Fighting In Flanders
By E. Alexander Powell
Special Correspondent Of The New York World With The Belgian Forces In The Field
Author of “The Last Frontier” “Gentlemen Ravers,” “The End of the Trail,” “The Road to Glory,” etc.
With Illustrations From Photographs By Mr. Donald Thompson
“I have eaten your bread and salt;
I have drunk your water and wine;
The deaths you died I have sat beside And the lives that you led were mine.”
I. The War Correspondents
II. The City Of Gloom
III. The Death In The Air
IV. Under The German Eagle
V. With The Spiked Helmets
VI. On The Belgian Battle-Line
VII. The Coming Of The British
VIII. The Fall Of Antwerp
Nothing is more unwise, on general principles, than to attempt to write about a war before that war is finished and before history has given it the justice of perspective. The campaign which began with the flight of the Belgian Government from Brussels and which culminated in the fall of Antwerp formed, however, a separate and distinct phase of the Greatest of Wars, and I feel that I should write of that campaign while its events are still sharp and clear in my memory and before the impressions it produced have begun to fade. I hope that those in search of a detailed or technical account of the campaign in Flanders will not read this book, because they are certain to be disappointed. It contains nothing about strategy or tactics and few military lessons can be drawn from it. It is merely the story, in simple words, of what I, a professional onlooker, who was accorded rather exceptional facilities for observation, saw in Belgium during that nation’s hour of trial.
An American, I went to Belgium at the beginning of the war with an open mind. I had few, if any, prejudices. I knew the English, the French, the Belgians, the Germans equally well. I had friends in all four countries and many happy recollections of days I had spent in each. When I left Antwerp after the German occupation I was as pro-Belgian as though I had been born under the red-black-and-yellow banner. I had seen a country, one of the loveliest and most peaceable in Europe, invaded by a ruthless and brutal soldiery; I had seen its towns and cities blackened by fire and broken by shell; I had seen its churches and its historic monuments destroyed; I had seen its highways crowded with hunted, homeless fugitives; I had seen its fertile fields strewn with the corpses of what had once been the manhood of the nation; I had seen its women left husbandless and its children left fatherless; I had seen what was once a Garden of the Lord turned into a land of desolation; and I had seen its people–a people whom I, like the rest of the world, had always thought of as pleasure-loving, inefficient, easy-going–I had seen this people, I say, aroused, resourceful, unafraid, and fighting, fighting, fighting. Do you wonder that they captured my imagination, that they won my admiration? I am pro-Belgian; I admit it frankly. I should be ashamed to be anything else.
E. Alexander Powell
London, November 1, 1914.
I. The War Correspondents
War correspondents regard war very much as a doctor regards sickness. I don’t suppose that a doctor is actually glad that people are sick, but so long as sickness exists in the world he feels that he might as well get the benefit of it. It is the same with war correspondents. They do not wish anyone to be killed on their account, but so long as men are going to be killed anyway, they want to be on hand to witness the killing and, through the newspapers, to tell the world about it. The moment that the war broke out, therefore, a veritable army of British and American correspondents descended upon the Continent. Some of them were men of experience and discretion who had seen many wars and had a right to wear on their jackets more campaign ribbons than most generals. These men took the war seriously. They were there to get the news and, at no matter what expenditure of effort and money, to get that news to the end of a telegraph-wire so that the people in England and America might read it over their coffee-cups the next morning. These men had unlimited funds at their disposal; they had the united influence of thousands of newspapers and of millions of newspaper-readers solidly behind them; and they carried in their pockets letters of introduction from editors and ex-presidents and ambassadors and prime ministers.
Then there was an army corps of special writers, many of them with well-known names, sent out by various newspapers and magazines to write “mail stuff,” as dispatches which are sent by mail instead of telegraph are termed, and “human interest” stories. Their qualifications for reporting the greatest war in history consisted, for the most part, in having successfully “covered” labour troubles and murder trials and coronations and presidential conventions, and, in a few cases, Central American revolutions. Most of the stories which they sent home were written in comfortable hotel rooms in London or Paris or Rotterdam or Ostend. One of these correspondents, however, was not content with a hotel window viewpoint. He wanted to see some German soldiers–preferably Uhlans. So he obtained a letter of introduction to some people living in the neighbourhood of Courtrai, on the Franco-Belgian frontier. He made his way there with considerable difficulty and received a cordial welcome. The very first night that he was there a squadron of Uhlans galloped into the town, there was a slight skirmish, and they galloped out again. The correspondent, who was a sound sleeper, did not wake up until it was all over. Then he learned that the Uhlans had ridden under his very window.
Crossing on the same steamer with me from New York was a well-known novelist who in his spare time edits a Chicago newspaper. He was provided with a sheaf of introductions from exalted personages and a bag containing a thousand pounds in gold coin. It was so heavy that he had brought a man along to help him carry it, and at night they took turns in sitting up and guarding it. He confided to me that he had spent most of his life in trying to see wars, but though on four occasions he had travelled many thousands of miles to countries where wars were in progress, each time he had arrived just after the last shot was fired. He assured me very earnestly that he would go back to Michigan Boulevard quite contentedly if he could see just one battle. I am glad to say that his perseverance was finally rewarded and that he saw his battle. He never told me just how much of the thousand pounds he took back to Chicago with him, but from some remarks he let drop I gathered that he had found battle-hunting an expensive pastime.
One of the great London dailies was represented in Belgium by a young and slender and very beautiful English girl whose name, as a novelist and playwright, is known on both sides of the Atlantic. I met her in the American Consulate at Ghent, where she was pleading with Vice-Consul Van Hee to assist her in getting through the German lines to Brussels. She had heard a rumour that Brussels was shortly going to be burned or sacked or something of the sort, and she wanted to be on hand for the burning and sacking. She had arrived in Belgium wearing a London tailor’s idea of what constituted a suitable costume for a war correspondent–perhaps I should say war correspondentess. Her luggage was a model of compactness: it consisted of a sleeping-bag, a notebook, half a dozen pencils–and a powder-puff. She explained that she brought the sleeping-bag because she understood that war correspondents always slept in the field. As most of the fields in that part of Flanders were just then under several inches of water as a result of the autumn rains, a folding canoe would have been more useful. She was as insistent on being taken to see a battle as a child is on being taken to the pantomime. Eventually her pleadings got the better of my judgment and I took her out in the car towards Alost to see, from a safe distance, what promised to be a small cavalry engagement. But the Belgian cavalry unexpectedly ran into a heavy force of Germans, and before we realized what was happening we were in a very warm corner indeed. Bullets were kicking up little spurts of dust about us; bullets were tang-tanging through the trees and clipping off twigs, which fell down upon our heads; the rat-tat-tat of the German musketry was answered by the angry snarl of the Belgian machine-guns; in a field near by the bodies of two recently killed cuirassiers lay sprawled grotesquely. The Belgian troopers were stretched flat upon the ground, a veteran English correspondent was giving a remarkable imitation of the bark on a tree, and my driver, my photographer and I were peering cautiously from behind the corner of a brick farmhouse. I supposed that Miss War Correspondent was there too, but when I turned to speak to her she was gone. She was standing beside the car, which we had left in the middle of the road because the bullets were flying too thickly to turn it around, dabbing at her nose with a powder-puff which she had left in the tonneau and then critically examining the effect in a pocket-mirror.
“For the love of God!” said I, running out and dragging her back to shelter, “don’t you know that you’ll be killed if you stay out here?”
“Will I?” said she, sweetly. “Well, you surely don’t expect me to be killed with my nose unpowdered, do you?”
That evening I asked her for her impressions of her first battle.
“Well,” she answered, after a meditative pause, “it certainly was very chic.”
The third and largest division of this journalistic army consisted of free lances who went to the Continent at their own expense on the chance of “stumbling into something.” About the only thing that any of them stumbled into was trouble. Some of them bore the most extraordinary credentials ever carried by a correspondent; some of them had no credentials at all. One gentleman, who was halted while endeavouring to reach the firing line in a decrepit cab, informed the officer before whom he was taken that he represented the Ladies’ Home Journal of Philadelphia. Another displayed a letter from the editor of a well-known magazine saying that he “would be pleased to consider any articles which you care to submit.” A third, upon being questioned, said naively that he represented his literary agent. Then–I almost forgot him–there was a Methodist clergyman from Boston who explained to the Provost-Marshal that he was gathering material for a series of sermons on the horrors of war. Add to this army of writers another army of photographers and war-artists and cinematograph-operators and you will have some idea of the problem with which the military authorities of the warring nations were confronted. It finally got down to the question of which should be permitted to remain in the field–the war correspondents or the soldiers. There wasn’t room for them both. It was decided to retain the soldiers.
The general staffs of the various armies handled the war correspondent problem in different ways. The British War Office at first announced that under no considerations would any correspondents be permitted in the areas where British troops were operating, but such a howl went up from Press and public alike that this order was modified and it was announced that a limited number of correspondents, representing the great newspaper syndicates and press associations, would, after fulfilling certain rigorous requirements, be permitted to accompany his Majesty’s forces in the field. These fortunate few having been chosen after much heart-burning, they proceeded to provide themselves with the prescribed uniforms and field-kits, and some of them even purchased horses. After the war had been in progress for three months they were still in London. The French General Staff likewise announced that no correspondents would be permitted with the armies, and when any were caught they were unceremoniously shipped to the nearest port between two unsympathetic gendarmes with a warning that they would be shot if they were caught again.
The Belgian General Staff made no announcement at all. The police merely told those correspondents who succeeded in getting into the fortified position of Antwerp that their room was preferable to their company and informed them at what hour the next train for the Dutch frontier was leaving. Now the correspondents knew perfectly well that neither the British nor the French nor the Belgians would actually shoot them, if for no other reason than the unfavourable impression which would be produced by such a proceeding; but they did know that if they tried the patience of the military authorities too far they would spend the rest of the war in a military prison. So, as an imprisoned correspondent is as valueless to the newspaper which employs him as a prisoner of war is to the nation whose uniform he wears, they compromised by picking up such information as they could along the edge of things. Which accounts for most of the dispatches being dated from Ostend or Ghent or Dunkirk or Boulogne or from “the back of the front,” as one correspondent ingeniously put it.
As for the Germans, they said bluntly that any correspondents found within their lines would be treated as spies–which meant being blindfolded and placed between a stone wall and a firing party. And every correspondent knew that they would do exactly what they said. They have no proper respect for the Press, these Germans.
That I was officially recognized by the Belgian Government and given a laisser-passer by the military Governor of Antwerp permitting me to pass at will through both the outer and inner lines of fortifications, that a motor-car and a military driver were placed at my disposal, and that throughout the campaign in Flanders I was permitted to accompany the Belgian forces, was not due to any peculiar merits or qualifications of my own, or even to the influence exerted by the powerful paper which I represented, but to a series of unusual and fortunate circumstances which there is no need to detail here. There were many correspondents who merited from sheer hard work what I received as a result of extraordinary good fortune.
