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Chapter IX. No Man's Land


I have just had this conversation with the little French chambermaid at my hotel. "You have not gone to mass, Mademoiselle?"

"I? No."

"But here, so near the lines, I should think--"

"I do not go to church. There is no God." She looked up with red-rimmed, defiant eyes. "My husband has been killed," she said. "There is no God. If there was a God, why should my husband be killed? He had done nothing."

This afternoon at three-thirty I am to start for the front. I am to see everything. The machine leaves the Mairie at three-thirty.

       *       *       *       *       *

Do you recall the school map on which the state of Texas was always pink and Rhode Island green? And Canada a region without colour, and therefore without existence?

The map of Europe has become a battle line painted in three colours: yellow for the Belgian Army, blue for the British and red for the French. It is really a double line, for the confronting German Army is drawn in black. It is a narrow line to signify what it does--not only death and wanton destruction, but the end of the myth of civilisation; a narrow line to prove that the brotherhood of man is a dream, that modern science is but an improvement on fifth-century barbarity; that right, after all, is only might.

It took exactly twenty-four hours to strip the shirt off the diplomacy of Europe and show the coat of mail underneath.

It will take a century to hide that coat of mail. It will take a thousand years to rebuild the historic towns of Belgium. But not years, nor a reclothed diplomacy, nor the punishment of whichever traitor to the world brought this thing to pass, nor anything but God's great eternity, will ever restore to one mother her uselessly sacrificed son; will quicken one of the figures that lie rotting along the battle line; will heal this scar that extends, yellow and blue and red and black, across the heart of Western Europe.

It is a long scar--long and irregular. It begins at Nieuport, on the North Sea, extends south to the region of Soissons, east to Verdun, and then irregularly southeast to the Swiss border.

The map from which I am working was coloured and marked for me by General Foch, commander of the French Army of the North, at his headquarters. It is a little map, and so this line, which crosses empires and cuts civilisation in half, is only fourteen inches long, although it represents a battle line of over four hundred miles. Of this the Belgian front is one-half inch, or approximately one-twenty-eighth. The British front is a trifle more than twice as long. All the rest of that line is red--French.

That is the most impressive thing about the map, the length of the French line.

With the arrival of Kitchener's army this last spring the blue portion grew somewhat. The yellow remained as it was, for the Belgian casualties have been two-thirds of her army. There have been many tragedies in Belgium. That is one of them.

In the very north then, yellow; then a bit of red; below that blue; then red again in that long sweeping curve that is the French front. Occasionally the line moves a trifle forward or back, like the shifting record of a fever chart; but in general it remains the same. It has remained the same since the first of November. A movement to thrust it forward in any one place is followed by a counter-attack in another place. The reserves must be drawn off and hurried to the threatened spot. Automatically the line straightens again.

The little map is dated the twenty-third of February. All through the spring and summer the line has remained unchanged. There will be no change until one side or the other begins a great offensive movement. After that it will be a matter of the irresistible force and the immovable body, a question not of maps but of empires.

Between the confronting lines lies that tragic strip of No Man's Land, which has been and is the scene of so much tragedy. No Man's Land is of fixed length but of varying width. There are places where it is very narrow, so narrow that it is possible to throw across a hand grenade or a box of cigarettes, depending on the nearness of an officer whose business is war. Again it is wide, so that friendly relations are impossible, and sniping becomes a pleasure as well as an art.

It was No Man's Land that I was to visit the night of the entry in my journal.

From the neighbourhood of Ypres to the Swiss border No Man's Land varies. The swamps and flat ground give way to more rolling country, and this to hills. But in the north No Man's Land is a series of shallow lakes, lying in flat, unprotected country.

For Belgium, in desperation, last October opened the sluices and let in the sea. It crept in steadily, each high tide advancing the flood farther. It followed the lines of canal and irrigation ditches mile after mile till it had got as far south as Ypres, beyond Ypres indeed. To the encroachment of the sea was added the flooding resulting from an abnormally rainy winter. Ordinarily the ditches have carried off the rain; now even where the inundation does not reach it lies in great ponds. Belgium's fertile sugar-beet fields are under salt water.

The method was effectual, during the winter, at least, in retarding the German advance. Their artillery destroyed the towns behind the opposing trenches of the Allies, but their attempts to advance through the flood failed.

