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The Soul of the War by Philip Gibbs

Part 4 out of 7

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on a high horse. He was a fair-haired lad of twelve or so, in a Belgian
uniform, with a tasselled cap over one ear, and as he passed the
Dunquerquoises clapped hands and called out: "Bravo! Bravo!" He
took the ovation with a grin and held his head high.

The cafes in this part of France were crowded with Belgian officers of
all grades. I had never seen so many generals together or such a
medley of uniforms. They saluted each other solemnly, and there
were emotional greetings between friends and brothers who had not
seen each other after weeks of fighting in different parts of the lines,
in this city across the border. Most of the officers were fine, sturdy,
young fellows of stouter physique than the French among whom I
had been roving. But others had the student look and stared
mournfully from gold-rimmed spectacles. There were many middle-
aged men among them who wore military uniforms, but without a
soldier's ease or swagger. When Germany tore up that "scrap of
paper" which guaranteed the integrity of Belgium, every patriotic man
there volunteered for the defence of his country and shouldered a
rifle, though he had never fired a blank cartridge, and put on some
kind of uniform, though he had never drilled in a barrack square.
Lawyers and merchants, schoolmasters and poets, actors and
singers, farmers and peasants, rushed to take up arms, and when
the vanguards of the German army struck across the frontier they
found themselves confronted not only by the small regular army of
Belgium, but by the whole nation. Even the women helped to dig the
trenches at Liege, and poured boiling water over Uhlans who came
riding into Belgian villages. It was the rising of a whole people which
led to so much ruthlessness and savage cruelty. The German
generals were afraid of a nation of franc-tireurs, where every man or
boy who could hold a gun shot at the sight of a pointed helmet. Those
high officers to whom war is a science without any human emotion or
pity in its rules, were determined to stamp out this irregular fighting by
blood and fire, and "frightfulness" became the order of the day. I
have heard English officers uphold these methods and use the same
excuse for all those massacres which has been put forward by the
enemy themselves. "War is war... One cannot make war with
rosewater... The franc-tireur has to be shot at sight. A civil population
using arms against an invading army must be taught a bloody lesson.
If ever we get into Germany we may have to face the same trouble,
so it is no use shouting words of horror." War is war, and hell is hell.
Let us for the moment leave it at that, as I left it in the streets of
Dunkirk, where the volunteer army of Belgium and their garrison
troops had come in retreat after heroic resistance against
overwhelming odds, in which their courage without science was no
match for the greatest death machine in Europe, controlled by
experts highly trained in the business of arms.

That night I went for a journey in a train of tragedy I was glad to get
into the train. Here, travelling through the clean air of a quiet night, I
might forget for a little while the senseless cruelties of this war, and
turn my eyes away from the suffering of individuals smashed by its
monstrous injustice.

But the long train was packed tight with refugees. There was only
room for me in the corridor if I kept my elbows close, tightly wedged
against the door. Others tried to clamber in, implored piteously for a
little space, when there was no space. The train jerked forward on
uneasy brakes, leaving a crowd behind.

Turning my head and half my body round, I could see into two of the
lighted carriages behind me, as I stood in the corridor. They were
overfilled with various types of these Belgian people whom I had
been watching all day--the fugitives of a ravaged country. For a little
while in this French train they were out of the hurly-burly of their
flight. For the first time since the shells burst over Antwerp they
had a little quietude and rest.

I glanced at their faces, as they sat back with their eyes closed. There
was a young Belgian priest there, with a fair, clean-shaven face. He
wore top boots splashed with mud, and only a silver cross at his
breast showed his office. He had fallen asleep with a smile about his
lips. But presently he awakened with a start, and suddenly there
came into his eyes a look of indescribable horror... He had

There was an old lady next to him. The light from the carriage lamp
glinted upon her silver hair, and gave a Rembrandt touch to a fair old
Flemish face. She was looking at the priest, and her lips moved as
though in pity. Once or twice she glanced at her dirty hands, at her
draggled dress, and then sighed, before bending her head, and
dozing into forgetfulness.

A young Flemish mother cuddled close to a small boy with flaxen hair,
whose blue eyes stared solemnly in front of him with an old man's
gravity of vision. She touched the child's hair with her lips, pressed
him closer, seemed eager to feel his living form, as though nothing
mattered now that she had him safe.

On the opposite seat were two Belgian officers--an elderly man with a
white moustache and grizzled eyebrows under his high kepi and a
young man in a tasselled forage cap, like a boy-student. They both
sat in a limp, dejected way. There was defeat and despair in their
attitude It was only when the younger man shifted his right leg with a
sudden grimace of pain that I saw he was wounded.

Here in these two carriages through which I could glimpse were a few
souls holding in their memory all the sorrow and suffering of poor,
stricken Belgium. Upon this long train were a thousand other men
and women in the same plight and with the same grief.

Next to me in the corridor was a young man with a pale beard and
moustache and fine delicate features. He had an air of distinction,
and his clothes suggested a man of some wealth and standing. I
spoke to him, a few commonplace sentences, and found, as I had
guessed, that he was a Belgian refugee.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

He smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders slightly.

"Anywhere. What does it matter? I have lost everything. One place is
as good as another for a ruined man."

He did not speak emotionally. There was no thrill of despair in his
voice. It was as though he were telling me that he had lost his watch.

"That is my mother over there," he said presently, glancing towards
the old lady with the silver hair. "Our house has been burnt by the
Germans and all our property was destroyed. We have nothing left.
May I have a light for this cigarette?"

One young soldier explained the reasons for the Belgian debacle.
They seemed convincing:

"I fought all the way from Liege to Antwerp. But it was always the
same. When we killed one German, five appeared in his place. When
we killed a hundred, a thousand followed. It was all no use. We had to
retreat and retreat. That is demoralizing."

"England is very kind to the refugees," said another man. "We shall
never forget these things."

The train stopped at wayside stations. Sometimes we got down to
stamp our feet. Always there were crowds of Belgian refugees on the
platforms--shadow figures in the darkness or silhouetted in the light of
the station lamps. They were encamped there with their bundles and
their babies.

On the railway lines were many trains, shunted into sidings. They
belonged to the Belgian State Railways, and had been brought over
the frontier away from German hands--hundreds of them. In their
carriages little families of refugees had made their homes. They are
still living in them, hanging their washing from the windows, cooking
their meals in these narrow rooms. They have settled down as
though the rest of their lives is to be spent in a siding. We heard their
voices, speaking Flemish, as our train passed on. One woman was
singing her child to sleep with a sweet old lullaby. In my train there
was singing also. A party of four young Frenchmen came in, forcing
their way hilariously into a corridor which seemed packed to the last
inch of space. I learnt the words of the refrain which they sang at
every station:

A bas Guillaume!
C'est un filou
II faut le pendre
Il faut le pendre
La corde a son cou!

The young Fleming with a pale beard and moustache smiled as he
glanced at the Frenchmen.

"They have had better luck," he said. "We bore the first brunt."

I left the train and the friends I had made. We parted with an "Au
revoir" and a "Good luck!" When I went down to the station the next
morning I learnt that a train of refugees had been in collision at La
Marquise, near Boulogne. Forty people had been killed and sixty

After their escape from the horrors of Antwerp the people on this train
of tragedy had been struck again by a blow from the clenched fist of


I went back to Dunkirk again and stayed there for some days in the
hope of getting a pass which would allow me to cross the Belgian
frontier and enter the zone of battle. Even to get out of the railway
station into this fortified town required diplomacy bordering upon
dishonesty, for since the retreat of the Belgian army of volunteers,
Dunkirk had an expectation of a siege and bombardment and no
civilian strangers were allowed to enter. Fortunately I was enabled to
mention a great name, with the implied and utterly untruthful
suggestion that its influence extended to my humble person, so that a
French gentleman with a yard-long bayonet withdrew himself from the
station doorway and allowed me to pass with my two friends.

It struck me then, as it has a thousand times since the war began,
how all precautions must fail to keep out a spy who has a little tact
and some audacity. My two friends and I were provided with
worthless passes which failed to comply with official regulations. We
had no authorized business in Dunkirk, and if our real profession had
been known we should have been arrested by the nearest French or
British officer, sent down to British headquarters under armed guard
and, after very unpleasant experiences as criminals of a dangerous
and objectionable type, expelled from France with nasty words on our
passports. Yet in spite of spy-mania and a hundred methods of spy-
catching, we who were classed with spies--passed all barriers and
saw all the secrets of the town's defence. If instead of being a mild
and inoffensive Englishman I had been a fierce and patriotic German,
I might have brought away a mass of military information of the
utmost value to General von Kluck; or, if out for blood, I might have
killed some very distinguished officers before dying as a faithful son
of the Fatherland. No sentries at the door of the Hotel des Arcades, in
the Place Jean-Bart, challenged three strangers of shabby and
hungry look when they passed through in search of food. Waiters
scurrying about with dishes and plates did not look askance at them
when they strolled into a dining-room crowded with French and British
staff officers. At the far end of the room was a great general--drinking
croute-au-pot with the simple appetite of a French poilu--who would
have been a splendid mark for anyone careless of his own life and
upholding the law of frightfulness as a divine sanction for
assassination. It was "Soixante-dix Pau," and I was glad to see that
brave old man who had fought through the terrible year of 1870, and
had been en retraite in Paris when, after forty-four years, France was
again menaced by German armies. Left "on the shelf" for a little while,
and eating his heart out in this inactivity while his country was
bleeding from the first wounds of war, he had been called back to
repair the fatal blunders in Alsace. He had shown a cool judgment
and a masterly touch. From Alsace, after a reorganization of the
French plan of attack, he came to the left centre and took part in the
councils of war, where General Joffre was glad of this shrewd old
comrade and gallant heart. He was given an advisory position, un-
hampered by the details of a divisional command, and now it seemed
to me that his presence in Dunkirk hinted at grave possibilities in this
fortified town. He had not come merely to enjoy a good luncheon at
the Hotel des Arcades.

The civilian inhabitants of Dunkirk were beginning to feel alarmed.
They knew that only the last remnant of the active Belgian army stood
between their great port and the enemy's lines. Now that Antwerp had
fallen they were beginning to lose faith in their girdle of forts and in
their garrison artillery. The German guns had assumed a mythical
and monstrous significance in the popular imagination. It seemed that
they could smash the strongest defences with their far-reaching
thunderbolts. There was no outward panic in the town and the
citizens hid their fears under a mask of contempt for the "sacres
Boches." But on some faces--of people who had no fear of death
except for those they loved--it was a thin mask, which crumbled and
let through terroi when across the dykes and ramparts the rumours
came that the German army was smashing forward, and closer.

The old landlady of the small hotel in which I stayed had laughed very
heartily with her hands upon her bulging stays when a young Belgian
officer flirted in a comical way with her two pretty daughters--a blonde
and a brunette, whose real beauty and freshness and simplicity
redeemed the squalor of their kitchen.

But presently she grabbed me by the arm, closing the door with the
other hand.

"Monsieur, I am an old fool of a woman, because I have those two
beauties there. It is not of myself that I am afraid. If I could strangle a
German and wring his neck, I would let the rest cut me into bits. But
those girls of mine--those two roses! I can't let them take risks! You
understand--those Germans are a dirty race. Tell me, is it time for us
to go?"

