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Chapter XII. Night in the Trenches

When I had been thawed out they took me into the trenches. Because of the inundation directly in front, they are rather shallow, and at this point were built against the railroad embankment with earth, boards, and here and there a steel rail from the track. Some of them were covered, too, but not with bombproof material. The tops were merely shelters from the rain and biting wind.

The men lay or sat in them--it was impossible to stand. Some of them were like tiny houses into which the men crawled from the rear, and by placing a board, which served as a door, managed to keep out at least a part of the bitter wind.

In the first trench I was presented to a bearded major. He was lying flat and apologised for not being able to rise. There was a machine gun beside him. He told me with some pride that it was an American gun, and that it never jammed. When a machine gun jams the man in charge of it dies and his comrades die, and things happen with great rapidity. On the other side of him was a cat, curled up and sound asleep. There was a telephone instrument there. It was necessary to step over the wire that was stretched along the ground.

All night long he lies there with his gun, watching for the first movement in the trenches across. For here, at the House of the Barrier, has taken place some of the most furious fighting of this part of the line.

In the next division of the trench were three men. They were cleaning and oiling their rifles round a candle.

The surprise of all of these men at seeing a woman was almost absurd. Word went down the trenches that a woman was visiting. Heads popped out and cautious comments were made. It was concluded that I was visiting royalty, but the excitement died when it was discovered that I was not the Queen. Now and then, when a trench looked clean and dry, I was invited in. It was necessary to get down and crawl in on hands and knees.

Here was a man warming his hands over a tiny fire kindled in a tin pail. He had bored holes in the bottom of the pail for air, and was shielding the glow carefully with his overcoat.

Many people have written about the trenches--the mud, the odours, the inhumanity of compelling men to live under such foul conditions. Nothing that they have said can be too strong. Under the best conditions the life is ghastly, horrible, impossible.

That night, when from a semi-shielded position I could look across to the German line, the contrast between the condition of the men in the trenches and the beauty of the scenery was appalling. In each direction, as far as one could see, lay a gleaming lagoon of water. The moon made a silver path across it, and here and there on its borders were broken and twisted winter trees.

"It is beautiful," said Captain F----, beside me, in a low voice. "But it is full of the dead. They are taken out whenever it is possible; but it is not often possible."

"And when there is an attack the attacking side must go through the water?"

"Not always, but in many places."

"What will happen if it freezes over?"

He explained that it was salt water, and would not freeze easily. And the cold of that part of the country is not the cold of America in the same latitude. It is not a cold of low temperature; it is a damp, penetrating cold that goes through garments of every weight and seems to chill the very blood in a man's body.

"How deep is the water?" I asked.

"It varies--from two to eight feet. Here it is shallow."

"I should think they would come over."

"The water is full of barbed wire," he said grimly. "And some, a great many, have tried--and failed."

As of the trenches, many have written of the stenches of this war. But the odour of that beautiful lagoon was horrible. I do not care to emphasize it. It is one of the things best forgotten. But any lingering belief I may have had in the grandeur and glory of war died that night beside that silver lake--died of an odour, and will never live again.

And now came a discussion.

The road crossing the railroad embankment turned sharply to the left and proceeded in front of the trenches. There was no shelter on that side of the embankment. The inundation bordered the road, and just beyond the inundation were the German trenches.

There were no trees, no shrubbery, no houses; just a flat road, paved with Belgian blocks, that gleamed in the moonlight.

At last the decision was made. We would go along the road, provided I realised from the first that it was dangerous. One or two could walk there with a good chance for safety, but not more. The little group had been augmented. It must break up; two might walk together, and then two a safe distance behind. Four would certainly be fired on.

I wanted to go. It was not a matter of courage. I had simply, parrot-fashion, mimicked the attitude of mind of the officers. One after another I had seen men go into danger with a shrug of the shoulders.

"If it comes it comes!" they said, and went on. So I, too, had become a fatalist. If I was to be shot it would happen, if I had to buy a rifle and try to clean it myself to fulfil my destiny.

So they let me go. I went farther than they expected, as it turned out. There was a great deal of indignation and relief when it was over. But that is later on.

A very tall Belgian officer took me in charge. It was necessary to work through a barbed-wire barricade, twisting and turning through its mazes. The moonlight helped. It was at once a comfort and an anxiety, for it seemed to me that my khaki-coloured suit gleamed in it. The Belgian officers in their dark blue were less conspicuous. I thought they had an unfair advantage of me, and that it was idiotic of the British to wear and advocate anything so absurd as khaki. My cape ballooned like a sail in the wind. I felt at least double my ordinary size, and that even a sniper with a squint could hardly miss me. And, by way of comfort, I had one last instruction before I started:

"If a fusee goes up, stand perfectly still. If you move they will fire."

The entire safety of the excursion depended on a sort of tacit agreement that, in part at least, obtains as to sentries.

This is a new warfare, one of artillery, supported by infantry in trenches. And it has been necessary to make new laws for it. One of the most curious is a sort of modus vivendi by which each side protects its own sentries by leaving the enemy's sentries unmolested so long as there is no active fighting. They are always in plain view before the trenches. In case of a charge they are the first to be shot, of course. But long nights and days have gone by along certain parts of the front where the hostile trenches are close together, and the sentries, keeping their monotonous lookout, have been undisturbed.