The civilians who were wandering, foot-loose and free, about the theatre of operations were by no means confined to the representatives of the Press; there was an amazing number of young Englishmen and Americans who described themselves as “attaches” and “consular couriers” and “diplomatic messengers,” and who intimated that they were engaged in all sorts of dangerous and important missions. Many of these were adventurous young men of means who had “come over to see the fun” and who had induced the American diplomatic representatives in London and The Hague to give them dispatches of more or less importance– usually less than more–to carry through to Antwerp and Brussels. In at least one instance the official envelopes with the big red seals which they so ostentatiously displayed contained nothing but sheets of blank paper. Their sole motive was in nearly all cases curiosity. They had no more business wandering about the war-zone than they would have had wandering about a hospital where men were dying. Belgium was being slowly strangled; her villages had been burned, her fields laid waste, her capital was in the hands of the enemy, her people were battling for their national existence; yet these young men came in and demanded first-row seats, precisely as though the war was a spectacle which was being staged for their special benefit.
One youth, who in his busy moments practised law in Boston, though quite frankly admitting that he was only actuated by curiosity, was exceedingly angry with me because I declined to take him to the firing-line. He seemed to regard the desperate battle which was then in progress for the possession of Antwerp very much as though it was a football game in the Harvard stadium; he seemed to think that he had a right to see it. He said that he had come all the way from Boston to see a battle, and when I remained firm in my refusal to take him to the front he intimated quite plainly that I was no gentleman and that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to have a shell explode in my immediate vicinity.
For all its grimness, the war was productive of more than one amusing episode. I remember a mysterious stranger who called one morning on the American Consul at Ostend to ask for assistance in getting through to Brussels. When the Consul asked him to be seated he bowed stiffly and declined, and when a seat was again urged upon him he explained, in a hoarse whisper, that sewn in his trousers were two thousand pounds in bank-notes which he was taking through to Brussels for the relief of stranded English and Americans–hence he couldn’t very well sit down.
Of all the horde of adventurous characters who were drawn to the Continent on the outbreak of war as iron-filings are attracted by a magnet, I doubt if there was a more picturesque figure than a little photographer from Kansas named Donald Thompson. I met him first while paying a flying visit to Ostend. He blew into the Consulate there wearing an American army shirt, a pair of British officer’s riding-breeches, French puttees and a Highlander’s forage-cap, and carrying a camera the size of a parlour-phonograph. No one but an American could have accomplished what he had, and no American but one from Kansas. He had not only seen war, all military prohibitions to the contrary, but he had actually photographed it.
Thompson is a little man, built like Harry Lauder; hard as nails, tough as raw hide, his skin tanned to the colour of a well-smoked meerschaum, and his face perpetually wreathed in what he called his “sunflower smile.” He affects riding-breeches and leather leggings and looks, physically as well as sartorially, as though he had been born on horseback. He has more chilled steel nerve than any man I know, and before he had been in Belgium a month his name became a synonym throughout the army for coolness and daring. He reached Europe on a tramp-steamer with an overcoat, a toothbrush, two clean handkerchiefs, and three large cameras. He expected to have some of them confiscated or broken, he explained, so he brought along three as a measure of precaution. His cameras were the largest size made. “By using a big camera no one can possibly accuse me of being a spy,” he explained ingenuously. His papers consisted of an American passport, a certificate of membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and a letter from Colonel Sam Hughes, Canadian Minister of Militia, authorizing him to take pictures of Canadian troops wherever found.
Thompson made nine attempts to get from Paris to the front. He was arrested eight times and spent eight nights in guard-houses. Each time he was taken before a military tribunal. Utterly ignoring the subordinates, he would insist on seeing the officer in command. He would grasp the astonished Frenchman by the hand and inquire solicitously after his health and that of his family.
“How many languages do you speak?” I asked him.
“Three,” said he. “English, American, and Yankee.”
On one occasion he commandeered a motorcycle standing outside a cafe and rode it until the petrol ran out, whereupon he abandoned it by the roadside and pushed on afoot. On another occasion he explained to the French officer who arrested him that he was endeavouring to rescue his wife and children, who were in the hands of the Germans somewhere on the Belgian frontier. The officer was so affected by the pathos of the story that he gave Thompson a lift in his car. As a matter of fact, Thompson’s wife and family were quite safe in Topeka, Kansas. Whenever he was stopped by patrols he would display his letter from the Minister of Militia and explain that he was trying to overtake the Canadian troops. “Vive le Canada!” the French would shout enthusiastically. “Hurrah for our brave allies, les Canadiens! They are doubtless with the British at the front”–and permit him to proceed. Thompson did not think it necessary to inform them that the nearest Canadian troops were still at Quebec.
When within sound of the German guns he was arrested for the eighth time and sent to Amiens escorted by two gendarmes, who were ordered to see him aboard the first train for Boulogne. They evidently considered that they had followed instructions when they saw him buy a through ticket for London. Shortly after midnight a train loaded with wounded pulled into the station. Assisted by some British soldiers, Thompson scrambled to the top of a train standing at the next platform and made a flashlight picture. A wild panic ensued in the crowded station. It was thought that a German bomb had exploded. Thompson was pulled down by the police and would have been roughly handled had it not been for the interference of his British friends, who said that he belonged to their regiment. Shortly afterwards a train loaded with artillery which was being rushed to the front came in. Thompson, once more aided and abetted by the British Tommies, slipped under the tarpaulin covering a field-gun and promptly fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning he was at Mons. A regiment of Highlanders was passing. He exchanged a cake of chocolate for a fatigue-cap and fell in with them. After marching for two hours the regiment was ordered into the trenches. Thompson went into the trenches too. All through that terrible day Thompson plied his trade as the soldiers plied theirs. They used their rifles and he used his camera. Men were shot dead on either side of him. A storm of shrapnel shrieked and howled overhead. He said that the fire of the German artillery was amazingly accurate and rapid. They would concentrate their entire fire on a single regiment or battery and when that regiment or battery was out of action they would turn to another and do the same thing over again. When the British fell back before the German onset Thompson remained in the trenches long enough to get pictures of the charging Germans. Then he ran for his life.
That night he bivouacked with a French line regiment, the men giving him food and a blanket. The next morning he set out for Amiens en route for England. As the train for Boulogne, packed to the doors with refugees, was pulling out of the Amiens station, he noticed a first-class compartment marked “Reserved,” the only occupant being a smartly gowned young woman. Thompson said that she was very good-looking. The train was moving, but Thompson took a running jump and dived head-foremost through the window, landing in the lady’s lap. She was considerably startled until he said that he was an American. That seemed to explain everything. The young woman proved to be a Russian countesss who had been living in Paris and who was returning, via England, to Petrograd. The French Government had placed a compartment at her disposal, but in the jam at the Paris station she had become separated from her maid, who had the bag containing her money. Thompson recounted his adventures at Mons and asked her if she would smuggle his films into England concealed on her person, as he knew from previous experience that he would be stopped and searched by Scotland Yard detectives when the train reached Boulogne and that, in all probability, the films would be confiscated or else held up so long that they would be valueless. The countess finally consented, but suggested, in return for the danger she was incurring, that Thompson lend her a thousand francs, which she would return as soon as she reached London. As he had with him only two hundred and fifty francs, he paid her the balance in United Cigar Stores coupons, some of which he chanced to have in his pocket-book, and which, he explained, was American war currency. He told me that he gave her almost enough to get a briar-pipe. At Boulogne he was arrested, as he had foreseen, was stripped, searched and his camera opened, but as nothing was found he was permitted to continue to London, where he went to the countess’s hotel and received his films–and, I might add, his money and cigar coupons. Two hours later, having posted his films to America, he was on his way to Belgium.
Landing at Ostend, he managed to get by train as far as Malines. He then started to walk the twenty-odd miles into Brussels, carrying his huge camera, his overcoat, field-glasses, and three hundred films. When ten miles down the highway a patrol of Uhlans suddenly spurred out from behind a hedge and covered him with their pistols. Thompson promptly pulled a little silk American flag out of his pocket and shouted “Hoch der Kaiser!” and “Auf wiedersehn” which constituted his entire stock of German. Upon being examined by the officer in command of the German outpost, he explained that his Canadian credentials were merely a blind to get through the lines of the Allies and that he really represented a syndicate of German newspapers in America, whereupon he was released with apologies and given a seat in an ambulance which was going into Brussels. As his funds were by this time running low, he started out to look for inexpensive lodgings. As he remarked to me, “I thought we had some pretty big house-agents out in Kansas, but this Mr. ‘A. Louer’ has them beaten a mile. Why, that fellow has his card on every house that’s for rent in Brussels!”
The next morning, while chatting with a pretty English girl in front of a cafe, a German officer who was passing ordered his arrest as a spy. “All right,” said Thompson, “I’m used to being arrested, but would you mind waiting just a minute until I get your picture?” The German, who had no sense of humour, promptly smashed the camera with his sword. Despite Thompson’s protestations that he was an inoffensive American, the Germans destroyed all his films and ordered him to be out of the city before six that evening. He walked the thirty miles to Ghent and there caught a train for Ostend to get one of his reserve cameras, which he had cached there. When I met him in Ostend he said that he had been there overnight, that he was tired of a quiet life and was looking for action, so I took him back with me to Antwerp. The Belgians had made an inflexible rule that no photographers would be permitted with the army, but before Thompson had been in Antwerp twenty-four hours he had obtained permission from the Chief of the General Staff himself to take pictures when and where he pleased. Thompson remained with me until the fall of Antwerp and the German occupation, and no man could have had a more loyal or devoted companion. It is no exaggeration to say that he saw more of the campaign in Flanders than any individual, military or civilian–“le Capitaine Thompson,” as he came to be known, being a familiar and popular figure on the Belgian battle-line.
There is one other person of whom passing mention should be made, if for no other reason than because his name will appear from time to time in this narrative. I take pleasure, therefore, in introducing you to M. Marcel Roos, the young Belgian gentleman who drove my motor-car. When war was declared, Roos, who belonged to the jeunesse doree of Brussels, gave his own ninety horse-power car to the Government and enlisted in a regiment of grenadiers. Because he was as familiar with the highways and byways of Belgium as a housewife is with her kitchen, and because he spoke English, French, Flemish and German, he was detailed to drive the car which the Belgian Government placed at my disposal. He was as big and loyal and good-natured as a St. Bernard dog and he was as cool in danger as Thompson–which is the highest compliment I can pay him. Incidentally, he was the most successful forager that I have ever seen; more than once, in villages which had apparently been swept clean of everything edible by the Belgians or the Germans, he produced quite an excellent dinner as mysteriously as a conjuror produces rabbits from a hat.