I could not tell her if it were time to go. With two such girls I think I
should have fled, panic-stricken. And yet I did not believe the
Germans would find Dunkirk an easy place to take. I had been round
its fortifications, and had seen the details of elaborate works which
even against German guns might prove impregnable. Outside the
outer forts the ground was bare and flat, so that not a rabbit could
scuttle across without being seen and shot. Sandbag entrenchments
and earthworks, not made recently, because grass had clothed them,
afforded splendid cover for the French batteries. Bomb-proof shelters
were dotted about the fields, and for miles away, as far as the Belgian
frontier, were lines of trenches and barbed-wire entanglements. To
the eye of a man not skilled in military science all these signs of a
strong defence were comforting. And yet I think they were known to
be valueless if the enemy broke through along the road to Dunkirk.

A cheerful priest whom I met across an iron bridge told me the secret
of Dunkirk's real defences.

"We have just to turn on a tap or two," he said, laughing at the
simplicity of the operation, "and all those fields for miles will be
flooded within an hour or two. Look, that low-lying land is under water
already. The enemy's guns would sink in it."

He pointed away to the south-west, and I saw that many of the fields
were all moist and marshy, as though after torrential rain. Nearer to
us, on the dry land, a body of soldiers marched up and down, drilling

The priest pointed to them.

"They fought untrained, those Belgian boys. Next time they will fight
with greater discipline. But not with greater courage, Monsieur! I lift
my hat to the heroic spirit of brave little Belgium, which as long as
history tells a splendid tale, will be remembered. May God bless
Belgium and heal its wounds!"

He took off his broad black hat and stood bareheaded, with a great
wind blowing his soutane, gazing at those Belgian soldiers who, after
the exhaustion of retreat, gathered themselves into rank again and
drilled so that they might fight once more for the little kingdom they
had lost.

A few days later I saw how Belgians were still fighting on their own
soil, miserable but magnificent, sick at heart but dauntless in spirit.


It was in Calais, to which I had gone back for a day or two, that I
found my chance to get into the firing lines in Belgium. I was sitting at
an open window with my two friends when I saw a lady's face in the
street. The last time I had seen it was in an old English mansion, filled
with many gallant and gentle ghosts of history, and with laughing girls
who went scampering out to a game of tennis on the lawn below the
terrace from which a scent of roses and climbing plants was wafted
up on the drowsy air of an English summer. It was strange to see one
of those girls in Calais, where such a different game was being
played. She had a gravity in her eyes which I had not seen before in
England, and yet, afterwards, I heard her laughter ring out within a
little distance of bursting shells. She had a motor-car and a pass to
the Belgian front, and a good, nature which gave me a free seat,
provided I was "jolly quick." I was so quick that, with a few things
scrambled into a handbag, I was ready in two shakes of a jiffy,
whatever that may be, and had only time to give a hasty grip to the
hands of the two friends who had gone along many roads with me in
this adventure of war, watching its amazing dramas. The Philosopher
and the Strategist are but shadows in this book, but though I left them
on the kerbstone, I took with me the memory of a comradeship which
had been good to have.


The town of Furnes, in Belgium, into which I came when dusk crept
into its streets and squares, was the headquarters of King Albert and
his staff, and its people could hear all day long the roll of guns a few
kilometres away, where the remnant of their army held the line of the
Yser canal and the trenches which barred the roads to Dixmude,
Pervyse and other little towns and villages on the last free patch of
Belgian soil. I drove into the Grande Place and saw the beauty of this
old Flemish square, typical of a hundred others, not less quaint and
with not less dignity, which had been smashed to pieces by German
guns. Three great buildings dominated its architecture--the Town Hall,
with a fine stately facade, and two ancient churches, with massive
brick towers, overshadowing the narrow old houses and timber-front
shops with stepped gables and wrought-iron signs. For three
centuries or more time had slept here, and no change of modern life
had altered the character of this place, where merchant princes had
dwelt around the market. If there had been peace here in that velvety
twilight which filled the square when I first passed through it, I should
have expected to see grave burghers in furred hoods pacing across
the cobble stones to the Hotel de Ville, and the florid-faced knights
whom Franz Hals loved to paint, quaffing wine inside the Hotel de la
Couronne, and perhaps a young king in exile known as the Merry
Monarch smiling with a roguish eye at some fair-haired Flemish
wench as he leaned on the arm of my lord of Rochester on his way to
his lodging on the other side of the way. But here was no peace. It
was a backyard of war, and there was the rumble of guns over the
stones, and a litter of war's munitions under the church wall.
Armoured cars were parked in the centre of the square, a corps of
military cyclists had propped their machines against gun wagons and
forage carts, out of the black shadows under high walls poked the
snouts of guns, wafts of scented hay came from carts with their
shafts down in the gutters, sentries with bayonets which caught the
light of old lanterns paced up and down below the Town Hall steps,
Belgian soldiers caked in the mud of the trenches slouched wearily in
the side streets, and staff officers in motor-cars with glaring headlights
and shrieking horns threaded their way between the wagons and the
guns. From beyond the town dull shocks of noise grumbled, like
distant thunder-claps, and through the tremulous dusk of the sky
there came an irregular repetition of faint flashes.

As the twilight deepened and the shadows merged into a general
darkness I could see candles being lit through the bull's-eye windows
of small shops, and the rank smell of paraffin lamps came from
vaulted cellars, into which one descended by steps from the roadway,
where soldiers were drinking cups of coffee or cheap wine in a
flickering light which etched Rembrandt pictures upon one's vision.

A number of staff officers came down the steps of the Town Hall and
stood at the foot of the steps as though waiting for some one. They
had not long to wait, for presently a very tall soldier came out to join
them. For a moment he stood under the portico lighting a cigarette,
and the flare of his match put a glamour upon his face. It was the
King of the Belgians, distinguished only by his height from the simple
soldiers who stood around him, and as he came down the steps he
had the dignity of his own manhood but no outward sign of royalty. I
could hardly see his face then, but afterwards in the daylight I saw
him pass down the lines of some of his heroic regiments and saw his
gravity and the sadness of his eyes, and his extreme simplicity... The
first time I had seen him was in a hall in Brussels, when he opened
the Great Exhibition in royal state, in the presence of many princes
and ministers and all his Court. Even then it seemed to me he had a
look of sadness--it may have been no more than shyness--as though
the shadow of some approaching tragedy touched his spirit. I spoke
of it at the time to a friend of mine and he smiled at the foolishness of
the remark.

Here in Furnes his personality was touched with a kind of sanctity
because his kingship of the last piece of Belgian soil symbolized all
the ruin and desolation of his poor country and all the heroism of its
resistance against an overpowering enemy and all the sorrows of
those scattered people who still gave him loyalty. Men of Republican
instincts paid a homage in their hearts to this young king, sanctified
by sorrow and crowned with martyrdom. Living plainly as a simple
soldier, sharing the rations, the hardships and the dangers of his
men, visiting them in their trenches and in their field-hospitals,
steeling his nerves to the sight of bloody things and his heart to the
grim task of fighting to the last ditch of Belgian ground, he seemed to
be the type of early kingship, as it was idealized by poets and
minstrels, when those who were anointed by the Church dedicated
their souls to the service of the people and their swords to justice. He
stood in this modern world and in this modern war as the supreme
type of the Hero, and mythical stories are already making a legend of
his chivalrous acts and virtue, showing that in spite of all our
incredulities and disillusions hero-worship is still a natural instinct in
the minds of men.


I had a job to do on my first night in Furnes, and earned a dinner, for
a change, by honest work. The staff of an English hospital with a
mobile column attached to the Belgian cavalry for picking up the
wounded on the field, had come into the town before dusk with a
convoy of ambulances and motorcars. They established themselves
in an old convent with large courtyards and many rooms, and they
worked hurriedly as long as light would allow, and afterwards in
darkness, to get things ready for their tasks next day, when many
wounded were expected. This party of doctors and nurses, stretcher-
bearers and chauffeurs, had done splendid work in Belgium. Many of
them were in the siege of Antwerp, where they stayed until the
wounded had to be taken away in a hurry; and others, even more
daring, had retreated from town to town, a few kilometres in advance
of the hostile troops. I had met some of the party in Malo-les-Bains,
where they had reassembled before coming to Fumes, and I had
been puzzled by them. In the "flying column," as they called their
convoy of ambulances, were several ladies very practically dressed in
khaki coats and breeches, and very girlish in appearance and
manners. They did not seem to me at first sight the type of woman to
be useful on a battlefield or in a field-hospital. I should have expected
them to faint at the sight of blood, and to swoon at the bursting of a
shell. Some of them at least were too pretty, I thought, to play about
in fields of war among men and horses smashed to pulp. It was only
later that I saw their usefulness and marvelled at the spiritual courage
of these young women, who seemed not only careless of shell-fire
but almost unconscious of its menace, and who, with more nervous
strength than that of many men, gave first-aid to the wounded without
shuddering at sights of agony which might turn a strong man sick.

It is not an easy task to settle down into a new hospital, especially in
time of war not far from the enemy's lines, and as a volunteer in the
work I was able to make myself useful by lending a hand with
mattresses and beds and heavy cases of medical material. It was a
strange experience, as far as I was concerned, and sometimes
seemed a little unreal as, with a bed on my head, I staggered across
dark courtyards, or with my arms full of lint and dressings. I groped
my way down the long, unlighted corridors of a Flemish convent.
Nurses chivvied about with little squeals of laughter as they bumped
into each other out of the shadow world, but not losing their heads or
their hands, with so much work to do. Framed in one or other of the
innumerable doorways stood a Belgian nun, with a white face, staring
out upon those flitting shadows. The young doctors had flung their
coats off and were handling the heaviest stuff like dock labourers at
trade union rates, though with more agility. I made friends with them
on the other side of cases too heavy for one man to handle--with a
golden-haired, blue-eyed boy from Bart's (I think), who made the
most preposterous jokes in the darkness, so that I laughed and
nearly dropped my end of the box (I saw him in the days to come
doing heroic and untiring work in the operating theatre), and with
another young surgeon whose keen, grave face lighted up
marvellously when an ironical smile caught fire in his brooding eyes,
and with other men in this hospital and ambulance column who will be
remembered in Belgium as fine and fearless men. With the
superintendent of the commissariat department--an Italian lady with a
pretty sense of humour and a devil-may-care courage which she
inherited from Stuart ancestors--I went on a shopping expedition into
the black gulfs of Fumes, stumbling into holes and jerking up against
invisible gun-wagons, but bringing back triumphantly some fat bacon
and, more precious still, some boxes of tallow candles, of great worth
in a town which had lost its gas.

I lighted dozens of these candles, like an acolyte in a Catholic church,
setting them in their own grease on window-sills and ledges of the
long corridors, so that the work of moving might go on more steadily.
But there was a wind blowing, and at the bang of distant doors out
went one candle after another, and nurses carrying other candles and
shielding the little flames with careful hands cried in laughing dismay
as they were puffed out by malicious draughts.

There was chaos in the kitchen, but out of it came order and a good
meal, served in the convent refectory, where the flickering light of
candles in beer-bottles sheltered from the wind, gleamed upon holy
pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Madonna and Child and glinted
upon a silver crucifix where the Man of Sorrows looked down upon a
supper party of men and women who, whatever their creed or faith or
unbelief, had dedicated themselves to relieve a suffering humanity
with a Christian chivalry--which did not prevent the blue-eyed boy
from making most pagan puns, or the company in general from
laughing as though war were all a jest.

