of the war—then it was home again. The pictures show phalanxes of these men smiling as if they were glad to be captives. On the other hand there are no smiles in the pictures of the spies and francs-tireurs. They know that they are fated for a hasty trial, a drumhead decision, and to be shot at dawn. The prospect of that walk through the early morning dews to the execution-ground made their shoulders droop along with their spirits.
With these thoughts on our mind we held our tongues and kept our eyes on the door, wondering who would be the next guest to arrive, and mentally conjecturing what might be the cause of his incarceration.
The last arrival wore a small American flag wound round his arm, and around his waist he wore a belt which contained 100 pounds in gold. He spotted me, and, coming over to my corner, opened up a conversation in English. I thought at first that this was merely a clumsy German ruse to trap me into some indiscreet talking. To his kindly advances I curtly returned "Yeses" and "Noes."
His name was Obels, a Belgian by birth but speaking English as well as German, French, and Flemish. He was an invaluable reporter for a great Chicago paper, and in his zeal for news had run smack into the Germans at Malines, and had been at once whisked off by automobile to Brussels for trial as a spy. He had a passionate devotion to his calling. No mystic could have been more consecrated to his Holy Church. I fully believe that he would have consented to be shot as a spy with a smile on his face if he could have got the story of the shooting to his paper. He was one of the most straightforth fellows I have ever met, and yet I regarded him there as I would a low-browed scoundrel. For a long time I would not speak to him. I dared not. He might have been a spy set to worm out any confidences, and then carry them to Javert.
Left to himself, each man let his most pessimistic thoughts drag his spirits down. Gloom is contagious, and it soon became as heavy in the room as the gray clouds of smoke. The one bright, hopeful spot was the lone woman prisoner. She alone refused to succumb to the depressing atmosphere, and sought to play woman's ancient role of comforter. She tried to smile, and succeeded admirably, for she was very pretty. A wretched-looking lad huddled up on a bag in the corner tried to reciprocate, but with the tears glistening in his eyes he made a sorry failure of it. We were a hard crowd to smile to, and growing tired of her attempts to appear light-hearted, she at last gave herself up to her own grievances, and soon was looking quite as doleful as the rest of us. Our gloom was thrown into sharp relief by a number of soldiers grouped around a table in the corner laughing and shouting over a game of cards which they were playing for small stakes. We dragged out the long afternoon staring doggedly at the bayonets of our guards.
Only once did the guards show any awareness of our existence. That was when suddenly the arrival of "Herr Major" was announced. As the door was opened to let him pass through our hall to the stairway, with a hoarse shout we were ordered to our feet. As his exalted personage paraded by we stood, hats in hand, with bared heads, with such humble and respectful expression as may be outwardly assumed towards a fellow-being whom all secretly despised or desired to kill. Was there really a murderous gleam in the averted eyes of those Belgians arrayed in salute before the Herr Major, or was it my imagination that put it there? Perhaps you can tell.
Picture your country devastated, your towns burned, your flag prohibited, your farmers shot, your women and children terrified, your papers and public meetings suppressed, your streets patrolled by aliens with drawn swords as your enemies' bands triumphantly play their national airs. Picture, then, yourself lied about by hireling spies, thrown into prison, compelled to breathe foul air and sleep upon a floor, fed on black bread, and held day after day for sentence in nerve-racking suspense. Picture to yourself now the abject humiliation of being compelled to stand bare-headed in salute before these wreckers and spoilers of your land. Do you think you might keep back from your eyes sparks from that blazing rebellion in your soul? Then it was not imagination that made me see the murderous gleam in the eyes of those high-spirited Belgians. "Salute the Major!" the Germans shouted. What seeds of hate those words planted in those Belgian souls the future will show, when they who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
That is the unseen horror of war; pictures can reveal the damage wrought by shot and shell, fire and flood in the blasted cities and in the fields of the dead. But nothing can ever show the irreparable spiritual damage wrought to the human soul by hates, humiliations, fears and undying animosities.
Sweating Under The German Third Degree
By this time my lark-like spirit of the morning had folded its wings. My musings took on a decidedly somber tinge. "Were the Germans going to make a summary example of me to warn outsiders to cease prowling around the war zone?" "Was I going to be railroaded off to jail, or even worse?" It was no time to be wool gathering! It was high time for doing. "But what pretexts could they find for such action?" At any rate I resolved to furnish as few pretexts as possible.
I set to work hunting carefully through my pockets for everything that might furnish the slightest basis for any charge against me. Before coming to Brussels I had been warned not to carry anything that might be the least incriminating, and there was not much on me; but I did have a pass from the Belgian commander giving me access to the Antwerp fortifications. I had figured on framing it as a souvenir of my adventures, but my molars now reduced it to an unrecognizable pulp. Cards of introduction from French and English friends fared a similar fate. Their remains were disposed of in the shuffling that accompanied the arrival of new prisoners. This had to be done most craftily, for we never knew where were the spying eyes.
About six o'clock I was resting from my masticatory labors when Javert presented himself, accompanied by two soldiers. I was led away into the council room where first I had been taken in the morning. It was now turned into a trial chamber. Javert, as prosecutor, was seated on one side of the table, while around the farther end were ranged some officers and a few men in civilian clothes who proved to be secret service agents. I stood until the judge bade me take my seat at the vacant end of the table.
One by one my documents were disposed of—an American passport issued in London; a permit from the German Consul at Maastricht, Holland, to enter "the territory of Belgium-Germany," finally, this letter of introduction from the American Consulate at Ghent:
Gand le 22 Septembre, 1914. Le Consul des Etats Unis d'Amerique a Gand, prie Messieurs les autorites de bien vouloir laisser passer le porteur de la presente Monsieur Albert Williams, citoyen Americain.
JULIUS VAN HEE, Consul Americain.
I pointed to the recent date on it, the 22nd of September, and to the signer of it, Julius van Hee.
Van Hee was a man who met the Germans on their own ground. He informed the German officer at his hotel: "If you send any spy prowling into my room, I'll take off my coat and proceed to throw him out of the window." Shirt-sleeves diplomat indeed! Another time he requested permission to take three Belgian women through the lines to their family in Bruges. The German commandant said "No." "All right," said Van Hee, taking out a package of letters from captured German officers who were now in the hands of the Belgians, and dangling the packet before the commandant, "If I don't get that permit, you don't get these letters." He got the permit.
After a few such clashes the invaders learned that when it came to this Schrecklichkeit business they had no monopoly on the article. Van Hee's name was not to be trifled with. But on the other hand there must necessarily have existed a certain resentment against him for his ruthless and effective diplomacy. It would no doubt afford Javert a pleasant sensation to take it out on any one appearing in any way as a protege of Van Hee.
"Yes, it's Van Hee's signature all right," muttered Javert with a shrug of his shoulders, "only he is not the consul, but the vice- consul at Ghent and let us remember that he is of Belgian ancestry—that wouldn't incline him to deep friendship with us."
