THE LOG OF A NONCOMBATANT
by Horace Green
Staff Correspondent of the New York Evening Post Special Correspondent of the Boston Journal
In the following pages the ego is thickly spread. Their publication is the result of persuasion from many sources that, before returning to the war zone, I should put into connected form my personal experiences as correspondent during the first year of the War of Nations. A few of these adventures were mentioned in news letters from the Continent, where I limited myself so far as possible to descriptions of armies at war and peoples in time of stress; but the greater part of them were merely jotted down from time to time for my own benefit in "The Log of a Noncombatant."
I. From Broadway To Ghent II. The Second Bombardment Of Termonde III. Captive IV. A Clog Dance On The Scheldt V. The Bombardment Of Antwerp VI. The Surrender Of Antwerp VII. Spying On Spies VIII. The Sorrow Of The People
The Log Of A Noncombatant
From Broadway To Ghent
When the war broke out in August, 1914, I was at work in the City Room of the "New York Evening Post." One morning, during the first week of activities, the copy boy handed me a telegram which was signed "Luther, Boston," and contained the rather cryptic message: —"How about this fight?"
It was some moments before I could recall the time, more than two years before, when I had last seen the writer, Willard B. Luther, Boston lawyer, devotee of some, and critic of many kinds of sport.
We had been sitting on that previous occasion—a crowd of college fellows, including Luther and myself—in a certain room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from the University in that neighborhood where Luther had attended the Law School and the rest of us, on our respective graduation days, had received valuable pieces of parchment with the presidential signature attached. The conversation had already run through the question of Votes for Women, progressive politics, and prize-fights, and before the card game began it had settled on the last-named, chiefly because of my own vainglorious description of adventures at Reno, Nevada, at the time of the Jeffries-Johnson battle for the heavyweight championship of the world. I remember telling with some gusto of my first newspaper interview—one with "Bob" Fitzsimmons, then the Old Man of the ring, and "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, who was Jeffries' trainer at Reno.
"I had always wanted to see that performance," said Luther, "and would have gone in a flash if I could have got any one to make the trip with me. But remember this fact: whenever the next big fight is held I'm going with you." Later in the evening we shook hands on the proposition.
At the time that Luther's telegram came I was planning to start for the Continent as Staff Correspondent of the "New York Evening Post" and Special Correspondent of the "Boston Journal." Remembering that Cambridge agreement I immediately wired:—
"Yes. This fight will do."
So that is how it came to pass that Luther and myself boarded the Campania together, landed in Liverpool, cast about for ways and means of getting into the scrimmage, and for the first month and a half of my four months of wandering on the Continent were brother conspirators, until the duties of partnership called my friend home and left me without a companion in adventure.
In London we absorbed to some extent a heavy British fog and to a greater extent British public opinion. We marveled at the exterior calm of a nation plunged in the greatest of wars, yet fighting, so it seemed at the time, with its top hat on and its smile still undisturbed. Across the English Channel three days later the Dutch steam packet Princess Juliana carried us safely through mine fields and between lanes of British torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers. We landed on the Continent at Flushing. Thence we headed for The Hague, Holland, the neutral gateway of northern Europe, where we found the American Minister, Dr. Henry van Dyke, and his first secretary, Marshall Langhorne, shouldering the work of the American Legation in its chameleonesque capacity as bank, post-office, detective bureau, bureau of information, charity organization, and one might even say temporary home for the stranded travelers of every rank and nation.
Antwerp, the temporary capital of Belgium, was at this time invested, but not yet besieged, by the German army. On the south the city was already cut off by several regiments of the Ninth and Tenth German Army Corps under General von Boehn. The River Scheldt and the Dutch border formed a wall on the north and west. It was to Antwerp, therefore, that we determined to go. After listening to the usual flood of warnings against entering the fighting zone, and drinking our fill of stories of atrocity and hate which every refugee brought across the border into Holland, we took a couple of reefs in our baggage, and, hoisting our knapsacks, set our course for the temporary Belgian capital. By rail we traveled south across the level fields and lush green meadows of Holland, over bridges ready to be dynamited in case of invasion, and through training camps of the 450,000 Dutch soldiers then mobilized along the border. At a little town called Eschen the train stopped because the Belgians had torn up the tracks.
Seated on the cross-piece of a joggling two-wheeled ox cart, moving at the rate of not more than four miles an hour, with a dumb specimen for a driver, and a volume of Baedeker for interpreter and guide, we got our first glimpse of the hideous thing called war. Judging from the looks of the country and the burning villages, we were on the heels of a devastating army. For three, four, and five miles on either side of the road beautiful trees lay flat upon the ground. It was not until we saw groups of Belgian soldiers tearing down their own walls and hedges and applying match and gasolene to those which still stood, that we realized that this was a case of self-inflicted destruction. Farmhouses, stores, churches, old Belgian mansions, and windmills were either in flames or smouldering ruins. Where burning had not been sufficient, powder and dynamite had been applied to destroy landmarks which for centuries had been the country's pride. As far as the eye could reach the countryside was flattened to a desert. It reminded me of the Salem fire, through which, while the piles of debris were still smoking, I had been taken in the "Boston Journal's" car. But instead of a single town, here for twenty miles along lay stretched a smouldering waste. The devastation was for the defensive purpose of giving an unobstructed view to the cannon of Antwerp's outer fortifications, which on that side covered one sector of the circle swept by her enormous guns. I should hesitate to mention the millions of dollars of self-inflicted damage to Antwerp's suburbs alone. Luther and I did not at the time have the military password. So that first day was a specimen in the matter of hold-ups and arrests. From the time that we started across the level plains which approach the city until we got through the double sector of forts, we were stopped, questioned, and searched by thirteen different groups of soldiers. There were marry occasions where, after one pair of stupid sentries had put us through the grill, a second pair, watching from a distance of thirty yards or so, promptly repeated the entire performance. As these fellows spoke only Flemish dialect, our conversations were not particularly fluent. Frequently there gathered around us a crowd of gaping peasants, and when the word "Americaine" came out, there were "Oh's" and "Ah" of astonishment, or as often, when our explanations were not believed, sibilant hisses that shaped themselves into the menacing word "Spion." We had been led to believe that sooner or later a wool-witted sentry would shoot first and investigate later; but so far they had simply crossed bayonets, or with their hands up and palms outward had signaled us to halt.
Our experience that day, as later events proved, was not an extraordinary occurrence for war-time, especially for those endeavoring to gain entrance to an invested city. But as our first and maiden adventure it somewhat shook our nerve. When the grilling was over we felt about as guilty as any criminal who has been put through the third degree as practiced in the old police department days, and I had several times to look over my passport and letters of credentials to persuade myself that I was really not a spy. Eventually we were permitted to pass the gates of the Gare du Nord. Once inside the city gates, we made our way into the Place Verte and went directly to the Hotel St. Antoine, whose proprietor sent our names to police headquarters. The St. Antoine was at that time the residence of the diplomatic corps and the Belgian ministers of state, and was fifty yards from the Royal Palace and across the street from headquarters of the Belgian General Staff.
There is no need of describing in detail Antwerp at the time of my first visit. One or two pictures will suffice to give a rough idea of its existence up to the time of the bombardment. Try to imagine, for example, going about your business in New York or Boston or Los Angeles (of course Antwerp is smaller than these) when your country, a territory perhaps the size of the New England States, was already two thirds overrun, burnt, smashed, and conquered by a hostile nation, whose forces were now within nineteen miles of the gates of the capital. Imagine that nation's warriors in the act of crushing your tiny army, whose remnants were already exhausted and on the verge of despair. Then picture a quaint, sleepy city, with shadowy alleys and twisting, gabled streets, in which every other store and house was decorated with King Albert's picture or draped in the red, black, and yellow banner of the country-a city whose atmosphere was charged with fear and suspicion and excitement. Sometimes a crowd of a thousand or two drew one toward the Central Station where bedraggled refugee families, just arrived from Liege, Termonde, Aerschot, and Malines, stood on street corner or wagon top and thrilled the crowd with tales of atrocities and the story of their flight from their burning homes to the south. Now and then the crowd parted before the clanging bell of a Red Cross ambulance rushing its load of bleeding bodies to the hospitals along the Place de Meir. Nurses, male or female, clung to the ambulance steps. The first one I saw made a vivid impression on me. She was an English-looking girl in a new khaki skirt, supporting with one hand what was left of a blood-dripping head,—the eyes and nose were shot away,—while out of the other hand she ate with apparent relish a thick rye-bread sandwich. Occasionally she waved remnants of the sandwich at the gaping crowd. It struck me as a peculiarly unnecessary exhibition of her callous fitness for the job of nurse.