Having helped to wash up--the young surgeons fell into queue before
the washtubs--I went out into the courtyard again. Horses were
stabled there, guarded by a man who read a book by the rays of an
old lantern, which was a little oasis of light in this desert of darkness.
The horses were listening. Every now and then they jerked their
heads up in a frightened way. From a few miles away came the boom
of great guns, and the black sky quivered with tremulous bars of light
as shell after shell burst somewhere over the heads of men waiting
for death. With one of the doctors, two of the nurses, and a man who
led the way, I climbed up to a high room in the convent roof. Through
a dormer window we looked out across the flat country beyond
Furnes and saw, a few miles away, the lines of battle. Some village
was burning there, a steady torch under a heavy cloud of smoke
made rosy and beautiful as a great flower over the scarlet flames.
Shells were bursting with bouquets of light and then scattered stars
into the sky. Short, sharp stabs revealed a Belgian battery, and very
clearly we could hear the roll of field guns, followed by enormous
concussions of heavy artillery.

"There will be work to do to-morrow!" said one of the nurses. Work
came before it was expected in the morning Quite early some Belgian
ambulances came up to the great gate of the convent loaded with
wounded. A few beds were made ready for them and they were
brought in by the stretcher-bearers and dressers. Some of them
could stagger in alone, with the help of a strong arm, but others were
at the point of death as they lay rigid on their stretchers, wet with
blood. For the first time I felt the weight of a man who lies
unconscious, and strained my stomach as I helped to carry these
poor Belgian soldiers. And for the first time I had round my neck the
arm of a man who finds each footstep a torturing effort, and who after
a pace or two halts and groans, and loses the strength of his legs, so
that all his weight hangs upon that clinging arm. Several times I nearly
let these soldiers fall, so great was the burden weighing down my
shoulders. It was only by a kind of prayer that I could hold them up
and guide them to the great room where stretchers were laid out for
lack of beds.

In a little while the great hall where I had helped to sort out packages
was a hospital ward where doctors and nurses worked very quietly
and from which there came faint groans of anguish, horrible in their
significance. Already it was filled with that stench of blood and dirt and
iodoform which afterwards used to sicken me as I helped to carry in
the wounded or carry out the dead.


In the courtyard the flying column was getting ready to set out in
search of other wounded men, not yet rescued from the firing line.
The officer in command was a young Belgian gentleman, Lieutenant
de Broqueville, the son of the Belgian Prime Minister, and a man of
knightly valour. He was arranging the order of the day with Dr. Munro,
who had organized the ambulance convoy, leading it through a series
of amazing adventures and misadventures--not yet to be written in
history--to this halting-place at Furnes. Three ladies in field kit stood
by their cars waiting for the day's commands, and there were four
stretcher-bearers, of whom I was the newest recruit. Among them
was an American journalist named Gleeson, who had put aside his
pen for a while to do manual work in fields of agony, proving himself
to be a man of calm and qifiet courage, always ready to take great
risks in order to bring in a stricken soldier. I came to know him as a
good comrade, and in this page greet him again.

The story of the adventure which we went out to meet that day was
written in the night that followed it, as I lay on straw with a candle by
my side, and because it was written with the emotion of a great
experience still thrilling in my brain and with its impressions
undimmed by any later pictures of the war I will give it here again as it
first appeared in the columns of the Daily Chronicle, suppressing only
a name or two because those whom I wished to honour hated my


We set out before noon, winding our way through the streets of
Furnes, which were still crowded with soldiers and wagons. In the
Town Hall square we passed through a mass of people who
surrounded a body of 150 German prisoners who had just been
brought in from the front. It was a cheering sight for Belgians who had
been so long in retreat before an overpowering enemy. It was a sign
that the tide of fortune was changing. Presently we were out in open
country, by the side of the Yser Canal. It seemed very peaceful and
quiet. Even the guns were silent now, and the flat landscape, with its
long, straight lines of poplars between the low-lying fields, had a spirit
of tranquillity in the morning sunlight. It seemed impossible to believe
that only a few kilometres away great armies were ranged against
each other in a death-struggle. But only for a little while. The spirit of
war was forced upon our imagination by scenes upon the roadside. A
squadron of Belgian cavalry rode by on tired horses. The men were
dirty in the service of war, and haggard after long privations in the
field. Yet they looked hard and resolute, and saluted us with smiles as
we passed. Some of them shouted out a question: "Anglais?" They
seemed surprised and glad to see British ambulances on their way to
the front. Belgian infantrymen trudged with slung rifles along the
roads of the villages through which we passed. At one of our halts,
while we waited for instructions from the Belgian headquarters, a
group of these soldiers sat in the parlour of an inn singing a love-song
in chorus. One young officer swayed up and down in a rhythmic
dance, waving his cigarette. He had been wounded in the arm, and
knew the horror of the trenches; but for a little while he forgot, and
was very gay because he was alive.

Our trouble was to know where to go. The righting on the previous
night had covered a wide area, but a good many of the wounded had
been brought back. Where the wounded still lay the enemy's shell-fire
was so heavy that the Belgian ambulances could get nowhere near.
Lieutenant de Broqueville was earnestly requested not to lead his little
column into unnecessary risks, especially as it was difficult to know
the exact position of the enemy until reports came in from the field

It was astonishing--as it is always in war--to find how soldiers quite
near to the front are in utter ignorance of the course of a great battle.
Many of the officers and men with whom we talked could not tell us
where the allied forces were, nor where the enemy was in position,
nor whether the heavy fighting during the last day and night had been
to the advantage of the Allies or the Germans. They believed, but
were not sure, that the enemy had been driven back many kilometres
between Nieuport and Dixmude.

At last, after many discussions and many halts, we received our
orders. We were asked to get into the town of Dixmude, where there
were many wounded.

It was about sixteen kilometres away from Furnes, and about half that
distance from where we had halted for lunch. Not very far away, it will
be seen, yet, as we went along the road, nearer to the sound of great
guns which for the last hour or two had been firing incessantly again,
we passed many women and children. It had only just occurred to
them that death was round the corner, and that there was no more
security in those little stone or plaster houses of theirs, which in time
of peace had been safe homes against all the evils of life. It had
come to their knowledge, very slowly, that they were of no more
protection than tissue paper under a rain of lead. So they were now
leaving for a place at longer range. Poor old grandmothers in black
bonnets and skirts trudged under the lines of poplars, with younger
women who clasped their babes tight in one hand while with the other
they carried heavy bundles of household goods. They did not walk
very fast. They did not seem very much afraid. They had a kind of
patient misery in their look. Along the road came some more German
prisoners, marching rapidly between mounted guards. Many of them
were wounded, and all of them had a wild, famished, terror-stricken
look. I caught the savage glare of their eyes as they stared into my
car. There was something beast-like and terrible in their gaze like that
of hunted animals caught in a trap.

At a turn in the road the battle lay before us, and we were in the zone
of fire. Away across the fields was a line of villages, with the town of
Dixmude a little to the right of us, perhaps two kilometres away. From
each little town smoke was rising in separate columns, which met at
the top in a great pall of smoke, as a heavy black cloud cresting
above the light on the horizon line. At every moment this blackness
was brightened by puffs of electric blue, extraordinarily vivid, as shells
burst in the air. Then the colour gradually faded out, and the smoke
darkened and became part of the pall. From the mass of houses in
each town came jabs of flame, following the explosions which
sounded with terrific, thudding shocks.

Upon a line of fifteen kilometres there was an incessant cannonade
and in every town there was a hell. The furthest villages were already
alight. I watched how the flames rose, and became great glowing
furnaces, terribly beautiful. Quite close to us--only a kilometre away
across the fields to the left--there were Belgian batteries at work, and
rifle-fire from many trenches. We were between two fires, and the
Belgian and German shells came screeching across our heads. The
enemy's shells were dropping close to us, ploughing up the fields with
great pits. We could hear them burst and scatter, and could see them
burrow. In front of us on the road lay a dreadful barrier, which brought
us to a halt. An enemy's shell had fallen right on top of an ammunition
convoy. Four horses had been blown to pieces, and lay strewn
across the road. The ammunition wagon had been broken into
fragments, and smashed and burnt to cinders by the explosion of its
own shells. A Belgian soldier lay dead, cut in half by a great fragment
of steel. Further along the road were two other dead horses in pools
of blood. It was a horrible and sickening sight from which one turned
away shuddering with a cold sweat. But we had to pass after some of
this dead flesh had been dragged away. Further down the road we
had left two of the cars in charge of the three ladies. They were to
wait there until we brought back some of the wounded, whom they
would take from us so that we could fetch some more out of
Dixmude. The two ambulances came on with our light car,
commanded by Lieutenant de Broqueville and Dr. Munro. Mr.
Gleeson asked me to help him on the other end of his own stretcher.

I think I may say that none of us quite guessed what was in store for
us. At least I did not guess that we had been asked to go into the
open mouth of Death. I had only a vague idea that Dixmude would be
just a little worse than the place at which we now halted for final
instructions as to the geography of the town.

It was a place which made me feel suddenly cold, in spite of a little
sweat which made my hands moist.

It was a halt between a group of cottages, where Belgian soldiers
were huddled close to the walls under the timber beams of the barns.
Several of the cottages were already smashed by shell-fire. There
was a great gaping hole through one of the roofs. The roadway was
strewn with bricks and plaster, and every now and then a group of
men scattered as shrapnel bullets came pattering down. We were in
an inferno of noise. It seemed as though we stood in the midst of the
guns within sight of each other's muzzles. I was deafened and a little
dazed, but very clear in the head, so that my thoughts seemed
extraordinarily vivid. I was thinking, among other things, of how soon I
should be struck by one of those flying bullets, like the men who lay
moaning inside the doorway of one of the cottages. On a calculation
of chances it could not be long.

The Belgian official in charge of this company was very courteous
and smiling. It was only by a sudden catch of the breath between his
words that one guessed at the excitement of his brain. He explained
to us, at what seemed to me needless length, the ease with which we
could get into Dixmude, where there were many wounded. He drew a
map of the streets, so that we could find the way to the Hotel de Ville,
where some of them lay. We thanked him, and told the chauiieurs to
move on. I was in one of the ambulances and Gleeson sat behind me
in the narrow space between the stretchers. Over my shoulder he
talked in a quiet voice of the job that lay before us. I was glad of that
quiet voice, so placid in its courage.

We went forward at what seemed to me a crawl, though I think it was
a fair pace. The shells were bursting round us now on all sides.
Shrapnel bullets sprayed the earth about us. It appeared to me an
odd thing that we were still alive.

Then we came into Dixmude. It was a fair-sized town, with many
beautiful buildings, and fine old houses in the Flemish style--so I was
told. When I saw it for the first time it was a place of death and horror.
The streets through which we passed were utterly deserted and
wrecked from end to end as though by an earthquake. Incessant
explosions of shell-fire crashed down upon the walls which still stood.
Great gashes opened in the walls, which then toppled and fell. A roof
came tumbling down with an appalling clatter. Like a house of cards
blown down by a puff of wind a little shop suddenly collapsed into a
mass of ruins. Here and there, further into the town, we saw living
figures. They ran swiftly for a moment and then disappeared into dark
caverns under toppling porticoes. They were Belgian soldiers.

We were now in a side street leading into the Town Hall square. It
seemed impossible to pass owing to the wreckage strewn across the

"Try to take it," said Dr. Munro, who was sitting beside the chauffeur.