On a card of introduction from Ambassador Van Dyke there were the words "Writer for The Outlook." It's hard to understand how that escaped my very scrutinous search, but there it was.
"Another anti-German magazine," commented, sardonically. I was marveling at the uncanny display of knowledge of this man at the center of the European maelstrom, aware of the editorial policy of an American magazine.
"But that doesn't mean that I am anti-German," I protested; "we can retain our own private opinions."
"Tommyrot," exclaimed Javert, "tommy-rot!" Strange language in a military court! Where had he laid hold of that choice bit of our vernacular?
"You know perchance," he continued, "what the penalty is for newspaper men caught on the German side." I thought that surely I was going to reap the result of the adverse reports that the American correspondents had made already about the Germans, when he added, "But you are here on a different charge."
The judge started to cross-examine me as to all my antecedents. My replies were in German—or purported to be—but in my eagerness to clear myself I must have wrought awful havoc with that classic language. I was forthwith ordered to talk English and direct my remarks to Javert, acting now as interpreter. In the midst of this procedure Javert, with a quick sudden stroke, produced the scribble-paper which he had seized in the morning, held it fairly in my face, and cried, "Whose writing is that?" The others all riveted their gaze upon me.
I replied calmly, "It is mine."
"I want you to put it into full, complete writing," cried Javert. "As it now stands it is a telegraphic code."
That is the most complimentary remark that has ever been made upon my hieroglyphics. However, I shall be eternally grateful to Providence for my Horace Greeley style. For, while that document contained by no means any military secrets, there were, on the other hand, uncomplimentary observations about the Germans. It would not be good strategy to let these fall into their hands in their present mood. At Javert's behest, I set to work on my paper, and delivered to him in ten minutes a free, full, rapid translation of the abbreviated contents. On inspecting it Javert said, irritably, "I want an exact, precise transcript of everything here."
"I thought you wanted it in a hurry," I rejoined.
"No hurry at all. We have ample time to fix your case."
These words do not sound a bit threatening, but it was the general setting in which they were said that made them so ominous, and which set the cold waves rippling up and down my spinal column.
I set to work again, numbering every phrase in my scribble-paper, and then in the same number on the other paper giving a full, readable translation of it. I wrote out the things complimentary to the Germans in the fullest manner. But how was I going to take the sting out of the adverse comments?
Phrase No. 1 meant "Musical nature of the German automobile horns." Their silver and flute-like notes had been a pleasing sound, rolling along the roads. That was good.
Phrase No. 2 meant "The moderation of the Germans in not billeting more troops upon the hotels." I wondered why they had not commandeered quarters in more of the big empty hotels instead of compelling men to sleep in railway stations and in the open air. That was good.
Phrase No. 3 meant "German officers never refused to contribute to the Belgian Relief Funds." These boxes were constantly shaken before them in every cafe, and not once was a box passed to an officer in vain. For all this I was very grateful and everything went on very merrily until I came to phrase Number 4.
"If Bel I wld join posse Ger myself"; which, being interpreted, reads, "If I were a Belgian, I would join a posse against the Germans myself." That looked ugly, but I wanted to record for myself the ugly mood of resentment I had felt when I saw Belgians compelled to submit to certain humiliations and indignities from their invading conquerors.
German or non-German—it makes no difference; any one who had seen those swaggering officers riding it rough-shod over those poor peasants would have felt the same tide of indignation mounting up in him. In that mood it would have given me genuine pleasure to have joined a little killing-party and wiped out those officers. Now these self-same officers were gathered round me trying to decide whether they were to have a little killing-party on their own account.
There was sufficient justification for inciting their wrath in that one sentence as it stood, and they were all combining to entrap me by every possible means. Furthermore, they were hankering for a victim. I had only my wits to match against their desires. I cudgeled my brains as I never did before, but to no avail. Almost panic- stricken I was ready to give up in despair and throw myself upon the mercy of the court when, like a flash of inspiration, the right reading came. I transcribed that ugly phrase now to read: "If I were among the Belgians, I would join possibly the Germans myself." What more could the most ardent German patriot ask for? That met every abbreviation and made a beautifully exact reversal of the intended meaning. Not as an example in ethics, but as a "safety first" exhibit I must confess to a real pride in that piece of work. I handed it over with the cherubic expression of the prize- scholar in the Sunday School.
Javert had figured on finding incriminating data in it. It was to be his chief evidence. He read it over with increasing disappointment and gave it the minutest analysis, comparing it closely with the original scribble-paper. For example, he called the attention of the judge to the fact that "guarded" in one paper was spelled "gaurded" in the other—some slip I had inadvertently made. He thought it might now be made a clew to some secret code, but, though he puzzled long and searchingly over the document, he extracted from it nothing more than an increased vexation of spirit.
"Nothing on the surface here," Javert said to the judge; "but that only makes it look the more suspicious. Wait till we hear from the search of his room."
At this juncture a man in civilian dress arrived, and, handing over the key of Room Number 502, reported that there was nothing to bring back. This nettled Javert, and he made and X-ray examination of my person, even tearing out the lining of my hat. Alas for him too late; his search disclosed nothing more damnatory than a French dictionary, which, because I was not an ostrich, I had been unable to get away with in the afternoon. A few addresses had been scribbled therein. He demanded a full account of each name. Some I had really forgotten.
"That's strange," he sneered; "perhaps you don't find it convenient to remember who they are."
Up till now I hadn't the slightest conception of the charge laid against me. Suddenly the judge crashed into the affair and took the initiative.
"Why did you offer money to find out the movement of German troops!" he let go at me across the table in a loud voice.
At the same time his aides converged on me a full, searching gaze. Going all day without food, for eight hours confined in a fetid atmosphere, and for two hours grilled by a dozen inquisitors, is an ordeal calculated to put the nerves of the strongest on edge.
I simply replied, "I didn't do any such thing."
"Don't lie!" "Tell the whole truth!" "Make a clean breast of it!" "No use holding anything back!" "We have the witnesses who will swear you did!" "Best thing for you is to tell all you know!"
This fusillade of command and accusation they roared and bellowed at me, aiming to break down my defense with the suddenness of the onslaught. They succeeded for a moment. I couldn't rally my scattered and worn-out wits to think what the basis of this preposterous charge might be.
Then I remembered a Dutchman who had accosted me the day before on a street-car. He had volunteered the information that he was taking people by automobile out through Liege into Holland, giving one thus the opportunity to see a great many troops and ruins along the way. I told him I had some money and would be glad to invest in such a trip, at the same time giving him my address at the Hotel Metropole. Guileless as he appeared, he turned out to be an agent of the German Government. He naturally wanted to make himself solid with his masters by delivering the goods, so he had twisted all my words into the most damning evidence, and had fixed up two or three witnesses ready to swear anything.
"No use wasting time or effort to save this man," they told de Leval at the American Embassy, later. "We've got a cast-iron case against him, with witnesses to back it up."