Now you must bear in mind that although one could get into Antwerp with comparative ease, it by no means followed that one could get out to the firing-line. A long procession of correspondents came to Antwerp and remained a day or so and then went away again without once getting beyond the city gates. Even if one succeeded in obtaining the necessary laisser-passer from the military Government, there was no way of reaching the front, as all the automobiles and all except the most decrepit horses had been requisitioned for the use of the army. There was, you understand, no such thing as hiring an automobile, or even buying one. Even the few people who had influence enough to retain their cars found them useless, as one of the very first acts of the military authorities was to commandeer the entire supply of petrol. The bulk of the cars were used in the ambulance service or for purposes of transport, the army train consisting entirely of motor vehicles. Staff officers, certain Government officials, and members of the diplomatic and consular corps were provided by the Government with automobiles and military drivers. Every one else walked or used the trams. Thus it frequently happened that a young staff officer, who had never before known the joys of motoring, would tear madly down the street in a luxurious limousine, his spurred boots resting on the broadcloth cushions, while the ci-devant owner of the car, who might be a banker or a merchant prince, would jump for the side-walk to escape being run down. With the declaration of war and the taking over of all automobiles by the military, all speed laws were flung to the winds.
No matter how unimportant his business, every one tore through the city streets as though the devil (or the Germans) were behind him. The staid citizens of Antwerp quickly developed a remarkably agility in getting out of the way of furiously driven cars. They had to. Otherwise they would have been killed.
Because, from the middle of August to the middle of October, Antwerp was the capital of Belgium and the seat of the King, Cabinet, and diplomatic corps; because from it any point on the battle-front could easily be reached by motor-car; and because, above all else, it was at the end of the cable and the one place in Belgium where there was any certainty of dispatches getting through to England, I made it my headquarters during the operations in Flanders, going out to the front in the morning and returning to the Hotel St. Antoine at night. I doubt if war correspondence has ever been carried on under such comfortable, even luxurious, conditions. “Going out to the front” became as commonplace a proceeding as for a business man to take the morning train to the city. For one whose previous campaigning had been done in Persia, Mexico and North Africa and the Balkans, it was a novel experience to leave a large and fashionable hotel after breakfast, take a run of twenty or thirty miles over stone-paved roads in a powerful and comfortable car, witness a battle–provided, of course, that there happened to be a battle on that day’s list of events–and get back to the hotel in time to dress for dinner. Imagine it, if you please! Imagine leaving a line of battle, where shells were shrieking overhead and musketry was crackling along the trenches, and moaning, blood-smeared figures were being placed in ambulances, and other blood-smeared figures who no longer moaned were sprawled in strange attitudes upon the ground –imagine leaving such a scene, I say, and in an hour, or even less, finding oneself in a hotel where men and women in evening dress were dining by the light of pink-shaded candles, or in the marble- paved palm court were sipping coffee and liqueurs to the sound of water splashing gently in a fountain.
II. The City Of Gloom
In order to grasp the true significance of the events which preceded and led up to the fall of Antwerp, it is necessary to understand the extraordinary conditions which existed in and around that city when I reached there in the middle of August. At that time all that was left to the Belgians of Belgium were the provinces of Limbourg, Antwerp, and East and West Flanders. Everything else was in the possession of the Germans. Suppose, for the sake of, having things quite clear, that you unfold the map of Belgium. Now, with your pencil, draw a line across the country from east to west, starting at the Dutch city of Maastricht and passing through Hasselt, Diest, Aerschot, Malines, Alost, and Courtrai to the French frontier. This line was, roughly speaking, “the front,” and for upwards of two months fighting of a more or less serious character took place along its entire length. During August and the early part of September this fighting consisted, for the most part, of attempts by the Belgian field army to harass the enemy and to threaten his lines of communication and of counter-attacks by the Germans, during which Aerschot, Malines, Sempst, and Termonde repeatedly changed hands. Some twenty miles or so behind this line was the great fortified position of Antwerp, its outer chain of forts enclosing an area with a radius of nearly fifteen miles.
Antwerp, with its population of four hundred thousand souls, its labyrinth of dim and winding streets lined by mediaeval houses, and its splendid modern boulevards, lies on the east bank of the Scheldt, about fifteen miles from Dutch territorial waters, at a hairpin-turn in the river. The defences of the city were modern, extensive, and generally believed, even by military experts, to be little short of impregnable. In fact, Antwerp was almost universally considered one of the three or four strongest fortified positions in Europe. In order to capture the city it would be necessary for an enemy to break through four distinct lines of defence, any one of which, it was believed, was strong enough to oppose successfully any force which could be brought against it. The outermost line of forts began at Lierre, a dozen miles to the south-east of the city, and swept in a great quarter-circle, through Wavre-St. Catherine, Waelhem, Heyndonck and Willebroeck, to the Scheldt at Ruppelmonde.
Two or three miles behind this outer line of forts a second line of defence was formed by the Ruppel and the Nethe, which, together with the Scheldt, make a great natural waterway around three sides of the city. Back of these rivers, again, was a second chain of forts completely encircling the city on a five-mile radius. The moment that the first German soldier set his foot on Belgian soil the military authorities began the herculean task of clearing of trees and buildings a great zone lying between this inner circle of forts and the city ramparts in order that an investing force might have no cover. It is estimated that within a fortnight the Belgian sappers and engineers destroyed property to the value of L16,000,000. Not San Francisco after the earthquake, nor Dayton after the flood, nor Salem after the fire presented scenes of more complete desolation than did the suburbs of Antwerp after the soldiers had finished with them.
On August 1, 1914, no city in all Europe could boast of more beautiful suburbs than Antwerp. Hidden amid the foliage of great wooded parks were stately chateaux; splendid country-houses rose from amid acres of green plush lawns and blazing gardens; the network of roads and avenues and bridle-paths were lined with venerable trees, whose branches, meeting overhead, formed leafy tunnels; scattered here and there were quaint old-world villages, with plaster walls and pottery roofs and lichen-covered church spires. By the last day of August all this had disappeared. The loveliest suburbs in Europe had been wiped from the earth as a sponge wipes figures from a slate. Every house and church and windmill, every tree and hedge and wall, in a zone some two or three miles wide by twenty long, was literally levelled to the ground. For mile after mile the splendid trees which lined the highroads were ruthlessly cut down; mansions which could fittingly have housed a king were dynamited; churches whose walls had echoed to the tramp of the Duke of Alba’s mail-clad men-at-arms were levelled; villages whose picturesqueness was the joy of artists and travellers were given over to the flames. Certainly not since the burning of Moscow has there been witnessed such a scene of self-inflicted desolation. When the work of the engineers was finished a jack-rabbit could not have approached the forts without being seen. When the work of levelling had been completed, acres upon acres of barbed-wire entanglements were constructed, the wires being grounded and connected with the city lighting system so that a voltage could instantly be turned on which would prove as deadly as the electric chair at Sing Sing. Thousands of men were set to work sharpening stakes and driving these stakes, point upward, in the ground, so as to impale any soldiers who fell upon them. In front of the stakes were “man-traps,” thousands of barrels with their heads knocked out being set in the ground and then covered with a thin layer of laths and earth, which would suddenly give way if a man walked upon it and drop him into the hole below. And beyond the zones of entanglements and chevaux de frise and man-traps the beet and potato-fields were sown with mines which were to be exploded by electricity when the enemy was fairly over them, and blow that enemy, whole regiments at a time, into eternity. Stretching across the fields and meadows were what looked at first glance like enormous red-brown serpents but which proved, upon closer inspection, to be trenches for infantry. The region to the south of Antwerp is a network of canals, and on the bank of every canal rose, as though by magic, parapets of sandbags. Charges of dynamite were placed under every bridge and viaduct and tunnel. Barricades of paving-stones and mattresses and sometimes farm carts were built across the highways. At certain points wires were stretched across the roads at the height of a man’s head for the purpose of preventing sudden dashes by armoured motor-cars. The walls of such buildings as were left standing were loopholed for musketry. Machine-guns and quick-firers were mounted everywhere. At night the white beams of the searchlights swept this zone of desolation and turned it into day. Now the pitiable thing about it was that all this enormous destruction proved to have been wrought for nothing, for the Germans, instead of throwing huge masses of infantry against the forts, as it was anticipated that they would do, and thus giving the entanglements and the mine-fields and the machine-guns a chance to get in their work, methodically pounded the forts to pieces with siege-guns stationed a dozen miles away. In fact, when the Germans entered Antwerp not a strand of barbed wire had been cut, not a barricade defended, not a mine exploded. This, mind you, was not due to any lack of bravery on the part of the Belgians–Heaven knows, they did not lack for that!–but to the fact that the Germans never gave them a chance to make use of these elaborate and ingenious devices. It was like a man letting a child painstakingly construct an edifice of building-blocks and then, when it was completed, suddenly sweeping it aside with his hand.
As a result of these elaborate precautions, it was as difficult to go in or out of Antwerp as it is popularly supposed to be for a millionaire to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Sentries were as thick as policemen in Piccadilly. You could not proceed a quarter of a mile along any road, in any direction, without being halted by a harsh “Qui vive?” and having the business end of a rifle turned in your direction. If your papers were not in order you were promptly turned back–or arrested as a suspicious character and taken before an officer for examination–though if you were sufficiently in the confidence of the military authorities to be given the password, you were usually permitted to pass without further question. It was some time before I lost the thrill of novelty and excitement produced by this halt-who-goes-there-advance-friend-and-give-the-countersign business. It was so exactly the sort of thing that, as a boy, I used to read about in books by George A. Henty that it seemed improbable and unreal. When we were motoring at night and a peremptory challenge would come from out the darkness and the lamps of the car would pick out the cloaked figure of the sentry as the spotlight picks out the figure of an actor on the stage, and I would lean forward and whisper the magic mot d’ordre, I always had the feeling that I was taking part in a play-which was not so very far from the truth, for, though I did not appreciate it at the time, we were all actors, more or less important, in the greatest drama ever staged.
In the immediate vicinity of Antwerp the sentries were soldiers of the regular army and understood a sentry’s duties, but in the outlying districts, particularly between Ostend and Ghent, the roads were patrolled by members of the Garde civique, all of whom seemed imbued with the idea that the safety of the nation depended upon their vigilance, which was a very commendable and proper attitude indeed. When I was challenged by a Garde civique I was always a little nervous, and wasted no time whatever in jamming on the brakes, because the poor fellows were nearly always excited and handled their rifles in a fashion which was far from being reassuring. More than once, while travelling in the outlying districts, we were challenged by civil guards who evidently had not been entrusted with the password, but who, when it was whispered to them, would nod their heads importantly and tell us to pass on.
“The next sentry that we meet,” I said to Roos on one of these occasions, “probably has no idea of the password. I’ll bet you a box of cigars that I can give him any word that comes into my head and that he won’t know the difference.”
As we rolled over the ancient drawbridge which gives admittance to sleepy Bruges, a bespectacled sentry, who looked as though he had suddenly been called from an accountant’s desk to perform the duties of a soldier, held up his hand, palm outward, which is the signal to stop the world over.
“Halt!” he commanded quaveringly. “Advance slowly and give the word.”
I leaned out as the car came opposite him. “Kalamazoo,” I whispered. The next instant I was looking into the muzzle of his rifle.
“Hands up!” he shouted, and there was no longer any quaver in his voice. “That is not the word. I shouldn’t be surprised if you were German spies. Get out of the car!”
It took half an hour of explanations to convince him that we were not German spies, that we really did know the password, and that we were merely having a joke–though not, as we had planned, at his expense.