Even where the floods were shallow--only two feet or so--they served their purpose in masking the character of the land. From a wading depth of two feet, charging soldiers stepped frequently into a deep ditch and drowned ignominiously.

It is a noble thing, war! It is good for a country. It unites its people and develops national spirit!

Great poems have been written about charges. Will there ever be any great poems about these men who have been drowned in ditches? Or about the soldiers who have been caught in the barbed wire with which these inland lakes are filled? Or about the wounded who fall helpless into the flood?

The inland lakes that ripple under the wind from the sea, or gleam silver in the light of the moon, are beautiful, hideous, filled with bodies that rise and float, face down. And yet here and there the situation is not without a sort of grim humour. Brilliant engineers on one side or the other are experimenting with the flood. Occasionally trenches hitherto dry and fairly comfortable find themselves unexpectedly filling with water, as the other side devises some clever scheme for turning the flood from a menace into a military asset.

In No Man's Land are the outposts.

The fighting of the winter has mystified many noncombatants, with its advances and retreats, which have yet resulted in no definite change of the line. In many instances this sharp fighting has been a matter of outposts, generally farms, churches or other isolated buildings, sometimes even tiny villages. In the inundated portion of Belgium these outposts are buildings which, situated on rather higher land, a foot or two above the flood, have become islands. Much of the fighting in the north has been about these island outposts. Under the conditions, charges must be made by relatively small bodies of men. The outposts can similarly house but few troops.

They are generally defended by barbed wire and a few quick-firing guns. Their purpose is strategical; they are vantage points from which the enemy may be closely watched. They change sides frequently; are won and lost, and won again.

Here and there the side at the time in command of the outpost builds out from its trenches through the flood a pathway of bags of earth, topped by fascines or bundles of fagots tied together. Such a path pays a tribute of many lives for every yard of advance. It is built under fire; it remains under fire. It is destroyed and reconstructed.

When I reached the front the British, Belgian and French troops in the north had been fighting under these conditions for four months. My first visit to the trenches was made under the auspices of the Belgian Ministry of War. The start was made from the Mairie in Dunkirk, accompanied by the necessary passes and escorted by an attache of the Military Cabinet.

I was taken in an automobile from Dunkirk to the Belgian Army Headquarters, where an officer of the headquarters staff, Captain F----, took charge. The headquarters had been a brewery.

Stripped of the impedimenta of its previous occupation, it now housed the officers of the staff.

Since that time I have frequently visited the headquarters staffs of various armies or their divisions. I became familiar with the long, bare tables stacked with papers, the lamps, the maps on the walls, the telephones, the coming and going of dispatch riders in black leather. I came to know something of the chafing restlessness of these men who must sit, well behind the firing line, and play paper battles on which lives and empires hang.

But one thing never ceased to puzzle me.

That night, in a small kitchen behind the Belgian headquarters rooms, a French peasant woman was cooking the evening meal. Always, at all the headquarters that were near the front, somewhere in a back room was a resigned-looking peasant woman cooking a meal. Children hung about the stove or stood in corners looking out at the strange new life that surrounded them. Peasants too old for war, their occupations gone, sat listlessly with hanging hands, their faces the faces of bewildered children; their clean floors were tracked by the muddy boots of soldiers; their orderly lives disturbed, uprooted; their once tidy farmyards were filled with transports; their barns with army horses; their windmills, instead of housing sacks of grain, were occupied by mitrailleuses.

What were the thoughts of these people? What are they thinking now?--for they are still there. What does it all mean to them? Do they ever glance at the moving cord of the war map on the wall? Is this war to them only a matter of a courtyard or a windmill? Of mud and the upheaval of quiet lives? They appear to be waiting--for spring, probably, and the end of hostilities; for spring and the planting of crops, for quiet nights to sleep and days to labour.

The young men are always at the front. They who are left express confidence that these their sons and husbands will return. And yet in the spring many of them ploughed shallow over battlefields.

It had been planned to show me first a detail map of the places I was to visit, and with this map before me to explain the present position of the Belgian line along the embankment of the railroad from Nieuport to Dixmude. The map was ready on a table in the officers' mess, a bare room with three long tables of planks, to which a flight of half a dozen steps led from the headquarters room below.

Twilight had fallen by that time. It had commenced to rain. I could see through the window heavy drops that stirred the green surface of the moat at one side of the old building. On the wall hung the advertisement of an American harvester, a reminder of more peaceful days. The beating of the rain kept time to the story Captain F---- told that night, bending over the map and tracing his country's ruin with his forefinger.