Javert no doubt proved himself an invaluable ally of the Dutchman in fixing up the charges. I don't believe he would manufacture a story out of whole cloth, but once his mind was set in a certain direction he could build up a good one on very shaky foundations. Perhaps he had an animus against these bumptious, undeferential, overcritical Americans, and thought it was time to give one of them a lesson. Perhaps he was tired of trapping ordinary garden variety spies of the Belgian brand. It would be a pleasing variation in the monotony of convicting defenseless, helpless Belgians if he could show that one of these fellows masquerading as Americans was a sham. Especially one of that journalistic tribe that had been sending out reports of German atrocities. Furthermore, it would redound greatly to his professional glory to hand me over to the General with a case proved to the hilt.
There was no trick in the repertory of a prosecutor that was unknown to Javert. He now shifted to the confidential and dropping His voice very low, he said to me:
"You know that if you make a full, complete confession, I'll promise to do my very best for you. And as a matter of fact you have been under the eyes of our Secret Service ever since you came to Belgium. We are aware of everything that you have done."
Was that a bluff or the truth? If it was true then they knew about my capture near Louvain on the day before in suspicious observation of the signaling-balloon. If this was a bluff, then my confession would be simply a case of gratuitously damning myself and likewise endangering my companion of yesterday's adventure—the British lieutenant with the American passport. Yet again if Javert knew all he pretended to, silence about that episode would make it appear doubly heinous. So while with my tongue I retailed a simple, harmless version of my doings in Belgium in my brain I carried on a debate whether to make an avowal of the Louvain escapade or not.
I came to the decision that Javert was just bluffing. Later developments proved me right. He knew nothing about it. Even the German Secret Service is not omniscient. Getting no results then from these wheedling tactics Javert shifted back to his bullying and essayed once more to browbeat me into a confession. Calling to his aid two officers who had been but casual onlookers they began volleying charges at me with machine-gun rapidity.
"You know that you are a spy." "We know that you are a spy." "Why do you deny it?" "You know that you have been lying." "Better own up to all that you have done." "Out with it now!"
When one officer grew tired, he rested. Then the next one took up the attack, and then he rested. But not one moment's respite for me. I don't know what they call it in German, but it was the third degree with a vengeance. Under this sweating process my nerves were being torn to tatters. I felt like screaming and it seemed that if this continued I would smash an officer with a chair and put an end to it all. But the fact that I am writing these lines shows that I didn't. Human nature is so constituted that it can always endure a little more, and though they kept the tension high for many minutes I did not buckle under the strain. However, I couldn't call up any arguments to show the utter absurdity of the charge against me. And my defense was very feeble.
The onslaught now ceased as suddenly as it had begun. There was a coming and going of officers and some consultation in an undertone. The judge left the room and the impassive-faced Javert began that machine-like writing. After a while he stopped.
"Will you give me some idea of what you expect to do with me?" I queried.
"A full report of your case goes up to the General for decision and sentence," was his response.
My spirits took a downward plunge. Then a fierce resentment amounting almost to rage came surging up within me. Masking it as well as I could, I asked permission to send word to the American authorities. Javert's reply was evasive.
"I have had nothing to eat all day," I announced. "Can't you do something for me?"
"Go to that door there and open it," said Javert.
I did so and there stood four soldiers of the Kaiser, who ranged themselves two in front and two behind, and marched me away. Javert had a well-developed sense of the dramatic.
While I am excoriating Javert as representing the genius of German officialdom, it is only fair that I should present his antithesis. By continually referring to the German army as a machine one gets the idea that it is an impersonal collection of inhuman beings remorselessly and mechanically devoted to duty. For a broad general impression that is perhaps a fair enough statement to start with; but when I am tempted to let it go at that, there is one striking exception that always rises up to point the finger of denial at this easy and common generalization. It is that of a young German officer, a mere stripling of twenty or thereabouts, with the most frank, open, ingenuous expression. One would expect to find him presiding at a Christian Endeavor social, rather than right here at the very pivot of the most terrible military organization of the world.
I had caught his look riveted upon me in my trial, and recognized him when he came into the detention-room, to which the four soldiers had led me. Hurriedly, he said to me: "Really, you know, I ought not to come in here, but I heard your story, and it looks rather bad; but somehow I almost believe in you. Tell me the whole truth about your affair."
I proceeded vehemently to point out my innocence, when he interrupted my story by asking, "But why did you make that Schreibfehler on your paper?" He followed my recital anxiously and sympathetically, and, looking me full in the face, asked, "Can you tell me on your Ehrenwort (word of honor) that you are not a spy? Remember," he added, solemnly, "on your Ehrenwort."
Grasping both of his hands and looking him in the eye, I said, most fervently, "On my Ehrenwort, I am not a spy."
There was an earnestness in my heart that must have communicated itself to my hands, because he winced as he drew his hands away; but he said, "I shall try to put in a word for you; I can't do much, but I shall do what I can. I must go now. Good-by."
A Night On A Prison Floor
"Prisoners are to be taken over into the left wing for the night," said an orderly to the guards.
We had scarcely turned the corner, when an officer cried: "Not that way, Dummkopf!"
"Our orders are for the left wing, sir," said the orderly.
"Never saw such a set of damned blockheads!" yelled the officer in exasperation. "Can't you tell the difference between right and left? Right wing, right wing, and hurry up!"
A little emery had gotten into the perfect-running machine. The corridors fairly clanged with orders and counter orders. After much confusion the general mix-up of prisoners was straightened out and we were served black bread and coffee.
The strain of the day, along with the fever I had from exposure on the battlefields, made the rough food still more uninviting, especially as our only implements of attack were the greasy pocketknives of the peasants and canteen covers from the soldiers. The revolt of my stomach must have communicated itself to my soul. I determined for aggressive action on my own behalf. I resolved to stand unprotesting no longer while a solid case against me was being constructed. Not without a struggle was I to be railroaded off to prison or to Purgatory. Pushing up to the next officer appearing in the room, in firm but courteous tones I requested, as an American citizen, the right to communicate with the American authorities.
He replied very decently that that was quite within my privileges, and forthwith the opportunity would be accorded me. I was looking for paper, when there came the order for all of us to move out into the courtyard. With a line of soldiers on either side, we were marched through labyrinthine passages and up three flights of stairs. Here we were divided into two gangs, my gang being led off into a room already nearly filled. We were told that it was our temporary abode, and we were to make the best of it. It was an administrative office of the Belgian Government now turned into a prison. There were the usual fixtures, including a rug on the floor and shelves of books. Ours was only one of many cells for prisoners scattered through the building. The spy-hunters had swooped down upon every suspect in Belgium and all who had been caught in the dragnet were being dumped into these rooms.
We were thus informed by the officer whose wards we were. He was a fussy, quick-tempered, withal kind-hearted little fellow, and kept dashing in and out of the room, really perplexed over housing accommodations for the night. The spy-hunters had been successful in their work of rounding up their victims from all over the country and corralling them here until the place was filled to overflowing. Our official in charge was puffed up with pride in the prosperity of his institution, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, petulantly belectured us on adding ourselves to his already numerous burdens. This was highly humorous, yet we all feared to commit lese-majeste by expressing to him our collective and personal sorrow for so inconveniencing him, and our willingness to make amends for our thoughtlessness in getting arrested.
