Incidentally it publishes the most widely read volume in the world. I wish that I might tell you the name of this concern. Upon second thought, I think I will. It is the American Bell Telephone Company.
IV. Under The German Eagle
When, upon the approach of the Germans to Brussels, the Government and the members of the Diplomatic Corps fled to Antwerp, the American Minister, Mr. Brand Whitlock, did not accompany them. In view of the peculiar position occupied by the United States as the only Great Power not involved in hostilities, he felt, and, as it proved, quite rightly, that he could be of more service to Belgium and to Brussels and to the cause of humanity in general by remaining behind. There remained with him the secretary of legation, Mr. Hugh S. Gibson. Mr. Whitlock's reasons for remaining in Brussels were twofold. In the first place, there were a large number of English and Americans, both residents and tourists, who had been either unable or unwilling to leave the city, and who, he felt, were entitled to diplomatic protection. Secondly, the behaviour of the German troops in other Belgian cities had aroused grave fears of what would happen when they entered Brussels, and it was generally felt that the presence of the American Minister might deter them from committing the excesses and outrages which up to that time had characterized their advance. It was no secret that Germany was desperately anxious to curry favour with the United States, and it was scarcely likely, therefore, that houses would be sacked and burnt, civilians executed and women violated under the disapproving eyes of the American representative. This surmise proved to be well founded. The Germans did not want Mr. Whitlock in Brussels, and nothing would have pleased them better than to have had him depart and leave them to their own devices, but, so long as he blandly ignored their hints that his room was preferable to his company and persisted in sitting tight, they submitted to his surveillance with the best grace possible and behaved themselves as punctiliously as a dog that has been permitted to come into a parlour. After the civil administration had been established, however, and Belgium had become, in theory at least, a German province, Mr. Whitlock was told quite plainly that the kingdom to which he was accredited had ceased to exist as an independent nation, and that Anglo-American affairs in Belgium could henceforward be entrusted to the American Ambassador at Berlin. But Mr. .Whitlock, who had received his training in shirt-sleeve diplomacy as Socialist Mayor of Toledo, Ohio, was as impervious to German suggestions as he had been to the threats and pleadings of party politicians, and told Baron von der Golz, the German Governor, politely but quite firmly, that he did not take his orders from Berlin but from Washington. "Gott in Himmel!" exclaimed the Germans, shrugging their shoulders despairingly, "what is to be done with such a man?"
Before the Germans had been in occupation of Brussels a fortnight the question of food for the poorer classes became a serious and pressing problem. The German armies, in their onset toward the west, had swept the Belgian country-side bare; the products of the farms and gardens in the immediate vicinity of the city had been commandeered for the use of the garrison, and the spectre of starvation was already beginning to cast its dread shadow over Brussels. Mr. Whitlock acted with promptness and decision. He sent Americans, who had volunteered their services, to Holland to purchase food-stuffs, and at the same time informed the German commander that he expected these food-stuffs to be admitted without hindrance. The German replied that he could not comply with this request without first communicating with his Imperial master, whereupon he was told, in effect, that the American Government would consider him personally responsible if the food-stuffs were delayed or diverted for military use and a famine ensued in consequence. The firmness of Mr. Whitlock's attitude had its effect, for at seven o'clock the next morning he received word that his wishes would be complied with. As a result of the German occupation, Brussels, with its six hundred thousand inhabitants, was as completely cut off from communication with the outside world as though it were on an island in the South Pacific. The postal, telegraph and telephone services were suspended; the railways were blocked with troop trains moving westward; the roads were filled from ditch to ditch with troops and transport wagons; and so tightly were the lines drawn between that portion of Belgium occupied by the Germans and that still held by the Belgians, that those daring souls who attempted to slip through the cordons of sentries did so at peril of their lives. It sounds almost incredible that a great city could be so effectually isolated, yet so it was. Even the Cabinet Ministers and other officials who had accompanied the Government in its flight to Antwerp were unable to learn what had befallen the families which they had in many cases left behind them.
After nearly three weeks had passed without word from the American Legation, the Department of State cabled the American Consul-General at Antwerp that some means of communicating with Mr. Whitlock must be found. Happening to be in the Consulate when the message was received, I placed my services and my car at the disposal of the Consul-General, who promptly accepted them. Upon learning of my proposed jaunt into the enemy's lines, a friend, Mr. M. Manly Whedbee, the director of the Belgian branch of the British-American Tobacco Company, offered to accompany me, and as he is as cool-headed and courageous and companionable as anyone I know, and as he knew as much about driving the car as I did—for it was obviously impossible to take my Belgian driver—I was only too glad to have him with me. It was, indeed, due to Mr. Whedbee's foresight in taking along a huge quantity of cigarettes for distribution among the soldiers, that we were able to escape from Brussels. But more of that episode hereafter.
When the Consul-General asked General Dufour, the military governor of Antwerp, to issue us a safe conduct through the Belgian lines, that gruff old soldier at first refused flatly, asserting that as the German outposts had been firing on cars bearing the Red Cross flag, there was no assurance that they would respect one bearing the Stars and Stripes. The urgency of the matter being explained to him, however, he reluctantly issued the necessary laisser-passer, though intimating quite plainly that our mission would probably end in providing "more work for the undertaker, another little job for the casket-maker," and that he washed his hands of all responsibility for our fate. But by two American flags mounted on the windshield, and the explanatory legends "Service Consulaire des Etats-Unis d'Amerique" and "Amerikanischer Consular dienst" painted in staring letters on the hood, we hoped to make it quite clear to Germans and Belgians alike that we were protected by the international game-laws so far as shooting us was concerned.
Now the disappointing thing about our trip was that we didn't encounter any Uhlans. Every one had warned us so repeatedly about Uhlans that we fully expected to find them, with their pennoned lances and their square-topped schapskas, lurking behind every hedge, and when they did not come spurring out to intercept us we were greatly disappointed. It was like making a journey to the polar regions and seeing no Esquimaux. The smart young cavalry officer who bade us good-bye at the Belgian outposts, warned us to keep our eyes open for them and said, rather mournfully, I thought, that he only hoped they would give us time to explain who we were before they opened fire on us. "They are such hasty fellows, these Uhlans," said he, "always shooting first and making inquiries afterward." As a matter of fact, the only Uhlan we saw on the entire trip was riding about Brussels in a cab, smoking a large porcelain pipe and with his spurred boots resting comfortably on the cushions.
Though we crept along as circumspectly as a motorist who knows that he is being trailed by a motor-cycle policeman, peering behind farmhouses and hedges and into the depths of thickets and expecting any moment to hear a gruff command, emphasized by the bang of a carbine, it was not until we were at the very outskirts of Aerschot that we encountered the Germans. There were a hundred of them, so cleverly ambushed behind a hedge that we would never have suspected their presence had we not caught the glint of sunlight on their rifle-barrels. We should not have gotten much nearer, in any event, for they had a wire neatly strung across the road at just the right height to take us under the chins. When we were within a hundred yards of the hedge an officer in a trailing grey cloak stepped into the middle of the road and held up his hand.
I jammed on the brakes so suddenly that we nearly went through the windshield.
"Get out of the automobile and stand well away from it," the officer commanded in German. We got out very promptly.
"One of you advance alone, with his hands up."
I advanced alone, but not with my hands up. It is such an undignified position. I had that shivery feeling chasing up and down my spine which came from knowing that I was covered by a hundred rifles, and that if I made a move which seemed suspicious to the men behind those rifles, they would instantly transform me into a sieve.
"Are you English?" the officer demanded, none too pleasantly.
"No, American," said I.
"Oh, that's all right," said he, his manner instantly thawing. "I know America well," he continued, "Atlantic City and Asbury Park and Niagara Falls and Coney Island. I have seen all of your famous places."
Imagine, if you please, standing in the middle of a Belgian highway, surrounded by German soldiers who looked as though they would rather shoot you than not, discussing the relative merits of the hotels at Atlantic City and which had the best dining-car service, the Pennsylvania or the New York Central!
I learned from the officer, who proved to be an exceedingly agreeable fellow, that had we advanced ten feet further after the command to halt was given, we should probably have been planted in graves dug in a nearby potato field, as only an hour before our arrival a Belgian mitrailleuse car had torn down the road with its machine-gun squirting a stream of lead, and had smashed straight through the German line, killing three men and wounding a dozen others. They were burying them when we appeared. When our big grey machine hove in sight they not unnaturally took us for another armoured car and prepared to give us a warm reception. It was a lucky thing for us that our brakes worked quickly.
