Now you must bear in mind the fact that in this war soldiers fired from the trenches for days on end without once getting a glimpse of the enemy. They knew that somewhere opposite them, in that bit of wood, perhaps, or behind that group of buildings, or on the other side of that railway-embankment, the enemy was trying to kill them just as earnestly as they were trying to kill him. But they rarely got a clear view of him save in street fighting and, of course, when he was advancing across open country. Soldiers no longer select their man and pick him off as one would pick off a stag, because the great range of modern rifles has put the firing-lines too far apart for that sort of thing. Instead, therefore, of aiming at individuals, soldiers aim at the places where they believe those individuals to be. Each company commander shows his men their target, tells them at what distance to set their sights, and controls their expenditure of ammunition, the fire of infantry generally being more effective when delivered in bursts by sections.
What I have said in general about infantry being unable to see the target at which they are firing was particularly true at Weerde owing to the dense foliage which served to screen the enemy's position. Occasionally, after the explosion of a particularly well-placed Belgian shell, Thompson and I, from our hole in the roof and with the aid of our high-power glasses, could catch fleeting glimpses of scurrying grey-clad figures, but that was all. The men below us in the trenches could see nothing except the hedges, gardens, and red-roofed houses of a country town. They knew the enemy was there, however, from the incessant rattle of musketry and machine-guns and from the screams and exclamations of those of their fellows who happened to get in the bullets' way.
Late in the afternoon word was passed down the line that the German guns had been put out of action, that the enemy was retiring and that at 5.30 sharp the whole Belgian line would advance and take the town with the bayonet. Under cover of artillery fire so continuous that it sounded like thunder in the mountains, the Belgian infantry climbed out of the trenches and, throwing aside their knapsacks, formed up behind the road preparatory to the grand assault. A moment later a dozen dog batteries came trotting up and took position on the left of the infantry. At 5.30 to the minute the whistles of the officers sounded shrilly and the mile-long line of men swept forward cheering. They crossed the roadway, they scrambled over ditches, they climbed fences, they pushed through hedges, until they were within a hundred yards of the line of buildings which formed the outskirts of the town. Then hell itself broke loose. The whole German front, which for several hours past had replied but feebly to the Belgian fire, spat a continuous stream of lead and flame. The rolling crash of musketry and the ripping snarl of machine-guns were stabbed by the vicious pom-pom-pom- pom-pom of the quick-firers. From every window of the three-storied chateau opposite us the lean muzzles of mitrailleuses poured out their hail of death. I have seen fighting on four continents, but I have never witnessed so deadly a fire as that which wiped out the head of the Belgian column as a sponge wipes out figures on a slate.
The Germans had prepared a trap and the Belgians had walked—or rather charged—directly into it. Three minutes later the dog batteries came tearing back on a dead run. That should have been a signal that it was high time for us to go, but, in spite of the fact that a storm was brewing, we waited to see the last inning. Then things began to happen with a rapidity that was bewildering. Back through the hedges, across the ditches, over the roadway came the Belgian infantry, crouching, stooping, running for their lives, Every now and then a soldier would stumble, as though he had stubbed his toe, and throw out his arms and fall headlong. A bullet had hit him. The road was sprinkled with silent forms in blue and green. The fields were sprinkled with them too. One man was hit as he was struggling to get through a hedge and died standing, held upright by the thorny branches. Men with blood streaming down their faces, men with horrid crimson patches on their tunics, limped, crawled, staggered past, leaving scarlet trails behind them. A young officer of chasseurs, who had been recklessly exposing himself while trying to check the retreat of his men, suddenly spun around on his heels, like one of those wooden toys which the curb vendors sell, and then crumpled up, as though all the bone and muscle had gone out of him. A man plunged into a half-filled ditch and lay there, with his head under water. I could see the water slowly redden.
Bullets began to smash the tiles above us. "This is no place for two innocent little American boys," remarked Thompson, shouldering his camera. I agreed with him. By the time we reached the ground the Belgian infantry was half a mile in our rear, and to reach the car we had to cross nearly a mile of open field. Bullets were singing across it and kicking up little spurts of brown earth where they struck. We had not gone a hundred yards when the German artillery, which the Belgians so confidently asserted had been silenced, opened with shrapnel. Have you ever heard a winter gale howling and shrieking through the tree-tops? Of course. Then you know what shrapnel sounds like, only it is louder. You have no idea though how extremely annoying shrapnel is, when it bursts in your immediate vicinity. You feel as though you would like nothing in the world so much as to be suddenly transformed into a woodchuck and have a convenient hole. I remembered that an artillery officer had told me that a burst of shrapnel from a battery two miles away will spread itself over an eight-acre field, and every time I heard the moan of an approaching shell I wondered if it would decide to explode in the particular eight-acre field in which I happened to be.
As though the German shell-storm was not making things sufficiently uncomfortable for us, when we were half-way across the field two Belgian soldiers suddenly rose from a trench and covered us with their rifles. "Halt! Hands up!" they shouted. There was nothing for it but to obey them. We advanced with our hands in the air but with our heads twisted upward on the look-out for shrapnel. As we approached they recognized us. "Oh, you're the Americans," said one of them, lowering his rifle. "We couldn't see your faces and we took you for Germans. You'd better come with us. It's getting too hot to stay here." The four of us started on a run for a little cluster of houses a few hundred yards away. By this time the shells were coming across at the rate of twenty a minute.
"Suppose we go into a cellar until the storm blows over," suggested Roos, who had joined us. "I'm all for that," said I, making a dive for the nearest doorway. "Keep away from that house!" shouted a Belgian soldier who suddenly appeared from around a corner. "The man who owns it has gone insane from fright. He's upstairs with a rifle and he's shooting at every one who passes." "Well, I call that damned inhospitable," said Thompson, and Roos and I heartily agreed with him. There was nothing else for it, therefore, but to make a dash for the car. We had left it standing in front of a convent over which a Red Cross flag was flying on the assumption that there it would be perfectly safe. But we found that we were mistaken. The Red Cross flag did not spell protection by any means. As we came within sight of the car a shell burst within thirty feet of it, a fragment of the projectile burying itself in the door. I never knew of a car taking so long to crank. Though it was really probably only a matter of seconds before the engine started it seemed to us, standing in that shell-swept road, like hours.
Darkness had now fallen. A torrential rain had set in. The car slid from one side of the road to the other like a Scotchman coming home from celebrating Bobbie Burns's birthday and repeatedly threatened to capsize in the ditch. The mud was ankle-deep and the road back to Malines was now in the possession of the Germans, so we were compelled to make a detour through a deserted country- side, running through the inky blackness without lights so as not to invite a visit from a shell. It was long after midnight when, cold, wet and famished, we called the password to the sentry at the gateway through the barbed-wire entanglements which encircled Antwerp and he let us in. It was a very lively day for every one concerned and there were a few minutes when I thought that I would never see the Statue of Liberty again.
VII. The Coming Of The British
Imagine, if you please, a professional heavy-weight prize-fighter, with an abnormally long reach, holding an amateur bantam-weight boxer at arm's length with one hand and hitting him when and where he pleased with the other. The fact that the little man was not in the least afraid of his burly antagonist and that he got in a vicious kick or jab whenever he saw an opening would not, of course, have any effect on the outcome of the unequal contest. Now that is almost precisely what happened when the Germans besieged Antwerp, the enormously superior range and calibre of their siege-guns enabling them to pound the city's defences to pieces at their leisure without the defenders being able to offer any effective resistance.