After more hesitation than I had hitherto observed, arrangements for the night were completed and we were ordered to draw out blankets from the pile in the corner. The new arrivals and the old inmates maneuvered for the softest spots on the floor, which was soon covered over with bodies and their sprawling limbs, while a host of guards, fully armed, were posted at the door and along the hall.
"I would give my right arm or my leg if I could get a flashlight of this," said Obels, the reporter, enthusiastically. This elation made him reckless as he went about, probing the experiences of each victim.
"Great stuff!" "Great stuff!" he kept exclaiming. "Won't this open up some eyes in Chicago, eh!"
He couldn't believe that the Providence which had led him to this Bonanza would now deny him the opportunity of getting out some of this wealth.
In the midst of these activities he was haled before the tribunal. He returned, the spring out of his step and his zest for stories quite gone. Javert had successively branded him an "Idiot" a "Liar" and a "Spy."
The information that several of the inmates had been imprisoned for a month or more spurred my drooping spirits and put me into action. I uncovered a pile of the office writing-paper and, with the aid of the Belgian who could speak English, I set to work preparing a letter to Ambassador Whitlock. Whether Javert was apprised of the doings of his charges or not I do not know, but in the midst of my writing he glided into the room, and, pouncing upon my manuscript, gathered it to himself, saying, "I'll take these." My Belgian friend protested that a superior officer had given me permission to do this. Javert handed back the paper, smiled, and disappeared. Knowing that every word would be closely scrutinized at the Staff Office, and that the least hint of anything derogatory to the German authorities would keep the letter in the building, I couched it in as pointed and telling terms as possible, having in mind the eyes of the Germans, quite as much as the Ambassador.
Brand Whitlock, United States Ambassador, Brussels.
As a native American citizen, born in Ohio, and now imprisoned by the German authorities, I claim your intervention in my behalf. I am thirty years of age, resident of East Boston, Massachusetts, for six years. I am a graduate of Marietta College, Hartford Seminary, and studied in Cambridge University in England, and Marburg University in Germany.
Saturday Mr. Van Hee, the American consul at Ghent, brought me here by automobile with Mr. Fletcher. Obliged to take back in his car three ladies for whom he obtained permission from the German Government, I was necessarily left behind; Mr. Van Hee promising to return for me when diplomatic business brought him to Brussels in a few days. Meantime I took a room at the Hotel Metropole. From it I was taken by the German authorities this morning. I do not know exactly what the charge against me is. I am accused of offering money for information relative to the movement of the German troops. I think that the man who worked up the case against me is a Dutchman with whom I spoke upon a car. He volunteered the information that he had been everywhere by automobile; and I asked him if he was the one who carried passengers out of Brussels by way of Liege and Aix-la-Chapelle. Won't you look into my case at once? Mr. Fletcher, who called on you Saturday, lent me some fifty dollars, so I am all right that way; but this is not a comfortable situation to be in, though the officers are very decent. If you want proof of my identity, you can communicate with the following people in America; they are my personal friends, and will confirm my absence from home on an extended vacation.
His Excellency Governor Walsh, of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Dr. Charles Fleischer, Chief Rabbi in the Rabbinate of New England.
(If there was any Jewish blood on the German Staff I was going to try to get the benefit of it.)
The Honorable George W. Coleman, of the Ford Hall Convocation Meetings and President of the Pilgrim Amalgamated Associated Advertising Clubs of America.
(Coleman being a cross between a Baptist deacon and an anarchist, I knew that he would not object to this bit of sabotage.)
The Right Honorable William W. Mills, Esquire, President of the First National Bank of Marietta, Ohio, Treasurer of the University of Marietta, and Member of the National Council of Congregational Churches of America, etc., etc.
If you will cablegram any of these, you will get an immediate reply. While I have no money for this now, I feel certain Mr. Fletcher, who is associated with Mr. Lane, of the United States Cabinet, will back you up, and there will be unlimited funds in America.
Sincerely yours, ALBERT R. WILLIAMS.
My attention has been called to the omission of the Angel Gabriel, Mary Pickford and Ty Cobb from the list of my intimate friends in the above document. That was not meant as a slight—purely an oversight. At any rate, I felt that the long list of men whose names were written here would make the right response to any cablegram. To atone for dragging them into the affray I call attention to the highly deferential and decorative manner in which I referred to them. Be it remembered that this document was prepared quite as much for German eyes as for the Ambassador's, and nothing gives a man standing and respect in the Teutonic mind as much as a name fearfully and wonderfully adorned. I resolved that my importance was not to suffer from lack of glory in my friends. I bestowed more honorary degrees on them than the average small college does in ten commencements. So lavish was I that my friends hardly recognize their own titular selves. An officer designated the guard who would deliver the letter. I gave it to him along with a franc, which he protestingly accepted. He reported that it was delivered to Javert. That was the last I ever heard from that message. I imagine that it was by no means the last that the German authorities heard from it, for when I related the story to the Ambassador some time later I saw a characteristic Brand Whitlock letter a-brewing. My message to Vice-Consul Naesmith and to the Hotel Metropole shared a like fate—they were undelivered.
I simply offer the facts as they are. It may be that the courtesies of polite intercourse are not easy to observe in war. Certainly they were not obtrusive in Belgium. In extenuation it may be said that the Brussels postmen had struck about this time; but, on the other hand, through the forbidden shutters I saw fully fifty German Boy Scouts marshaled in the courtyard below.
I had noticed them before as messengers going down the most unguarded by-ways of the slums, quite as if they were agents of a welcomed instead of hated army. They rode along serenely as if totally unconscious of the shining targets that they made. I felt certain that no American gang would let slip this opportunity for the heaving of a brick. Were Brussels boys made of flabbier stuff? Not if Belgian sons were of the same stripe as Belgian fathers. The fact then that none of these German Scouts were massacred, as was to be expected by all the rules of the game, showed how the threat of reprisals operated to curb the strongest natural impulses of the spirit. I presumed that one of these Scouts was speeding posthaste to the Ambassador with my note, but he never did.
I am not berating the Germans. They were running their own war according to their own code. In this code reporters, onlookers, and uplifters of any brand were anathema.
We had no rights. Our only right was to the convictions within our minds, provided we kept them there. I believe that were it not for the surmises of the English lieutenant who took them to the Ambassador I would be in prison yet. On second thought, I wouldn't, either. I couldn't have endured the strain much longer. If I had been caged in there a few hours more than I was, in my nervous tension I probably would have vented my sense of outraged justice by assaulting one of the officers myself. I wouldn't have had a long time then to speculate upon the immortality of the soul. I would have possessed first-hand information. One can understand why, for their own protection, the Germans imposed their iron laws upon the Belgians with their terrible penalties. What is hard to understand is the long-suffering patience and self- restraint of the Belgians. Occasionally some high-spirited or high- strung fellow was no longer able to keep the lid on the volcano of hatred and rage seething within him. This blowup brought down, not only upon his own head, but upon the whole community, the most hideous reprisals.