During the daytime the ordinary things of life went on, for the good burghers and shopkeepers went about their business as usual, and, generally speaking, fought against fear as bravely as the soldiers in the trenches stood up against the German howitzers. It was only after dark (when martial law permitted no lights of any kind) that the city seemed to shiver and suck in its breath; doors were barricaded, iron shutters came down, and behind them the people talked in whispers. Military autos, fresh from the firing line, groaned and sputtered at the doorstep of the St. Antoine; soldiers with pocket lanterns stamped about the streets. From sheer nervousness after a day of confinement some citizens, in spite of warnings, groped about the more important avenues at night. Picture yourself on Broadway or Tremont Street, with not a light on the street gleaming from a window, and walking up and down with one hand on your wallet and the other in the pocket where your Colt automatic ought to be.
Such, very briefly, was the condition of Antwerp at the time when we arrived. That very evening word came in that the Belgian forces, which had been engaged with the enemy for five consecutive days of severe fighting, had retired behind the southern ramparts of the city.
During the night the stream of incoming wounded confirmed the news of battle. In the moonlight, and later in the gray dawn, I watched the long lines of Belgian hounds, pulling their rapid-fire guns out toward the trenches. Many times later I was destined to see them. They made a picturesque and stimulating sight—those faithful dogs of war —fettered and harnessed, their tongues hanging out as they lay patiently beneath the gun trucks awaiting the order to go into action, or, when the word had been given, trotted along the dusty roads, each pair tugging to the battle front a lean, gray engine of destruction.
For our purpose the best approach to Brussels was by way of Ghent. Luther pushed on ahead while I was finishing a story. The following morning, shouldering my knapsack, which now contained an extra supply of army rations, and carefully stuffing my different sets of credentials in different pockets (one for Belgian, one for German, and one for English consumption), I crossed the River Scheldt and made a slow and tortuous railway journey to Ghent.
Ghent lies thirty miles west of Antwerp. The trip took seven hours. During the course of it I passed north of the Belgian lines and through the western sector of forts, that is to say, Fort St. Nicholas, Fort Haesdonck, and Fort Tete de Flandre. It was the same road along which Winston Churchill's English marines and the remnant of the Belgian forces retreated after the fall of Antwerp.
Ghent resounded with praises of its American Vice-Consul, Julius Van Hee, a hair-trigger politician and a live wire if there ever was one. Van Hee, with his intimate knowledge of four languages and the Yankee knack of being on the right spot at the right time, twice saved blood-shed in the streets of Ghent and in one instance probably prevented a repetition of the scenes at Louvain.
In Ghent I again found Luther, with a fine young rumor in his pocket —a rumor which turned out to be correct—that six German spies were to be executed next morning at sunrise. The place mentioned was behind the museum in a public park.
"I suppose we'll take it in," said Luther.
"I don't know about that," I answered; adding that, although executions might be part of the day's work for a war correspondent, I drew the line at seeing my first murder before breakfast. The tip was correct enough except that it mentioned the wrong park.
The following noon the Military Governor, according to regulations, caused to be posted circulars announcing that the men had been put to death; but at all events I am glad to say that at that early date I did not have the experience of watching six blindfolded wretches backed up against a wall, of seeing the officer drop his arm as a signal, and of hearing the fatal crack of a dozen muskets, as the bodies collapsed like a telescope, crumpled inward with the chin upon the chest, and fell forward to the earth.
The Second Bombardment Of Termonde
September 15th was our day with Henry Verhagen, the tall gray alderman of the town that was once Termonde.
During all the time I was with him Verhagen did not speak a bitter word. On the contrary, he was calm—particularly calm as he stood beside the mound where the Belgian soldiers were buried in the center of the ruined town, pointed to the pile of bricks where he had lived, and told us how in two nights he had lost 340,000 francs, his son, his factory, and his home. It was from him, from the burgomaster's wife, and from a priest that we learned the story of the city that had ceased to be.
It was the night before that I had wandered into Ghent alone, without even the excitement of getting arrested. Luther, who became restive early the next morning while I was jotting notes in the log-book, went off in search of adventure. Because of the influence exerted by Vice- Consul Van Hee an arrangement was very soon made whereby a Belgian Government car and chauffeur were placed at our disposal. We had no laissez-passer for the firing line; but we were accompanied by the United States Consul and not governed by any stipulation as to our destination. In our Belgian car, decorated with all the American flags we could find, and "American Consular Service" pasted in huge letters on the windshield and side flaps, we raced along the Boulevard de l'lndustrie, swung into the southern suburbs, and, once outside the city limits, we opened up the exhaust and threw down the throttle as Van Hee shouted out the order:—"To Termonde!"
Termonde was at that time the scene of determined fighting between units of the ninth German Corps and the Belgian defenders. Situated as it is, twenty-one miles southeast of Ghent, it marks the southwest corner of a square formed by Louvain and Termonde on the south, by Ghent and Antwerp on the north. It controlled the bridge over the River Scheldt and with it an important approach to Antwerp, the capital at that time of Belgium. The heavy German siege guns, capable of demolishing a first-class fort at a range of several miles, could not have crossed the river so easily at any other point. For this reason the Germans particularly wanted Termonde—an open bridge to Antwerp was always worth the taking. The town had already at that time been captured and recaptured; wounded and refugees were swarming into Ghent full of battle stories and tales of terrible atrocities. So it was Termonde that we vowed we would see.
We first saw Verhagen trudging in the same direction as ourselves on the level, dusty road two miles southwest of Ghent. As we approached a cross-road marked by a tavern, a couple of direction-posts, and nondescript stucco buildings, we made out two Belgian sentries, with their rifles lifted overhead and indulging in some acrobatic exercises which we interpreted as a signal to halt. Van Hee swapped cigarettes with them and gossiped in their native tongue, in return for which they gave us some good advice. They warned us to pay no attention to sign-posts, which, in order to fool the enemy, were either marked with false names or else were pointed in the wrong direction. While we were talking, a tall gray alderman came along the road with a greasy package under his arm and at his side a priest—one of those ubiquitous black-robed figures with a hat like an inverted oatmeal bowl.
"Where to?" asked the Vice-Consul of Ghent.
"A Dendermonde," (to Termonde), answered Verhagen, sizing us up as strangers, and using French instead of the local Flemish dialect.
"You know the road?"
"Yes, well," said Verhagen; and so, partly because of charity and partly because we could have him as a useful guide, we took him into the car.
As we sped through the level lanes of poplars, challenged as usual by every Belgian regular or Garde Civique who could boast a uniform, the smooth green meadows of Flanders with their trim hamlets of stucco and tile seemed to deny the reports of savagery we had heard the night before. We had been told, and we had read, of German atrocities, and we had talked with survivors of Louvain. There was pillage, burning, and looting in Louvain, we had agreed, but the cruelty to women and children was the better part myth. And at all events, there was a semblance of cause for that. Perhaps there had been more resistance, more sniping by citizens than generally known, and perhaps the German side had not been fully explained.
Then suddenly Termonde lay before us. The center of the bridge was gone. Splintered timber sticking on end lay in the mud at the river's side, along with iron beams torn by the charges of dynamite. The current was choked with masses of steel and wood. We crawled across some temporary beams reconstructed by Belgian engineers, and entered the ruins with a handful of Termonde's citizens who had come back for the first time to see what was left of their homes.
"I will take you to the center," said Verhagen. "That is where my house was."
A quarter of a mile behind us, as the alderman sat upon a rock beside the gravestone, lay the thin neck of the Upper Scheldt, less than one hundred yards wide at this point, where it curved between the lines of charred and flattened buildings. We could still see the rush of water tumbling and splashing through the wreckage of the bridge we had just crossed. Twice it had been dynamited and twice rebuilt in part, so that at present a single line of slippery beams, suspended a few feet above the water and supported by some heavy wire, was all that remained between ourselves and the retreating road to Ghent. From the direction of Alost came the desultory boom of German guns; across the stream behind us the Belgian outposts whiled away the time with cigarettes and cards. Shaggy horses dozed against the gun trucks, and the men of artillery, some stretched at full length in the sun, others sitting bolt upright with arms folded, slept soundly on the gun carriages. We could hear the stream gurgling. We could hear the creak of a lazy windmill, and, coming somewhere from the smoking piles, the hideous howl of starving hounds. Of other human sounds there were none except the voice of Verhagen.
Ten days before Termonde had been a thriving town; that day it was a heap of smouldering ashes. America had heard a good deal about Tirlemont and Louvain, but not much of Termonde. Because this was a war of millions, it did not count in the news—for it was only a community of twelve thousand inhabitants, as pretty and quaint as the province of Flanders boasts, the prosperous center of its rope and cordage manufacture, with fifteen hundred houses, barracks, two statues, a town-hall, five churches, an orphan asylum, and a convent.