Though Antwerp was to all intents and purposes a besieged city for many weeks prior to its capture, it was not until the beginning of the last week in September that the Germans seriously set to work of destroying its fortifications. When they did begin, however, their great siege pieces pounded the forts as steadily and remorselessly as a trip-hammer pounds a bar of iron. At the time the Belgian General Staff believed that the Germans were using the same giant howitzers which demolished the forts at Liege, but in this they were mistaken, for, as it transpired later, the Antwerp fortifications owed their destruction to Austrian guns served by Austrian artillerymen. Now guns of this size can only be fired from specially prepared concrete beds, and these beds, as we afterwards learned, had been built during the preceding month behind the embankment of the railway which runs from Malines to Louvain, thus accounting for the tenacity with which the Germans had held this railway despite repeated attempts to dislodge them. At this stage of the investment the Germans were firing at a range of upwards of eight miles, while the Belgians had no artillery that was effective at more than six. Add to this the fact that the German fire was remarkably accurate, being controlled and constantly corrected by observers stationed in balloons, and that the German shells were loaded with an explosive having greater destructive properties than either cordite or shimose powder, and it will be seen how hopeless was the Belgian position.
The scenes along the Lierre-St. Catherine-Waelhem sector, against which the Germans at first focussed their attack, were impressive and awesome beyond description. Against a livid sky rose pillars of smoke from burning villages. The air was filled with shrieking shell and bursting shrapnel. The deep-mouthed roar of the guns in the forts and the angry bark of the Belgian field-batteries were answered at intervals by the shattering crash of the German high-explosive shells. When one of these big shells—the soldiers dubbed them "Antwerp expresses"—struck in a field it sent up a geyser of earth two hundred feet in height. When they dropped in a river or canal, as sometimes happened, there was a waterspout. And when they dropped in a village, that village disappeared from the map.
While we were watching the bombardment from a rise in the Waelhem road a shell burst in the hamlet of Waerloos, whose red- brick houses were clustered almost at our feet. A few minutes later a procession of fugitive villagers came plodding up the cobble- paved highway. It was headed by an ashen-faced peasant pushing a wheelbarrow with a weeping woman clinging to his arm. In the wheelbarrow, atop a pile of hastily collected household goods, was sprawled the body of a little boy. He could not have been more than seven. His little knickerbockered legs and play-worn shoes protruded grotesquely from beneath a heap of bedding. When they lifted it we could see where the shell had hit him. Beside the dead boy sat his sister, a tot of three, with blood trickling from a flesh- wound in her face. She was still clinging convulsively to a toy lamb which had once been white but whose fleece was now splotched with red. Some one passed round a hat and we awkwardly tried to express our sympathy through the medium of silver. After a little pause they started on again, the father stolidly pushing the wheelbarrow, with its pathetic load, before him. It was the only home that family had.
One of the bravest acts that I have ever seen was performed by an American woman during the bombardment of Waelhem. Her name was Mrs. Winterbottom; she was originally from Boston, and had married an English army officer. When he went to the front in France she went to the front in Belgium, bringing over her car, which she drove herself, and placing it at the disposal of the British Field Hospital. After the fort of Waelhem had been silenced and such of the garrison as were able to move had been withdrawn, word was received at ambulance headquarters that a number of dangerously wounded had been left behind and that they would die unless they received immediate attention. To reach the fort it was necessary to traverse nearly two miles of road swept by shell-fire. Before anyone realized what was happening a big grey car shot down the road with the slender figure of Mrs. Winterbottom at the wheel. Clinging to the running-board was her English chauffeur and beside her sat my little Kansas photographer, Donald Thompson. Though the air was filled with the fleecy white patches which look like cotton-wool but are really bursting shrapnel, Thompson told me afterwards that Mrs. Winterbottom was as cool as though she were driving down her native Commonwealth Avenue on a Sunday morning. When they reached the fort shells were falling all about them, but they filled the car with wounded men and Mrs. Winterbottom started back with her blood-soaked freight for the Belgian lines.
Thompson remained in the fort to take pictures. When darkness fell he made his way back to the village of Waelhem, where he found a regiment of Belgian infantry. In one of the soldiers Thompson recognized a man who, before the war, had been a waiter in the St. Regis Hotel in New York and who had been detailed to act as his guide and interpreter during the fighting before Termonde. This man took Thompson into a wine-shop where a detachment of soldiers was quartered, gave him food, and spread straw upon the floor for him to sleep on. Shortly after midnight a forty-two centimetre shell struck the building. Of the soldiers who were sleeping in the same room as Thompson nine were killed and fifteen more who were sleeping upstairs, the ex-waiter among them. Thompson told me that when the ceiling gave way and the mangled corpses came tumbling down upon him, he ran up the street with his hands above his head, screaming like a madman. He met an officer whom he knew and they ran down the street together, hoping to get out of the doomed town. Just then a projectile from one of the German siege- guns tore down the long, straight street, a few yards above their heads. The blast of air which it created was so terrific that it threw them down. Thompson said that it was like standing close to the edge of the platform at a wayside station when the Empire State Express goes by. When his nerve came back to him he pulled a couple of cigars out of his pocket and offered one to the officer. Their hands trembled so, he said afterwards, that they used up half a box of matches before they could get their cigars lighted.
I am inclined to think that the most bizarre incident I saw during the bombardment of the outer forts was the flight of the women inmates of a madhouse at Duffel. There were three hundred women in the institution, many of them violently insane, and the nuns in charge, assisted by soldiers, had to take them across a mile of open country, under a rain of shells, to a waiting train. I shall not soon forget the picture of that straggling procession winding its slow way across the stubble-covered fields. Every few seconds a shell would burst above it or in front of it or behind it with a deafening explosion. Yet, despite the frantic efforts of the nuns and soldiers, the women would not be hurried. When a shell burst some of them would scream and cower or start to run, but more of them would stop in their tracks and gibber and laugh and clap their hands like excited children. Then the soldiers would curse under their breath and push them roughly forward and the nuns would plead with them in their soft, low voices, to hurry, hurry, hurry. We, who were watching the scene, thought that few of them would reach the train alive, yet not one was killed or wounded. The Arabs are right: the mad are under God's protection.
One of the most inspiring features of the campaign in Belgium was the heroism displayed by the priests and the members of the religious orders. Village cures in their black cassocks and shovel hats, and monks in sandals and brown woollen robes, were everywhere. I saw them in the trenches exhorting the soldiers to fight to the last for God and the King; I saw them going out on to the battlefield with stretchers to gather the wounded under a fire which made veterans seek shelter; I saw them in the villages where the big shells were falling, helping to carry away the ill and the aged; I saw them in the hospitals taking farewell messages and administering the last sacrament to the dying; I even saw them, rifle in hand, on the firing-line, fighting for the existence of the nation. To these soldiers of the Lord I raise my hat in respect and admiration. The people of Belgium owe them a debt that they can never repay.
In the days before the war it was commonly said that the Church was losing ground in Belgium; that religion was gradually being ousted by socialism. If this were so, I saw no sign of it in the nation's days of trial. Time and time again I saw soldiers before going into battle drop on their knees and cross themselves and murmur a hasty prayer. Even the throngs of terrified fugitives, flying from their burning villages, would pause in their flight to kneel before the little shrines along the wayside. I am convinced, indeed, that the ruthless destruction of religious edifices by the Germans and the brutality which they displayed toward priests and members of the religious orders was more responsible than any one thing for the desperate resistance which they met with from the Belgian peasantry.