By the time my writing was completed the men were pretty well settled down for the night. On the outside the roaring of the Austrian guns, which for days had been bombarding their way into Antwerp, now became less constant; less and less frequently the hoarse commands of the officers, mingled with the rumbling of the automobiles, came up from the courtyard below. At midnight the only sounds were the groans and moans of the twisting sleepers and the measured tread of the sentry as he paced up and down the hall, his silhouette darkening at regular intervals the glass door at the end of our little room.
I was placed in a. sort of adjoining closet with six others. A motley mixture indeed; a Russian, an American, four Belgians, and a German—all prisoners awaiting our sentences. As a last move, the German soldier guards sandwiched themselves into the open spaces on the floor, their long bayonets glistening in the electric light that blazed down upon us. The peasants had characteristically closed the windows to keep out the baneful night air. In the main room a drop-light with shade flung its radiance on a table and lit up the anxious faces of the few men gathered round it. It showed one poor fellow bolt upright, unspeaking, unmoving, his fixed white eyeballs staring into space, as though he would go stark mad. Those eyes have forever burned themselves into my brain, a pitiful protest against a mad, wild world at war.
Sleep was entirely out of the question with me. It wasn't the bad air or the hard floor or the snores of my comrades, but just plain cold fear. Now I possess an average amount of courage. Quite alone I walked in and out of Liege when the Germans were painting the skies red with the burning towns. My ribs were massaged all the way by ends of revolvers, whose owners demanded me to give forthwith my reasons for being there, they being sole arbiters of whether my reasons were good or bad. I got so used to a bayonet pointing into the pit of my stomach that it hardly looks natural in a vertical position.
But this was a thrust from a different quarter. In the open a man feels a sporting chance, at any rate, even if a bullet can beat him on the run; but cooped up within four walls he is paralyzed by his horrible helplessness. He feels that a military court reverses ordinary procedure, holding that it is better for nine innocent to suffer than for one guilty one to escape. He knows that his fate is in the hands of a tribunal from whose arbitrary decision there is no appeal, and that decision he knows may depend upon the whim of the commandant, to whom a poor breakfast or a bad night's sleep may give the wrong twist. The terrible uncertainty of it preys upon one's mind.
I certainly prayed that the commandant was getting a better night than mine, as I lay there staring up at the electric light with a hundred hates and fears pounding through my brain. "I'm a prisoner," was one thought. "Supposing the silence of the guns means that the Germans, beaten, are being pressed back into Brussels by the Allies. They may let us go. No, the Germans, maddened by defeat, might order us all to be shot," was one idea. "How does it feel to be blindfolded and stood up against a wall by a firing squad?" was another pleasant companion idea that kept vigil with me through the midnight hours. Then my fancies took a frenzied turn, "Suppose these be brutes of soldiers and they run us through, saying we were trying to escape."
"Escape!" The word no sooner leaped into my mind than an almost uncontrollable impulse to escape seized me, or at least I thought one had. I got upon my feet, observing that the two soldiers lying beside me on the floor were fast asleep and the guards at the outer door were nodding. I stepped over their sleeping forms arid made a reconnoiter of the hallway. There in the semi-darkness stood seven soldiers of the Kaiser with their seven guns and their seven glistening bayonets.
Cold steel is not supposed to act as a soothing syrup; but one glance at those bayonets and my uncontrollable impulse utterly vanished. You will observe that the bayonet is continually cropping up in my story. It does, indeed. A bayonet looks far different from what it did on dress parade. Meet one in war, and its true significance first dawns upon you. It is not simply a decoration at the end of a rifle, but it is made to stick in a man's stomach and then be turned round; and when you realize that this particular one is made to stick in your particular stomach, it takes on a still different aspect.
I crawled back into my lair, resolved to seek for deliverance by mental means, rather than by physical; and as the first rays of light stole through the window I composed the following document to His Excellency:
The Officer who has the case of the American, Albert B. Williams, under supervision: SIR:
As you seem willing to be fair in hearing my case, may I take the liberty this morning of addressing you upon my charge? I fear that I made but a feeble defense of myself yesterday; but when I was accused of offering much money for information relative to the movements of German troops, the accusation came so suddenly that I could only deny it. May I now offer a few observations upon this charge, the nature of which just begins to become clear to me?
In the first place, it was a sheer impossibility for me to offer "much money," because all I had was that which, as Mr. Van Hee knows, Mr. Fletcher gave me when I was left behind.
In the second place, were I a spy, I certainly would not be offering money in a voice loud enough to be heard by the several witnesses that you have ready to testify.
In the third place, while not attempting to impeach the character of my accuser, may I submit the fact that my own standing will be vouched for by His Excellency the Governor of Massachusetts, the President of the Pilgrim Amalgamated Associated Advertising Clubs of America, the chief Rabbi in the Rabbinate of New England, etc., etc.
These men will attest the utter absurdity of any such charge being made against me.
In the last place, may I suggest that the theory of an unintentional mistake throws the best light upon the case? For any conversation with my accuser was either in German or English. You know my German linguistic ability and the error that might be made there; and as for English, I challenge my accuser to understand three consecutive sentences in English.
I trust you will take these facts into account before sentence is passed upon me.
ALBERT R. WILLIAMS.
By the time this was finished a stir in the courtyard below heralded the beginning of the day's activities. And what did this day hold in store for me?
Roulette And Liberty
Our morning toilet was completed with the aid of one small, flimsy towel for thirty of us. Hot water tinctured with coffee and milk was served from a bucket with two or three cups. Bread which had been saved from the previous day was brought forth from pockets and hiding-places, and for some unaccountable reason a piece of good butter was brought in. Apparently the Germans were trying to escape the stigma of mistreating or underfeeding their prisoners.
Orders were given to get ready to move out. After an hour, they were changed to "Clean up the room." When we had accomplished this, an inspecting officer entered and began to sniff and snort until his eyes fairly blazed with wrath, and then in a torrent of words he expressed his private and official opinion of us. So fast and freely did his language flow that I couldn't catch all the compliments he showered upon us; but "Verdammte!" "Donnerwetter!" and "Schwein!" were stressed frequently enough for me to retain a distinct memory of the same. One did not have to be a German linguist to get the drift of his remarks.
They had an electric effect upon the prisoners, who with one accord got busy picking up microscopic and invisible bits from the floor. To see these men crawling around upon their stomachs must have been highly gratifying to His Self-inflated Highness. The highly gratifying thing to myself now is the fact that I did not do any crawling, but sat stolidly in my chair and stared back at him, letting my indignation get enough the better of my discretion even to sneer—at least I persuade myself now that I did. Outside of this little act of gallantry I am heartily ashamed of my conduct at the German Staff Headquarters. It was too acquiescent and obsequious for some of those bureaucrats rough riding it over those helpless, long-suffering, beaten Belgians.