Now only one of the churches stood, as well as the building where the officers were quartered, the Museum of Antiquity, and perhaps a dozen others. Across the moat, which led to the gateway of what were formerly the inner fortifications, were piles of rotting horseflesh. The bronze statue of De Smet, the Jesuit missionary, looked calmly on the scene. All the rest was blotted out. There was no sign of hot-tempered impetuous work of a handful of drunken Uhlans, a fire started in anger and driven by the wind throughout the entire town. There was not a breath of wind. That the night was calm was shown by the fact that here and there single houses, even houses built of boards, were spared at the commander's word. The convent was burnt and pillaged, stones and mortar littered the street in front of the Hotel de Ville, and upon the sidewalk lay the famous bells which came crashing to the street below when shells burst in the belfry. From cellar to garret nearly every remaining house was systematically drenched with naphtha and the torch applied, and when all was over hundreds of gallons were tossed into the River Scheldt. Over a small group of houses in the poorer section of the city, where the prostitutes were quartered, grim Prussian humor, or perhaps a sense of value received, had prompted the conquerors to write in great white chalk marks in German script, "Gute Leute. Nicht brennen!" (Good people. Do not burn!)
For an hour we walked through the silence of ashes and stone, stumbling over timber and debris, tangled and twisted wire, a fallen statue, broken bells or the cross-piece of a spire; we made our way through piles of beds, chairs, singed mattresses, and stepped over the carcass of a horse with its belly bloated and flies feasting on its glassy eyes. We entered an apothecary shop where the clock still ticked upon the counter. Thinking there could be no reason of war to call for the destruction of the orphan asylum, we entered its portals to investigate. Before us lay burnt beds and littered glass. We searched what ten days before had been a convent, and crawled over heaps of logs and brick into narrow alleys that reminded one of Naples or Pompeii—alleys where the walls stood so close as to hide the light of sun but not the odor of charred vats and sewage and smouldering, smelling things, long dead. Not far from there the way widened into the light, and before us, breaking the rays of sunset, stood the cross above a heap of cobblestones.
"They are buried here," said Verhagen, "and here too is my house."
Another alderman, a friend of Verhagen, who had been allowed to remain in Termonde most of the four days that the Germans stayed, had the story detailed in his little pocket diary. On Thursday, September 3, he said, he was just leaving his rope and twine factory when he heard the sounds of musketry to the south. A small force of Belgian outposts were completely surprised by a part of the Ninth German Army Corps under General von Boehn. They were completely outclassed. Before retreating, however, they let the enemy have a couple of volleys. In the return fire they lost six of their men. They then retreated into the town and across the bridge.
Nothing happened after dark, but the next morning at nine o'clock the cannonading started. Inside of half an hour, according to the villagers, the entire German force of the One Hundred and Sixty-second and One Hundred and Sixty-third Uhlans and the Ninetieth Regiment of infantry of the Ninth Army Corps were in the town. They entered simultaneously by three different roads. The burgomaster was ordered immediately to provide rations for the regiment. But the burgomaster was away. He was given twelve hours to return. When he did not return, the burning began, according to the townspeople.
"The soldiers did not wish to burn the town," said one man; "but the orders were orders of war." He recounted that four Uhlans entered his house with a bow, and a knock at the door, politely helped themselves to his cellar, drank a toast to his wife, put his chairs in the street, and sat there playing his phonograph. They said they were sorry, but the house must be burnt. But before pouring on the naphtha and lighting the flame they freed his canary bird. Verhagen and the priest agreed that fright brought on an attack to a woman about to become a mother, and that she fell in the Rue de l'Eglise. A German lieutenant saw the trouble, put her on a stretcher made of window shutters, and called the German army doctor. She was sent to a field hospital and tenderly cared for until she and the child could be moved. Such incidents in strange relief, told by men who had lost everything, lent corroboration, if such were necessary, to the burden of their story of the relentless destruction of the town itself.
Our little band was the first to enter the ruins of Termonde after its abandonment by the Ninth German Army Corps. And by a coincidence, we were the last to leave. That very evening, at precisely the time we were crawling across the broken timbers that spanned the Scheldt and connected us with Belgium-owned Belgium, the Germans again pumped heavy artillery fire into the town. This was later known as the second German bombardment and occupation of Termonde. Because of superior artillery range, the attack had the cruel advantage of the man who can strike and still stay out of reach. On that evening at six-thirty, the Teutons sent a few warning shells into the debris, and then the first column of scouts entered simultaneously by the two southern gates. It was just at six-thirty that our party started back for Ghent.
As we crawled across on all fours the remaining beams cracked beneath our feet and the Belgian engineers called on us to hurry. "Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber," we thought as the last of us got across; but unlike Horatius at the bridge, we were on the right side when engineers applied the match to a small charge of dynamite, and the beams crashed and the remaining planks of Termonde's bridge writhed and twisted in the rushing waters.
Twenty-seven miles away, when we whirled through the gates of Ghent later in the evening, we said "Au revoir" to Verhagen and the mendicant priest, and went to our rooms. At midnight came a rap at the door; my gray-haired alderman broke into the room, bursting with the latest news, his eyes aflame with excitement.
"Revanche!" he exclaimed dramatically; "our enemies have paid for it in blood!"
Sure enough, after a few preliminary shells—a sort of here-we-come salvo—the head of the German column had entered, and a party of staff officers, for purposes of reconnaissance, immediately mounted the spire of the only remaining church. The officers of the Ninth German Army Corps swept the landscape with their glasses, but the level plains gave nothing to their sight. They saw only the ashes of Termonde, the river, and the straight stretch of sandy roads and stucco hamlets beyond.
They did not notice a valley of covered ground and a quarter-mile stretch of trees and shrubbery, where three squads of Belgian field artillery were neatly hidden. Here the men took cover at the first sound of cannonade. Quietly in their retreat the Belgian artillery officers had figured the range and elevation of the cathedral tower, not over fifteen hundred yards away. Just as darkness was setting in and the figures in the belfry were clearly visible, the battery sergeant sharply dropped his arm.
"C-r-r-m-p-h!" coughed the field pieces as the gunners drew the levers home. There were four sharp reports, four flashes of flame and smoke, the crescendo moan of tons of flying steel—and the church tower, the bells, and the German officers came crashing to the ground.
Up to the day that Luther and I went through the Belgian trenches near Alost and got into the hands of the German outposts north of Brussels, we had not seen nearly as much fighting as we wished. We had looked upon the ear-marks and horrible results of battles; had heard guns, smelt the blood and ether of wounded, and seen the ruins over which had rolled the wave of battle. We knew that ahead of us there had been much fighting in the Sempst-Alost-Vilvorde- Tirlemont region. The Germans at that moment, if not actually advancing toward Antwerp, were skirmishing and making feints in every direction, with the ultimate disposition of their forces carefully concealed. Of course, we had no official permission to be at the front with either army; in fact, up to that point we had received nothing but official threats on the subject of what would happen to us in case we went ahead. But as no one did more than threaten, we kept on going, since we preferred that mode of procedure to sitting around in Paris or Berlin on the chance of one of those "personally conducted" tours of inspection, whose purpose is to show the correspondent everything except actual fighting. It was our hope during that early part of the war to see as much as possible of the German army, realizing that, if captured, we should undoubtedly be sent either backward or forward along the German line of communication in conquered Belgium. Once within the German outposts we pleaded like Brer Rabbit not to be thrown into the German brier patch. So of course we landed in it. After a few days in Brussels they shipped us Eastward to Aix-la-Chapelle by way of Lou-vain, Tirlemont, and Liege.
It was two days after the second bombardment of Termonde—at 7 A.M., to be exact—that Luther and I started from Ghent for Brussels in a military automobile, the property of the Belgian Government, and again loaned for the occasion to Julius Van Hee, American Vice- Consul, then Acting Consul at Ghent. We carried with us a United States Government mail pouch, a packet of mail from Dr. Henry van Dyke, at The Hague, addressed to Brand Whitlock, the American Minister at Brussels, and another packet of mail from Henry W. Diederick, United States Consul-General at Antwerp. Mr. Van Hee hoped to obtain from the German authorities in Brussels some smallpox vaccine to take back to Ghent, where a smallpox epidemic was feared.
Once out of the town limits of Ghent we bowled along at top speed, with the American colors trembling fore and aft and impressive- looking signs pasted on windshield and side-flaps. The autumn rains descended heavily upon us, drenching everything except the carefully protected mail bags.
