It was bitterly cold, and the dead officer's diary weighed on my spirit. The two officers in the machine pored over the map; I sat huddled in my corner. I had come a long distance to do the thing I was doing. But my enthusiasm for it had died. I wished I had not heard the diary.
"At dawn I take advantage of a few moments' respite to read over the kind wishes which have come from home. What happiness!" And then he died.
The car jolted on.
The soldier and the military chauffeur out in front were drenched. The wind hurled the rain at them like bullets. We were getting close to the front. There were shellholes now, great ruts into which the car dropped and pulled out again with a jerk.
Then at last a huddle of dark houses and a sentry's challenge. The car stopped and we got out. Again there were seas of mud, deeper even than before. I had reached the headquarters of the Third Division of the Belgian Army, commonly known as the Iron Division, so nicknamed for its heroic work in this war.
The headquarters building was ironically called the "chateau." It had been built by officers and men, of fresh boards and lined neatly inside with newspapers. Some of them were illustrated French papers. It had much the appearance of a Western shack during the early days of the gold fever. On one of the walls was a war map of the Eastern front, the line a cord fastened into place with flag pins. The last time I had seen such a map of the Eastern front was in the Cabinet Room at Washington.
A large stove in the centre of the room heated the building, which was both light and warm. Some fifteen officers received us. I was the only woman who had been so near the front, for out here there are no nurses. One by one they were introduced and bowed. There were fifteen hosts and extremely few guests!
Having had telephone notice of our arrival, they showed me how carefully they had prepared for it. The long desk was in beautiful order; floors gleamed snow white; the lamp chimneys were polished. There were sandwiches and tea ready to be served.
In one room was the telephone exchange, which connected the headquarters with every part of the line. In another, a long line of American typewriters and mimeographing machines wrote out and copied the orders which were regularly distributed to the front.
"Will you see our museum?" said a tall officer, who spoke beautiful English. His mother was an Englishwoman. So I was taken into another room and shown various relics of the battlefield--pieces of shells, rifles and bullets.
"Early German shells," said the officer who spoke English, "were like this. You see how finely they splintered. The later ones are not so good; the material is inferior, and here is an aluminum nose which shows how scarce copper is becoming in Germany to-day."
I have often thought of that visit to the "chateau," of the beautiful courtesy of those Belgian officers, their hospitality, their eagerness to make an American woman comfortable and at home. And I was to have still further proof of their kindly feeling, for when toward daylight I came back from the trenches they were still up, the lamps were still burning brightly, the stove was red hot and cheerful, and they had provided food for us against the chill of the winter dawn. Out through the mud and into the machine again. And now we were very near the trenches. The car went without lights and slowly. A foot off the centre of the road would have made an end to the excursion.
We began to pass men, long lines of them standing in the drenching rain to let us by. They crowded close against the car to avoid the seas of mud. Sometimes they grumbled a little, but mostly they were entirely silent. That is the thing that impressed me always about the lines of soldiers I saw going to and from the trenches--their silence. Even their feet made no noise. They loomed up like black shadows which the night swallowed immediately.
The car stopped again. We had made another leg of the journey. And this time our destination was a church. We were close behind the trenches now and our movements were made with extreme caution. Captain F---- piloted me through the mud.
"We will go quietly," he said. "Many of them are doubtless sleeping; they are but just out of the trenches and very tired."
Now and then one encounters in this war a picture that cannot be painted. Such a picture is that little church just behind the Belgian lines at L----. There are no pews, of course, in Continental churches. The chairs had been piled up in a corner near the altar, and on the stone floor thus left vacant had been spread quantities of straw. Lying on the straw and covered by their overcoats were perhaps two hundred Belgian soldiers. They lay huddled close together for warmth; the mud of the trenches still clung to them. The air was heavy with the odour of damp straw.
The high vaulted room was a cave of darkness. The only lights were small flat candles here and there, stuck in saucers or on haversacks just above the straw. These low lights, so close to the floor, fell on the weary faces of sleeping men, accentuating the shadows, bringing pinched nostrils into relief, showing lines of utter fatigue and exhaustion.
But the picture was not all sombre. Here were four men playing cards under an image of Our Lady, which was just overhead. They were muffled against the cold and speaking in whispers. In a far corner a soldier sat alone, cross-legged, writing by the light of a candle. His letter rested on a flat loaf of bread, which was his writing table. Another soldier had taken a loaf of bread for his pillow and was comfortably asleep on it.
Captain F---- led the way through the church. He stepped over the men carefully. When they roused and looked up they would have risen to salute, but he told them to lie still.
It was clear that the relationship between the Belgian officers and their troops was most friendly. Not only in that little church at midnight, but again and again I have seen the same thing. The officers call their men their "little soldiers," and eye them with affection.
One boy insisted on rising and saluting. He was very young, and on his chin was the straggly beard of his years. The Captain stooped, and lifting a candle held it to his face.
"The handsomest beard in the Belgian Army!" he said, and the men round chuckled.