The force of citizen soldiery known as the Garde civique has, so far as I am aware, no exact counterpart in any other country. It is composed of business and professional men whose chief duties, prior to the war, had been to show themselves on occasions of ceremony arrayed in gorgeous uniforms, which varied according to the province. The mounted division of the Antwerp Garde civique wore a green and scarlet uniform which resembled as closely as possible that of the Guides, the crack cavalry corps of the Belgian army. In the Flemish towns the civil guards wore a blue coat, so long in the skirts that it had to be buttoned back to permit of their walking, and a hat of stiff black felt, resembling a bowler, with a feather stuck rakishly in the band. Early in the war the Germans announced that they would not recognize the Gardes civique as combatants, and that any of them who were captured while fighting would meet with the same fate as armed civilians. This drastic ruling resulted in many amusing episodes. When it was learned that the Germans were approaching Ghent, sixteen hundred civil guardsmen threw their rifles into the canal and, stripping off their uniforms, ran about in the pink and light-blue under-garments which the Belgians affect, frantically begging the townspeople to lend them civilian clothing. As a whole, however, these citizen-soldiers did admirable service, guarding the roads, tunnels and bridges, assisting the refugees, preserving order in the towns, and, in Antwerp, taking entire charge of provisioning the army.
No account of Antwerp in war time would be complete without at least passing mention of the boy scouts, who were one of the city’s most picturesque and interesting features. I don’t quite know how the city could have got along without them. They were always on the job; they were to be seen everywhere and they did everything. They acted as messengers, as doorkeepers, as guides, as orderlies for staff officers, and as couriers for the various ministries; they ran the elevators in the hotels, they worked in the hospitals, they assisted the refugees to find food and lodgings. The boy scouts stationed at the various ministries were on duty twenty-four hours at a stretch. They slept rolled up in blankets on the floors; they obtained their meals where and when they could and paid for them themselves, and made themselves extremely useful. If you possessed sufficient influence to obtain a motor-car, a boy scout was generally detailed to sit beside the driver and open the door and act as a sort of orderly. I had one. His name was Joseph. He was most picturesque. He wore a sombrero with a cherry-coloured puggaree and a bottle-green cape, and his green stockings turned over at the top so as to show knees as white and shapely as those of a woman. To tell the truth, however, I had nothing for him to do. So when I was not out in the car he occupied himself in running the lift at the Hotel St. Antoine. Joseph was with me during the German attack on Waelhem. We were caught in a much hotter place than we intended and for half an hour were under heavy shrapnel fire. I was curious to see how the youngster–for he was only fourteen– would act. Finally he turned to me, his black eyes snapping with excitement. “Have I your permission to go a little nearer, monsieur?” he asked eagerly. “I won’t be gone long. I only want to get a German helmet.” It may have been the valour of ignorance which these broad-hatted, bare-kneed boys displayed, but it was the sort of valour which characterized every Belgian soldier. There was one youngster of thirteen who was attached to an officer of the staff and who was present at every battle of importance from the evacuation of Brussels to the fall of Antwerp. I remember seeing him during the retreat of the Belgians from Wesemael, curled up in the tonneau of a car and sleeping through all the turmoil and confusion. I felt like waking him up and saying sternly, “Look here, sonny, you’d better trot on home. Your mother will be worried to death about you.” I believe that four Belgian boy scouts gave up their lives in the service of their country. Two were run down and killed by automobiles while on duty in Antwerp. Two others were, I understand, shot by German troops near Brussels while attempting to carry dispatches through the lines. One boy scout became so adept at this sort of work that he was regularly employed by the Government to carry messages through to its agents in Brussels. His exploits would provide material for a boy’s book of adventure and, as a fitting conclusion, he was decorated by the King.
Anyone who went to Belgium with hard-and-fast ideas as to social distinctions quickly had them shattered. The fact that a man wore a private’s uniform and sat behind the steering-wheel of your car and respectfully touched his cap when you gave him an order did not imply that he had always been a chauffeur. Roos, who drove my car throughout my stay in Belgium, was the son of a Brussels millionaire, and at the beginning of hostilities had, as I think I have mentioned elsewhere, promptly presented his own powerful car to the Government. The aristocracy of Belgium did not hang around the Ministry of War trying to obtain commissions. They simply donned privates’ uniforms, and went into the firing-line. As a result of this wholehearted patriotism the ranks of the Belgian army were filled with men who were members of the most exclusive clubs and were welcome guests in the highest social circles in Europe. Almost any evening during the earlier part of the war a smooth-faced youth in the uniform of a private soldier could have been seen sitting amid a group of friends at dinner in the Hotel St. Antoine. When an officer entered the room he stood up and clicked his heels together and saluted. He was Prince Henri de Ligne, a member of one of the oldest and most distinguished families in Belgium and related to half the aristocracy of Europe. He, poor boy, was destined never again to follow the hounds or to lead a cotillion; he was killed near Herenthals with young Count de Villemont and Philippe de Zualart while engaged in a daring raid in an armoured motorcar into the German lines for the purpose of blowing up a bridge.
When, upon the occupation of Brussels by the Germans, the capital of Belgium was hastily transferred to Antwerp, considerable difficulty was experienced in finding suitable accommodation for the staffs of the various ministries, which were housed in any buildings which happened to be available at the time. Thus, the foreign relations of the nation were directed from a school-building in the Avenue du Commerce–the Foreign Minister, Monsieur Davignon, using as his Cabinet the room formerly used for lectures on physiology, the walls of which were still covered with blackboards and anatomical charts. The Grand Hotel was taken over by the Government for the accommodation of the Cabinet Ministers and their staffs, while the ministers of State and the members of the diplomatic corps were quartered at the St. Antoine. In fact, it used to be said in fun that if you got into difficulties with the police all you had to do was to get within the doors of the hotel, where you would be safe, for half of the ground floor was technically British soil, being occupied by the British Legation; a portion of the second floor was used by the Russian Legation; if you dashed into a certain bedroom you could claim Roumanian protection, and in another you were, theoretically, in Greece; while on the upper floor extra-territoriality was exercised by the Republic of China. Every evening all the ministers and diplomats met in the big rose-and-ivory dining-room–the white shirt-fronts of the men and the white shoulders of the women, with the uniforms of the Belgian officers and of the British, French and Russian military attaches, combining to form a wonderfully brilliant picture. Looking on that scene, it was hard to believe that by ascending to the roof of the hotel you could see the glare of burning villages and hear the boom of German cannon.
As the siege progressed and the German lines were drawn tighter, the military regulations governing life in Antwerp increased in severity. The local papers were not permitted to print any accounts of Belgian checks or reverses, and at one time the importation of English newspapers was suspended. Sealed letters were not accepted by the post office for any foreign countries save England, Russia and France, and even these were held four days before being forwarded. Telegrams were, of course, rigidly censored. The telephone service was suspended save for governmental purposes. At eight o’clock the trams stopped running. Save for a few ramshackle vehicles, drawn by decrepit horses, the cabs had disappeared from the streets. The city went spy-mad. If a man ordered Sauerkraut and sausage for lunch he instantly fell under suspicion. Scarcely a day passed without houses being raided and their occupants arrested on the charge of espionage. It was reported and generally believed that those whose guilt was proved were promptly executed outside the ramparts, but of this I have my doubts. The Belgians are too good-natured, too easy-going. It is probable, of course, that some spies were executed, but certainly not many.
One never stirred out of doors in Antwerp without one’s papers, which had to be shown before one could gain admission to the post office, the telegraph bureau, the banks, the railway stations, or any other public buildings. There were several varieties of “papers.” There was the plain passport which, beyond establishing your nationality, was not worth the paper it was written on. There was the permis de sejour, which was issued by the police to those who were able to prove that they had business which necessitated their remaining in the city. And finally, there was the much-prized laisser-passer which was issued by the military government and usually bore the photograph of the person to whom it was given, which proved an open sesame wherever shown, and which, I might add, was exceedingly difficult to obtain.
Only once did my laisser-passer fail me. During the final days of the siege, when the temper and endurance of the Belgian defenders were strained almost to the breaking-point, I motored out to witness the German assault on the forts near Willebroeck. With me were Captain Raymond Briggs of the United States army and Thompson. Before continuing to the front we took the precaution of stopping at division headquarters in Boom and asking if there was any objection to our proceeding; we were informed that there was none. We had not been on the firing-line half an hour, however, before two gendarmes came tearing up in a motor-car and informed us that we were under arrest and must return with them to Boom. At division headquarters we were interrogated by a staff major whose temper was as fiery as his hair. Thompson, as was his invariable custom, was smoking a very large and very black cigar.
“Take that cigar out of your mouth!” snapped the major in French. “How dare you smoke in my presence?”
“Sorry, major,” said Thompson, grinning broadly, “but you’ll have to talk American. I don’t understand French.”
“Stop smiling!” roared the now infuriated officer. “How dare you smile when I address you? This is no time for smiling, sir! This is a time of war!”
Though the major was reluctantly forced to admit that our papers were in order, we were nevertheless sent to staff headquarters in Antwerp guarded by two gendarmes, one of whom was the bearer of a dossier in which it was gravely recited that Captain Briggs and I had been arrested while in the company of a person calling himself Donald Thompson, who was charged by the chief of staff with having smiled and smoked a cigar in his presence. Needless to say, the whole opera-bouffe affair was promptly disavowed by the higher authorities. I have mentioned the incident because it was the sole occasion on which I met with so much as a shadow of discourtesy from any Belgian, either soldier or civilian. I doubt if in any other country in the world in time of war, a foreigner would have been permitted to go where and when he pleased, as I was, and would have met with hospitality and kindness from every one.
The citizens of Antwerp hated the Germans with a deeper and more bitter hatred, if such a thing were possible, than the people of any other part of Belgium. This was due to the fact that in no foreign city where Germans dwelt and did business were they treated with such marked hospitality and consideration as in Antwerp. They had been given franchises and concessions and privileges of every description; they had been showered with honours and decorations; they were welcome guests on every occasion; city streets had been named after leading German residents; time and time again, both at private dinners and public banquets, they had asserted, wineglass in hand, their loyalty and devotion to the city which was their home. Yet, the moment opportunity offered, they did not scruple to betray it. In the cellar of the house belonging to one of the most prominent German residents the police found large stores of ammunition and hundreds of rifles and German uniforms. A German company had, as a result of criminal stupidity, been awarded the contract for wiring the forts defending the city–and when the need arose it was found that the wiring was all but worthless. A wealthy German had a magnificent country estate the gardens of which ran down to the moat of one of the outlying forts. One day he suggested to the military authorities that if they would permit him to obtain the necessary water from the moat, he would build a swimming-pool in his garden for the use of the soldiers. What appeared to be a generous offer was gladly accepted–but when the day of action came it was found that the moat had been drained dry. In the grounds of another country place were discovered concrete emplacements for the use of the German siege-guns. Thus the German residents repaid the hospitality of their adopted city.