By the afternoon of October 3 things were looking very black for Antwerp. The forts composing the Lierre-Waelhem sector of the outer line of defences had been pounded into silence by the German siege-guns; a strong German force, pushing through the breach thus made, had succeeded in crossing the Nethe in the face of desperate opposition; the Belgian troops, after a fortnight of continuous fighting, were at the point of exhaustion; the hospitals were swamped by the streams of wounded which for days past had been pouring in; over the city hung a cloud of despondency and gloom, for the people, though kept in complete ignorance of the true state of affairs, seemed oppressed with a sense of impending disaster.
When I returned that evening to the Hotel St. Antoine from the battle-front, which was then barely half a dozen miles outside the city, the manager stopped me as I was entering the lift.
"Are you leaving with the others, Mr. Powell?" he whispered.
"Leaving for where? With what others?" I asked sharply.
"Hadn't you heard?" he answered in some confusion. "The members of the Government and the Diplomatic Corps are leaving for Ostend by special steamer at seven in the morning. It has just been decided at a Cabinet meeting. But don't mention it to a soul. No one is to know it until they are safely gone."
I remember that as I continued to my room the corridors smelled of smoke, and upon inquiring its cause I learned that the British Minister, Sir Francis Villiers, and his secretaries were burning papers in the rooms occupied by the British Legation. The Russian Minister, who was superintending the packing of his trunks in the hall, stopped me to say good-bye. Imagine my surprise, then, upon going down to breakfast the following morning, to meet Count Goblet d'Alviella, the Vice-President of the Senate and a minister of State, leaving the dining-room.
"Why, Count!" I exclaimed, "I had supposed that you were well on your way to Ostend by this time."
"We had expected to be," explained the venerable statesman, "but at four o'clock this morning the British Minister sent us word that Mr. Winston Churchill had started for Antwerp and asking us to wait and hear what he has to say."
At one o'clock that afternoon a big drab-coloured touring-car filled with British naval officers tore up the Place de Meir, its horn sounding a hoarse warning, took the turn into the narrow Marche aux Souliers on two wheels, and drew up in front of the hotel. Before the car had fairly come to a stop the door of the tonneau was thrown violently open and out jumped a smooth-faced, sandy-haired, stoop- shouldered, youthful-looking man in the undress Trinity House uniform. There was no mistaking who it was. It was the Right Hon. Winston Churchill. As he darted into the crowded lobby, which, as usual at the luncheon-hour, was filled with Belgian, French, and British staff officers, diplomatists, Cabinet Ministers and correspondents, he flung his arms out in a nervous, characteristic gesture, as though pushing his way through a crowd. It was a most spectacular entrance and reminded me for all the world of a scene in a melodrama where the hero dashes up, bare-headed, on a foam-flecked horse, and saves the heroine or the old homestead or the family fortune, as the case may be.
While lunching with Sir Francis Villiers and the staff of the British Legation, two English correspondents approached and asked Mr. Churchill for an interview.
"I will not talk to you," he almost shouted, bringing his fist down upon the table. "You have no business to be in Belgium at this time. Get out of the country at once."
It happened that my table was so close that I could not help but overhear the request and the response, and I remember remarking to the friends who were dining with me: "Had Mr. Churchill said that to me, I should have answered him, 'I have as much business in Belgium at this time, sir, as you had in Cuba during the Spanish- American War.'"
An hour later I was standing in the lobby talking to M. de Vos, the Burgomaster of Antwerp, M. Louis Franck, the Antwerp member of the Chamber of Deputies, American Consul-General Diederich and Vice-Consul General Sherman, when Mr. Churchill rushed past us on his way to his room. He impressed one as being always in a tearing hurry. The Burgomaster stopped him, introduced himself, and expressed his anxiety regarding the fate of the city. Before he had finished Churchill was part-way up the stairs.
"I think everything will be all right now, Mr. Burgomaster," he called down in a voice which could be distinctly heard throughout the lobby. "You needn't worry. We're going to save the city."
Whereupon most of the civilians present heaved sighs of relief. They felt that a real sailor had taken the wheel. Those of us who were conversant with the situation were also relieved because we took it for granted that Mr. Churchill would not have made so confident and public an assertion unless ample reinforcements in men and guns were on the way. Even then the words of this energetic, impetuous young man did not entirely reassure me, for from the windows of my room I could hear the German guns quite plainly. They had come appreciably nearer.
That afternoon and the three days following Mr. Churchill spent in inspecting the Belgian position. He repeatedly exposed himself upon the firing-line and on one occasion, near Waelhem, had a rather narrow escape from a burst of shrapnel. For some unexplainable reason the British censorship cast a veil of profound secrecy over Mr. Churchill's visit to Antwerp. The story of his arrival, just as I have related it above, I telegraphed that same night to the New York World, yet it never got through, nor did any of the other dispatches which I sent during his four days' visit. In fact, it was not until after Antwerp had fallen that the British public was permitted to learn that the Sea Lord had been in Belgium.
Had it not been for the promises of reinforcements given to the King and the Cabinet by Mr. Churchill, there is no doubt that the Government would have departed for Ostend when originally planned and that the inhabitants of Antwerp, thus warned of the extreme gravity of the situation, would have had ample time to leave the city with a semblance of comfort and order, for the railways leading to Ghent and to the Dutch frontier were still in operation and the highways were then not blocked by a retreating army.
The first of the promised reinforcements arrived on Sunday evening by special train from Ostend. They consisted of a brigade of the Royal Marines, perhaps two thousand men in all, well drilled and well armed, and several heavy guns. They were rushed to the southern front and immediately sent into the trenches to relieve the worn-out Belgians. On Monday and Tuesday the balance of the British expeditionary force, consisting of between five and six thousand men of the Volunteer Naval Reserve, arrived from the coast, their ammunition and supplies being brought by road, via Bruges and Ghent, in London motor-buses. When this procession of lumbering vehicles, placarded with advertisements of teas, tobaccos, whiskies, and current theatrical attractions and bearing the signs "Bank," "Holborn," "Piccadilly," "Shepherd's Bush," "Strand," rumbled through the streets of Antwerp, the populace went mad. "The British had come at last! The city was saved! Vive les Anglais! Vive Tommy Atkins!"
I witnessed the detrainment of the naval brigades at Vieux Dieu and accompanied them to the trenches north of Lierre. As they tramped down the tree-bordered, cobble-paved high road, we heard, for the first time in Belgium, the lilting refrain of that music-hall ballad which had become the English soldiers' marching song:
It's a long way to Tipperary, It's a long way to go; It's a long way to Tipperary To the sweetest girl I know! Good-bye, Piccadilly! Farewell, Leicester Square! It's a long, long way to Tipperary; But my heart's right there!
Many and many a one of the light-hearted lads with whom I marched down the Lierre road on that October afternoon were destined never again to feel beneath their feet the flags of Piccadilly, never again to lounge in Leicester Square.
They were as clean-limbed, pleasant-faced, wholesome-looking a lot of young Englishmen as you would find anywhere, but to anyone who had had military experience it was evident that, despite the fact that they were vigorous and courageous and determined to do their best, they were not "first-class fighting men." To win in war, as in the prize-ring, something more than vigour and courage and determination are required; to those qualities must be added experience and training, and experience and training were precisely what those naval reservists lacked. Moreover, their equipment left much to be desired. For example, only a very small proportion had pouches to carry the regulation one hundred and fifty rounds. They were, in fact, equipped very much as many of the American militia organizations were equipped when suddenly called out for strike duty in the days before the reorganization of the National Guard. Even the officers—those, at least, with whom I talked—seemed to be as deficient in field experience as the men. Yet these raw troops were rushed into trenches which were in most cases unprotected by head-covers, and, though unsupported by effective artillery, they held those trenches for three days under as murderous a shell-fire as I have ever seen and then fell back in perfect order. What the losses of the Naval Division were I do not know. In Antwerp it was generally understood that very close to a fifth of the entire force was killed or wounded—upwards of three hundred cases were, I was told, treated in one hospital alone—and the British Government officially announced that sixteen hundred were forced across the frontier and interned in Holland.