We took it, bumping over the high debris, and then swept round into
the square. It was a spacious place, with the Town Hall at one side of
it, or what was left of the Town Hall. There was only the splendid shell
of it left, sufficient for us to see the skeleton of a noble building which
had once been the pride of Flemish craftsmen. Even as we turned
towards it parts of it were falling upon the ruins already on the ground.
I saw a great pillar lean forward and then topple down. A mass of
masonry crashed down from the portico. Some stiff, dark forms lay
among the fallen stones. They were dead soldiers. I hardly glanced at
them, for we were in search of living men. The cars were brought to a
halt outside the building and we all climbed down. I lighted a cigarette,
and I noticed two of the other men fumble for matches for the same
purpose. We wanted something to steady us. There was never a
moment when shell-fire was not bursting in that square about us. The
shrapnel bullets whipped the stones. The enemy was making a target
of the Hotel de Ville, and dropping their shells with dreadful exactitude
on either side of it. I glanced towards a flaring furnace to the right of
the building. There was a wonderful glow at the heart of it. Yet it did
not give me any warmth at that moment.

Dr. Munro and Lieutenant de Broqueville mounted the steps of the
Town Hall, followed by another brancardier and myself. Gleeson was
already taking down a stretcher. He had a little smile about his lips.

A French officer and two men stood under the broken archway of the
entrance between the fallen pillars and masonry. A yard away from
them lay a dead soldier--a handsome young man with clear-cut
features turned upwards to the gaping roof. A stream of blood was
coagulating round his head, but did not touch the beauty of his face.
Another dead man lay huddled up quite close, and his face was

"Are there any wounded here, sir?" asked our young lieutenant.

The other officer spoke excitedly. He was a brave man, but could not
hide the terror of his soul because he had been standing so long
waiting for death which stood beside him but did not touch him. It
appeared from his words that there were several wounded men
among the dead, down in the cellar. He would be obliged to us if we
could rescue them. We stood on some steps looking down into that
cellar. It was a dark hole--illumined dimly by a lantern, I think. I caught
sight of a little heap of huddled bodies. Two soldiers still unwounded,
dragged three of them out, handed them up, delivered them to us.
The work of getting those three men into the first ambulance seemed
to us interminable. It was really no more than fifteen to twenty
minutes, while they were being arranged.

During that time Dr. Munro was moving about the square in a dreamy
sort of way, like a poet meditating on love or flowers in May.
Lieutenant de Broqueville was making inquiries about other wounded
in other houses. I lent a hand to one of the stretcher-bearers. What
others were doing I don't know, except that Gleeson's calm face
made a clear-cut image on my brain. I had lost consciousness of
myself. Something outside myself, as it seemed, was talking now that
there was no way of escape, that it was monstrous to suppose that all
these bursting shells would not smash the ambulances to bits and
finish the agony of the wounded, and that death is very hideous. I
remember thinking also how ridiculous it is for men to kill each other
like this, and to make such hells.

Then Lieutenant de Broqueville spoke a word of command. "The first
ambulance must now get back."

I was with the first ambulance, in Gleeson's company. We had a full
load of wounded men--and we were loitering. I put my head outside
the cover and gave the word to the chauffeur. As I did so a shrapnel
bullet came past my head, and, striking a piece of ironwork, flattened
out and fell at my feet. I picked it up and put it in my pocket--though
God alone knows why, for I was not in search of souvenirs. So we
started with the first ambulance, through those frightful streets again,
and out into the road to the country.

"Very hot," said one of the men. I think it was the chauffeur.
Somebody else asked if we should get through with luck.

Nobody answered the question. The wounded men with us were very
quiet. I thought they were dead. There was only the incessant
cannonade and the crashing of buildings. Mitrailleuses were at work
now spitting out bullets. It was a worse sound than the shells. It
seemed more deadly in its rattle. I stared back behind the car and
saw the other ambulance in our wake. I did not see the motor-car.
Along the country road the fields were still being ploughed by shell,
which burst over our heads. We came to a halt again at the place
where the soldiers were crouched under the cottage walls. There
were few walls now, and inside some of the remaining cottages many
wounded men. Their own comrades were giving them first aid, and
wiping the blood out of their eyes. We managed to take some of
these on board. They were less quiet than the others we had, and
groaned in a heartrending way.

And then, a little later, we made a painful discovery. Lieutenant de
Broqueville, our gallant young leader, was missing. By some horrible
mischance he had not taken his place in either of the ambulances or
the motor-car. None of us had the least idea what had happened to
him. We had all imagined that he had scrambled up like the rest of
us, after giving the order to get away. We looked at each other in
dismay. There was only one thing to do, to get back in search of him.
Even in the half-hour since we had left the town Dixmude had burst
into flames and was a great blazing torch. If young de Broqueville
were left in that furnace he would not have a chance of life.

It was Gleeson and another stretcher-bearer who with great gallantry
volunteered to go back and search for our leader. They took the light
car and sped back towards the burning town.

The ambulances went on with their cargo of wounded, and I was left
in a car with one of the ladies while Dr. Munro was ministering to a
man on the point of death. It was the girl whom I had seen on the
lawn of an old English house in the days before the war. She was
very worried about the fate of de Broqueville, and anxious beyond
words as to what would befall the three friends who were now
missing. We drove back along the road towards Dixmude, and
rescued another wounded man left in a wayside cottage. By this time
there were five towns blazing in the darkness, and in spite of the
awful suspense which we were now suffering, we could not help
staring at the fiendish splendour of that sight. Dr. Munro joined us
again, and after a consultation we decided to get as near Dixmude as
we could, in ease our friends had to come out without their car or

The enemy's bombardment was now terrific. All its guns were
concentrated upon Dixmude and the surrounding trenches. In the
darkness close under a stable wall I stood listening to the great
crashes for an hour, when I had not expected such a grace of life.
Inside the stable, soldiers were sleeping in the straw, careless that
any moment a shell might burst through upon them and give them
unwaking sleep. The hour seemed a night. Then we saw the gleam of
headlights, and an English voice called out.

Our two friends had come back. They had gone to the entry of
Dixmude, but could get no further owing to the flames and shells.
They, too, had waited for an hour, but had not found de Broqueville. It
seemed certain that he was dead, and very sorrowfully, as there was
nothing to be done, we drove back to Furnes.

At the gate of the convent were some Belgian ambulances which had
come from another part of the front with their wounded. I helped to
carry one of them in, and strained my shoulders with the weight of the
stretcher. Another wounded man put his arm round my neck, and
then, with a dreadful cry, collapsed, so that I had to hold him in a
strong grip. A third man, horribly smashed about the head, walked
almost unaided into the operating-room. Gleeson and I led him, with
just a touch on his arm. Next morning he lay dead on a little pile of
straw in a quiet corner of the courtyard.

I sat down to a supper which I had not expected to eat. There was a
strange excitement in my body, which trembled a little after the day's
adventures. It seemed very strange to be sitting down to table with
cheerful faces about me. But some of the faces were not cheerful.
Those of us who knew of the disappearance of de Broqueville sat
silently over our soup.

Then suddenly there was a sharp exclamation of surprise--of sheer
amazement--and Lieutenant de Broqueville came walking briskly
forward, alive and well. ... It seemed a miracle.

It was hardly less than that. For several hours after our departure
from Dixmude he had remained in that inferno. He had missed us
when he went down into the cellars to haul out another wounded
man, forgetting that he had given us the order to start. There he had
remained with the buildings crashing all around him until the enemy's
fire had died down a little. He succeeded in rescuing his wounded, for
whom he found room in a Belgian ambulance outside the town, and
walked back along the road to Furnes. So we gripped his hands and
were thankful for his escape.


Early next morning I went into Dixmude again with some of the men
belonging to the "flying column." It was more than probable that there
were still a number of wounded men there, if any of them were left
alive after that night of horror when they lay in cellars or under the
poor shelter of broken walls. Perhaps also there were men but lately
wounded, for before the dawn had come some of the Belgian infantry
had been sent into the outlying streets with mitrailleuses, and on the
opposite side German infantry were in possession of other streets or
of other ruins, so that bullets were ripping across the mangled town.
The artillery was fairly quiet. Only a few shells were bursting over the
Belgian lines--enough to keep the air rumbling with irregular
thunderclaps. But as we approached the corner where we had waited
for news of de Broqueville one of these shells burst very close to us
and ploughed up a big hole in a field across the roadside ditch. We
drove more swiftly with empty cars and came into the streets of
Dixmude. They were sheets of fire, burning without flame but with a
steady glow of embers. They were but cracked shells of houses,
unroofed and swept clean of their floors and furniture, so that all but
the bare walls and a few charred beams had been consumed by the
devouring appetite of fire. Now and again one of the beams broke
and fell with a crash into the glowing heart of the furnace, which had
once been a Flemish house, raising a fountain of sparks.

Further into the town, however, there stood, by the odd freakishness
of an artillery bombardment, complete houses hardly touched by
shells and, very neat and prim, between masses of shapeless ruins.
One street into which I drove was so undamaged that I could hardly
believe my eyes, having looked back the night before to one great
torch which men called "Dixmude." Nevertheless some of its window-
frames had bulged with heat, and panes of glass fell with a splintering
noise on to the stone pavement. As I passed a hail of shrapnel was
suddenly flung upon the wall on one side of the street and the bullets
played at marbles in the roadway. In this street some soldiers were
grouped about two wounded men, one of them only lightly touched,
the other--a French marine--at the point of death, lying very still in a
huddled way with a clay-coloured face smeared with blood. We
picked them up and put them into one of the ambulances, the dying
man groaning a little as we strapped him on the stretcher.

The Belgian soldiers who had come into the town at dawn stood
about our ambulances as though our company gave them a little
comfort. They did not speak much, but had grave wistful eyes like
men tired of all this misery about them but unable to escape from it.
They were young men with a stubble of fair hair on their faces and
many days' dirt.

"Vous etes tres aimable," said one of them when I handed him a
cigarette, which he took with a trembling hand. Then he stared up the
street as another shower of shrapnel swept it, and said in a hasty
way, "C'est l'enfer... Pour trois mois je reste sous feu. C'est trop,
n'est-ce pas?"

But there was no time for conversation about war and the effects of
war upon the souls of men. The German guns were beginning to
speak again, and unless we made haste we might not rescue the
wounded men.

"Are there many blesses here?" asked our leader.

One of the soldiers pointed to a house which had a tavern sign above

"They've been taken inside," he said. "I helped to carry them." We
dodged the litter in the roadway, where, to my amazement, two old
ladies were searching in the rubbish-heaps for the relics of their
houses. They had stayed in Dixmude during this terrible
bombardment, hidden in some cellar, and now had emerged, in their
respectable black gowns, to see what damage had been done. They
seemed to be looking for something in particular--some little object
not easy to find among these heaps of calcined stones and twisted
bars of iron. One old woman shook her head sadly as though to say,
"Dear me, I can't see it anywhere." I wondered if they were looking for
some family photograph--or for some child's cinders. It might have
been one or the other, for many of these Belgian peasants had
reached a point of tragedy when death is of no more importance than
any trivial loss. The earth and sky had opened, swallowing up all their
little world in a devilish destruction. They had lost the proportions of
everyday life in the madness of things.