When the war-cloud burst every German was promptly expelled from Antwerp. In a few cases the mob got out of hand and smashed the windows of some German saloons along the water-front, but no Germans were injured or mistreated. They were merely shipped, bag and baggage, across the frontier. That, in my opinion at least, is what should have been done with the entire civil population of Antwerp–provided, of course, that the Government intended to hold the city at all costs. The civilians seriously hampered the movements of the troops and thereby interfered with the defence; the presence of large numbers of women and children in the city during the bombardment unquestionably caused grave anxiety to the defenders and was probably one of the chief reasons for the evacuation taking place when it did; the masses of civilian fugitives who choked the roads in their mad flight from Antwerp were in large measure responsible for the capture of a considerable portion of the retreating Belgian army and for the fact that other bodies of troops were driven across the frontier and interned in Holland. So strongly was the belief that Antwerp was impregnable implanted in every Belgian’s mind, however, that up to the very last not one citizen in a thousand would admit that there was a possibility that it could be taken. The army did not believe that it could be taken. The General Staff did not believe that it could be taken. They were destined to have a rude and sad awakening.
III. The Death In The Air
At eleven minutes past one o’clock on the morning of August 25 death came to Antwerp out of the air. Some one had sent a bundle of English and American newspapers to my room in the Hotel St. Antoine and I had spent the evening reading them, so that the bells of the cathedral had already chimed one o’clock when I switched off my light and opened the window. As I did so my attention was attracted by a curious humming overhead, like a million bumblebees. I leaned far out of the window, and as I did so an indistinct mass, which gradually resolved itself into something resembling a gigantic black cigar, became plainly apparent against the purple-velvet sky. I am not good at estimating altitudes, but I should say that when I first caught sight of it it was not more than a thousand feet above my head–and my room was on the top floor of the hotel, remember. As it drew nearer the noise, which had at first reminded me of a swarm of angry bees, grew louder, until it sounded like an automobile with the muffler open. Despite the darkness there was no doubting what it was. It was a German Zeppelin.
Even as I looked something resembling a falling star curved across the sky. An instant later came a rending, shattering crash that shook the hotel to its foundations, the walls of my room rocked and reeled, about me, and for a breathless moment I thought that the building was going to collapse. Perhaps thirty seconds later came another splitting explosion, and another, and then another–ten in all–each, thank Heaven, a little farther removed. It was all so sudden, so utterly unexpected, that it must have been quite a minute before I realized that the monstrous thing hovering in the darkness overhead was one of the dirigibles of which we had read and talked so much, and that it was actually raining death upon the sleeping city from the sky. I suppose it was blind instinct that caused me to run to the door and down the corridor with the idea of getting into the street, never stopping to reason, of course, that there was no protection in the street from Zeppelins. But before I had gone a dozen paces I had my nerves once more in hand. “Perhaps it isn’t a Zeppelin, after all,” I argued to myself. “I may have been dreaming. And how perfectly ridiculous I should look if I were to dash downstairs in my pyjamas and find that nothing had happened. At least I’ll go back and put some clothes on.” And I did. No fireman, responding to a night alarm, ever dressed quicker. As I ran through the corridors the doors of bedrooms opened and sleepy-eyed, tousle-headed diplomatists and Government officials called after me to ask if the Germans were bombarding the city.
“They are,” I answered, without stopping. There was no time to explain that for the first time in history a city was being bombarded from the air.
I found the lobby rapidly filling with scantily clad guests, whose teeth were visibly chattering. Guided by the hotel manager and accompanied by half a dozen members of the diplomatic corps in pyjamas, I raced upstairs to a sort of observatory on the hotel roof. I remember that one attache of the British Legation, ordinarily a most dignified person, had on some sort of a night-robe of purple silk and that when he started to climb the iron ladder of the fire-escape he looked for all the world like a burglarious suffragette.
By the time we reached the roof of the hotel Belgian high-angle and machine-guns were stabbing the darkness with spurts of flame, the troops of the garrison were blazing away with rifles, and the gendarmes in the streets were shooting wildly with their revolvers: the noise was deafening. Oblivious of the consternation and confusion it had caused, the Zeppelin, after letting fall a final bomb, slowly rose and disappeared in the upper darkness.
The destruction wrought by the German projectiles was almost incredible. The first shell, which I had seen fall, struck a building in the Rue de la Bourse, barely two hundred yards in a straight line from my window. A hole was not merely blown through the roof, as would have been the case with a shell from a field-gun, but the three upper stories simply crumbled, disintegrated, came crashing down in an avalanche of brick and stone and plaster, as though a Titan had hit it with a sledge-hammer. Another shell struck in the middle of the Poids Public, or public weighing-place, which is about the size of Russell Square in London. It blew a hole in the cobblestone- pavement large enough to bury a horse in; one policeman on duty at the far end of the square was instantly killed and another had both legs blown off. But this was not all nor nearly all. Six people sleeping in houses fronting on the square were killed in their beds and a dozen others were more or less seriously wounded. Every building facing on the square was either wholly or partially demolished, the steel splinters of the projectile tearing their way through the thick brick-walls as easily as a lead-pencil is jabbed through a sheet of paper. And, as a result of the terrific concussion, every house within a hundred yards of the square in every direction had its windows broken. On no battlefield have I ever seen so horrible a sight as that which turned me weak and nauseated when I entered one of the shattered houses and made my way, over heaps of fallen debris, to a room where a young woman had been sleeping. She had literally been blown to fragments. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, were splotched with–well, it’s enough to say that that woman’s remains could only have been collected with a shovel. In saying this, I am not speaking flippantly either. I have dwelt upon these details, revolting as they are, because I wish to drive home the fact that the only victims of this air-raid on Antwerp were innocent non-combatants.
Another shell struck the roof of a physician’s house in the fashionable Rue des Escrimeurs, killing two maids who were sleeping in a room on the upper floor. A shell fell in a garden in the Rue von Bary, terribly wounding a man and his wife. A little child was mangled by a shell which struck a house in the Rue de la Justice. Another shell fell in the barracks in the Rue Falcon, killing one inmate and wounding two others. By a fortunate coincidence the regiment which had been quartered in the barracks had left for the front on the previous day. A woman who was awakened by the first explosion and leaned from her window to see what was happening had her head blown off. In all ten people were killed, six of whom were women, and upwards of forty wounded, two of them so terribly that they afterwards died. There is very little doubt that a deliberate attempt was made to kill the royal family, the General Staff and the members of the Government, one shell bursting within a hundred yards of the royal palace, where the King and Queen were sleeping, and another within two hundred yards of staff headquarters and the Hotel St. Antoine.
As a result of this night of horror, Antwerp, to use an inelegant but descriptive expression, developed a violent case of the jim-jams. The next night and every night thereafter until the Germans came in and took the city, she thought she saw things; not green rats and pink snakes, but large, sausage-shaped balloons with bombs dropping from them. The military authorities–for the city was under martial law–screwed down the lid so tight that even the most rabid prohibitionists and social reformers murmured. As a result of the precautionary measures which were taken, Antwerp, with its four hundred thousand inhabitants, became about as cheerful a place of residence as a country cemetery on a rainy evening. At eight o’clock every street light was turned off, every shop and restaurant and cafe closed, every window darkened. If a light was seen in a window after eight o’clock the person who occupied that room was in grave danger of being arrested for signalling to the enemy. My room, which was on the third floor of the hotel, was so situated that its windows could not be seen from the street, and hence I was not as particular about lowering the shades as I should have been. The second night after the Zeppelin raid the manager came bursting into my room. “Quick, Mr. Powell,” he called, excitedly, “pull down your shade. The observers in the cathedral tower have just sent word that your windows are lighted and the police are downstairs to find out what it means.”
The darkness of London and Paris was a joke beside the darkness of Antwerp. It was so dark in the narrow, winding streets, bordered by ancient houses, that when, as was my custom, I went to the telegraph office with my dispatches after dinner, I had to feel my way with a cane, like a blind man. To make conditions more intolerable, if such a thing were possible, cordons of sentries were thrown around those buildings under whose roofs the members of the Government slept, so that if one returned after nightfall he was greeted by a harsh command to halt, and a sentry held a rifle-muzzle against his breast while another sentry, by means of a dark lantern, scrutinized his papers. Save for the sentries, the streets were deserted, for, as the places of amusement and the eating-places and drinking-places were closed, there was no place for the people to go except to bed. I was reminded of the man who told his wife that he came home because all the other places were closed.
I have heard it said that Antwerp was indifferent to its fate, but it made no such impression on me. Never have I lived in such an atmosphere of gloom and depression. Except around the St. Antoine at the lunch and dinner-hours and in the cafes just before nightfall did one see anything which was even a second cousin to jollity. The people did not smile. They went about with grave and anxious faces. In fact, outside of the places I have mentioned, one rarely heard a laugh. The people who sat at the round iron tables on the sidewalks in front of the cafes drinking their light wines and beer –no spirits were permitted to be sold–sat in silence and with solemn faces. God knows, there was little enough for them to smile about. Their nation was being slowly strangled. Three-quarters of its soil was under the heel of the invader. An alien flag, a hated flag, flew over their capital. Their King and their Government were fugitives, moving from place to place as a vagrant moves on at the approach of a policeman. Men who, a month before, were prosperous shopkeepers and tradesmen were virtual bankrupts, not knowing where the next hundred-franc note was coming from. Other men had seen their little flower-surrounded homes in the suburbs razed to the ground that an approaching enemy might find no cover. Though the shops were open, they had no customers for the people had no money, or, if they had money they were hoarding it against the days when they might be homeless fugitives. No, there was not very much to smile about in Antwerp.
There were amusing incidents, of course. If one recognizes humour when he sees it he can find it in almost any situation. After the first Zeppelin attack the management of the St. Antoine fitted up bedrooms in the cellars.
A century or more ago the St. Antoine was not a hotel but a monastery, and its cellars are all that the cellars of a monastery ought to be–thick-walled and damp and musty. Yet these subterranean suites were in as great demand among the diplomatists as are tables in the palm-room of the Savoy during the season. From my bedroom window, which overlooked the court, I could see apprehensive guests cautiously emerging from their cellar chambers in the early morning. It reminded me of woodchucks coming out of their holes.
As the siege progressed and the German guns were pushed nearer to the city, those who lived in what might be termed “conspicuous” localities began to seek other quarters.
“I’m going to change hotels to-day,” I heard a man remark to a friend.
“Why?” inquired the other.
“Because I am within thirty yards of the cathedral,” was the answer. The towering spire of the famous cathedral is, you must understand, the most conspicuous thing in Antwerp–on clear days you can see it from twenty miles away–and to live in its immediate vicinity during a bombardment of the city was equivalent to taking shelter under the only tree in a field during a heavy thunderstorm.
Two days before the bombardment began there was a meeting of the American residents–such of them as still remained in the city–at the leading club. About a dozen of us in all sat down to dinner. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss the attitude which the Americans should adopt towards the German officers, for it was known that the fall of the city was imminent. I remember that the sense of the meeting was that we should treat the helmeted intruders with frigid politeness–I think that was the term–which, translated, meant that we were not to offer them cigars and buy them drinks. Of the twelve of us who sat around the table that night, there are only two–Mr. Manly Whedbee and myself–who remained to witness the German occupation.