And so it went, a word here, a nod there, an apology when we disturbed one of the sleepers.
"They are but boys," said the Captain, and sighed. For each day there were fewer of them who returned to the little church to sleep.
On the way back to the car, making our way by means of the Captain's electric flash through the crowded graveyard, he turned to me.
"When you write of this, madame," he said, "you will please not mention the location of this church. So far it has escaped--perhaps because it is small. But the churches always suffer."
I regretted this. So many of the churches are old and have the interest of extreme age, even when they are architecturally insignificant. But I found these officers very fair, just as I had found the King of the Belgians disinclined to condemn the entire German Army for the brutalities of a part of it.
"There is no reason why churches should not be destroyed if they are serving military purposes," one of them said. "When a church tower shelters a gun, or is used for observations, it is quite legitimate that it be subject to artillery fire. That is a necessity of war."
We moved cautiously. Behind the church was a tiny cluster of small houses. The rain had ceased, but the electric flashlight showed great pools of water, through which we were obliged to walk. The hamlet was very silent--not a dog barked. There were no dogs.
I do not recall seeing any dogs at any time along the front, except at La Panne. What has become of them? There were cats in the destroyed towns, cats even in the trenches. But there were no dogs. It is not because the people are not fond of dogs. Dunkirk was full of them when I was there. The public square resounded with their quarrels and noisy playing. They lay there in the sun and slept, and ambulances turned aside in their headlong career to avoid running them down. But the villages along the front were silent.
I once asked an officer what had become of the dogs.
"The soldiers eat them!" he said soberly.
I heard the real explanation later. The strongest dogs had been commandeered for the army, and these brave dogs of Flanders, who have always laboured, are now drawing mitrailleuses, as I saw them at L----. The little dogs must be fed, and there is no food to spare. And so the children, over whose heads passes unheeded the real significance of this drama that is playing about them, have their own small tragedies these days.
We got into the car again and it moved off. With every revolution of the engine we were advancing toward that sinister line that borders No Man's Land. We were very close. The road paralleled the trenches, and shelling had begun again.
It was not close, and no shells dropped in our vicinity. But the low, horizontal red streaks of the German guns were plainly visible.
With the cessation of the rain had begun again the throwing over the Belgian trenches of the German magnesium flares, which the British call starlights. The French call them fusees. Under any name I do not like them. One moment one is advancing in a comfortable obscurity. The next instant it is the Fourth of July, with a white rocket bursting overhead. There is no noise, however. The thing is miraculously beautiful, silent and horrible. I believe the light floats on a sort of tiny parachute. For perhaps sixty seconds it hangs low in the air, throwing all the flat landscape into clear relief.
I do not know if one may read print under these fusees. I never had either the courage or the print for the experiment. But these eyes of the night open and close silently all through the hours of darkness. They hang over the trenches, reveal the movements of troops on the roads behind, shine on ammunition trains and ambulances, on the righteous and the unrighteous. All along the German lines these fusees go up steadily. I have seen a dozen in the air at once. Their silence and the eternal vigilance which they reveal are most impressive. On the quietest night, with only an occasional shot being fired, the horizon is ringed with them.
And on the horizon they are beautiful. Overhead they are distinctly unpleasant.
"They are very uncomfortable," I said to Captain F----. "The Germans can see us plainly, can't they?"
"But that is what they are for," he explained. "All movements of troops and ammunition trains to and from the trenches are made during the night, so they watch us very carefully."
"How near are we to the trenches?" I asked.
"Very near, indeed."
"To the first line?"
For I had heard that there were other lines behind, and with the cessation of the rain my courage was rising. Nothing less than the first line was to satisfy me.
"To the first line," he said, and smiled.
The wind which had driven the rain in sheets against the car had blown the storm away. The moon came out, a full moon. From the car I could see here and there the gleam of the inundation. The road was increasingly bad, with shell holes everywhere. Buildings loomed out of the night, roofless and destroyed. The fusees rose and burst silently overhead; the entire horizon seemed encircled with them. We were so close to the German lines that we could see an electric signal sending its message of long and short flashes, could even see the reply. It seemed to me most unmilitary.
"Any one who knew telegraphy and German could read that message," I protested.
"It is not so simple as that. It is a cipher code, and is probably changed daily."
Nevertheless, the officers in the car watched the signalling closely, and turning, surveyed the country behind us. In so flat a region, with trees and shrubbery cut down and houses razed, even a pocket flash can send a signal to the lines of the enemy. And such signals are sent. The German spy system is thorough and far-reaching.
I have gone through Flanders near the lines at various times at night. It is a dead country apparently. There are destroyed houses, sodden fields, ditches lipful of water. But in the most amazing fashion lights spring up and disappear. Follow one of these lights and you find nothing but a deserted farm, or a ruined barn, or perhaps nothing but a field of sugar beets dying in the ground.