No small part in the defence of the city was played by the much- talked-about armoured train, which was built under the supervision of Lieutenant-Commander Littlejohn in the yards of the Antwerp Engineering Company at Hoboken. The train consisted of four large coal-trucks with sides of armour-plate sufficiently high to afford protection to the crews of the 4.7 naval guns—six of which were brought from England for the purpose, though there was only time to mount four of them—and between each gun-truck was a heavily- armoured goods-van for ammunition, the whole being drawn by a small locomotive, also steel-protected. The guns were served by Belgian artillerymen commanded by British gunners and each gun- truck carried, in addition, a detachment of infantry in the event of the enemy getting to close quarters. Personally, I am inclined to believe that the chief value of this novel contrivance lay in the moral encouragement it lent to the defence, for its guns, though more powerful, certainly, than anything that the Belgians possessed, were wholly outclassed, both in range and calibre, by the German artillery. The German officers whom I questioned on the subject after the occupation told me that the fire of the armoured train caused them no serious concern and did comparatively little damage.
By Tuesday night a boy scout could have seen that the position of Antwerp was hopeless. The Austrian siege guns had smashed and silenced the chain of supposedly impregnable forts to the south of the city with the same businesslike dispatch with which the same type of guns had smashed and silenced those other supposedly impregnable forts at Liege and Namur. Through the opening thus made a German army corps had poured to fling itself against the second line of defence, formed by the Ruppel and the Nethe. Across the Nethe, under cover of a terrific artillery fire, the Germans threw their pontoon-bridges, and when the first bridges were destroyed by the Belgian guns they built others, and when these were destroyed in turn they tried again, and at the third attempt they succeeded. With the helmeted legions once across the river, it was all over but the shouting, and no one knew it better than the Belgians, yet, heartened by the presence of the little handful of English, they fought desperately, doggedly on. Their forts pounded to pieces by guns which they could not answer, their ranks thinned by a murderous rain of shot and shell, the men heavy-footed and heavy-eyed from lack of sleep, the horses staggering from exhaustion, the ambulance service broken down, the hospitals helpless before the flood of wounded, the trenches littered with the dead and dying, they still held back the German legions.
By this time the region to the south of Antwerp had been transformed from a peaceful, smiling country-side into a land of death and desolation. It looked as though it had been swept by a great hurricane, filled with lightning which had missed nothing. The blackened walls of what had once been prosperous farm-houses, haystacks turned into heaps of smoking carbon, fields slashed across with trenches, roads rutted and broken by the great wheels of guns and transport wagons—these scenes were on every hand. In the towns and villages along the Nethe, where the fighting was heaviest, the walls of houses had fallen into the streets and piles of furniture, mattresses, agricultural machinery, and farm carts showed where the barricades and machine-guns had been. The windows of many of the houses were stuffed with mattresses and pillows, behind which the riflemen had made a stand. Lierre and Waelhem and Duffel were like sieves dripping blood. Corpses were strewn everywhere. Some of the dead were spread-eagled on their backs as though exhausted after a long march, some were twisted and crumpled in attitudes grotesque and horrible, some were propped up against the walls of houses to which they had tried to crawl in their agony.
All of them stared at nothing with awful, unseeing eyes. It was one of the scenes that I should like to forget. But I never can.
On Tuesday evening General de Guise, the military governor of Antwerp, informed the Government that the Belgian position was fast becoming untenable and, acting on this information, the capital of Belgium was transferred from Antwerp to Ostend, the members of the Government and the Diplomatic Corps leaving at daybreak on Wednesday by special steamer, while at the same time Mr. Winston Churchill departed for the coast by automobile under convoy of an armoured motorcar. His last act was to order the destruction of the condensers of the German vessels in the harbour, for which the Germans, upon occupying the city, demanded an indemnity of twenty million francs.
As late as Wednesday morning the great majority of the inhabitants of Antwerp remained in total ignorance of the real state of affairs. Morning after morning the Matin and the Metropole had published official communiques categorically denying that any of the forts had been silenced and asserting in the most positive terms that the enemy was being held in check all along the line. As a result of this policy of denial and deception, the people of Antwerp went to sleep on Tuesday night calmly confident that in a few days more the Germans would raise the siege from sheer discouragement and depart. Imagine what happened, then, when they awoke on Wednesday morning, October 7, to learn that the Government had stolen away between two days without issuing so much as a word of warning, and to find staring at them from every wall and hoarding proclamations signed by the military governor announcing that the bombardment of the city was imminent, urging all who were able to leave instantly, and advising those who remained to shelter themselves behind sand-bags in their cellars. It was like waiting until the entire first floor of a house was in flames and the occupants' means of escape almost cut off, before shouting "Fire!"
No one who witnessed the exodus of the population from Antwerp will ever forget it. No words can adequately describe it. It was not a flight; it was a stampede. The sober, slow-moving, slow-thinking Flemish townspeople were suddenly transformed into a herd of terror-stricken cattle. So complete was the German enveloping movement that only three avenues of escape remained open: westward, through St. Nicolas and Lokeren, to Ghent; north- eastward across the frontier into Holland; down the Scheldt toward Flushing. Of the half million fugitives—for the exodus was not confined to the citizens of Antwerp but included the entire population of the country-side for twenty miles around—probably fully a quarter of a million escaped by river. Anything that could float was pressed into service: merchant steamers, dredgers, ferry-boats, scows, barges, canal-boats, tugs, fishing craft, yachts, rowing-boats, launches, even extemporized rafts. There was no attempt to enforce order. The fear-frantic people piled aboard until there was not even standing room on the vessels' decks. Of all these thousands who fled by river, but an insignificant proportion were provided with food or warm clothing or had space in which to lie down. Yet through two nights they huddled together on the open decks in the cold and the darkness while the great guns tore to pieces the city they had left behind them. As I passed up the crowded river in my launch on the morning after the first night's bombardment we seemed to be followed by a wave of sound—a great murmur of mingled anguish and misery and fatigue and hunger from the homeless thousands adrift upon the waters.
The scenes along the highways were even more appalling, for here the retreating soldiery and the fugitive civilians were mixed in inextricable confusion. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday the road from Antwerp to Ghent, a distance of forty miles, was a solid mass of refugees, and the same was true of every road, every lane, every footpath leading in a westerly or a northerly direction. The people fled in motor-cars and in carriages, in delivery-wagons, in moving- vans, in farm-carts, in omnibuses, in vehicles drawn by oxen, by donkeys, even by cows, on horseback, on bicycles, and there were thousands upon thousands afoot. I saw men trundling wheelbarrows piled high with bedding and with their children perched upon the bedding. I saw sturdy young peasants carrying their aged parents in their arms. I saw women of fashion in fur coats and high-heeled shoes staggering along clinging to the rails of the caissons or to the ends of wagons. I saw white-haired men and women grasping the harness of the gun-teams or the stirrup- leathers of the troopers, who, themselves exhausted from many days of fighting, slept in their saddles as they rode. I saw springless farm-wagons literally heaped with wounded soldiers with piteous white faces; the bottoms of the wagons leaked and left a trail of blood behind them. A very old priest, too feeble to walk, was trundled by two young priests in a handcart. A young woman, an expectant mother, was tenderly and anxiously helped on by her husband. One of the saddest features of all this dreadful procession was the soldiers, many of them wounded, and so bent with fatigue from many days of marching and fighting that they could hardly raise their feet. One infantryman who could bear his boots no longer had tied them to the cleaning-rod of his rifle. Another had strapped his boots to his cowhide knapsack and limped forward with his swollen feet in felt slippers. Here were a group of Capuchin monks abandoning their monastery; there a little party of white-faced nuns shepherding the flock of children—many of them fatherless—who had been entrusted to their care. The confusion was beyond all imagination, the clamour deafening: the rattle of wheels, the throbbing of motors, the clatter of hoofs, the cracking of whips, the curses of the drivers, the groans of the wounded, the cries of women, the whimpering of children, threats, pleadings, oaths, screams, imprecations, and always the monotonous shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of countless weary feet.