We were the first foreigners to see Aerschot, or rather what was left of Aerschot after it had been sacked and burned by the Germans. A few days before Aerschot had been a prosperous and happy town of ten thousand people. When we saw it it was but a heap of smoking ruins, garrisoned by a battalion of German soldiers, and with its population consisting of half a hundred white-faced women. In many parts of the world I have seen many terrible and revolting things, but nothing so ghastly, so horrifying as Aerschot. Quite two-thirds of the houses had been burned and showed unmistakable signs of having been sacked by a maddened soldiery before they were burned. Everywhere were the ghastly evidences. Doors had been smashed in with rifle-butts and boot-heels; windows had been broken; furniture had been wantonly destroyed; pictures had been torn from the walls; mattresses had been ripped open with bayonets in search of valuables; drawers had been emptied upon the floors; the outer walls of the houses were spattered with blood and pock-marked with bullets; the sidewalks were slippery with broken wine-bottles; the streets were strewn with women's clothing. It needed no one to tell us the details of that orgy of blood and lust. The story was so plainly written that anyone could read it.
For a mile we drove the car slowly between the blackened walls of fire-gutted buildings. This was no accidental conflagration, mind you, for scattered here and there were houses which stood undamaged and in every such case there was scrawled with chalk upon their doors "Gute Leute. Nicht zu plundern." (Good people. Do not plunder.)
The Germans went about the work of house-burning as systematically as they did everything else. They had various devices for starting conflagrations, all of them effective. At Aerschot and Louvain they broke the windows of the houses and threw in sticks which had been soaked in oil and dipped in sulphur. Elsewhere they used tiny, black tablets, about the size of cough lozenges, made of some highly inflammable composition, to which they touched a match. At Termonde, which they destroyed in spite of the fact that the inhabitants had evacuated the city before their arrival, they used a motor-car equipped with a large tank for petrol, a pump, a hose, and a spraying-nozzle. The car was run slowly through the streets, one soldier working the pump and another spraying the fronts of the houses. Then they set fire to them. Oh, yes, they were very methodical about it all, those Germans.
Despite the scowls of the soldiers, I attempted to talk with some of the women huddled in front of a bakery waiting for a distribution of bread, but the poor creatures were too terror-stricken to do more than stare at us with wide, beseeching eyes. Those eyes will always haunt me. I wonder if they do not sometimes haunt the Germans. But a little episode that occurred as we were leaving the city did more than anything else to bring home the horror of it all. We passed a little girl of nine or ten and I stopped the car to ask the way. Instantly she held both hands above her head and began to scream for mercy. When we had given her some chocolate and money, and had assured her that we were not Germans, but Americans and friends, she ran like a frightened deer. That little child, with her fright-wide eyes and her hands raised in supplication, was in herself a terrible indictment of the Germans.
There are, as might be expected, two versions of the happenings which precipitated that night of horrors in Aerschot. The German version—I had it from the German commander himself—is to the effect that after the German troops had entered Aerschot, the Chief of Staff and some of the officers were asked to dinner by the burgomaster. While they were seated at the table the son of the burgomaster, a boy of fifteen, entered the room with a revolver and killed the Chief of Staff, whereupon, as though at a prearranged signal, the townspeople opened fire from their windows upon the troops. What followed—the execution of the burgomaster, his son, and several score of the leading townsmen, the giving over of the women to a lust-mad soldiery, the sacking of the houses, and the final burning of the town—was the punishment which would always be meted out to towns whose inhabitants attacked German soldiers.
Now, up to a certain point the Belgian version agrees with the German. It is admitted that the Germans entered the town peaceably enough, that the German Chief of Staff and other officers accepted the hospitality of the burgomaster, and that, while they were at dinner, the burgomaster's son entered the room and shot the Chief of Staff dead with a revolver. But—and this is the point to which the German story makes no allusion—the boy killed the Chief of Staff in defence of his sister's honour. It is claimed that toward the end of the meal the German officer, inflamed with wine, informed the burgomaster that he intended to pass the night with his young and beautiful daughter, whereupon the girl's brother quietly slipped from the room and, returning a moment later, put a sudden end to the German's career with an automatic. What the real truth is I do not know. Perhaps no one knows. The Germans did not leave many eye-witnesses to tell the story of what happened. Piecing together the stories told by those who did survive that night of horror, we know that scores of the townspeople were shot down in cold blood and that, when the firing squads could not do the work of slaughter fast enough, the victims were lined up and a machine-gun was turned upon them. We know that young girls were dragged from their homes and stripped naked and violated by soldiers—many soldiers—in the public square in the presence of officers. We know that both men and women were unspeakably mutilated, that children were bayoneted, that dwellings were ransacked and looted, and that finally, as though to destroy the evidences of their horrid work, soldiers went from house to house with torches, methodically setting fire to them.
It was with a feeling of repulsion amounting almost to nausea that we left what had once been Aerschot behind us. The road leading to Louvain was alive with soldiery, and we were halted every few minutes by German patrols. Had not the commanding officer in Aerschot detailed two bicyclists to accompany us I doubt if we should have gotten through. Whedbee had had the happy idea of bringing along a thousand packets of cigarettes—the tonneau of the car was literally filled with them—and we tossed a packet to every German soldier that we saw. You could have followed our trail for thirty miles by the cigarettes we left behind us. As it turned out, they were the means of saving us from being detained within the German lines.
Thanks to our American flags, to the nature of our mission, and to our wholesale distribution of cigarettes, we were passed from outpost to outpost and from regimental headquarters to regimental headquarters until we reached Louvain. Here we came upon another scene of destruction and desolation. Nearly half the city was in ashes. Most of the principal streets were impassable from fallen masonry. The splendid avenues and boulevards were lined on either side by the charred skeletons of what had once been handsome buildings. The fronts of many of the houses were smeared with crimson stains. In comparison to its size, the Germans had wrought more widespread destruction in Louvain than did the earthquake and fire combined in San Francisco. The looting had evidently been unrestrained. The roads for miles in either direction were littered with furniture and bedding and clothing. Such articles as the soldiers could not carry away they wantonly destroyed. Hangings had been torn down, pictures on the walls had been smashed, the contents of drawers and trunks had been emptied into the streets, literally everything breakable had been broken. This is not from hearsay, remember; I saw it with my own eyes. And the amazing feature of it all was that among the Germans there seemed to be no feeling of regret, no sense of shame. Officers in immaculate uniforms strolled about among the ruins, chatting and laughing and smoking. At one place a magnificent mahogany dining-table had been dragged into the middle of the road and about it, sprawled in carved and tapestry-covered chairs, a dozen German infantrymen were drinking beer.
Just as there are two versions of the destruction of Aerschot, so there are two versions, though in this case widely different, of the events which led up to the destruction of Louvain. It should be borne in mind, to begin with, that Louvain was not destroyed by bombardment or in the heat of battle, for the Germans had entered it unopposed, and had been in undisputed possession for several days. The Germans assert that a conspiracy, fomented by the burgomaster, the priests and many of the leading citizens, existed among the townspeople, who planned to suddenly fall upon and exterminate the garrison. They claim that, in pursuance of this plan, on the night of August 26, the inhabitants opened a murderous fire upon the unsuspecting troops from house-tops, doors and windows; that a fierce street battle ensued, in which a number of women and children were unfortunately killed by stray bullets; and that, in retaliation for this act of treachery, a number of the inhabitants were executed and a portion of the city was burned. Notwithstanding the fact that, as soon as the Germans entered the city, they searched it thoroughly for concealed weapons, they claim that the townspeople were not only well supplied with rifles and ammunition, but that they even opened on them from their windows with machine-guns. Though it seems scarcely probable that the inhabitants of Louvain would attempt so mad an enterprise as to attack an overwhelming force of Germans—particularly with the terrible lesson of Aerschot still fresh in their minds—I do not care to express any opinion as to the truth of the German assertions.