No doubt by this time the situation has changed to a certain extent; there has been more active fighting, larger bodies of men are involved. The spring floods south of the inundation will have dried up. No Man's Land will have ceased to be a swamp and the deadlock may be broken.

But on that February night I put my faith in this agreement, and it held.

The tall Belgian officer asked me if I was frightened. I said I was not. This was not exactly the truth; but it was no time for the truth.

"They are not shooting," I said. "It looks perfectly safe."

He shrugged his shoulders and glanced toward the German trenches.

"They have been sleeping during the rain," he said briefly. "But when one of them wakes up, look out!"

After that there was little conversation, and what there was was in whispers.

As we proceeded the stench from the beautiful moonlit water grew overpowering. The officer told me the reason.

A little farther along a path of fascines had been built out over the inundation to an outpost halfway to the German trenches. The building of this narrow roadway had cost many lives.

Half a mile along the road we were sharply challenged by a sentry. When he had received the password he stood back and let us pass. Alone, in that bleak and exposed position in front of the trenches, always in full view as he paced back and forward, carbine on shoulder, with not even a tree trunk or a hedge for shelter, the first to go at the whim of some German sniper or at any indication of an attack, he was a pathetic, almost a tragic, figure. He looked very young too. I stopped and asked him in a whisper how old he was.

He said he was nineteen!

He may have been. I know something about boys, and I think he was seventeen at the most. There are plenty of boys of that age doing just what that lad was doing.

Afterward I learned that it was no part of the original plan to take a woman over the fascine path to the outpost; that Captain F---- ground his teeth in impotent rage when he saw where I was being taken. But it was not possible to call or even to come up to us. So, blithely and unconsciously the tall Belgian officer and I turned to the right, and I was innocently on my way to the German trenches.

After a little I realised that this was rather more war than I had expected. The fascines were slippery; the path only four or five feet wide. On each side was the water, hideous with many secrets.

I stopped, a third of the way out, and looked back. It looked about as dangerous in one direction as another. So we went on. Once I slipped and fell. And now, looming out of the moonlight, I could see the outpost which was the object of our visit.

I have always been grateful to that Belgian lieutenant for his mistake. Just how grateful I might have been had anything untoward happened, I cannot say. But the excursion was worth all the risk, and more.

On a bit of high ground stands what was once the tiny hamlet of Oudstuyvenskerke--the ruins of two small white houses and the tower of the destroyed church--hardly a tower any more, for only three sides of it are standing and they are riddled with great shell holes.

Six hundred feet beyond this tower were the German trenches. The little island was hardly a hundred feet in its greatest dimension.

I wish I could make those people who think that war is good for a country see that Belgian outpost as I saw it that night under the moonlight. Perhaps we were under suspicion; I do not know. Suddenly the fusees, which had ceased for a time, began again, and with their white light added to that of the moon the desolate picture of that tiny island was a picture of the war. There was nothing lacking. There was the beauty of the moonlit waters, there was the tragedy of the destroyed houses and the church, and there was the horror of unburied bodies.

There was heroism, too, of the kind that will make Belgium live in history. For in the top of that church tower for months a Capuchin monk has held his position alone and unrelieved. He has a telephone, and he gains access to his position in the tower by means of a rope ladder which he draws up after him.

Furious fighting has taken place again and again round the base of the tower. The German shells assail it constantly. But when I left Belgium the Capuchin monk, who has become a soldier, was still on duty; still telephoning the ranges of the gun; still notifying headquarters of German preparations for a charge.

Some day the church tower will fall and he will go with it, or it will be captured; one or the other is inevitable. Perhaps it has already happened; for not long ago I saw in the newspapers that furious fighting was taking place at this very spot.

He came down and I talked to him--a little man, regarding his situation as quite ordinary, and looking quaintly unpriestlike in his uniform of a Belgian officer with its tasselled cap. Some day a great story will be written of these priests of Belgium who have left their churches to fight.

We spoke in whispers. There was after all very little to say. It would have embarrassed him horribly had any one told him that he was a heroic figure. And the ordinary small talk is not currency in such a situation.

We shook hands and I think I wished him luck. Then he went back again to the long hours and days of waiting.

I passed under his telephone wires. Some day he will telephone that a charge is coming. He will give all the particulars calmly, concisely. Then the message will break off abruptly. He will have sent his last warning. For that is the way these men at the advance posts die.

As we started again I was no longer frightened. Something of his courage had communicated itself to me, his courage and his philosophy, perhaps his faith.

The priest had become a soldier; but he was still a priest in his heart. For he had buried the German dead in one great grave before the church, and over them had put the cross of his belief.

It was rather absurd on the way back over the path of death to be escorted by a cat. It led the way over the fascines, treading daintily and cautiously. Perhaps one of the destroyed houses at the outpost had been its home, and with a cat's fondness for places it remained there, though everything it knew had gone; though battle and sudden death had usurped the place of its peaceful fireside, though that very fireside was become a heap of stone and plaster, open to winds and rain.