In the tavern there was a Belgian doctor with a few soldiers to help
him, and a dozen wounded in the straw which had been put down on
the tiled floor. Another wounded man was sitting on a chair, and the
doctor was bandaging up a leg which looked like a piece of raw meat
at which dogs had been gnawing. Something in the straw moved and
gave a frightful groan. A boy soldier with his back propped against the
wall had his knees up to his chin and his face in his grimy hands
through which tears trickled. There was a soppy bandage about his
head. Two men close to where I stood lay stiff and stark, as though
quite dead, but when I bent down to them I heard their hard breathing
and the snuffle of their nostrils. The others more lightly wounded
watched us like animals, without curiosity but with a horrible sort of
patience in their eyes, which seemed to say, "Nothing matters...
Neither hunger nor thirst nor pain. We are living but our spirit is dead."

The doctor did not want us to take away his wounded at once. The
German shells were coming heavily again, on the outskirts of the
town through which we had to pass on our way out. An officer had
just come in to say they were firing at the level crossing to prevent the
Belgian ambulances from coming through. It would be better to wait a
while before going back again. It was foolish to take unnecessary

I admit frankly that I was anxious to go as quickly as possible with
these wounded A shell burst over the houses on the opposite side of
the street. When I stood outside watching two soldiers who had been
sent further down to bring in two other wounded men who lay in a
house there, I saw them dodge into a doorway for cover as another
hail of shrapnel whipped the stones about them. Afterwards they
made an erratic course down the street like drunken men, and
presently I saw them staggering back again with their wounded
comrades, who had their arms about the necks of their rescuers. I
went out to aid them, but did not like the psychology of this street,
where death was teasing the footsteps of men, yapping at their heels.

I helped to pack up one of the ambulances and went back to Furnes
sitting next to the driver, but twisted round so that I could hold one of
the stretcher poles which wanted to jolt out of its strap so that the
man lying with a dead weight on the canvas would come down with a
smash upon the body of the man beneath.

"Ca y est," said my driver friend, very cheerfully. He was a gentleman
volunteer with his own ambulance and looked like a seafaring man in
his round yachting cap and blue jersey. He did not speak much
French, I fancy, but I loved to hear him say that "Ca y est," when he
raised a stretcher in his hefty arms and packed a piece of bleeding
flesh into the top of his car with infinite care lest he should give a jolt
to broken bones.

One of the men behind us had his leg smashed in two places. As we
went over roads with great stones and the rubbish of ruined houses
he cried out again and again in a voice of anguish:

"Pas si vite! Pour l'amour de Dieu... Pas si vite!"

Not so quickly. But when we came out of the burnt streets towards
the level crossing of the railway it seemed best to go quickly. Shells
were falling in the fields quite close to us. One of them dug a deep
hole in the road twenty yards ahead of us. Another burst close
behind. Instinctively I yearned for speed. I wanted to rush along that
road and get beyond the range of fire. But the driver in the blue
jersey, hearing that awful cry behind him, slowed down and crawled

"Poor devil," he said. "I can imagine what it feels like when two bits of
broken bone get rubbing together. Every jolt and jar must give him

He went slower still, at a funeral pace, and looking back into the
ambulance said "Ca y est, mon vieux... Bon courage!"

Afterwards, this very gallant gentleman was wounded himself, and lay
in one of the ambulances which he had often led towards adventure,
with a jagged piece of steel in his leg, and two bones rasping together
at every jolt. But when he was lifted up, he stifled a groan and gave
his old cheerful cry of "Ca y est!"


During the two days that followed the convent at Furnes was
overcrowded with the wounded. All day long and late into the night
they were brought back by the Belgian ambulances from the zone of
fire, and hardly an hour passed without a bang at the great wooden
gates in the courtyard which were flung open to let in another tide of
human wreckage.

The Belgians were still holding their last remaining ground--it did not
amount to more than a few fields and villages between the French
frontier and Dixmude--with a gallant resistance which belongs without
question to the heroic things of history. During these late days in
October, still fighting almost alone, for there were no British soldiers to
help them and only a few French batteries with two regiments of
French marines, they regained some of their soil and beat back the
enemy from positions to which it had advanced. In spite of the most
formidable attacks made by the German troops along the coastline
between Westende and Ostende, and in a crescent sweeping round
Dixmude for about thirty kilometres, those Belgian soldiers, tired out
by months of fighting with decimated regiments and with but the poor
remnant of a disorganized army, not only stood firm, but inflicted
heavy losses upon the enemy and captured four hundred prisoners.
For a few hours the Germans succeeded in crossing the Yser,
threatening a general advance upon the Belgian line. Before Nieuport
their trenches were only fifty metres away from those of the Belgians,
and on the night of October 22 they charged eight times with the
bayonet in order to force their way through.

Each assault failed against the Belgian infantry, who stayed in their
trenches in spite of the blood that eddied about their feet and the
corpses that lay around them. Living and dead made a rampart which
the Germans could not break. With an incessant rattle of mitrailleuses
and rifle-fire, the Belgians mowed down the German troops as they
advanced in solid ranks, so that on each of those eight times the
enemy's attack was broken and destroyed. They fell like the leaves
which were then being scattered by the autumn wind and their bodies
were strewn between the trenches. Some of them were the bodies of
very young men--poor boys of sixteen and seventeen from German
high schools and universities who were the sons of noble and well-to-
do families, had been accepted as volunteers by Prussian war-lords
ruthless of human life in their desperate gamble with fate. Some of
these lads were brought to the hospitals in Furnes, badly wounded.
One of them carried into the convent courtyard smiled as he lay on
his stretcher and spoke imperfect French very politely to
Englishwomen who bent over him, piteous as girls who see a
wounded bird. He seemed glad to be let off slightly with only a wound
in his foot which would make him limp for life; very glad to be out of all
the horror of those trenches on the German side of the Yser. One
could hardly call this boy an "enemy." He was just a poor innocent
caught up by a devilish power, and dropped when of no more use as
an instrument of death. The pity that stirs one in the presence of one
of these broken creatures does not come to one on the field of battle,
where there is no single individuality, but only a grim conflict ol
unseen powers, as inhuman as thunderbolts, or as the destructive
terror of the old nature gods. The enemy, then, fills one with a hatred
based on fear. One rejoices to see a shell burst over his batteries and
is glad at the thought of the death that came to him of that puff of
smoke. But I found that no such animosity stirs one in the presence
of the individual enemy or among crowds of their prisoners. One only
wonders at the frightfulness of the crime which makes men kill each
other without a purpose of their own, but at the dictate of powers far
removed from their own knowledge and interests in life.


That courtyard in the convent at Furnes will always haunt my mind as
the scene of a grim drama. Sometimes, standing there alone, in the
darkness, by the side of an ambulance, I used to look up at the stars
and wonder what God might think of all this work if there were any
truth in old faiths. A pretty mess we mortals made of life! I might
almost have laughed at the irony of it all, except that my laughter
would have choked in my throat and turned me sick. They were
beasts, and worse than beasts, to maim and mutilate each other like
this, having no real hatred in their hearts for each other, but only a
stupid perplexity that they should be hurled in masses against each
other's ranks, to slash and shoot and burn in obedience to orders by
people who were their greatest enemies--Ministers of State, with cold
and calculating brains, high inhuman officers who studied battlefields
as greater chessboards. So I--a little black ant in a shadow on the
earth under the eternal sky--used to think like this, and to stop
thinking these silly irritating thoughts turned to the job in hand, which
generally was to take up one end of a stretcher laden with a bloody
man, or to give my shoulder to a tall soldier who leaned upon it and
stumbled forward to an open door which led to the operating-table
and an empty bed, where he might die if his luck were out.

The courtyard was always full of stir and bustle in the hours when the
ambulance convoys came in with their cargoes of men rescued from
the firing zone. The headlights of the cars thrust shafts of blinding
light into the darkness as they steered round in the steep and narrow
road which led to the convent gates between two high thick walls, and
then, with a grinding and panting, came inside to halt beside cars
already at a standstill. The cockney voices of the chauffeurs called to
each other.

"Blast yer, Bill... Carn't yer give a bit of elber room? Gord almighty,
'ow d'yer think I can get in there?"

Women came out into the yard, their white caps touched by the light
of their lanterns, and women's voices spoke quietly.

"Have you got many this time?" "We can hardly find an inch of
room." "It's awful having to use stretchers for beds." "There were
six deaths this afternoon."

Then would follow a silence or a whispering of stretcher-bearers,
telling their adventures to a girl in khaki breeches, standing with one
hand in her jacket pocket, and with the little flare of a cigarette
glowing upon her cheek and hair.

"All safe? ... That was luck!"

"O mon Dieu! O, cre nom! O! O!"

It was a man's voice crying in agony, rising to a shuddering, blood-
curdling scream:

"O Jesus! O! O!"

One could not deafen one's ears against that note of human agony. It
pierced into one's soul. One could only stand gripping one's hands in
this torture chamber, with darkness between high walls, and with
shadows making awful noises out of the gulfs of blackness.

The cries of the wounded men died down and whimpered out into a
dull faint moaning.

A laugh came chuckling behind an ambulance.

"Hot? ... I should think it was! But we picked the men up and crossed
the bridge all right... The shells were falling on every side of us. ... I
was pretty scared, you bet... It's a bit too thick, you know!"

Silence again. Then a voice speaking quietly across the yard:

"Anyone to lend a hand? There's a body to be carried out."

I helped to carry out the body, as every one helped to do any small
work if he had his hands free at the moment. It was the saving of
one's sanity and self-respect. Yet to me, more sensitive perhaps than
it is good to be, it was a moral test almost greater than my strength of
will to enter that large room where the wounded lay, and to approach
a dead man through a lane of dying. (So many of them died after a
night in our guest-house. Not all the skill of surgeons could patch up
some of those bodies, torn open with ghastly wounds from German
shells.) The smell of wet and muddy clothes, coagulated blood and
gangrened limbs, of iodine and chloroform, sickness and sweat of
agony, made a stench which struck one's senses with a foul blow. I
used to try and close my nostrils to it, holding my breath lest I should
vomit. I used to try to keep my eyes upon the ground, to avoid the
sight of those smashed faces, and blinded eyes, and tattered bodies,
lying each side of me in the hospital cots, or in the stretchers set upon
the floor between them. I tried to shut my eyes to the sounds in this
room, the hideous snuffle of men drawing their last breaths, the long-
drawn moans of men in devilish pain, the ravings of fever-stricken
men crying like little children--"Maman! O Maman!"--or repeating over
and over again some angry protest against a distant comrade.

But sights and sounds and smells forced themselves upon one's
senses. I had to look and to listen and to breathe in the odour of
death and corruption. For hours afterwards I would be haunted with
the death face of some young man, lying half-naked on his bed while
nurses dressed his horrible wounds. What waste of men! What
disfigurement of the beauty that belongs to youth! Bearded soldier
faces lay here in a tranquillity that told of coming death. They had
been such strong and sturdy men, tilling their Flemish fields, and
living with a quiet faith in their hearts. Now they were dying before
their time, conscious, some of them, that death was near, so that
weak tears dropped upon their beards, and in their eyes was a great
fear and anguish.

"Je ne veux pas mourir!" said one of them. "O ma pauvre femme! Je
ne veux pas mourir!"

He did not wish to die... but in the morning he was dead.

The corpse that I had to carry out lay pinned up in a sheet. The work
had been very neatly done by the nurse. She whispered to me as I
stood on one side of the bed, with a friend on the other side.

"Be careful. ... He might fall in half."