The Belgians tell quite a different story. They say that, as the result of a successful Belgian offensive movement to the south of Malines, the German troops retreated in something closely akin to panic, one division falling back, after nightfall, upon Louvain. In the inky blackness the garrison, mistaking the approaching troops for Belgians, opened a deadly fire upon them. When the mistake was discovered the Germans, partly in order to cover up their disastrous blunder and partly to vent their rage and chagrin, turned upon the townspeople in a paroxysm of fury. A scene of indescribable terror ensued, the soldiers, who had broken into the wine-shops and drunk themselves into a state of frenzy, practically running amuck, breaking in doors and shooting at every one they saw. That some of the citizens snatched up such weapons as came to hand and defended their homes and their women no one attempts to deny— but this scattered and pitifully ineffectual resistance gave the Germans the very excuse they were seeking. The citizens had attacked them and they would teach the citizens, both of Louvain and of other cities which they might enter, a lasting lesson. They did. No Belgian will ever forget—or forgive—that lesson. The orgy of blood and lust and destruction lasted for two days. Several American correspondents, among them Mr. Richard Harding Davis, who were being taken by train from Brussels to Germany, and who were held for some hours in the station at Louvain during the first night's massacre, have vividly described the horrors which they witnessed from their car window. On the second day, Mr. Hugh S. Gibson, secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, accompanied by the Swedish and Mexican charges, drove over to Louvain in a taxi-cab. Mr. Gibson told me that the Germans had dragged chairs and a dining-table from a nearby house into the middle of the square in front of the station and that some officers, already considerably the worse for drink, insisted that the three diplomatists join them in a bottle of wine. And this while the city was burning and rifles were cracking, and the dead bodies of men and women lay sprawled in the streets! From the windows of plundered and fire-blackened houses in both Aerschot and Louvain and along the road between, hung white flags made from sheets and tablecloths and pillow- cases—pathetic appeals for the mercy which was not granted.
If Belgium wishes to keep alive in the minds of her people the recollection of German military barbarism, if she desires to inculcate the coming generations with the horrors and miseries of war, if she would perpetuate the memories of the innocent townspeople who were slaughtered because they were Belgians, then she can effectually do it by preserving the ruins of Aerschot and Louvain, just as the ruins of Pompeii are preserved. Fence in these desolated cities; leave the shattered doors and the broken furniture as they are; let the bullet marks and the bloodstains remain, and it will do more than all the sermons that can be preached, than all the pictures that can be painted, than all the books that can be written, to drive home a realization of what is meant by that dreadful thing called War.
The distance from Louvain to Brussels is in the neighbourhood of twenty miles, and our car with its fluttering flags sped between lines of cheering people all the way. Men stood by the roadside with uncovered heads as they saw the Stars and Stripes whirl by; women waved their handkerchiefs while tears coursed down their cheeks. As we neared Brussels news of our coming spread, and soon we were passing between solid walls of Belgians who waved hats and canes and handkerchiefs and screamed, "Vive l'Amerique! Vive l'Amerique!" I am not ashamed to say that a lump came in my throat and tears dimmed my eyes. To these helpless, homeless, hopeless people, the red-white-and-blue banner that streamed from our windshield really was a flag of the free.
Brussels we found as quiet and orderly as London on a Sunday morning. So far as streets scenes went we might have been in Berlin. German officers and soldiers were scattered everywhere, lounging at the little iron tables in front of the cafes, or dining in the restaurants or strolling along the tree-shaded boulevards as unconcernedly as though they were in the Fatherland. Many of the officers had brought high, red-wheeled dogcarts with them, and were pleasure-driving in the outskirts of the city; others, accompanied by women who may or may not have been their wives, were picnicking in the Bois. Brussels had become, to all outward appearances at least, a German city. German flags flaunted defiantly from the roofs of the public buildings, several of which, including the Hotel de Ville, the Palais de Justice and the Cathedral, were reported to have been mined. In the whole of the great city not a single Belgian flag was to be seen. The Belgian police were still performing their routine duties under German direction. The royal palace had been converted into a hospital for German wounded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was occupied by the German General Staff. The walls and hoardings were plastered with proclamations signed by the military governor warning the inhabitants of the penalties which they would incur should they molest the German troops. The great square in front of the Gare du Nord, which was being used as a barracks, was guarded by a line of sentries, and no one but Germans in uniform were permitted to cross it. One other person did cross it, however, German regulations and sentries notwithstanding. Whedbee and I were lunching on Sunday noon in the front of the Palace Hotel, when a big limousine flying the American flag drew up on the other side of the square and Mr. Julius Van Hee, the American Vice-Consul at Ghent, jumped out. He caught sight of us at the same moment that we saw him and started across the square toward us. He had not gone a dozen paces before a sentry levelled his rifle and gruffly commanded him to halt.
"Go back!" shouted the sentry. "To walk across the square forbidden is."
"Go to the devil!" shouted back Van Hee. "And stop pointing that gun at me, or I'll come over and knock that spiked helmet of yours off. I'm American, and I've more right here than you have."
This latter argument being obviously unanswerable, the befuddled sentry saw nothing for it but to let him pass.
Van Hee had come to Brussels, he told us, for the purpose of obtaining some vaccine, as the supply in Ghent was running short, and the authorities were fearful of an epidemic. He also brought with him a package of letters from the German officers, many of them of distinguished families, who had been captured by the Belgians and were imprisoned at Bruges. When Van Hee had obtained his vaccine, he called on General von Ludewitz and requested a safe conduct back to Ghent.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Van Hee," said the general, who had married an American and spoke English like a New Yorker, "but there's nothing doing. We can't permit anyone to leave Brussels at present. Perhaps in a few days—"
"A few days won't do, General," Van Hee interrupted, "I must go back to-day, at once."
"I regret to say that for the time being it is quite impossible," said the general firmly.
"I have here," said Van Hee, displaying the packet, "a large number of letters from the German officers who are imprisoned in Belgium. If I don't get the pass you don't get these letters."
"You hold a winning hand, Mr. Van Hee," said the general, laughing, as he reached for pen and paper.
But when Whedbee and I were ready to return to Antwerp it was a different matter. The German authorities, though scrupulously polite, were adamantine in their refusal to permit us to pass through the German lines. And we held no cards, as did Van Hee, with which to play diplomatic poker. So we were compelled to bluff. Telling the German commander that we would call on him again, we climbed into the car and quietly left the city by the same route we had followed upon entering it the preceding day. All along the road we found soldiers smoking the cigarettes we had distributed to them. Instead of stopping us and demanding to see our papers they waved their hands cheerily and called, "Auf wiedersehn!" As we knew that we could not get through Louvain without being stopped, we drove boldly up to headquarters and asked the general commanding the division if he would detail a staff officer to accompany us to the outer lines. (There seemed no need of mentioning the fact that we had no passes.) The general said, with profuse apologies, that he had no officer available at the moment, but hoped that a sergeant would do. We carried the sergeant with us as far as Aerschot, distributing along the way what remained of our cigarettes. At Aerschot we were detained for nearly an hour, as the officer who had visited Atlantic City, Niagara Falls and Coney Island insisted on our waiting while he sent for another officer who, until the outbreak of the war, had lived in Chicago. We tried not to show our impatience at the delay, but our hair stood on end every time a telephone bell tinkled. We were afraid that the staff in Brussels, learning of our unauthorized departure, would telephone to the outposts to stop us. It was with a heartfelt sigh of relief that we finally shook hands with our hosts and left ruined Aerschot behind us. I opened up the throttle, and the big car fled down the long, straight road which led to the Belgian lines like a hunted cat on the top of a backyard fence.
V. With The Spiked Helmets
It was really a Pittsburg chauffeur who was primarily responsible for my being invited to dine with the commander of the Ninth German Army. The chauffeur's name was William Van Calck and his employer was a gentleman who had amassed several millions manufacturing hats in the Smoky City. When war was declared the hat-manufacturer and his family were motoring in Austria, with Van Calck at the wheel of the car. The car being a large and powerful one, it was promptly commandeered by the Austrian military authorities; the hat-manufacturer and his family, thus dumped unceremoniously by the roadside, made their way as best they could to England; and Van Calck, who was a Belgian by birth, though a naturalized American, enlisted in the Belgian army and was detailed to drive one of the armoured motor-cars which so effectively harassed the enemy during the early part of the campaign in Flanders. Now if Van Calck hadn't come tearing into Ghent in his wheeled fortress on a sunny September morning he wouldn't have come upon a motor-car containing two German soldiers who had lost their way; if he had not met them, the two Germans would not have been wounded in the dramatic encounter which ensued; if the Germans had not been wounded it would not have been necessary for Mr. Julius Van Hee, the American Vice-Consul, to pay a hurried visit to General von Boehn, the German commander, to explain that the people of Ghent were not responsible for the affair and to beg that no retaliatory measures be taken against the city; if Mr. Van Hee had not visited General von Boehn the question of the attitude of the American Press would not have come up for discussion; and if it had not been discussed, General von Boehn would not have sent me an invitation through Mr. Van Hee to dine with him at his headquarters and hear the German side of the question.
