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Fighting in Flanders by E. Alexander Powell

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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

"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

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.

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