That the precautions taken against Zeppelins were by no means overdone was proved by the total failure of the second aerial raid on Antwerp, in the latter part of September, when a dirigible again sailed over the city under cover of darkness. Owing to the total absence of street-lights, however, the dirigible’s crew were evidently unable to get their bearings, for the half-dozen bombs that they discharged fell in the outskirts of the city without causing any loss of life or doing any serious damage. This time, moreover, the Belgians were quite prepared–the fire of their “sky artillery,” guided by searchlights, making things exceedingly uncomfortable for the Germans.
I have heard it stated by Belgian officers and others that the bombs were dropped from the dirigibles by an ingenious arrangement which made the airship itself comparatively safe from harm and at the same time rendered the aim of its bombmen much more accurate. According to them, the dirigible comes to a stop–or as near a stop as possible–above the city or fortification which it wishes to attack, at a height out of range of either artillery or rifle-fire. Then, by means of a steel cable a thousand feet or more in length, it lowers a small wire cage just large enough to contain a man and a supply of bombs, this cage being sufficiently armoured so that it is proof against rifle-bullets. At the same time it affords so tiny a mark that the chances of its being hit by artillery-fire are insignificant. If it should be struck, moreover, the airship itself would still be unharmed and only one man would be lost, and when he fell his supply of bombs would fall with him. The Zeppelin, presumably equipped with at least two cages and cables, might at once lower another bomb-thrower. I do not pretend to say whether this ingenious contrivance is used by the Germans. Certainly the Zeppelin which I saw in action had nothing of the kind, nor did it drop its projectiles promiscuously, as one would drop a stone, but apparently discharged them from a bomb-tube.
Though the Zeppelin raids proved wholly ineffective, so far as their effect on troops and fortifications were concerned, the German aviators introduced some novel tricks in aerial warfare which were as practical as they were ingenious. During the battle of Vilvorde, for example, and throughout the attacks on the Antwerp forts, German dirigibles hovered at a safe height over the Belgian positions and directed the fire of the German gunners with remarkable success. The aerial observers watched, through powerful glasses, the effect of the German shells and then, by means of a large disc which was swung at the end of a line and could be raised or lowered at will, signalled as need be in code “higher–lower–right–left” and thus guided the gunners–who were, of course, unable to see their mark or the effect of their fire–until almost every shot was a hit. At Vilvorde, as a result of this aerial fire-control system, I saw the German artillery, posted out of sight behind a railway embankment, get the range of a retreating column of Belgian infantry and with a dozen well-placed shots practically wipe it out of existence. So perfect was the German system of observation and fire control during the final attack on the Antwerp defences that whenever the Belgians or British moved a regiment or a battery the aerial observers instantly detected it and a perfect storm of shells was directed against the new position.
Throughout the operations around Antwerp, the Taubes, as the German aeroplanes are called because of their fancied resemblance to a dove, repeatedly performed daring feats of reconnaissance. On one occasion, while I was with the General Staff at Lierre, one of these German Taubes sailed directly over the Hotel de Ville, which was being used as staff headquarters. It so happened that King Albert was standing in the street, smoking one of the seven-for-a-franc Belgian cigars to which he was partial.
“The Germans call it a dove, eh?” remarked the King, as he looked up at the passing aircraft. “Well, it looks to me more like a hawk.”
A few days before the fall of Antwerp a Taube flew over the city in the early afternoon, dropping thousands of proclamations printed in both French and Flemish and signed by the commander of the investing forces, pointing out to the inhabitants the futility of resistance, asserting that in fighting Germany they were playing Russia’s game, and urging them to lay down their arms. The aeroplane was greeted by a storm of shrapnel from the high-angle guns mounted on the fortifications, the only effect of which, however, was to kill two unoffending citizens who were standing in the streets and were struck by the fragments of the falling shells.
Most people seem to have the impression that it is as easy for an aviator to see what is happening on the ground beneath him as though he were looking down from the roof of a high building. Under ordinary conditions, when one can skim above the surface of the earth at a height of a few hundred feet, this is quite true, but it is quite a different matter when one is flying above hostile troops who are blazing away at him with rifles and machine-guns. During reconnaissance work the airmen generally are compelled to ascend to an altitude of a mile or a mile and a quarter, which makes observation extremely difficult, as small objects, even with the aid of the strongest glasses, assume unfamiliar shapes and become fore- shortened. If, in order to obtain a better view, they venture to fly at a lower height, they are likely to be greeted by a hail of rifle fire from soldiers in the trenches. The Belgian aviators with whom I talked assured me that they feared rifle fire more than bursting shrapnel, as the fire of a regiment, when concentrated even on so elusive an object as an aeroplane, proves far more deadly than shells.
The Belgians made more use than any other nation of motor-cars. When war was declared one of the first steps taken by the military authorities was to commandeer every motor-car, every motor-cycle and every litre of petrol in the kingdom. As a result they depended almost entirely upon motor-driven vehicles for their military transport, which was, I might add, extremely efficient. In fact, we could always tell when we were approaching the front by the amazing number of motor-cars which lined the roads for miles in the rear of each division.
Anything that had four wheels and a motor to drive them–diminutive American run-abouts, slim, low-hung racing cars, luxurious limousines with coronets painted on the panels, delivery-cars bearing the names of shops in Antwerp and Ghent and Brussels, lumbering motor-trucks, hotel omnibuses–all met the same fate, which consisted in being daubed with elephant-grey paint, labelled “S.M.” (Service Militaire) in staring white letters, and started for the front, usually in charge of a wholly inexperienced driver. It made an automobile lover groan to see the way some of those cars were treated. But they did the business. They averaged something like twelve miles an hour–which is remarkable time for army transport– and, strangely enough, very few of them broke down. If they did there was always an automobile des reparations promptly on hand to repair the damage. Before the war began the Belgian army had no army transport worthy of the name; before the forts at Liege had been silenced it had as efficient a one as any nation in Europe.
The headquarters of the motor-car branch of the army was at the Pare des Automobiles Militaires, on the Red Star quays in Antwerp. Here several hundred cars were always kept in reserve, and here was collected an enormous store of automobile supplies and sundries. The scene under the long, low sheds, with their corrugated-iron roofs, always reminded me of the Automobile Show at Olympia. After a car had once been placed at your disposal by the Government, getting supplies for it was merely a question of signing bons. Obtaining extra equipment for my car was Roos’ chief amusement. Tyres, tools, spare parts, horns, lamps, trunks–all you had to do was to scrawl your name at the foot of a printed form and they were promptly handed over. When I first went to Belgium I was given a sixty horse-power touring car, and when the weather turned unpleasant I asked for and was given a limousine that was big enough to sleep in, and when I found this too clumsy, the commandant of the Parc des Automobiles obligingly exchanged it for a ninety horse-power berline. They were most accommodating, those Belgians. I am sorry to say that my berline, which was the envy of every one in Antwerp, was eventually captured by the Germans.
Though both the French and the Germans had for a number of years been experimenting with armoured cars of various patterns, the Belgians, who had never before given the subject serious consideration, were the first to evolve and to send into action a really practical vehicle of this description. The earlier armoured cars used by the Belgians were built at the great Minerva factory in Antwerp and consisted of a circular turret, high enough so that only the head and shoulders of the man operating the machine-gun were exposed, covered with half-inch steel plates and mounted on an ordinary chassis. After the disastrous affair near Herenthals, in which Prince Henri de Ligne was mortally wounded while engaged in a raid into the German lines for the purpose of blowing up bridges, it was seen that the crew of the auto-mitrailleuses, as the armoured cars were called, was insufficiently protected, and, to remedy this, a movable steel dome, with an opening for the muzzle of the machine-gun, was superimposed on the turret. These grim vehicles, which jeered at bullets, and were proof even against shrapnel, quickly became a nightmare to the Germans. Driven by the most reckless racing drivers in Belgium, manned by crews of dare-devil youngsters, and armed with machine-guns which poured out lead at the rate of a thousand shots a minute, these wheeled fortresses would tear at will into the German lines, cut up an outpost or wipe out a cavalry patrol, dynamite a bridge or a tunnel or a culvert, and be back in the Belgian lines again almost before the enemy realized what had happened.
I witnessed an example of the cool daring of these mitrailleuse drivers during the fighting around Malines. Standing on a railway embankment, I was watching the withdrawal under heavy fire of the last Belgian troops, when an armoured car, the lean muzzle of its machine-gun peering from its turret, tore past me at fifty miles an hour, spitting a murderous spray of lead as it bore down on the advancing Germans. But when within a few hundred yards of the German line the car slackened speed and stopped. Its petrol was exhausted. Instantly one of the crew was out in the road and, under cover of the fire from the machine-gun, began to refill the tank. Though bullets were kicking up spurts of dust in the road or ping-pinging against the steel turret he would not be hurried. I, who was watching the scene through my field-glasses, was much more excited than he was. Then, when the tank was filled, the car refused to back! It was a big machine and the narrow road was bordered on either side by deep ditches, but by a miracle the driver was able– and just able–to turn the car round. Though by this time the German gunners had the range and shrapnel was bursting all about him, he was as cool as though he were turning a limousine in the width of Piccadilly. As the car straightened out for its retreat, the Belgians gave the Germans a jeering screech from their horn, and a parting blast of lead from their machine-gun and went racing Antwerpwards.
It is, by the way, a curious and interesting fact that the machine-gun used in both the Belgian and Russian armoured cars, and which is one of the most effective weapons produced by the war, was repeatedly offered to the American War Department by its inventor, Major Isaac Newton Lewis, of the United States army, and was as repeatedly rejected by the officials at Washington. At last, in despair of receiving recognition in his own country, he sold it to Russia and Belgium. The Lewis gun, which is air-cooled and weighs only twenty-nine pounds–less than half the weight of a soldier’s equipment–fires a thousand shots a minute. In the fighting around Sempst I saw trees as large round as a man’s thigh literally cut down by the stream of lead from these weapons.
The inventor of the Lewis gun was not the only American who played an inconspicuous but none the less important part in the War of Nations. A certain American corporation doing business in Belgium placed its huge Antwerp plant and the services of its corps of skilled engineers at the service of the Government, though I might add that this fact was kept carefully concealed, being known to only a handful of the higher Belgian officials. This concern made shells and other ammunition for the Belgian army; it furnished aeroplanes and machine-guns; it constructed miles of barbed-wire entanglements and connected those entanglements with the city lighting system; one of its officers went on a secret mission to England and brought back with him a supply of cordite, not to mention six large-calibre guns which he smuggled through Dutch territorial waters hidden in the steamer’s coal bunkers. And, as though all this were not enough, the Belgian Government confided to this foreign corporation the minting of the national currency. For obvious reasons I am not at liberty to mention the name of this concern, though it is known to practically every person in the United States, each month cheques being sent to the parent concern by eight hundred thousand people in New York alone.