Six miles southeast of Ghent, we ran into a regiment of Belgian infantry moving back from the direction of Brussels, and farther on a squad of cavalry and some more cavalry outposts; then two companies of bicycle patrol, the men with their heads bent over the handlebars, Mausers slung over their shoulders, pedaling heavily through the mud and slush of a cold September storm. A few mitrailleuses, known as the Minerva type, and mounted on armored motor-cars, were trained on the ravine through which the road dipped a thousand yards ahead of us. They had sighted the German outposts on the crest of a hill opposite us about three quarters of a mile away. In a very poor kind of trench, hastily constructed in the beet-fields, and little more than body deep, the men lay on their bellies in the mud, nervously fingering their muskets and adjusting the sights. A third company of bicycle scouts were ordered to advance for the purpose of drawing fire.
I doubt if that particular body of men had ever before been under fire. Never was the fear of death more plainly written on human face. All of the men went ahead without flinching or failing, but the muscles of their jaws were knotted, their faces were the color of chalk, and one or two dismounted for a moment, subject to the physical effects of fear. I have seen men tremble before important physical contests: Jeffries, stepping into the prize ring at Reno, Nevada, ready for the beating of his life and the loss of reputation. I have seen murderers condemned to death. Charles Becker, as I watched him taking his death sentence that evening in the Criminal Courts Building, did not give one the same uncanny feeling as this handful of Belgian scouts pedaling out to meet the German fire. I do not intend to say the Belgians were not brave men, for this was an isolated instance. And indeed there was something gruesome about that little company offered for the slaughter, simply for the purpose of locating the German batteries. The men understood the meaning of the order and appreciated the odds against them.
The mitrailleuses pointed down the road we were headed on, and the Belgian gun-captain told us they were going to clean things up as soon as their own scouts drew fire and the first Teuton helmet appeared above the crest. Naturally we were ordered back. Had we continued on this road we should have been between the Belgian fire behind and the German fire in front, for the Germans would undoubtedly have mistaken us for a scouting party in an armored car. As it was, Luther jumped to the wheel and insisted on seeing the thing through. We went ahead for about half a mile. I told him that if the shrapnel began to burst too close he would find me tucked safely underneath the car examining the gasoline tanks or in the nearest farmhouse cellar, and I believe he would have. But nothing came close to us on that occasion. My real "baptism" was reserved for another day, because Van Hee suddenly wrenched the wheel from Luther and turned our machine down a side road. It was a case of out of the firing line into the frying-pan, for the side road led us into a trap from which there was no turning back—the territory patrolled by the burly pickets of the Ninth German Army Corps, forming part of the Kaiser's army of occupation in Brussels.
Out of earshot, and certainly out of sight of that skirmish, we were speeding at a great rate along a level, lonely road flanked by beet-fields and long lines of graceful elms that shook hands overhead, when:
"HALT! WOHIN? WO GEHEN SIE?" rang suddenly out of the darkness as two figures jumped from behind a farmhouse and leveled their rifles at us. I shall always remember that sharp command as the cold, gray muzzles followed us like a sportsman covering a bevy of quail. Our fat Belgian chauffeur, violinist in times of peace, and posing that day as an American,—one of those men who look as if they would bleed water if you pricked them with a bayonet,—needed no second warning. Running the German gauntlet was not precisely his hobby. Down went the emergency brake and the car jolted to a sudden halt.
A bristle-whiskered German giant under a canvas-covered helmet stuck his head through the flaps, and for more than ten minutes he and another sentinel searched our knapsacks and credentials and inspected the Government mail pouches which we carried. The sentries were far from satisfied. We said little at first, realizing, nevertheless, that we had run between the opposing trenches and up to the German outposts without actually drawing fire. That, at least, was something of a comfort.
Then, as if the answer was the price of admission, the big one asked us if we had seen many British soldiers around Antwerp and Ghent. We had previously decided that the answer to such talk was, "None of your business." But the fellow's bayonet was infernally bright and sharp and his countenance like ice. It wasn't only the equinoctial rain that made us shiver.
While I was trying to limber up my German vocabulary he passed us along to his Ober-leutenant in the hut along the roadside. The Ober- Ieutenant was grave. He said we must report to army headquarters in Brussels, and that under no circumstances should we be allowed to return within the Belgian lines. In this way began our eight days' confinement within the lines of the German Army of the North under General von Boehn.
Just as we had been warned repeatedly, so we discovered in reality that to cross between two opposing lines was no joking matter. Bad enough, particularly in the early days of the war, to a correspondent without permission at the front. To work up from the rear (if you had permission) was at least according to the rules of the game. But to cross between hostile armies—that was the one forbidden act. The fact that we were with an American Consul was not sufficient. Three days later Van Hee was allowed to return, but the remainder of the party, that is to say, Willard Luther and myself, were given a free trip into German territory and incidentally more than a week's chance to study the German army from within.
Those next eight days Luther and I spent as willing and, on the whole, decently treated captives within the lines of the German Army of the North, talking freely with cultivated officers and grimy men of the ranks, and in this way learning much of the German war machine, the opinions of the officers and the men at their command. It would be interesting to tell how in Brussels we dodged from War Office to cafe, from cafe to consulate, from consulate back to War Office, and later were worried and watched and suspected; how we were shipped back across the German border on a combination Red Cross and ammunition train; how we were locked for much of the night in a half-mile tunnel of the northern Vosges Mountains, and there, in the groping darkness of our box-car prison, shared the soldier's biscuit and his bottle, so coming to know the Kaiser's private as a companion and not as the barbarian his enemies paint him.
The day after we got inside the German lines we went before Major Heinrich Bayer, at that time military commandant in Brussels in the absence of General von der Goltz. Jostling through the street and jamming the courtyard of the War Office was a crowd of a thousand persons—mothers, children, whole families begging for relief or permission to leave the city limits; German subjects trying to get passes, officials and employees of the civil administration taking orders from the military authorities. A relay of aides, orderlies, and secretaries led us from courtyard to corridor and from corridor to staff headquarters and into the Holy of Holies—the office of the commandant.
Grim, stern,—but courteous throughout the interview,—the major paced the floor beside his desk. He seemed anxious enough to be rid of the "crazy Americans" who had wandered through the Belgian and German lines, not altogether satisfied with their integrity, yet not wishing to take a hostile attitude. I asked him when he thought the war would be over. At the moment the German major, Vice-Consul Van Hee, and I were the only persons in the room.
"I do not know," he said, as if thinking aloud; "I really do not know. America is the only country that has not fired on us yet, but all the rest —" Then he added thoughtfully, "Perhaps it is better that you go. But you cannot return to Ghent or Antwerp; you must go back to Germany." He stopped as if he had gone too far, and then sharply commanded the orderly to remove us. Forty-eight hours later Mr. Van Hee got his release. To Luther and myself was given a curious sort of pass, beset with limitations, which at times caused us royal treatment and as often proved a fatal baggage tag. I have always believed a joker lay hidden somewhere in that document. It started with a flattering description of our status (as given by ourselves), but below it directed us to be taken into Aix-la-Chapelle, Germany, and under no circumstances to be returned within the Belgian lines. We had seen a great deal too much for that. In spite of our protestations of good faith and promises to keep dark what we had seen, the military authorities considered us much safer under German guard. We were to be taken on the southern route by way of Namur. To drive home the importance of obeying this order we were reminded of the regulation, printed in French and posted throughout the city, "that whosoever passed the city limits or approached the fighting line without military permit, or on the pretense of having such a permit, or whosoever deviated from the route laid down would be shot 'sur le champ.'" That same evening, however, army orders declared that the Namur route was closed. We got a second War Office pass sending us to Aix by way of Louvain, Tirlemont, and Liege. Armed with these we went down to an old Major Bock von W———, in charge of transportation at Schaerbeek, on the outskirts of the city.
I showed him the passes and said with a painful attempt at levity, "Major, we can't obey both of these, so we 're going to get shot either way we go. If it is all the same to you I would rather die on your route." To my great relief the old fellow laid back his gray head and emitted a series of long, loud Teuton laughs. He was the first German I had heard laugh and it did me good. I knew we were safe. On the understanding that the business was strictly confidential and that no other citizens or suspects were to know of it, he gave us a permit for the military trains. It had been the intention of the War Office to pack us under guard with the herds on one of those Government refugee trains. But to live and sleep with the soldiers as we were now to do, to see their marches, to absorb their uninformed and boastful talk, to study their guns, munitions, and equipment, was better than our highest hopes.
"You have to do a lot of quick transporting?" I asked before saying good-bye to Major von W———.
"Yes," was the answer. "They 're at us from all sides. Some of the men we are now transporting have been under fire in two countries, and now they will see service in a third." He knew that I had come from Ghent and from Antwerp, which the Germans were about to bombard, yet, to his credit, it should be said that he did not ask for information of Belgian activities. Similarly, although the soldiers, as a rule, and one man high in the civil government of Brussels, asked what was going on in Antwerp, it was noticeable that German officers recognized the obligations of neutrality.