I thought over these words as I put my hands under the warm body
and helped to lift its weight on to the stretcher. Yes, some of the shell
wounds were rather big. One could hardly sew a man together again
with bits of cotton... It was only afterwards, when I had helped to put
the stretcher in a separate room on the other side of the courtyard,
that a curious trembling took possession of me for a moment... The
horror of it all! Were the virtues which were supposed to come from
war, "the binding strength of nations," "the cleansing of corruption,"
all the falsities of men who make excuses for this monstrous crime,
worth the price that was being paid in pain and tears and death? It is
only the people who sit at home who write these things. When one is
in the midst of war false heroics are blown out of one's soul by all its
din and tumult of human agony. One learns that courage itself exists,
in most cases, as the pride in the heart of men very much afraid--a
pride which makes them hide their fear. They do not become more
virtuous in war, but only reveal the virtue that is in them. The most
heroic courage which came into the courtyard at Furnes was not that
of the stretcher-bearers who went out under fire, but that of the
doctors and nurses who tended the wounded, toiling ceaselessly in
the muck of blood, amidst all those sights and sounds. My spirit
bowed before them as I watched them at work. I was proud if I could
carry soup to any of them when they came into the refectory for a
hurried meal, or if I could wash a plate clean so that they might fill it
with a piece of meat from the kitchen stew. I would have cleaned their
boots for them if it had been worth while cleaning boots to tramp the
filthy yard.

"It's not surgery!" said one of the young surgeons, coming out of the
operating-theatre and washing his hands at the kitchen sink; "it's

He told me that he had never seen such wounds or imagined them,
and as for the conditions in which he worked--he raised his hands
and laughed at the awfulness of them, because it is best to laugh
when there is no remedy. There was a scarcity of dressings, of
instruments, of sterilizers. The place was so crowded that there was
hardly room to turn, and wounded men poured in so fast that it was
nothing but hacking and sewing.

"I'm used to blood," said the young surgeon. "It's some years now
since I was put through my first ordeal, of dissecting dead bodies and
then handling living tissue. You know how it's done--by gradual
stages until a student no longer wants to faint at the sight of raw flesh,
but regards it as so much material for scientific work. But this!"--he
looked towards the room into which the wounded came--"It's getting
on my nerves a little. It's the sense of wanton destruction that makes
one loathe it, the utter senselessness of it all, the waste of such good
stuff. War is a hellish game and I'm so sorry for all the poor Belgians
who are getting it in the neck. They didn't ask for it!"

The wooden gates opened to let in another ambulance full of Belgian
wounded, and the young surgeon nodded to me with a smile.

"Another little lot! I must get back into the slaughterhouse. So long!"

I helped out one of the "sitting-up" cases--a young man with a wound
in his chest, who put his arm about my neck and said, "Merci! Merci!"
with a fine courtesy, until suddenly he went limp, so that I had to hold
him with all my strength, while he vomited blood down my coat. I had
to get help to carry him indoors.

And yet there was laughter in the convent where so many men lay
wounded. It was only by gaiety and the quick capture of any jest that
those doctors and nurses and ambulance girls could keep their
nerves steady. So in the refectory, when they sat down for a meal,
there was an endless fire of raillery, and the blue-eyed boy with the
blond hair used to crow like Peter Pan and speak a wonderful mixture
of French and English, and play the jester gallantly. There would be
processions of plate-bearers to the kitchen next door, where a
splendid Englishwoman--one of those fine square-faced, brown-eyed,
cheerful souls--had been toiling all day in the heat of oven and stoves
to cook enough food for fifty-five hungry people who could not wait for
their meals. There was a scramble between two doctors for the last
potatoes, and a duel between one of them and myself in the slicing
up of roast beef or boiled mutton, and amorous advances to the lady
cook for a tit-bit in the baking-pan. There never was such a kitchen,
and a County Council inspector would have reported on it in lurid
terms. The sink was used as a wash-place by surgeons, chauffeurs,
and stretcher-bearers. Nurses would come through with bloody rags
from the ward, which was only an open door away. Lightly wounded
men, covered with Yser mud, would sit at a side table, eating the
remnants of other people's meals. Above the sizzling of sausages
and the clatter of plates one could hear the moaning of the wounded
and the incessant monologue of the fever-stricken. And yet it is
curious I look back upon that convent kitchen as a place of gaiety,
holding many memories of comradeship, and as a little sanctuary from
the misery of war. I was a scullion in it, at odd hours of the day and
night when I was not following the ambulance wagons to the field, or
helping to clean the courtyard or doing queer little jobs which some
one had to do.

"I want you to dig a hole and help me to bury an arm," said one of the
nurses. "Do you mind?"

I spent another hour helping a lady to hang up blankets, not very well
washed, because they were still stained with blood, and not very
sanitary, because the line was above a pile of straw upon which men
had died. There were many rubbish heaps in the courtyard near
which it was not wise to linger, and always propped against the walls
were stretchers soppy with blood, or with great dark stains upon them
where blood had dried. It was like the courtyard of a shambles, this
old convent enclosure, and indeed it was exactly that, except that the
animals were not killed outright, but lingered in their pain.


Early each morning the ambulances started on their way to the zone
of fire, where always one might go gleaning in the harvest fields of
war. The direction was given us, with the password of the day, by
young de Broqueville, who received the latest reports from the
Belgian headquarters staff. As a rule there was not much choice. It
lay somewhere between the roads to Nieuport on the coast, and
inland, to Pervyse, Dixmude, St. Georges, or Ramscapelle where the
Belgian and German lines formed a crescent down to Ypres.

The centre of that half-circle girdled by the guns was an astounding
and terrible panorama, traced in its outline by the black fumes of
shell-fire above the stabbing flashes of the batteries. Over Nieuport
there was a canopy of smoke, intensely black, but broken every
moment by blue glares of light as a shell burst and rent the
blackness. Villages were burning on many points of the crescent,
some of them smouldering drowsily, others blazing fiercely like
beacon fires.

Dixmude was still alight at either end, but the fires seemed to have
burnt down at its centre. Beyond, on the other horn of the crescent,
were five flaming torches, which marked what were once the neat
little villages of a happy Belgium. It was in the centre of this
battleground, and the roads about me had been churned up by shells
and strewn with shrapnel bullets. Close to me in a field, under the
cover of a little wood, were some Belgian batteries. They were firing
with a machine-like regularity, and every minute came the heavy bark
of the gun, followed by the swish of the shell, as it flew in a high arc
and then smashed over the German lines. It was curious to calculate
the length of time between the flash and the explosion. Further away
some naval guns belonging to the French marines were getting the
range of the enemy's positions, and they gave a new note of music to
this infernal orchestra. It was a deep, sullen crash, with a tremendous
menace in its tone. The enemy's shells were bursting incessantly,
and at very close range, so that at times they seemed only a few
yards away. The Germans had many great howitzers, and the burst
of the shell was followed by enormous clouds which hung heavily in
the air for ten minutes or more. It was these shells which dug great
holes in the ground deep enough for a cart to be buried. Their moral
effect was awful, and one's soul was a shuddering coward before

The roads were encumbered with long convoys of provisions for the
troops, ambulances, Red Cross motor-cars, gun-wagons, and farm
carts. Two regiments of Belgian cavalry--the chasseurs a cheval--
were dismounted and bivouacked with their horses drawn up in single
line along the roadway for half a mile or more. The men were splendid
fellows, hardened by the long campaign, and amazingly careless of
shells. They wore a variety of uniforms, for they were but the
gathered remnants of the Belgian cavalry division which had fought
from the beginning of the war. I was surprised to see their horses in
such good condition, in spite of a long ordeal which had so steadied
their nerves that they paid not the slightest heed to the turmoil of the

Near the line of battle, through outlying villages and past broken
farms, companies of Belgian infantry were huddled under cover out of
the way of shrapnel bullets if they could get the shelter of a doorway
or the safer side of a brick wall. I stared into their faces and saw how
dead they looked. It seemed as if their vital spark had already been
put out by the storm of battle. Their eyes were sunken and quite
expressionless. For week after week, night after night, they had been
exposed to shell-fire, and something had died within them--perhaps
the desire to live. Every now and then some of them would duck their
heads as a shell burst within fifty or a hundred yards of them, and I
saw then that fear could still live in the hearts of men who had
become accustomed to the constant chance of death. For fear exists
with the highest valour, and its psychological effect is not unknown to
heroes who have the courage to confess the truth.


"If any man says he is not afraid of shell-fire," said one of the bravest
men I have ever met--and at that moment we were watching how the
enemy's shrapnel was ploughing up the earth on either side of the
road on which we stood--"he is a liar!" There are very few men in this
war who make any such pretence. On the contrary, most of the
French, Belgian, and English soldiers with whom I have had wayside
conversations since the war began, find a kind of painful pleasure in
the candid confession of their fears.

"It is now three days since I have been frightened," said a young
English officer, who, I fancy, was never scared in his life before he
came out to see these battlefields of terror.

"I was paralysed with a cold and horrible fear when I was ordered
to advance with my men over open ground under the enemy's
shrapnel," said a French officer with the steady brown eyes of a man
who in ordinary tests of courage would smile at the risk of death.

But this shell-fire is not an ordinary test of courage. Courage is
annihilated in the face of it. Something else takes its place--a
philosophy of fatalism, sometimes an utter boredom with the way in
which death plays the fool with men, threatening but failing to kill; in
most cases a strange extinction of all emotions and sensations, so
that men who have been long under shell-fire have a peculiar rigidity
of the nervous system, as if something has been killed inside them,
though outwardly they are still alive and untouched.

The old style of courage, when man had pride and confidence in his
own strength and valour against other men, when he was on an
equality with his enemy in arms and intelligence, has almost gone. It
has quite gone when he is called upon to advance or hold the ground
in face of the enemy's artillery. For all human qualities are of no avail
against those death-machines. What are quickness of wit, the
strength of a man's right arm, the heroic fibre of his heart, his cunning
in warfare, when he is opposed by an enemy's batteries which belch
out bursting shells with frightful precision and regularity? What is the
most courageous man to do in such an hour? Can he stand erect
and fearless under a sky which is raining down jagged pieces of
steel? Can he adopt the pose of an Adelphi hero, with a scornful
smile on his lips, when a yard away from him a hole large enough to
bury a taxicab is torn out of the earth, and when the building against
which he has been standing is suddenly knocked into a ridiculous

It is impossible to exaggerate the monstrous horror of the shell-fire,
as I knew when I stood in the midst of it, watching its effect upon the
men around me, and analysing my own psychological sensations with
a morbid interest. I was very much afraid--day after day I faced that
musis and hated it--but there were all sorts of other sensations
besides fear which worked a change in me. I was conscious of great
physical discomfort which reacted upon my brain. The noises were
even more distressing to me than the risk of death. It was terrifying in
its tumult. The German batteries were hard at work round Nieuport,
Dixmude, Pervyse, and other towns and villages, forming a crescent,
with its left curve sweeping away from the coast. One could see the
stabbing flashes from some of the enemy's guns and a loud and
unceasing roar came from them with regular rolls of thunderous noise
interrupted by sudden and terrific shocks, which shattered into one's
brain and shook one's body with a kind of disintegrating tumult. High
above this deep-toned concussion came the cry of the shells--that
long carrying buzz--like a monstrous, angry bee rushing away from a
burning hive--which rises into a shrill singing note before ending and
bursting into the final boom which scatters death.