Incidentally it publishes the most widely read volume in the world. I wish that I might tell you the name of this concern. Upon second thought, I think I will. It is the American Bell Telephone Company.
IV. Under The German Eagle
When, upon the approach of the Germans to Brussels, the Government and the members of the Diplomatic Corps fled to Antwerp, the American Minister, Mr. Brand Whitlock, did not accompany them. In view of the peculiar position occupied by the United States as the only Great Power not involved in hostilities, he felt, and, as it proved, quite rightly, that he could be of more service to Belgium and to Brussels and to the cause of humanity in general by remaining behind. There remained with him the secretary of legation, Mr. Hugh S. Gibson. Mr. Whitlock’s reasons for remaining in Brussels were twofold. In the first place, there were a large number of English and Americans, both residents and tourists, who had been either unable or unwilling to leave the city, and who, he felt, were entitled to diplomatic protection. Secondly, the behaviour of the German troops in other Belgian cities had aroused grave fears of what would happen when they entered Brussels, and it was generally felt that the presence of the American Minister might deter them from committing the excesses and outrages which up to that time had characterized their advance. It was no secret that Germany was desperately anxious to curry favour with the United States, and it was scarcely likely, therefore, that houses would be sacked and burnt, civilians executed and women violated under the disapproving eyes of the American representative. This surmise proved to be well founded. The Germans did not want Mr. Whitlock in Brussels, and nothing would have pleased them better than to have had him depart and leave them to their own devices, but, so long as he blandly ignored their hints that his room was preferable to his company and persisted in sitting tight, they submitted to his surveillance with the best grace possible and behaved themselves as punctiliously as a dog that has been permitted to come into a parlour. After the civil administration had been established, however, and Belgium had become, in theory at least, a German province, Mr. Whitlock was told quite plainly that the kingdom to which he was accredited had ceased to exist as an independent nation, and that Anglo-American affairs in Belgium could henceforward be entrusted to the American Ambassador at Berlin. But Mr. .Whitlock, who had received his training in shirt-sleeve diplomacy as Socialist Mayor of Toledo, Ohio, was as impervious to German suggestions as he had been to the threats and pleadings of party politicians, and told Baron von der Golz, the German Governor, politely but quite firmly, that he did not take his orders from Berlin but from Washington. “Gott in Himmel!” exclaimed the Germans, shrugging their shoulders despairingly, “what is to be done with such a man?”
Before the Germans had been in occupation of Brussels a fortnight the question of food for the poorer classes became a serious and pressing problem. The German armies, in their onset toward the west, had swept the Belgian country-side bare; the products of the farms and gardens in the immediate vicinity of the city had been commandeered for the use of the garrison, and the spectre of starvation was already beginning to cast its dread shadow over Brussels. Mr. Whitlock acted with promptness and decision. He sent Americans, who had volunteered their services, to Holland to purchase food-stuffs, and at the same time informed the German commander that he expected these food-stuffs to be admitted without hindrance. The German replied that he could not comply with this request without first communicating with his Imperial master, whereupon he was told, in effect, that the American Government would consider him personally responsible if the food-stuffs were delayed or diverted for military use and a famine ensued in consequence. The firmness of Mr. Whitlock’s attitude had its effect, for at seven o’clock the next morning he received word that his wishes would be complied with. As a result of the German occupation, Brussels, with its six hundred thousand inhabitants, was as completely cut off from communication with the outside world as though it were on an island in the South Pacific. The postal, telegraph and telephone services were suspended; the railways were blocked with troop trains moving westward; the roads were filled from ditch to ditch with troops and transport wagons; and so tightly were the lines drawn between that portion of Belgium occupied by the Germans and that still held by the Belgians, that those daring souls who attempted to slip through the cordons of sentries did so at peril of their lives. It sounds almost incredible that a great city could be so effectually isolated, yet so it was. Even the Cabinet Ministers and other officials who had accompanied the Government in its flight to Antwerp were unable to learn what had befallen the families which they had in many cases left behind them.
After nearly three weeks had passed without word from the American Legation, the Department of State cabled the American Consul-General at Antwerp that some means of communicating with Mr. Whitlock must be found. Happening to be in the Consulate when the message was received, I placed my services and my car at the disposal of the Consul-General, who promptly accepted them. Upon learning of my proposed jaunt into the enemy’s lines, a friend, Mr. M. Manly Whedbee, the director of the Belgian branch of the British-American Tobacco Company, offered to accompany me, and as he is as cool-headed and courageous and companionable as anyone I know, and as he knew as much about driving the car as I did–for it was obviously impossible to take my Belgian driver–I was only too glad to have him with me. It was, indeed, due to Mr. Whedbee’s foresight in taking along a huge quantity of cigarettes for distribution among the soldiers, that we were able to escape from Brussels. But more of that episode hereafter.
When the Consul-General asked General Dufour, the military governor of Antwerp, to issue us a safe conduct through the Belgian lines, that gruff old soldier at first refused flatly, asserting that as the German outposts had been firing on cars bearing the Red Cross flag, there was no assurance that they would respect one bearing the Stars and Stripes. The urgency of the matter being explained to him, however, he reluctantly issued the necessary laisser-passer, though intimating quite plainly that our mission would probably end in providing “more work for the undertaker, another little job for the casket-maker,” and that he washed his hands of all responsibility for our fate. But by two American flags mounted on the windshield, and the explanatory legends “Service Consulaire des Etats-Unis d’Amerique” and “Amerikanischer Consular dienst” painted in staring letters on the hood, we hoped to make it quite clear to Germans and Belgians alike that we were protected by the international game-laws so far as shooting us was concerned.
Now the disappointing thing about our trip was that we didn’t encounter any Uhlans. Every one had warned us so repeatedly about Uhlans that we fully expected to find them, with their pennoned lances and their square-topped schapskas, lurking behind every hedge, and when they did not come spurring out to intercept us we were greatly disappointed. It was like making a journey to the polar regions and seeing no Esquimaux. The smart young cavalry officer who bade us good-bye at the Belgian outposts, warned us to keep our eyes open for them and said, rather mournfully, I thought, that he only hoped they would give us time to explain who we were before they opened fire on us. “They are such hasty fellows, these Uhlans,” said he, “always shooting first and making inquiries afterward.” As a matter of fact, the only Uhlan we saw on the entire trip was riding about Brussels in a cab, smoking a large porcelain pipe and with his spurred boots resting comfortably on the cushions.
Though we crept along as circumspectly as a motorist who knows that he is being trailed by a motor-cycle policeman, peering behind farmhouses and hedges and into the depths of thickets and expecting any moment to hear a gruff command, emphasized by the bang of a carbine, it was not until we were at the very outskirts of Aerschot that we encountered the Germans. There were a hundred of them, so cleverly ambushed behind a hedge that we would never have suspected their presence had we not caught the glint of sunlight on their rifle-barrels. We should not have gotten much nearer, in any event, for they had a wire neatly strung across the road at just the right height to take us under the chins. When we were within a hundred yards of the hedge an officer in a trailing grey cloak stepped into the middle of the road and held up his hand.
I jammed on the brakes so suddenly that we nearly went through the windshield.
“Get out of the automobile and stand well away from it,” the officer commanded in German. We got out very promptly.
“One of you advance alone, with his hands up.”
I advanced alone, but not with my hands up. It is such an undignified position. I had that shivery feeling chasing up and down my spine which came from knowing that I was covered by a hundred rifles, and that if I made a move which seemed suspicious to the men behind those rifles, they would instantly transform me into a sieve.
“Are you English?” the officer demanded, none too pleasantly.
“No, American,” said I.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said he, his manner instantly thawing. “I know America well,” he continued, “Atlantic City and Asbury Park and Niagara Falls and Coney Island. I have seen all of your famous places.”
Imagine, if you please, standing in the middle of a Belgian highway, surrounded by German soldiers who looked as though they would rather shoot you than not, discussing the relative merits of the hotels at Atlantic City and which had the best dining-car service, the Pennsylvania or the New York Central!
I learned from the officer, who proved to be an exceedingly agreeable fellow, that had we advanced ten feet further after the command to halt was given, we should probably have been planted in graves dug in a nearby potato field, as only an hour before our arrival a Belgian mitrailleuse car had torn down the road with its machine-gun squirting a stream of lead, and had smashed straight through the German line, killing three men and wounding a dozen others. They were burying them when we appeared. When our big grey machine hove in sight they not unnaturally took us for another armoured car and prepared to give us a warm reception. It was a lucky thing for us that our brakes worked quickly.
We were the first foreigners to see Aerschot, or rather what was left of Aerschot after it had been sacked and burned by the Germans. A few days before Aerschot had been a prosperous and happy town of ten thousand people. When we saw it it was but a heap of smoking ruins, garrisoned by a battalion of German soldiers, and with its population consisting of half a hundred white-faced women. In many parts of the world I have seen many terrible and revolting things, but nothing so ghastly, so horrifying as Aerschot. Quite two-thirds of the houses had been burned and showed unmistakable signs of having been sacked by a maddened soldiery before they were burned. Everywhere were the ghastly evidences. Doors had been smashed in with rifle-butts and boot-heels; windows had been broken; furniture had been wantonly destroyed; pictures had been torn from the walls; mattresses had been ripped open with bayonets in search of valuables; drawers had been emptied upon the floors; the outer walls of the houses were spattered with blood and pock-marked with bullets; the sidewalks were slippery with broken wine-bottles; the streets were strewn with women’s clothing. It needed no one to tell us the details of that orgy of blood and lust. The story was so plainly written that anyone could read it.
For a mile we drove the car slowly between the blackened walls of fire-gutted buildings. This was no accidental conflagration, mind you, for scattered here and there were houses which stood undamaged and in every such case there was scrawled with chalk upon their doors “Gute Leute. Nicht zu plundern.” (Good people. Do not plunder.)
The Germans went about the work of house-burning as systematically as they did everything else. They had various devices for starting conflagrations, all of them effective. At Aerschot and Louvain they broke the windows of the houses and threw in sticks which had been soaked in oil and dipped in sulphur. Elsewhere they used tiny, black tablets, about the size of cough lozenges, made of some highly inflammable composition, to which they touched a match. At Termonde, which they destroyed in spite of the fact that the inhabitants had evacuated the city before their arrival, they used a motor-car equipped with a large tank for petrol, a pump, a hose, and a spraying-nozzle. The car was run slowly through the streets, one soldier working the pump and another spraying the fronts of the houses. Then they set fire to them. Oh, yes, they were very methodical about it all, those Germans.
Despite the scowls of the soldiers, I attempted to talk with some of the women huddled in front of a bakery waiting for a distribution of bread, but the poor creatures were too terror-stricken to do more than stare at us with wide, beseeching eyes. Those eyes will always haunt me. I wonder if they do not sometimes haunt the Germans. But a little episode that occurred as we were leaving the city did more than anything else to bring home the horror of it all. We passed a little girl of nine or ten and I stopped the car to ask the way. Instantly she held both hands above her head and began to scream for mercy. When we had given her some chocolate and money, and had assured her that we were not Germans, but Americans and friends, she ran like a frightened deer. That little child, with her fright-wide eyes and her hands raised in supplication, was in herself a terrible indictment of the Germans.