The fields and the ditches between which these processions of disaster passed were strewn with the prostrate forms of those who, from sheer exhaustion, could go no further. And there was no food for them, no shelter. Within a few hours after the exodus began the country-side was as bare of food as the Sahara is of grass. Time after time I saw famished fugitives pause at farmhouses and offer all of their pitifully few belongings for a loaf of bread; but the kind- hearted country-people, with tears streaming down their cheeks, could only shake their heads and tell them that they had long since given all their food away. Old men and fashionably gowned women and wounded soldiers went out into the fields and pulled up turnips and devoured them raw—for there was nothing else to eat. During a single night, near a small town on the Dutch frontier, twenty women gave birth to children in the open fields. No one will ever know how many people perished during that awful flight from hunger and exposure and exhaustion; many more, certainly, than lost their lives in the bombardment.
VIII. The Fall Of Antwerp
The bombardment of Antwerp began about ten o'clock on the evening of Wednesday, October 7. The first shell to fall within the city struck a house in the Berchem district, killing a fourteen-year-old boy and wounding his mother and little sister. The second decapitated a street-sweeper as he was running for shelter. Throughout the night the rain of death continued without cessation, the shells falling at the rate of four or five a minute. The streets of the city were as deserted as those of Pompeii. The few people who remained, either because they were willing to take their chances or because they had no means of getting away, were cowering in their cellars. Though the gas and electric lights were out, the sky was rosy from the reflection of the petrol-tanks which the Belgians had set on fire; now and then a shell would burst with the intensity of magnesium, and the quivering beams of two searchlights on the forts across the river still further lit up the ghastly scene. The noise was deafening. The buildings seemed to rock and sway. The very pavements trembled. Mere words are inadequate to give a conception of the horror of it all. There would come the hungry whine of a shell passing low over the house-tops, followed, an instant later, by a shattering crash, and the whole facade of the building that had been struck would topple into the street in a cascade of brick and stone and plaster. It was not until Thursday night, however, that the Germans brought their famous forty-two- centimetre guns into action. The effect of these monster cannon was appalling. So tremendous was the detonation that it sounded as though the German batteries were firing salvoes. The projectiles they were now raining upon the city weighed a ton apiece and had the destructive properties of that much nitroglycerine. We could hear them as they came. They made a roar in the air which sounded at first like an approaching express train, but which rapidly rose in volume until the atmosphere quivered with the howl of a cyclone. Then would come an explosion which jarred the city to its very foundations.
Over the shivering earth rolled great clouds of dust and smoke. When one of these terrible projectiles struck a building it did not merely tear away the upper stories or blow a gaping aperture in its walls: the whole building crumbled, disintegrated, collapsed, as though flattened by a mighty hand. When they exploded in the open street they not only tore a hole in the pavement the size of a cottage cellar, but they sliced away the facades of all the houses in the immediate vicinity, leaving their interiors exposed, like the interiors upon a stage. Compared with the "forty-twos" the shell and shrapnel fire of the first night's bombardment was insignificant and harmless. The thickest masonry was crumpled up like so much cardboard. The stoutest cellars were no protection if a shell struck above them. It seemed as though at times the whole city was coming down about our ears. Before the bombardment had been in progress a dozen hours there was scarcely a street in the southern quarter of the city— save only the district occupied by wealthy Germans, whose houses remained untouched—which was not obstructed by heaps of fallen masonry. The main thoroughfares were strewn with fallen electric light and trolley wires and shattered poles and branches lopped from trees. The sidewalks were carpeted with broken glass. The air was heavy with the acrid fumes of smoke and powder. Abandoned dogs howled mournfully before the doors of their deserted homes. From a dozen quarters of the city columns of smoke by day and pillars of fire by night rose against the sky.
Owing to circumstances—fortunate or unfortunate, as one chooses to view them—I was not in Antwerp during the first night's bombardment. You must understand that a war correspondent, no matter how many thrilling and interesting things he may be able to witness, is valueless to the paper which employs him unless he is able to get to the end of a telegraph wire and tell the readers of that newspaper what is happening. In other words, he must not only gather the news but he must deliver it. Otherwise his usefulness ceases. When, therefore, on Wednesday morning, the telegraph service from Antwerp abruptly ended, all trains and boats stopped running, and the city was completely cut off from communication with the outside world, I left in my car for Ghent, where the telegraph was still in operation, to file my dispatches. So dense was the mass of retreating soldiery and fugitive civilians which blocked the approaches to the pontoon-bridge, that it took me four hours to get across the Scheldt, and another four hours, owing to the slow driving necessitated by the terribly congested roads, to cover the forty miles to Ghent. I had sent my dispatches, had had a hasty dinner, and was on the point of starting back to Antwerp, when Mr. Johnson, the American Consul at Ostend, called me up by telephone. He told me that the Minister of War, then at Ostend, had just sent him a package containing the keys of buildings and dwellings belonging to German residents of Antwerp who had been expelled at the beginning of the war, with the request that they be transmitted to the German commander immediately the German troops entered the city, as it was feared that, were these places found to be locked, it might lead to the doors being broken open and thus give the Germans a pretext for sacking. Mr. Johnson asked me if I would remain in Ghent until he could come through in his car with the keys and if I would assume the responsibility of seeing that the keys reached the German commander. I explained to Mr. Johnson that it was imperative that I should return to Antwerp immediately; but when he insisted that, under the circumstances, it was clearly my duty to take the keys through to Antwerp, I promised to await his arrival, although by so doing I felt that I was imperilling the interests of the newspaper which was employing me. Owing to the congested condition of the roads Mr. Johnson was unable to reach Ghent until Thursday morning.
By this time the highroad between Ghent and Antwerp was utterly impassable—one might as well have tried to paddle a canoe up the rapids at Niagara as to drive a car against the current of that river of terrified humanity—so, taking advantage of comparatively empty by- roads, I succeeded in reaching Doel, a fishing village on the Scheldt a dozen miles below Antwerp, by noon on Thursday.
By means of alternate bribes and threats, Roos, my driver, persuaded a boatman to take us up to Antwerp in a small motor- launch over which, as a measure of precaution, I raised an American flag. As long as memory lasts there will remain with me, sharp and clear, the recollection of that journey up the Scheldt, the surface of which was literally black with vessels with their loads of silent misery. It was well into the afternoon and the second day's bombardment was at its height when we rounded the final bend in the river and the lace-like tower of the cathedral rose before us. Shells were exploding every few seconds, columns of grey-green smoke rose skyward, the air reverberated as though to a continuous peal of thunder. As we ran alongside the deserted quays a shell burst with a terrific crash in a street close by, and our boatman, panic-stricken, suddenly reversed his engine and backed into the middle of the river. Roos drew his pistol.