But more awful was the noise of our own guns. At Nieuport I stood
only a few hundred yards away from the warships lying off the coast.
Each shell which they sent across the dunes was like one of Jove's
thunderbolts, and made one's body and soul quake with the agony of
its noise. The vibration was so great that it made my skull ache as
though it had been hammered. Long afterwards I found myself
trembling with those waves of vibrating sounds. Worse still, because
sharper and more piercingly staccato, was my experience close to a
battery of French cent-vingt. Each shell was fired with a hard metallic
crack, which seemed to knock a hole into my ear-drums. I suffered
intolerably from the noise, yet--so easy it is to laugh in the midst of
pain---I laughed aloud when a friend of mine, passing the battery in
his motor-car, raised his hand to one of the gunners, and said, "Un
moment, s'il vous plait!" It was like asking Jove to stop his

Some people get accustomed to the noise, but others never. Every
time a battery fired simultaneously one of the men who were with me,
a hard, tough type of mechanic, shrank and ducked his head with an
expression of agonized horror. He confessed to me that it "knocked
his nerves to pieces." Three such men out of six or seven had to be
invalided home in one week. One of them had a crise de nerfs, which
nearly killed him. Yet it was not fear which was the matter with them.
Intellectually they were brave men and coerced themselves into
joining many perilous adventures. It was the intolerable strain upon
the nervous system that made wrecks of them. Some men are
attacked with a kind of madness in the presence of shells. It is what a
French friend of mine called la folie des obus. It is a kind of spiritual
exultation which makes them lose self-consciousness and be caught
up, as it were, in the delirium of those crashing, screaming things. In
the hottest quarter of an hour in Dixmude one of my friends paced
about aimlessly with a dreamy look in his eyes. I am sure he had not
the slightest idea where he was or what he was doing. I believe he
was "outside himself," to use a good old-fashioned phrase. And at
Antwerp, when a convoy of British ambulances escaped with their
wounded through a storm of shells, one man who had shown a
strange hankering for the heart of the inferno, stepped off his car, and
said: "I must go back, I must go back! Those shells call to me." He
went back and has never been heard of again.

Greater than one's fear, more overmastering in one's interest is this
shell-fire. It is frightfully interesting to watch the shrapnel bursting
near bodies of troops, to see the shells kicking up the earth, now in
this direction and now in that; to study a great building gradually losing
its shape and falling into ruins; to see how death takes its toll in an
indiscriminate way--smashing a human being into pulp a few yards
away and leaving oneself alive, or scattering a roadway with bits of
raw flesh which a moment ago was a team of horses, or whipping the
stones about a farmhouse with shrapnel bullets which spit about the
crouching figures of soldiers who stare at these pellets out of sunken
eyes. One's interest holds one in the firing zone with a grip from which
one's intelligence cannot escape whatever may be one's cowardice.
It is the most satisfying thrill of horror in the world. How foolish this
death is! How it picks and chooses, taking a man here and leaving a
man there by just a hair's-breadth of difference. It is like looking into
hell and watching the fury of supernatural forces at play with human
bodies, tearing them to pieces with great splinters of steel and
burning them in the furnace-fires of shell-stricken towns, and in a
devilish way obliterating the image of humanity in a welter of blood.

There is a beauty in it too, for the aestheticism of a Nero. Beautiful
and terrible were the fires of those Belgian towns which I watched
under a star-strewn sky. There was a pure golden glow, as of liquid
metal, beneath the smoke columns and the leaping tongues of flame.
And many colours were used to paint this picture of war, for the
enemy used shells with different coloured fumes, by which I was told
they studied the effect of their fire. Most vivid is the ordinary shrapnel,
which tears a rent through the black volumes of smoke rolling over a
smouldering town with a luminous sphere of electric blue. Then from
the heavier guns come dense puff-balls of tawny orange, violet, and
heliotrope, followed by fleecy little cumuli of purest white. One's mind
is absorbed in this pageant of shell-fire, and with a curious intentness,
with that rigidity of nervous and muscular force which I have
described, one watches the zone of fire sweeping nearer to oneself,
bursting quite close, killing people not very far away.

Men who have been in the trenches under heavy shell-fire,
sometimes for as long as three days, come out of their torment like
men who have been buried alive. They have the brownish, ashen
colour of death. They tremble as through anguish. They are dazed
and stupid for a time. But they go back. That is the marvel of it. They
go back day after day, as the Belgians went day after day. There is
no fun in it, no sport, none of that heroic adventure which used
perhaps--gods know--to belong to warfare when men were matched
against men, and not against unapproachable artillery. This is their
courage, stronger than all their fear. There is something in us, even
divine pride of manhood, a dogged disregard of death, though it
comes from an unseen enemy out of a smoke-wracked sky, like the
thunderbolts of the gods, which makes us go back, though we know
the terror of it. For honour's sake men face again the music of that
infernal orchestra, and listen with a deadly sickness in their hearts to
the song of the shell screaming the French word for kill, which is tue!

It was at night that I used to see the full splendour of the war's infernal
beauty. After a long day in the fields travelling back in the repeated
journeys to the station of Fortem, where the lightly wounded men
used to be put on a steam tramway for transport to the Belgian
hospitals, the ambulances would gather their last load and go
homeward to Furnes. It was quite dark then, and towards nine o'clock
the enemy's artillery would slacken fire, only the heavy guns sending
out long-range shots. But five towns or more were blazing fiercely in
the girdle of fire, and the sky throbbed with the crimson glare of their
furnaces, and tall trees to which the autumn foliage clung would be
touched with light, so that their straight trunks along a distant highway
stood like ghostly sentinels. Now and again, above one of the burning
towns a shell would burst as though the enemy were not content with
their fires and would smash them into smaller fuel.

As I watched the flames, I knew that each one of those poor burning
towns was the ruin of something more than bricks and mortar. It was
the ruin of a people's ideals, fulfilled throughout centuries of quiet
progress in arts and crafts. It was the shattering of all those things for
which they praised God in their churches--the good gifts of home-life,
the security of the family, the impregnable stronghold, as it seemed,
of prosperity built by labour and thrift now utterly destroyed.


I motored over to Nieuport-les-Bains, the seaside resort of the town of
Nieuport itself, which is a little way from the coast. It was one of those
Belgian watering-places much beloved by the Germans before their
guns knocked it to bits--a row of red-brick villas with a few pretentious
hotels utterly uncharacteristic of the Flemish style of architecture,
lining a promenade and built upon the edge of dreary and
monotonous sand-dunes. On this day the place and its neighbourhood
were utterly and terribly desolate. The only human beings I passed
on my car were two seamen of the British Navy, who were fixing
up a wireless apparatus on the edge of the sand. They stared at
our ambulances curiously, and one of them gave me a prolonged
and strenuous wink, as though to say, "A fine old game, mate,
this bloody war!" Beyond, the sea was very calm, like liquid lead,
and a slight haze hung over it, putting a gauzy veil about a line of
British and French monitors which lay close to the coast. Not a soul
could be seen along the promenade of Nieuport-les-Bains, but the
body of a man--a French marine--whose soul had gone in flight upon
the great adventure of eternity, lay at the end of it with his sightless
eyes staring up to the grey sky. Presently I was surprised to see an
elderly civilian and a small boy come out of one of the houses. The
man told me he was the proprietor of the Grand Hotel, "but," he
added, with a gloomy smile, "I have no guests at this moment In a
little while, perhaps my hotel will have gone also." He pointed to a
deep hole ploughed up an hour ago by a German "Jack Johnson." It
was deep enough to bury a taxicab.

For some time, as I paced up and down the promenade, there was
no answer to the mighty voices of the naval guns firing from some
British warships lying along the coast. Nor did any answer come for
some time to a French battery snugly placed in a hollow of the dunes,
screened by a few trees. I listened to the overwhelming concussion of
each shot from the ships, wondering at the mighty flight of the shell,
which travelled through the air with the noise of an express train
rushing through a tunnel. It was curious that no answer came! Surely
the German batteries beyond the river would reply to that deadly

I had not long to wait for the inevitable response. It came with a
shriek, and a puff of bluish smoke, as the German shrapnel burst a
hundred yards from where I stood. It was followed by several shells
which dropped into the dunes, not far from the French battery of cent-
vingt. Another knocked off the gable of a villa.

I had been pacing up and down under the shelter of a red-brick wall
leading into the courtyard of a temporary hospital, and presently,
acting upon orders from Lieutenant de Broqueville, I ran my car up
the road with a Belgian medical officer to a place where some
wounded men were lying. When I came back again the red-brick wall
had fallen into a heap. The Belgian officer described the climate as
"quite unhealthy," as I went away with two men dripping blood on the
floor of the car. They had been brought across the ferry, further on,
where the Belgian trenches were being strewn with shrapnel. Another
little crowd of wounded men was there. Many of them had been
huddled up all night, wet to the skin, with their wounds undressed,
and without any kind of creature comfort. Their condition had reached
the ultimate bounds of misery, and with two of these poor fellows I
went away to fetch hot coffee for the others, so that at last they might
get a little warmth if they had strength enough to drink... That
evening, after a long day in the fields of death, and when I came back
from the village where men lay waiting for rescue or the last escape, I
looked across to Nieuport-les-Bains. There were quivering flames
above it and shells were bursting over it with pretty little puffs of
smoke which rested in the opalescent sky. I thought of the proprietor
of the Grand Hotel, and wondered if he had insured his house against
"Jack Johnsons."


Early next morning I paid a visit to the outskirts of Nieuport town,
inland. It was impossible to get further than the outskirts at that time,
because in the centre houses were falling and flames were licking
each other across the roadways. It was even difficult for our
ambulances to get so far, because we had to pass over a bridge to
which the enemy's guns were paying great attention. Several of their
thunderbolts fell with a hiss into the water of the canal where some
Belgian soldiers were building a bridge of boats. It was just an odd
chance that our ambulance could get across without being touched,
but we took the chance and dodged between two shell-bursts. On the
other side, on the outlying streets, there was a litter of bricks and
broken glass, and a number of stricken men lay huddled in the
parlour of a small house to which they had been carried. One man
was holding his head to keep his brains from spilling, and the others
lay tangled amidst upturned chairs and cottage furniture. There was
the photograph of a family group on the mantelpiece, between cheap
vases which had been the pride, perhaps, of this cottage home. On
one of the walls was a picture of Christ with a bleeding heart.

I remember that at Nieuport there was a young Belgian doctor who
had established himself at a dangerous post within range of the
enemy's guns, and close to a stream of wounded who came pouring
into the little house which he had made into his field hospital. He had
collected also about twenty old men and women who had been
unable to get away when the first shells fell. Without any kind of help
he gave first aid to men horribly torn by the pieces of flying shell, and
for three days and nights worked very calmly and fearlessly, careless
of the death which menaced his own life.

Here he was found by the British column of field ambulances, who
took away the old people and relieved him of the last batch of
blesses. They told the story of that doctor over the supper-table that
night, and hoped he would be remembered by his own people.