Who are these spies? Are they Belgians and French, driven by the ruin of everything they possess to selling out to the enemy? I think not. It is much more probable that they are Germans who slip through the lines in some uncanny fashion, wading and swimming across the inundation, crawling flat where necessary, and working, an inch at a time, toward the openings between the trenches. Frightful work, of course. Impossible work, too, if the popular idea of the trenches were correct--that is, that they form one long, communicating ditch from the North Sea to Switzerland! They do not, of course. There are blank spaces here and there, fully controlled by the trenches on either side, and reenforced by further trenches behind. But with a knowledge of where these openings lie it is possible to work through.
Possible, not easy. And there is no mercy for a captured spy.
The troops who had been relieved were moving out of the trenches. Our progress became extremely slow. The road was lined with men. They pressed their faces close to the glass of the car and laughed and talked a little among themselves. Some of them were bandaged. Their white bandages gleamed in the moonlight. Here and there, as they passed, one blew on his fingers, for the wind was bitterly cold.
"In a few moments we must get out and walk," I was told. "Is madame a good walker?"
I said I was a good walker. I had a strong feeling that two or three people might walk along that road under those starlights much more safely and inconspicuously than an automobile could move. For automobiles at the front mean generals as a rule, and are always subject to attack.
Suddenly the car stopped and a voice called to us sharply. There were soldiers coming up a side road. I was convinced that we had surprised an attack, and were in the midst of the German advance. One of the officers flung the door open and looked out.
But we were only on the wrong road, and must get into reverse and turn the machine even closer to the front. I know now that there was no chance of a German attack at that point, that my fears were absurd. Nevertheless, so keen was the tension that for quite ten minutes my heart raced madly.
On again. The officers in the car consulted the map and, having decided on the route, fell into conversation. The officer of the Third Division, whose mother had been English, had joined the party. He had been on the staff of General Leman at the time of the capture of Liege, and he told me of the sensational attempt made by the Germans to capture the General.
"I was upstairs with him at headquarters," he said, "when word came up that eight Englishmen had just entered the building with a request to see him. I was suspicious and we started down the staircase together. The 'Englishmen' were in the hallway below. As we appeared on the stairs the man in advance put his hand in his pocket and drew a revolver. They were dressed in civilians' clothes, but I saw at once that they were German.
"I was fortunate in getting my revolver out first, and shot down the man in advance. There was a struggle, in which the General made his escape and all of the eight were either killed or taken prisoners. They were uhlans, two officers and six privates."
"It was very brave," I said. "A remarkable exploit."
"Very brave indeed," he agreed with me. "They are all very brave, the Germans."
Captain F---- had been again consulting his map. Now he put it away.
"Brave but brutal," he said briefly. "I am of the Third Division. I have watched the German advance protected by women and children. In the fighting the civilians fell first. They had no weapons. It was terrible. It is the German system," he went on, "which makes everything of the end, and nothing at all of the means. It is seen in the way they have sacrificed their own troops."
"They think you are equally brutal," I said. "The German soldiers believe that they will have their eyes torn out if they are captured."
I cited a case I knew of, where a wounded German had hidden in the inundation for five days rather than surrender to the horrors he thought were waiting for him. When he was found and taken to a hospital his long days in the water had brought on gangrene and he could not be saved.
"They have been told that to make them fight more savagely," was the comment. "What about the official German order for a campaign of 'frightfulness' in Belgium?"
And here, even while the car is crawling along toward the trenches, perhaps it is allowable to explain the word "frightfulness," which now so permeates the literature of the war. Following the scenes of the German invasion into Belgium, where here and there some maddened civilian fired on the German troops and precipitated the deaths of his townsmen,[C] Berlin issued, on August twenty-seventh, a declaration, of which this paragraph is a part:
[Footnote C: The Belgians contend that, in almost every case, such firing by civilians was the result of attack on their women.]
"The only means of preventing surprise attacks from the civil population has been to interfere with unrelenting severity and to create examples which, by their frightfulness, would be a warning to the whole country."
A Belgian officer once quoted it to me, with a comment.
"This is not an order to the army. It is an attempt at justification for the very acts which Berlin is now attempting to deny!"
That is how "frightfulness" came into the literature of the war.
Captain F---- stopped the car. Near the road was a ruin of an old church.
"In that church," he said, "our soldiers were sleeping when the Germans, evidently informed by a spy, began to shell it. The first shot smashed that house there, twenty-five yards away; the second shot came through the roof and struck one of the supporting pillars, bringing the roof down. Forty-six men were killed and one hundred and nine wounded."
He showed me the grave from a window of the car, a great grave in front of the church, with a wooden cross on it. It was too dark to read the inscription, but he told me what it said:
"Here lie forty-six chasseurs." Beneath are the names, one below the other in two columns, and underneath all: "Morts pour la Patrie."
We continued to advance. Our lamps were out, but the fusees made progress easy. And there was the moon. We had left behind us the lines of the silent men. The scene was empty, desolate. Suddenly we stopped by a low brick house, a one-story building with overhanging eaves. Sentries with carbines stood under the eaves, flattened against the wall for shelter from the biting wind.
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