Much of it is already history. The surprise and fury of the Germans on discovering that what they had considered a contemptible military force was successfully holding them back until the English and French Armies could get into the field; the policy of systematic terrorism that followed this discovery; the unpreparedness of Belgium's allies, which left this heroic little army practically unsupported for so long against the German tidal wave.

The great battle of the Yser is also history. I shall not repeat the dramatic recital of the Belgian retreat to this point, fighting a rear-guard engagement as they fell back before three times their number; of the fury of the German onslaught, which engaged the entire Belgian front, so that there was no rest, not a moment's cessation. In one night at Dixmude the Germans made fifteen attacks. Is it any wonder that two-thirds of Belgium's Army is gone?

They had fought since the third of August. It was on the twenty-first of October that they at last retired across the Yser and two days later took up their present position at the railway embankment. On that day, the twenty-third of October, the first French troops arrived to assist them, some eighty-five hundred reaching Nieuport.

It was the hope of the Belgians that, the French taking their places on the line, they could retire for a time as reserves and get a little rest. But the German attack continuing fiercely against the combined armies of the Allies, the Belgians were forced to go into action again, weary as they were, at the historic curve of the Yser, where was fought the great battle of the war. At British Headquarters later on I was given the casualties of that battle, when the invading German Army flung itself again and again, for nineteen days, against the forces of the Allies: The English casualties for that period were forty-five thousand; the French, seventy thousand; the German, by figures given out at Berlin, two hundred and fifty thousand. The Belgian I do not know.

"It was after that battle," said Captain F----, "that the German dead were taken back and burned, to avoid pestilence."

The Belgians had by this time reached the limit of their resources. It was then that the sluices were opened and their fertile lowlands flooded.

On the thirty-first of October the water stopped the German advance along the Belgian lines. As soon as they discovered what had been done the Germans made terrific and furious efforts to get forward ahead of it. They got into the towns of Ramscappelle and Pervyse, where furious street fighting occurred.

Pervyse was taken five times and lost five times. But all their efforts failed. The remnant of the Belgian Army had retired to the railroad embankment. The English and French lines held firm.

For the time, at least, the German advance was checked.

That was Captain F----'s story of the battle of the Yser.

When he had finished he drew out of his pocket the diary of a German officer killed at the Yser during the first days of the fighting, and read it aloud. It is a great human document. I give here as nearly as possible a literal translation.

It was written during the first days of the great battle. For fifteen days after he was killed the German offensive kept up. General Foch, who commanded the French Army of the North during that time, described their method to me. "The Germans came," he said, "like the waves of the sea!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The diary of a German officer, killed at the Yser:--

Twenty-fourth of October, 1914:

"The battle goes on--we are trying to effect a crossing of the Yser. Beginning at 5:45 P.M. the engineers go on preparing their bridging materials. Marching quickly over the country, crossing fields and ditches, we are exposed to continuous heavy fire. A spent bullet strikes me in the back, just below the coat collar, but I am not wounded.

"Taking up a position near Vandewonde farm, we are able to obtain a little shelter from the devastating fire of the enemy's artillery. How terrible is our situation! By taking advantage of all available cover we arrive at the fifth trench, where the artillery is in action and rifle fire is incessant. We know nothing of the general situation. I do not know where the enemy is, or what numbers are opposed to us, and there seems no way of getting the desired information.

"Everywhere along the line we are suffering heavy losses, altogether out of proportion to the results obtained. The enemy's artillery is too well sheltered, too strong; and as our own guns, fewer in number, have not been able to silence those of the enemy, our infantry is unable to make any advance. We are suffering heavy and useless losses.

"The medical service on the field has been found very wanting. At Dixmude, in one place, no less than forty frightfully wounded men were left lying uncared, for. The medical corps is kept back on the other side of the Yser without necessity. It is equally impossible to receive water and rations in any regular way.

"For several days now we have not tasted a warm meal; bread and other things are lacking; our reserve rations are exhausted. The water is bad, quite green, indeed; but all the same we drink it--we can get nothing else. Man is brought down to the level of the brute beast. Myself, I have nothing left to eat; I left what I had with me in the saddlebags on my horse. In fact, we were not told what we should have to do on this side of the Yser, and we did not know that our horses would have to be left on the other side. That is why we could not arrange things.