But perhaps I had better begin at the beginning. On September 8, then, the great German army which was moving from Brussels on France was within a few miles of Ghent. In the hope of inducing the Germans not to enter the city, whose large and turbulent working population would, it was feared, cause trouble in case of a military occupation, the burgomaster went out to confer with the German commander. An agreement was finally arrived at whereby the Germans consented to march around Ghent if certain requirements were complied with. These were that no Belgian troops should occupy the city, that the Garde Civique should be disarmed and their weapons surrendered, and that the municipality should supply the German forces with specified quantities of provisions and other supplies—the chief item, by the way, being a hundred thousand cigars.
The burgomaster had not been back an hour when a military motor- car containing two armed German soldiers appeared in the city streets. It transpired afterwards that they had been sent out to purchase medical supplies and, losing their way, had entered Ghent by mistake. At almost the same moment that the German car entered the city from the south a Belgian armoured motor-car, armed with a machine-gun and with a crew of three men and driven by the former Pittsburg chauffeur, entered from the east on a scouting expedition. The two cars, both travelling at high speed, encountered each other at the head of the Rue de l'Agneau, directly in front of the American Consulate. Vice-Consul Van Hee, standing in the doorway, was an eyewitness of what followed.
The Germans, taken completely by surprise at the sight of the grim war-car in its coat of elephant-grey bearing down upon them, threw on their power and attempted to escape, the man sitting beside the driver opening an ineffectual fire with his carbine. Regardless of the fact that the sidewalks were crowded with spectators, the Belgians opened on the fleeing Germans with their machine-gun, which spurted lead as a garden-hose spurts water. Van Calck, fearing that the Germans might escape, swerved his powerful car against the German machine precisely as a polo-player "rides off" his opponent, the machine-gun never ceasing its angry snarl. An instant later the driver of the German car dropped forward over his steering-wheel with blood gushing from a bullet-wound in the head, while his companion, also badly wounded, threw up both hands in token of surrender.
Vice-Consul Van Hee instantly recognized the extremely grave consequences which might result to Ghent from this encounter, which had taken place within an hour after the burgomaster had assured the German commander that there were no Belgian soldiers in the city. Now Mr. Julius Van Hee is what is popularly known in the United States as "a live wire." He is a shirt-sleeve diplomatist who, if he thought the occasion warranted it, would not hesitate to conduct diplomatic negotiations in his night-shirt. Appreciating that as a result of this attack on German soldiers, which the Germans would probably characterize as treachery, Ghent stood in imminent danger of meeting the terrible fate of its sister-cities of Aerschot and Louvain, which were sacked and burned on no greater provocation, Mr. Van Hee jumped into his car and sought the burgomaster, whom he urged to accompany him without an instant's delay to German headquarters. The burgomaster, who had visions of being sent to Germany as a hostage, at first demurred; but Van Hee, disregarding his protestations, handed him his hat, hustled him into the car, and ordered the chauffeur to drive as though the Uhlans were behind him.
They found General von Boehn and his staff quartered in a chateau a few miles outside the city. At first the German commander was furious with anger and threatened Ghent with the same punishment he had meted out to other cities where Germans had been fired on. Van Hee took a very firm stand, however. He reminded the general that Americans have a great sentimental interest in Ghent because of the treaty of peace between England and the United States which was signed there a century ago, and he warned him that the burning of the city would do more than anything else to lose the Germans the sympathy of the American people.
"If you will give me your personal word," said the general finally, "that there will be no further attacks upon Germans who may enter the city, and that the wounded soldiers will be taken under American protection and sent to Brussels by the American Consular authorities when they have recovered, I will agree to spare Ghent and will not even demand a money indemnity."
In the course of the informal conversation which followed, General von Boehn remarked that copies of American papers containing articles by E. Alexander Powell, criticizing the Germans' treatment of the Belgian civil population, had come to his attention, and he regretted that he could not have an opportunity to talk with their author and give him the German version of the incidents in question. Mr. Van Hee said that, by a curious coincidence, I had arrived in Ghent that very morning, whereupon the general asked him to bring me out to dinner on the following day and issued a safe conduct through the German lines for the purpose.
We started early the next morning. As there was some doubt about the propriety of my taking a Belgian military driver into the German lines I drove the car myself. And, though nothing was said about a photographer, I took with me Donald Thompson. Before we passed the city limits of Ghent things began to happen. Entering a street which leads through a district inhabited by the working classes, we suddenly found our way barred by a mob of several thousand excited Flemings.
Above a sea of threatening arms and brandished sticks and angry faces rose the figures of two German soldiers, with carbines slung across their backs, mounted on work-horses which they had evidently hastily unharnessed from a wagon. Like their unfortunate comrades of the motor-car episode, they too had strayed into the city by mistake. As we approached the crowd made a concerted rush for them. A blast from my siren opened a lane for us, however, and I drove the car alongside the terrified Germans.
"Quick!" shouted Van Hee in German. "Off your horses and into the car! Hide your rifles! Take off your helmets! Sit on the floor and keep out of sight!"
The mob, seeing its prey escaping, surged about us with a roar. For a moment things looked very ugly. Van Hee jumped on the seat.
"I am the American Consul!" he shouted. "These men are under my protection! You are civilians, attacking German soldiers in uniform. If they are harmed your city will be burned about your ears."
At that moment a burly Belgian shouldered his way through the crowd and, leaping on the running-board, levelled a revolver at the Germans cowering in the tonneau. Quick as thought Thompson knocked up the man's hand, and at the same instant I threw on the power. The big car leaped forward and the mob scattered before it. It was a close call for every one concerned, but a much closer call for Ghent; for had those German soldiers been murdered by civilians in the city streets no power on earth could have saved the city from German vengeance. General von Boehn told me so himself.
A few minutes later, as playlets follow each other in quick succession on a stage, the scene changed from near tragedy to screaming farce. As we came thundering into the little town of Sotteghem, which is the Sleepy Hollow of Belgium, we saw, rising from the middle of the town square, a pyramid, at least ten feet high, of wardrobe-trunks, steamer-trunks, bags, and suit-cases. From the summit of this extraordinary monument floated a huge American flag. As our car came to a halt there rose a chorus of exclamations in all the dialects between Maine and California, and from the door of a near-by cafe came pouring a flood of Americans. They proved to be a lost detachment of that great army of tourists which, at the beginning of hostilities, started on its mad retreat for the coast, leaving Europe strewn with their belongings. This particular detachment had been cut off in Brussels by the tide of German invasion, and, as food-supplies were running short, they determined to make a dash—perhaps crawl would be a better word—for Ostend, making the journey in two lumbering farm wagons. On reaching Sotteghem, however, the Belgian drivers, hearing that the Germans were approaching, refused to go further and unceremoniously dumped their passengers in the town square. When we arrived they had been there for a day and a night and had begun to think that it was to be their future home. It was what might be termed a mixed assemblage, including several women of wealth and fashion who had been motoring on the Continent and had had their cars taken from them, two prim schoolteachers from Brooklyn, a mine-owner from West Virginia, a Pennsylvania Quaker, and a quartet of professional tango-dancers—artists, they called themselves—who had been doing a "turn" at a Brussels music-hall when the war suddenly ended their engagement. Van Hee and I skirmished about and, after much argument, succeeded in hiring two farm-carts to transport the fugitives to Ghent. For the thirty-mile journey the thrifty peasants modestly demanded four hundred francs—and got it. When I last saw my compatriots they were perched on top of their luggage piled high on two creaking carts, rumbling down the road to Ghent with their huge flag flying above them. They were singing at the top of their voices, "We'll Never Go There Any More."
Half a mile or so out of Sotteghem our road debouched into the great highway which leads through Lille to Paris, and we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of the German army. It was a sight never to be forgotten. Far as the eye could see stretched solid columns of marching men, pressing westward, ever westward. The army was advancing in three mighty columns along three parallel roads, the dense masses of moving men in their elusive grey-green uniforms looking for all the world like three monstrous serpents crawling across the country-side.