Having called us "Schwein," at high noon they brought in the swill. It was a gray, putrid-looking mess in a big, battered bucket. They told us that it came dried in bags and all that was necessary was to mix the contents with hot water. The mixture was put up in 1911 and guaranteed to keep for 20 years. It looked as though it might have already forfeited on its guarantee. There was nothing to serve it with, and search of the room uncovered no implements of attack. Our discomfiture furnished a young soldier with much entertainment.
"Nothing to eat your stew with? Well, just stand on that table there and dive right into the bucket."
He was quite carried away with his own witticism, so that in sheer good nature he went and returned with six soup plates which were covered over with a thick grease quite impervious to cold water. I had my misgivings about the mess and dreaded its steaming odors. At last I summoned up courage and approached the bucket, using my fingers in lieu of a clothes-pin as a defense for my olfactory nerves. A surprise was in store for me; its palatability and quality were quite the opposite of its appearance. While I wouldn't enjoy that stew outside of captivity, and while the Brussels men refused in any way to succumb to its charm, it was at least very nutritious and furnished the strength to keep fighting.
But it is hard to battle against the blues, especially when all one's comrades capitulate to them. Each man vied with the other in radiating a blue funk, until the air was as thick as a London fog.
Picture, if you will, the scene. By a fine irony, the books on the shelves were on international law, and by a finer irony the book in green binding that caught my eye as it stood out from the black array of volumes was R. Dimmont's "The Origins of Belgian Neutrality." The Belgians who were enjoying the peculiar blessings of that neutrality were sprawled over the floor or pacing restlessly up and down the room, or, in utter despair, buried their heads in their arms flung out across the table.
About three o'clock the name "Herr Peters" was called. He had been found guilty of mumbling to his comrades that their captain was pushing them too hard in an advance. One could believe the charge, for, as his name was called, he was sullen and unconcerned. "You are sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor in a fortress. You must go at once."
He muttered in an undertone something about "being luckier in prison in winter than out there on the cold, freezing ground," and, flinging his knapsack upon his shoulder, lumbered off. In how many such hearts is there this sullen revolt against the military system, and how much of a factor will it be to reckon with in the future?
There were four prisoners quite separated from the rest of us. It was said that they were sentenced to be shot. I am not sure that they were; but we were strictly forbidden any intercourse with them. They were the most crestfallen, terror-stricken lot of men that ever I had laid eyes upon, and at four o'clock they were led away by a cordon of soldiers. There was enough mental suggestion about it to plunge the room into a deep silence. It was oppressive.
At last Obels, the reporter, walked over and asked me if there were proofs of the immortality of the soul, excusing himself by saying that up to this time he had never had any particular time nor reason for reflection on this subject. That was the only psychological blunder that he made. However, it at last broke the heavy, painful silence, and we speculated together, instead of singly, how it might feel to have immortal bliss thrust upon us from the end of a German musket.
I related to him my experience of the previous week. Some war photographers wanted a picture of a spy shot. I had volunteered to play the part of a spy, and, after being blindfolded, was led over against a wall, where a Belgian squad leveled their rifles at me. I assured him that the sensation was by no means terrible; but he would not be comforted. Death itself he wouldn't mind so much, if he could have found it in the open fighting gladly for his country; but it seemed a blot on his good name to be shot for just snooping around the German lines.
On the whole, after weighing all the pros and cons, we decided that our pronounced aversion to being shot had purely an altruistic origin. It was a wicked, shameful loss to the human race. That point was very clear to us. But there was the arrant stupidity of the Germans to be reckoned with. They have such a distorted sense of real values. Rummaging through my pockets during these reflections, I fished up an advertising folder out of a corner where I had tucked it when it was presented to me by Dr. Morse. The outside read, "How We Lost Our Best Customer." Mechanically I opened it, and there, staring back at me from big black borders on the inside, were the two words, "HE DIED."
These ruminations upon matters spiritual were interrupted by the strains from a brass band which went crashing by, while ten thousand hobnailed boots of the regiment striking the pavements in unison beat out time like a trip-hammer.
"Perhaps the Germans are leaving Brussels," whispered a companion; "and wouldn't we grow wild or faint or crazy to see those guards drop away and we should find ourselves free men again!"
The passing music had a jubilating effect upon our guards, who paraded gayly up and down the room. One simple, good-hearted fellow harangued us in a bantering way, pointing out our present sorry plight as evidence of the sad mistake we had made in not being born in Germany. He felt so happy that he took a little collection from us, and in due time returned with some bread and chocolate and soda water. But even the soda water, as if adjusting itself to the spiritlessness of the prisoners, refused to effervesce. The music had by contrast seemed only to increase the general depression.
Only one free spirit soared above his surroundings. He was a young Belgian—Ernest de Burgher by name—a kindly light amidst the encircling gloom. He took everything in life with a smile. I am sure that if death as a spy had been ordered for him at the door, he would have met that with the same happy, imperturbable expression. He had quite as much reason as I, if not more, for joining our gloom-party. He, too, was waiting sentence. For six days his wild, untamed spirit had been cabined in these walls; but he had been born a humorist, and even in bonds he sought to play the clown. He went through contortions, pitched coins against himself, and staggered around the room with a soda-water bottle at his lips, imitating a drunkard. But ours was a tough house even for his irrepressible spirit to play to. Despite all his efforts, we sat around like a convention of corpses, and only once did his comic spirit succeed.
One prisoner sunk down in a comatose condition in his chair, as though his last drop of strength and life had oozed away. Now de Burgher was one of those who can resist anything but temptation. He stole over and tied the man's legs to his chair. Then he got a German soldier to tap the hapless victim on the shoulder. Roused from his stupor to see the soldier standing over him like a messenger of doom, the poor fellow turned ashen pale. He sprang to his feet, but the chair bound to his legs tripped him up and he fell sprawling on the floor. He apparently regarded the chair as some sort of German infernal machine clutching him, and he lay there wrestling with his inanimate antagonist as though it were a demon. As soon as the victim understood the joke he joined in the burst of merriment that ran round the room; but it was of short duration. The gloom got us again, despite all that de Burgher could do, and finally he succumbed to the prevailing atmosphere and gave us up as a bad job.
He was a diminutive fellow, battered and rather the worse for wear. Ever shall I think of him not only as the happy-souled, but as the great-souled. My introduction into the room was at the point of a steel bayonet. With him, that served me far better than any gilt- edged introduction of high estate. He didn't know what crime was charged against, me, but he felt that it must have been a sacrifice for Belgium's sake. The fact that I was persona non grata to the Germans was a lien upon his sympathy, and gave me high rank with him at once. He instinctively divined my feelings of fear and loneliness, and straightway set out to make me his ward, his comrade, and his master.