"I am living on what other people, like true comrades, are willing to give me, but even then my share is only very small. There is no thought of changing our linen or our clothes in any way. It is an incredible situation! On every hand farms and villages are burning. How sad a spectacle, indeed, to see this magnificent region all in ruins, wounded and dead lying everywhere all round."

Twenty-fifth of October, 1914:

"A relatively undisturbed night. The safety of the bridge over the Yser has been assured for a time. The battle has gone on the whole day long. We have not been given any definite orders. One would not think this is Sunday. The infantry and artillery combat is incessant, but no definite result is achieved. Nothing but losses in wounded and killed. We shall try to get into touch with the sixth division of the Third Reserve Army Corps on our right."

Twenty-sixth of October, 1914:

"What a frightful night has gone by! There was a terrible rainstorm. I felt frozen. I remained standing knee-deep in water. To-day an uninterrupted fusillade meets us in front. We shall throw a bridge across the Yser, for the enemy's artillery has again destroyed one we had previously constructed.

"The situation is practically unchanged. No progress has been made in spite of incessant fighting, in spite of the barking of the guns and the cries of alarm of those human beings so uselessly killed. The infantry is worthless until our artillery has silenced the enemy's guns. Everywhere we must be losing heavily; our own company has suffered greatly so far. The colonel, the major, and, indeed, many other officers are already wounded; several are dead.

"There has not yet been any chance of taking off our boots and washing ourselves. The Sixth Division is ready, but its help is insufficient. The situation is no clearer than before; we can learn nothing of what is going on. Again we are setting off for wet trenches. Our regiment is mixed up with other regiments in an inextricable fashion. No battalion, no company, knows anything about where the other units of the regiment are to be found. Everything is jumbled under this terrible fire which enfilades from all sides.

"There are numbers of francs-tireurs. Our second battalion is going to be placed under the order of the Cyckortz Regiment, made up of quite diverse units. Our old regiment is totally broken up. The situation is terrible. To be under a hail of shot and shell, without any respite, and know nothing whatever of one's own troops!

"It is to be hoped that soon the situation will be improved. These conditions cannot be borne very much longer. I am hopeless. The battalion is under the command of Captain May, and I am reduced to acting as Fourier. It is not at all an easy thing to do in our present frightful situation. In the black night soldiers must be sent some distance in order to get and bring back the food so much needed by their comrades. They have brought back, too, cards and letters from those we love. What a consolation in our cheerless situation! We cannot have a light, however, so we are forced to put into our pockets, unread, the words of comfort sent by our dear ones--we have to wait till the following morning.

"So we spend the night again on straw, huddled up close one to another in order to keep warm. It is horribly cold and damp. All at once a violent rattle of rifle fire raises us for the combat; hastily we get ready, shivering, almost frozen."

Twenty-seventh of October, 1914:

"At dawn I take advantage of a few moments' respite to read over the kind wishes which have come from home. What happiness! Soon, however, the illusion leaves me. The situation here is still all confusion; we cannot think of advancing--"

The last sentence is a broken one. For he died.

       *       *       *       *       *

Morning came and he read his letters from home. They cheered him a little; we can be glad of that, at least. And then he died.

That record is a great human document. It is absolutely genuine. He was starving and cold. As fast as they built a bridge to get back it was destroyed. From three sides he and the others with him were being shelled. He must have known what the inevitable end would be. But he said very little. And then he died.

There were other journels taken from the bodies of other German officers at that terrible battle of the Yser. They speak of it as a "hell"--a place of torment and agony impossible to describe. Some of them I have seen. There is nowhere in the world a more pitiful or tragic or thought-compelling literature than these diaries of German officers thrust forward without hope and waiting for the end.

At six o'clock it was already entirely dark and raining hard. Even in the little town the machine was deep in mud. I got in and we started off again, moving steadily toward the front. Captain F---- had brought with him a box of biscuits, large, square, flaky crackers, which were to be my dinner until some time in the night. He had an electric flash and a map. The roads were horrible; it was impossible to move rapidly. Here and there a sentry's lantern would show him standing on the edge of a flooded field. The car careened, righted itself and kept on. As the roads became narrower it was impossible to pass another vehicle. The car drew out at crossroads here and there to allow transports to get by.

Mary Roberts Rinehart