"Go ahead!" he commanded. "Run up to the quay so that we can land." Before the grim menace of the automatic the man sullenly obeyed.
"I've a wife and family at Doel," he muttered. "If I'm killed there'll be no one to look after them."
"I've a wife and family in America," I retorted. "You're taking no more chances than I am."
I am not in the least ashamed to admit, however, that as we ran alongside the Red Star quays—the American flag was floating above them, by the way—I would quite willingly have given everything I possessed to have been back on Broadway again. A great city which has suddenly been deserted by its population is inconceivably depressing. Add to this the fact that every few seconds a shell would burst somewhere behind the row of buildings that screened the waterfront, and that occasionally one would clear the house-tops altogether and, moaning over our heads, would drop into the river and send up a great geyser, and you will understand that Antwerp was not exactly a cheerful place in which to land. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Such of the inhabitants as remained had taken refuge in their cellars, and just at that time a deep cellar would have looked extremely good to me. On the other hand, as I argued with myself there was really an exceedingly small chance of a shell exploding on the particular spot where I happened to be standing, and if it did—well, it seemed more dignified, somehow, to be killed in the open than to be crushed to death in a cellar like a cornered rat.
About ten o'clock in the evening the bombardment slackened for a time and the inhabitants of Antwerp's underworld began to creep out of their subterranean hiding-places and slink like ghosts along the quays in search of food. The great quantities of food-stuffs and other provisions which had been taken from the captured German vessels at the beginning of the war had been stored in hastily- constructed warehouses upon the quays, and it was not long before the rabble, undeterred by the fear of the police and willing to chance the shells, had broken in the doors and were looting to their hearts' content. As a man staggered past under a load of wine bottles, tinned goods and cheeses, our boatman, who by this time had become reconciled to sticking by us, inquired wistfully if he might do a little looting too. "We've no food left down the river," he urged, "and I might just as well get some of those provisions for my family as to let the Germans take them." Upon my assenting he disappeared into the darkness of the warehouse with a hand-truck. He was not the sort who did his looting by retail, was that boatman.
By midnight Roos and I were shivering as though with ague, for the night had turned cold, we had no coats, and we had been without food since leaving Ghent that morning. "I'm going to do a little looting on my own account." I finally announced. "I'm half frozen and almost starved and I'm not going to stand around here while there's plenty to eat and drink over in that warehouse." I groped my way through the blackness to the doorway and entering, struck a match. By its flickering light I saw a case filled with bottles in straw casings. From their shape they looked to be bottles of champagne. I reached for one eagerly, but just as my fingers closed about it a shell burst overhead. At least the crash was so terrific that it seemed as though it had burst overhead, though I learned afterward that it had exploded nearly a hundred yards away. I ran for my life, clinging, however, to the bottle. "At any rate, I've found something to drink," I said to Roos exultantly, when my heart had ceased its pounding. Slipping off the straw cover I struck a match to see the result of my maiden attempt at looting. I didn't particularly care whether it was wine or brandy. Either would have tasted good. It was neither. It was a bottle of pepsin bitters!
At daybreak we started at full speed down the river for Doel, where we had left the car, as it was imperative that I should get to the end of a telegraph wire, file my dispatches, and get back to the city. They told me at Doel that the nearest telegraph office was at a little place called L'Ecluse, on the Dutch frontier, ten miles away. We were assured that there was a good road all the way and that we could get there and back in an hour. So we could have in ordinary times, but these were extraordinary times and the Belgians, in order to make things as unpleasant as possible for the Germans, had opened the dykes and had begun to inundate the country. When we were about half-way to L'Ecluse, therefore, we found our way barred by a miniature river and no means of crossing it. It was in such circumstances that Roos was invaluable. Collecting a force of peasants, he set them to work chopping down trees and with these trees we built a bridge sufficiently strong to support the weight of the car. Thus we came into L'Ecluse.
But when the stolid Dutchman in charge of the telegraph office saw my dispatches he shrugged his shoulders discouragingly. "It is not possible to send them from here," he explained. "We have no instrument here but have to telephone everything to Hulst, eight miles away. As I do not understand English it would be impossible to telephone your dispatches." There seemed nothing for it but to walk to Hulst and back again, for the Dutch officials refused to permit me to take the car, which was a military one, across the frontier. Just at that moment a young Belgian priest—Heaven bless him!—who had overheard the discussion, approached me. "If you will permit me, monsieur," said he, "I will be glad to take your dispatches through to Hulst myself. I understand their importance. And it is well that the people in England and in America should learn what is happening here in Belgium and how bitterly we need their aid." Those dispatches were, I believe, the only ones to come out of Antwerp during the bombardment. The fact that the newspaper readers in London and New York and San Francisco were enabled to learn within a few hours of what had happened in the great city on the Scheldt was due, not to any efforts of mine, but to this little Belgian priest.
But when we got back to Doel the launch was gone. The boatman, evidently not relishing another taste of bombardment, had decamped, taking his launch with him. And neither offers of money nor threats nor pleadings could obtain me another one. For a time it looked as though getting back to Antwerp was as hopeless as getting to the moon. Just as I was on the point of giving up in despair, Roos appeared with a gold-laced official whom he introduced as the chief quarantine officer. "He is going to let you take the quarantine launch," said he. I don't know just what arguments Roos had brought to bear, and I was careful not to inquire, but ten minutes later I was sitting in lonely state on the after- deck of a trim black yacht and we were streaking it up the river at twenty miles an hour. As I knew that the fall of the city was only a matter of hours, I refused to let Roos accompany me and take the chances of being made a prisoner by the Germans, but ordered him instead to take the car, while there was yet time, and make his way to Ostend. I never saw him again. By way of precaution, in case the Germans should already be in possession of the city, I had taken the two American flags from the car and hoisted them on the launch, one from the mainmast and the other at the taffrail. It was a certain satisfaction to know that the only craft that went the wrong way of the river during the bombardment flew the Stars and Stripes. As we came within sight of the quays, the bombardment, which had become intermittent, suddenly broke out afresh and I was compelled to use both bribes and threats—the latter backed up by a revolver—to induce the crew of the launch to run in and land me at the quay. An hour after I landed the city surrendered.
The withdrawal of the garrison from Antwerp began on Thursday and, everything considered, was carried out in excellent order, the troops being recalled in units from the outer line, marched through the city and across the pontoon-bridge which spans the Scheldt and thence down the road to St. Nicolas to join the retreating field army. What was implied in the actual withdrawal from contact with the enemy will be appreciated when I explain the conditions which existed. In places the lines were not two hundred yards apart and for the defenders no movement was possible during the daylight. Many of the men in the firing-line had been on duty for nearly a hundred hours and were utterly worn out both mentally and physically. Such water and food as they had were sent to them at night, for any attempt to cross the open spaces in the daytime the Germans met with fierce bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire. The evacuation of the trenches was, therefore, a most difficult and dangerous operation and that it was carried out with so comparatively small loss speaks volumes for the ability of the officers to whom the direction of the movement was entrusted, as does the successful accomplishment of the retreat from Antwerp into West Flanders along a road which was not only crowded with refugees but was constantly threatened by the enemy. The chief danger was, of course, that the Germans would cross the river at Termonde in force and thus cut off the line of retreat towards the coast, forcing the whole Belgian army and the British contingent across the frontier of Holland. To the Belgian cavalry and carabineer cyclists and to the armoured cars was given the task of averting this catastrophe, and it is due to them that the Germans were held back for a sufficient time to enable practically the whole of the forces evacuating Antwerp to escape. That a large proportion of the British Naval Reserve divisions were pushed across the frontier and interned was not due to any fault of the Belgians, but, in some cases at least, to their officer's misconception of the attitude of Holland. Just as I was leaving Doel on my second trip up the river, a steamer loaded to the guards with British naval reservists swung in to the wharf, but, to my surprise, the men did not start to disembark. Upon inquiring of some one where they were bound for I was told that they were going to continue down the Scheldt to Terneuzen. Thereupon I ordered the launch to run alongside and clambered aboard the steamer.