Never shall I forget how, during that long night in prison, he crawled over and around the recumbent forms to where I lay upon the floor courting sleep in vain. I was frightened by this maneuver, but he smiled and motioned me to silence. Reaching up beneath my blanket, he unlaced one shoe and then the other. At first I really thought that he was going to steal them, but the reaction from the day had set in and I was too tired and paralyzed to make any protest. Laying the shoes one side, he remarked, "That will ease your feet." Then stripping off his coat and rolling it into a bundle, he placed it as a pillow beneath my head.
A great, big hulking American, treated tenderly by this little Belgian, how could I keep the tears from my eyes? And as they came welling up—tears of appreciation for the generous fineness of his spirit—he took them to be tears of grief, brought on by thoughts of home and friends and all those haunting memories. But he was equal to the occasion.
In a little vacant space he made a circle of cigarettes and small Belgian coins. In the center he placed a small box, and on it laid a ruler. "This is the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo, and you are the rich American," he whispered, and with a snap of the finger he spun the ruler round. Whenever it stopped, he presented me my prize with sundry winkings and chucklings, interrupted by furtive glances towards the door.
Rouge-et-noir upon a prison floor! To him existence was such a game—red life or black death, as the fates ordained. His spirit was contagious, and I found myself smiling through my tears. When he saw his task accomplished, gathering in his coins, he crawled away.
His was a restless spirit. Only once did I see him steadfastly quiet. That was the next morning, when he sat with his eyes fixed upon an opening in the shutter. He insisted upon my taking his seat, and adjusting my angle of vision properly. There, framed in a window across the forbidden courtyard, was a pretty girl watering flowers. She was indeed a distracting creature, and de Burgher danced around me with unfeigned glee. His previous experience with Americans had evidently led him to believe that we were all connoisseurs in pretty girls. I tried valiantly to uphold our national reputation, but my thoughts at the time were much more heavenly than even that fair apparition framed in the window, and I fear I disappointed de Burgher by my lack of enthusiasm.
My other comrade, Constance Staes, must not be forgotten. For some infraction of the new military regulations he had been hustled off to prison, but he, too, was born for liberty, a free-ranging spirit that fetters could never bind. He made me see the Belgian soul that would never be subservient to German rule. The Germans can be overlords in Belgium only when such spirits have either emigrated or have been totally exterminated.
To Constance Staes every rule was a challenge. That's the reason he had been put in jail. He had trespassed on forbidden way in front of the East Station. Here in prison smoking was forbidden. So Staes, with one eye upon the listless guard, would slip beneath a blanket, take a pull at his cigarette, and come up again as innocent as though he had been saying his prayers. I refused the offer of a pull at his cigarette, but not the morsel of white bread which he drew from behind a picture and shared with me. That bread, broken and shared between us in that upper room, is to me an eternal sacrament. It fed my body hunger then; never shall it cease to feed the hunger of my soul.
Whenever temptation to play the cynic or think meanly of my fellow-man shall come, my mind will hark back to those two unpretending fellows and bow in reverence before the selflessness and immensity of the human soul. Needing bread, they gave it freely away; needing strength, they poured themselves out unsparingly; needing encouragement, they became the ministers thereof. For not to me alone, but to all, they played this role of servant, priest, and comforter.
As I write these lines I wonder where their spirits are now. Speeded thence, they may have already made the next world richer by their coming. I do not know that; but I do know that they have made my soul infinitely richer by their sojourn here; I do not know whether they were Catholic or Atheist, but I do know how truly the Master of all souls could say to these two brave little Belgians: "When I was an hungered, ye gave me food; when I was thirsty, ye gave me drink; when I was a stranger, ye took me in; when I was sick and in prison, ye visited me."
The prison is the real maker of democracy. I saw that clearly when, at five o'clock, joy came marching into the room. It was an officer who was its herald with the simple words, "The theater manager is free." That was a trumpet blast annihilating all rank and caste. The manager, forgetting his office and his dignity, and embracing with his right arm a peasant and with his left an artisan, danced round the room in a delirium of delight. Twenty men were at one time besieging him to grasp his hand, and tears, not rhetorically, but actually, were streaming down their faces—Russian, German, Belgian, and American, high and low, countrymen and citymen, smocked and frocked. We were fused altogether in the common emotion of joy and hope. For hope was now rampant. "If one man can be liberated," we argued, "why not another? Perhaps the General was thus giving vent to a temporary vein of good humor." Each man figured that he might be the fortunate one upon whom this good luck would alight.
At five-thirty there was much murmuring in the corridor, and presently my Ehrenwort lad of the previous night came bursting into the room, crying, "The American! The American!" I do not have to describe the thrill of joy that those words shot through me; but I wish that I might do justice to the beaming face of my young officer friend. I am sure that I could not have looked more radiant than he did when, almost like a mother, he led me forth to greet de Leval and two other assistants from the American Ambassador. Now de Leval is not built on any sylph-like plan, but he looked to me then like an ethereal being from another world—the angel who opened the prison door.
I presumed that I was to walk away without further ado; but not so easy. We proceeded into another office, where the whole assemblage was standing. I have no idea who the high superior officer was; but he held in his hand a blue book which contained a long report of my case, with all the documents except the defense I had written. Again I was cross-examined, and my papers were carefully passed upon one by one.
One they could not or would not overlook, and to it throughout all this last examination they kept perpetually referring. When I had made my thirty-seven-mile journey into Liege on August 20,1 had secured this paper at Maastricht signed by the Dutch and German authorities. Over the Dutch seal were the words, "To the passing over the boundary into Belgian-Germany of Mr. Albert Williams there exists on the part of the undersigned no objection. Signed, The Commissioner of Police Souten." Over the German seal were the words, "At the Imperial German Vice-Consulate the foregoing signature is hereby attested to be that of Souten, the Police Commissioner of Maastricht." For this beautifully non-committal affair I had delivered up six marks. I would have cheerfully paid six hundred to disown it now.
"What explanation is there for his possession of that paper?" asked the General sternly.
De Leval pleaded cleverly, dilating upon the natural inquisitiveness and roaming disposition of the American race.
"I know what the Wanderlust is," said the General, "but I fail to understand the peculiar desire of this man to travel only in dangerous and forbidden war zones."
"In the second place," the General continued, "there is no doubt that he has made some remark to the effect that in the long run Germany cannot win. That was overheard by an officer in a cafe and is undeniable. The other charges we will for the time waive," said the General, drawing himself up with a fine hauteur. "But his identifying evidence is very flimsy. Can you produce any better?"
Suddenly I bethought me of the gold watch in my pocket. It was a presentation from some two hundred people of small means in an industrial district in Boston. Three of the aides successively and successfully damaged their thumbnails in their eagerness to pry open the back cover. That is a source of considerable satisfaction to me now; but it was embarrassing in that delicate situation when my fate hung almost by a thread, and a trifle could delay my release for days. If the General damaged his own thumb on it, I feel sure that I would have been remanded back to prison. But, luckily, the cover sprang open and revealed to the eyes the words: "From friends at Maverick."