There were picnic parties on the Belgian roadsides. Looking back
now upon those luncheon hours, with khaki ambulances as shelters
from the shrewd wind that came across the marshes, I marvel at the
contrast between their gaiety and the brooding horror in the
surrounding scene. Bottles of wine were produced and no man
thought of blood when he drank its redness, though the smell of
blood reeked from the stretchers in the cars. There were hunks of
good Flemish cheese with' fresh bread and butter, and it was
extraordinary what appetites we had, though guns were booming a
couple of kilometres away and the enemy was smashing the last
strongholds of the Belgians. The women in their field kit, so feminine
though it included breeches, gave a grace to those wayside halts,
and gave to dirty men the chance of little courtesies which brought
back civilization to their thoughts, even though life had gone back to
primitive things with just life and death, hunger and thirst, love and
courage, as the laws of existence. The man who had a corkscrew
could command respect. A lady with gold-spun hair could gnaw a
chicken bone without any loss of beauty. The chauffeurs munched
solidly, making cockney jokes out of full mouths and abolishing all
distinctions of caste by their comradeship in great adventures when
their courage, their cool nerve, their fine endurance at the wheel, and
their skill in taking heavy ambulances down muddy roads with
skidding wheels, saved many men's lives and won a heartfelt praise.
Little groups of Belgian soldiers came up wistfully and lingered round
us as though liking the sight of us, and the sound of our English
speech, and the gallantry of those girls who went into the firing-lines
to rescue their wounded.

"They are wonderful, your English ladies," said a bearded man. He
hesitated a moment and then asked timidly: "Do you think I might
shake hands with one of them?"

I arranged the little matter, and he trudged off with a flush on his
cheeks as though he had been in the presence of a queen, and
graciously received.

The Belgian officers were eager to be presented to these ladies and
paid them handsome compliments. I think the presence of these
young women with their hypodermic syringes and first-aid bandages,
and their skill in driving heavy motor-cars, and their spiritual disregard
of danger, gave a sense of comfort and tenderness to those men
who had been long absent from their women-folk and long-suffering
in the bleak and ugly cruelty of war. There was no false sentiment, no
disguised gallantry, in the homage of the Belgians to those ladies. It
was the simple, chivalrous respect of soldiers to dauntless women
who had come to help them when they were struck down and needed

Women, with whom for a little while I could call myself comrade, I
think of you now and marvel at you! The call of the wild had brought
some of you out to those fields of death. The need of more
excitement than modern life gives in time of peace, even the chance
to forget, had been the motives with which two or three of you, I think,
came upon these scenes of history, taking all risks recklessly, playing
a man's part with a feminine pluck, glad of this liberty, far from the
conventions of the civilized code, yet giving no hint of scandal to
sharp-eared gossip. But most of you had no other thought than that
of pity and helpfulness, and with a little flame of faith in your hearts
you bore the weight of bleeding men, and eased their pain when it
was too intolerable. No soldiers in the armies of the Allies have better
right to wear the decorations which a king of sorrow gave you for your
gallantry in action.


The Germans were still trying to smash their way through the lines
held by the Belgians, with French support. They were making
tremendous attacks at different places, searching for the breaking-
point by which they could force their way to Furnes and on to Dunkirk.
It was difficult to know whether they were succeeding or failing. It is
difficult to know anything on a modern battlefield where men holding
one village are ignorant of what is happening in the next, and where
all the sections of an army seem involved in a bewildering chaos, out
of touch with each other, waiting for orders which do not seem to
come, moving forward for no apparent reason, retiring for other
reasons hard to find, or resting, without firing a shot, in places
searched by the enemy's fire.

The enemy had built eight pontoon bridges over the Yser canal, but
all of them had been destroyed. This was a good piece of news. But
against it was the heavy loss of a Belgian company holding another
bridge further down the river. At Dixmude the Belgians held the outer
streets. Outside there had been heavy trench fighting. The enemy
had charged several times with the bayonet, but had been raked
back by the mitrailleuses.

Things were going on rather well at most parts of the line.

The French batteries were getting the range every time, and their
gunners were guessing at heaps of German dead. The Belgian
infantry was holding firm. Their cavalry was out of action for the time,
trying to keep warm on the roadsides.

That was all the truth that I could get out of a tangle of confused
details. All through another day I watched the business of battle--a
strange, mysterious thing in which one fails to find any controlling
brain. Regiments came out of the trenches and wandered back,
caked with clay, haggard for lack of sleep, with a glint of hunger in
their eyes. Guns passed along the roads with ammunition wagons,
whose axles shrieked over the stones. For an hour a Belgian battery
kept plugging shots towards the enemy's lines. The artillerymen were
leisurely at their work, handling their shells with interludes of
conversation. At luncheon time they lay about behind the guns
smoking cigarettes, and I was glad, for each of their shots seemed to
wreck my own brain. At a neighbouring village things were more
lively. The enemy was turning his fire this way. A captive balloon had
signalled the position, and shrapnels were bursting close. One shell
tore up a great hole near the railway line.

Shell after shell fell upon one dung-heap--mistaken perhaps for a
company of men. Shrapnel bullets pattered into the roadway, a piece
of jagged shell fell with a clatter.

My own chauffeur--a young man of very cool nerve and the best
driver I have known--picked it up with a grin, and then dropped it, with
a sharp cry. It was almost red-hot. The flames of the enemy's
batteries could be seen stabbing through a fringe of trees, perhaps
two kilometres away, by Pervyse. Their shells were making puff-balls
of smoke over neighbouring farms, and for miles round I could see
the clouds stretching out into long, thin wisps. The air throbbed with
horrible concussions, the dull full boom of big guns, the sharp
staccato of the smaller shell, and the high singing note of it as it came
soaring overhead. Gradually one began to realize the boredom of
battle, to acquire some of that fantastic indifference to the chance of
death which enables the soldiers to stir their soup without an upward
glance at a skyful of jagged steel. Only now and then the old question
came to one, "This--or the next?"

It was only the adventure of searching out the wounded that broke
the monotony for the Belgian ambulance men. At first they were not
hard to find--they were crowded upon the straw in cottage parlours,
cleared of all but the cheap vases on the mantelshelf and family
photographs tacked upon walls that had not been built for the bloody
mess of tragedy which they now enclosed. On their bodies they bore
the signs of the tremendous accuracy of the enemy's artillery, and by
their number, increasing during the day, one could guess at the tragic
endurance of the Belgian infantry in the ring of iron which was closing
upon them; drawing just a little nearer by half a village or half a road
as the hours passed. The ambulances carried them away to the
station of Fortem, where those who could still sit up were packed into
a steam tram, and where the stretcher-cases were taken to the civil
hospital at Furnes by motor transport. But in outlying farmsteads in
the zone of fire, and in isolated cottages which had been struck by a
chance shot, were other wounded men difficult to get. It was work for
scouting cars, and too dangerous for ambulances.

Some volunteers made several journeys down the open roads to
places not exactly suitable for dalliance. Lieutenant de Broqueville
called upon me for this purpose several times because I had a fast
little car. I was glad of the honour, though when he pointed to a
distant roof where a wounded man was reported to be lying, it looked
to me a long, long way in the zone of fire. Two houses blown to
pieces by the side of a ditch showed that the enemy's shells were
dropping close, and it was a test of nerves to drive deliberately
through the flat fields with sharp, stabbing flashes on their frontiers,
and right into the middle of an infernal tumult of guns.

It was in the darkness that I went back to Furnes again, with the last
of the wounded--a French corporal, who groaned in anguish at every
jolt in the road, and then was silent with his head flopping sideways in
a way that frightened me. Several times I called back to him,
"Courage, mon vieux! ... Comment allez vous?" But he made no
answer and there were times when I thought I had a dead man
behind me. A biting wind was blowing, and I leaned over his seat to
put a blanket over him. But it always blew off that dead-grey face and
blood-stained body. Once he groaned, and I was glad to hear the
sound and to know that he was still alive. Another man trudging along
the highway, using his rifle as a crutch, called out. He spoke the word
blesse, and I stopped to take him up and sped on again, glancing to
right and left at the villages on fire, at the quick flashes of Belgian and
German artillery signalling death to each other in the night. The
straight trees rushed by like tall, hurrying ghosts. For most of the way
we drove without our head-lights through tunnels of darkness.
"Queer, isn't it?" said my driver, and it was his only comment on this
adventure in the strangest drama of his life.


That night the wind came howling across the flat fields into Furnes
and a rain-storm broke in fierce gusts upon the convent walls. In this
old building with many corridors and innumerable windows, panes of
glass rattled and window-sashes creaked and doors banged like
thunderclaps. It was impossible to keep a candle alight down any of
the passages unless it were protected in a lantern, and a cold mist
crept into the house, stealthily striking one with a clammy chill. I
stayed up most of the night in the kitchen, having volunteered to
stoke the fires and fill hot-water bottles for the wounded. Most of the
nurses had gone to bed utterly exhausted. Only two or three of them
remained in the wards with one of the doctors. Every now and then
the outer bell would jangle, and I would hear the wheels of an
ambulance crunching into the courtyard.

"Blesses!" said a woman who was watching the fires with me.

But we could not take in another blesse as there were no more beds
or bed-spaces, and after despairing conversations Belgian
ambulance officers at the front door of the convent went elsewhere.
The house became very quiet except for the noise of the wind and
the rain. In the scullery where I sat by the stoves which were in my
charge, I could only hear one voice speaking. It was speaking two
rooms away, in a long, incessant monologue of madness. Now and
again a white-faced nurse came out for newly-filled water-bottles, and
while I scalded my fingers with screws which would not fit and with
boiling water poured into narrow necks, she told me about a French
officer who was dying.

"He wants his wife so badly. He would die quite happily if he could
only see her for a minute. But she is in Paris, and he will be dead
before the morning comes... I have written a letter for him, and he
kissed it before I wrote his wife's address. He keeps calling out her

The scullery was warm and cosy, in spite of all the draughts. Sitting
back in a wooden chair, I nearly fell asleep, because I had had a long
day in the fields and fatigue threatened to overwhelm me. But I
wakened with a start when a door opened, letting in a sudden blast of
cold air and the noise of the beating rain, and then banged with
violence. I seemed to hear footsteps coming across the kitchen floor,
and, with an eerie feeling of some new presence in the convent, I
strode out of the scullery. A queer little figure startled me. It was
a girl in man's clothes, except for a white cap on her head,
tight-fitting above her eyes. She was dripping wet and caked in
slimy mud, and she faltered forward a little and spoke in French.

"I am very wet. And so tired and hungry! If I could sleep here, on the
floor, and dry myself a little-----"

"Who are you?" I asked. There seemed something uncanny in this
little figure coming out of the wild night.

It appeared that she was one of two Belgian girls who since the
beginning of the war had acted as infirmieres with the Belgian troops,
giving the first aid in the trenches, carrying hot soup to them, and
living with them under fire. She seemed hardly more than a child, and
spoke childishly in a pitiful way, while she twisted the corner of her
jacket so that water came out and made a pool about her on the
boards. She dried herself in front of the fire and ate--ravenously--
some food which had been left on a side-table, and then lay down in
a corner of the refectory, falling into the deepest sleep as soon as her
head had touched the mattress. She did not wake next morning,
though fifty-five people made a clatter at the breakfast-table, and at
four in the afternoon she was still sleeping, like a sick child, with her
head drooping over the mattress.


That day, owing to the heavy rain in the night, the roads were slimy
with mud, so that the cars skidded almost over the brim of the dykes.
There was more movement among the troops, less sitting about for
orders. Officers were riding up and down the roads, and wheeling into
little groups for quick discussion. Something was happening--
something more than the ding-dong slam of the guns. A regiment of
Belgian infantry came plodding through the mud, covered with whitish

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