"I understand," said I, addressing a group of officers who seemed to be as much in authority as anyone, "that you are keeping on down the river to Terneuzen? That is not true, is it?"
They looked at me as though I had walked into their club in Pall Mall and had spoken to them without an introduction.
"It is," said one of them coldly. "What about it?"
"Oh, nothing much," said I, "except that three miles down this river you'll be in Dutch territorial waters, whereupon you will all be arrested and held as prisoners until the end of the war. It's really none of my business, I know, but I feel that I ought to warn you."
"How very extraordinary," remarked one of them, screwing a monocle into his eye. "We're not at war with Holland are we? So why should the bally Dutchmen want to trouble us?"
There was no use arguing with them, so I dropped down the ladder into the launch and gave the signal for full steam ahead. As I looked back I saw the steamer cast off from the wharf and, swinging slowly out into the river, point her nose down-stream toward Holland.
On Friday morning, October 9, General de Guise, the military governor of Antwerp, ordered the destruction of the pontoon-bridge across the Scheldt, which was now the sole avenue of retreat from the city. The mines which were exploded beneath it did more damage to the buildings along the waterfront than to the bridge, however, only the middle spans of which were destroyed. When the last of the retreating Belgians came pouring down to the waterfront a few hours later to find their only avenue of escape gone, for a time scenes of the wildest confusion ensued, the men frantically crowding aboard such vessels as remained at the wharves or opening fire on those which were already in midstream and refused to return in answer to their summons. I wish to emphasise the fact, however, that these were but isolated incidents; that these men were exhausted in mind and body from many days of fighting against hopeless odds; and that, as a whole, the Belgian troops bore themselves, in this desperate and trying situation, with a courage and coolness deserving of the highest admiration. I have heard it said in England that the British Naval Division was sent to Antwerp "to stiffen the Belgians." That may have been the intention, the coming of the English certainly relieved some and comforted others in the trenches. But in truth the Belgians needed no stiffening. They did everything that any other troops could have done under the same circumstances—and more. Nor did the men of the Naval Division, as has been frequently asserted in England, cover the Belgian retreat. The last troops to leave the trenches were Belgians, the last shots were fired by Belgians, and the Belgians were the last to cross the river.
At noon on Friday General de Guise and his staff having taken refuge in Fort St. Philippe, a few miles below Antwerp on the Scheldt, the officer in command of the last line of defence sent word to the burgomaster that his troops could hold out but a short time longer and suggested that the time had arrived for him to go out to the German lines under a flag of truce and secure the best terms possible for the city. As the burgomaster, M. de Vos, accompanied by Deputy Louis Franck, Communal Councillor Ryckmans and the Spanish Consul (it was expected that the American Consul-General would be one of the parlementaires, but it was learned that he had left the day before for Ghent) went out of the city by one gate, half a dozen motor-cars filled with German soldiers entered through the Porte de Malines, sped down the broad, tree-shaded boulevards which lead to the centre of the city, and drew up before the Hotel de Ville. In answer to the summons of a young officer in a voluminous grey cloak the door was cautiously opened by a servant in the blue- and-silver livery of the municipality.
"I have a message to deliver to the members of the Communal Council," said the officer politely.
"The councillors are at dinner and cannot be disturbed," was the firm reply. "But if monsieur desires he can sit down and wait for them." So the young officer patiently seated himself on a wooden bench while his men ranged themselves along one side of the hall. After a delay of perhaps twenty minutes the door of the dining-room opened and a councillor appeared, wiping his moustache.
"I understand that you have a message for the Council. Well, what is it?" he demanded pompously.
The young officer clicked his heels together and bowed from the waist.
"The message I am instructed to give you, sir," he said politely, "is that Antwerp is now a German city. You are requested by the general commanding his Imperial Majesty's forces so to inform your townspeople and to assure them that they will not be molested so long as they display no hostility towards our troops."
While this dramatic little scene was being enacted in the historic setting of the Hotel de Ville, the burgomaster, unaware that the enemy was already within the city gates, was conferring with the German commander, who informed him that if the outlying forts were immediately surrendered no money indemnity would be demanded from the city, though all merchandise found in its warehouses would be confiscated.
The first troops to enter were a few score cyclists, who advanced cautiously from street to street and from square to square until they formed a network of scouts extending over the entire city. After them, at the quick-step, came a brigade of infantry and hard on the heels of the infantry clattered half a dozen batteries of horse artillery. These passed through the city to the waterfront at a spanking trot, unlimbered on the quays and opened fire with shrapnel on the retreating Belgians, who had already reached the opposite side of the river. Meanwhile a company of infantry started at the double across the pontoon-bridge, evidently unaware that its middle spans had been destroyed. Without an instant's hesitation two soldiers threw off their knapsacks, plunged into the river, swam across the gap, clambered up on to the other portion of the bridge and, in spite of a heavy fire from the fort at the Tete de Flandre, dashed forward to reconnoitre. That is the sort of deed that wins the Iron Cross. Within little more than an hour after reaching the waterfront the Germans had brought up their engineers, the bridge had been repaired, the fire from Fort St. Anne had been silenced, and their troops were pouring across the river in a steady stream in pursuit of the Belgians. The grumble of field-guns, which continued throughout the night, told us that they had overtaken the Belgian rearguard.
Though the bombardment ended early on Friday afternoon, Friday night was by no means lacking in horrors, for early in the evening fires, which owed their origin to shells, broke out in a dozen parts of the city. The most serious one by far was in the narrow, winding thoroughfare known as the Marche aux Souliers, which runs from the Place Verte to the Place de Meir. By eight o'clock the entire western side of this street was a sheet of flame. The only spectators were groups of German soldiers, who watched the threatened destruction of the city with complete indifference, and several companies of firemen who had turned out, I suppose, from force of training, but who stood helplessly beside their empty hose lines, for there was no water. I firmly believe that the saving of a large part of Antwerp, including the cathedral, was due to an American resident, Mr. Charles Whithoff, who, recognizing the extreme peril in which the city stood, hurried to the Hotel de Ville and suggested to the German military authorities that they should prevent the spread of flames by dynamiting the adjacent buildings. Acting promptly on this suggestion, a telephone message was sent to Brussels, and four hours later several automobiles loaded with hand grenades came tearing into Antwerp. A squad of soldiers was placed under Mr. Whithoff's orders and, following his directions, they blew up a cordon of buildings and effectually isolated the flames. I shall not soon forget the figure of this young American, in bedroom slippers and smoking jacket, coolly instructing German soldiers in the most approved methods of fire fighting. Nearly a week before the surrender of the city, the municipal waterworks, near Lierre, had been destroyed by shells from the German siege guns, so that when the Germans entered the city the sanitary conditions had become intolerable and an epidemic was impending. So scarce did water become during the last few days of the siege that when, on the evening of the surrender, I succeeded in obtaining a bottle of Apollinaris I debated with myself whether I should use it for washing or drinking. I finally compromised by drinking part of it and washing in the rest.