The American flags which fluttered from our wind-shield proved a passport in themselves, and as we approached the close-locked ranks parted to let us pass, and then closed in behind us. For five solid hours, travelling always at express-train speed, we motored between walls of marching men. In time the constant shuffle of boots and the rhythmic swing of grey-clad arms and shoulders grew maddening, and I became obsessed with the fear that I would send the car ploughing into the human hedge on either side. It seemed that the interminable ranks would never end, and so far as we were concerned they never did end, for we never saw the head of that mighty column. We passed regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade of infantry; then hussars, cuirassiers, Uhlans, field batteries, more infantry, more field-guns, ambulances with staring red crosses painted on their canvas tops, then gigantic siege-guns, their grim muzzles pointing skyward, each drawn by thirty straining horses; engineers, sappers and miners with picks and spades, pontoon-wagons, carts piled high with what looked like masses of yellow silk but which proved to be balloons, bicyclists with carbines slung upon their backs hunter-fashion, aeroplane outfits, bearded and spectacled doctors of the medical corps, armoured motor-cars with curved steel rails above them as a protection against the wires which the Belgians were in the habit of stringing across the roads, battery after battery of pom-poms (as the quick-firers are descriptively called), and after them more batteries of spidery-looking, lean-barrelled machine-guns, more Uhlans—the sunlight gleaming on their lance-tips and the breeze fluttering their pennons into a black-and-white cloud above them, and then infantry in spiked and linen-covered helmets, more infantry and still more infantry—all sweeping by, irresistibly as a mighty river, with their faces turned towards France.
This was the Ninth Field Army, composed of the very flower of the German Empire, including the magnificent troops of the Imperial Guard. It was first and last a fighting army. The men were all young, and they struck me as being as keen as razors and as hard as nails. Their equipment was the acme to all appearances ordinary two-wheeled farm-carts, contained "nests" of nine machine-guns which could instantly be brought into action. The medical corps was magnificent; as businesslike, as completely equipped, and as efficient as a great city hospital—as, indeed, it should be, for no hospital ever built was called upon to treat so many emergency cases. One section of the medical corps consisted wholly of pedicurists, who examined and treated the feet of the men. If a German soldier has even a suspicion of a corn or a bunion or a chafed heel and does not instantly report to the regimental pedicurist for treatment he is subject to severe punishment. He is not permitted to neglect his feet—or for that matter his teeth, or any other portion of his body—because his feet do not belong to him but to the Kaiser, and the Kaiser expects those feet kept in condition to perform long and arduous marches and to fight his battles.
At one cross-roads I saw a soldier with a horse-clipping machine. An officer stood beside him and closely scanned the heads of the passing men. Whenever he spied a soldier whose hair was a fraction of an inch too long, that soldier was called out of the ranks, the clipper was run over his head as quickly and dexterously as an expert shearer fleeces sheep, and then the man, his hair once more too short to harbour dirt, ran to rejoin his company. They must have cut the hair of a hundred men an hour. It was a fascinating performance. Men on bicycles, with coils of insulated wire slung on reels between them, strung field-telephones from tree to tree, so that the general commanding could converse with any part of the fifty-mile-long column. The whole army never slept. When half was resting the other half was advancing. The German soldier is treated as a valuable machine, which must be speeded up to the highest possible efficiency. Therefore he is well fed, well shod, well clothed— and worked as a negro teamster works a mule. Only men who are well cared-for can march thirty-five miles a day, week in and week out. Only once did I see a man ill-treated. A sentry on duty in front of the general headquarters failed to salute an officer with sufficient promptness, whereupon the officer lashed him again and again across the face with a riding-whip. Though welts rose at every blow, the soldier stood rigidly at attention and never quivered. It was not a pleasant thing to witness. Had it been a British or an American soldier who was thus treated there would have been an officer's funeral the next day.
As we were passing a German outpost a sentry ran into the road and signalled us to stop.
"Are you Americans?" he asked.
"We are," said I.
"Then I have orders to take you to the commandant," said he.
"But I am on my way to dine with General von Boehn. I have a pass signed by the General himself and I am late already."
"No matter," the man insisted stubbornly. "You must come with me. The commander has so ordered it."
So there was nothing for it but to accompany the soldier. Though we tried to laugh away our nervousness, I am quite willing to admit that we had visions of court-martials and prison cells and firing parties. You never know just where you are at with the Germans. You see, they have no sense of humour.
We found the commandant and his staff quartered at a farmhouse a half-mile down the road. He was a stout, florid-faced, boisterous captain of pioneers.
"I'm sorry to detain you," he said apologetically, "but I ordered the sentries to stop the first American car that passed, and yours happened to be the unlucky one. I have a brother in America and I wish to send a letter to him to let him know that all is well with me. Would you have the goodness to post it?"
"I'll do better than that, Captain," said I. "If you will give me your brother's name and address, and if he takes the New York World, he will read in to-morrow morning's paper that I have met you."
And the next morning, just as I had promised, Mr. F. zur Nedden of Rosebank, New York, was astonished to read in the columns of his morning paper that I had left his soldier-brother comfortably quartered in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Renaix, Belgium, in excellent health but drinking more red wine than was likely to be good for him.
It was now considerably past midday, and we were within a few miles of the French frontier, when I saw the guidon which signified the presence of the head of the army, planted at the entrance to a splendid old chateau. As we passed between the stately gateposts, whirled up the splendid, tree-lined drive and came to a stop in front of the terrace, a dozen officers came running out to meet us. So cordial and informal were their greetings that I felt as though I were being welcomed at a country-house in America instead of the headquarters of a German army in the field. So perfect was the field-telephone service that the staff had been able to keep in touch with our progress ever since, five hours before, we had entered the German lines, and had waited dinner for us. General von Boehn I found to be a red-faced, grey-moustached, jovial old warrior, who seemed very much worried for fear that we were not getting enough to eat, and particularly enough to drink. He explained that the Belgian owners of the chateau had had the bad taste to run away and take their servants with them, leaving only one bottle of champagne in the cellar. That bottle was good, however, as far as it went. Nearly all the officers spoke English, and during the meal the conversation was chiefly of the United States, for one of them had been attached to the German Embassy at Washington and knew the golf-course at Chevy Chase better than I do myself; another had fished in California and shot elk in Wyoming; and a third had attended the army school at Fort Riley. After dinner we grouped ourselves on the terrace and Thompson made photographs of us. They are probably the only ones—in this war, at least—of a German general and an American war correspondent who is not under arrest. Then we gathered about a table on which was spread a staff map of the war area and got down to serious business.
The general began by asserting that the accounts of atrocities perpetrated by German troops on Belgian non-combatants were lies.
"Look at these officers about you," he said. "They are gentlemen, like yourself. Look at the soldiers marching past in the road out there. Most of them are the fathers of families. Surely you do not believe that they would do the unspeakable things they have been accused of?"
"Three days ago, General," said I, "I was in Aerschot. The whole town is now but a ghastly, blackened ruin."
"When we entered Aerschot," was the reply, "the son of the burgomaster came into the room where our officers were dining and assassinated the Chief of Staff. What followed was retribution. The townspeople got only what they deserved."
"But why wreak your vengeance on women and children?" I asked.
"None have been killed," the general asserted positively.
"I'm sorry to contradict you, General," I asserted with equal positiveness, "but I have myself seen their bodies. So has Mr. Gibson, the secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, who was present during the destruction of Louvain."
"Of course," replied General von Boehn, "there is always danger of women and children being killed during street fighting if they insist on coming into the streets. It is unfortunate, but it is war."
"But how about a woman's body I saw with the hands and feet cut off? How about the white-haired man and his son whom I helped to bury outside of Sempst, who had been killed merely because a retreating Belgian soldier had shot a German soldier outside their house? There were twenty-two bayonet wounds in the old man's face. I counted them. How about the little girl, two years old, who was shot while in her mother's arms by a Uhlan and whose funeral I attended at Heyst-op-den-Berg? How about the old man near Vilvorde who was hung by his hands from the rafters of his house and roasted to death by a bonfire being built under him?"
The general seemed taken aback by the exactness of my information.
"Such things are horrible if true," he said. "Of course, our soldiers, like soldiers in all armies, sometimes get out of hand and do things which we would never tolerate if we knew it. At Louvain, for example, I sentenced two soldiers to twelve years' penal servitude each for assaulting a woman."
"Apropos of Louvain," I remarked, "why did you destroy the library?"
"We regretted that as much as anyone else," was the answer. "It caught fire from burning houses and we could not save it."