Of how we left Brussels and of the first part of the eastward trip, I am going to quote from the jottings in the log-book, which was written up at some length after we left Aix-la-Chapelle:—
"Early on the morning of the 22d, I went up to Consul Watts's office to get the mail pouch I had promised him to carry. Luther and I then boarded a trolley car going northwest past the Gare du Nord and on to Schaerbeek, a junction on the outskirts of Brussels. Although the Major Bayer passes, with von W———'s counter-signature, got us as far as Schaerbeek, we were challenged by the guards at the railroad station. The stations were watched with the most astounding precaution. Of course there was no such thing as a ticket; once inside the gate you could jump a troop train, ammunition car, or blow up the track if you felt like it. Wherefore they guarded the stations carefully.
"At the gates had a terrible pow-wow with an officious Bavarian who called himself the Officer-of-the-Day. I played all my best German cards, including Count von Bemstorffs letter. At the end of half an hour our pig-headed officer shipped us back to Brussels. We returned to von W———, then in Brussels, who vised our pass with a note to the effect that although we were civilians, exceptional circumstances demanded our hurried return to Aix by military train.
"When we eventually got into the Schaerbeek station we had two hours to wait. Walked up and down the tracks or sat on the platform, keeping an eye on everything that was going on. Luther says I spent most of my time trying not to look like an Englishman. Occasionally, when we spoke a word of English, some officer would shoot us a 42 cm. glance and demand our papers. We were undoubtedly marked figures, because in the first place no civilians were allowed along the railway line, especially foreigners.
"Watched several westbound loads go by until about two o'clock, when they made up a combination train consisting of Red Cross coaches and empty freight trucks going back to Aix for fresh loads of men and ammunition. Aix is the great distributing center for the line of communication into northern Belgium. Most of the open cars were empty, barring occasional gun carriages on the way home for repairs; in the closed freight cars lay a few wounded first line men, a half a dozen male nurses, and some privates on furlough. Speaking of nurses, I haven't—so far at least-seen a woman nurse nearer the scene of action than a base hospital, i.e., one of the big hospitals in Antwerp, Brussels, or Ghent. Luther and I, closely followed by the two guards that had trailed us from the time we had got inside the station, climbed into a freight car, apparently used as a box stall on the out trip, and bare except for a pile of damp straw in one corner. Interminable journey. Most of the time we stood on sidings waiting for the outbound traffic. Made fair time to Louvain,—i.e., an hour and a half,—and stayed there two hours, for which I was thankful, as it gave me a chance to look around. Interviewed soldiers, citizens, and a Jesuit priest, of which more later. One hour more to Tirlemont. Then seven hours to Liege, where we arrived at 2 A.M., were smothered for two hours in that tunnel, and took six and three quarters hours more from Liege to Verviers—a distance of less than fifteen miles! It was another five hours to Aix.
"Saw tremendous troop movements along Brussels-Louvain-Verviers line of communication. During the first day thirty-five troop and transport trains went past us, moving towards the western frontier, the larger part to strengthen the German attack on Antwerp, which we had not long left behind us, others to discharge their loads as near as possible to Lille, Tournai, and Mons. The average train was twenty cars long, making about seven hundred carloads, with two hundred or more in each car, giving a total of more than 140,000 fighting men. We stopped counting at the end of the first day.
"After we left Louvain I got out occasionally and stretched my legs along the tracks, but Luther, not being able to talk German, stuck pretty close to his diggings. Had a great time at a little town called Neerwinden, where we stayed about half an hour. A crowd of soldiers from our train joined a group cooking supper in the moonlight at one of the soup kitchens along the tracks. They fed me lukewarm stew and slabs of rye bread, then went on singing and arguing without paying much attention to me. One bald-headed, stocky private told the crowd the news that von Hindenburg had captured Warsaw. Later a crowd of big brutes, apparently pretty drunk, swaggered down and clapped me on the back with a 'Who are you, my friend?'
"'Amerikaner,' I explained, not thinking it necessary to mention the war correspondent part. They set up a cheer, clapped me on the back, and finally lifted me to their shoulders for a triumphal ride up and down the railroad ties, all the time yelling out 'Amerikaner! Hurrah! Amerikaner!'
"A few hundred years seemed the night we spent locked in that box-car prison. A five-days' equinoctial storm had given way to the coldest day of the autumn: our car, raw and dank as a dungeon, joggled along endlessly until afternoon gave way to evening and evening to chilly night. Hour after hour we looked out upon the rolling fields and burnt farmhouses along the path where General von Emmich's army had passed. As the moon crawled up over the rain-bathed foothills of the Ourthe Mountains, the temperature dropped far below the freezing point. For ages we lay awake braced against the cold. The soldier next me, who had been through the fight at Maubeuge, coughed throughout the night—a hollow, retching cough. "Tuberculosis," the Red Cross doctor told me, although the fellow had got through his army tests all right.
Between two and four in the morning we stuck in the middle of a tunnel of the northern Vosges Mountains, two hundred feet, perhaps, beneath the surface of the ground. The sliding door on the left side of our car was locked: on the other side jagged walls, dripping wet to the touch, jutted so close that a thin man couldn't have walked between them and the car. Everywhere pitch blackness, the blackness of the tomb. The consumptive soldier pulled a candle from his kit, balanced it in the straw, and over it warmed his hands. If that candle had toppled over in the straw we wouldn't have had a rat's chance in the fire. It was impossible to get out of our car or to communicate with another except by tapping. The fellows in the next car must have been considerably frightened, for after about an hour they began yelling and pounding at the walls. All you could hear was a roaring sound that caromed against the walls of the cavern. Smoke from the engine drifted back to choke us. It hit the consumptive worst. The poor fellow began blowing and coughing, then rolled feebly on his back and gasped. During the worst of the smoke one of the soldiers in the next car set up a rollicking song, and others followed his example. We could hear the clank of beer bottles as they finished, the echoes of the song reverberating loudly, then faintly, then louder again up and down the length of that interminable vault. A draught of air cleared the smoke away and it didn't bother us again. At four in the morning we steamed out of the tunnel into the open. A little after that I must have dozed off, for I woke with a start when the consumptive stumbled over me.
"There you are," he said, throwing a bundle beside me; "I thought you'd need it."
Noticing, when he lit his pipe at dawn, that we had no army blankets and were pretty nearly frozen, this "barbarian" had jumped out of the car in the Liege freight yards, had run a quarter of a mile to the nearest army kitchen depot, and had stolen for us a couple of heaping blankets' full of warm, dry straw.
It was impossible to believe that these men had committed the atrocities reported at Termonde and Roosbeek, at Malines and Louvain. At close range it was easy to see that the prevalent conception of the "barbarians" was the purest kind of rot—the picture created and fostered by the Allied press, of a vicious and besotted beast with natural brutality accentuated by alcoholic rage. With such men as individuals it seemed to us that neutral observers could have no quarrel. To the Kaiser's privates who have been fighting for a cause they do not thoroughly understand, was due, we thought, the greatest respect; to the officers, too, who understand what they are doing and are game in the face of odds; and most of all to the suffering German people. But to the German war machine, we reflected, was due a terrible punishment—the lesson it must learn not only for Germany's enlightenment, but for the sake of civilization and humanity.
A Clog Dance On The Scheldt
When the German major at Aix-la-Cha-pelle stamped on our passports:— "Gesehen. Gut Zum Austritt Kommandant 2 Kompagnie, Landsturm Batl. Aachen," we were free, so we thought, to shake the dust of Germany from our feet. Hoisting our rucksacks, we gave up box cars in favor of a civilized passenger train, northward bound, and at noon crossed the Dutch border at Simplefeldt.
For three hours we talked English, consulted maps, took notes, and asked questions where and when we pleased. The holiday cost us dear. At the end of that time we were under lock and key in the town of Maastricht, the Province of Limburg, and the supposedly free and neutral Kingdom of the Netherlands. We suspected at the time, and in view of what I learned upon a later trip to Berlin I am quite certain, that the long arm of the German Secret Service had reached out for us across the border.
Having started from Antwerp during its investment, but prior to its siege by the German army, we were now on the third stage of a round trip which was to land one of us back in the Belgian temporary capital in time for the bombardment. During the previous two weeks we had been stopped, questioned, and sometimes examined, no less than one hundred and thirty times. Thirteen, we calculated, was our average number of hold-ups on our early "marching days"; that is to say, during those wanderings which led us by foot, train, ox cart, and automobile past the double sector of Antwerp's fortifications, through the Belgian fighting lines to Ghent and Termonde, and thence into the arms of the German pickets on the outskirts of Brussels.