There are, as might be expected, two versions of the happenings which precipitated that night of horrors in Aerschot. The German version–I had it from the German commander himself–is to the effect that after the German troops had entered Aerschot, the Chief of Staff and some of the officers were asked to dinner by the burgomaster. While they were seated at the table the son of the burgomaster, a boy of fifteen, entered the room with a revolver and killed the Chief of Staff, whereupon, as though at a prearranged signal, the townspeople opened fire from their windows upon the troops. What followed–the execution of the burgomaster, his son, and several score of the leading townsmen, the giving over of the women to a lust-mad soldiery, the sacking of the houses, and the final burning of the town–was the punishment which would always be meted out to towns whose inhabitants attacked German soldiers.
Now, up to a certain point the Belgian version agrees with the German. It is admitted that the Germans entered the town peaceably enough, that the German Chief of Staff and other officers accepted the hospitality of the burgomaster, and that, while they were at dinner, the burgomaster’s son entered the room and shot the Chief of Staff dead with a revolver. But–and this is the point to which the German story makes no allusion–the boy killed the Chief of Staff in defence of his sister’s honour. It is claimed that toward the end of the meal the German officer, inflamed with wine, informed the burgomaster that he intended to pass the night with his young and beautiful daughter, whereupon the girl’s brother quietly slipped from the room and, returning a moment later, put a sudden end to the German’s career with an automatic. What the real truth is I do not know. Perhaps no one knows. The Germans did not leave many eye-witnesses to tell the story of what happened. Piecing together the stories told by those who did survive that night of horror, we know that scores of the townspeople were shot down in cold blood and that, when the firing squads could not do the work of slaughter fast enough, the victims were lined up and a machine-gun was turned upon them. We know that young girls were dragged from their homes and stripped naked and violated by soldiers–many soldiers–in the public square in the presence of officers. We know that both men and women were unspeakably mutilated, that children were bayoneted, that dwellings were ransacked and looted, and that finally, as though to destroy the evidences of their horrid work, soldiers went from house to house with torches, methodically setting fire to them.
It was with a feeling of repulsion amounting almost to nausea that we left what had once been Aerschot behind us. The road leading to Louvain was alive with soldiery, and we were halted every few minutes by German patrols. Had not the commanding officer in Aerschot detailed two bicyclists to accompany us I doubt if we should have gotten through. Whedbee had had the happy idea of bringing along a thousand packets of cigarettes–the tonneau of the car was literally filled with them–and we tossed a packet to every German soldier that we saw. You could have followed our trail for thirty miles by the cigarettes we left behind us. As it turned out, they were the means of saving us from being detained within the German lines.
Thanks to our American flags, to the nature of our mission, and to our wholesale distribution of cigarettes, we were passed from outpost to outpost and from regimental headquarters to regimental headquarters until we reached Louvain. Here we came upon another scene of destruction and desolation. Nearly half the city was in ashes. Most of the principal streets were impassable from fallen masonry. The splendid avenues and boulevards were lined on either side by the charred skeletons of what had once been handsome buildings. The fronts of many of the houses were smeared with crimson stains. In comparison to its size, the Germans had wrought more widespread destruction in Louvain than did the earthquake and fire combined in San Francisco. The looting had evidently been unrestrained. The roads for miles in either direction were littered with furniture and bedding and clothing. Such articles as the soldiers could not carry away they wantonly destroyed. Hangings had been torn down, pictures on the walls had been smashed, the contents of drawers and trunks had been emptied into the streets, literally everything breakable had been broken. This is not from hearsay, remember; I saw it with my own eyes. And the amazing feature of it all was that among the Germans there seemed to be no feeling of regret, no sense of shame. Officers in immaculate uniforms strolled about among the ruins, chatting and laughing and smoking. At one place a magnificent mahogany dining-table had been dragged into the middle of the road and about it, sprawled in carved and tapestry-covered chairs, a dozen German infantrymen were drinking beer.
Just as there are two versions of the destruction of Aerschot, so there are two versions, though in this case widely different, of the events which led up to the destruction of Louvain. It should be borne in mind, to begin with, that Louvain was not destroyed by bombardment or in the heat of battle, for the Germans had entered it unopposed, and had been in undisputed possession for several days. The Germans assert that a conspiracy, fomented by the burgomaster, the priests and many of the leading citizens, existed among the townspeople, who planned to suddenly fall upon and exterminate the garrison. They claim that, in pursuance of this plan, on the night of August 26, the inhabitants opened a murderous fire upon the unsuspecting troops from house-tops, doors and windows; that a fierce street battle ensued, in which a number of women and children were unfortunately killed by stray bullets; and that, in retaliation for this act of treachery, a number of the inhabitants were executed and a portion of the city was burned. Notwithstanding the fact that, as soon as the Germans entered the city, they searched it thoroughly for concealed weapons, they claim that the townspeople were not only well supplied with rifles and ammunition, but that they even opened on them from their windows with machine-guns. Though it seems scarcely probable that the inhabitants of Louvain would attempt so mad an enterprise as to attack an overwhelming force of Germans–particularly with the terrible lesson of Aerschot still fresh in their minds–I do not care to express any opinion as to the truth of the German assertions.
The Belgians tell quite a different story. They say that, as the result of a successful Belgian offensive movement to the south of Malines, the German troops retreated in something closely akin to panic, one division falling back, after nightfall, upon Louvain. In the inky blackness the garrison, mistaking the approaching troops for Belgians, opened a deadly fire upon them. When the mistake was discovered the Germans, partly in order to cover up their disastrous blunder and partly to vent their rage and chagrin, turned upon the townspeople in a paroxysm of fury. A scene of indescribable terror ensued, the soldiers, who had broken into the wine-shops and drunk themselves into a state of frenzy, practically running amuck, breaking in doors and shooting at every one they saw. That some of the citizens snatched up such weapons as came to hand and defended their homes and their women no one attempts to deny– but this scattered and pitifully ineffectual resistance gave the Germans the very excuse they were seeking. The citizens had attacked them and they would teach the citizens, both of Louvain and of other cities which they might enter, a lasting lesson. They did. No Belgian will ever forget–or forgive–that lesson. The orgy of blood and lust and destruction lasted for two days. Several American correspondents, among them Mr. Richard Harding Davis, who were being taken by train from Brussels to Germany, and who were held for some hours in the station at Louvain during the first night’s massacre, have vividly described the horrors which they witnessed from their car window. On the second day, Mr. Hugh S. Gibson, secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, accompanied by the Swedish and Mexican charges, drove over to Louvain in a taxi-cab. Mr. Gibson told me that the Germans had dragged chairs and a dining-table from a nearby house into the middle of the square in front of the station and that some officers, already considerably the worse for drink, insisted that the three diplomatists join them in a bottle of wine. And this while the city was burning and rifles were cracking, and the dead bodies of men and women lay sprawled in the streets! From the windows of plundered and fire-blackened houses in both Aerschot and Louvain and along the road between, hung white flags made from sheets and tablecloths and pillow- cases–pathetic appeals for the mercy which was not granted.
If Belgium wishes to keep alive in the minds of her people the recollection of German military barbarism, if she desires to inculcate the coming generations with the horrors and miseries of war, if she would perpetuate the memories of the innocent townspeople who were slaughtered because they were Belgians, then she can effectually do it by preserving the ruins of Aerschot and Louvain, just as the ruins of Pompeii are preserved. Fence in these desolated cities; leave the shattered doors and the broken furniture as they are; let the bullet marks and the bloodstains remain, and it will do more than all the sermons that can be preached, than all the pictures that can be painted, than all the books that can be written, to drive home a realization of what is meant by that dreadful thing called War.
The distance from Louvain to Brussels is in the neighbourhood of twenty miles, and our car with its fluttering flags sped between lines of cheering people all the way. Men stood by the roadside with uncovered heads as they saw the Stars and Stripes whirl by; women waved their handkerchiefs while tears coursed down their cheeks. As we neared Brussels news of our coming spread, and soon we were passing between solid walls of Belgians who waved hats and canes and handkerchiefs and screamed, “Vive l’Amerique! Vive l’Amerique!” I am not ashamed to say that a lump came in my throat and tears dimmed my eyes. To these helpless, homeless, hopeless people, the red-white-and-blue banner that streamed from our windshield really was a flag of the free.
Brussels we found as quiet and orderly as London on a Sunday morning. So far as streets scenes went we might have been in Berlin. German officers and soldiers were scattered everywhere, lounging at the little iron tables in front of the cafes, or dining in the restaurants or strolling along the tree-shaded boulevards as unconcernedly as though they were in the Fatherland. Many of the officers had brought high, red-wheeled dogcarts with them, and were pleasure-driving in the outskirts of the city; others, accompanied by women who may or may not have been their wives, were picnicking in the Bois. Brussels had become, to all outward appearances at least, a German city. German flags flaunted defiantly from the roofs of the public buildings, several of which, including the Hotel de Ville, the Palais de Justice and the Cathedral, were reported to have been mined. In the whole of the great city not a single Belgian flag was to be seen. The Belgian police were still performing their routine duties under German direction. The royal palace had been converted into a hospital for German wounded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was occupied by the German General Staff. The walls and hoardings were plastered with proclamations signed by the military governor warning the inhabitants of the penalties which they would incur should they molest the German troops. The great square in front of the Gare du Nord, which was being used as a barracks, was guarded by a line of sentries, and no one but Germans in uniform were permitted to cross it. One other person did cross it, however, German regulations and sentries notwithstanding. Whedbee and I were lunching on Sunday noon in the front of the Palace Hotel, when a big limousine flying the American flag drew up on the other side of the square and Mr. Julius Van Hee, the American Vice-Consul at Ghent, jumped out. He caught sight of us at the same moment that we saw him and started across the square toward us. He had not gone a dozen paces before a sentry levelled his rifle and gruffly commanded him to halt.
“Go back!” shouted the sentry. “To walk across the square forbidden is.”
“Go to the devil!” shouted back Van Hee. “And stop pointing that gun at me, or I’ll come over and knock that spiked helmet of yours off. I’m American, and I’ve more right here than you have.”
This latter argument being obviously unanswerable, the befuddled sentry saw nothing for it but to let him pass.
Van Hee had come to Brussels, he told us, for the purpose of obtaining some vaccine, as the supply in Ghent was running short, and the authorities were fearful of an epidemic. He also brought with him a package of letters from the German officers, many of them of distinguished families, who had been captured by the Belgians and were imprisoned at Bruges. When Van Hee had obtained his vaccine, he called on General von Ludewitz and requested a safe conduct back to Ghent.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Van Hee,” said the general, who had married an American and spoke English like a New Yorker, “but there’s nothing doing. We can’t permit anyone to leave Brussels at present. Perhaps in a few days–“
“A few days won’t do, General,” Van Hee interrupted, “I must go back to-day, at once.”
“I regret to say that for the time being it is quite impossible,” said the general firmly.