"But why did you burn Louvain at all?" I asked.
"Because the townspeople fired on our troops. We actually found machine-guns in some of the houses. And," smashing his fist down upon the table, "whenever civilians fire upon our troops we will teach them a lasting lesson. If women and children insist on getting in the way of bullets, so much the worse for the women and children."
"How do you explain the bombardment of Antwerp by Zeppelins?" I inquired.
"Zeppelins have orders to drop their bombs only on fortifications and soldiers," he answered.
"As a matter of fact," I remarked, "they destroyed only private houses and innocent civilians, several of whom were women. If one of those bombs had dropped two hundred yards nearer my hotel I wouldn't be here to-day smoking one of your excellent cigars."
"That is a calamity which, thank God, didn't happen," he replied.
"If you feel for my safety as deeply as that, General," I said, earnestly, "you can make quite sure of my coming to no harm by sending no more Zeppelins."
"Well, Herr Powell," he said, laughing, "we will think about it. And," he continued gravely, "I trust that you will tell the American people, through your great paper, what I have told you to-day. Let them hear our side of this atrocity business. It is only justice that they should be made familiar with both sides of the question."
I have quoted my conversation with General von Boehn as nearly verbatim as I can remember it. I have no comments to make. I will leave it to my readers to decide for themselves just how convincing were the answers of the German General Staff—for General von Boehn was but its mouthpiece—to the Belgian accusations. Before we began our conversation I asked the general if my photographer, Thompson, might be permitted to take photographs of the great army which was passing. Five minutes later Thompson whirled away in a military motor-car, ciceroned by the officer who had attended the army school at Fort Riley. It seems that they stopped the car beside the road, in a place where the light was good, and when Thompson saw approaching a regiment or a battery or a squadron of which he wished a picture he would tell the officer, whereupon the officer would blow a whistle and the whole column would halt.
"Just wait a few minutes until the dust settles," Thompson would remark, lighting a cigar, and the Ninth Imperial Army, whose columns stretched over the country-side as far as the eye could see, would stand in its tracks until the air was sufficiently clear to get a good picture.
A field battery of the Imperial Guard rumbled past and Thompson made some remark about the accuracy of the American gunners at Vera Cruz.
"Let us show you what our gunners can do," said the officer, and he gave an order. There were more orders—a perfect volley of them. A bugle shrilled, eight horses strained against their collars, the drivers cracked their whips, the cannoneers put their shoulders to the wheels, and a gun left the road and swung into position in an adjacent field. On a knoll three miles away an ancient windmill was beating the air with its huge wings. A shell hit the windmill and tore it into splinters.
"Good work," Thompson observed critically. "If those fellows of yours keep on they'll be able to get a job in the American navy when the war is over."
In all the annals of modern war I do not believe that there is a parallel to this little Kansas photographer halting, with peremptory hand, an advancing army and leisurely photographing it, regiment by regiment, and then having a field-gun of the Imperial Guard go into action solely to gratify his curiosity.
They were very courteous and hospitable to me, those German officers, and I was immensely interested with all that I saw. But, when all is said and done, they impressed me not as human beings, who have weaknesses and virtues, likes and dislikes of their own, but rather as parts, more or less important, of a mighty and highly efficient machine which is directed and controlled by a cold and calculating intelligence in far-away Berlin. That machine has about as much of the human element as a meat-chopper, as a steam- roller, as the death-chair at Sing Sing. Its mission is to crush, obliterate, destroy, and no considerations of civilization or chivalry or humanity will affect it. I think that the Germans, with their grim, set faces, their monotonous uniforms, and the ceaseless shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of their boots must have gotten on my nerves, for it was with a distinct feeling of relief that I turned the bonnet of my car once more towards Antwerp and my friends the Belgians.
VI. On The Belgian Battle-Line
In writing of the battles in Belgium I find myself at a loss as to what names to give them. After the treaty-makers have affixed their signatures to a piece of parchment and the arm-chair historians have settled down to the task of writing a connected account of the campaign, the various engagements will doubtless be properly classified and labelled—and under the names which they will receive in the histories we, who were present at them, will probably not recognize them at all. Until such time, then, as history has granted them the justice of perspective, I can only refer to them as "the fight at Sempst" or "the first engagement at Alost" or "the battle of Vilvorde" or "the taking of Termonde." Not only this, but the engagements that seemed to us to be battles, or remarkably lifelike imitations of battles, may be dismissed by the historians as unimportant skirmishes and contacts, while those engagements that we carelessly referred to at the time as "scraps" may well prove, in the light of future events, to have been of far greater significance than we realized. I don't even know how many engagements I witnessed, for I did not take the trouble to keep count. Thompson, who was with me from the beginning of the campaign to the end, told a reporter who interviewed him upon his return to London that we had been present at thirty-two engagements, large and small. Though I do not vouch, mind you, for the accuracy of this assertion, it is not as improbable as it sounds, for, from the middle of August to the fall of Antwerp in the early part of October, it was a poor day that didn't produce a fight of some sort. The fighting in Belgium at this stage of the war may be said to have been confined to an area within a triangle whose corners were Antwerp, Aerschot and Termonde. The southern side of this triangle, which ran somewhat to the south of Malines, was nearly forty miles in length, and it was this forty-mile front, extending from Aerschot on the east to Termonde on the west, which, during the earlier stages of the campaign, formed the Belgian battle-line. As the campaign progressed and the Germans developed their offensive, the Belgians were slowly forced back within the converging sides of the triangle until they were squeezed into the angle formed by Antwerp, where they made their last stand.
The theatre of operations was, from the standpoint of a professional onlooker like myself, very inconsiderately arranged. Nature had provided neither orchestra-stalls nor boxes. All the seats were bad. In fact it was quite impossible to obtain a good view of the stage and of the uniformed actors who were presenting the most stupendous spectacle in all history upon it. The whole region, you see, was absolutely flat—as flat as the top of a table—and there wasn't anything even remotely resembling a hill anywhere. To make matters worse, the country was criss-crossed by a perfect network of rivers and brooks and canals and ditches; the highways and the railways, which had to be raised to keep them from being washed out by the periodic inundations, were so thickly screened by trees as to be quite useless for purposes of observation; and in the rare places where a rise in the ground might have enabled one to get a comprehensive view of the surrounding country, dense groves of trees or red-and-white villages almost invariably intervened. One could be within a few hundred yards of the firing-line and literally not see a thing save the fleecy puffs of bursting shrapnel. Indeed, I don't know what we should have done had it not been for the church towers. These were conveniently sprinkled over the landscape— every cluster of houses seemed to have one—and did their best to make up for the region's topographical shortcomings. The only disadvantage attaching to the use of the church-spires as places to view the fighting from was that the military observers and the officers controlling the fire of the batteries used them for the same purpose. The enemy knew this, of course, and almost the first thing he did, therefore, was to open fire on them with his artillery and drive those observers out. This accounts for the fact that in many sections of Belgium there is not a church-spire left standing. When we ascended a church tower, therefore, for the purpose of obtaining a general view of an engagement, we took our chances and we knew it. More than once, when the enemy got the range and their shells began to shriek and yowl past the belfry in which I was stationed, I have raced down the rickety ladders at a speed which, under normal conditions, would probably have resulted in my breaking my neck. In view of the restrictions imposed upon correspondents in the French and Russian theatres of war, I suppose that instead of finding fault with the seating arrangements I should thank my lucky stars that I did not have to write my dispatches with the aid of an ordnance-map and a guide-book in a hotel bedroom a score or more of miles from the firing-line.
The Belgian field army consisted of six divisions and a brigade of cavalry and numbered, on paper at least, about 180,000 men. I very much doubt, however, if King Albert had in the field at anyone time more than 120,000 men—a very large proportion of whom were, of course, raw recruits. Now the Belgian army, when all is said and done, was not an army according to the Continental definition; it was not much more than a glorified police force, a militia. No one had ever dreamed that it would be called upon to fight, and hence, when war came, it was wholly unprepared. That it was able to offer the stubborn and heroic resistance which it did to the advance of the German legions speaks volumes for Belgian stamina and courage. Many of the troops were armed with rifles of an obsolete pattern, the supply of ammunition was insufficient, and though the artillery was on the whole of excellent quality, it was placed at a tremendous disadvantage by the superior range and calibre of the German field- guns. The men did not even have the protection afforded by neutral- coloured uniforms, but fought from first to last in clothes of blue and green and blazing scarlet. As I stood one day in the Place de Meir in Antwerp and watched a regiment of mud-bespattered guides clatter past, it was hard to believe that I was living in the twentieth century and not in the beginning of the nineteenth, for instead of serviceable uniforms of grey or drab or khaki, these men wore the befrogged green jackets, the cherry-coloured breeches, and the huge fur busbies which characterized the soldiers of Napoleon.