And now, as the heavy door of the Maastricht police headquarters slammed in our faces, and the key rattled in the guardroom lock, my companion in crime threw down his hat and coat in rage. Between us we treated our fellow-prisoners to a quarter of an hour's tirade on the American citizen's right to freedom, swore that the Kingdom of the Netherlands would repent this outrage, and each of us politely assured the other it was all the other fellow's fault.
All of which, though true, had no effect on the sniffling young woman across the way, nor the sleeper on the hardwood bench next mine, nor the bald-headed, big-lipped police sergeant who bent over his desk in the corner, impervious to these usual outbursts of the newly arrested, as he laboriously scrawled in the police blotter the report of the day's round-up.
"Sit down!" he bellowed as I advanced toward the pen door, and tried to open it.
When he resumed his scratching I did my best to explain in a German-French-Dutch dialect of my own invention that we wished to see Mons. le Commissaire at once; that we had only come to inspect the concentration camp of German and Belgian prisoners, and that we were leaving town that day. I particularly emphasized this point. We were, in fact, I assured him in several different ways, leaving that very afternoon—as soon as the disagreeable mistake of our arrest was rectified. He may or may not have understood this: at all events, he wore an expression as blank and graven as Jack Rose upon the witness stand. His only answer was a vacant stare at the pit of my stomach, followed by a slow scratch-scratching on the police blotter.
In fact our arrest on that occasion was rather a Jack Rose affair; that is to say, it started by our being invited to headquarters, suspicious but not certain of our status until we finally landed behind the iron doors. Without doubt Maastricht authorities were waiting for us even as we stepped off the train, showing that we were doomed from the time we left the border. Our captor, an unctuous, pink-cheeked politzei, made his appearance not far from the internment camp. Where were we going, and why?
"To see the prisoners," we said.
"It is possible," said the spider to the fly, "zat I can get for you permission if you will come to ze guardhouse. Ze capitain is there."
The "guardhouse" proved a precinct police station, and the captain was not there: instead we found a mixed crowd of civilians and militaires who looked us over and shook their heads. Next we were taken to military headquarters
the center of the town. For fifteen minutes we hunted the evasive captain while I ran through my head the various sets of credentials stuffed in different pockets; for, being in Dutch territory, although only a few miles from the Belgian frontier on one side and the German frontier on the other, I was not quite certain which to produce. Among my letters I carried one from the German Ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, to the Foreign Office in Berlin; one from Professor Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard, and a note from the secretary of the Belgian Legation at The Hague. Unfortunately I did not have with me at the time a very helpful letter from Colonel Roosevelt, ending with the statement that the bearer "is an American citizen, a non-combatant, and emphatically not a spy." I had promised the Colonel to use this, my trump card, only in case of necessity—and once, on a later occasion, I did so with immediate effect. On the whole, I now decided in favor of a United States passport decorated with my picture and enough vises to resemble the diplomatic history of the Continent.
"The captain is not here. We go to the commissaire at headquarters," said the polite politzei. It was then that we cut loose, told him to bring the commissaire or the burgomaster to us, and started to walk off. It was a bad move. So far he had handled us with a velvet grip, but at the first sign of insurrection he showed his teeth, locked arms with each of us, and, signaling another officer to follow, forthwith marched us off to police headquarters and our ultimate resting-place, the guardroom cell.
How long we stayed there I don't know—long enough, at all events, to get a glimpse of the Dutch police system and the third degree as practiced in the Lowlands. There swung open a great iron door leading to the street and the market-place, not so large but fully as busy as Washington Market the week before Thanksgiving. Through it, sobbing and screaming, their hats gone and their hair torn, came two women, roughly handled by gendarmes and followed by a mob escort. They were thrown weeping and expostulating into an adjoining cell. A gendarme came out with trickles of blood on his face. He mopped his brow and complained of feminine finger-nails. Close behind him followed a male friend of the imprisoned women. He pleaded with the sergeant at the desk, while the moans of the women, under pressure to confess their crime, came from their cell. But Jack Rose only scratched and scratched monotonously, and now and then gazed at the middle of the speaker's stomach.
In the mean time we fell back into our habit of talking for publication. With an intimacy that would have surprised those gentlemen we referred casually to Brand Whitlock, Dr. van Dyke, and the biggest Dutch and Belgian names we could think of. We suspected that Jack Rose and the man at our side understood more English than they pretended. At all events, it had its effect. In half an hour we were taken before the commissioner.
Two cigars lay on the edge of the table nearest us. I could see at a glance that we were free.
"Do you speak English?" I asked him.
"No," he answered in our native tongue; "only French, Flemish, German, and Italian—but not English." And with a grin he asked for our passports.
"You are for the American newspapers?"
"Yes," I answered—"one of us is a lawyer who writes occasionally. I am correspondent for a New York and a Boston paper, but I won't cable anything from here." For this reason, I explained, no movements of troops or news of military value could leak out.
"Ah, I see," said the commissioner who could not talk English. "An amateur correspondent and a slow correspondent. But correspondents are not at all tolerated in this province. It is five o'clock. You will board the train leaving this province at 5.16 P.M."
From Maastricht to the Dutch capital is, under usual conditions, a four-hour run to the north. During this trip we passed encampments and fortifications of the 400,000 well-drilled but poorly equipped troops which the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in the spirit of no negative neutrality, had mobilized along her borders. Whenever we crossed a bridge every window in the entire train was fastened down and there were strict orders against raising them. We discovered that under the boulders were carefully concealed large charges of dynamite ready for immediate use in case of invasion—so that Horatius need not be called upon while axe and crowbar were at work. The windows, it appears, were locked to prevent throwing out of lighted cigars or matches.
At one o'clock the next morning our train, delayed by war-time traffic, rolled into the Hague station, whence three days later, I was to start my lucky trip into Antwerp, the besieged.
Clog dancing and cognac helped to get me from The Hague back into Antwerp in time for its bombardment and capture by the German forces under General von Beseler. I happened to perform the clog dancing at a critical moment during a trip on a Scheldt River barge, thus diverting the attention of the river sentries from my lack of proper papers. While the pedal acrobatics were in progress my temporary friend, Mons. le Conducteur, reinforced the already genial pickets with many glasses of the warming fluid.
Willard Luther, my companion in and out of jail during the first part of the continental wanderings, was forced to leave for home the day after we got back to The Hague. He had five days to catch the Lusitania at Liverpool. Three of them he spent on a whirlwind trip trying to see action in northern Flanders, but, much to his disappointment, was called away before the final scrimmage at Antwerp. If he had succeeded in getting in, I rather fear the Massachusetts Bar would have lost a valuable member. He had an insatiable passion to be in the neighborhood of bullets and bombs— not, as I take it, that he really wanted to get hit—merely that he would like to see how close he could come.
On October 2d, strictest regulations were passed prohibiting entry within the fortifications of Antwerp without permit from the military governor, General de Guise. Three weeks earlier entry had been possible but difficult, and the feat was again easier after the German occupation. But during the city's days of trial the military lid was clamped and riveted. Except for those coming direct from England, the highest civil recommendations were valueless.
I had one of these,—a laissez-passer from Prince d'Eline, Secretary of the Belgian Legation at The Hague,—issued because of the fact that I was carrying a large packet of mail from the American Legation at The Hague to Henry W. Diederick, United States Consul-General at Antwerp. I had also been entrusted with three hundred marks to be delivered to a German prisoner, Lieutenant Ulrici, known to have been wounded and captured in the fighting around Termonde, and believed to be lying in a hospital ship in the river or in Antwerp itself. The fact of carrying such money was of course against me as indicating German sympathy.
Because a large part of the railroad line between Eschen, Cappelen, and Antwerp had been torn up, because there would be many hold-ups, and because I couldn't speak a word of Flemish, I decided against the overland route. Hearing, however, that L. Braakman & Company, a grain and freight shipping concern, were running down barges from Rotterdam, I got a Belgian friend to call them up on my behalf. The result was a flat throw-down: without General de Guise's sanction I might not even cross the gangplank.
Nevertheless, I went to Rotterdam, crossed the river basin to the island from which the Braakman boats ran, and there saw a director of the company, who, fortunately, could speak both English and Flemish. He took me to the captain of the river barge, a low craft that looked a cross between a tugboat and a Hudson River scow. In less than three minutes my case was disposed of. Verdict: "C'est absolument defendu." It was time for a little "bluff." An hour later I returned with a new proposition, having in the mean time telegraphed Mr. Diederick either to meet me at the pier at Antwerp or to send a military permit. Displaying a copy of this telegram I suggested that I be allowed to board. If there was any one at Antwerp to meet and vouch for me, well and good; if not, they were at liberty to ship me back. That was my proposition.