The Germans were by no means blind to the peril of an epidemic, and, before they had been three hours in occupation of the city their medical corps was at work cleaning and disinfecting. Every contingency, in fact, seemed to have been anticipated and provided for. Every phase of the occupation was characterized by the German passion for method and order. The machinery of the municipal health department was promptly set in motion. The police were ordered to take up their duties as though no change in government had occurred. The train service to Brussels, Holland and Germany restored. Stamps surcharged "Fur Belgien" were put on sale at the post office. The electric lighting system was repaired and on Saturday night, for the first time since the Zeppelin's memorable visit the latter part of August, Antwerp was again ablaze with light. When, immediately after the occupation, I hurried to the American Consulate with the package of keys which I had brought from Ghent, I was somewhat surprised, to put it mildly, to find the consulate closed and to learn from the concierge, who, with his wife, had remained in the building throughout the bombardment, that Consul-General Diederich and his entire staff had left the city on Thursday morning.
I was particularly surprised because I knew that, upon the departure of the British Consul-General, Sir Cecil Hertslet, some days before, the enormous British interests in Antwerp had been confided to American protection. The concierge, who knew me and seemed decidedly relieved to see me, made no objection to opening the consulate and letting me in. While deliberating as to the best method of transmitting the keys which had been entrusted to me to the German military governor without informing him of the embarrassing fact that the American and British interests in the city were without official representation, those Americans and British who had remained in the city during the bombardment began to drop in. Some of them were frightened and all of them were plainly worried, the women in particular, among whom were several British Red Cross nurses, seeming fearful that the soldiers might get out of hand. As there was no one else to look after these people, and as I had formerly been in the consular service myself, and as they said quite frankly that they would feel relieved if I took charge of things, I decided to "sit on the lid," as it were, until the Consul-General's return. In assuming charge of British and American affairs in Antwerp, at the request and with the approval what remained of the Anglo-American colony in that city, I am quite aware that I acted in a manner calculated to scandalize those gentlemen who have been steeped in the ethics of diplomacy. As one youth attached to the American Embassy in London remarked, it was "the damndest piece of impertinence" of which he had ever heard. But he is quite a young gentleman, and has doubtless had more experience in ballrooms than in bombarded cities. I immediately wrote a brief note to the German commander transmitting the keys and informing him that, in the absence of the American Consul-General I had assumed charge of American and British interests in Antwerp, and expected the fullest protection for them, to which I received a prompt and courteous reply assuring me that foreigners would not be molested in any way. In the absence of the consular staff, Thompson volunteered to act as messenger and deliver my message to the German commander. While on his way to the Hotel de Ville, which was being used as staff headquarters, a German infantry regiment passed him in a narrow street. Because he failed to remove his hat to the colours a German officer struck him twice with the flat of his sword, only desisting when Thompson pulled a silk American flag from his pocket. Upon learning of this occurrence I vigorously protested to the military authorities, who offered profuse apologies for the incident and assured me that the officer would be punished if Thompson could identify him. Consul-General Diederich returned to Antwerp on Monday and I left the same day for the nearest telegraph station in Holland.
The whole proceeding was irregular and unauthorized, of course, but for that matter so was the German invasion of Belgium. In any event, it seemed the thing to do and I did it, and, under the same circumstances I should do precisely the same thing over again.
Though a very large force of German troops passed through Antwerp during the whole of Friday night in pursuit of the retreating Belgians, the triumphal entry of the victors did not begin until Saturday afternoon, when sixty thousand men passed in review before the military governor, Admiral von Schroeder, and General von Beseler, who, surrounded by a glittering staff, sat their horses in front of the royal palace. So far as onlookers were concerned, the Germans might as well have marched through the streets of ruined Babylon. Thompson and I, standing in the windows of the American Consulate, were the only spectators in the entire length of the mile- long Place de Meir—which is the Piccadilly of Antwerp—of the great military pageant. The streets were absolutely deserted; every building was dark, every window shuttered; in a thoroughfare which had blossomed with bunting a few days before, not a flag was to be seen. I think that even the Germans were a little awed by the deathly silence that greeted them. As Thompson drily remarked, "It reminds me of a circus that's come to town the day before it's expected."
For five hours that mighty host poured through the canons of brick and stone:
Above the bugle's din, Sweating beneath their haversacks, With rifles bristling on their backs, The dusty men trooped in.
Company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade swept by until our eyes grew weary with watching the ranks of grey under the slanting lines of steel. As they marched they sang, the high buildings along the Place de Meir and the Avenue de Keyser echoing to their voices thundering out "Die Wacht Am Rhein," "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles" and "Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott." Though the singing was mechanical, like the faces of the men who sang, the mighty volume of sound, punctuated at regular intervals by the shrill music of the fifes and the rattle of the drums, and accompanied always by the tramp, tramp, tramp of iron- shod boots, was one of the most impressive things that I have ever heard. Each regiment was headed by its field music and colours, and when darkness fell and the street lights were turned on, the shriek of the fifes and the clamour of the drums and the rhythmic tramp of marching feet reminded me of a torchlight political parade at home.
At the head of the column rode a squadron of gendarmes—the policemen of the army—gorgeous in uniforms of bottle-green and silver and mounted on sleek and shining horses. After them came the infantry: solid columns of grey-clad figures with the silhouettes of the mounted officers rising at intervals above the forest of spike- crowned helmets. After the infantry came the field artillery, the big guns rattling and rumbling over the cobblestones, the cannoneers sitting with folded arms and heels drawn in, and wooden faces, like servants on the box of a carriage. These were the same guns that had been in almost constant action for the preceding fortnight and that for forty hours had poured death and destruction into the city, yet both men and horses were in the very pink of condition, as keen as razors, and as hard as nails; the blankets, the buckets, the knapsacks, the intrenching tools were all strapped in their appointed places, and the brown leather harness was polished like a lady's tan shoes. After the field batteries came the horse artillery and after the horse artillery the pom-poms—each drawn by a pair of sturdy draught horses driven with web reins by a soldier sitting on the limber—and after the pom-poms an interminable line of machine- guns, until one wondered where Krupp's found the time and the steel to make them all. Then, heralded by a blare of trumpets and a crash of kettledrums, came the cavalry; cuirassiers with their steel helmets and breastplates covered with grey linen, hussars in befrogged grey jackets and fur busbies, also linen-covered, and finally the Uhlans, riding amid a forest of lances under a cloud of fluttering pennons. But this was not all, nor nearly all, for after the Uhlans came the sailors of the naval division, brown-faced, bewhiskered fellows with their round, flat caps tilted rakishly and the roll of the sea in their gait; then the Bavarians in dark blue, the Saxons in light blue, and the Austrians—the same who had handled the big guns so effectively—in uniforms of a beautiful silver grey. Accompanying one of the Bavarian regiments was a victoria drawn by a fat white horse, with two soldiers on the box. Horse and carriage were decorated with flowers as though for a floral parade at Nice; even the soldiers had flowers pinned to their caps and nosegays stuck in their tunics. The carriage was evidently a sort of triumphal chariot dedicated to the celebration of the victory, for it was loaded with hampers of champagne and violins!
The army which captured Antwerp was, first, last and all the time, a fighting army. There was not a Landsturm or a Landwehr regiment in it. The men were as pink-cheeked as athletes; they marched with the buoyancy of men in perfect health. And yet the human element was lacking; there was none of the pomp and panoply commonly associated with man; these men in grey were merely wheels and cogs and bolts and screws in a great machine—the word which has been used so often of the German army, yet must be repeated, because there is no other—whose only purpose is death. As that great fighting machine swung past, remorseless as a trip-hammer, efficient as a steam-roller, I could not but marvel how the gallant, chivalrous, and heroic but ill-prepared little army of Belgium had held it back so long.