The carabineers, for example, wore uniforms of bottle-green and queer sugar-loaf hats of patent leather which resembled the headgear of the Directoire period. Both the grenadiers and the infantry of the line marched and fought and slept in uniforms of heavy blue cloth piped with scarlet and small, round, visorless fatigue-caps which afforded no protection from either sun or rain. Some of the men remedied this by fitting their caps with green reading-shades, such as undergraduates wear when they are cramming for examinations, so that at first glance a regiment looked as though its ranks were filled with either jockeys or students. The gendarmes—who, by the way, were always to be found where the fighting was hottest—were the most unsuitably uniformed of all, for the blue coats and silver aiguillettes and towering bearskins which served to impress the simple country-folk made splendid targets for the German marksmen. This medley of picturesque and brilliant uniforms was wonderfully effective, of course, and whenever I came upon a group of lancers in sky-blue and yellow lounging about the door of a wayside tavern or met a patrol of guides in their green jackets and scarlet breeches trotting along a country-road, I always had the feeling that I was looking at a painting by Meissonier or Detaille.
At the beginning of the war the Belgian cavalry was as well mounted as that of any European army, many of the officers having Irish hunters, while the men were mounted on Hungarian-bred stock. The almost incessant campaigning, combined with lack of proper food and care, had its effect upon the horses, however, and before the campaign in Flanders was half over the cavalry mounts were a raw- boned and sorry-looking lot. The Belgian field artillery was horsed magnificently: the sturdy, hardy animals native to Luxembourg and the Ardennes making admirable material for gun-teams, while the great Belgian draught-horses could scarcely have been improved upon for the army's heavier work.
Speaking of cavalry, the thing that I most wanted to see when I went to the war was a cavalry charge. I had seen mounted troops in action, of course, both in Africa and in Asia, but they had brown skins and wore fantastic uniforms. What I wanted to see was one of those charges such as Meissonier used to paint—scarlet breeches and steel helmets and a sea of brandished sword-blades and all that sort of thing. But when I confided my wish to an American army officer whom I met on the boat going over he promptly discouraged me. "Cavalry charges are a thing of the past," he asserted. "There will never be one again. The modern high-power rifle has made them impossible. Henceforward cavalry will only be used for scouting purposes or as mounted infantry." He spoke with great positiveness, I remember, having been, you see, in both the Cuban and Philippine campaigns. According to the textbooks and the military experts and the armchair tacticians he was perfectly right; I believe that all of the writers on military subjects agree in saying that cavalry charges are obsolete as a form of attack. But the trouble with the Belgians was that they didn't play the war-game according to the rules in the book. They were very primitive in their conceptions of warfare. Their idea was that whenever they got within sight of a German regiment to go after that regiment and exterminate it, and they didn't care whether in doing it they used horse, foot, or guns. It was owing, therefore, to this total disregard for the rules laid down in the textbooks that I saw my cavalry charge. Let me tell you about it while I have the chance, for there is no doubt that cavalry charges are getting scarce and I may never see another.
It was in the region between Termonde and Alost. This is a better country for cavalry to manoeuvre in than most parts of Flanders, for sometimes one can go almost a mile without being stopped by a canal. A considerable force of Germans had pushed north from Alost and the Belgian commander ordered a brigade of cavalry, composed of the two regiments of guides and, if I remember rightly, two regiments of lancers, to go out and drive them back. After a morning spent in skirmishing and manoeuvring for position, the Belgian cavalry commander got his Germans where he wanted them. The Germans were in front of a wood, and between them and the Belgians lay as pretty a stretch of open country as a cavalryman could ask for. Now the Germans occupied a strong position, mind you, and the proper thing to have done according to the books would have been to have demoralized them with shell-fire and then to have followed it up with an infantry attack. But the grizzled old Belgian commander did nothing of the sort. He had fifteen hundred troopers who were simply praying for a chance to go at the Germans with cold steel, and he gave them the chance they wanted. Tossing away his cigarette and tightening the chin-strap of his busby, he trotted out in front of his men. "Right into line!" he bellowed. Two long lines—one the guides, in green and scarlet, the other the lancers, in blue and yellow—spread themselves across the fields. "Trot!" The bugles squealed the order. "Gallop!" The forest of lances dropped from vertical to horizontal and the cloud of gaily fluttering pennons changed into a bristling hedge of steel. "Charge!" came the order, and the spurs went home. "Vive la Belgique! Vive la Belgique!" roared the troopers—and the Germans, not liking the look of those long and cruel lances, fell back precipitately into the wood where the troopers could not follow them. Then, their work having been accomplished, the cavalry came trotting back again. Of course, from a military standpoint it was an affair of small importance, but so far as colour and action and excitement were concerned it was worth having gone to Belgium to see.
After the German occupation of Brussels, the first engagement of sufficient magnitude to be termed a battle took place on August 25 and 26 in the Sempst-Elewyt-Eppeghem-Vilvorde region, midway between Brussels and Malines. The Belgians had in action four divisions, totalling about sixty thousand men, opposed to which was a considerably heavier force of Germans. To get a clear conception of the battle one must picture a fifty-foot-high railway embankment, its steeply sloping sides heavily wooded, stretching its length across a fertile, smiling country-side like a monstrous green snake. On this line, in time of peace, the bloc trains made the journey from Antwerp to Brussels in less than an hour. Malines, with its historic buildings and its famous cathedral, lies on one side of this line and the village of Vilvorde on the other, five miles separating them. On the 25th the Belgians, believing the Brussels garrison to have been seriously weakened and the German communications poorly guarded, moved out in force from the shelter of the Antwerp forts and assumed a vigorous offensive. It was like a terrier attacking a bulldog.
They drove the Germans from Malines by the very impetus of their attack, but the Germans brought up heavy reinforcements, and by the morning of the 26th the Belgians were in a most perilous position. The battle hinged on the possession of the railway embankment had gradually extended, each army trying to outflank the other, until it was being fought along a front of twenty miles. At dawn on the second day an artillery duel began across the embankment, the German fire being corrected by observers in captive balloons. By noon the Germans had gotten the range and a rain of shrapnel was bursting about the Belgian batteries, which limbered up and retired at a trot in perfect order. After the guns were out of range I could see the dark blue masses of the supporting Belgian infantry slowly falling back, cool as a winter's morning. Through an oversight, however, two battalions of carabineers did not receive the order to retire and were in imminent danger of being cut off and destroyed.
Then occurred one of the bravest acts that I have ever seen. To reach them a messenger would have to traverse a mile of open road, swept by-shrieking shrapnel and raked by rifle-fire. There was about one chance in a thousand of a man getting to the end of that road alive. A colonel standing beside me under a railway-culvert summoned a gendarme, gave him the necessary orders, and added, "Bonne chance, mon brave." The man, a fierce-moustached fellow who would have gladdened the heart of Napoleon, knew that he was being sent into the jaws of death, but he merely saluted, set spurs to his horse, and tore down the road, an archaic figure in his towering bearskin. He reached the troops uninjured and gave the order for them to retreat, but as they fell back the German gunners got the range and with marvellous accuracy dropped shell after shell into the running column. Soon road and fields were dotted with corpses in Belgian blue.
Time after time the Germans attempted to carry the railway embankment with the bayonet, but the Belgians met them with blasts of lead which shrivelled the grey columns as leaves are shrivelled by an autumn wind. By mid-afternoon the Belgians and Germans were in places barely a hundred yards apart, and the rattle of musketry sounded like a boy drawing a stick along the palings of a picket-fence. During the height of the battle a Zeppelin slowly circled over the field like a great vulture awaiting a feast. So heavy was the fighting that the embankment of a branch railway from which I viewed the afternoon's battle was literally carpeted with the corpses of Germans who had been killed during the morning. One of them had died clasping a woman's picture. He was buried with it still clenched in his hand. I saw peasants throw twelve bodies into one grave. One peasant would grasp a corpse by the shoulders and another would take its feet and they would give it a swing as though it were a sack of meal. As I watched these inanimate forms being carelessly tossed into the trench it was hard to make myself believe that only a few hours before they had been sons or husbands or fathers and that somewhere across the Rhine women and children were waiting and watching and praying for them. At a hamlet near Sempst I helped to bury an aged farmer and his son, inoffensive peasants, who had been executed by the Germans because a retreating Belgian soldier had shot a Uhlan in front of their farmhouse. Not content with shooting them, they had disfigured them almost beyond recognition. There were twenty-two bayonet wounds in the old man's face. I know, for I counted them.