"He may go as far as the border patrol, fifteen miles east of Antwerp," the captain said to my interpreter. "If the river sentries permit it he may then go as far as the Antwerp pier, but he cannot land."
We cast off Sunday, October 4th, at 6 A.M. The little Telegraaf III poked her nose through the blue-gray haze of a chilly October morning while the muddy waters of the Meuse slapped coldly against her bow. I stamped the deck a few times, wondering if there was an English-speaking soul aboard, and leaned up against the engine room until the odor of coffee and bacon lured me to the fo'castle hatch. A purple-faced giant, with thick lips that met like the halves of an English muffin blocked the companion-way.
"'Jour," growled the face as though it hated to say it, then pointed to the food and cognac. This was Monsieur le Conducteur, ship's cook, barkeeper, and collector of fares.
In the center of a dark cabin, littered with charts, pails, and Flemish newspapers, was a kitchen table. Now and then a smoking oil lamp flared up to throw a light on the faces of my fellow-passengers, five of them in addition to the captain and Mons. le Conducteur. They were, as I discovered later, Mons. A. Albrecht, a leading alderman of Antwerp and a friend of Mons. Vos, the burgomaster; a light-haired Belgian piano salesman who could speak five languages; Mile. Blanche Ravinet, of looks beautiful and occupation unknown; and two others. From the suddenness with which the conversation stopped, I judged they had been discussing "ze American." They were welcome to say what they liked barring the word "spion."
For hours we chugged steadily along, catching a fair tide on the lower Meuse, and sliding past the neat little towns of Dordrecht, Papendrecht, and Willemstad, through the Hollandische Diep and the Krammer Volkerak. After that the Telegraaf III worried through the canals and systems of locks which virtually cut the neck of Tholen from the mainland, and, when the last of these had been accomplished, splashed into the great basin of the East Scheldt. A Dutch gunboat cut across our bows, signaling us to halt. An officer boarded us to study the freight invoices.
Farther upstream a launch came alongside, making fast fore and aft, while two Belgian river sentries, in long blue coats and faded drab trousers, poked their bearded heads above the rail. This, then, was what the captain meant by the border patrol.
Now, as luck would have it, the day was cold: we were the first boat to come through the locks for some hours, and apparently the river sentries had had no breakfast. So they dove into the fo'castle, where Mons. le Conducteur produced bread and cognac. I at once ordered Mons. le Conducteur to get a second round of liquid refreshment for our military guests. Conversation flowed. The soldiers drummed on the table to keep their hands warm and in a moment of inspiration I showed them how the darkies in our country warm their feet.
"Clog dance," I explained.
"Encore," shouted the piano salesman. "That is splendid."
"Pleaz again! Oh, pleaz!" echoed Mile. Blanche. "See, every one, ze grand American foot game."
The fat-faced conducteur, with whom I had suddenly grown in favor, repeated the cognac treatment on the sentries. Before I knew it, they had me alongside the table, one hand steadied against a thwart of the swaying cabin, my head in the smoke of the oil lamp, my feet pounding and kicking, as it seemed, at the very door of Antwerp. The piano salesman shouted rag-time, Mile. Blanche drummed time on the bench, and the river sentries pounded time with their rifle butts.
"Encore!" they shouted when I sat down with aching legs.
All at once the launch alongside gave an angry toot, for the officer wanted his men back: there were other boats to be examined. The sentries glanced quickly at our papers, not reading, I am sure, a word of mine, speedily cast off ropes, and disappeared guiltily and somewhat unsteadily over the larboard rail.
An hour later the Telegraaf III took the river's turn, swinging past Fort St. Philippe, until we could see the gray-blue spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with its intricate network of stone silhouetted against the autumn sunset. Mr. Diederick was not at the pier to meet me, nor was there a military passport from General de Guise.
"Stay by me," said Alderman Albrecht. As each of the pier sentries saluted him he said a whispered word, and apparently his word was good, for the American "foot game" artist was allowed to pass. Perhaps Alderman Albrecht had decided that German spies don't clog-dance.
Though not officially admitted to the besieged city, I went at once to my old stand, the Hotel St. Antoine, now converted into British Staff Headquarters. At sundown a mist crept up from the river, and through it we heard a roar of welcome and the rumble of heavy artillery. Charging down the Avenue de Keyser came a hundred London motor-busses, Piccadilly signs and all, some filled, some half-filled, with a wet-looking bunch of Tommies, followed by armored mitrailleuses, a few 6.7 naval guns, officers' machines, commissary and ammunition carriages—the first brigade of Winston Churchill's army of relief, which for five days was destined to make so valiant, but so short, a fight against the overwhelming German army.
The Bombardment Of Antwerp
There was something typically British in the way those Englishmen went about the defense of Antwerp. In the streets and barracks, and more especially at the Hotel St. Antoine, British Staff Headquarters, where I stayed until its doors were closed, I saw them at close range during that week of horror. Once when I was eating with a company of marines near their temporary barracks, they gave me the password to the trenches, and, although I only got out as far as the inner line of forts on that day, it gave me an opportunity to observe the work of the men under long-range firing. At the St. Antoine, ten or a dozen officers were quartered; others clanked in and out for hurried conferences in the corridors or disappeared into the smoking-room, whose heavy doors with the sign, "Reservee pour la Gouvernement Anglaise," hid Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the English Admiralty, and his portmanteau of war maps.
Here was Belgium's last stronghold on the verge of downfall: the outer line of forts had already fallen; Forts Wavre, St. Catherine, Waelham, and Lierre were already prey to the Krupp mortars; the German hosts were swarming across the River Nethe, six miles to the city's south, and the cowering populace in their flight made the streets terrible to look upon.
Yet at the St. Antoine there was no particular flurry—so far, at least, as the officers were concerned. At night they worked over their war maps; in the daytime they went out to the forts. They would get up in the morning, an hour or two earlier than the average business man, have a comfortable breakfast, smoke a cigar for half an hour or so, and talk things over. Then their military automobiles came trembling and sputtering to the doorsteps, and in groups of fours and fives they went out to the firing line. If only two or three of a group returned, you would naturally have to draw your own conclusions as to the fate of the rest.
Those English gentlemen went about their jobs of life and death with the same detached coolness as if their hunters were being saddled, or they were waiting for the referee's whistle in Rugby football. Their attitude was infernally exasperating; yet you couldn't help taking off your hat to their sublime nerve and indifference.
I overheard a typical remark when matters were in this critical state. It came from a handsome, curly-headed officer, noticeable not only for his apparent efficiency, but because he didn't let the game of war interfere with his attentions to the little Princess de Ligne. The latter was nursing her brother, who had been shot through the back of the neck during a raid through German lines. She was a princess in rank, and a queen in looks. Thirty hours before the first shell burst into the Place Verte—Monday morning, it was—this fellow rapped at my door. He had wandered into the wrong pew, for his words were obviously intended to hurry up a brother officer with whom he was to take the morning ride to the firing line. Sticking his curly, sunburnt head around the corner he drawled in inimitable British intonation:-
"I say, old chap, do hurry along; this is no ORDINARY occasion, you know."
In the Royal Belgian Palace there happened a few hours before the bombardment an incident revealing the simplicity and kindliness of King Albert's character. In connection with it, it is necessary to speak of Harold Fowler, a New Yorker and Columbia College graduate, who helped to save the public buildings of Antwerp, and later entered the Allied ranks as a fighter. When the war broke out, Fowler was private secretary to Ambassador Page in London. In November he got a commission in the Royal Horse Guards, known as the "Blues." While the Germans were pressing hard on Antwerp, the German commander, as I have mentioned elsewhere, asked that a diagram of the city of Antwerp, with plans and location of the cathedral, the Hotel de Ville, and the more important works be sent to him in order that he might find the range and avoid firing on them. Neutrals were to carry the plans through; and Fowler and Hugh Gibson, secretary to the American Minister at Brussels (Brand Whitlock), volunteered.
Two days before the bombardment Gibson went to the Royal Palace at Antwerp where General de Guise and his staff were in conference. Fowler trailed along, but, not liking to enter, walked up and down the hallway, hands in his pockets, admiring the portraits half-hidden in the darkness of the foyer. A tall figure approached and in French asked who he was. Fowler replied that he was an American and was waiting for Gibson.
"I see," said the figure, then speaking in English, "that you are interested in pictures."
"Very much," answered Fowler.
"Then, would you like to see those in the Royal Chambers upstairs?"
Fowler hesitated, feeling like an intruder, but the figure insisted upon leading him upstairs. When they got into the light, Fowler turned to examine his kind friend. To his utter astonishment he saw that it was Albert, King of the Belgians!