Again and again in destroyed towns I have seen these forlorn cats stalking about, trying vainly to adjust themselves to new conditions, cold and hungry and homeless.

We were challenged repeatedly on the way back. Coming from the direction we did we were open to suspicion. It was necessary each time to halt some forty feet from the sentry, who stood with his rifle pointed at us. Then the officer advanced with the word.

Back again, then, along the road, past the youthful sentry, past other sentries, winding through the barbed-wire barricade, and at last, quite whole, to the House of the Barrier again. We had walked three miles in front of the Belgian advanced trenches, in full view of the Germans. There had been no protecting hedge or bank or tree between us and that ominous line two hundred yards across. And nothing whatever had happened.

Captain F---- was indignant. The officers in the House of the Barrier held up their hands. For men such a risk was legitimate, necessary. In a woman it was foolhardy. Nevertheless, now that it was safely over, they were keenly interested and rather amused. But I have learned that the gallant captain and the officer with him had arranged, in case shooting began, to jump into the water, and by splashing about draw the fire in their direction!

We went back to the automobile, a long walk over the shell-eaten roads in the teeth of a biting wind. But a glow of exultation kept me warm. I had been to the front. I had been far beyond the front, indeed, and I had seen such a picture of war and its desolation there in the centre of No Man's Land as perhaps no one not connected with an army had seen before; such a picture as would live in my mind forever.

I visited other advanced trenches that night as we followed the Belgian lines slowly northward toward Nieuport.

Save the varying conditions of discomfort, they were all similar. Always they were behind the railroad embankment. Always they were dirty and cold. Frequently they were full of mud and water. To reach them one waded through swamps and pools. Just beyond them there was always the moonlit stretch of water, now narrow, now wide.

I was to see other trenches later on, French and English. But only along the inundation was there that curious combination of beauty and hideousness, of rippling water with the moonlight across it in a silver path, and in that water things that had been men.

In one place a cow and a pig were standing on ground a little bit raised. They had been there for weeks between the two armies. Neither side would shoot them, in the hope of some time obtaining them for food.

They looked peaceful, rather absurd.

Now so near that one felt like whispering, and now a quarter of a mile away, were the German trenches. We moved under their fusees, passing destroyed towns where shell holes have become vast graves.

One such town was most impressive. It had been a very beautiful town, rather larger than the others. At the foot of the main street ran the railroad embankment and the line of trenches. There was not a house left.

It had been, but a day or two before, the scene of a street fight, when the Germans, swarming across the inundation, had captured the trenches at the railroad and got into the town itself.

At the intersection of two streets, in a shell hole, twenty bodies had been thrown for burial. But that was not novel or new. Shell-hole graves and destroyed houses were nothing. The thing I shall never forget is the cemetery round the great church.

Continental cemeteries are always crowded. They are old, and graves almost touch one another. The crosses which mark them stand like rows of men in close formation.

This cemetery had been shelled. There was not a cross in place; they lay flung about in every grotesque position. The quiet God's Acre had become a hell. Graves were uncovered; the dust of centuries exposed. In one the cross had been lifted up by an explosion and had settled back again upside down, so that the Christ was inverted.

It was curious to stand in that chaos of destruction, that ribald havoc, that desecration of all we think of as sacred, and see, stretched from one broken tombstone to another, the telephone wires that connect the trenches at the foot of the street with headquarters and with the "chateau."

Ninety-six German soldiers had been buried in one shell hole in that cemetery. Close beside it there was another, a great gaping wound in the earth, half full of water from the evening's rain.

An officer beside me looked down into it.

"See," he said, "they dig their own graves!"

It was almost morning. The automobile left the pathetic ruin of the town and turned back toward the "chateau." There was no talking; a sort of heaviness of spirit lay on us all. The officers were seeing again the destruction of their country through my shocked eyes. We were tired and cold, and I was heartsick.

A long drive through the dawn, and then the "chateau."

The officers were still up, waiting. They had prepared, against our arrival, sandwiches and hot drinks.

The American typewriters in the next room clicked and rattled. At the telephone board messages were coming in from the very places we had just left--from the instrument at the major's elbow as he lay in his trench beside the House of the Barrier; from the priest who had left his cell and become a soldier; from that desecrated and ruined graveyard with its gaping shell holes that waited, open-mouthed, for--what?

When we had eaten, Captain F---- rose and made a little speech. It was simply done, in the words of a soldier and a patriot speaking out of a full heart.

"You have seen to-night a part of what is happening to our country," he said. "You have seen what the invading hosts of Germany have made us suffer. But you have seen more than that. You have seen that the Belgian Army still exists; that it is still fighting and will continue to fight. The men in those trenches fought at Liege, at Louvain, at Antwerp, at the Yser. They will fight as long as there is a drop of Belgian blood to shed.

"Beyond the enemy's trenches lies our country, devastated; our national life destroyed; our people under the iron heel of Germany. But Belgium lives. Tell America, tell the world, that destroyed, injured as she is, Belgium lives and will rise again, greater than before!"

Mary Roberts Rinehart