By four o'clock all the Belgian troops were withdrawn except a thin screen to cover the retreat. As I wished to see the German advance I remained on the railway embankment on the outskirts of Sempst after all the Belgians, save a picket of ten men, had been withdrawn from the village. I had my car waiting in the road below with the motor running. As the German infantry would have to advance across a mile of open fields it was obvious that I would have ample time in which to get away. The Germans prefaced their advance by a terrific cannonade. The air was filled with whining shrapnel. Farmhouses collapsed amid puffs of brown smoke. The sky was smeared in a dozen places with the smoke of burning hamlets. Suddenly a soldier crouching beside me cried, "Les Allemands! Les Allemands!" and from the woods which screened the railway- embankment burst a long line of grey figures, hoarsely cheering. At almost the same moment I heard a sudden splutter of shots in the village street behind me and my driver screamed, "Hurry for your life, monsieur! The Uhlans are upon us!" In my desire to see the main German advance it had never occurred to me that a force of the enemy's cavalry might slip around and take us in the flank, which was exactly what had happened. It was three hundred yards to the car and a freshly ploughed field lay between, but I am confident that I broke the world's record for the distance. As I leaped into the car and we shot down the road at fifty miles an hour, the Uhlans cantered into the village, the sunlight striking on their lance- tips. It was a close call.
The retreat from Malines provided a spectacle which I shall never forget. For twenty miles every road was jammed with clattering cavalry, plodding infantry, and rumbling batteries, the guns, limbers, and caissons still covered with the green boughs which had been used to mask their position from German aeroplanes. Gendarmes in giant bearskins, chasseurs in uniforms of green and yellow, carabineers with their shiny leather hats, grenadiers, infantry of the line, guides, lancers, sappers and miners with picks and spades, engineers with pontoon-wagons, machine-guns drawn by dogs, ambulances with huge Red Cross flags fluttering above them, and cars, cars, cars, all the dear old familiar American makes among them, contributed to form a mighty river flowing towards Antwerp. Malines formerly had a population of fifty thousand people, and forty-five thousand of these fled when they heard that the Germans were returning. The scenes along the road were heart-rending in their pathos. The very young and the very old, the rich and the well- to-do and the poverty-stricken, the lame and the sick and the blind, with the few belongings they had been able to save in sheet- wrapped bundles on their backs or piled in push-carts, clogged the roads and impeded the soldiery. These people were abandoning all that they held most dear to pillage and destruction. They were completely terrorized by the Germans. But the Belgian army was not terrorized. It was a retreating army but it was victorious in retreat. The soldiers were cool, confident, courageous, and gave me the feeling that if the German giant left himself unguarded a single instant little Belgium would drive home a solar-plexus blow.
For many days after its evacuation by the Belgians, Malines occupied an unhappy position midway between the contending armies, being alternately bombarded by the Belgians and the Germans. The latter, instead of endeavouring to avoid damaging the splendid cathedral, whose tower, three hundred and twenty-five feet high, is the most conspicuous landmark in the region, seemed to take a grim pleasure in directing their fire upon the ancient building. The great clock, the largest in Belgium, was destroyed; the famous stained-glass windows were broken; the exquisite carvings were shattered; and shells, crashing through the walls and roof, converted the beautiful interior into a heap of debris. As there were no Belgian troops in Malines at this time, and as this fact was perfectly well known to the Germans, this bombardment of an undefended city and the destruction of its historic monuments struck me as being peculiarly wanton and not induced by any military necessity. It was, of course, part and parcel of the German policy of terrorism and intimidation. The bombardment of cities, the destruction of historic monuments, the burning of villages, and, in many cases, the massacre of civilians was the price which the Belgians were forced to pay for resisting the invader.
In order to ascertain just what damage had been done to the city, and particularly to the cathedral, I ran into Malines in my car during a pause in the bombardment. As the streets were too narrow to permit of turning the car around, and as it was more than probable that we should have to get out in a hurry, Roos suggested that we run in backward, which we did, I standing up in the tonneau, field-glasses glued to my eyes, on the look-out for lurking Germans. I don't recall ever having had a more eerie experience than that surreptitious visit to Malines. The city was as silent and deserted as a cemetery; there was not a human being to be seen; and as we cautiously advanced through the narrow, winding streets, the vacant houses echoed the throbbing of the motor with a racket which was positively startling. Just as we reached the square in front of the cathedral a German shell came shrieking over the house-tops and burst with a shattering crash in the upper story of a building a few yards away. The whole front of that building came crashing down about us in a cascade of brick and plaster. We did not stay on the order of our going. No. We went out of that town faster than any automobile every went out of it before. We went so fast, in fact, that we struck and killed the only remaining inhabitant. He was a large yellow dog.
Owing to strategic reasons the magnitude and significance of the great four days' battle which was fought in mid-September between the Belgian field army and the combined German forces in Northern Belgium was carefully masked in all official communications at the time, and, in the rush of later events, its importance was lost sight of. Yet the great flanking movement of the Allies in France largely owed its success to this determined offensive movement on the part of the Belgians, who, as it afterwards proved, were acting in close co-operation with the French General Staff. This unexpected sally, which took the Germans completely by surprise, not only compelled them to concentrate all their available forces in Belgium, but, what was far more important, it necessitated the hasty recall of their Third and Ninth armies, which were close to the French frontier and whose addition to the German battle-line in France might well have turned the scales in Germany's favour. In addition the Germans had to bring up their Landwehr and Landsturm regiments from the south of Brussels, and a naval division composed of fifteen thousand sailors and marines was also engaged. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that the success of the Allies on the Aisne was in great measure due to the sacrifices made on this occasion by the Belgian army. Every available man which the Germans could put into the field was used to hold a line running through Sempst, Weerde, Campenhout, Wespelaer, Rotselaer, and Holsbeek. The Belgians lay to the north-east of this line, their left resting on Aerschot and their centre at Meerbeek. Between the opposing armies stretched the Malines-Louvain canal, along almost the entire length of which fighting as bloody as any in the war took place.
To describe this battle—I do not even know by what name it will be known to future generations—would be to usurp the duties of the historian, and I shall only attempt, therefore, to tell you of that portion of it which I saw with my own eyes. On the morning of September 13 four Belgian divisions moved southward from Malines, their objective being the town of Weerde, on the Antwerp- Brussels railway. It was known that the Germans occupied Weerde in force, so throughout the day the Belgian artillery, masked by heavy woods, pounded away incessantly. By noon the enemy's guns ceased to reply, which was assumed by the jubilant Belgians to be a sign that the German artillery had been silenced. At noon the Belgian First Division moved forward and Thompson and I, leaving the car in front of a convent over which the Red Cross flag was flying, moved forward with it. Standing quite by itself in the middle of a field, perhaps a mile beyond the convent, was a two-story brick farmhouse. A hundred yards in front of the farmhouse stretched the raised, stone-paved, tree-lined highway which runs from Brussels to Antwerp, and on the other side of the highway was Weerde. Sheltering ourselves as much as possible in the trenches which zigzagged across the field, and dashing at full speed across the open places which were swept by rifle-fire, we succeeded in reaching the farmhouse. Ascending to the garret, we broke a hole through the tiled roof and found ourselves looking down upon the battle precisely as one looks down on a cricket match from the upper tier of seats at Lord's. Lying in the deep ditch which bordered our side of the highway was a Belgian infantry brigade, composed of two regiments of carabineers and two regiments of chasseurs a pied, the men all crouching in the ditch or lying prone upon the ground. Five hundred yards away, on the other side of the highway, we could see through the trees the whitewashed walls and red pottery roofs of Weerde, while a short distance to the right, in a heavily wooded park, was a large stone chateau. The only sign that the town was occupied was a pall of blue-grey vapour which hung over it and a continuous crackle of musketry coming from it, though occasionally, through my glasses, I could catch glimpses of the lean muzzles of machine-guns protruding from the upper windows of the chateau.