De Leval adroitly turned this to the best advantage. It was the last straw. The General capitulated. Walking over into the adjoining room, he wrote on the blue folder: "Er ist frei gelassen." I would give lots for those folders; but, though safety was by no means certain, I found I yet had nerve enough to take a venture. When I was bidden to pick up my papers strewn across the desk, I tried my best to gather in some of the other documents. Besides the copies of the letter I wrote to the Ambassador the only thing I got on my case was this letter, written by Mr. Whitlock to Baron von de Lancken, the official German representative in charge of the dealings with the American Embassy. It has the well-known Whitlock straight-from-the-shoulder point and brevity to it.
BRUXELLES, le 29 Septembre, 1914, EXCELLENCE:
J'apprends a l'instant que Mr. Williams, citoyen Americain residente a l'Hotel Metropole, aurait ete arrete lundi par les Autorites allemande.
Pour le cas ou il n'aurait pas encore ete mis en liberte, je vous saurais gre de me faire connaitre les raisons de cette arrestation, et de me donner le moyen de communiquer aussitot avec lui, pour pourvoir eventuellement lui fournir toute protection dont il pourrait avoir besoin.
Veuillez agreer, Excellence, la nouvelle assurance de ma haute consideration.
(S) BRAND WHITLOCK. A Son Excellence Monsieur le Baron von der Lancken, Bruxelles.
Before my final liberation I was escorted into the biggest and busiest office of all.
Here I was given an Erlaubnis to travel by military train through Liege into Germany, and from there on out by way of Holland. The destination that I had in mind was Ghent, but passing through the lines thereto was forbidden. Instead of going directly the thirty miles in three hours, I must go around almost a complete circle, about three hundred miles in three days. But nothing could take the edge off my joy. A strange exhilaration and a wild desire to celebrate possessed me. With such a mood I had not hitherto been sympathetic; on the contrary, I had been much grieved by the sundry manifestations of what I deemed a base spirit in certain Belgians. One of them had said, "Just wait until the Allies' army comes marching into Brussels! Oh, then I am going out on one glorious drunk!" In the light of the splendid sacrifices of his fellow- Belgians, this struck me as a shocking degradation of the human spirit.
I could not then understand such a view-point. But I could now. In the removal of the long abnormal tension one's pent-up spirits seek out an equally abnormal channel for expression. I, too, felt like an uncaged spirit suddenly let loose. I didn't get drunk, but I very nearly got arrested again. In my headlong ecstasy I was deaf to the warnings of a German guard saying, "Passage into this street is forbidden." I checked myself just in time, and in chastened spirit made my way back to the Metropole.
Three times I was offered the prohibited Antwerp papers that had been smuggled into the city and once the London Times for twenty-five cents. The war price for this is said often to have run up to as many dollars.
An English, woman, or at any rate a woman with a beautiful English accent, opened a conversation with the remark that she was going directly through to Ghent on the following day and that she knew how to go right through the German lines. That was precisely the way that the Germans had just forbidden me to go. But this accomplice (if such she was) got no rise out of me. To all intents I was stone-deaf. Compared to me, she would have found the Sphinx garrulous indeed. She may have been as harmless as a dove but, after my escapade, I wouldn't have talked to my own mother without a written permit from the military governor. The Kaiser himself would have found it hard work breaking through my cast-iron spy-proof armor of formality. I had good reason, too, not to let down the bars, for I was trailed by the spy-hunters. Not until ten days later when I passed over the Holland border did I feel release from their vigilant eyes. My key at the Metropole was never returned to me and I know that my room was searched once, if not twice, after my return to the hotel.
It would be interesting to see how all this tallies with the official report of my case in the archives at Berlin. Perhaps some of these surmises have shot far wide of the mark. Javert, for instance, may not be a direct descendant of the ancient Inquisitor who had charge of the rack and the thumb screws, as I believed. In his own home town he may be a sort of mild-mannered schoolmaster and probably is highly astounded as well as gratified to find himself cast as the villain in this piece. Perhaps I may have been at other times in far greater danger. I do not know these things. All I know is that this is a true and faithful transcript of the feelings and sights that came crowding in upon me in that most eventful day and night.
PART II On Foot With The German Army
The Gray Hordes Out Of The North
The outbreak of the Great War found me in Europe as a general tourist, and not in the capacity of war-correspondent. Hitherto I had essayed a much less romantic role in life, belonging rather to the crowd of uplifters who conduct the drab and dreary battle with the slums. The futility of most of these schemes for badgering the poor makes one feel at times that these battles are shams and unavailing. This is depressing. It is thrilling, then, suddenly to acquire the glamorous title of war-correspondent, and to have before one the prospect of real and actual battles.
Commissioned thus and desiring to live up to the code and requirement of the office, I naturally opined that war- correspondents rushed immediately into the thick of the fight. Later I discovered what a mistake that was. Only very young and green ones do so. The seasoned correspondent is inclined to view the whole affair more dispassionately and with a larger perspective. But being of the verdant variety, I naturally figured that if the Germans were smashing down through Belgium onto Liege that that was where I should be. By entering gingerly through the back door of Holland, I planned to join them in their march down the Meuse River.
To The Hague came descriptions of the hordes pressing down out of the north through the fire-swept, blood-drenched plain of northern Belgium. This could be seen from the Dutch frontier at Maastricht. But passage thereto was interdicted by the military authorities. Ambassador Van Dyke's efforts were unavailing. Possessing a red-card, I enlisted the help of Troelstra, the socialist leader of the Netherlands.
He had just returned from an audience with the Queen. The government, seeking to rally all classes to face a grave crisis, was paying court to the labor leaders. Accordingly, the war department, at Troelstra's behest, received me with a handsome show of deference. I was escorted from one gold-laced officer to another. Each one smiled kindly, listened attentively and regretted exceedingly that the granting of the desired permission lay outside his own particular jurisdiction. They were polite, ingratiating, obsequious even, but quite unanimous. At the end I came out by the same door wherein I went—minus a permission.
Up till now my progress through the fringes of the war zone had been in defiance of all orders and advice. Having failed here officially, I took the matter in my own hands. Finding a seat in a military train, I stuck steadfastly by it so long as our general direction was south. At Eindhoven hunger compelled me to alight. As I was stepping up to the hotel-bar, I felt a tap on my shoulder and some one in excellent English said:
"You are under suspicion, sir. Follow me. Don't look around. Don't get excited. If you are all right you don't need to get excited; if you aren't it won't do you any good to get excited."
With this running fire of comment he led me into a side-room where a half-hour's examination satisfied him of my good intent. Without further untoward incident I came to Maastricht in Limbourg. Limbourg is the name of the narrow strip of Dutch territory which runs down between Germany and Belgium. At one place this tongue of land is but a few miles wide. If the Germans could have marched their troops directly across this they might have been spared the two weeks' slaughter at the forts of Liege and Paris, in all probability, would have fallen before them. It was a great temptation to the Germans. That's the reason the Dutch troops had been massed here by the tens of thousands—to prevent Germany succumbing to that temptation.