By that time we of Antwerp were getting a very fair imitation of a city besieged. Water supply had already been cut off for some days. There was just enough for cooking purposes; bathing and such pleasantries were out of the question—even for Royalty. According to the French maid in my corridor, Winston Churchill managed to get a shave by ordering tea sent to his room and using the hot water for shaving lather.
Monday, October 5th, the night before the city emptied itself of non-combatants, was almost a festive occasion at the St. Antoine. The British entry gave tremendous confidence to the stricken city and the tired Belgian soldiers—a bit of pride before the fall. New faces turned up, friends in the English army met, shook hands, and discussed the outlook. One was even reminded of lighter occasions, such as the Copley-Plaza in Boston or the Hotel Taft in New Haven before an annual Harvard-Yale battle. At the head of a long table in the center of the dining-room sat the First Lord of the British Admiralty, looking rather thoughtful, his baldish head and Trinity House uniform standing out in contrast to the service uniforms of the younger men around him. At the same table were commissary officers, sergeants, aide-de-camps, Hugh Gibson, Harold Fowler, and somewhat farther down the Russian Minister and my curly-headed officer, chatting over his coffee with little Princess de Ligne.
In the flash of an eye these scenes changed to scenes of terror.
The news leaked out, and spread like wildfire, that the Kaiser's men had crossed the River Nethe and had placed their big guns within range of the city. It was not until forty-eight hours later that the populace saw a handful of Flemish posters pasted in out-of-the-way corners—posters signed by the Civil Government—which thanked the populace "for retaining until the present time their praiseworthy sangfroid, and regretting that the responsibilities of their office necessitated their own removal to a neighborhood more safe."
Queen Elizabeth, whom danger made a democrat, walked right into my hotel, if you please, and stopped casually to say good-bye to the Russian Minister. The crowd outside did not know she was leaving for Ostend under cover of darkness—they cheered her loudly just the same. She is a spunky sort of queen.
Then came the flight. You knew the fear of the Germans had got into their blood when waiters dropped their plates and dishes and ran; when shops, houses, hotels closed and the people melted away; when the French chambermaid besought with frightened eyes that Monsieur take her away to England, and when the hotel proprietor disappeared without even asking for his bill.
There were other sights that did one good to see: such as gray-haired Mrs. Richardson, venerable figure of a British nurse, with six wars to her credit and a breastful of decorations from four different governments, who refused to leave her hospital even if it was blown to pieces, so long as there were men to help and wounds to heal.
When the St. Antoine closed I took her to the American Consulate to find a house where she could stay. That night and the next loads of English Red Cross busses with their households of pain and ether rumbled over the pontoon bridge across the Scheldt, went past Fort Tete de Flandre, and disappeared in the swampy meadows on the road to Ghent. I never saw her again, but I have always hoped that Mrs. Richardson was among the nurses who went with them.
When on Wednesday morning I was turned out of my room, I made my way past a pressing throng of foreign faces to the Queen's Hotel on the water front. There I found Arthur Ruhl and James H. Hare, who had just come over from England. The hotel overlooked the River Scheldt, forming a wide crescent on the city's north, and was within fifty yards of one of the longest pontoon bridges constructed in modern warfare.
Here was a sight to come again and rend the memory. The crowds were endeavoring to get away over one of the two avenues of escape still open. I estimated that between five in the afternoon and the following dawn three hundred thousand persons must have passed through the city's gates. They were the people of Antwerp itself, swelled by exiles from Alost, Aerschot, Malines, Termonde, and other cities to the south and west. Intermittently for two days and nights I watched them from my room in the Queen's. From five yards beneath my window ledge came the shuffle, shuffle of unending feet, the creak and groans of heavy cart wheels, the talk and babble of guttural tongues, the yelp of hounds, as the thousands moved and wept and surged and jostled along throughout the night and into the uncertain mist of that October morning. They were so close I could have jumped into their carts or dropped a pebble on their heads. Infinitely more impressive than the retreat of the allied armies or the victorious entry of the Germans a little later, was the pageant of this pitiful army without guns or leaders.
The twenty-foot entrance to that pontoon bridge seemed to me like the mouth of a funnel through which poured the dense misery of an entire nation. Think of this army's composition: a great city was emptying itself of human life; not only a great city, but all the people driven to it from the outside, all who had congregated in Belgium's last refuge and its strongest fort. They bore themselves bravely, the greater number plodding along silently in the footsteps of those who went ahead, with no thoughts of their direction, some of them even chatting and laughing. You saw great open wagons carrying baby carriages, perambulators, pots and kettles, an old chair, huge bundles of household goods, and the ubiquitous Belgian bicycle strapped to the side. There were small wagons, and more great wagons crowded with twenty, thirty, forty people: aged brown women, buried like shrunk walnuts in a mass of shawls, girls sitting listlessly on piles of straw, and children fitfully asleep or very much awake and crying lustily.
Sometimes the men and boys mounted their bicycles, rode for a dozen yards, were stopped by the procession, and then, for want of better occupation, rang their bells. One saw innumerable yelping dogs: big Belgian police hounds harnessed to the cart and doing their share of work, others sniffing along the outskirts and plainly advertising for an owner. There were noisy cattle, too, some of which escaped. Long after the city was evacuated I saw a cow bellowing under an archway of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
In this way the city emptied itself, but so slowly that the very slowness of the movement wore the marchers out. Each family group was limited to the speed of its oldest member. Hundreds gave it up and lay by the road, or formed little gypsy camps under the trees. At night these were lighted by fires, overshadowed by the greater fire from the distant burning city, and beside them stretched dumb-looking souls, watching vaguely those who still had strength to move.
Watching these wretches got so on my nerves that I had to get out and do something. With a British intelligence officer, formerly of Sir John French's staff, I wandered down to the southern quarter of the city known as Berchem. As usual, the guns at the outer forts had been booming throughout the evening. From the city's ramparts you could not only feel the shudder of the earth, but you could see occasional splashes of flame from the Belgian batteries, answered, in the dim distance to the south, by smaller, less vivid splashes issuing from the mouths of the German instruments of "Culture" which throughout the night pounded ruthlessly on the unprotected houses without the city limits.
On the way home we stopped in at the British field hospital to see a wounded British friend.
The Surrender Of Antwerp
As we left the British field hospital, on the Rue de Leopold, a shrieking skyrocket whizzed by above us and buried its hissing head in the river to the north. One or two more fell at a distance of several hundred yards, and in the southern part of the city flames from several houses shot up into the quiet, windless night.
The bombardment was on—the time was 12.07 Wednesday midnight.
For a moment I did not realize that this was the beginning of the end of Antwerp. I had heard so much gun-fire and seen so many bombs dropping from aeroplanes that I did not fully appreciate the significance of these shells. I scribbled a few notes in my diary, unstrapped my money belt, and then picked out an empty bed at the Queen's Hotel and tumbled in. I must have slept for six or seven hours.
When I arose everything was quiet. The hotel was apparently deserted. I remember being particularly irritated because there was no one in the kitchen who would give me breakfast, so I made myself some tea and then strolled into the street. It so happened that the Germans had been pumping lead steadily into the city for six hours and that this was the morning lull. The Germans are methodical in everything. When they bombard a city they stop for breakfast.
As I walked down the Avenue de Keyser I thought at first it was Sunday—or rather a year of Sundays all rolled into one. Overnight the city had been transformed into a tomb. Shops were closed; iron shutters were pulled down everywhere; trolley cars stood in the street as they had been left. My own footsteps resounded fearfully on the pavement, and I walked five blocks before I saw a human being.
I stopped at the American Consul's office on the Place de Meir, only to find the place was locked. A frightened face behind the grating told me that the consul had taken his wife to the country—good place to be in, I thought.
Things began to seem lonely. I heard shells falling and saw flames in the southern quarter of the city, and decided to go in that direction to look up an American correspondent and two photographers who had asked me to bunk with them in the cellar of a little abandoned house at 74 Rue de Peage.
Turning down a little side street leading toward the Boulevard de Leopold, I was greeted by a clap of thunder overhead. A shell demolished a house across the street and about thirty yards down. The concussion knocked over a couple of babies. I picked them up, put them back in the doorway of the house where they seemed to belong, saying over and over again mechanically, "There, there, don't cry. There is nothing to be frightened about"; and then, just to show how little I myself was frightened I began to run. I ran for all I was worth. I ran right into the fire. The shells were falling fairly thick on the Boulevard de Leopold; every two or three hundred yards a house was partially destroyed; bricks and glass littered the pavement, and occasionally, every quarter of a mile or so, I saw a figure skulking along under the eaves of a building, crouching and ducking in time to the nasty music of the shells. But I decided that the middle of the street was the safest part.